Democratically-driven transformations in the era of neoliberalism: the case of Syriza

Talk delivered in Amsterdam, 06-20-2015 (TNI annual meeting)

Thank you very much for the invitation and the opportumity to share with you some thoughts based on the experience of these four months of Syriza being in the government. I will focus mainly on modifications in our understanding and methodology of promoting emancipatory politics from the perspective of being in the government in a weird and unstable situation such as the one we currently have in Greece.

Is there any room for maneuver towards emancipatory politics in the current global context?

1.1. It is true that in the current global context, things are pretty tight when it comes to the implementation of non-neoliberal policies. Especially in Europe, today’s neoliberal configuration is even more harsh towards other political orientations. It is designed in such a way that it discards without the need for political argumentation any attempt to follow an alternative economical and social path. I am talking about a vast network of regulations, norms and directives, a huge bureaucratic apparatus of processes and mechanisms that blocks implicitly any alternative. We are talking about the institutional instantiation of the famous phrase “TINA”.

1.2. I could go on mentioning many other aspects of our current situation. There is absolutely no reason to argue whether the current battlefield is negative or not for emancipatory politics. It is obvious that it is. It has always been negative, it will always be negative. We are talking about overthrowing a dominant brutal, exploitative and disastrous system by a dominated, fragmented and feeble conception of emancipation. Successful emancipatory politics in a hostile and toxic environment is our task; our “job description”.

What is extremely valuable is to specify the exact nature of present-day modes and techniques of power in order to engage with them effectively. And at the same time we must radically transform our political imagination that – at least from my experience – is dominated by various coordinates that prevent us from having access to the only resource of power that we really can have at our disposal: people’s embodied capacities.

1.3. So, is there any room for maneuver? It depends. No, if we seek quick and easy ways to implement alternative policies. Ways that presuppose the respect of the democratic will of the people by the elites. Ways that will not disturb the naïve and comforting conception that we – as people – do not really need to engage profoundly into collective practices. Today, the only thing we – as people – are willing to give is singular moments of participation. The idea is that through demonstrating and voting we can somehow solve the urgent problems of our societies with orthodox means, through the state and governments that are sensitive to our demands.

I do not mean that representative democracy has no value. On the contrary I think that it is a crucial dimension of a mature society. But we often ask too much from it and its failure to deliver on our expectations generates a misguided devaluation. Neither do I mean that governments sensitive to people’s needs are not crucial factors in this battle. I am just stressing the fact that we must have a broader view of the agents and the processes needed if we want to change things.

1.4. Is there any room for maneuver? Yes, if we are determined and systematic enough to work under the radars of the neoliberal configuration, inventive enough to formally coincide with it while at the same time we empower people against it and decisive enough not to give in to threats and blackmail.

In order to respond adequately in these suffocating conditions, new organizational standards and methods are needed for the engagement of thousands of people in this day-to-day and multi-level fight. Negatively put, without the people with the knowledge needed, aligned into groups of collaboration and embedded in a vast network of democratic decision-making that produces policies of our own logic no government will be in a position to wage this battle.

1.5. Are we moving towards this direction in Greece? Not wholeheartedly. However, the everyday inability to implement alternative policies through traditional governmental means has created the conditions for the emergence of a new awareness inside SYRIZA: the new level requires new qualities and a shift to our organizational and methodological principles.

But in order to engage in such a shift we must abandon the tendency that things will change easily and quick through the revival of the previous institutional and political configuration of post war liberal capitalism. We must finally confront the reality that neoliberals are “burning” the bridges with the past behind them.

Is the state the suitable place for emancipatory politics?

2.1. The first thing I would like to note is that I cannot see any theoretical reason why one should actually choose between working within or outside the state. We know for quite some time that transforming the state and social practices beyond it are two crucial aspects of emancipatory politics. Although they are autonomous in the sense that they have their own temporalities, different organizational and methodological requirements etc they stand or fall together in the end.

There is no way to transform the state in a meaningful and durable way without strong interrelation with processes of expansion of alternative social practices, democratically organized productive units, respective non-commodified circuits of distribution, a different civic mentality etc. And alternatively, there is no way to promote seriously and in a non-marginal way alternative social practices – which are feeble and hard to sustain in a hostile environment – without the support, the protection or at least the concession by the state of free space in order to develop roots and size that allows a quasi-sustainable reproduction and expansion.

2.2. However, in politics choosing so to speak between the two is often a real question: in practice, we have limited resources at our disposal and we must allocate them according to the criterion of efficiency. Then the question is not whether we should work within the spheres of state power or not but what is the optimal allocation of resources and time between working within it and outside it. And secondly, in practice we are engaged in a brutal war and sometimes you must focus on seizing state power or other forms of power just to wrest them from the hands of your opponents. For example, in Greece, we couldn’t afford leaving state power to the neoliberals.

2.3. On the other hand, the present-day situation of the state and the intensity of the neoliberal attack on societies attribute an existential twist to the theoretical claim that we must work both within the state and outside it. A bundle of important policies and powers once belonged to the state has been tranfered either to external (european or domestic but “independent”) authorities or directly to the elites – in both cases out of the reach of the people. At the same time, a vast number of neoliberal regulations and norms governs the function of the state and sections of social life. These two conditions combined, render the governmental and state power not the political power but just one of the poles of such a power, shaping a hostile environment in which considerable effort is needed just to open some space for the implementation of different policy.

In other words, as I mentioned previously, state power – as it is traditionally conceived in isolation from the social movement and bureaucratic in nature – is not enough to wage the battle we are engaged in. We, more than ever, need the expansion of democracy and cooperation in social practices and new social institutions. We need social innovation for the empowerment of the people in new ways. The fate of a left government depends on our ability to build new social and institutional structures that it will empower the people. And the duty of a left government is not just to exercise the diminished power it has, but to function as facilitator for such an empowerment of the people to take place.

But such a duty requires a new political imagination that transcends the established view of being in the government. The traditional methodology dictates that people through demonstrating and voting express their demands and will and then the governemnt uses the state to respond to them. This is no longer viable even if we wanted to do it. Instead, we need a different conception of the state and a new model of leadership as well. Being in the government is a way to use the remaining resources of the state (by transforming them accordingly) to facilitate (by organizing efficient democratic decision making and productive processes) social agents to decide, plan, implement and monitor policies and projects of an alternative political orientation. And this is not a path that our ideology forces us to follow; there is no other way to implement a different policy today than to liberate and use the embodied capacities of the people.

What is the relation between the new government and the social movements in Greece?

3.1. It is not easy to answer this question. We are in a vague, fragile and transitory situation in Greece. The government is not allowed to govern yet and people are on hold for the time being. In respect to the negotiations there were no significant movements the last months. There are of course demonstrations for a variety of reasons.

We do not have a clear view for the relation of the government with movements in general. It seems to be very close for the time being but we are at the beginning and it is not easy to decode the growing tendencies in various domains.

Additionally, this relation is overdetermined by the unique situation we are facing due to the crucial negotiations. It seems like the political function is suspended and the various agents are waiting to situate themselves in the new context that the result of the negotiation will create. It is reasonable to assume that in the case of an agreement that includes austerity demands of the lenders a tension between various movements and the government will be the case.

3.2. However, the question that concerns me and others inside SYRIZA is how are we going to transform the established relation between movements and active people in general with the state and the government. The traditional relation is marked by the institutional framework of representative democracy; people vote and movements demand. As I said twice already this is not viable anymore. The state cannot deliver what people need and want if we do not change the mentality both of the people in public administration and the government and the people that participate in the movements.

We need a new mentality that promotes cooperation and joint efforts of the state and the movements. In order to move towards this new mentality the state and the government must transfer decisions and allocation of resources to the social agents maintaining a coordinating role and safeguarding the political orientation (in terms of criteria such as democratic decision making, multi-dimensional planning, priorities and goals, long term sustainability etc). And the social agents must overcome a corporatist mentality, a partial view on the issues, and share with the state and the government the responsibility for results that serve the public interest and good. Instead of acting solely for the satisfaction of the demands by the state of the groups of people they represent, social agents must think of their contributing role in a broader effort.

I am talking about the gradual transformation of the state and the social agents of the previous social and political configuration towards an institutional and social configuration based on our ideology and logic. Widening the logic of cooperation and democracy within the state and society, even building new institutions shaped by our logic and principles (both at the level of scope and at the level of functioning) is our duty especially in a period of time that – as I already said – traditional means and tools are not available anymore.

One of the major problems towards this direction is our own – people of the traditional left – political imagination and commitment to the previous social and institutional configuration. For a number of reasons I won’t mention now, there is the implicit assumption that any suggestion, proposal and innovation regarding a different role and function of the state and the social agents like trade-unions is considered to be dangerous and suspicious. However, we are lucky since the difficulties to implement a different policy in traditional ways create the conditions for a new methodology to emerge.

How does SYRIZA approaches the notion of development:

The truth is that SYRIZA is very traditional when it comes the idea of “developement”. The implicit dominant view is the classical one: we must develop the productive forces and capacities of the country based on a growth-oriented pattern in order to recover. We are sensitive to labor and environmental issues, we might even want to create productive activity through public means so that the benefits will return to society, but we do not conceptualize a different framework in which the economic growth is not its cornerstone.

Of course, there lots of us who understand deeply the fact that we need a strategy of transforming the productive matrix. The question is how we can shape an economic recovery based on merging efficiently today’s social needs and social needs in the future by transforming our productive and consuming patterns. Even though there are voices inside SYRIZA that posit these considerations and specific policy projects that actually promote a different model of priorities and organizational principles, we continue to think and act according to the established coordinates of development.

At the rhetorical level, the economic and social disaster in Greece is considered to be a political condition that does not allow the exploration of an alternative productive framework which is thought as a luxury we cannot afford. At the same time, the same reason, the economic and social disaster, taken together with the economic pressure in Greece by the lenders and the economic elites, in practice cancels out any prospect of economic recovery in a traditional way. So, we are in the middle of a situation in which the dominant traditional conception of development is not working but we do not have an overall alternative framework to replace it. There is a window of opportunity for a different path here. But we need a clear and unified strategy towards a different direction.

How is SYRIZA preparing for the future?

We are in front of a historic crossroad in Greece. Since the lenders of Greece refused to make a mutually benefitial agreement – which boils down to the fact that eurozone allows economic pluralism, or at least it tolerates different economic orientation based on democratic choices of the people – we are in front of two painful choices: either a bad agreement that traps SYRIZA in a neoliberal and austerity framework or a non-agreement that sets in motion a series of events that they will radically change the coordinates of Greek political, social and economical context.

The first scenario will hit SYRIZA badly and society even more so, crashing the last democratic hope for Greece. The hit will be a decisive one in a society that is already collapsing. Gradually but fast, rationality, civic mentality and the notion of respect to community and society will be compromised. No one will feel obliged to follow any kind of rule, since the government itself is following the orders of the powerful ellites despite the fact that the government and the majority of the people disagree and the rules of democracy are violated. The “rule of the powerful” will be the only social norm in people’s minds and behavior.

Without SYRIZA being the hope for a substantial change, Golden Dawn – or something similar – will definitely rise as the dominant political power. Needless to say that this would be the successful outcome of the memorandum period: tranforming a developed society (with many many problems of mentality and orientation) into a social desert in which barbarism and fascism will prevail.

Apart from the social decline and its consequences for everyday life, the continuation of austerity and recession will shake even further the administrative capacity of Greek authorities shaping threatening conditions for the integrity of the country in a region that destabilizes rapidly. In the southeast part of Mediterranean sea borders and peace are disappearing and in the Balkans a gradual division between the West and Russia is emerging.

The second scenario will initiate immediate political, social and economic turmoil. SYRIZA will be cornered but it will maintain its unity and its support by the people who have been pushed in poverty. However, we cannot foresee the reaction of the elites. We know that they lack any sense of respect of democracy, wisdom in the deep sense of the term and social responsibility. Moreover, we know that neoliberals actually want the emergence of chaotic situations for they believe that the disorientation of the population and the collapse of the existing institutions and modes of social functioning create favourable conditions for setting up the new neoliberal order.

We can speculate about their reaction but we are living in a period of time that no one can actually assess the dynamics of the situation. Who would have thought 2 years ago that a war will take place again in Europe, in Ukraine, and the EU and US would openly support neonazis! So, we are talking about a turbulent situation.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the lenders will postpone the difficult choice. In this case, the lenders will let Greece sink even further into recession due to the liquidity suffocation and they will wait to see whether broader changes will take place in Europe. Spanish elections are critical in this scenario and perhaps other events that will take place and may change the current balance of forces.

At this point, I would like to underline the difficulty for a society to accept that its future is severely compomized in any case; that ordinary life as we know it is no longer available is difficult to digest. And it is not easy to accept and fully embrace that you cannot control or influence it. It’s not easy to accept the fact that you cannot escape from what is going to happen. This is a delicate issue to handle both inside SYRIZA and greek society. Strong psychological defensive mechanisms are involved, arguments are not convincing and people prefer to think transforming their desperate hope into reality, ovelooking at the same time the clear signs that are in front of them.

We are entering a period that will be marked by economical, social and political turmoil. Political action in this new environment will challenge the political imagination of the previous decades. The sooner we overcome the perfectly normal feeling of denying reality when it becomes harsh, the better. We must adapt ourselves quickly into the new conditions in order to be effective.

So, ahead of such a crucial moment, we cannot prepare ourselves for the mid- or long-term future. Fundamental parameters of today’s situation are going to change rapidly shaping a future we cannot foresee for the time being.

Let me conclude with two final general remarks for our duty today:

– we need to engage efficiently and profoundly in transforming the people’s way of thinking themselves and their lives. In the last decades in the western world at least, people were raised believing that a good life is essentially an individual achievement. Society and nature is just a background, a wallpaper for our egos, the contingent context in which our solitary selves will evolve pursuing individual goals. The individual owes nothing to no one, she lacks a sense of respect and responsibility to the previous or the next generations, and indifference is the proper attitude regarding the present social problems and conditions. There is no way to achieve our goals, saving the planet, transforming the economy, coping with social problems and modern challenges etc without transforming the spoiled teenager-like modern subjectivity into a mature grown-up subjectivity ready to bear the responsibility and duty of taking on the difficult and demanding task that our goals dictate.

– We are analyzing, monitoring, explaining etc of what the opponents are doing, what is their strategy, what kind of techniques they use etc and that;s somethning extremely useful. However, we need to think how are we going to face today’s challenges and problems according to our logic. The modern world is declining fast and at the same time we have never before been in a position with so many potentials. It’s not only a matter of seizing the power, it’s a matter of identifying the deep reasons for such a decline and engage in a process of transformation based on the existing potentials.

We must develop a conception of ruling the world differently, of actually performing the every day activities of societies with a different way. We often tend to believe that getting rid of the opponents means that somehow the problems caused by them and the new challenges we are facing will be disappeared. It is true that it is extremely important to get rid of these guys, the neoloberals; however, neolibealism is deeply entrenched in social practices and the state, things are moving this way by themselves so to speak.

We must put them in different tracks, we must develop ideas and ways of doing things differently. And in order to do it, we must think without our opponents on sight. We must think our own world and how is going to be like. And actually, there are lots of goor practices, social innovations etc that actually point towards a mature society. If we think this way we will realize that we are actually more stronger than we think. We must combine the existing elements effectively, incorporate them in a unified – but not one-dimensional – conceptual and organizational framework. If we launch such a project – and I am feeling from these two days here that it is already happening – then we will gradually acquire the necessary self-confidence to rule the world, and I strongly believe that this is the most crucial part in actually doing it. If we start really believing that we can do it then the fall of neoliberalism would be a matter of time.




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