Extended version of talk delivered in Montreal 08-22-2015
Thank you so much for the invitation and the opportunity to present some thoughts regarding emancipatory politics and especially the need for important modifications of mentality and methodology based on the experience of being in the government in a weird and unstable situation such as the one we are having in Greece.
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 structure 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”.
After the Greek experience we now know that the elites are today openly hostile to democracy. In the first days of June, after months of negotiations the lenders made their first proposal. They openly sidestepped the negotiation process until those days and demanded that the Greek government should openly violate the democratic will of the people. At the end of June they openly declared that Greece should comply with their demands in 48 hours. Few days later, in the middle of July and after the referendum, they openly threatened that Greek society will face the consequencies of a sudden default if their demands will not be accepted. In one and a half month, in Europe, democracy was openly rejected. I am stressing the fact that that happened openly and not in a disguised way because I believe that it is of extreme importance. We wittnessed a major historical event: democracy is no longer relevant when it comes to serious social, economical and financial issues.
Of course, this is not the first time. In all over the world – even in Europe, in Eastern Europe particularly few decades earlier – we had and we are having similar anti-democratic developments. However, the true receiver of the message this time was not the specific society but rather the people in the what is called developed western societies. The elites are no longer willing to share with the people the crucial decisions. Democracy – which is a name for any social and institutional configuration allows some kind of access to crucial decisions of people with no considerable economic power – will no longer be tolerated. The message should be clear and reach every one of us, independently of our nationality, religion, origin or political conviction. That’s why the rejection of democracy had this open cheracter. We should not underestimate the importance of a historical event when it takes place just because we might be able to assess its coming beforehand. Our analysis of the neoliberal character of eurozone, of global capitalism etc should not make us devaluate the fact that we witnessed a clear defeat of democracy in Europe. Things will never be the same any more.
Is this surprising? Yes, if we take for granted that the post-war social and institutional configuration in western countries of liberal capitalism, or democratic capitalism is irreversible. No, if we have a wider historical view and take into consideration the profound and structural distress of the elites towards democracy. Neoliberalism is not an economical policy; it’s an ambitious strategy of fundamentally transforming the physiognomy of modern societies and subjectivities as well, of ending once and for all the democratic and emancipatory wave that emerged in human history after the french revolution. Under this light, the aggressiveness towards the Greeks, the suffering of this small nation is just the bearer of a universal – and thus even more dangerous – message. In the era of the despotism of the market, in the era of the neoliberal order, democracy – in any any of its varieties, even the most moderate and systemic ones – is not accepted.
So, is there any room for emancipatory politics? 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. 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.
Is there any room for emancipatory politics? Yes, if we are determined and systematic enough to work under the radars of the neoliberal configuration and inventive enough to formally coincide with it while at the same time we empower people against it. 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.
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.
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. The present-day orientation 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 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 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. 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. Hence, we need a operational conception of transforming 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 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.
The question is how are we going to transform the established relation between movements and active people in general with the political parties, 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.
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 partial view on the issues, and share with the political parties and state institutions we have access to the responsibility for results that serve the public interest and good.
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.
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 ended up with a punitive agreement that traps SYRIZA in a neoliberal and austerity framework.
This agreement will hit SYRIZA and the left in general badly and society even more so. 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 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.
On the other hand, choosing to follow the elites at the escalation of the fight they are dragging us through blackmails requires, as I already said, a strategy of empowering the people so that we will be in a position to perform the basic functions of our society in an alternative way. No matter difficult this may seem to us it is necessary since the lenders control the flow of money and the various fundings and through them the whole network of the basic functions. That’s why I was saying that in order to be able to confront them we need not only the traditional means of doing politics – since the elites are gradually free themselves from their obligations and commitments towards our societies cancelling those means to a considerable extent out – but a different strategy of empowering the people, extracting their capacities, combining them with the remaining resources of the state and creating economical and social circuits able to take on the responsibility of running the basic functions. You cannot be free unless you acquire the neseccary power to run basic social functions.
This is extremely crucial if we add into the equation the fact that 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.
At this point, I would like to underline the difficulty for a society to accept that its future is severely compomized; that ordinary life as we know it is no longer available is difficult to digest. This is a delicate issue to handle. 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.
In any case, it seems that we – people in western societies in general – 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. We must adapt ourselves quickly into the new conditions in order to be effective.
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 something 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 often tend to believe that overthrowing our opponents from power 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. And actually, there are huge developments today in many areas and fields in which the human intellect and practice produce new elements that combined properly could give us the first glimpses of a mature society. If we think this way we will realize that we are actually more stronger than we think. If we launch such a project then we will gradually acquire the necessary self-confidence to truly rule our societies, 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.
Democracy is the best way to activate fully the embodied capacities that people have. By transferring the decisions to the people, by giving them the space and the freedom to realize and mobilize their capacities, we can unlock crucial reserves of creative power. Unlocking these reserves will change substantially the balance of forces between the popular classes and the elites giving us the degree of freedom needed to truly defy our opponents control over our societies. If we elaborate effective ways and means of democratic functioning we will realize that we are actually much stronger than we think. We will be able to extract and mobilize the human reserves of creative power which are the only form of power we can have at our disposal in this struggle.
Let me conclude with a final remark. The Greek government – whose only real plan from the beginning was that a shred of democracy will be respected at some point during the negotiation process, since we didn’t manage to modify our mentality and methodology fast enough – decided to use the last institutionally available democratic tool, the referendum, in an effort to achieve an agreement that it will include some kind of respect to the fact that Greek society cannot endure anymore a policy that destroys it. For a lot of us it was clear back then that there was no possibility that the european elites would show some respect to it.
However, the importance of the referendum exceeds the strategy of the government. During the week before the referendum a massive biopolitical experiment took place. The closed banks, the extreme propaganda by the media, the threats by the domestic, european and international political and financial establishment, the terrorism in workplaces, the hostility and threats towards “no” supporters at the interpersonal level etc created an environment we have never encountered before. Our opponents used all their resources at the maximum and they lost! Greek people refused to voluntarily declare that they embrace a life without dignity instead of a sudden death. We are talking about an extremely hopeful and important event for the battle against neoliberal irrationality. Greek people proved that the biopolitical control and influence over people is not so powerful as we might think it is. The battle is not over yet and human societies will not surrender easily.
Actually, it is up to all of us to change the course of things if we deeply appreciate the fact that manifesting the various logics of cooperation and democracy we are far stronger than we think, especially today that for the first time in our evolutionary history we have so many embodied capacities from so many different fields of human intellectual and practical activity and values from so many diverse cultures within our reach.
And the same is true about the final assessment of the SYRIZA experience that ended at least in its current form while this conference is taking place here in Montreal. It is up to all of us to learn from this experience and evolve so that the forces fighting for emancipation will be better adapted and more efficient from now on. Actually, if you think about it, most of the historically important episodes of emancipatory politics typically failed. But that’s the beauty of human history; we are evolving as long as we maintain the capacity to learn and adapt. So, please let’s make all of us the SYRIZA experience a success through our future actions. Thank you.