A former Syriza central committee member on building popular power when a left government is implementing austerity.
After Syriza accepted a third austerity memorandum for Greece and called early elections, much of its leadership left the party. Some formed Popular Unity, while others are still searching for a new home to continue the fight against austerity.
Andreas Karitzis is among the latter. Until this summer, he was a member of Syriza’s central committee and had been a key figure in the party’s electoral planning process before its triumph in January’s elections. Karitzis was also previously at the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, the research center affiliated with Syriza.
Now outside Syriza, Karitzis recently spoke with Michal Rozworski about charting an anti-austerity path when a left government is responsible for implementing austerity. “The Greek experience,” Karitzis says, “teaches us that we need to go beyond electoral politics, not against it.”
Greece just held its second elections of 2015 a month ago and Syriza came out on top again. But it’s a very different Syriza than the one from January, one now committed to implementing a new, third memorandum with the European “institutions.” Can a left party implement and work against austerity policies at the same time?
I don’t think it is politically viable or socially useful to engage in a process of implementing austerity while trying to counterbalance the negative effects at the same time. It’s not easy to do this under the strict supervision of neoliberal institutions. An effort like this would require a different approach and a different mentality.
It could be possible only as a way of buying time. If you are inventive and systematic enough and have a strategy of disengagement, it could work for a short period of time. It would be a way of preparing yourself and your society for the duty of a hard conflict with the lenders. But I don’t think that the government will follow such a path, hence I don’t find what they are trying to do politically viable.
At the same time, Syriza is changing due to the fact that the plan of stopping austerity using traditional means — securing an electoral majority and then forming government — has failed. It was based on the idea that elites will not refuse to respect the democratic will of the people. In the absence of a serious discussion for a new, complex, and perhaps more difficult strategy, Syriza is gradually slipping towards a narrative of accepting the neoliberal coordinates of applied politics.
So accepting the bounds that elites place on politics . . .
If you want to have a statistical idea of what happened to Syriza around these latest elections, consider that about 50 percent of the central committee, a third of cadres at the intermediate level (for instance, from regional structures), and about 15 to 20 percent of the general membership have resigned. So, a large portion of the leadership left, while the picture at the local level is different because people tend to be connected with each other also as friends.
However, this doesn’t mean that all those who stayed in Syriza remain hopeful. Many of them are also demoralized. While they do not see prospects for this government, they still hope that something will simply happen. Many do not have a coherent strategy or narrative.
How resilient are the social movements — the health centers, the solidarity networks, and so on? Is this the base out of which something new will be built? My conversations earlier seemed to suggest some tensions between the movements and those engaged in traditional politics.
Yes, part of the “raw materials” for something new are the people who are already engaged in solidarity networks, the cooperative movement and similar organizations. Then there are those who left Syriza searching for a new strategy.
My goal today is to connect these two groups — these two tribes fighting against austerity. I want to connect those who are doing things in the field, already trying to gain some autonomy over spheres of their lives, and those who were committed to traditional politics but are not willing to pursue this anymore.
Both of them have energy, capacities, and determination, and together, they can form a strong backbone for a resilient and dynamic network that can produce the economic and social power necessary to defy the elites’ control over the basic functions of our society. Perhaps from the combination of these two groups, a political organization of a new kind can emerge.
It’s ambitious and in some ways hard to grasp, but in the given situation, what else can you do?
I tend to be optimistic because the situation in Greece remains unstable. If I was in Canada or Denmark, I would be frustrated and pessimistic that the Left could come back. It’s not the same in Greece, however, and we can expect the Left to be cornered once again when the Syriza government falls. This will happen, even if a few years down the road.
Since the next government will be a very conservative one, we don’t have the luxury of not fighting. And since we have to keep fighting, I am optimistic that we will adapt ourselves to the new conditions and emerge better organized, not only because we are very committed but because we cannot do otherwise.
What would the alternative strategy you’re describing broadly look like, especially in a context where elites are unwilling to budge?
We experienced a strategic defeat. Now we need to set up processes that will empower people — for example, by advancing social economy and cooperative initiatives or community control over functions such as infrastructure facilities, energy systems, and distribution networks. These are ways of gaining a degree of autonomy.
No matter how difficult or strange this may sound in light of the traditional ways of doing politics, it is the only way to acquire the necessary power to defy the elites’ control over our societies. We can do this by extracting the embodied capacities of the people and putting them into use for the liberation of society.
Who will do this?
People who are committed to continue the fight against austerity. During the referendum, many engaged in this battle personally for the first time. Many are gradually coming to understand that it’s not possible to change our basic coordinates without exploring new ways of creative social mobilization. There are many in Greece who are ready for this (and I don’t mean only those who left Syriza). What we need is to find ways to make this more widespread within society.
This is the only way to truly liberate ourselves — whether by staying in the eurozone with a degree of autonomy or leaving the eurozone with a degree of autonomy. Independently of what we may think is the right decision in terms of the currency, we must make sure first that we have the power to carry out our plans under the severe pressure of elites. For this, we need new organizational forms, political imagination, and methodology, and that’s what we are trying to invent and figure out.
The first half of 2015 in Greece showed just how strong the interests of capital are across Europe. How do you reconcile your strategy with the crippling power of elites? How do you reconcile the big international forces at the official political level with action at the most local level?
According to my understanding of our situation, it’s not that there isn’t enough space for alternative politics. What we need most is to increase our real power. If we had greater power, we could use electoral politics and a left government to initiate a process of liberating our society.
The Greek experience teaches us that we need to go beyond electoral politics, not against it. We need to have a broader idea of what it means to do politics in the new conditions. We have entered a new era in which our societies are deprived of the right to have access to crucial decisions.
It goes beyond the eurozone, though that is important. Look also at the TTIP and other trade agreements. All these new institutional forms and regulations create a universal problem, but in order to respond universally, we need to fight efficiently on the local level.
My main concern is to grasp and put into action new ways of mobilizing people in order to gradually reclaim control over basic social functions that are local but are today under the control of anti-democratic institutions shaping the ground for our enslavement. Organizing efficiently at the local level allows us to eventually scale up to the European or international level.
How do you implement this in a very practical way? How do you get over the fear and blackmail that to some extent has been proven effective?
The main problem in Greece, and likely in modern society in general, is not just fear but whether there are organizational and methodological principles to make any mobilization powerful enough to counterbalance the power of elites. Our inherited principles are not adequate to what we need to do today.
The signs of collapse of the standard economical circuit are obvious in Greece but not only here. There is a growing exclusion of people from the economic circuit — having a job or a bank account, having a “normal life.” Modern society in general is in decline.
From history we know that societies in decline tend to react in order to survive. It is up to us to grasp this and start building networks that can perform basic social functions in a different way — one that is democratic, decentralized, and based on the liberation of people’s capacities.
First, this would allow society to survive and give people who are today excluded the means to survive in meaningful ways. Second, this could begin a transition towards a better and mature society.
There are no empty spaces in history, so if we do not do this, the nationalists and fascists — with their militarized way of performing these basic functions — may step in to finish off the decline. In Greece, a left government that implements austerity creates fruitful conditions for the nationalists and fascists to grow, especially in the poorest regions and neighborhoods.
Has this fascist current gotten worse recently? It seems that in terms of the electoral arena, Greece’s far-right party Golden Dawn has been relatively stable. What is the strength of the fascists more generally?
This is something you can’t anticipate. When the Left is in government, who stands to benefit? That another left, largely nonexistent right now, could benefit today by being a major opponent of the government seems unlikely.
On the other hand, New Democracy and the other systemic, pro-memorandum parties cannot make a turn towards popular demands; they are forced to support the agreement. As a result, the nationalists have an open space.
While the recent election results didn’t show them making any gains, this is due mainly to the timing of the election. The election took place before the implementation of the agreement, when Syriza still had an air of tough negotiators and people hadn’t seen how the agreement will affect their lives. We will be better able to assess the strength of the nationalists six months from now.
Finally, what are the lessons for the broader European left from the Greek experience of the first Syriza government?
We now know for a fact (this is not an assessment) that it is not enough to engage in traditional ways of doing politics to reverse our declining course. We must move beyond elections, not against them. We have to combine what we used to do with new elements, and we need new priorities.
Both within society and within the economy, we need to build our own networks that extract people’s capacities and produce real power that can then be used to make meaningful change. That’s a positive lesson from what happened here.
If we think differently, we will realize that we are far stronger than we think. Our established political imagination — which sees the political and social conditions underlying postwar social democracy as not having changed — was wrong.
Things have been changing for years. If we train ourselves to see things differently, we will realize that we are stronger than we think. This is the message for the Left everywhere.