The “SYRIZA Experience”: Learn and Adapt

*Extended version of talk delivered in London, November 2015. Historical Materialism Conference.


I am going to present a – still incomplete – overview of a dual project I am currently working on. The project can be divided in three parts:

(i) understand in a rigorous and integrated manner what were the positive and negative features of the ‘SYRIZA experience’,

(ii) specify what is needed in order to adapt and be effective in the new conditions of doing politics, and

(iii) engage in a process of shaping the conditions for a new resilient and potentially hegemonic emancipatory political practice to emerge.

The duality of the project is related to the dual character of its third part, namely its domestic and international dimensions:

(iiia) transmit in a functional way the ‘SYRIZA experience’ abroad, facilitating the Left in other countries to initiate on time a process of systematic preparation and adaptation in order to be relevant to today’s demands of the fight against neoliberalism and the increased hostility of the elites and

(iiib) reassemble, reconfigure and realign the existing, disarrayed and scattered – but also full of energy, determination and capacities – people willing to continue to fight for bringing dignity, democracy, liberty and emancipation back to Greece. People that go far beyond those affiliated with the traditional Left.

I am going to present the unfinished structure for the second part of the project “Specify what is needed for adaptation and resilience in the new conditions”.

Where we stand today

SYRIZA failed to stop austerity and the neoliberal transformation of Greece. Mainly it failed to initiate a process of elaboration of a new strategy for the disengagement from the suffocating conditions the new agreement created. A left government is implementing austerity, the people of the left are puzzled, the left will gradually be registered as a pro-memorandum political force in people’s minds. The nationalists and the fascists have remained the only «natural hosts» of popular rage and resentment, the expected emotional outcomes of the burial of hope we witnessed last summer.

Moreover, Greek society experienced unprecedented pressure and a brutal defeat. It is not easy to assess the damages on the social body from the fact that the Greeks had to choose between two existential attributes: their personal dignity and national pride on one hand and the profound sense that we are inherently part of the European people on the other. I do not have time to expand on this, but I am convinced that nothing good – for Greece or for Europe – can come out of the irresponsible and superficial decision of European elites to push Greeks to an existential split.

The most severe problem is that the Greeks are sensing that the future of their society is severely compromised. The majority of Greeks has been sentenced to misery and despair through the imposition of new hard austerity measures without any real hope for the future. If we add to the economic and social disaster that austerity is inflicting on us the huge waves of refugees that are set to enter Greece – especially the complex and contradictory ways in which their drama is reflected on the abused psychic economy of the Greek population – and add also the fear of increased geopolitical instability in the region, then it seems that prosperity, stability and peace is not what Greeks are experiencing now and certainly not what they feel their future is bringing.

It’s like we are walking on thin ice from now on in Greece. In moments like this we have to remain calm and think clearly. The second part of the project is about specifying what is needed in order to adapt and be effective to the new conditions of doing politics. I am thinking of four steps:

– Identify the battlefield

– Diagnose the core weaknesses of the left

– Deploy a relevant/feasible/resilient/potentially hegemonic strategy

– Redesign the ‘operating system’ of the left.

Identify the battlefield:

There are various aspects we could mention here. For example, the ones related with the state, its diminished power, neoliberal transformation and positioning at the national and international networks of power. Then, there are international aspects: geopolitical imbalances, dynamics of European neoliberal architecture, global financial pitches and transnational ‘trade’ agreements. And of course there are aspects regarding the people: intensified exclusion, fall of standard of living, disorientation and fear on the one hand. On the other hand, we can spot enormous embodied capacities, unmediated networks of info and know-how flows, radicalization and determination.

Here I will only mention a few things regarding the state. A bundle of important policies and powers that once belonged to the state has been transferred 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 array of neoliberal regulations and norms govern the function of the state. These two conditions combined mean that government and state are not the center of political power but only one of the poles of such a power.

In other words, due to the neoliberal advance of the last decades – like the emergence of the neoliberal architecture of the EU and the Eurozone for example – today people’s democratic will has been successfully limited. The elected government is no longer the major bearer of political power, but a minor one. In the case of Greece, democratically electing a government is like electing a junior partner of a wider government in which the ECB and the lenders are the major partners. The junior partner is not allowed to intervene and disturb the decisions and the policies implemented on crucial economic and social issues like fiscal policy, banks, the growth model, privatizations, pensions, wages etc. If it does intervene and demand a say on these issues – for example by refusing to concede in pensions cuts – then the people who appoint it are going to suffer the consequences of daring to defy the elites’ privilege of exclusive access to these kinds of decisions. The elites – by extracting important powers and decisions on crucial issues from the democratically structured institutions of the bourgeois state – have managed to gain total and unchecked control over the basic functions of the society. It is up to their anti-democratic institutions to decide whether a society will have a functional banking system or sufficient liquidity to run basic functions or not.

That’s what happened to Greece; that’s the core argument of the president of Portugal in appointing a pro-austerity minority government: I am preventing unnecessary pain. Pain that will be caused by the naivety and dangerous ignorance of the people and political powers still untrained in the new balance of power. People and political powers that still insist on people’s right to have access to crucial decisions while at the same time they do not have anymore the power to impose their participation in shaping these decisions. The Portuguese President – like the European and Greek establishment and media – is the bearer of a crucial message for us: you do not have enough power to make us accept and tolerate your participation to crucial decisions. Forget it people. We have to listen to them carefully – overcoming their cynicism and the fear of what this really means for our lives and societies – and respond properly.

Diagnose the core weaknesses of the left

In this project I am trying to identify core-weaknesses of the left based on my privileged access to the SYRIZA experience. Here I will focus on one of the premises that shape implicitly the political imagination and methodology of the Left. The Left – but not only the Left – in western societies of a robust democratic constitution has been trained to do politics within the coordinates of the post-war institutional configuration. According to it, the elites are committed to accept the democratically shaped mandate of an elected government. If they do not like the policies that are being promoted, they have to engage in a political fight; their parties must push the government through their political activity towards more moderate directions, they must convince the people that this policy is not desirable nor successful and use the democratic processes for a new government of their preference to be elected.

Based on the premiss that this is still the context in which politics is being performed, SYRIZA backed up anti-austerity movements the last five years and being in opposition rejected ferociously any excuse for the implementation of austerity policies. It formed a program responsive to people’s needs, built social alliances and in 2015 managed to win the elections. SYRIZA did what the traditional way of doing politics dictates: support social movements, build alliances, take majority in the parliament, form of a government. But the outcome was different. There was virtually no change of policy. The elites are no longer committed to the post-war democratic rules of the political and social fight. We can see the same attitude in other topics as well. The elites have developed ways to avoid taxation that render the political decision of a government to increase their taxes extremely difficult to implement. The elites gradually detach themselves from our societies. They are becoming increasingly indifferent and cynical towards our societies and the deadlocks they are causing.

The post-war global balance of forces inscribed/infused in the state institutions a huge amount of popular power, rendering them democratic. This consists simply in allowing/tolerating/accepting that people without considerable economic power will have access to crucial decisions. Of course, the quality and the range of the access was a constant issue of class fight. The elites were obliged to fight according to the rules (or at least to appear to do so) and at the same time they were working deliberately to diffuse this kind of institutional configuration contaminated by popular power. In the last decades (non-accidentally after the fall of Soviet Union) they made decisive steps towards diffusing this kind of power and hence limiting the ability of the popular classes to influence crucial decisions. Today they do not feel obliged to show at least some respect for the democratic rules they violate. They feel confident to openly defy democracy. Democracy is not a taboo anymore.

The strategy of SYRIZA was implicitly based on the premise that institutional power is not exhausted; the elites will not cross the Rubicon, they will prefer to stay formally within the confines of democratic rules or at most they will push them to the edge. They will respect at least a shred of democracy and provide the new government with at least a minor degree of freedom needed in order to heal social wounds and restore economic activity. We could say that the implicit idea was that by winning the elections, the remaining institutional power would be enough and it would be used to stop austerity and then in a relatively stable environment we could enhance people’s power using the state institutions (another implicit premise that needs to be examined). We all know the results of such a strategy now.

Deploy a relevant/feasible/resilient/potentially hegemonic strategy

Our present situation requires us to think what is needed in order to stop austerity and restore democracy and popular sovereignty. As I said before, the elites – by extracting important powers and decisions on crucial issues from the democratically structured institutions of the bourgeois state – have managed to gain total and unchecked control over the basic functions of the society. So, in order to be in a position to pursue or implement any kind of policy one may consider as being the right one, we need to create a degree of autonomy in terms of performing basic social functions. Without it we will not be able to confront the hostile actions of the elites and their willingness to inflict pain to a society that dares to defy their privilege over crucial decisions. A strategy that wishes to be relevant to the new conditions must take on the duty of acquiring the necessary power to run basic social functions. 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.

Is this possible? My hypothesis is that literally every day the human activity – both intellectual and practical – is producing experiences, know-how, criteria and methods, innovations etc that inherently contradict the parasitic logic of profit and competition. Moreover, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have so many embodied capacities and values from different cultures within our reach. Of course we are talking about elements that may not be developed sufficiently yet. Elements that may have been nurtured in liberal or apolitical contexts and that are often functionally connected to the classical economic circuit. However, the support of their further development, their gradual absorption in an alternative, coherent paradigm governed by a different logic and values, and finally their functional articulation in alternative patterns of performing the basic functions of our societies is just a short description of the duty of a Left that has a clear, systematic and strategically wide orientation.

Based on people’s capacities, proper alignment, connection and coordination it is possible to acquire the necessary power to at least be in a position to assume the basic functions if needed. We can do this by extracting the embodied capacities of the people and putting them into use for the liberation of society. In the worst case, we will achieve some degree of resilience; people will be more powerful to defend themselves and hold their ground. In the best case, we will be able to regain the hegemony needed: people can mobilize positively, creatively and massively and reclaim decidedly their autonomy.

Redesign the ‘operating system’ of the left

Based on a strategy of this sort we can launch a process of redesigning the operating system of the left so to speak. I will focus only on the core weakness I referred to earlier. We know that the popular power once inscribed in the democratic institutions is exhausted. We do not have enough power to make the elites to accept and tolerate our participation in crucial decisions. But the left is inclined to handle this kind of power through the function of political representation. This is true not only for SYRIZA but for most left groups and organizations. If we look at the horizon of the political practice of the Left we will see that it contains demonstrating, that is organizing movements, pushing demands to the state and voting, trying to change the balance of forces at the parliamentary level and hopefully form a government. That means that our political practice is mostly shaped around the institutional framework of representative democracy. But we know that moving and fighting within the confinements of institutional power is not sufficient.

When you want to solve a particular problem, expanding your solution space increases your potential to find that solution. If the ground of the battle has shifted, undermining your strategy, then it’s not enough to be more competent on the shaky battleground (SYRIZA did quite well in this respect); you need to reshape the ground. And to do that you have to go beyond it, expand the solution space and find ways to change it favorably in order to continue fighting from a better position. One way to expand the solution space is by shifting priorities: from political representation to setting up an autonomous Network of production of Economic and Social Power (NESP).

Which means that we must modify the balance between representing people’s beliefs and demands and coordinating, facilitating, connecting, supporting and nurturing people’s actions at the profiling of the left. We must turn our attention towards setting up processes that will empower people, for example by advancing social economy and co-operative initiatives or community control over functions such as infrastructure facilities, energy systems and distribution networks. These are ways of gaining a degree of autonomy.

In other words, instead of being mainly the political representative of popular classes we must contribute heavily to the formation of a strong backbone for resilient and dynamic networks of co-operational productive activities, alternative financial tools, local cells of self-governance, democratically functioning digital communities and other aspects of economic and social power necessary to defy the control of the elites over basic functions of our society. We need to build networks that activate people’s capacities and produce real power that can then be used to bring meaningful change.

The signs of collapse of the standard economic circuit are obvious in Greece but not only there. 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, especially people who are being excluded today. Second, this could begin a transition towards a better and more mature society. There are no empty spaces in history, so if we do not do this, the nationalists and the fascists with their militarized ways of performing these basic function may step in to finish off the decline.

We have to create new popular power if we want to bring substantial change or become resilient instead of just handling the remaining – seriously depleted if not already exhausted – popular power inscribed to the democratic institutions. It’s like we must reinvent the political methodology that left organizations were deploying in periods when the state and the institutional configuration were extremely hostile to people’s needs and demands (anti-democratic). What kind of political practice is compatible with a strategy of acquiring/accumulating power in order to be relevant, resilient and potentially hegemonic and successful in democratically transforming the institutional framework? We are in a similar situation. The question is what it means to do politics in order to produce popular power without presupposing the democratic function of representative democracy and in order to restore it by newly transforming it. In other words, what are the modifications needed for the constitution and expansion of NESP?

For the time being I am thinking that the modifications needed fall in three categories: political imagination, methodology and organizing principles. I haven’t yet conclude the classification of what I have spotted as necessary modifications from the “SYRIZA experience” into these three categories. At this point I would like to respond to an obvious question: why on earth should we think of modifications like these instead of just being careful next time we approach power and making the right choices and decisions? From my experience, when people contemplate and talk about what are we doing, how are we aligning our forces, how are we functioning etc, they tend to agree with the claim that we need to be more innovative, better adapted and more efficient. But the very same people, including me, when actually doing politics they reproduce priorities, mental pictures, methods and organizational habits that they already know are not sufficient or adequate anymore. To my mind this means that there are implicit, deep-rooted norms in terms of methodological guidelines, organizational principles and mental images that shape crucially the range of our collective actions, rhetoric, decisions and eventually strategy. That’s why it is not reassuring enough just to say that we will do it better next time. It’s not important what we think, it’s what we know how to do that matters. And the latter is a product of our collective imagination, methodology and organizational principles.

Then there is the fascinating question that I haven’t explored yet: what it means to embed the function of political representation within the operational coordinates of NESP? Of course, creating new popular power will also invigorate and possibly transform the democratic institutions, giving again a substantial meaning to political representation and the political practice we are acquainted with. But, the expansion of a network of the sort we are discussing here and the changes is going to generate on various levels of the social configuration would be reflected on the function of political representation itself. We may be in front of new ways of political representation, new types of political parties and so on.

Another crucial aspect is the elaboration of a multi-level democratic transformation strategy of the state and its effective interconnection with NESP. The Left talks too much about the democratic transformation of the state. In practice, the driving concept is the restoration of state functions as they were before the neoliberal transformation. There is a point here but I am sensing that the expansion of a network of economic and social power can further unlock our imagination towards targeted transformations of state institutions that are needed in order to connect them with it. In theory this is an old idea: the transformation of the state is a complementary move to the self-organized collectivities of the people outside of it, driven by forms of self-governance. Perhaps, by shifting our priorities we will be able to revive old ideas that have been forgotten in practice.




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