Europe: Counter-hegemonic politics in times of austerity, ideological uncertainty and regressive policies

*Extended version of talk delivered in Amsterdam, February 2016, New Politics Project/TNI 

I am going to present some thoughts based on my experience of being at the leadership of Syriza for 12 years, of doing politics from that position under the regime of troika the last 6 years, and from the perspective of what happened in 2015. These thoughts, I think, reflect a growing awareness within the Greek Left broadly construed to include people who are not affiliated with the traditional Left organizations, but they engage actively in the fight against financial despotism. Also, these thoughts shape the framework of a newly founded hub for social economy, empowerment and innovation that aims to contribute to a process of upgrading the operational capacities of the popular classes and the people willing to continue fighting. I hope that these thoughts will be helpful to the New Politics Project since that project also reflects the need to reassess our means and ways of doing politics under the light of the recent developments at the global scale.

1. Lessons from the Greek-European experience:

I will refer only to one lesson so to speak and then I will present some thoughts for the modifications needed of emancipatory politics in Europe. Due to the emergence of the neoliberal structure of the EU and the Eurozone, a bundle of important policies and powers that once belonged to the state has been transferred out of the reach of the people. In EU and Eurozone 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 in a wider government in which 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 (fiscal policy, banks, privatizations, pensions etc).

If it does intervene and demand a say on these issues 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 European elites 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 and sufficient liquidity to run basic functions or not.

That’s what happened to Greece; that’s the core argument of the president of Portugal behind his decision to appoint initially 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 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 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 it promotes, they have to engage in a political fight; opposition parties must convince the people that this policy is neither desirable nor successful and use the democratic processes for a new government of their preference to be elected.

The post-war global balance of forces inscribed in the state institutions of western societies a considerable amount of popular power, rendering them quasi-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 struggle. 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 the elites feel confident to openly defy democracy. Democracy is not a taboo anymore.

Based on the premise that this is still the framework in which politics is being performed, SYRIZA did what the traditional way of doing politics dictates: support social movements, build alliances, win majority in the parliament, form of a government. The strategy of SYRIZA was implicitly based on the premise that institutional power is not exhausted; by winning the elections, the remaining institutional power would be enough and it would be used to stop austerity. We all know the results of such a strategy now. The real outcome was totally 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.

It is evident today – through the Greek experience – that the EU is an openly anti-democratic institutional structure. Instead of just trying to maneuver in vain through the confines of the toxic neoliberal European context, the Left must deploy a complex strategy of building social power. 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 in the traditional institutional framewrok. Such a strategy requires radical modification of our methodology, organizational principles and imagination in order to set up a network of basic social functions controlled by the people, no matter how difficult this may seem to us. Only then we will be able to seriously challenge the financial despotism that stirs nationalism and fascism and drags Europe into decline.

The experience of the SYRIZA government, in the months after the agreement, shows that there is no middle ground between financial despotism and democracy and dignity; if you try to reach such a ground, you are quickly converted into an organic component of the biopolitical machine that set forth the ambitious task of dehumanizing our societies.

However, focusing on its choice there is a danger of underestimating the fact that we indeed suffered a brutal strategic defeat in 2015. If we want to remain useful to the people we should not hide the strategic nature of our failure to seriously challenge financial despotism behind the choice SYRIZA made last summer. The choice SYRIZA made reflects deeper, structural weaknesses of the Left today. We must dare a serious reassessement of our methodology and tools if we want to be relevant in the new conditions. That’s why the “New Politics Project” can be very useful for the renewal of emancipatory politics especially in Europe.

2. New strategy – Redesign the “operating system” of the Left:

So, in order to be in a position to pursue or implement any kind of policy one may consider as being the right one on the governmental level 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.

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. In the worst case, we will achieve some degree of resilience; people will be more empowered to defend themselves and hold their ground. In the best case, we will be able to regain the hegemony needed: people could mobilize positively, creatively and massively, decidedly reclaiming their autonomy.

Based on a strategy of this sort we can launch a process of redesigning the operating system of the Left so to speak. If we look at the horizon of the political practice of the Left we will see that it mainly 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. But we know that moving and fighting within this framework is not sufficient.

When one wants to solve a particular problem, expanding one’s solution space increases one’s 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; 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. Instead of being mainly the political representative of the popular classes in a toxic anti-democratic european political environment designed to be intolerable to people’s needs, we must contribute heavily to the formation of a strong “backbone” for resilient and dynamic networks of social economy and co-operative productive activities, alternative financial tools, local cells of self-governance, democratically functioning digital communities, communities control over functions such as infrastructure facilities, energy systems and distribution networks. These are ways of gaining a degree of autonomy necessary to defy the control of the elites over basic functions of our society.

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. Since there are no empty spaces in history, if we do not do this, the nationalists and the fascists – with their own militarized ways of performing these basic functions – may step in to conclude the decline.

The formation of a “backbone” or better of the necessary “nodes” for the NESP poses the challenge for new forms of “organization”. We are living in a period of profound and structural changes and the traditional ways of organizing seem to be inadequate to seriously challenge the financial despotism that is emerging rapidly the last decades. Our opponents have already spotted the shifting nature of the battlefield and they have already moved to new, unclassified ways of organizing and acting. I am talking about building new kinds of institutions and promoting new methods that are compatible with the new emerging environment of fast flows of information, distributed knowledge and expertise, digital frameworks of action and production etc. For example, “open innovation” models emerged in the last few years to facilitate the R&D departments of the big multinational companies to cope with the current distributed nature of knowledge and expertise that exceeds their past ways of control and usurpation of the human intellectual creativity and innovation. It is evident that the forms of organization that we need in order to create and expand the NESP will be unclassified and hybrid from a traditional point of view.

The question is what it means to do politics in order to produce popular power without presupposing the traditional democratic functioning and in order to restore it by newly transforming it. This is the crucial aspect of the “New Politics Project” from the prespective of the Greek-European experience according to my understanding. In other words, what are the modifications needed of our political practice 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. It could be part of our research agenda the detailed identification of those modifications. At this point I would like to address an obvious objection: 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 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 is 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.

Additionally, we often tend to underestimate and neglect problematic features either of internal functioning or of methods governing our actions and interventions. We believe in and fight for the promotion of the logic of cooperation and democracy against the logic of competition but in practice our organizations suffer severely in terms of cooperation and democracy on the operational/organizational level. Ten people tend to be less effective when they work together, interpersonal dynamics tend to deteriorate our processes, our decision-making processes in larger groups tend to be time-consuming, incoherent and dysfunctional etc.

Furthermore, our actions and initiatives are not connected properly with each other, they are fragmented and isolated, destined to face all kinds of difficulties again and again. We need to upgrade our operational capacities through appropriate nodes of connection, facilitating smooth flows of know-how and information, transferring best practices, building databases and accumulating knowledge and expertise in an easily retrievable and useful way etc. Actually, this is the advantage of multinational and in general big corporations in comparison with others: they have a vast social network and powerful databases that give them the necessary tools to plan and pursue their goals while at the same time their smaller competitors seem blind and disarrayed in a global environment of rapid changes. We need these qualities if we want to be really useful to the people today.

Another fascinating dimension of the project “redesign the “operating system” of the Left”: what it means to embed the function of political representation within the operational coordinates of NESP? The function of political representation is a fundamental one in complex societies. The expansion of a network of the sort we are discussing here and the changes it is going to generate on various levels of the social configuration would and should be reflected on the function of political representation itself. We may be in front of new ways of political representation and new types of political parties. For example, exploring ways, models and methods of building the NESP requires evaluation and use of concepts like the “commons”. By expanding this notion even further and putting forward a research project of shaping political representation as “commons”, it could give us valuable insights towards new ways of performing vital functions like political representation, transcending the traditional, institutional framework of representative democracy.

Another aspect of the project “redesign the “operating system” of the Left” is the elaboration of a multi-level democratic transformation strategy of the state and its effective interconnection with the 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. I am sensing that the expansion of a network of economic and social power under people’s control can further unlock our imagination towards targeted reforms of state institutions that are needed in order to connect them with the NESP. 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 these forms of self-governance. Actually, this is exactly what our opponents did consistently and persistently during the last decades. They were designing and implementing reforms on various levels of the state institutions based on the methods, the criteria and the functioning of their own “social agents”, namely the corporations and their own understanding of the nature of public space (beyond the state), namely the market. This is exactly the “mechanics” of transformation that various intellectuals and leaders of the Left were describing already a long time ago. Perhaps, by shifting our priorities we will be able to revive old but useful ideas that have been forgotten in practice.

Concluding, I would like to point out that the “SYRIZA experience” will be worthless if we do not resist decidedly the temptation to replace one mistake with another. The failure of SYRIZA the failure of traditional electoral poltics creates favorable conditions for mentalities like “self-referential alternativism” and “vanguard isolationism” to emerge and preoccupy the minds and hearts of those who are willing to continue fighting. But choices like these are just symmetric to what SYRIZA did justifying fully our opponents: either you will be marginal or you will become like us! The existential threats and the crucial questions regarding their future that our societies are facing today have nothing to do with a strategy of building “arcs” that aim to safeguard the “Left” or any other identity. Entering the ominous battlefield of the 21st century, the Left will either be relevant and useful for the defense of human societies or it will be obsolete.



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