*Interview by George Souvlis – LeftEast (part 1 – part 2)
** For shorter presentations of the interview, see the selected excerpts made by D. Bollier and M. Bauwens
Note from the LeftEast editors: In this long interview with George Souvlis, Andreas Karitzis reflects on his experience as part of the Syriza leadership during the crucial years 2012-2015, on its underpreparedness for the historic project it embarked on, on the odds stacked against it, and on the configurations of power in today’s world. While Syriza’s fight for a fair deal for Greece and a socially just Europe has suffered (a temporary or permanent–we don’t know) defeat, Karizis’s reflections need to be heeded next time the Left comes to power.
1) Would you like to present yourself by focusing on the formative experiences – both academic and political?
By the time the Soviet Union was falling apart I was becoming a leftist. Having nothing else but the aftermath of a historical defeat around me (even knowing what Soviet Union really was), being a leftist was primarily a choice of deep, personal connection with those humans who fought, and will fighting for a better world, exemplifying the best qualities of our species. The way I saw it back then was that despite the ominous days that were seemingly ahead of us in the early 90’s, there was only one choice: to take my position and engage in the battle. From this moment on, there was no time to whine and be disappointed; when you are in the battlefield all you care about is what is helpful to your cause. The same train of thought is what is keeping me active and creative during these last difficult months after the Greek defeat of last summer.
Additionally, being raised in a poor, working-class family I had from early on a sense of gratitude: the local and global balance of forces that happened to exist when I was a child gave me access to a decent education. I could “see” that I owed this precious opportunity to millions of people who devoted their lives, suffered and died all over the world for equality and freedom. This sense of gratitude and the deep respect for those fighters of the past, helped me to define who I am, the capacities that I have acquired, as being directly involved in political action. Using these capacities in a narrow, selfish way – as a means for individual social ascent – would be disrespectful towards the previous generations, and irresponsible towards present and future generations. I think that this – universal in kind – disposition is one of the strongest influences on me.
Regarding my political experiences, I joined Synaspismos in 1997 and then SYRIZA. I was a member of their Central Committee from 2004 till 2015 as one of Tsipras’ generation of political cadres, so to speak. I have been a member of Political Secretariat (2007-10 spokesman of the party and 2013-14 co-chairing Programme and Political Planning Committees). I also served as campaign manager at the municipality elections of Athens in 2006 (with Tsipras as candidate) and the Regional Government elections in Attica (candidate Dourou, the present governor) in 2014. I was also engaged in media and communication campaigns of SYRIZA in 2007 (national elections) and 2009 (european elections). Finally, among many other things, I have been a member of the managing board of Nicos Poulantzas Institute for the past 8 years.
I studied mechanical engineering, then philosophy and history of science and technology and I did a PhD in contemporary analytic philosophy. My studies were disconnected in content from my active political participation, but they heavily shaped my political behavior in a rigorous and efficiency-driven direction. Theoretical work on Marxian and left literature was a crucial part of my political engagement, instead of being an academic and abstract kind of work. My traditional influences come mainly from Althusser and Poulantzas among others, like most of the people in the Greek Left of my generation. Gradually, I was immersed in less traditional left literature, that in my case, mainly included Foulcault, and the theoretical debate that was initiated during the last decades by Laclau.
However, being gradually aware of the gravity of the current predicament of humankind, my influences have been increasingly eclectic, drawing from entirely different resources. My current focus is on methodology of emancipatory politics. This is mainly concerned with organizational issues of building hybrid (from a traditional left point of view) institutions, as well as managerial/methodological issues of building popular power and interacting with state institutions, in the new environment of the radical restructuring of institutions due to the influence of digital technologies in the broader neoliberal framework.
2) How you would describe yourself in political terms?
It’s hard to tell anymore. The traditional terms we use to describe our political identities point to a totally different political and social environment. We need to radically modify these if we want to be relevant to today’s demanding tasks and antagonisms.
Let’s be frank; despite all the subtleties and the complexities of our situation the truth is that we, the people, are facing a brutal attack by the elites that would affect the fate of all humans across the planet. We are now entering a transitional phase in which a new kind of despotism is emerging, combining the logic of financial competition and profit with pre-modern modes of brutal governance alongside pure, lethal violence and wars. On the other hand, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have huge reserves of embodied capacities, a vast array of rapidly developing technologies, and values from different cultures within our immediate reach. We are living in extreme times of unprecedented potentialities as well as dangers. We have a duty which is broader and bolder than we let ourselves realize.
But, we haven’t yet found the ways to reconfigure the “we” to really include everyone we need to fight this battle. The “we” we need cannot be squeezed into identities taken from the past – from the “end of history” era of naivety and laziness in which the only thing individuals were willing to give were singular moments of participation. Neither can the range of our duty be fully captured anymore by the traditional framing of various “anti-capitalisms”, since what we have to confront today touches existential depths regarding the construction of human societies. We must reframe who “we” are – and hence our individual political identities – in a way that coincides both with the today’s challenges and the potentialities to transcend the logic of capital. I prefer to explore a new “life-form” that will take on the responsibility of facing the deadlocks of our species, instead of reproducing political identities, mentalities and structural deadlocks that intensify them.
We often tend to believe that removing our opponents from power means that, somehow, the problems caused by them, and the new challenges we are facing, will disappear. In fact, it is the other way around: by developing ways to administer populations and run basic social functions with decentralized, democratic modes of governance based on the liberation of people’s capacities we will gradually acquire the necessary self-confidence to really challenge the elites’ hegemony and dominance. If we start really believing that we can administer societies differently (in a way that can cope with present day challenges), then the fall of neoliberalism will only be a matter of time. I strongly believe that this is the most crucial part.
It is up to us to make a solid and decisive step towards a new personal/interpersonal and social/institutional configuration that will bury once and for all the concentration of power in the hands of a few as the only way of administering human societies. But we must perform a “paradigm shift” in order to acquire the leverage needed to overcome the elites’ power and the position of capital as the only mediator between people’s activities.
I sense that we need a political identity that embraces the critical situation we are in and that will allows us to get over the profound problems we face. We must push ourselves to think differently. We must push our collectivities to see differently and spot the potentialities and materials we had never thought of as being useful to us. I strongly believe that we are far stronger than we think. Based on these thoughts, I would prefer not to describe myself in terms that belong to the past.
3) On Syriza’s strategy after the defeat of the new memorandum agreement: can we perhaps historicize this defeat by separating it in two different moments? The first one is between two electoral periods, 2012 and January of 2015. Which were the main pitfalls of the party during this period?
As you can imagine, there are various levels of analysis for this question. I will focus on examples of internal party functioning that reveal the underlying conditions in terms of political imagination, methodology and organizational principles that shaped the range of our preparation, rhetoric, decisions and the eventual strategy.
In the summer of 2012 – in the midst of a joyful atmosphere that comes with being the major opposition party – there was a fundamental issue, at least to my mind, we had to address: the allocation of human and financial resources. We had the opportunity to employ several hundred people, mainly due to having a larger parliamentary group than before. The allocation of human and financial resources is not a secondary issue but the material basis of one’s political strategy. However, instead of engaging in a serious assessment of the present and future needs of the party and an operational distribution of resources (for social organizing, the growth of neo-Nazi groups, trade-union organising, preparation for being in government and for the negotiation process, and so on), there was instead an attitude of “business as usual”. The traditional political imagery, methodology and priorities prevented SYRIZA from assessing the importance of the “material” conditions for its political strategy of countering austerity and neoliberalism. SYRIZA didn’t focus on this crucial issue of preparing for government, and instead reproduced outdated organizational modes and habits.
The outcome was that it maintained the traditional priorities and party functions, as if this were a normal time of social and political activity. The inertia that came with seeing parliamentary work as the most important duty of the party, mainly under the influence of the MPs who tend to prioritize their work in political planning together with the fact that the MPs were the ones who employ all these people, created a framework that ended up with only small changes. That is, a bit more collective work within the parliamentary group, the solidarity4all institution and a minimal increase in various aspects of party functioning. Instead of having a radical rearrangement of forces, SYRIZA just improved the traditional ways of party functioning which were becoming outdated and insufficient to back up its political strategy.
Another example is the exponential deterioration of collective internal functioning. The problem I would like to underline is not the obviously negative fact of the marginalization of democratic decision-making and accountability. The problem was even deeper. During this period, the implicit premise that rapidly transformed the political behavior in the party was that the competing views within SYRIZA should be promoted via the occupation of key-positions in the parliamentary group, the government and the state, after a victorious electoral result. This premise led to marginalization of collective planning, competition between groups and individuals and the fragmentation of SYRIZA. Fragmentation deprived the political organs of the ability to collect information, assess it and deploy a complex strategy. Eventually, enormous amount of time was consumed in the efforts of the political personnel to take the lead regarding future positions in the parliamentary group and the government. Of course there was always a political reasoning justifying this move to ever increasing competition among various groups and individuals.
The interesting thing was that the decline of internal collective functioning was predicated on an implicit common premise. That is, that what is needed to stop austerity and neoliberal transformation was an electoral victory along with people supporting the government through demonstrations. Apart from that, the only thing that seemed to matter was who and what group would have more influence and hold the key-positions in the government and the state.
There was an ignorance and indifference towards issues such as the subtleties and the complexities of the implementation process when in government, the operational demands of the negotiation process (multi-level, multi-personal, highly coordinated processes etc), and the methodology and the expertise needed to mobilize people in order to develop alternative ways of running basic social functions. Let me add here that it is necessary to gain some degrees of autonomy in terms of performing basic social functions in order to stop the strategies of the elite (in any way one may think is the right one), since the latter have unchecked control over those functions and can easily inflict collective punishment on a society that dares to defy its power. Issues like these necessarily promote a collective/democratic functioning instead of fragmentation and competition and a focus on people’s capacities and methods of “extracting” them effectively in order to upgrade people’s leverage.
The underestimation of similar issues was even more striking at the Programme Committee and its working groups. It was extremely difficult (if not impossible) to restructure the forms of work from the usual articulation of lists of demands towards managerial/organizational issues regarding steps and methods to implement our policies. Instead, they were sites of political argumentation in the most general and abstract terms.
The ignorance and indifference towards questions of how you implement power was supported by the dominant rhetoric within SYRIZA: that the crucial issues are political and not technical. So all we have to do is decide what we want to do, rather than explore the ways in which we can implement them. The implicit premise here was that the crucial point was to be in the government taking political decisions and then, somehow, these decisions would be implemented by some purely technical state mechanisms.
Apart from the fact that this attitude contradicted with what we were saying regarding the corrosive effect of the neoliberal transformation of the state and the complexities of being in the EU and the Eurozone, the major problem was that a mentality like this ignores the obvious fact that the range of one’s political potential in government is determined by what one knows how to do with the state. The implementation process is not a “technicality” but the material basis of the political strategy. What was considered to be the political essence, namely the general, strategic discussion and decision is just the tip of the iceberg of state-politics. Instead of just being a “technicality”, the implementation of political decision is the biggest part of state politics. Actually, it’s where the political struggle within the state becomes hard, and the class adversaries battle to shape reality. The tip is not going to move the iceberg by itself as long as it is not supported by multi-level implementational processes with a clear orientation, function and high-levels of coordination. This is the integrated concept of state-politics that we have forgotten in practice and by doing so we tend to fail miserably whenever we approach power.
Being at the leadership of SYRIZA during the period of preparation for power, I came to the conclusion that one major failure of the Left is that it lacks a form of governmentality which matches up with its own logic and values. We miss a form of administration that could run basic social functions in a democratic, participatory and cooperative way. The fact that we are talking about a current inside the Left which includes governmental power within its strategy, the low level of awareness regarding the importance of these governmental processes (among other equally worrying weaknesses) reflects the degree of obsolescence of the Left organizations and justifies fully the need for a radical redesign of the “Operating System” of the Left.
4) A second period would be between the electoral victory of Syriza and the signing of the third MOU past August. What about this period? Were there mistakes and miscalculations made by the party’s leadership during this time?
I think that the mistakes made during this period reveal crucial structural weaknesses of SYRIZA – and of the political left more broadly – due to the inability to adapt to the new way you must do politics in the institutionalised neoliberal framework of the EU and the Eurozone.
It seems that the weaknesses of SYRIZA in power resulted from the failed preparations in the previous period that I mentioned above. The appointment of government officials was dictated by the outcome of the internal power games during the previous period, and their mandate was to do whatever they could do in vague terms without having concrete action plans that would support a broader government plan.
In the same vein, there weren’t any organisational “links” that would align the government actions with the party functioning and the social agents willing to support and play a crucial role in a very difficult and complex conjecture. The lack of connecting processes was mainly – among other things – the outcome of a widely shared traditional political mentality that reduces, firstly, the party from a network for the massive coordination of people’s action, deliberation and production of popular power into a speech making device that supports the government, and, secondly, peoples’ mobilization from a generator of real popular power and leverage against the elites’ hostility into traditional forms of demonstration.
The government was gradually isolated and the pressure on it from various domestic and international agents initiated a process of adjustment of the new government to the existing neoliberal norms and regulations. Deprived of any real tool for reshaping the battlefield, the government and the party gradually moved from fighting against financial despotism towards merely a pool of political personnel with a good reputation that could reinvigorate the neoliberal project. In an era with a complex network of political antagonisms and class struggles, SYRIZA, as a collective agent, couldn’t even realise the form of the fight it had been involved in. This is still true for plenty of people in the Greek Left today, but things are changing and the difficulties force us to adapt.
The negotiation process and especially the way it had been understood and experienced within SYRIZA is indicative of the sloppy and cursory way that preparation for power took place, and of the inability of the party to adapt. But it also reveals the underlying premises that supported those qualities. Starting with the agreement of the 20th of February until the day that the lenders announced that the only real possibility was the continuation of the neoliberal project (1st of June), a pattern emerged regarding the way in which the government and party officials assessed what was occurring. Although the negative indications were overwhelming compared with the hopeful ones, they were focusing on the latter, distorting reality. Or better, they were replacing reality with what they hoped for; what they would have liked to be reality. I am not saying that the problem was that government and party officials were being dishonest; although some of them might be; individual dishonesty cannot explain a collective pattern.
The non-existent reality they were clinging onto was the only one in which the traditional political left knows how to do politics. And since people and collectives are determined not by what they say but by what they know how to do (a material dictum that has been forgotten in political left), it is impossible to become relevant with the real reality without a modification of methodologies, organizational principles and political imageries related to a practice that reflects reality. The problem was that collectively we hadn’t adapted sufficiently into how to do politics in reality. In the case of lack of adaptation of this kind, reality will be imposed on people and collective bodies the hard way…
This non-existent reality that government and party officials were clinging on to was built on the assumption that the elites were committed to accepting the democratic mandate of an elected government. If they do not like the policies that it promotes, they would have to engage in a political fight; opposition parties must convince the people that the policies are not desirable or successful and use the democratic process for a new government of their preference to be elected.
Supposedly, the post-war global balance of forces inscribed in the state institutions a considerable amount of popular power, rendering them quasi-democratic. This consists simply in tolerating – on behalf of the elites – a situation where people without considerable economic power have access to crucial decisions. SYRIZA knew how to do politics based on the premise that the institutionalised (in the past) popular power was not exhausted. By winning the elections, the remaining institutional power – mainly in the form of state power and international respect of national sovereignty – would be enough and it would be used to stop austerity (in all versions of how that would happen, within eurozone, leaving eurozone etc). Based on the premise that the framework within which politics is being conducted hasn’t changed significantly, SYRIZA did what the traditional way of doing politics dictates: supported social movements, built alliances, won a majority in the parliament, formed a government. We all know the results of doing politics only in this way today.
During that summer, the gap between the kind of politics we collectively knew how to do and the new reality grew massively, producing both hilarious and tragic events. The referendum and its aftermath was definitely the peak of this. From the “traditional way of doing politics” point of view, we were using all democratic means available. It was obvious to me and others that we were engaged in an escalation that was not supported by anything that would make the lenders accept a compromise. The traditional, democratic means are simply outdated for doing politics in the new European despotism (although, if embedded in a different methodology of politics, they can still be very useful). But it was a way for the people to step in at a historic moment and give a global message that transcends the SYRIZA government and its short-term plots.
During the week of the referendum a massive biopolitical experiment took place: the closure of the 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 on interpersonal level and so on, created an environment we have never encountered before. Our opponents used all their resources and they lost! Greek people refused to voluntarily declare that they embrace a life without dignity in order to avoid a sudden death. We are talking about an extremely hopeful and important event for the battle against neoliberalism. Greek people proved that the biopolitical control and influence over people is not so powerful as we might think it is. The message was crystal-clear and gave courage to plenty of us despite the ominous predictions for the immediate future: the battle is not over yet; human societies will not surrender easily.
On the side of SYRIZA, the transformation of government and party officials had already occurred. The Greek government didn’t negotiate strictly speaking. There wasn’t a coherent negotiation strategy, no improvement of our position in time, no gaining of some leverage, etc. There was only a desperate act of postponing a decision it had to make. By the time that the referendum took place, things had changed. The leadership had shifted the central features of its assessment regarding how best to serve peoples’ needs: from “non-compliance with financial despotism” to “stay in power”. What happened after the agreement is just the natural outcome of this process of adjustment.
5) After the negotiations between the Greek government and the institutions, the transformation of the European Union into an authoritarian neoliberal apparatus became obvious. Are political and economic interests a tautology in today’s European Union? Which were the main political stakes of this battle?
In the last decades (not accidentally, since fall of Soviet Union) the elites made decisive steps towards limiting the ability of the people to influence key decisions. Crucial transformations have been taking place in the power assembly at a global and European scale. The state – by being the institution of power par excellence – was the site of fundamental changes, modifications and developments towards the institutionalization of the neoliberal order. 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 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. In the EU and the Eurozone today, people’s democratic control has been successfully limited. The elites are no longer committed to the post-war democratic rules. Today the elites feel confident enough to openly defy democracy. Democracy is not taboo anymore.
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 (very) 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 appointed it are going to suffer the consequences of daring to defy the elites’ privilege of 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 control over the basic functions of society. It is up to their anti-democratic institutions to decide whether a country will have a functional banking system and sufficient liquidity to run basic services or not. The Left must embrace the traumatic reality: In Europe a new kind of despotism is fast emerging, combining the logic of competition and profit with pre-modern institutions and forms of power.
20 years after the fall of the “actually existing socialism” we are experiencing the fall of the “actually existing liberalism,” so to speak. In historical time, the two processes are simultaneous and mark the beginning of a hard clash between the elites and the people. The neoliberal project signifies an open, ambitious and brutal strategy to radically change the basic coordinates of human societies and modes of subjectivity towards the most horrific form of authoritarianism we could envision few years ago.
Having that in mind, I would say that the political stakes of the clash between Greek people and financial despotism were broader than we usually think. Modern societies are just waking up from the “end of history” illusion. The new political movements (square movements, Occupy movements, etc) are the first glimpses of such an awakening. They are also making use of whatever exists around them, like SYRIZA, Corbyn, Sanders etc. But, we must upgrade our forms of organization and action significantly and modify radically the mentality and methodology of mobilisation. So, we are in the beginning and we must proceed decisively and effectively towards new and better adapted ways of organizing and fighting.
From the Greek front so far, we have had major losses and some gains. Some of the gains are the result of the referendum, the forced choice of the elites to come out of the closet and declare openly that institutional bourgeois democracy is not accepted anymore and the awareness of what kind of politics no longer works. On the other hand, we faced a brutal defeat; we didn’t succeed in checking neoliberal transformation. We also lost a massive political organisation. It could be better, it could be worst. As I said in the beginning, there is no time to be despondent. We learn, we adapt and we move forward. The first goal is to be more relevant next time by creating updated, collective agencies – hybrid and unclassified from a traditional point of view – able to influence the course of our society in a period of time that is unpredictable and full of danger. It’s neither easy nor certain. It’s the question of a new beginning; it’s the creative leap from 0 to 1.
6) Do you believe that there was an alternative management of the negotiations on behalf of Syriza or was Tsirpas right that there wasn’t actually an alternative available?
According to my understanding, what some people decided and imposed on the rest of us – namely that SYRIZA should remain in power after the defeat – to be considered a left alternative is wrong. We know from the decline of social-democratic parties that there is no middle ground between financial despotism and democracy; if you try to reach such a ground, gradually you are converted into a component of the biopolitical machine that seeks to dehumanize our societies. Implementing the agreement – hoping for a neoliberal revival of the economy – is not a counter-strategy that belongs in the left. Arguing that the implementation of the agreement is the only way out of the present situation is just a reformulation of the neoliberal dictum that there is no alternative. So, how is it the only alternative for the left when it does not even belong to the logical space of left possibilities?
But it is getting even worse. Let me present you with various highly dangerous consequences of SYRIZA’s choice to remain in the government under the obligation to continue the neoliberal project. The political system has crossed a critical threshold, entering a mode of functioning which could be described as the “squeeze effect”: it has been squeezed and forced to function within the nearly non-existent space of freedom that the agreement allows. It has been pushed in a tiny space, it seems irrelevant to the crucial economic and social issues, struggling to fit its different poles into a space so tiny that these poles eventually overlap and poke through each other.
This effect has highly deforming implications; implications that further erode the function of political representation. We could say that before the neoliberal consensus of the 90’s, in various countries there was a quasi-democratic political system (subject to military coups and the like). Then, the right-wing and social-democratic parties adopted neoliberalism as the political programme, decisively downgrading the function of political representation. And now we are in the phase of institutionalized neoliberalism in which a new circle of political deformation has been launched; a circle that reflects the advanced degree of institutionalization of the anti-democratic neoliberal mode of governmentality in Europe.
Because of the “squeeze effect”, the political system is amplifying the confusion and the feeling of despair within Greek society. Moreover, the “squeeze effect” renders the political personnel sterile in regards to the real life conditions of the population and entirely impenetrable to the peoples’ anxieties and demands. The negative social consequences and psychic implications caused by austerity and social decline cannot be reflected at the political level, they cannot be represented, democratically expressed, and positively transformed in such a way that contributes to social stability and cohesion. Without a minimally proper function of political representation in place, these social and psychic wounds – in the form of negative and (self-) destructive dispositions – are spread across all social networks of interpersonal relations shaking social cohesion in a deeper way.
SYRIZA was the last gatekeeper of the political functioning through its non-compliance with the financial despotism that the Troika represents. That was SYRIZA’s most precious role over the years that contained the Greek society from a deep decline. The implosion of the political system – via SYRIZA’S choice to remain in power – is the key factor in shaking social cohesion in a deeper way today.
SYRIZA failed to stop austerity and neoliberal transformation in Greece. This is surely a defeat. And when you face a defeat you are going to bear the cost. The quality and the allocation of the costs you might have is a serious and crucial political decision. The primary aim is to contain the damage in order to survive the collective organism. In the case of a left political party that means to safeguard the connections with the fighting part of the population and popular classes. Only in this case can you be useful to the people in the future. So the failure can be endured by allocating the costs wisely. But in order to be able to perform systematic collective processes and take decisions of this kind you must have qualities like the ones that we lacked during the preparation period. In other words, the highly problematic way of approaching government power deprived SYRIZA of a serious and organized way to handle the difficulties after the defeat properly and manage a sustainable retreat.
So, failing is one thing, what SYRIZA did after the failure is another. In this vein, one could argue that SYRIZA didn’t just fail strictly speaking but also wrecked the hopes and the aspirations of the popular classes and those fighting against financial despotism. It chose to remain in power, normalising the coup we witnessed last summer and accepting the neoliberal coordinates that shape governmentality today in Europe.
SYRIZA’s choice deprived the popular classes of a crucial tool after a painful defeat: the political representation of non-compliance with financial despotism. SYRIZA eliminated the chance of a tactical withdrawal, a collective process of reassembling our forces properly that could take into account the escalation of the fight provoked by elites – and forming a more effective and resilient ‘popular front’ that would build its resources to challenge neoliberal orthodoxy in the future.
However, focusing on SYRIZA’s choice, there is a danger of underestimating the strategic defeat that we all suffered in 2015, hiding from ourselves the extent of our current impotence in regards to any serious challenge to financial despotism. We must dare to perform an extensive reassessment of our methodology and tools if we want to be relevant in these new conditions and become really useful to the people. And to do so, we should not preoccupy ourselves with what SYRIZA did and comfort ourselves that this is the source of our problems. The choice SYRIZA made is, among other things, a symptom of the deeper, structural weaknesses of the Left.
7) Syriza’s defeat, part from the split of the party, caused a marginalisation of left forces and social movements in Greece. Currently it looks like there is no solid articulation of an anti-hegemonic left force. The majority of voices that joined to oppose Syriza from the left expressed the need of leaving the euro and the European Union. Is this the answer? Or is it possible for the EU to change from inside?
The major problem is not that we are missing the right answer, but the proper agent to address these questions. And moreover, we do not even seem to notice it, although things are changing in this respect.
The impact of the strategic defeat of last year is still shaping various reactions within the Greek Left. Some people seem content with superficial explanations of what happened and want to return to habitual ways of thinking and acting; others sense the strategic depth of the defeat and turn inwards to disappointment and demoralization. Still others are trying to learn from the “SYRIZA experience” in order to make themselves more useful to people in the future. All of us sense the dangers in front of us but we are far from having a common and feasible strategy.
Unfortunately, the inadequacies spotted above regarding the operational mentality and political methodology within SYRIZA apply to the traditional left more broadly. We usually think and talk like somehow we have already consolidated our capacity to influence the course of things. We focus on moves, like the one about the currency, as if we are in a position to administer a well-organised popular mobilisation able to perform this or that choice. And we do not really work on creating the conditions of possibility in order to be in a position from which such questions really matter. Let me give you an example.
The Central Committee of SYRIZA was repeatedly dealing with this question (exit from the Eurozone or stay in with a degree of autonomy) and similar ones such as percentage of the Greek debt to erase. These debates were taking place under the assumption that we have (or will have) the power needed to really implement the choice we are going to make. In reality, we were powerless to implement any of these choices. We were functioning as if it was already given – without us working deliberately on them – a properly aligned and assembled popular front and the state mechanisms able to initiate a complex and multi-level transformation.
It seems that the traditional political means of building social alliances, in terms of representing beliefs and demands at the political level, is not enough to stop neoliberal transformation. The popular power once inscribed in the traditional institutional configuration is seriously depleted, if not exhausted. We do not have enough power to make the elites accept and tolerate our participation in crucial decisions. The amount of power we can reach through the traditional political practice is not enough to pave the way for the restoration of democracy and popular sovereignty in Europe. If this is our current predicament, then the urgent question is not find a “right answer” but to set up a new conceptual framework of doing politics both within the state and outside of it which is relevant to the current situation. But, we should be aware that this path requires a different mentality and qualities from the ones we used to deploying through traditional political action.
If we look at the horizon of the political practice of the Left we will see that it contains movement-oriented and state-oriented approaches: organizing movements, demonstrating and fighting in the streets pushing demands to the state and voting, trying to change the balance of forces at the parliamentary level and hopefully form a government of the state. If we look closely we will notice that both of these approaches – and, thus, the entire horizon of our political practice – are mostly shaped around the traditional institutional framework of representative democracy that situates the state at the center of political power. But we know that the elites have already shifted the center of gravity of political power towards anti-democratic institutions and repositioned the state within the institutional neoliberal European order. The elites have managed to gain total and unchecked control over the basic functions of society. 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 on a society that dares to defy their privilege over crucial decisions.
If the ground of the battle has shifted, undermining our strategy, then it’s not enough to be more competent on the shaky battleground; actually SYRIZA did quite well in this respect over the last few years. We need to reshape the ground. One way to do it is by shifting priorities: from political representation to building popular power. We must modify the balance between representing people’s beliefs and demands and coordinating, facilitating, connecting, supporting and nurturing people’s actions in the profile of the Left.
Instead of being mainly the political representative of the popular classes in a European framework designed to be intolerant to people’s needs, we must set up an autonomous Network of Production of Economic and Social Power (NESP). A network of resilient, dynamic and interrelated circuits of co-operative productive units, alternative financial tools, local cells of self-governance, community control over infrastructure facilities, digital data, energy systems, distribution networks etc. These are ways of gaining a degree of autonomy necessary to defy the despotic control of the elites over society.
Is this feasible? 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 financial 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 mainstream contexts and that are often functionally connected to the standard 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. 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.
8) Where would an effort for the reconstruction of a sustainable movement start and what are the mistakes that shouldn’t be repeated?
Let’s begin with building popular power. It is clear that we must 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 institutions. 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.
From my experience, when people in the Left 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 when the very same people actually do politics they reproduce priorities, mental images, methods and organizational habits that they already know are not sufficient or adequate anymore. This means that there are implicit, deep-rooted norms that shape crucially the range of our collective actions, rhetoric, decisions and eventually strategy. 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.
Moreover, we often tend to underestimate and neglect problems of internal functioning. 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 and our decision-making processes in larger groups tend to be time-consuming, incoherent and dysfunctional. We must initiate a process for identifying the best practices, methods and regulations – both from the experience of our collectivities and from the scientific production regarding issues such as management, leadership, organizational, complexity and network systems theories, psychology etc. – in order to upgrade our forces.
Our actions and initiatives are currently not connected properly with each other, they are fragmented and isolated, destined to face the same difficulties again and again. It is also vital to upgrade our organisational capacities through appropriate processes and nodes of connection, facilitating smooth flows of know-how, best practices and information, building databases and accumulating knowledge and expertise in an easily retrievable and useful way.
The constitution and expansion of a dynamic and resilient network of production of economic and social power under people’s control requires creative qualities relevant to the current, highly diversified and rapidly changing social field. To be able to offer alternative patterns and ways of performing vital functions that society requires, necessitates integrated circuits, a high degree of coordination and many other qualities. So, constituting and expanding such a network includes the need for building relevant institutions and organisations.
Broadly speaking, one of the advantage of multinational and large corporations in general, in comparison to others consists in that they possess 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 really to be relevant and useful to the people from now on.
Secondly, there is another crucial aspect of redesigning 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. It’s the function that political parties mostly perform and that shapes the everyday conception regarding what politics is about. Of course, building popular power will invigorate, and possibly transform, the institutional framework, giving back 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 could 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. The task here is not to revive “neglected” aspects of politics – like building popular power – or to reinvent relevant collective and individual qualities; the aim is to explore novel ways of performing the function of political representation in order to restructure existing ones and upgrade significantly the political leverage of the popular classes. For example, putting forward a project of shaping political representation as “commons” could give us valuable insights towards new ways of performing political representation.
Thirdly, we must think again what a transformation strategy and methodology look like. 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. The expansion of a network of economic and social power under people’s control can unlock our imagination towards targeted reforms of state institutions towards the same direction.
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 in 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, 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. By shifting our priorities we may be able to revive old but useful ideas that have been forgotten in practice.
9) The revival of the far-right is not just a Greek phenomenon. From the “defenders of the occident” like Marie Le Penn and Wilders, to the governments of Poland and Hungary and the burning of refugees homes in Germany, we can see it growing dangerously strong throughout Europe. Would you like to provide a brief history of the phenomenon? Do you believe that we can observe something similar with the developments that took place during the interwar period, a politically dominant far-right?
Today in Greece, a left government is implementing austerity, the people of the left are puzzled and 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. Greeks are sensing that the future of their society is severely compromised. The majority of Greeks have been sentenced to misery and despair through the imposition of harsh 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 waves of refugees that are trapped in Greece – especially the complex and contradictory ways in which their drama impacts on the abused psychic economy of the Greek population – and add also the fear of increased geopolitical instability in the region, then it seems certain that prosperity, stability and peace has left Greece for the forseeable future.
Despite the incredible resilience of the Greek population so far towards the fascists and the nationalists – the last incident was the way the majority of the population acted supporting and helping in any means available the refugees the last months – the psychic and social balance is extremely fragile. It is highly probable that an extreme right wing political formation (it is doubtful that Golden Dawn can play this role) will emerge and absorb those disappointed by SYRIZA. In any case, a new circle of harsh restrictions of political and civil rights will be launched sooner or later; we have already incidents of this, and moves down this path.
The worrying thing is that we are not talking about a regression specifically located in Greece. This path coincides with the escalation of autocratic governments in the region (e.g. Turkey) and the authoritarian trajectory of the EU, both in terms of European institutions (anti-democratic financial governmentality) and in terms of nationalist gains within individual countries (Poland, France, Hungary, Aurstia etc).
The financial despotism that European institutions promote is not going to stop Europe’s decline. Inflicting the European people with a brutal policy of austerity, and dismantling democracy, together with the fact that Europe consists of many different nations, the most probable outcome will be the rise of neo-fascism and extreme right-wing nationalism. The European countries – under geopolitical and financial pressure – will develop a national strategy to counteract these pressures and in reality will compete with each other. The domination of extreme right-wing forces in Europe will be the end-product of neoliberalism and austerity. It will be their nastiest consequence, the endgame of the decline of Europe. European countries will fight each other, not over who is going to rule the rest of the world, as in the past, but over who is going to be less miserable in a declining region.
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, and 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.
10) In geopolitical terms we observe a chaos inside and outside Europe. A clear indication of this the situation in Ukraine, a civil war for the first time in postwar history. Which is your take on current geopolitical developments in Europe? And, do you believe that the European Union at this moment has any rational long-term plan for its survival?
Instead of focusing on neoliberalism as a problem, let’s think of it as an answer to a problem. The world is changing, new global powers emerge creating their own spheres of influence challenging the geopolitcal dominance of the West around the planet. In Europe, the story goes, we used to have an expanding middle class, societies with high standards of living because we were in a position to exploit other parts of the planet. We don’t have this luxury anymore.
So, Europe has to change. We have to become more competitive i.e. we must import into Europe the areas and practices of crude exploitation. We must reduce the rights of the majority of the population, its standard of living and drastically reshape our societies ending the “disturbing habit” of democratic governance. Access to crucial decisions must be an exclusive privilege of the economic elites, and so on.
The neoliberal strategy appears to be the only possible solution to the gradual geopolitical retreat of Europe. It seems to be the only solution due to a conservative cliché, which is widespread and deep-rooted: we are entering difficult times, hard choices must be made to overcome these difficulties. Only the ruling elite know what must be done. Only they are bold enough, only they are willing to do the dirty work. No one agrees with austerity, no one likes it, but it is necessary. No one agrees with camps for immigrants and refugees, but it is something that must be done.
The left, and progressives in general – the cliché goes – are soft, sensitive, naive people, incapable of leading society in the difficult times when hard decisions must be made. They are whining about poverty, the violation of rights, the weakening of democracy, the loss of social security, etc. They mourn for the loss of things from better times. This cliché – reinforced incessantly and not accidentally by the adventure movies of Hollywood and various other dominant cultural “products” – is the assumption that fuels the appeal that neoliberal strategy has today. It’s hard but necessary – it is the only game in town if we want Europe to survive.
But neoliberalism and austerity are failing to reverse the decline of Europe. In fact they accelerate the decline, and, as I said, the most probable outcome will be the rise of neo-fascism and extreme right-wing nationalism.
In geopolitics, regions of the planet are assessed by their productive capacity, their military power, their control over trading routes, their population, their resources etc. The European countries are relatively small in size and taken separately, their geopolitical power is not considered to be important. The unity of the European countries is a necessary condition if we want some degree of autonomy, geopolitically speaking. It is a necessary condition if we want to maintain the capacity to co-determine our future.
But, unity can only be achieved through co-operation. The neoliberal dogma that we are going to build unity through competition – not by combining our forces but by using them against one another – is a contradiction in terms. Additionally, the interdependence of the European economies, the unprecedented power of the “markets”, the banks and other financial agents makes it reasonable to assume that the European people will either stand or fall together. In other words, it does not seem plausible that one European nation will be “saved” while the others are dragged down into darkness. European people today more than ever share a common fate. We need a strategy based on cooperation and democracy, as the one that can reverse the decline of Europe by unlocking the huge capacities of the European people. The geopolitical assessment of a region that seems to be in decline according to conventional standards can be altered drastically if we take into account the capacities of the people. Capacities that can be fully activated if we think of the people as autonomous, pro-active agents of democratic decision-making and productive units that allow them to fully manifest and cultivate even further their capacities, instead of rendering them just as obedient, silent labor place-holders under the control of others.
If we really want to challenge neoliberal hegemony and austerity we need an approach that seems appealing to the majority of Europeans. Situating our strategy in the proposed framework, it appears to be a pragmatic, reasonable and better solution, rather than just a fair but unrealistic list of demands. This is a crucial step if we really want to fight back effectively, to change the course of things, to seriously question the hegemony of an inhuman transformation of our society. Needless to say that at the geopolitical level, a mature Europe which is constantly transforimg its productive matrix following a different path of development will be a force capable of stabilizing the global competition (which is now accelerated alarmingly threatening peace at a global scale) and it would support immensely similar efforts in other regions of the planet.