Tag Archives: methodology of the left

Radical left strategies in the era of the collapse of ‘Actually Existing Liberalism’

*Published on OpenDemocracy.net

A few decades after the fall of ‘actually existing socialism’, we are experiencing the fall of ‘actually existing liberalism’, so to speak. How should the left approach this historical moment?

In Europe, democracy – understood as the access of people without economic power to crucial decisions regarding the course oftheir societies – is successfully limited today. The institutional design and the prevailing political mentality shape the ground for the elites to openly exclude popular needs from decision making.

A few decades after the fall of ‘actually existing socialism,’ we are experiencing the fall of ‘actually existing liberalism,’ so to speak. From a historical perspective, the two falls 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.

The elites – under the pressure of the ongoing capitalist crisis – have launched an offensive for the eradication of the emancipatory dynamic of modern societies: multi-dimensional exclusion of people in terms of access to crucial decisions and satisfaction of vital needs, deterioration of civility, multi-dimensional processes of enclosure (resources, spaces, knowledge, information) etc.

Similarly, the traditional way of doing politics is not working anymore. Supporting and organizing movements – i.e. expressing/pushing demands to the state – and participating in elections in order to change the balance of forces within the state cannot deliver the change that the majority of the people need today.

The premise that made the traditional methodology of doing politics so well-established was that the elites – persons and other legal entities with economic power – are committed to accept the democratic ‘game,’ i.e. to include people’s demands in shaping the strategic coordinates of societies. Instead of an inclusive approach that characterized both centre-right and centre-left parties in the past, today there is a growing trend towards multi-dimensional social exclusion and a democratic ritual unresponsive to people’s needs.

Especially in Greece, the institutionalization of the neoliberal order, i.e. the successful excision of key funding and liquidity functions from the state, the respective concentration of power into anti-democratic institutions and the subsequent control over vital functions of Greek society, have created a perplexing and hazardous socio-political conjuncture.

The political system has crossed a critical threshold, entering a mode of functioning which could be described as the ‘Squeeze Effect’: the national political spectrum has been squeezed and forced to function within the nearly non-existent space of freedom that the ‘agreement’ allows. The political spectrum has been pushed in a tiny space, seemingly 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.

The ‘Squeeze Effect’ has highly deforming implications that further erode the function of political representation. We could say that before the establishment of a neoliberal consensus in the 90s there was a quasi-democratic political functioning, subject to military coups, whenever a radical readjustment of balance of forces was needed.

Then, the right-wing and social-democratic parties adopted neoliberalism as their political program, decisively downgrading their function as agents 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 has become explicitly incoherent, amplifying confusion and feelings of despair within Greek society. Moreover, the ‘Squeeze Effect’ further alienates the political personnel from the real-life conditions of the population, making it entirely impenetrable to the people’s impasses and anxieties.

The negative social consequences and psychological implications caused by austerity and social decline can no longer be reflected at the political level. They cannot be represented, democratically expressed, and hopefully 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 psychological wounds – in the form of negative and (self-) destructive dispositions – are spread across all social networks of interpersonal relations, disturbing social cohesion in a deeper way.

The basic coordinates of the political system are changing profoundly. The politicians and the political parties are no longer accountable to the people through the mechanisms of representative democracy. Rather, they are accountable to market mechanisms and respective institutions in order to draw the necessary funds for the continuation of vital economic and social functions.

In this context, the criteria for political success are significantly modified: being a successful politician no longer means that you are responsive to people’s demands and needs, but rather it amounts to being able to increase the competitiveness of the economy according to the profit analysis and investment assessment of capital owners.

In other words, the biggest service that a politician can provide to his/her society is the optimal compliance with the objectives of financial entities that can ensure the smooth running of the society. We are thus witnessing a different codification of power relations in terms of accountability: the accountability towards citizens through democratic means is replaced by the accountability towards the capital-owners through market mechanisms.

There is an additional reason that forces us to drastically change the way we organize and act. Apart from the fact that we are living in a period in which the neoliberal transformation threatens democracy, establishing a social/institutional configuration that blends the logic of profit and competition with authoritarian modes of governance, we have also entered an era in which long-term tendencies approach a critical point threatening humanity with severe regression: depletion of natural resources, environmental instability, food crisis, deep erosion of social cohesion and collapse of national and regional systems of administration and performance of basic social functions. Moreover, we are facing major authoritarian threats due to new waves of technological advances and the accumulation of massive digital data (‘surveillance capitalism’).

At the same time, we have never been so close to an evolutionary/emancipatory step. Literally every day, human activity – both intellectual and practical – is producing experiences, know-how, criteria, methods and innovations that inherently contradict the parasitic logic of profit and competition. For the first time in our evolutionary history humans have a common fate and so many embodied capacities and values from different cultures within our reach.

The current institutional design, the narrow-minded strategies of the elites and the prevailing neoliberal mentality are fundamentally unable to provide the proper conceptual and operational framework that we need in order to deal with these challenges. Real solutions must be based on sustainability, solidarity and openness in order to counter the long-term tendencies of reaching a crucial bio-social limit, the rise of inequality and barbarism (that gradually takes the form of an extermination process of the poor), and the threat of digital/military/financial authoritarianism.

The neoliberal framework is toxic towards these preconditions. That’s why it is vital to explore ways of conceptualizing and administering complex societies based on values like democratic and decentralized decision making and running of basic social functions which are going to replace neoliberalism in terms of governmentality. This is a broader responsibility that can unify people with different political and ideological origins.

How are we going to modify and enrich our methodology of political and social mobilization and organization in order to respond to these profound challenges? How are we going to cope with growing social exclusion and reassert people’s participation in crucial decision-making? What kind of methodology of politics will allow us to be more efficient, without presupposing the democratic rules we used to take for granted? What kind of methodology of politics will allow us to restore democracy by newly transforming it?

First of all, we must shift priorities from increasing political representation to building popular power. 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) – an ecosystem of resilient, dynamic, and interrelated circuits of co-operative productive units, alternative financial tools, and local cells of self-governance with 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 elites’ despotic control over society. In other words, in order to meet the requirements of today’s antagonisms, we need to obtain a degree of autonomy in terms of performing basic social functions under people’s control. And in order to create the popular power needed for the required degree of autonomy, we must shift the balance between representing people’s demands and facilitating and organizing people’s activities in our methodology.

Furthermore, the role of an innovative political organization of the twenty first century should be to contribute to the alignment and mobilization of the creative social forces in order to elaborate sustainable and resilient survival strategies towards the serious challenges we have to face.

Facing these challenges, we must be able to realize our structural weaknesses in terms of political imagination, methodology of mobilization and organizational principles. We must overcome patterns like the gradual disconnection of left government officials from their party and the popular classes when in power. We must work systematically on problematic features like this, based on the everyday outcomes, ideas, innovations and achievements of the powerful collective intelligence which is accessible today.

A lot of people nowadays move towards new ways of doing things; they build new kinds of institutions and form hybrid types of organizing and acting. Most of these people have different life trajectories from those affiliated with the traditional political left and they followed their own paths that lead them in this global fight. If we expand our horizon and include them, then we will realize that we may be much stronger than we think.

A series of social, political and geopolitical antagonisms are unfolding as we speak. History moves on fast. Is the left going to be part of this historic movement that we trace everywhere around us? History doesn’t owe us the leading role just because we tend to think of ourselves as the bearers of change and progress. We have to earn the right to be relevant, present and able to influence the course of our societies by transcending outdated methodologies and organizational inertia.

I strongly believe that if the traditional left modifies its operating system, then it can be an essential component in this historic moment. Together with other forces, it can significantly contribute to the evolutionary step which is of vital importance today.

—-

This article draws on a round-table discussion that took place at the Workshop ‘Europe’s new radical Left in times of crisis,’ hosted by the School of Political Sciences at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Athens Office) in November 26-27, 2016.

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The ‘SYRIZA experience’: lessons and adaptations

*Published on OpenDemocracy.net

The impact of the strategic defeat of last year is still very strongly shaping various reactions within the Greek left. Some people seem content with superficial explanations of what happened and 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 lurking in front of us but we are far from having a common and feasible strategy.

In a situation like this, political priorities change and ‘novel’ tasks emerge. For example, people far beyond those affiliated with the traditional left are scattered and in disarray, but also full of energy, determination and skills. What should they do? Another urgent task is how to transmit the ‘SYRIZA experience’ abroad, facilitating the left in other countries in the fight against neoliberalism and increased hostility of the elites. ‘Novel’ tasks require a different mentality and operational qualities from the ones we used to deploy through traditional political action.

But first we need: (i) a thorough understanding of the positive and negative aspects of the ‘SYRIZA experience’, and (ii) an open, bold and innovative process of arriving at the new conditions of doing politics. These are some preliminary thoughts in this direction.

The failure

SYRIZA failed to stop austerity and neoliberal transformation in Greece. One could argue that SYRIZA also betrayed the hopes and aspirations of the popular classes and those fighting against financial despotism. It chose to remain in power, thereby ‘normalizing’ the coup we witnessed last summer and accepting neoliberal coordinates that shape governmentality today in Europe.

SYRIZA’s choice deprived the people of a crucial ‘tool’ in this fight by its 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 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.

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 middle ground, you are quickly converted into an organic component of the biopolitical machine aimed at dehumanizing our societies. Arguing that the implementation of the agreement is the only way out of the present situation is just a reformulation of the neoliberal core-argument that There Is No Alternative; no strategy for continuing the fightback against financial despotism.

However, there is a danger of underestimating the brutal strategic defeat that we all suffered in 2015, hiding from ourselves the extent of our current impotence as regards 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 to do so, we should not preoccupy ourselves with the self-evident negative nature of SYRIZA’s choice 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.

Today in Greece a ‘Left government’ is implementing austerity, leftwing people are confused and ‘The Left’ is turning into a pro-memorandum political force in people’s minds. Nationalists and 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 newer harder 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 entering 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 identifiable future.

These are exactly the suffocating conditions that prevail in a society before it explodes – due to a random incident – deepening even further the decline, and plunging existential depths. It is like we are walking on thin ice from now on in Greece. In moments like this we have to remain calm and think clearly if we want to arrive at what is needed to adapt and to be effective.

The sad case of Europe

The neoliberal EU and Eurozone has transferred a bundle of important policies and powers that once appeared to belong to the nation state 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 Eurozone today, the elected government is no longer the major bearer of political power. 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 decisions on such crucial economic and social issues as 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. The elites – by extracting important powers and decisions on crucial issues from the democratically structured institutions of the bourgeois state – have managed to gain 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 or not.

That’s what happened to Greece; that’s the core argument of the president of Portugal behind his initial decision to appoint 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 the power to shape these decisions.

It is evident today that the EU is an openly anti-democratic institutional structure. The left must embrace the crude reality: in Europe a new kind of despotism is emerging fast.

Tsipras and Juncker. CC.

The time lag of the left

In western societies, the left, but not only the left, of a robust democratic constitution has been trained to do politics within the coordinates of a post-war institutional configuration. We assumed that the elites were committed to accepting the democratically shaped mandate of an elected government. If they did not like the policies that it promoted, they had 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.

But was this ever truly the case even for western societies after the Great War? This is surely a debatable issue. However, it is sufficient to assume that this was at least the dominant conception of political functioning that shaped the methodology and strategy of political agency over the last decades, even if it does not correspond fully to reality.

According to this conception, the post-war global balance of forces inscribed in state institutions a considerable amount of popular power, so that people without considerable economic power nevertheless 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 a kind of institutional configuration contaminated by popular power. In recent decades (not accidentally after the fall of the 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 enough to openly defy democracy. Democracy is no longer a sine qua non.

Based on the premise that the framework in which politics is being performed 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 such a strategy now. The real outcome was totally different. There was virtually no change of policy.

Prepare for landing

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 feasible? My hypothesis is that literally every day 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 that we are bound to progress our collective intelligence in this regard if we put our minds to it.

Of course we are talking about elements that are not developed sufficiently yet. Elements that may indeed have been nurtured in liberal or apolitical contexts often functionally connected to the standard economic orthodoxy. 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 any left that wishes to take up a clear, systematic and strategically broadbased 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.

For those who are frankly skeptical of the possibility of laying the groundwork for such a process, let’s see the potential in the stark case of Greece.

SYRIZA at its peak had approximately 35,000 members, the various solidarity networks included thousands of people and from experience we know that plenty of people were available to help SYRIZA with their expertise if there had been suitable processes to “extract” their embodied capacities in an efficient way (which was not the case). Furthermore, massive unemployment provides us with huge numbers of people who would be willing to participate in networks of a different nature as long as we can build and expand processes of this kind in a systematic way. So, it is possible to pursue such a path as long as we apply the proper methodological and organizational principles in our way of doing politics.

In the worst case scenario, 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, even decisively to reclaim their autonomy.

Graffiti in Athens. Photo by Carl Packman. Used with his permission.

Redesign the ‘operating system’ of the left

We know that the popular power once inscribed in various democratic institutions is exhausted. We do not have enough power to make the elites accept and tolerate our participation in crucial decisions. More of the same won’t do it. If the ground of the battle has shifted, undermining our strategy, then it’s not enough to be more competent on the shaky battleground; we need to reshape the ground. And to do that we have to expand the solution space by shifting priorities: from political representation to setting up an autonomous network of production of economic and social power (NESP).

We must modify the balance between representing people’s beliefs and demands and coordinating, facilitating, connecting, supporting and nurturing people’s actions. Instead of being mainly the political representative of the popular classes in a toxic anti-democratic European political environment designed to be intolerant 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, community control over functions such as infrastructure facilities, energy systems and distribution networks. These are ways of gaining the degree of autonomy necessary to defy the control of elites over the basic functions of our society.

It is not only in Greece that there is a growing exclusion of people from 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 people who are being excluded today to survive. Second, this could begin a transition towards a better and more mature society. And last but not least, there are no empty spaces in history, so 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.

Shifting the battlefield

Our opponents have already spotted the shifting nature of the battlefield and have moved to new unclassified ways of organizing and acting. They develop new kinds of institutions (a Greek example http://www.corallia.org/en/) compatible with the emerging environment of fast flows of information, digital frameworks of action and production etc. They also explore new methods and models; for example, “open innovation” models have emerged in the last few years to enable the R&D departments of big multinational companies to cope with the current distributed nature of knowledge and expertise that exceeds past means of control and usurpation of human intellectual creativity and innovation.

We have to create new popular power if we want to bring about substantial change or make ourselves resilient instead of just handling the remaining, seriously depleted if not already exhausted popular power inscribed in the traditional institutions. The question is what does it look like to do politics in order to produce popular power without presupposing traditional democratic functioning – to restore it by newly transforming it? In other words, what are the modifications needed in our political practice for the constitution and expansion of NESPs?

These modifications may be classified in three categories: political imagination, methodology and organizing principles. From my experience, the very same people who energetically claim that we need to be more innovative, better adapted and more efficient, when they actually do politics, reproduce priorities, mental pictures, methods and organizational habits that they already know are insufficient or inadequate. There are ingrained norms in terms of methodological guidelines that decisively shape the range of our collective actions, rhetoric, decisions and eventually strategy. In the same vein, 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. We need to recognize these blind spots and set up a process of identifying best practices, methods and regulations – both from the experience of our collectivities and from expertise in management, leadership, organizational complexity and network systems theory etc. – in order to operationally upgrade our forces.

Furthermore, our actions and initiatives are not properly connected up, but fragmented and isolated, destined to face the same 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. Actually, this is the advantage of multinational and large corporations in general, in comparison to others: they have a vast social network and powerful databases that gives them the necessary tools to plan and pursue their goals while their smaller competitors seem in disarray in a global environment of rapid changes. We need these qualities if we want to be really useful today.

Greek Red Cross helps refugees trapped at Idomeni on the Greece-Macedonia border. Demotix/Giorgios Cristakis. All rights reserved.

What about political representation?

The function of political representation is a fundamental one in complex societies. It’s the function that political parties mostly perform and that shapes everyday thinking regarding what ‘politics’ is about. The task here is not to revive neglected aspects of politics – like building popular power – or to reinvent collective and individual qualities; the aim is to explore novel ways of performing the function of political representation in order to upgrade significantly the political leverage of the people.

Of course, building popular power will also invigorate and possibly transform the institutional framework, giving substantial meaning back to political representation. But, the expansion of a network of the sort we are discussing here and the changes it could generate at various levels of the social configuration must be reflected on the function of political representation itself. We need to evaluate and explore concepts like the “commons”. Advancing a project to shape political representation as “commons” could give us valuable insights into new ways of performing vital functions that transcend the traditional, institutional framework of representative democracy.

Democratising the state?

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. But the expansion of a network of economic and social power under people’s control could unlock our imagination towards more advanced and better targeted reforms of state institutions. 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 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 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 described in detail 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.

Mind the gap

The “SYRIZA experience” will be worthless if we do not resist the temptation to replace one mistake with another. The failure of SYRIZA – the failure of focusing solely on traditional electoral politics to radically change the dominant neoliberal framework – creates favorable conditions for notions 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 just repeat what SYRIZA did, justifying fully the threat of our opponents: either you will be marginal or you will become like us! The existential threats and crucial questions regarding their future that our societies face 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 twenty-first century, the left will either be relevant and useful for the defense of human societies, or it will be obsolete.

 

The “SYRIZA Experience”: Learn and Adapt

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

Introduction

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.

 

JacobinMag: Creative Resistance

A former Syriza central committee member on building popular power when a left government is implementing austerity.

After Syriza accepted a third austerity memorandum for Greece and called early elections, much of its leadership left the party. Some formed Popular Unity, while others are still searching for a new home to continue the fight against austerity.

Andreas Karitzis is among the latter. Until this summer, he was a member of Syriza’s central committee and had been a key figure in the party’s electoral planning process before its triumph in January’s elections. Karitzis was also previously at the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, the research center affiliated with Syriza.

Now outside Syriza, Karitzis recently spoke with Michal Rozworski about charting an anti-austerity path when a left government is responsible for implementing austerity. “The Greek experience,” Karitzis says, “teaches us that we need to go beyond electoral politics, not against it.”


Greece just held its second elections of 2015 a month ago and Syriza came out on top again. But it’s a very different Syriza than the one from January, one now committed to implementing a new, third memorandum with the European “institutions.” Can a left party implement and work against austerity policies at the same time?

I don’t think it is politically viable or socially useful to engage in a process of implementing austerity while trying to counterbalance the negative effects at the same time. It’s not easy to do this under the strict supervision of neoliberal institutions. An effort like this would require a different approach and a different mentality.

It could be possible only as a way of buying time. If you are inventive and systematic enough and have a strategy of disengagement, it could work for a short period of time. It would be a way of preparing yourself and your society for the duty of a hard conflict with the lenders. But I don’t think that the government will follow such a path, hence I don’t find what they are trying to do politically viable.

At the same time, Syriza is changing due to the fact that the plan of stopping austerity using traditional means — securing an electoral majority and then forming government — has failed. It was based on the idea that elites will not refuse to respect the democratic will of the people. In the absence of a serious discussion for a new, complex, and perhaps more difficult strategy, Syriza is gradually slipping towards a narrative of accepting the neoliberal coordinates of applied politics.

So accepting the bounds that elites place on politics . . .

If you want to have a statistical idea of what happened to Syriza around these latest elections, consider that about 50 percent of the central committee, a third of cadres at the intermediate level (for instance, from regional structures), and about 15 to 20 percent of the general membership have resigned. So, a large portion of the leadership left, while the picture at the local level is different because people tend to be connected with each other also as friends.

However, this doesn’t mean that all those who stayed in Syriza remain hopeful. Many of them are also demoralized. While they do not see prospects for this government, they still hope that something will simply happen. Many do not have a coherent strategy or narrative.

How resilient are the social movements — the health centers, the solidarity networks, and so on? Is this the base out of which something new will be built? My conversations earlier seemed to suggest some tensions between the movements and those engaged in traditional politics.

Yes, part of the “raw materials” for something new are the people who are already engaged in solidarity networks, the cooperative movement and similar organizations. Then there are those who left Syriza searching for a new strategy.

My goal today is to connect these two groups — these two tribes fighting against austerity. I want to connect those who are doing things in the field, already trying to gain some autonomy over spheres of their lives, and those who were committed to traditional politics but are not willing to pursue this anymore.

Both of them have energy, capacities, and determination, and together, they can form a strong backbone for a resilient and dynamic network that can produce the economic and social power necessary to defy the elites’ control over the basic functions of our society. Perhaps from the combination of these two groups, a political organization of a new kind can emerge.

It’s ambitious and in some ways hard to grasp, but in the given situation, what else can you do?

I tend to be optimistic because the situation in Greece remains unstable. If I was in Canada or Denmark, I would be frustrated and pessimistic that the Left could come back. It’s not the same in Greece, however, and we can expect the Left to be cornered once again when the Syriza government falls. This will happen, even if a few years down the road.

Since the next government will be a very conservative one, we don’t have the luxury of not fighting. And since we have to keep fighting, I am optimistic that we will adapt ourselves to the new conditions and emerge better organized, not only because we are very committed but because we cannot do otherwise.

What would the alternative strategy you’re describing broadly look like, especially in a context where elites are unwilling to budge?

We experienced a strategic defeat. Now we need to set up processes that will empower people — for example, by advancing social economy and cooperative initiatives or community control over functions such as infrastructure facilities, energy systems, and distribution networks. These are ways of gaining a degree of autonomy.

No matter how difficult or strange this may sound in light of the traditional ways of doing politics, it is the only way to acquire the necessary power to defy the elites’ control over our societies. We can do this by extracting the embodied capacities of the people and putting them into use for the liberation of society.

Who will do this?

People who are committed to continue the fight against austerity. During the referendum, many engaged in this battle personally for the first time. Many are gradually coming to understand that it’s not possible to change our basic coordinates without exploring new ways of creative social mobilization. There are many in Greece who are ready for this (and I don’t mean only those who left Syriza). What we need is to find ways to make this more widespread within society.

This is the only way to truly liberate ourselves — whether by staying in the eurozone with a degree of autonomy or leaving the eurozone with a degree of autonomy. Independently of what we may think is the right decision in terms of the currency, we must make sure first that we have the power to carry out our plans under the severe pressure of elites. For this, we need new organizational forms, political imagination, and methodology, and that’s what we are trying to invent and figure out.

The first half of 2015 in Greece showed just how strong the interests of capital are across Europe. How do you reconcile your strategy with the crippling power of elites? How do you reconcile the big international forces at the official political level with action at the most local level?

According to my understanding of our situation, it’s not that there isn’t enough space for alternative politics. What we need most is to increase our real power. If we had greater power, we could use electoral politics and a left government to initiate a process of liberating our society.

The Greek experience teaches us that we need to go beyond electoral politics, not against it. We need to have a broader idea of what it means to do politics in the new conditions. We have entered a new era in which our societies are deprived of the right to have access to crucial decisions.

It goes beyond the eurozone, though that is important. Look also at the TTIP and other trade agreements. All these new institutional forms and regulations create a universal problem, but in order to respond universally, we need to fight efficiently on the local level.

My main concern is to grasp and put into action new ways of mobilizing people in order to gradually reclaim control over basic social functions that are local but are today under the control of anti-democratic institutions shaping the ground for our enslavement. Organizing efficiently at the local level allows us to eventually scale up to the European or international level.

How do you implement this in a very practical way? How do you get over the fear and blackmail that to some extent has been proven effective?

The main problem in Greece, and likely in modern society in general, is not just fear but whether there are organizational and methodological principles to make any mobilization powerful enough to counterbalance the power of elites. Our inherited principles are not adequate to what we need to do today.

The signs of collapse of the standard economical circuit are obvious in Greece but not only here. There is a growing exclusion of people from the economic circuit — having a job or a bank account, having a “normal life.” Modern society in general is in decline.

From history we know that societies in decline tend to react in order to survive. It is up to us to grasp this and start building networks that can perform basic social functions in a different way — one that is democratic, decentralized, and based on the liberation of people’s capacities.

First, this would allow society to survive and give people who are today excluded the means to survive in meaningful ways. Second, this could begin a transition towards a better and mature society.

There are no empty spaces in history, so if we do not do this, the nationalists and fascists — with their militarized way of performing these basic functions — may step in to finish off the decline. In Greece, a left government that implements austerity creates fruitful conditions for the nationalists and fascists to grow, especially in the poorest regions and neighborhoods.

Has this fascist current gotten worse recently? It seems that in terms of the electoral arena, Greece’s far-right party Golden Dawn has been relatively stable. What is the strength of the fascists more generally?

This is something you can’t anticipate. When the Left is in government, who stands to benefit? That another left, largely nonexistent right now, could benefit today by being a major opponent of the government seems unlikely.

On the other hand, New Democracy and the other systemic, pro-memorandum parties cannot make a turn towards popular demands; they are forced to support the agreement. As a result, the nationalists have an open space.

While the recent election results didn’t show them making any gains, this is due mainly to the timing of the election. The election took place before the implementation of the agreement, when Syriza still had an air of tough negotiators and people hadn’t seen how the agreement will affect their lives. We will be better able to assess the strength of the nationalists six months from now.

Finally, what are the lessons for the broader European left from the Greek experience of the first Syriza government?

We now know for a fact (this is not an assessment) that it is not enough to engage in traditional ways of doing politics to reverse our declining course. We must move beyond elections, not against them. We have to combine what we used to do with new elements, and we need new priorities.

Both within society and within the economy, we need to build our own networks that extract people’s capacities and produce real power that can then be used to make meaningful change. That’s a positive lesson from what happened here.

If we think differently, we will realize that we are far stronger than we think. Our established political imagination — which sees the political and social conditions underlying postwar social democracy as not having changed — was wrong.

Things have been changing for years. If we train ourselves to see things differently, we will realize that we are stronger than we think. This is the message for the Left everywhere.

*Published on Jacobinmag.com

Parties and movements: the European experience

Extended version of talk delivered in Montreal 08-22-2015

Thank you so much for the invitation and the opportunity to present some thoughts regarding emancipatory politics and especially the need for important modifications of mentality and methodology based on the experience of being in the government in a weird and unstable situation such as the one we are having in Greece.

It is true that in the current global context, things are pretty tight when it comes to the implementation of non-neoliberal policies. Especially in Europe, today’s neoliberal structure is designed in such a way that it discards without the need for political argumentation any attempt to follow an alternative economical and social path. I am talking about a vast network of regulations, norms and directives, a huge bureaucratic apparatus of processes and mechanisms that blocks implicitly any alternative. We are talking about the institutional instantiation of the famous phrase “TINA”.

After the Greek experience we now know that the elites are today openly hostile to democracy. In the first days of June, after months of negotiations the lenders made their first proposal. They openly sidestepped the negotiation process until those days and demanded that the Greek government should openly violate the democratic will of the people. At the end of June they openly declared that Greece should comply with their demands in 48 hours. Few days later, in the middle of July and after the referendum, they openly threatened that Greek society will face the consequencies of a sudden default if their demands will not be accepted. In one and a half month, in Europe, democracy was openly rejected. I am stressing the fact that that happened openly and not in a disguised way because I believe that it is of extreme importance. We wittnessed a major historical event: democracy is no longer relevant when it comes to serious social, economical and financial issues.

Of course, this is not the first time. In all over the world – even in Europe, in Eastern Europe particularly few decades earlier – we had and we are having similar anti-democratic developments. However, the true receiver of the message this time was not the specific society but rather the people in the what is called developed western societies. The elites are no longer willing to share with the people the crucial decisions. Democracy – which is a name for any social and institutional configuration allows some kind of access to crucial decisions of people with no considerable economic power – will no longer be tolerated. The message should be clear and reach every one of us, independently of our nationality, religion, origin or political conviction. That’s why the rejection of democracy had this open cheracter. We should not underestimate the importance of a historical event when it takes place just because we might be able to assess its coming beforehand. Our analysis of the neoliberal character of eurozone, of global capitalism etc should not make us devaluate the fact that we witnessed a clear defeat of democracy in Europe. Things will never be the same any more.

Is this surprising? Yes, if we take for granted that the post-war social and institutional configuration in western countries of liberal capitalism, or democratic capitalism is irreversible. No, if we have a wider historical view and take into consideration the profound and structural distress of the elites towards democracy. Neoliberalism is not an economical policy; it’s an ambitious strategy of fundamentally transforming the physiognomy of modern societies and subjectivities as well, of ending once and for all the democratic and emancipatory wave that emerged in human history after the french revolution. Under this light, the aggressiveness towards the Greeks, the suffering of this small nation is just the bearer of a universal – and thus even more dangerous – message. In the era of the despotism of the market, in the era of the neoliberal order, democracy – in any any of its varieties, even the most moderate and systemic ones – is not accepted.

So, is there any room for emancipatory politics? It depends. No, if we seek quick and easy ways to implement alternative policies. Ways that presuppose the respect of the democratic will of the people by the elites. Ways that will not disturb the naïve and comforting conception that we – as people – do not really need to engage profoundly into collective practices. Today, the only thing we – as people – are willing to give is singular moments of participation. The idea is that through demonstrating and voting we can somehow solve the urgent problems of our societies with orthodox means, through the state and governments that are sensitive to our demands.

I do not mean that representative democracy has no value. Neither do I mean that governments sensitive to people’s needs are not crucial factors in this battle. I am just stressing the fact that we must have a broader view of the agents and the processes needed if we want to change things.

Is there any room for emancipatory politics? Yes, if we are determined and systematic enough to work under the radars of the neoliberal configuration and inventive enough to formally coincide with it while at the same time we empower people against it. In order to respond adequately in these suffocating conditions, new organizational standards and methods are needed for the engagement of thousands of people in this day-to-day and multi-level fight. Negatively put, without the people with the knowledge needed, aligned into groups of collaboration and embedded in a vast network of democratic decision-making that produces policies of our own logic no government will be in a position to wage this battle.

But in order to engage in such a shift we must abandon the tendency that things will change easily and quick through the revival of the previous institutional and political configuration of post war liberal capitalism. We must finally confront the reality that neoliberals are “burning” the bridges with the past behind them.

We know for quite some time that transforming the state and social practices beyond it are two crucial aspects of emancipatory politics. Although they are autonomous in the sense that they have their own temporalities, different organizational and methodological requirements etc they stand or fall together in the end. The present-day orientation of the state and the intensity of the neoliberal attack on societies attribute an existential twist to the theoretical claim that we must work both within the state and outside it. A bundle of important policies and powers once belonged to the state has been tranfered either to external authorities or directly to the elites – in both cases out of the reach of the people. At the same time, a vast number of neoliberal regulations and norms governs the function of the state and sections of social life. These two conditions combined, render the governmental and state power not the political power but just one of the poles of such a power, shaping a hostile environment in which considerable effort is needed just to open some space for the implementation of different policy.

In other words, as I mentioned previously, state power is not enough to wage the battle we are engaged in. We, more than ever, need the expansion of democracy and cooperation in social practices and new social institutions. The fate of a left government depends on our ability to build new social and institutional structures that it will empower the people. And the duty of a left government is not just to exercise the diminished power it has, but to function as facilitator for such an empowerment of the people to take place. Hence, we need a operational conception of transforming the state and a new model of leadership as well. Being in the government is a way to use the remaining resources of the state (by transforming them accordingly) to facilitate social agents to decide, plan, implement and monitor policies and projects of an alternative political orientation. And this is not a path that our ideology forces us to follow; there is no other way to implement a different policy today than to liberate and use the embodied capacities of the people.

The question is how are we going to transform the established relation between movements and active people in general with the political parties, the state and the government. The traditional relation is marked by the institutional framework of representative democracy; people vote and movements demand. As I said twice already this is not viable anymore.

We need a new mentality that promotes cooperation and joint efforts of the state and the movements. In order to move towards this new mentality the state and the government must transfer decisions and allocation of resources to the social agents maintaining a coordinating role and safeguarding the political orientation (in terms of criteria such as democratic decision making, multi-dimensional planning, priorities and goals, long term sustainability etc). And the social agents must overcome a partial view on the issues, and share with the political parties and state institutions we have access to the responsibility for results that serve the public interest and good.

I am talking about the gradual transformation of the state and the social agents of the previous social and political configuration towards an institutional and social configuration based on our ideology and logic. Widening the logic of cooperation and democracy within the state and society, even building new institutions shaped by our logic and principles (both at the level of scope and at the level of functioning) is our duty especially in a period of time that – as I already said – traditional means and tools are not available anymore.

Since the lenders of Greece refused to make a mutually benefitial agreement – which boils down to the fact that eurozone allows economic pluralism, or at least it tolerates different economic orientation based on democratic choices of the people – we ended up with a punitive agreement that traps SYRIZA in a neoliberal and austerity framework.

This agreement will hit SYRIZA and the left in general badly and society even more so. Gradually but fast, rationality, civic mentality and the notion of respect to community and society will be compromised. No one will feel obliged to follow any kind of rule, since the government itself is following the orders of the powerful ellites despite the fact that the government and the majority of the people disagree and the rules of democracy are violated. The “rule of the powerful” will be the only social norm in people’s minds and behavior.

Without SYRIZA being the hope for a substantial change, Golden Dawn – or something similar – will rise as the dominant political power. Needless to say that this would be the successful outcome of the memorandum period: tranforming a developed society (with many many problems of mentality and orientation) into a social desert in which barbarism and fascism will prevail.

Apart from the social decline and its consequences for everyday life, the continuation of austerity and recession will shake even further the administrative capacity of Greek authorities shaping threatening conditions for the integrity of the country in a region that destabilizes rapidly. In the southeast part of Mediterranean sea borders and peace are disappearing and in the Balkans a gradual division between the West and Russia is emerging.

On the other hand, choosing to follow the elites at the escalation of the fight they are dragging us through blackmails requires, as I already said, a strategy of empowering the people so that we will be in a position to perform the basic functions of our society in an alternative way. No matter difficult this may seem to us it is necessary since the lenders control the flow of money and the various fundings and through them the whole network of the basic functions. That’s why I was saying that in order to be able to confront them we need not only the traditional means of doing politics – since the elites are gradually free themselves from their obligations and commitments towards our societies cancelling those means to a considerable extent out – but a different strategy of empowering the people, extracting their capacities, combining them with the remaining resources of the state and creating economical and social circuits able to take on the responsibility of running the basic functions. You cannot be free unless you acquire the neseccary power to run basic social functions.

This is extremely crucial if we add into the equation the fact that we cannot foresee the reaction of the elites. We know that they lack any sense of respect of democracy, wisdom in the deep sense of the term and social responsibility. Moreover, we know that neoliberals actually want the emergence of chaotic situations for they believe that the disorientation of the population and the collapse of the existing institutions and modes of social functioning create favourable conditions for setting up the new neoliberal order.

At this point, I would like to underline the difficulty for a society to accept that its future is severely compomized; that ordinary life as we know it is no longer available is difficult to digest. This is a delicate issue to handle. Strong psychological defensive mechanisms are involved, arguments are not convincing and people prefer to think transforming their desperate hope into reality, ovelooking at the same time the clear signs that are in front of them.

In any case, it seems that we – people in western societies in general – are entering a period that will be marked by economical, social and political turmoil. Political action in this new environment will challenge the political imagination of the previous decades. We must adapt ourselves quickly into the new conditions in order to be effective.

We are analyzing, monitoring, explaining etc of what the opponents are doing, what is their strategy, what kind of techniques they use etc and that’s something extremely useful. However, we need to think how are we going to face today’s challenges and problems according to our logic. The modern world is declining fast and at the same time we have never before been in a position with so many potentials. It’s not only a matter of seizing the power, it’s a matter of identifying the deep reasons for such a decline and engage in a process of transformation based on the existing potentials.

We often tend to believe that overthrowing our opponents from power means that somehow the problems caused by them and the new challenges we are facing will be disappeared. It is true that it is extremely important to get rid of these guys, the neoloberals; however, neolibealism is deeply entrenched in social practices and the state, things are moving this way by themselves so to speak.

We must put them in different tracks, we must develop ideas and ways of doing things differently. And in order to do it, we must think without our opponents on sight. And actually, there are huge developments today in many areas and fields in which the human intellect and practice produce new elements that combined properly could give us the first glimpses of a mature society. If we think this way we will realize that we are actually more stronger than we think. If we launch such a project then we will gradually acquire the necessary self-confidence to truly rule our societies, and I strongly believe that this is the most crucial part in actually doing it. If we start really believing that we can do it then the fall of neoliberalism would be a matter of time.

Democracy is the best way to activate fully the embodied capacities that people have. By transferring the decisions to the people, by giving them the space and the freedom to realize and mobilize their capacities, we can unlock crucial reserves of creative power. Unlocking these reserves will change substantially the balance of forces between the popular classes and the elites giving us the degree of freedom needed to truly defy our opponents control over our societies. If we elaborate effective ways and means of democratic functioning we will realize that we are actually much stronger than we think. We will be able to extract and mobilize the human reserves of creative power which are the only form of power we can have at our disposal in this struggle.

Let me conclude with a final remark. The Greek government – whose only real plan from the beginning was that a shred of democracy will be respected at some point during the negotiation process, since we didn’t manage to modify our mentality and methodology fast enough – decided to use the last institutionally available democratic tool, the referendum, in an effort to achieve an agreement that it will include some kind of respect to the fact that Greek society cannot endure anymore a policy that destroys it. For a lot of us it was clear back then that there was no possibility that the european elites would show some respect to it.

However, the importance of the referendum exceeds the strategy of the government. During the week before the referendum a massive biopolitical experiment took place. The closed banks, the extreme propaganda by the media, the threats by the domestic, european and international political and financial establishment, the terrorism in workplaces, the hostility and threats towards “no” supporters at the interpersonal level etc created an environment we have never encountered before. Our opponents used all their resources at the maximum and they lost! Greek people refused to voluntarily declare that they embrace a life without dignity instead of a sudden death. We are talking about an extremely hopeful and important event for the battle against neoliberal irrationality. Greek people proved that the biopolitical control and influence over people is not so powerful as we might think it is. The battle is not over yet and human societies will not surrender easily.

Actually, it is up to all of us to change the course of things if we deeply appreciate the fact that manifesting the various logics of cooperation and democracy we are far stronger than we think, especially today that for the first time in our evolutionary history we have so many embodied capacities from so many different fields of human intellectual and practical activity and values from so many diverse cultures within our reach.

And the same is true about the final assessment of the SYRIZA experience that ended at least in its current form while this conference is taking place here in Montreal. It is up to all of us to learn from this experience and evolve so that the forces fighting for emancipation will be better adapted and more efficient from now on. Actually, if you think about it, most of the historically important episodes of emancipatory politics typically failed. But that’s the beauty of human history; we are evolving as long as we maintain the capacity to learn and adapt. So, please let’s make all of us the SYRIZA experience a success through our future actions. Thank you.

 

Democratically-driven transformations in the era of neoliberalism: the case of Syriza

Talk delivered in Amsterdam, 06-20-2015 (TNI annual meeting)

Thank you very much for the invitation and the opportumity to share with you some thoughts based on the experience of these four months of Syriza being in the government. I will focus mainly on modifications in our understanding and methodology of promoting emancipatory politics from the perspective of being in the government in a weird and unstable situation such as the one we currently have in Greece.

Is there any room for maneuver towards emancipatory politics in the current global context?

1.1. It is true that in the current global context, things are pretty tight when it comes to the implementation of non-neoliberal policies. Especially in Europe, today’s neoliberal configuration is even more harsh towards other political orientations. It is designed in such a way that it discards without the need for political argumentation any attempt to follow an alternative economical and social path. I am talking about a vast network of regulations, norms and directives, a huge bureaucratic apparatus of processes and mechanisms that blocks implicitly any alternative. We are talking about the institutional instantiation of the famous phrase “TINA”.

1.2. I could go on mentioning many other aspects of our current situation. There is absolutely no reason to argue whether the current battlefield is negative or not for emancipatory politics. It is obvious that it is. It has always been negative, it will always be negative. We are talking about overthrowing a dominant brutal, exploitative and disastrous system by a dominated, fragmented and feeble conception of emancipation. Successful emancipatory politics in a hostile and toxic environment is our task; our “job description”.

What is extremely valuable is to specify the exact nature of present-day modes and techniques of power in order to engage with them effectively. And at the same time we must radically transform our political imagination that – at least from my experience – is dominated by various coordinates that prevent us from having access to the only resource of power that we really can have at our disposal: people’s embodied capacities.

1.3. So, is there any room for maneuver? It depends. No, if we seek quick and easy ways to implement alternative policies. Ways that presuppose the respect of the democratic will of the people by the elites. Ways that will not disturb the naïve and comforting conception that we – as people – do not really need to engage profoundly into collective practices. Today, the only thing we – as people – are willing to give is singular moments of participation. The idea is that through demonstrating and voting we can somehow solve the urgent problems of our societies with orthodox means, through the state and governments that are sensitive to our demands.

I do not mean that representative democracy has no value. On the contrary I think that it is a crucial dimension of a mature society. But we often ask too much from it and its failure to deliver on our expectations generates a misguided devaluation. Neither do I mean that governments sensitive to people’s needs are not crucial factors in this battle. I am just stressing the fact that we must have a broader view of the agents and the processes needed if we want to change things.

1.4. Is there any room for maneuver? Yes, if we are determined and systematic enough to work under the radars of the neoliberal configuration, inventive enough to formally coincide with it while at the same time we empower people against it and decisive enough not to give in to threats and blackmail.

In order to respond adequately in these suffocating conditions, new organizational standards and methods are needed for the engagement of thousands of people in this day-to-day and multi-level fight. Negatively put, without the people with the knowledge needed, aligned into groups of collaboration and embedded in a vast network of democratic decision-making that produces policies of our own logic no government will be in a position to wage this battle.

1.5. Are we moving towards this direction in Greece? Not wholeheartedly. However, the everyday inability to implement alternative policies through traditional governmental means has created the conditions for the emergence of a new awareness inside SYRIZA: the new level requires new qualities and a shift to our organizational and methodological principles.

But in order to engage in such a shift we must abandon the tendency that things will change easily and quick through the revival of the previous institutional and political configuration of post war liberal capitalism. We must finally confront the reality that neoliberals are “burning” the bridges with the past behind them.

Is the state the suitable place for emancipatory politics?

2.1. The first thing I would like to note is that I cannot see any theoretical reason why one should actually choose between working within or outside the state. We know for quite some time that transforming the state and social practices beyond it are two crucial aspects of emancipatory politics. Although they are autonomous in the sense that they have their own temporalities, different organizational and methodological requirements etc they stand or fall together in the end.

There is no way to transform the state in a meaningful and durable way without strong interrelation with processes of expansion of alternative social practices, democratically organized productive units, respective non-commodified circuits of distribution, a different civic mentality etc. And alternatively, there is no way to promote seriously and in a non-marginal way alternative social practices – which are feeble and hard to sustain in a hostile environment – without the support, the protection or at least the concession by the state of free space in order to develop roots and size that allows a quasi-sustainable reproduction and expansion.

2.2. However, in politics choosing so to speak between the two is often a real question: in practice, we have limited resources at our disposal and we must allocate them according to the criterion of efficiency. Then the question is not whether we should work within the spheres of state power or not but what is the optimal allocation of resources and time between working within it and outside it. And secondly, in practice we are engaged in a brutal war and sometimes you must focus on seizing state power or other forms of power just to wrest them from the hands of your opponents. For example, in Greece, we couldn’t afford leaving state power to the neoliberals.

2.3. On the other hand, the present-day situation of the state and the intensity of the neoliberal attack on societies attribute an existential twist to the theoretical claim that we must work both within the state and outside it. A bundle of important policies and powers once belonged to the state has been tranfered either to external (european or domestic but “independent”) authorities or directly to the elites – in both cases out of the reach of the people. At the same time, a vast number of neoliberal regulations and norms governs the function of the state and sections of social life. These two conditions combined, render the governmental and state power not the political power but just one of the poles of such a power, shaping a hostile environment in which considerable effort is needed just to open some space for the implementation of different policy.

In other words, as I mentioned previously, state power – as it is traditionally conceived in isolation from the social movement and bureaucratic in nature – is not enough to wage the battle we are engaged in. We, more than ever, need the expansion of democracy and cooperation in social practices and new social institutions. We need social innovation for the empowerment of the people in new ways. The fate of a left government depends on our ability to build new social and institutional structures that it will empower the people. And the duty of a left government is not just to exercise the diminished power it has, but to function as facilitator for such an empowerment of the people to take place.

But such a duty requires a new political imagination that transcends the established view of being in the government. The traditional methodology dictates that people through demonstrating and voting express their demands and will and then the governemnt uses the state to respond to them. This is no longer viable even if we wanted to do it. Instead, we need a different conception of the state and a new model of leadership as well. Being in the government is a way to use the remaining resources of the state (by transforming them accordingly) to facilitate (by organizing efficient democratic decision making and productive processes) social agents to decide, plan, implement and monitor policies and projects of an alternative political orientation. And this is not a path that our ideology forces us to follow; there is no other way to implement a different policy today than to liberate and use the embodied capacities of the people.

What is the relation between the new government and the social movements in Greece?

3.1. It is not easy to answer this question. We are in a vague, fragile and transitory situation in Greece. The government is not allowed to govern yet and people are on hold for the time being. In respect to the negotiations there were no significant movements the last months. There are of course demonstrations for a variety of reasons.

We do not have a clear view for the relation of the government with movements in general. It seems to be very close for the time being but we are at the beginning and it is not easy to decode the growing tendencies in various domains.

Additionally, this relation is overdetermined by the unique situation we are facing due to the crucial negotiations. It seems like the political function is suspended and the various agents are waiting to situate themselves in the new context that the result of the negotiation will create. It is reasonable to assume that in the case of an agreement that includes austerity demands of the lenders a tension between various movements and the government will be the case.

3.2. However, the question that concerns me and others inside SYRIZA is how are we going to transform the established relation between movements and active people in general with the state and the government. The traditional relation is marked by the institutional framework of representative democracy; people vote and movements demand. As I said twice already this is not viable anymore. The state cannot deliver what people need and want if we do not change the mentality both of the people in public administration and the government and the people that participate in the movements.

We need a new mentality that promotes cooperation and joint efforts of the state and the movements. In order to move towards this new mentality the state and the government must transfer decisions and allocation of resources to the social agents maintaining a coordinating role and safeguarding the political orientation (in terms of criteria such as democratic decision making, multi-dimensional planning, priorities and goals, long term sustainability etc). And the social agents must overcome a corporatist mentality, a partial view on the issues, and share with the state and the government the responsibility for results that serve the public interest and good. Instead of acting solely for the satisfaction of the demands by the state of the groups of people they represent, social agents must think of their contributing role in a broader effort.

I am talking about the gradual transformation of the state and the social agents of the previous social and political configuration towards an institutional and social configuration based on our ideology and logic. Widening the logic of cooperation and democracy within the state and society, even building new institutions shaped by our logic and principles (both at the level of scope and at the level of functioning) is our duty especially in a period of time that – as I already said – traditional means and tools are not available anymore.

One of the major problems towards this direction is our own – people of the traditional left – political imagination and commitment to the previous social and institutional configuration. For a number of reasons I won’t mention now, there is the implicit assumption that any suggestion, proposal and innovation regarding a different role and function of the state and the social agents like trade-unions is considered to be dangerous and suspicious. However, we are lucky since the difficulties to implement a different policy in traditional ways create the conditions for a new methodology to emerge.

How does SYRIZA approaches the notion of development:

The truth is that SYRIZA is very traditional when it comes the idea of “developement”. The implicit dominant view is the classical one: we must develop the productive forces and capacities of the country based on a growth-oriented pattern in order to recover. We are sensitive to labor and environmental issues, we might even want to create productive activity through public means so that the benefits will return to society, but we do not conceptualize a different framework in which the economic growth is not its cornerstone.

Of course, there lots of us who understand deeply the fact that we need a strategy of transforming the productive matrix. The question is how we can shape an economic recovery based on merging efficiently today’s social needs and social needs in the future by transforming our productive and consuming patterns. Even though there are voices inside SYRIZA that posit these considerations and specific policy projects that actually promote a different model of priorities and organizational principles, we continue to think and act according to the established coordinates of development.

At the rhetorical level, the economic and social disaster in Greece is considered to be a political condition that does not allow the exploration of an alternative productive framework which is thought as a luxury we cannot afford. At the same time, the same reason, the economic and social disaster, taken together with the economic pressure in Greece by the lenders and the economic elites, in practice cancels out any prospect of economic recovery in a traditional way. So, we are in the middle of a situation in which the dominant traditional conception of development is not working but we do not have an overall alternative framework to replace it. There is a window of opportunity for a different path here. But we need a clear and unified strategy towards a different direction.

How is SYRIZA preparing for the future?

We are in front of a historic crossroad in Greece. Since the lenders of Greece refused to make a mutually benefitial agreement – which boils down to the fact that eurozone allows economic pluralism, or at least it tolerates different economic orientation based on democratic choices of the people – we are in front of two painful choices: either a bad agreement that traps SYRIZA in a neoliberal and austerity framework or a non-agreement that sets in motion a series of events that they will radically change the coordinates of Greek political, social and economical context.

The first scenario will hit SYRIZA badly and society even more so, crashing the last democratic hope for Greece. The hit will be a decisive one in a society that is already collapsing. Gradually but fast, rationality, civic mentality and the notion of respect to community and society will be compromised. No one will feel obliged to follow any kind of rule, since the government itself is following the orders of the powerful ellites despite the fact that the government and the majority of the people disagree and the rules of democracy are violated. The “rule of the powerful” will be the only social norm in people’s minds and behavior.

Without SYRIZA being the hope for a substantial change, Golden Dawn – or something similar – will definitely rise as the dominant political power. Needless to say that this would be the successful outcome of the memorandum period: tranforming a developed society (with many many problems of mentality and orientation) into a social desert in which barbarism and fascism will prevail.

Apart from the social decline and its consequences for everyday life, the continuation of austerity and recession will shake even further the administrative capacity of Greek authorities shaping threatening conditions for the integrity of the country in a region that destabilizes rapidly. In the southeast part of Mediterranean sea borders and peace are disappearing and in the Balkans a gradual division between the West and Russia is emerging.

The second scenario will initiate immediate political, social and economic turmoil. SYRIZA will be cornered but it will maintain its unity and its support by the people who have been pushed in poverty. However, we cannot foresee the reaction of the elites. We know that they lack any sense of respect of democracy, wisdom in the deep sense of the term and social responsibility. Moreover, we know that neoliberals actually want the emergence of chaotic situations for they believe that the disorientation of the population and the collapse of the existing institutions and modes of social functioning create favourable conditions for setting up the new neoliberal order.

We can speculate about their reaction but we are living in a period of time that no one can actually assess the dynamics of the situation. Who would have thought 2 years ago that a war will take place again in Europe, in Ukraine, and the EU and US would openly support neonazis! So, we are talking about a turbulent situation.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the lenders will postpone the difficult choice. In this case, the lenders will let Greece sink even further into recession due to the liquidity suffocation and they will wait to see whether broader changes will take place in Europe. Spanish elections are critical in this scenario and perhaps other events that will take place and may change the current balance of forces.

At this point, I would like to underline the difficulty for a society to accept that its future is severely compomized in any case; that ordinary life as we know it is no longer available is difficult to digest. And it is not easy to accept and fully embrace that you cannot control or influence it. It’s not easy to accept the fact that you cannot escape from what is going to happen. This is a delicate issue to handle both inside SYRIZA and greek society. Strong psychological defensive mechanisms are involved, arguments are not convincing and people prefer to think transforming their desperate hope into reality, ovelooking at the same time the clear signs that are in front of them.

We are entering a period that will be marked by economical, social and political turmoil. Political action in this new environment will challenge the political imagination of the previous decades. The sooner we overcome the perfectly normal feeling of denying reality when it becomes harsh, the better. We must adapt ourselves quickly into the new conditions in order to be effective.

So, ahead of such a crucial moment, we cannot prepare ourselves for the mid- or long-term future. Fundamental parameters of today’s situation are going to change rapidly shaping a future we cannot foresee for the time being.

Let me conclude with two final general remarks for our duty today:

– we need to engage efficiently and profoundly in transforming the people’s way of thinking themselves and their lives. In the last decades in the western world at least, people were raised believing that a good life is essentially an individual achievement. Society and nature is just a background, a wallpaper for our egos, the contingent context in which our solitary selves will evolve pursuing individual goals. The individual owes nothing to no one, she lacks a sense of respect and responsibility to the previous or the next generations, and indifference is the proper attitude regarding the present social problems and conditions. There is no way to achieve our goals, saving the planet, transforming the economy, coping with social problems and modern challenges etc without transforming the spoiled teenager-like modern subjectivity into a mature grown-up subjectivity ready to bear the responsibility and duty of taking on the difficult and demanding task that our goals dictate.

– We are analyzing, monitoring, explaining etc of what the opponents are doing, what is their strategy, what kind of techniques they use etc and that;s somethning extremely useful. However, we need to think how are we going to face today’s challenges and problems according to our logic. The modern world is declining fast and at the same time we have never before been in a position with so many potentials. It’s not only a matter of seizing the power, it’s a matter of identifying the deep reasons for such a decline and engage in a process of transformation based on the existing potentials.

We must develop a conception of ruling the world differently, of actually performing the every day activities of societies with a different way. We often tend to believe that getting rid of the opponents means that somehow the problems caused by them and the new challenges we are facing will be disappeared. It is true that it is extremely important to get rid of these guys, the neoloberals; however, neolibealism is deeply entrenched in social practices and the state, things are moving this way by themselves so to speak.

We must put them in different tracks, we must develop ideas and ways of doing things differently. And in order to do it, we must think without our opponents on sight. We must think our own world and how is going to be like. And actually, there are lots of goor practices, social innovations etc that actually point towards a mature society. If we think this way we will realize that we are actually more stronger than we think. We must combine the existing elements effectively, incorporate them in a unified – but not one-dimensional – conceptual and organizational framework. If we launch such a project – and I am feeling from these two days here that it is already happening – then we will gradually acquire the necessary self-confidence to rule the world, and I strongly believe that this is the most crucial part in actually doing it. If we start really believing that we can do it then the fall of neoliberalism would be a matter of time.

 

My contribution to Supramarkt: Let’s rule our continent for once

Supramarkt

*My contribution to «Supramarkt» by Irene Publishing, 2015

On developing alternatives to EU neo liberalism and austerity

Greetings from the future

Greeks are being subjected to a unique biopolitical experiment with broader implications for the fate of the European people and the physiognomy of modern societies. Austerity is not only about the brutal devaluation of people’s lives. The true aim is the colonilization of their hearts and minds by the logic of profit and competition. Greeks must not only endure but embrace deeply their misery. The pervasive terror of total disaster and the suffocating incrimination asks nothing less than the absolute adoption of a new mode of existence: a solitary existence, both indifferent and passive, seeking means of survival or the fleeting satisfaction of frivolous desires with an empty gaze in a social desert once called society. After all there is no such a thing in the brave new neoliberal world.

Whenever your heart and mind are at stake the existential anxiety is cataclysmic. It has become important for the emotional balance of people like me to leave Greece every now and then just in order to feel peaceful and calm. The tension, the pressure, the feeling that everything around you is so intense is unbearable. It feels like one is being abused in a weird way.

From the point of view of a Greek, things have become extremely urgent and dangerous. Of course, objectively speaking, we are not yet – as Europeans – at the edge of the cliff. But I am feeling like that, which means that I am also thinking like that. When I am feeling that I am already hanging by the edge of a cliff the best way to think is like an engineer. So, I am going to simplify matters, which means that I must apologize beforehand to the most rigorous readers.

As someone who has been trained as an engineer I will begin from the end. What is the problem we must solve and what does the solution look like? The problem of course is the hegemony of austerity in Europe, the imposition of neoliberal logic on the institutional structure of the European Union and even more so on the eurozone. The solution would be the gradual development of a non-neoliberal reconfiguration of the European project.

But isn’t this answer very vague, abstract and hard to conceptualize? To my engineering mind it’s deeply unsatisfactory even though it is a right answer. It seems that it is not enough just to say to people that neoliberalism is bad and we should change it. It’s not very useful – even in Greece after so many disastrous outcomes of implementing neoliberal policies. So, even if it’s a right answer, it is not very useful. When you are hanging at the edge of the cliff you need something useful. To just think that you must climb back up the cliff is not much progress. You need to answer the question ‘how’.

What if it’s an answer?

The crucial question then is: how do we shape the conditions in order to bring about an alternative reconfiguration of the European project? (Q1) There are several ways to answer this question depending on what is your main focus. Here, I will focus on the question of people’s minds, since it is the people that would have to step in and fight for another course for Europe. The next question will be: what is it that would weaken the appeal of neoliberal logic today? (Q2) Which takes us to the next and basic one: what is it that makes the neoliberal logic so powerful, today, in Europe? (Q3)

Let’s try to answer these questions in the reverse order. In order to answer Q3 I am proposing the following way of looking at the neoliberal hegemony in Europe: instead of focusing on neoliberalism as a problem, let’s think of it as an answer to a problem. The idea is that the appeal of neoliberalism today in Europe stems from the fact that it seems to be the only answer to a particular problem. I am simplifying obviously, there are lots of reasons that shape the condition we are facing today, but let’s pursue this line of thought to see whether we will end up with something useful or not.

If neoliberalism is an answer, what is the respective question? Let’s consider the rhetoric of the neoliberals. There are lots of different versions, I am just picking one. 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 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 function. Access to crucial decisions must be an exclusive privilege of the economic elites i.e. the decisions must be taken according to the criterion of competition with the elites of different parts of the world, without the intrusion of criteria connected to the needs of the people through denomcratic processes. The middle class must be reduced drastically and the huge part of the European population must be deprived of fundamental rights. At this point, the status of the illegal immigrant may help us visualize what awaits the majority of Europeans in the future. According to this rhetoric, the question that only neoliberalism seems to answer is this: how are we going to deal with the fact that Europe is losing ground in the global power game?

Hence, in Europe today the popular classes and civil society are facing an unprecedented attack. People are deprived from the right to satisfy their basic needs. The promoted strategies of life based on unrelenting and flashy consumption cannot be fulfilled and the majority of people are excluded from the prospect of having a decent life. A situation like this creates a crucial existential gap in people’s lives: what we consider to be a desirable life is no longer available to us or it will no longer be available to us in the future for there is a growing feeling in our societies that things will get worse.

There are two directions to follow trying to bridge the gap. You can either challenge the first part (desirability) or the second one (unavailability). The second direction is often regarded as the common sense thing to do: let’s try individually or collectively to regain our place among those that have a chance of tasting the “benefits” of consumption, that is to acquire a place inside the constantly shrinking European middle class. The “door” is closing rapidly – excluding the majority of people – and we must fight hard not to be left outside. Actually, Chancellor Merkel is inviting individuals having the necessary qualifications from all over Europe to move to the big cities of Central and Northern Europe, in order to shape the new, multinational but much smaller European middle class.

Appearance matters

Of course, one could argue that this is just rhetoric, it’s just part of the appearance of deeper tendencies of present-day capitalism – e.g. the financialization of the global economy, the fall of the profit-rate, the negative balance of forces for the popular classes, or other important tendencies such as environmental instability, the exhaustion of natural resources etc.

I could also add another – crucial to my mind – predicament of our time: today the post-war organizational and institutional configuration of modern societies is no longer stable for a number of reasons that I will not mention. Modern societies will change either towards more authoritarian modes of governance – combining the laws of the market with pre-modern institutional forms, what we might call “despotism of the market” – or towards a deepening of democracy by drastically redistributing power and access to decision-making from the elites to the people.

On top of this, the elites are blind to some broader deadlocks we are facing today while the above deeper tendencies approach their limits. Deadlocks that threaten humanity as a whole for the first time in our history. The elites care only for the maintenance and enhancement of their power. Crudely speaking, they do not even care about saving capitalism – or preventing the unfolding of its crisis – if it requires a negative redistribution of power for them.

At the level of appearance things are unfolding fast without the emergence of a respective awareness regarding the emergency of the situation. At the level of appearance we are stuck. That’s why, taking seriously the level of appearance is crucial to our cause. It’s the field in which our struggle takes place. Being aware of deeper tendencies is extremely important in order to be effective. But to be effective is not equivalent to exposing to the people the deeper inner logic of what is going on. Being effective means that at the level of appearance we must find a way to fight against the way things are unfolding, and change the course of historical and social movement. And to do that requires a systematic interaction with people’s minds transforming their cognitive maps for a new awareness to be born. So, even if the neoliberal rhetoric for the geopolitical decline of Europe is just part of the appearance, we must intervene and challenge our opponents on this ground, the ground of the real battlefield of appearance.

Hard times, hard choices, dirty work

Let’s come back to our exploration. 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 widely spread and deep-rooted in public opinion: we are entering in difficult times, hard choices should be made to overcome the difficulties, to endure hard times. Only neoliberals know what must be done. Only they are bold enough, only they are willing to do the dirty work. No one agrees – they say when they are pushed hard – with austerity, no one likes it, but it is necessary. No one agrees with concentration camps for immigrants and refugees, but it is something that must be done.

The left, and progressives in general – the cliché goes on – 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, long forgotten times. All these things are unacceptable luxuries in the circumstances of the new, hard, global order. The left lacks a viable strategy. We cannot do the dirty job of adjusting Europe to the new global conditions. Moreover, we are dangerous because we are soft and naïve and out of touch with reality.

This cliché – reinforced incessantly and not accidentally by the adventure movies of Hollywood and various other dominant cultural “products” – is the implicit 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.

Hey neoliberals, guess what? You are fired

Let’s assume that we have answered Q3. It is time to move onto Q2 in our inverted sequence: what is it that would weaken the appeal of neoliberal logic today? It seems that we must challenge the implicit assumption that supports the neoliberal strategy if we want to change the balance of forces and finally beat neoliberalism and austerity in Europe. We must reshape our strategy in such a way that it will weaken the implicit assumption that neoliberalism and austerity is the only way available for reversing Europe’s geopolitical decline. Our alternative strategy – reshaped accordingly – would have two dimensions: a negative and a positive one.

According to the negative dimension, neoliberalism and austerity are failing to reverse the decline of Europe. In fact they accelerate the decline. The neoliberal strategy and the aggressive policy of austerity signals a brutal, unilateral breach of the post-war contract between the European people and the elites. The contract was the outcome of a favourable balance of forces for the people, conceding to them access to the decision-making (democracy) and, hence, a significant share from the wealth-to-be-produced (redistribution, social welfare state). This contract gave Europe peace and the best decades in its history.

The decisive enforcement of the neoliberal logic of profit and competition in Europe and the respective austerity in the years of the crisis is not going to restore Europe’s geopolitical losses. Imitating the Asiatic giants by enforcing their “advantages” to Europe like cheap labor, lower standards of living, authoritarianism, environmental degradation etc. is not going to change the course of things. It wil not make Europe stronger. And that’s because when inflicting 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. In terms of the above dilemma between desirability and availability of the promoted life the extreme-right wing political powers are proposing a national (collective) enclosure as a response to the loss of the relevant availability.

The domination of the extreme right-wing forces in European countries will be the end-product of neoliberalism and austerity. It will be their nastiest consequence, the endgame of the geopolitical 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 positive dimension draws from the conviction that the strategy of the left – a strategy based on cooperation and democracy – is not only a fairer strategy for the majority of the people – since it respects their needs and capacities – but it is also the only one that can reverse the decline of Europe. 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 and the neoliberal attack we are facing all over Europe makes it reasonable to assume that the European people will 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 have a common fate. So, trying to restore “availability” without challenging and eventually changing the dominant coordinates of social and individual life is a dead end.

Unleash the kraken!

The major argument that the strategy of cooperation and democracy is the only real solution to the gradual geopolitical decline of Europe stems from the fact that the strategy of the left appreciates fully the biggest advantage of Europe: its own people. Due to various historical and cultural reasons, European societies invested a huge amount of resources in the development (cultural, educational, political etc.) of the people. Europeans embody a huge stock of capacities – despite the ferocious efforts of the neoliberals to strip them off these capacities the last decades – which is the most valuable geopolitical advantage of the continent. Neoliberals not only are completely blind to this fundamental fact but they are doing everything they can to wipe it out.

The strategy of the left – based on the logic of cooperation and democracy – can unlock 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; a conception that overlooks, diminishes, and eventually squanders the huge potential of human abilities. By transferring the decisions to the people, by giving them the space and the freedom to realize and mobilize their capacities, we can utilize them to redefine our global status.

Additionally, a mature social configuration of the european project based on the logic of cooperation and democracy – focused on people’s capacities and needs – is in a position to recognize and deal systematically with modern challenges such as the energy challenge (finitude of natural resources), environmental instability, the unhooking from the notion of growth, respect of our traditions etc. We will be able to rediscover notions like rational, long-term, multi-dimensional planning, transformation of the productive matrix, the common good, life, fate etc.

Needless to say that at the geopolitical level, a mature Europe which is constanly 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.

Seen under a different light, democracy is neither indifferent and boring, nor something ‘nice’ and ‘polite’ but inappropriate for the hard times we live in. It’s not a luxury that we are no longer entitled to. It is not a waste of time and a dismantling phenomenon. It is not just an institutional or bureaucratic system of governance that is detached from the people. Rather, democracy is a powerful tool in their hands. Democracy is an irreplaceable instrument for the revival of our societies. It is a way of doing things. Actually, it’s the most efficient way of doing things. Why? Because democracy is co-operation on a large scale. And co-operation is the most distinctive of human traits.

Cooperation and democracy is the choice that those who dare to face the truth are prepared to make. This is what is hard. Enforcing cooperation and democracy requires a radical redistribution of power (in the form both of wealth and access to decision-making) from the elites to the European people. This is what it takes to restore Europe’s geopolitical status.

Sold out!

Assuming that we have answered Q2, let’s move to Q1: how do we shape the conditions in order to bring about an alternative reconfiguration of the European project? The reshaping of our strategy as an alternative answer to the question of the geopolitical retreat of Europe paves the way for a real counter-attack against neoliberalism. Having challenged the implicit cliché that supported the perverted neoliberal logic we are now in a position to form a real alternative.

Our battery of arguments starts to seem more reasonable and convincing once we have effectively disconnected the impression that neoliberal strategy is necessary even if it is damaging, from the idea that sustains it, namely the impression that democracy, labour rights, a decent living wage, a decent education, decent health care, etc. are luxuries. It seems now reasonable to argue that the revival of Europe should be based on people’s own capacities. It seems obvious that having people with so many embodied capacities in Europe today cannot be considered anymore as a problem but as an advantage. Reducing education, standards of living etc. is not only unfair and barbaric but irrational as well. People of different political, cultural and national origin, people with different class position, people of different religious convictions etc can agree that nurturing people’s capacities is more condusive to the revival of Europe than doing the opposite.

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 human societies. For neoliberalism is not just a policy; it is an ambitious strategy of changing radically our mode of existence.

Mind the gap…

But there is a catch here. The implicit assumption is that we – who are “we” remains open and undecided deliberately – actually believe that democracy and cooperation are the most efficient and productive ways of doing things. There are evidence that we don’t. In other words, we must also face the consequencies of being under the hegemony of neoliberals for so long.

The last years new political movements are putting the issue of democracy very high in their demands. The democratic uprising taking place around us looks towards the desirability of the promoted form of life. It dares to question the prevailing view and challenge its assumptions. But the gravitational force of the dominant form of life is still strong inside them. Under the pressure of austerity, unemployment and poverty, there is a tendency of differentiating democracy from the urgent satisfaction of the basic needs. There is a tendency to focus on the loss of the “availability” leaving the issue of “desirability” – and eventually real democracy – at the backstage or at the rhetorical level. The vast majority of people that was hit by the brutal policy of austerity mobilizes and fights but it often fails to make the connection between its losses and democracy. Even political powers sensitive to people’s needs and their despair fail to appreciate fully the strong interdependence between them. And there is a good reason for this.

Our societies suffer from the syndrome of the “end of history”. People were raised believing that a good life is essentially an individual achievement. Society and nature is just a background, a wallpaper for our egos, the contingent context in which our solitary selves will evolve pursuing individual goals. The individual owes nothing to no one, she lacks a sense of respect and responsibility to the previous or the next generations, and indifference is the proper attitude regarding the present social problems and conditions.

Today, at the dawn of a new era of total threat, our societies – and political movements and parties as part of them – seem to seek quick and easy ways to restore availability. Ways that will not disturb the naïve and comforting conception of the “end of history” that we do not really need to engage profoundly into collective practices. The only thing we are willing to give is singular moments of participation. The idea is that through demonstrating and voting we can somehow solve the urgent problems of our societies with orthodox means, through the state and governments that are sensitive to our demands.

Let me be clear on this. I do not mean that representative democracy has no value; it’s a crucial dimension of a mature society. But we often ask too much from it and its failure to deliver on our expectations generates a misguided devaluation. Neither do I mean that governments sensitive to people’s needs are not crucial factors in this battle. I am just stressing the fact that we must have a broader view of the agents and the processes needed if we want to change things.

A bundle of important policies and powers 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 number of neoliberal regulations and norms governs the function of the state and sections of social life. These elements combined render the governmental power not the political power but just one of its poles and shape a hostile environment in which considerable effort is needed just to open some space for the implementation of different policy.

In order to respond to these suffocating conditions, new organizational standards and methods are needed for the engagememnt of thousands of people in this day-to-day and multi-level fight. Without the people with the knowledge needed, aligned into groups of collaboration and embedded in a vast network of democratic decision-making that produces policies of our own logic, no governement will be in a position to wage this battle. A totally different notion of democracy together with digital technology can help in the transition needed. But we must be aware that it’s not just a matter of incorporating new notions and technology in the old paradigm of doing politics; a paradigm change is required, an immersion into a new conceptual, practical, emotional and aesthetic framework seems necessary.

A swift to our organizational and methodological principles presupposes that we will overcome the tendency – generated by the syndrome of the “end of history” – that things will change easily and quick through the revival of the previous institutional and political configuration of post war liberal capitalism. We must finally confront the reality that neoliberals are “burning” the bridges behind them with the past. We can only move forward by accepting the fact that we are entering a long period of hard fighting in which we must drastically change the coordinates of our political imagination. We must escape from the political fascination of the post war ideals of social configuration.

We are stronger than we think

It is time to wake up in a collective way. The new political movements are the first glimpses of such an awakening. They represent a desicive emancipatory moment of swifting the focus from availability to desirability of the promoted life. Defending or reclaiming our dignity requires the radical redistribution of power and the emergence of a new ideal for social and individual life that will radically transform the present desire for a status quo that is no longer available to us as a response to the existential gap. And in both of them (redistribution of power and transformation of desire) the issue of real democracy acquires its full significance and purpose. It is absolutely critical to sweep away the dust of the post war social and political configuration on such crucial ideas as democracy.

Reshaping democracy in our minds from a notion which is identified with the corruption of the political personnel or the boring and indifferent electoral processes, to a notion that respects and liberates our capacities for a common cause may give us a chance to change drastically the balance of forces. Democracy is the best way to activate fully the embodied capacities that people have, to unlock and mobilize the human reserves of creative power which are the only form of power we can have at our disposal in this struggle. If we elaborate effective ways and means of democratic functioning we will realize that we are actually much stronger than we think.

We have to be cautious here. We are talking about embodied capacities in humans and humans are peculiar animals. People don’t like being the passive objects of change. They possess the human need to be the agents of change. People do not have to be trained in democracy because they should, or because that’s the goal and the belief of a political power. People should not be viewed as the raw material that must be transformed according to some plan. Instead, we need a narrative that frames our current situation and a goal that will inspire people to make it their own. Through the struggle to achieve this goal people will be transformed and developed fully. The expansion of a democratic mentality and culture will be a side effect of this process. In the same way that exploitation and repression are never the explicit goal but always the unquestioned way of achieving a goal. Democracy must be the self-evident choice of doing things; not merely an ideological persuasion.

In the same vein, humans tend to identify with what they know best. It is a way of self-determination, a way to think of ourselves in a favourable light. Generative Democracy, a democracy that engages and enhances people’s capacities through co-operation is preferable because it respects and liberates people’s capacities; the same capacities that people tend to be proud of. It is of vital importance to reclaim the sense of self-esteem and personal fulfillment from the corporate fantasy that now rules our culture.

Our moment of glory

Perhaps democracy as it has been thought and practiced till today is just a small fragment of what is possible, situated in an incompatible social framework that prevents us from grasping its real content. We continue thinking, speaking, acting, and organizing with inadequate forms. Our established conceptual apparatus doesn’t let us see the full potential of our own logic. We haven’t yet found the ways of reconfiguring the “we” to really include people who are deeply from this side of the battle but have identities we cannot even recognize. We have to fully appreciate the fact that if we think differently we will realize that we are stronger than we think. And it is already happening. The escalation of the battle pushes us to adapt just to respond effectively and stay in the game.

In terms of today’s potentials, we as humans have never before been so close to achieving an emancipated and mature society. At the same time we have never been so close to total destruction. The duty of our generations is broader and bolder than we let ourselves realize. And democracy seems to be at the core of the new paradigm, of the new form of life that our duty calls for.