Greece and the Future of Europe

Delivered at The Southern Europe Crisis and Resistances, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, 25 November 2012. Listen to the free pod­cast.

In the summer of 1918, Constantin Cavafy met E. M. Forster in Alexandria. Cavafy com­pared the Greeks with the English. The two peoples are alike, quick-​witted, re­sourceful, ad­ven­turous. ‘But there is one un­for­tu­nate dif­fer­ence. We Greeks have gone bank­rupt. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your cap­ital.’ Giorgio Agamben, com­menting on Cavafy’s mys­ter­ious state­ment, writes: ‘The only cer­tainty is that since [1918], all the peoples of Europe and per­haps the whole world have gone bank­rupt’. Greece was de­clared bank­rupt in 2010 al­beit in ‘or­derly fashion’ and only tem­por­arily. Temporary de­fault is a little like tem­porary death. It lasts forever.

What if Greece, and per­haps Europe, have been bank­rupted not eco­nom­ic­ally but mor­ally, cul­tur­ally, polit­ic­ally? What is the gain if the Greeks repay the debt, keep the euro, and lose their soul? Political and moral bank­ruptcy haunts not just Greece but the whole of Europe. Greece is the fu­ture of Europe. And as we know with the fu­ture, the best and the worst are next to each other. Let me start with the worst.

The cu­mu­lative ef­fects of three sep­arate series of aus­terity meas­ures are stag­gering. The first memo im­posed up to 50% salary and pen­sion cuts on civil ser­vants and an es­tim­ated 150,000 job losses by 2015. The second moved to the private sector and slashed the min­imum salary by up to 32%, ab­ol­ished col­lective bar­gaining and various other long-​established la­bour pro­tec­tions. These meas­ures are ac­com­panied by in­creases in direct and in­direct taxes, public trans­port fares and road tolls, and the im­pos­i­tion of a prop­erty tax col­lected through elec­tri­city bills. The re­maining public as­sets and util­ities, in­cluding ports, air­ports and even is­lands, will be privat­ized at bar­gain base­ment prices. Akropolis will be next. The eco­nomy shrank by 24% over five years, the largest any­where in peace­time. In 2012, un­em­ploy­ment stands at 25% and youth un­em­ploy­ment at 55%. It is the killing of a whole gen­er­a­tion, a gene-​cide to coin a term. Austerity led to a de­vel­oping hu­man­it­arian crisis with home­less­ness, mental ill­ness and sui­cide at un­pre­ced­ented levels. Hospitals cannot work for lack of basic medi­cines, schools have no text­books or fuel for heating, soup kit­chens have pro­lif­er­ated, 2 mil­lion people live below the poverty level.

How did we get there after all these summit meet­ings and ex­pert ana­lyses? It does not take great wisdom to ex­plain this ab­ject failure. Public spending cuts and tax in­creases during a deep de­pres­sion re­duce de­mand, in­crease un­em­ploy­ment and halt growth. Tax rev­enues shrink, spending for un­em­ploy­ment and other be­ne­fits in­creases. The de­ficit in­creases, the fiscal tar­gets are missed, leading to new aus­terity to plug the gap. It is a vi­cious spiral dic­tated by the toxic id­ol­atry of dom­inant eco­nomics. If the IMF func­tion­aries were first-​year eco­nomics stu­dents, they would have failed their exams. Unfortunately, their diktat makes mil­lions fail their lives.

But the failure and re­spons­ib­ility of the Greek elites is even greater. The politi­cians, bankers and media barons who brought the country to its knees over 40 years now sense that their cor­rupt, cli­en­telist cap­it­alism is coming to the end. They will do everything in their power to delay the in­ev­it­able end. Greece is a text­book case of a moral decay and polit­ical col­lapse of a system of power. Considerable evid­ence ex­ists that the Greek gov­ern­ment ‘doctored’ the mac­roe­co­nomic fig­ures in 2001 to gain entry to the euro. The spiralling loans and mounting debt were then used by the ruling elites to oil the wheels of pat­ronage and cli­en­telism. The Papandreou gov­ern­ment up­graded the de­ficit by 3% to 15.4% trig­gering the European in­ter­ven­tion. To cap it all, every set of meas­ures ad­opted in­creased the debt. The Greek debt was 120% of GDP in 2009. It will be 190% next year and, after the pain of a dozen years, will reach 125% in 2021, still above the 2009 po­s­i­tion. The aus­terity meas­ures are mul­ti­pliers of debt, which keeps in­creasing and meta­stasing like a ma­lign tu­mour. Greek so­ciety is col­lapsing be­fore our eyes and the only an­swer is more loans to pay the past loans, which in­creases the overall loan. It is bor­rowing on the Visa to pay the Mastercard.

I have called the com­bin­a­tion of European neo-​colonialism and Greek elite servile obed­i­ence ‘the de­sire of debt’: As a ‘double gen­itive’, debt’s de­sire’, raises two ques­tions. Who de­sired the debt and what does the debt de­sire? The only con­sistent ex­plan­a­tion is that the elites de­sired the debt, first by crazy bor­rowing and spending and then by de­lib­erate in­creases in its cal­cu­la­tion. What does the debt de­sire? Because Greece owes, the Greeks must des­troy the old and adopt rad­ic­ally new eco­nomic, cul­tural and moral values. The evil debt will allow the re­turn to the path of virtue. Like the Platonic phar­makon, the debt is poison and cure, curse and blessing, the cause of pas­sion and resurrection.

Austerity aims at a whole­sale re­struc­turing of life in the late cap­it­alism of chronic crisis. Work prac­tices are get­ting close to those in China. The so­cial ethos of the people, the rem­nants of friend­ship, solid­arity and hos­pit­ality the pre­vious period of cap­it­alist mod­ern­isa­tion had left standing, is un­der­mined. Cynicism and ni­hilism be­come the dom­inant mor­ality. The aus­terity tested in Greece is ex­ported to Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Italy and Britain. A re­turn to Victorian cap­it­alism kept in place by an au­thor­it­arian state awaits us all. Greece may be the fu­ture of Europe.

Now for the good news. The back cover of the Greek edi­tion of a book I pub­lished last December states: ‘Europe used Greece as a guinea pig to test the con­di­tions for re­struc­turing late cap­it­alism in crisis. What the European and Greek elites did not ex­pect was for the guinea pig to oc­cupy the lab, kick out the blind sci­ent­ists and start a new ex­per­i­ment: its own trans­form­a­tion from an ob­ject to a polit­ical sub­ject. The meaning and limits of demo­cracy are rene­go­ti­ated in the place it was born.’ Friends told me at the time that I was ex­cess­ively op­tim­istic or, even worse, I had lost touch with reality. The protest move­ment was in abey­ance, the usual Left mel­an­choly had returned.

Where did I base my op­timism? Resistance against aus­terity grew throughout 2010 and 2011. More than 25 one-​day gen­eral strikes, min­istry oc­cu­pa­tions, non-​payment of prop­erty taxes, in­creased trans­port fares and road tolls and various types of civil dis­obedi­ence. No major change in gov­ern­ment policy was achieved. By May 2011, the res­ist­ance seemed to be run­ning out of steam, the usual left mel­an­choly had re­turned. This changed on 25 May with the spon­tan­eous oc­cu­pa­tion of Syntagma Square in central Athens, and some sixty cities by a group of people calling them­selves agana­kt­is­menoi (in­dig­nant) in a tribute to the Spanish in­dig­nados. People came from all ideo­lo­gies and none, old and young, un­em­ployed and the middle class, Greek and for­eigners. The oc­cu­pa­tion re­jected the logic of rep­res­ent­a­tion, party ideo­logy, or polit­ical lead­er­ship and opened to large parts of the pop­u­la­tion who were not polit­ic­ally active or were voters of the es­tab­lished parties. The oc­cu­pa­tions lasted for three months. Partly as a result of the oc­cu­pa­tion, the Papandreou gov­ern­ment resigned twice in June and fi­nally in November. It was a re­minder that Western gov­ern­ments too can fall when they abandon basic prin­ciples of demo­cracy, de­cency and independence.

I spoke in Syntagma last June; The lucky few whose num­bers were drawn were anxious and nervous. One man in par­tic­ular was shaking and trem­bling with evident symp­toms of stage fright be­fore his ad­dress. He then pro­ceeded to give a beau­tiful talk in per­fectly formed sen­tences and para­graphs, presenting a com­plete and per­suasive plan for the fu­ture of the move­ment. ‘How did you do it?’ I asked him later, ‘I thought you were going to col­lapse.’ ‘When I started speaking’, he replied non­chal­antly, ‘I was mouthing the words but someone else was speaking. A stranger in­side me was dic­tating what to say.’ This tran­sub­stan­ti­ation, the stranger in me, is the name of the de– and re– sub­ject­iv­isa­tion, the re­moval of people from the eco­nomy of desire-​consumption-​frustration of bi­opol­it­ical cap­it­alism and their moral and polit­ical regeneration.

In Syntagma and other oc­cu­pa­tions I was re­minded of the scary and thrilling days of 1973. The oc­cu­pa­tions at the Law School and the Polytechnic in Athens started the pro­cess of decay of the mil­itary dic­tat­or­ship. The stu­dents walked down the streets with their heads held high, weighty aca­demic tomes in their hands, badges of iden­tity and pride. In 2011, in the midst of the cata­strophe that has be­fallen Greece, people smiled at strangers in squares and streets again, with that mo­mentary twinkle in the eye so dif­ferent from the empty gaze pre­valent in Greece today.

My op­timism was con­firmed by the astounding res­ults of Syriza, the rad­ical Left party, in the elec­tions of 2012. Was there a link between the res­ist­ance and the elec­tion res­ults? After all, the old parties are still in power. but they are like the un­dead or zom­bies. Let me ex­plain. The res­ist­ance brought to an end the post-​civil-​war di­vides between a vic­torious Right and a de­feated Left. People from op­posed ideo­lo­gical and his­tor­ical tra­ject­ories found them­selves in the same place. An un­em­ployed leftist suf­fers the same as a right-​winger; common class in­terests be­came more im­portant than an­cient en­mities. After Syntagma, the power system reached its end. Only the final push was re­quired. On 6 May and 17 June, the mul­ti­tude of the squares be­came a people and voted massively for the Left. Direct demo­cracy ac­quired its par­lia­mentary companion.

Why Syriza and not some other anti-​austerity party? Party mem­bers joined the res­ist­ance from the start without he­ge­monic am­bi­tions. Syriza did not try to lead or use the squares to re­cruit. Secondly, Syriza had ad­opted in­tern­ally the ideo­logy of plur­alism and direct demo­cracy well be­fore the crisis. The party is a co­ali­tion of twelve parties and groups, with Eurocommunists eco­lo­gical, post Marxist, rad­ical demo­cratic and post-​anarchist roots. Tendencies and fac­tions are al­lowed. It is a ‘new type’ of party that has jet­tisoned the char­ac­ter­istics of the ori­ginal Leninist party and comes closest to the ethos of the mul­ti­tude and the or­gan­iz­a­tion of the oc­cu­pa­tions. The squares ad­opted Syriza as their ob­vious choice. A dual track strategy de­veloped: so­cial mo­bil­iz­a­tion and par­lia­mentary pres­ence, direct and rep­res­ent­ative demo­cracy, in and against the state. The meeting between the oc­cu­pa­tions and the rad­ical Left was serendip­itous; it was pre­pared by the ‘cun­ning of history’.

To use an ex­pres­sion that will put a smile on many a Marxist or cyn­ical lip, the end of the power system is a matter of his­tor­ical ne­ces­sity. Throughout his­tory, re­volu­tions suc­ceed when a power system has run its course and has be­come ob­solete and harmful. This is the case in Greece. Historical ne­ces­sity is not enough. Three ele­ments are re­quired. A strong pop­ular de­sire, a polit­ical agent pre­pared to take power. Finally, a cata­lyst which com­bines the other ele­ments into a com­bust­ible whole. All three ele­ments have con­verged Greece, pop­ular will in the res­ist­ance, Syriza as the polit­ical agent and aus­terity as the cata­lyst that will lead to a the first rad­ical left gov­ern­ment in Europe. Is the left ready, how can it succeed?

Left strategy must mit­igate the cata­strophic ef­fects of aus­terity while starting at the same time healing the torn so­cial fabric. An end to cor­rup­tion and pat­ronage, the col­lec­tion of taxes and the pun­ish­ment of tax eva­sion are ob­vious moves. But such a gov­ern­ment cannot and must not rely on a gradual re­turn to nor­mality. It will face a hos­tile European Union; polit­ical time will be com­pressed. Palliatives and lim­ited re­versals of aus­terity meas­ures will not be enough. The Left will be ob­liged to move to­wards a demo­cratic so­cialist order, some­thing that has not been achieved be­fore and for which no blue­print or ex­per­i­ence ex­ists. The ex­per­i­ence, en­ergy and memory of the res­ist­ance and oc­cu­pa­tions are the best hopes for success.

What are the les­sons of the squares? First, the re­dis­covered prin­ciples of pub­li­city, col­lab­or­a­tion and equality. Place, time and in­tensity were central. Place: the loc­al­isa­tion in a square op­posite Parliament cre­ated a new fluid and open spa­cing of polit­ical power. Time: the linear time of work be­came the tele­olo­gical time of praxis. Finally, the in­tensity of bodily and emo­tional prox­imity, cre­ated by a common polit­ical de­sire, had the char­ac­ter­istics of a con­stituent power.1 The so­cial com­pos­i­tion of post-​fordist cap­it­alism means that the age of leaders, cent­ral­ized parties and unions, of solid and con­scious polit­ical sub­jects awaiting rep­res­ent­a­tion is on the way out. Co-​operation and net­working, solid­arity and ho­ri­zontal or­gan­isa­tion, sharing of know­ledge and skills are the guiding prin­ciples. The squares transfered these prin­ciples from work to politics, re­versing the hier­archy, dis­cip­lining and auto­cratic man­age­ment of cap­it­alism. The left should adopt and spread the spirit of the oc­cu­pa­tions through vir­tual camps and local gath­er­ings, as­sem­blies in neigh­bor­hoods, sub­urbs and towns, solid­arity net­works and cul­tural events. The prin­ciples of the tran­sient oc­cu­pa­tions should be­come a per­manent fea­ture of politics. The so­cial ethos of ho­ri­zontal work should be in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized and dis­sem­in­ated, keeping the cit­izen­ship of the squares active.

WE are the squares, we are every­where’, should be the guiding prin­ciple The ex­tending these ideas to all areas of eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural life. Initiatives from below, direct demo­cracy, phys­ical and vir­tual col­lab­or­a­tion, bringing people and skills to­gether would re­vive the fal­tering sense of com­munity. Economically prof­it­able and so­cially useful en­ter­prises would be based on these prin­ciples. Workers in failing in­dus­tries, for ex­ample, could take over their place of busi­ness and run it as a co-​operative. A spe­cial bank, funded by a solid­arity levy and one off taxes on the rich, would fin­ance pro­jects that pro­mote col­lab­or­a­tion and net­working. ‘Universities of the squares’ would dis­sem­inate al­tern­ative views chal­len­ging ex­pert ob­jectivity. Direct demo­cratic methods could be in­tro­duced in local and even­tu­ally central gov­ern­ment. Public de­bate and voting of council budgets and all im­portant local is­sues could be a start. Public and free artistic and lit­erary events would mark an al­tern­ative polit­ical cul­ture. Politics should be re­pol­it­i­cized and the col­lective ethos in­tro­duced into all as­pects of public life. Greece needs a cul­tural and moral renais­sance. Deepening demo­cracy and making it the form of every type of activity and life is the main lesson of the squares.

The Greek Left has a major moral ad­vantage based partly on its clean past but, more im­port­antly, on its com­mit­ment to uni­versal values. Every policy pro­posal must be as­sessed against the prin­ciples of equality and so­cial justice. Only a com­bin­a­tion of politics with rad­ical in­tent and so­cial mo­bil­iz­a­tion can suc­ceed. The task of the Greek Left is to de­velop the ‘idea of com­munism’ for an age of cap­it­alist crisis.2 It is a tall order for a small country and or­gan­iz­a­tion. It can suc­ceed only if the European move­ments learn from the Greek ex­per­i­ence and follow sim­ilar strategies. In such case, the Greece of res­ist­ance will be­come the fu­ture of Europe.

Cos­tas Douz­i­nas is Pro­fessor of Law and Dir­ector of the Birk­beck Insti­tute for the Human­it­ies, Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don. His most re­cent books in­clude Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe and, with Conor Gearty [eds], The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights Law.

Show 2 foot­notes

  1. Costas Douzinas, Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe (Cambridge, Polity, 2013), Chapters 9 and 10.
  2. Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Zizek eds, The Idea of Communism (London, Verson, 2011).

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