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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