Law’s Catastrophe and the Greatness of Syriza

Syriza’s greatness lies in the fact that from an impossible position and in a catastrophic situation, it hasn’t been afraid to succeed.

Two narratives compete for the truth of today’s global political stage. On the one hand, there’s the narrative of leftist irresponsibility and incorrectness. On the other, an austere narrative of correctness based on the general notion that there’re certain obligations we must fulfil as a matter of necessity. At a more particular level, this second narrative is often accompanied by the assertion that only the right wing can be trusted to play well the game of chess that is global politics and economics. Leftists are fated to err, or else, kick away the chessboard in desperation.

According to the first narrative, from Athens to Caracas, leftist governments demonstrate their irresponsibility when they make public promises that are impossible to fulfil in the real world, badly managing public trust and resources, and breaking the conventional pact that supposedly unites leaders and the public through electoral mandates and the acceptance of economic or legal determinations. From this perspective, economic and forceful normative realities are inflexible. Once you accept that, and only if you accept that, you can ask what can be done and act in constant pursuit of your formulated ideals.

We know that, for the most part, this narrative is mobilised by right-wing and conservative forces interested in appearing as the only trustworthy ones before a public called upon to choose in our so-called democracies. As such, it is being peddled constantly by centrist and right wing media in Europe and the Americas. A case in point is the Spanish tabloid El País, whose daily coverage of events in Greece and Latin America offers its readers a constant diet of variations on the same theme. Recently, as talks between the Syriza government and its EU creditors reached a turning point, it ran the headline: “Germany imposes its law and Greece obtains help”.1 One doesn’t have to be an expert on Laclauian discourse theory (the Argentinian philosopher is the newspaper’s new bête noir, due to his supposed influence on the radical party Podemos) to get its implied meaning: Syriza has now caved in, betrayed its impossible ideals and thus also its electoral pact. In any case, such a pact was vitiated from the beginning by its lack of realism. The whole affair demonstrates once more that leftists are demagogues, populists, bad managers of public trust, and ignoramuses when it comes to economic realities. Voting for them is irresponsible and ultimately useless in the face of a law whose force is, as the paper put it, “imposed”.

One must wonder how come the newspaper doesn’t follow its own premise to its logical conclusion: What force of law is this, which according to the headline, is “imposed” by Germany? Is this imposition by one country alone the rule of law of an allegedly democratic EU? Can a rule of law described in such manner be legal in the most basic sense of the term? If not, isn’t this a prima facie case of authoritarianism? Of course, the newspaper doesn’t ask such questions as it prefers not to follow its own logic. Instead, it magically turns an act, it itself describes as an imposition, into its very opposite: seemingly the very example of morality, help.

But before asking the critical question “What force of law?”, it is of equal importance to notice that there may be a left-wing version of the narrative of leftist irresponsibility. In the left-wing version, any political move by a radical government intended to win time or room for manoeuvre is a capitulation (if and) when compared with a maximal goal or “the only alternative” supposedly left to a revolutionary people faced with impossible odds: de-link, withdraw from the rigged game, escape to the margins and wait there while you organise for actual resistance and possibly a counter-attack sometime tomorrow. Justice takes time. Kick the chessboard.

The left-wing version of the narrative of leftist irresponsibility is perhaps best exemplified by those who, like Tariq Ali or Costas Lapavitsas, have reacted to Syriza’s political wrangling with EU creditors with the “holier than thou” attitude expressed in the maxim “there’s no other alternative but to withdraw from the Euro. Anything less is a capitulation that breaks the promises made to the public”. At this point, the right-wing and left-wing versions of the first narrative complement each other and in fact pave the way to the hegemonic triumphalism of the second narrative: in general, conventional obligations carry necessary force; thus, they must be pursued with constancy. And in particular, leftists cannot be trusted to fulfil them for they would err or kick the chessboard away in anger or despair. Granted, there’s a kernel of truth in reactions of the kind exemplified by Tariq Ali’s response to Syriza’s deal with its creditors. It is the fact that Germany and the other EU creditors effectively held a gun to the head of the democratically elected representatives of the Greek people and then asked them to choose. That is also the kernel of truth contained in El País’s otherwise tendentious headline about Germany imposing its law. But does this mean that Syriza submitted to the will of the Germans, gave up on its commitment to the public good of the Greek people, and in doing so proved mistaken or useless in attempting to play the game of governing instead of having kicked away the chessboard?

The answer is no. The problem with this seemingly convincing argument is that it endorses all too easily the traditional image of the good politician as the wise leader (no matter how revolutionary or conservative) who, after formulating the basic outline of his theory and practice before the people called upon to choose him, must “ruthlessly pursue them thereafter”, come what may 2 We inherited that image not from Machiavellian or Leninist thought, but from the Christian theology of “constancy” according to which it would be easier and better to deal with fanatics who would ruthlessly pursue their beliefs to the bitter end (without any regard for the evil embraced in the name of belief and the coming good) than to do so with “inconstant” peoples who would be ready to enter into dialogue, listen, comprehend and even accept the beliefs of others as a valid way to truth without having to endorse such beliefs as if these themselves were the truth, come what may.

After all, so says the theology of constancy, if we could only convert the fanatics to our belief, they would defend it with the same force and utter conviction they demonstrated in defending theirs. It is the latter, those who don’t believe in belief, who in their inconstancy become the real problem. Notice however, that it’s only the latter who can point towards the “come what may” attitude of the constancy of belief and articulate the point of such an attitude — not as one of convincing morality or the consequent legality of the possible, but rather, actually, as the truth of a catastrophe.

That truth-seeking attitude was exemplified by the Vice-Minister of Defence of the Syriza government when asked by a Spanish journalist whether the back and forth between Syriza and its EU creditors wasn’t in fact pure theatrics, a spectacle for the naïve masses. He responded: “There’s indeed drama in Greece. We had thousands committing suicide, and thousands upon thousands of our young people going into exile. You want to call that theatrics, a farce? I call it a tragedy”.3

The same could be said of the Syriza government as a whole, that its radicality is of the kind that, from an impossible position of solitude, articulates the truth of a catastrophe and in doing so clears the way towards a break up with the evolutionary historicism and naturalist legalism of inflexible responsibility towards obligations and constancy. Faced with a forced choice, in an impossible position, Syriza has asked for the impossible: flexibility rather than determinist imposition in response to financial obligations; not to be forced out of the Eurozone; that European officials back away from their threat to collapse the Greek financial system by pushing it beyond liquidity; a relaxation of fiscal policy. All this Syriza achieved. In doing so, as Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic Policy and Research remarked, Syriza pushed European officials to a “significant retreat [which] shows that their austerity program, which has failed miserably, is no longer politically enforceable. The Greek election has been shown to be a turning point for Europe”.4 Crucially, this is the exact opposite of the austere narrative of necessary, inflexible compliance with one’s obligations. It is also the opposite of the old leftist position exemplified by Ali or Lapavitsas, according to which leftists must kick away the entire board game for they cannot play it successfully. And as such, Syriza’s achievement in reaching a deal with its European creditors belies the assertion that only right-wing politicians and finance ministers who dress and think like bankers can play the game successfully. In this sense, much like Lenin circa 1917, Syriza’s greatness lies in the fact that from an impossible position and in a catastrophic situation, it hasn’t been afraid to succeed.5

As such, this catastrophe, as well as the impossible position Syriza started from, or the farcical attempts to repeat the catastrophe again and again in the name of moral constancy and obligation, clear the ground for the revolutionary event, for breaking the evolutionary, historicist, and necessitarian chain linking given, forced obligations, ends, and choices with their ruthless pursuit. Put otherwise, Syriza has proven that justice is optional, also in the financial sense of valuing contingent claims by hedging them against conventional wisdom and rules.

In conclusion, faced with forced choices as is often the case in crucial political junctures, the option must be neither blind faith in one’s belief and obligation, nor to kick away the board and to follow ruthlessly the course outlined by one’s formulated thought and practice, no matter what. This is so not because of some calculation about possible final consequences; such calculation simply cannot be obtained as no one can be in the position of complete knowledge at the end of history, or its probabilistic approximation, as we’ve learned from Hegel’s debate with Kant, and from the work of their successors in outlining critical theory. On the contrary, it is because upon closer inspection, this dilemma of forced choices appears as a false one. Actually, as no more than a variation on the constant theme of destiny and destination.

The two narratives I described at the beginning aren’t opposites, real or logical, precisely in the sense in which they are but variations on the same theme of destiny: on the one hand, leftists can only err at playing the game of governing or kick away the board in desperation (or because of “constancy”, in the left-wing version of the first narrative, which is, I suspect, what Ali and others have in mind when they criticize Syriza). On the other hand, we are fated to comply with certain obligations and to face hard realities (which in our time, more often than not, take the shape of financial obligations and hard realities); and only after we accept such a fact can we ask what is to be done. Right-wing politicians and centrists are the only ones to be trusted with government because they are “realists” in this sense. But in fact, the realism that unites these seemingly opposite narratives is the realism of destiny. Such realism is but a fantasy, a religious fantasy as the young Hegel observed, filled with gothic images of destination, pointing at the heavens, the promised land or the end of history and its conflicts, “more appropriate for a child still incapable of understanding something big, sublime, eventful.”6

Alas, in the passage just referenced, Hegel was referring to Germany. He was also calling for a renewed sense of maturity, a new enlightenment. He was calling for a way out of the night, its sombre aspect — which is the aspect of destiny, of being fated or enslaved. Yes, we face forced choices, we find ourselves in an impossible position. But it is because we are in an impossible position that we can ask for the impossible and actually achieve it; not by submitting to an imposed law (accepting that the game is rigged and that’s that) or by kicking away the board game or the ladder behind us once we have used it to climb up. Rather, we can always play to change the rules of the game. In fact, rules change all the time, but what is needed is the one who stops believing the rules are fit and/or necessary; and who in solitude understands not only the contingency of the rules, but also that the only way to demonstrate their contingency is to play to smash them. Such is the greatness of Syriza, for its actions are testimony to the beginning of a new enlightenment, present and future, taking place in the land we once thought of as consigned to the ancient past. Call it poetic justice.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera is senior lecturer in law at Birkbeck, University of London. His most recent book, ‘Story of a Death Foretold. The Coup Against Allende, 9/11/1973’, was shortlisted for the 2014 Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. El País, 21 February, 2015. Page 1.
  2. Slavoj Zizek, “Introduction: Between the Two Revolutions”, in Revolution at the Gates. Selected Writings of Lenin From 1917, London: Verso, 2002, 6, for the source of the paraphrases.
  3. Salvados, broadcasted by the Spanish TV channel La Sexta on Sunday 22nd February, 2015.
  4. “Greek bailout extension represent as ‘significant’ retreat, by the European authorities, CEPR co-director says”, 20 February, 2015, at http://www.cepr.net/index.php/press-releases/press-releases/greek-bailout-extension-deal-represents-a-significant-retreat-by-the-european-authorities-cepr-co-director-says , last viewed 23-02-2015.
  5. See Slavoj Zizek, “Introduction: Between the Two Revolutions”, in Revolution at the Gates. Selected Writings of Lenin From 1917, London: Verso, 2002, 6, for the source of the paraphrases.
  6. GWF Hegel, El joven Hegel. Ensayos y esbozos. Ed. by J. M. Ripalda, México: FCE, 2014, 3–7, at 7.
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Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera is senior lecturer in law and Assistant Dean of the School of Law, Birkbeck, and collaborates with the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. He is the writer of the award-winning What If Latin America Ruled the World? (Bloomsbury, 2010), chosen as one the best non-fiction books that year by The Financial Times and reviewed in The Washington Post, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, BBC Radio 4 Start the Week, with Andrew Marr, Al-Jazeera’s The Riz Khan Show, Folha de Sao Paulo, and other major newspapers and media around the world. He has published in Granta, is a weekly columnist of El Espectador (COL), and a frequent contributor to the BBC World Service Nightwaves, The Stream, Monocle Radio 24, NTN 24, and Al-Jazeera, among others. He has been invited to take part in the Hay Festivals (Wales, Colombia, Lebanon and Mexico), and contributed as a curator and a speaker with the Serpentine Gallery, Southbank Centre, Intelligence Squared, Tate Modern, Pen International, and Colombiage. Born in Colombia, he was educated in that country and in Great Britain. He graduated as a lawyer in Bogotá (Universidad Javeriana, 1993) after leading the Student Movement that initiated the 1990's wave of constitutional reform throughout Latin America, and obtained his LLM with Distinction at University College London, and his PhD in Philosophy at the King’s College of the University of Aberdeen. He is on the editorial boards of Naked Punch: An Engaged Review of Arts & Theory; International Law. Colombian Journal of International Law; Universitas. Xavier University Law Review, (COL); and Open Law Journal and is on the advisory board of the Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal, and is recognised as one of the most representative voices of contemporary Latin American philosophy and literature. 

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  1 comment for “Law’s Catastrophe and the Greatness of Syriza

  1. Julian Wells
    26 February 2015 at 3:35 pm

    I think it should be noted that Lapavitsas, at least, is no more than partly at fault as described above. He has said that “[t]he deal was a partial victory, in that it bought time.”

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