Syriza as Sisyphus: Governing by debt

If the Syriza government of greece prefers to speak of the “institutions” rather than the “troika” (a group of “experts” of the principal creditors of the country: IMF, European Central Bank, European Commission, responsible for negotiating and verifying austerity reforms imposed on the country), it is the “troika” that remains very much in control.  At the Eurogroup meeting between Eurozone finance ministers and the greek government on Monday, February 9, the latter was forced to accept and to negotiate anew with the same experts.  And on the evaluation of the government’s proposed reforms will depend the continuation of the financial “aid” to the country; aid without which greece faces bankruptcy.

As has so often been the case in the recent past, greece again serves as example to reveal both the nature of political power in contemporary capitalism and the considerable limits of any state driven response to crisis.  Indeed, there is no response possible.  And if one begins with the assumption, as one should, that crisis is not a temporary phenomenon, but a form of government, then sadly Syriza will be able to do little more than manage the crisis.

How then to politically break with Capital?  Does the answer lie in more reform, or greater courage to reform?  Or is it to be found in a radical flight from Capital, however this is understood?  No simple answers to these questions are ready to hand, but if they are to be found, they will not be in political parties and representational politics, and this for the simple reason that politics no longer exist in parliaments.

We share below a translation of an article by Theodoros Karyotis reflecting on Syriza and social movements (Periódico Diagonal, 5-07/03/2015).

Syriza and the movements

It is commonplace to affirm that the election victory of Syriza is in large measure based on the mobilisation of the last five years of the social movements in Greece.  However, this affirmation may mask the diversity of ideals, ideologies and demands in Greek society, as well as possibly reinforcing an overly simple image of a struggle between pro and anti-austerity forces.  If it is the case that Syriza has been present in the mass mobilisations of the last years, the fundamental factor in the consolidation of its hegemony was its capacity to mobilise the vote of the middle class, convincing the latter that it could reverse the injustices produced by indiscriminate cuts, stop the downward mobility of many and take up again the path towards the material prosperity of the years previous to the crisis.

Within the social movements, however, there are two distinct social imaginaries, complementary and at the same time antagonistic.  On the one hand are the movements of citizens affected by the antisocial attacks of the troika, who demand the restitution of the welfare state as an instrument of redistribution, the reinforcement of the state as mediator of social antagonisms and the return of economic growth with the aim of relieving the poverty and desperation that mass unemployment has provoked.  On the other hand, there are a multitude of movements that propose to go beyond the state and the capitalist economy as organising principles of social life; movements that have begun to construct now radical alternatives based on proximity, solidarity and participation.

Of course, the two imaginaries coexist in the heart of many movements and are in permanent friction.  Interminable debates have occurred, for example, in the assemblies of the dozens of Self-managed Solidarity Clinics in Greece: is their objective to fill the gaps produced by the dismantling of the public health care system or, on the contrary, to produce an alternative model for the management of health that goes beyond the state?

The groups dominated by the first imaginary celebrated the arrival of Syriza to power as their own victory.  One month latter, though, the limitations of this ideal in the present conjuncture are becoming obvious.  The power of the national government reveals itself to be insufficient to confront established powers at both the national and international level.  Despite the difficult negotiations, the new government has returned from Brussels with a new austerity plan that will make it very difficult to put into place its “social salvation plan”, as announced during the electoral campaign.  Although this result represents an improvement over earlier recovery plans, and even though it is but the first step in a long negotiation, it becomes obvious that in a Europe dominated by a neoliberal hard core that demands human sacrifices to placate the markets, there is very little room for maneuver for a progressive government.  Furthermore, with the public treasury empty and the permanent blackmail of servicing the sovereign debt, an improvement of the economy based on a Keynesian inspired politics seems equally unrealisable.

Demobilisation

On the other side, the movements inspired by the second imaginary, after the social effervescence of the years 2011-2012, went through a progressive demobilization, in part due to the strategy of attrition and repression of the previous government, but also because of the electoral dynamic of Syriza, that was able again to channel the desire for social change in a parliamentary direction.  Nevertheless, their legacy of self-managed companies, initiatives in the management of common goods, ecovillages, production and consumption cooperatives, neighbourhood assemblies, and a large variety of grass roots initiatives that prefigure an alternative organisation of society in terms of radical democracy and an economy constructed according to human needs, persist.

In this context, at the end of February in Athens was celebrated a forum of thinkers and activists of grass roots movements, with hundreds of participants, under the title “Prosperity without growth”, with the explicit goal of translating their activities into concrete proposals, addressed as much to the political powers, as well as to society.  Starting from the premise that economic growth is already incompatible with social wellbeing and environmental sustainability, the grass roots movements seek to complement the creative resistance to neoliberal politics and the construction of viable alternatives from below with the demand for radical reforms: from the introduction of a basic universal income, to the institution of new regimes of management of the commons, to the creation of a legal framework that permits the operation of recuperated factories, like Vio.Me in Thessalonica.  In this way, an effort is made to use the opportunities that a government that explicitly recognises the social and solidarity based economy as part of its political program makes possible.

The relation between state power and the social movements is never however free of friction and contradictions.  Historically, left-wing governments present the threat of cooptation and demobilisation of the movements.  In the present cconjuncture, it is important that the initiatives from below maintain their autonomy of thought and action, to avoid diluting themselves in Syriza’s hegemonic project.  For this reason, one of the most relevant initiatives that emerged from the forum was the effort to connect and integrate antagonistic projects in defense of common goods into a political actor capable of becoming a protagonist in a postconsumer society, helping thereby to overcome the artificial dilemma between austerity and growth.

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