Dreaming dangerously

8 Jul

Slavoj Zizek’s response to the Greek referendum  apologises for a potentially fatal flaw in Syriza’s strategy.

For Slavoj Zizek a lesson to be drawn from Syriza’s referendum victory last Sunday is that:

‘The moment has come to move beyond the irrelevant debates about the possible mistakes and misjudgments of the Greek government. The stakes are now much too high.’

Zizek is right that we should take no notice of the criticisms of Syriza for not compromising enough with the European institutions. However, we need to be very alert to the fact that, notwithstanding the Syriza leadership’s charisma and elan, their pro-Euro strategy and rhetoric are a potential disaster for the Greek people and for the European left.

Zizek’s own argument throws up the key reason to continue to debate Syriza’s approach. He argues that in the face of ‘the technocratic status quo that has kept Europe in inertia for decades’:

‘only a new “heresy” (represented at this moment by Syriza) can save what is worth saving in European legacy: democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity.’

He points out that ‘democracy, trust in the people, egalitarian solidarity’ is a program that is no more radical than that which was once put forward by moderate social democracy. But he also observes that Syriza, in promoting this moderate ‘heresy’ through its campaign to stay in the Eurozone, ‘effectively wants something that is not possible within the coordinates of the existing global system.’  But if that is right, then Zizek’s new heresy, as it is ‘represented by Syriza’, is really a fantasy, because Syriza, throughout the referendum campaign and since, has promoted the idea of a European Union characterized by ‘democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity’, something that Zizek knows is not possible.

The reason it is not possible is that both the Euro and the wider European Union are technocratic projects that remove full political control of Europe’s economies from its national governments. In the Eurozone, control of policy is handed over to intergovernmental forums at European level, such as the Eurogroup of finance ministers that is presided over by Zizek’s ‘emblematic bad guy’ in the Greek drama, Dutch finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. In these European forums, national leaders technocratically impose the dictates of the market, insulated from the tawdry ‘ideological’ contestation of electoral politics (aka democratic accountability). In other words, the Euro is founded on distrust of the people, frustrating democracy and evading solidarity; these are its raison d’etre.

While Syriza has exposed and provoked Europe’s technocratic politicians, it has failed to understand that technocratic intransigence and democratic deficit are constitutional features of the Euro project. As a consequence of this failure, it has convinced the Greek people to vote for two mutually exclusive positions – No to technocracy and austerity, Yes to the Euro. This contradiction in Syriza’s strategy presents a serious danger to both Greece and European democracy generally.

Perhaps, when Zizek says that Syriza represents his heresy of ‘democracy, trust in the people, egalitarian solidarity’, he means that Syriza will now show its true colours. If Greece is kicked out of the Eurozone, Syriza can say to the Greek people: ‘we did everything possible to return the Eurozone to a moderate social democratic path, but it is just not possible. Now we must do something different.’ And no doubt Greek officials are working hard on technical contingency plans for Grexit. The problem is that Syriza appears to have done nothing politically to prepare either the Greek people or their supporters for such a radical change of direction, at least not in public. Syriza’s leaders have instead insisted that a No vote is a vote to stay in the Eurozone. If its true colours really are anti-Euro, then the Syriza leadership is waiting a dangerously long time to show them.

From the point of view of the Eurozone, ejecting Greece from the Euro would be a mark of the failure of the technocratic project of European integration. And that is giving Eurozone leaders pause for thought. Perhaps, given the growing evidence of the failure of their project, and their own resultant political weakness, the Eurozone leaders will throw in the towel and come around to the Syriza heresy. But just writing that down indicates how unlikely it is, which is why Zizek doesn’t believe it is possible either.

If Greece is forced out of the Eurozone, Syriza may find itself presiding over an economic collapse that it has claimed all along will not happen. In the medium-term, Grexit may be good for the Greek economy. But in the short run it will be very difficult indeed, and given that Syriza has not prepared its supporters or Greece for Grexit, executing such a sudden political U-turn in dire economic straits, will test the Greek left’s credibility, inventiveness, and coherence to the limit. The alternative to Grexit appears to be that Tsipras tries to sell a deal that is no better (or not much better) than the one they were offered before the referendum, which will be a political disaster for Syriza.

Neither of these alternatives seems likely to achieve more democracy, trust in the people or solidarity. Instead they each threaten only to reinforce the popular perception that even such a moderate program is no more than a fantasy of left-wing dreamers. The danger lies not in the moderate ideological content of Syriza’s demands as such, but in Syriza’s fostering of the illusion that these moderate demands can be met within the Eurozone. It is this problem that Zizek’s merely laudatory response to the referendum result obscures.

The unraveling of Syriza’s pro-Euro strategy risks further lowering political horizons in Europe, and stripping the radical left of its recently regained credibility at a time when mainstream politics also lacks authority. Further fragmentation in public life, especially in Greece, is in prospect. Debating whether Syriza’s strategy has been a good one seems anything but irrelevant. The stakes are much too high not to debate it.

Peter Ramsay

3 Responses to “Dreaming dangerously”

  1. jordanosserman July 9, 2015 at 3:15 pm #

    While I agree with the need for Syriza to formulate a “Grexit strategy” as well the value of a debate over Syriza’s approach more generally, I think this misses the implicit dialectical dimension of Zizek’s arguments. It’s not the case, Zizek argues, that Syriza has “failed to understand” the technocratic nature of the EU, or that they have “fostered an illusion” of a fair deal on the debt. Rather, I think Zizek’s point is that, in order to generate a genuine political antagonism, it is necessary to push certain “reformist” demands that seem “reasonable” but are actually impossible under the current order, forcing that order to show its true political (i.e. anti-democratic, technocratic) colors. (Witness the genuine *political* pandemonium that followed the announcement of the referendum, such as the IMF finally disagreeing with the ECB). Only via this approach, the argument goes, can the space be opened for a real political confrontation and the emergence of a genuine alternative to neoliberal order. Were Syriza to take a “more” radical stance (immediate Grexit), there would not have been a real political conflict concerning the nature of austerity/global neoliberalism; the EU technocrats would successfully maintain their authority, arguing that Greece acted immaturely, and Syriza would lack the political allies to sustain itself.

    This is not about Syriza cleverly demonstrating to the public what they already know themselves (that the EU will not agree to a deal). Varoufakis has been candid throughout that he thinks a sudden “Greece on its own” strategy would lead to chaos and support for Golden Dawn.

    Rather, as it emerged in a Facebook discussion on your article, the EU strategy depends on where one figures the role of the “impossible.” You’re arguing that if something is clearly impossible or “illusory” (a fair deal in the EU), one should abandon it and go for what’s evidently possible (Grexit). I think Zizek would argue that, given that a true leftist alternative to neoliberal economics is itself “impossible” as far as our contemporary socio-symbolic universe is concerned, one has to locate oneself as the border of possibility — the “reasonable” demand that actually fractures the whole system — in order to generate the space for the impossible/inconceivable left alternative to emerge. Going straight for Grexit without creating that open space will, the logic goes, only produce reactionary results that ultimately reaffirm the neoliberal status quo.

  2. Peter Ramsay July 10, 2015 at 10:02 am #

    Reply to jordanosserman:

    I don’t dispute your account of Zizek’s thinking. Nor do I reject the idea that, at certain historical moments, it is necessary to make what you call ‘the “reasonable” demand that actually fractures the whole system’ (ie, a moderate demand that it is impossible for the system to satisfy).

    However, it is not possible to ‘fracture the whole system’ with a reasonable-but-impossible demand, or for that matter with any demand at all, unless you are willing to break with the system politically. The combination of the reasonableness and impossibility of the political demand will not by itself achieve any lasting politicization of the population or any significant section of it. For that to happen such demands have to be made by people who are willing to take seriously the political consequences of those demands being impossible to satisfy within the system, and to explain those consequences to their constituency.

    The new proposals tabled by Syriza yesterday and put to the Greek parliament today are essentially the same as those they asked the Greek people to reject in the referendum. This volte face strongly and very publicly demonstrates that Syriza’s leadership is not willing to break with the Euro system whatever the consequences. And the consequences for Syriza’s unity and/or the left’s credibility are likely to be dire. It turns out that the reasonable-but-impossible demand, when made by those who are unwilling to break with a system that cannot deliver on the demand, will not ‘fracture the whole system’, it will fracture those who make the demand.

    Of course, it is still possible that the Eurozone leaders decide to be rid of Greece and that by next week they will have forced Greece to be ‘on its own’. Yanis Varoufakis is right to fear this but only because he and his colleagues will have allowed themselves to be forced into it, rather than themselves actively promoting default, democracy and trust in the Greek people.

    To revive democratic control, trust in the people and some semblance of solidarity in Europe in 2015, it will be necessary to break up the Euro. (Note the immediate political aims of such a strategy are not dissimilar to those of Varoufakis, but the way of promoting them is the opposite of his.) If the Greek people had been positively convinced by their leaders to default and go their own way, they would no doubt have provoked the ire of the clapped-out elites that run the Eurozone, but they would have proved their maturity by taking their future into their own hands and giving a lead to people across the globe.

    I readily concede your claim at the beginning of your comment, that Syriza has exposed the true anti-democratic colours of the Eurozone. It may even be right to say that Syriza’s dreaming is a necessary moment in the process of political clarification that could lead to a new democratic movement. But that clarification can only occur if there is an energetic critique of the pro-Euro left’s fantasies. Without such a critique, the very process through which Syriza has exposed the anti-democratic nature of the Euro project will also defeat democracy. The result among those Greeks and others in Europe who are inclined to democracy is more likely to be fatalism and withdrawal than it is to be further politicization.

    We need to strengthen the hands of anyone in Greece who is in a position to offer the Greek people such a democratic critique of Syriza and to give it organisational form, because then something can be rescued from the wreckage. My criticism of Zizek was that he should be joining with them and us, and not apologising for Syriza’s misleading strategy.


    • jordanosserman July 15, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

      Given the latest developments in Greece, I think your points are spot on. It remains a question for me how successful the results of the referendum would have been had Syriza not sincerely taken the pro-Euro stance it did; and a public witnessing of creditors’ post-referendum brutality (especially with the sudden IMF departure) may, in the long run, have proven to be an important wake-up call. Additionally, some of the left optimism for Grexit (especially from those outside the country) itself seems to harbor many fantasies, expecting a poor indebted country to singlehandedly ignite the Revolution, whatever the costs. Nevertheless it seems evident now that supporting the political organization of an alternative to the Euro is the only option left for anti-austerity.

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