By Costas Douzinas*
‘Europe used Greece as a guinea pig to test the conditions for resstructuring late capitalism in crisis. what the European and Greek elites did not expect was for the guineapig to occupy the lab kick out the blind scientists and start a new experiment: its own transformation from an object to a politicla suvject. The meaning and limits of democracy are renegotiated in the place it was born.’
When I was writing these lines in the autumn of 2011, many friends told me that I was excessively optimistic or, even worse, that I had lost touch with reality. The squares had emptied, the movement was in abeyance, a new government had been sworn in, the usual left melancholy had returned. Yet the truth was the opposite. 2011 was the year of dreaming fabulously and living dangerously. It was a long year. It started in December 2008, moved to 2010 Tunis and Tahrir Sqaure, 2011 Puerta del Sol, Syntagma, Zucotti Park and St Paul’s London and is now well into 2012 and the first astounding victory of the radical left in Greece.
The seed for the May 6 results was sown in Syntagma square, in popular assemblies up and down the country, in the many instancs of civil disobedience and solidarity, in the ‘can’t pay won’t pay’ movements. Without the occupations, the power system would have probably achieved its posthumous survival. The squares and mass disobedience were crucial in preparing the vote for the radical left. The unemployed and unemployable, men and women, Greeks and migranst, young and old, coming from different political ideologies and historical trajectories rose and learnt the importance of disobedience and insubordination. The squares taught three lessons which prepared the victory of the radical left. First, an aesthetic politics, second, direct democracy, finally, how to build a hegemonic bloc.
1. If, following Aristotle and Hannah Arendt, we distinguish human activity into poesis and praxis, poesis produces something, a table, chair or book. Praxis on the other hand finds its telos internally, in its own becoming, in a self-referentiality which, according to Arendt, is the essence of politics. Such is the violinist’s or dancer’s performance of a musical score or choreography, for example, the reader’s or actor’s interpretation of a novel or play. The dancer and the dance, the play and the acting cannot be prised apart.
In the Syntagma occupation, the addresses of the multitude members were instances of Aristotelian praxis, public addresses and autotelic, autarchic creations. The poems recited, the personal stories and historical references narrated transformed public speaking from instrumental and demagogic act into artistic performance making it deeply political. Syntagma was praxis and poesis, autarchic communication and purposive activity. It returned to a forgotten and lost sense about what counts as common and public. The participants contributed to public expression and communication; but also to the creation of a collective view about the common good. A new politics, an aesthetic politics, was learned and cultivated in the squares. It found its parliamentray representation in the elections which rewarded those parties and groups and ideas which participated in the occupations from the start without attempting to dominate the mutlitude.
Second, biopolitical neoliberalism does produces not just commondities but subjects. First and foremost it produces the ‘free subject’ with rights and desires, the necessary precondition of neoliberalism. The individual of late capitalism is the target and product of two strategies: the first concerned with the strength of populations applies policies around birth rate and life exptecancy, sexuality and health, education and training, work and leisure. The individual is of little concern here. The second strategy inscribes needs, desires and expectations in the individual making her feel free, autonomous creative. Only as people disciplined by the symbolic of power do we acquire the imaginary of freedom. Only as subjected we become subjects.
During periods of economic growth, working people are inserted directly into the economy through private and public debt and consumption. The indebted worker accepts that freedom of consumer choice and personal responsibility are the main criteria of success. Proliferating individual rights support this socio-economic integration. Every desire could become an entitlement, every I want X, I have a right to X.
But this atomisation of the population is also the Achilles heel of late capitalism. The worker can withdraw abruptly and even violently from leading the escalating spiral of desire, satisfaction and frustration. If one of the links in the integration chain breaks the overall psychological and ideological architecture collapses. This can happen through the sudden loss of job, major deterioration in conditions of life or expectations, attack on personal or national dignity, frustration of desires or promises. It may erupt after an accumulation of humiliations or in response to an event that condenses a plethora of grievances.
Greece is a textbook case of the complex entanglement of population control and disciplining of the subject. After entry to the euro, the government promoted consumption and hedonism as the main way of linking private interests with the common good. People were treated as desiring and consuming machines. Easy and cheap loans, bribing people to transfer their savings into stocks and shares, artificial increase of real estate values became the main instruments of economic growth. At the same time, debt fuelled consumption was promoted as the criterion for individual happiness and social mobility. The ‘obscene’ father of psychoanalysis kept telling the Greeks ‘enjoy’, ‘buy’, live as if this is your last day.
The recent measures violently disarticulated this trend. The earlier prioritization of care for individual well-being and control of conduct over population management was reversed. At the collective level, they divide Greeks according to work, profession, age, gender and race and demand radical behavioural changes for the sake of ‘national salvation’. The politics of personal desire and enjoyment has turned into a strategy of saving the genetic information of the nation by abandoning its individual members.
This is the type of subjectivity and behaviour that was overturned in the series of spontaneous leaderless protests, riots and insurrections broke out all over the world. They include the Paris banlieus in 2005 and 2007, Athens December 2008, the Arab spring, the Spanish and Greek indignados, the London August 2011 riots and the Occupy movements. Sarah, an Egyptian, tells her mother after spending time in Tahrir Square: ‘I am not myself. I am somebody new that was born today.’ A youth in the Athens December 2008 events says: ‘I had been in demos before but never participated in a riot. It was something like an initiation for me and I have to admit I felt liberated. It made me feel like a regained control of myself.’ A man who had his 3 minutes at the Syntagma assembly on June 17 spoke in perfectly formed sentences and paragraphs presenting a complete and persuasive plan for the future of the movement. Just before he was called to the mike, he was shaking and trembling, with huge stage fright. ‘How did you do it’, I asked ‘I thought you were going to collapse.’ ‘When I started speaking, I was mouthing the words but someone else was speaking. A stranger inside me was dictating to me.’ This transubstantiation, ‘the stranger in me’ is the work of freedom, when from subjected you become subject.
The multitude in the squares became a demos of resistance and disobedience. We met people from other ideologies and histories, different times and places. The people remained singularities in plurality with a common political desire, to get rid of a corrupt and incompetent poitical systemt. The post-civil war divide between victors and defeated dissolved in the populas assemblies and the clouds of teargas. On May 6, the rainbow of the squares met again in the polling stations and voted for the unity of the left. The radical left won all the big cities where the occupations took place. In places wher civil disobedience campaigns dominated the previous period, the radical left won handsomely. Direct democracy acquired its parliamentary companion.
A hegemonic strategy chooses an antagonism that transverses the social diagonally and turns it into the cetnral line of confrontation unting classes, groups and people on the popular pole. The people, the multitude, the party cannot become poitical subjects without such a hegemonic intervention. The popular pole does not pre-exist the hegemonic intervention, it must be created in its confrontation with the power system. To succeed, a hegemonic intervention must marginalise, even temporarily, regional differences and local rivalries in the popular pole and promote the cetnral antagonism. The two camps, the people and the elite, are assembled on the sides of the line of antagonism.
Three such policies were promoted in the squares and adopted by the radical left manifesto. First, an attack on the austerity measures which have led to economic collapse and the dissolution of the social fabric. This is an attack not on the debt but on the elites desire of debt and their attempt to re-arrange the social contracts using the debt as excuse. Secondly, defence of popular sovereingty and national indepedence. The IMF and the EU imposed a state of exception, suspending the legality and legitimacy of the social state. Greece was introduced to a colonial and postcolonial condition without ever being a colony. Popular sovereignty and national independence are therefore the second line of defence and antagonism. Independence can be interpreted in a radical way, as in the anti-colonial struggles, or in a reactionary xenophobic and racist way. Hegemonic intervention is necessary to prevent the exploitation of national independence by the nationalistic right but also because in times or great crisis and fear, the certainty and homeliness of national identity becomes a safe and dangerous haven.
The third line places the defence of democracy at the centre of antagonism. Neoliberal globalised capitalism has persistently and violently attacked liberal democracy. The Post-political condition, hte promotion of technocratic and expert governance in place of government has undermined democracy and turned citizens away from the machinations of elites and parties. Only a different conception of democracy can assemble popular resistance for its defence. This was the achievemnt of the squares. For the first time since the establishment of liberal democracy and its recent decay, the squares performed a direct form and inscribed its possibility in the political and institutional archive.
The hegemonic strategy that emerged in the squares changed the political discussion transfering the line of antagonism from the debt and its repayment to the re-foundation of the social bond, the protection of popular sovereignty, finally, the re-setting of institutional and constitutional parameters. These were also the three axes of the radical left: the freedom of the disobedient citizen, the equality of direct democracy and social justice, finally, the solidarity and power of the plural singularities in assembly. In the elections the multitude became a people and voted the radical left.
*Costas Douzinas is the Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. His book Resistance and Philosophy in the Crisis: Politics, Ethics and Stasis Syntagma was published by Alexandria Press in Athens (in Greek).
**This article will be published in Greek in the next issue of Unfollow magazine