by Stathis Gourgouris*
Writing a few days before the May 6 elections in Greece, I argued that these elections were the most important in Greece’s recent history and that, in its response to the commanding structures of global capital, Greek society found itself at the global forefront. Both are still in effect, except it turns out that the next elections on June 17th will be even more important than the ones conducted in May.
The May 6 electoral result demonstrated that the majority of the Greek people are refusing to accept the imposed dismantling of their social and economic infrastructure, the flash impoverishment across broad strata of society, the annihilation of the next generation’s future, and the vilification of an entire way of life. Even more important, Greek society showed that it will not accept being used as an experiment of global neoliberal economics. As argued in recent article in The Wall Street Journal, this was not merely an economic experiment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is quoted admitting that, in imposing such painful austerity measures, the troika singled out Greece for punishment as a lesson to any other European societies who might consider resisting its commands.
Nothing surprises us here, least of all the cynicism of both global financial power and the mainstream media in its service. It is, in many ways, an old story. This is not the first time in history where the fate of whole societies was held in the hands of bankers, although it may be dutiful for us to remember that when this is pushed to the extreme, societies unravel in extraordinary violence and international war. Given that the European Union as a political ideal was constituted in order to prevent such unraveling, it is remarkable that its political and economic leadership is most responsible for pursuing this catastrophic course against all sense of prudence and measure.
There are both general and particular dimensions to this situation that must be reiterated.
The Greek particulars
According to the evidence of the popular political will, Greece is facing the prospect of a government of the Left in ways unparalleled in its democratic history. Not only the May 6 electoral outcome but subsequent evidence of public opinion shows that the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) is becoming the preferred vehicle of people’s declaration of having had enough of this imposed impoverishment. But it is also – and this is often neglected in international reportage – a declaration of the people’s opposition to a corrupt clientelist political system. While in previous years, a vote for SYRIZA may have been the luxury of the few who voted in opposition (in addition to those who belonged ideologically to this political space), it is now a vote of urgency with entirely practical demands and real consequences. SYRIZA is no longer the coalition of leftist intellectuals and rebellious youth. It has become a political hub for people who may not even be ideological adherents of SYRIZA principles strictly speaking, but who see there the prospect of an alternative – indeed, the necessity of an alternative.
Greeks are not spoiled and corrupt beneficiaries of a system of subsidies and kick-backs, as has been the dominant Orientalist representation in international mainstream media. Of course there has been a corrupt political elite that ruled with impunity for the last 30-some years. Of course there have been extensive tax violations – extensive but not spread indiscriminately throughout the ranks of an entire population. Of course there has existed corruption in the justice system and the public sector in the service of a clientelist state. But many such social and political phenomena, in various degrees and combinations, have existed (and continue to exist) in all countries that sustain themselves with whatever degree of capitalist economic relations, including the most advanced, most “rationalized,” and most “modernized” economies. No serious analyst would want to discount Greek culpability in the current situation. But equally, no serious analyst should discount the fact that: 1) this culpability is not a specifically Greek phenomenon; 2) the culpability in the specifically Greek problem is as much to be attributed to international financiers doing business in Greece in the last 30 years and general European Union policies, both economic and political.
The majority of Greeks is aware of the endemic problems of their society. This is precisely why they punished the two previously ruling parties at the ballot box on May 6th and why they are inclined to support SYRIZA as an alternative prospect. It is well established that, except for a tiny minority of nationalists in both Left and Right, the Greek people are committed to the European project. But they are not committed to being disenfranchised of their sovereignty by extra-territorial political decisions in the name of the European project, and they are not committed to being pillaged by global markets in the name of European Union monetary policies. And why should they? What other European society would? This question is never posed.
One of the many propagandistic vilifications in mainstream media has been to present SYRIZA as running on a fringe anti-Europeanist platform. Nothing is further from the truth. More than any other Greek political party, SYRIZA is committed to a total overhaul of the corrupt clientelist system of the Greek political state, including dire measures to overturn various privileges of the political elite that have enabled it to rule with impunity for decades. But SYRIZA cannot be committed to an externally imposed and administered austerity that lays a stranglehold on all economic and political capacities of the Greek people – an austerity program that has been criticized and rejected by the world’s most renown economists, independent of global financial interests (Paul Krugman chief among them), who have repeatedly laid out austerity’s catastrophic consequences in real economic terms. SYRIZA cannot be committed to a status quo that robs a people of their sovereignty and debases their existence; it cannot be committed to act as a servant-government, servant to bankers, financiers, and foreign political elites. This is why the Greek people have put their political will behind it, regardless of ideological position.
The electoral outcome of June 17 is too close to call, as the neoliberal New Democracy Party is consolidating the Right flank in desperation of losing its privileges and in total disregard of safeguarding the country’s sovereignty. But for SYRIZA, the task ahead is already set and carries real gravity. It is encouraging to see SYRIZA ranks organizing open and public discussions on the question “what is a government of the Left?” In emerging as a real government option, SYRIZA is taking on an enormous responsibility to the Greek public, the first step of which is to overcome the Left’s general taboo on governance. Outside revolutionary situations – indeed, because of its revolutionary legacy – the Left worldwide thrived in the role of mere opposition to ruling parties in parliament. One might say that the Left’s attachment to opposition has traditionally been so great that any discourse about its taking on the responsibility of government was considered automatically a compromise or even betrayal of principles. That this attitude weakened the political capacity of the Left to express the popular will has not been given the proper attention among its ranks.
So, SYRIZA finds itself at the crossroads of an extraordinary decision, which has repercussions beyond Greece, as I elaborate below. It is being called upon to restore the country’s lost dignity by fighting to regain the country’s lost sovereignty against, on the one hand, ruthless external forces and, on the other hand, internal tendencies toward either stupid nationalist so-called defiance or self-serving capitulation by an established system that hopes to retain its catastrophic privileges. SYRIZA cannot steer this difficult road by acting as it has always been used to act: in opposition. It must govern – which, above all, means re-establishing and enacting a code of justice in a society that has been left virtually in total anomie, a broad lawlessness that was deliberately cultivated by the previous ruling parties for their own political and financial benefit. As government that legislates and protects the law of the people, one of SYRIZA’s first acts will have to be to purge the Greek police of well-known fascist elements, to repeal laws that protect members of parliament from indictment, and to restore credibility to a bankrupt justice system.
Mainstream media pundits are obsessed with what SYRIZA will do with the Memorandum agreements and whether it will implement economic reforms, while in fact SYRIZA’s call to implement social and political reforms from the highest level on down is precisely what is needed for Greek society to restore its financial credibility and its capacity for economic development that is both real and responsible fiscally and environmentally. Bankers and financiers worldwide, with the support of servile media, have established the language of numbers as the only language of truth, while at the same time their irresponsible manipulation of numbers have sent entire populations, real men, women, and children to ruin. But a battle against a society’s corruption (which would include the ranks of these financial elites) cannot be calculated and conducted in the language of numbers; it takes place in the sphere of social struggle and the political capacity of a people to determine (and alter) their own ways.
The Global Significance
It has been amply and convincingly argued that the establishment of so-called globalization went hand in hand with the weakening and waning of the sovereign state. We see a broad phenomenon of elected governments either unable to combat market invasions (being often at the mercy of credit rating agencies, as if nations are corporations) or bought straight out by powerful financial conglomerates (the scandalous Citizens United law instituted by the US Supreme Court is the most harrowing realization of this phenomenon). No doubt, the capitulation of such governments has been enabled by the tacit consent of the majority of the population, which was sold (in more ways than one) to the pipe dream of economic prosperity and consumerist comfort.
But as international bankers and financiers margined themselves out in a relentless race of greed for capital accumulation, real wealth was summarily removed from households across the board, homes were lost, savings and retirement accounts were depleted, and insurmountable debt became the new economy. All the while, global conglomerates continue to rake in record profits and leading executives of banks and corporations continue to reward themselves with ever higher bonuses as master traders of debt. It is in this sense that investment banking becomes highway robbery, and one cannot but relish the brilliant verse that Bertolt Brecht endows to Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera: “What’s robbing a bank compared to founding a bank!” Mackie’s sardonic declaration exemplifies the quintessential principle of financial capitalism: banks have free reign to gamble with people’s deposited savings or mortgaged properties, but while they keep billions of profits for themselves, they saddle people with billions of losses from their reckless bets. Austerity programs are then essentially no more than ways of cashing in on such losses, as whole countries become enslaved in debt relations at loan shark rates.
Greece is a small country and a small economy. This is why it was selected as an experiment for these punitive neoliberal commands; the liability, in economic terms, is correspondingly small. But the peoples of Europe particularly – along with the peoples of the world watching – need to realize that Greek resistance to becoming such an experiment has vast consequences because it pertains to the future of all. If Greece goes down and is successfully shackled by the commands of global capital, there will have emerged within the ranks of the European Union a precedent that dismantles the EU’s own sovereignty as a political project. However it is to happen, whether by total capitulation or by expulsion, to kill Greece is for the European Union to commit suicide. And it may be that global financial interests don’t care (as they are indeed, by account of recent events, entirely careless), but real populations certainly do care about what and who determines their future, especially when their future seems endangered. The recent phenomenon of assembly movements in occupied public spaces, whatever their shortcomings, suggests that, in the wake of the crisis in the centers of financial capitalism, people are emerging from their consumerist stupor and realizing that their relative prosperity is entirely manufactured outside their domain of control and so can be – with unfathomable speed and at unprecedented scale – almost instantly revoked.
This painful awakening includes the realization that state mechanisms have become thoroughly compromised, as ruling elites have come to trade their country’s sovereignty for a small piece of the financial pie. Hence, politics is taking an interesting turn toward its elemental aspects: mass citizen action, first of all out in the streets, which has become the only available uncompromised option, but then also at the ballot box, where citizens revoke their consent to the very clientelist relations they had helped foster. No doubt, as the political is violently overtaken by the economic in the very field of government – literally, as bankers or financial technocrats are appointed to manage the affairs of state (Greece and Italy being recent examples) – the only space to reclaim the political is in taking over the public spaces in mass numbers. We have reached a point that the very language of numbers that discredits the existence of the real social individual can only be conducted by large numbers of real individuals who demand back their abrogated self-determination against capitulation to the language of numbers.
In the era of globalized deterritorialization by what we can call “the politics of finance” we observe the most elemental politics of all: the politics of real people producing a new democratic public that reclaims society’s territory. This is not about defending some ancestral notion of the nation; it is about re-establishing the territory of self-determination, the essential ground for any real democracy. Although increasing phenomena of fanatic nationalism (even fascism) in Europe are equally consequential of the debilitating deterritorialization of globalized economy, these must be combatted with equal force, for they trade one mode of capitulation (economic) for another (ideological). Radical democratic movements are in fact both indicative of redrawing the boundaries of self-determination of specific societies and redrawing the capacity for a new international, a solidarity among peoples in different societies who come together precisely in the co-incidence of resistance to globalized incapacitation.
In this respect, though small in numbers by global standards, Greek resistance continues to be at the forefront, especially for the people of European societies who now face the most dire decision since Europe was consolidated in the European Union project: whether this Union will be, in the end, nothing but a commodity to be bought and sold in the global market with utter disregard to the fate of its inhabitants, or a coalition of peoples who make their own political decisions as to how their future will be safeguarded together.
*Stathis Gourgouris is Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University