Without the creative impulse of the radical imagination, it is impossible to build a truly self-governing society
Ιnterview with Jerome Roos published at Analyzegreece.gr , the editor of ROAR magazine
Υou lived in Athens, last year, for several months. What was the most surprising or unexpected experience for you? Which are the main conclusions you drew from your stay?
I guess if anything, it was the despondence on the streets and the overwhelming pessimism among activists and ordinary citizens alike. I was in Athens during the occupation of Syntagma Square in 2011. Of course the crisis was on everyone’s mind at that time, but I nevertheless encountered great enthusiasm and high expectations – especially among many first-time movement participants.
Returning in late 2013, on the heels of the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, I was taken aback by how much the atmosphere had changed. No one really saw a way out. Everyone was either depressed or extremely cynical, and I guess the latter was just a defense mechanism against the former. Of course I expected this to some extent, but I was surprised by how strong it was and how much it affected me at a personal level.
At the same time what truly amazed me was that, obviously, people find a way. Life goes on. I was particularly inspired to see how ordinary people helped each other get by, how mutual aid networks and solidarity initiatives had really advanced quite a lot since the first time I visited. Witnessing all of this up close was really a very heartwarming experience. Milton Friedman, the godfather of neoliberalism, used to say that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I cannot recount the amount of times that Greek friends (and strangers) have proven the grumpy old market fundamentalist wrong!
Politically speaking, I guess my conclusions were kind of contradictory from the point of view of ideological puritanism. On the one hand, experiencing firsthand the local successes of some self-managed initiatives, my views on grassroots activism were strengthened and enriched. It is almost like George Orwell once wrote in a letter about his experiences in anarchist Barcelona: “I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.” But at the same time I will never forget that sense of despondence and depression. I guess the result was that I developed a greater tolerance for views I might previously have dismissed as “reformist.” I also became more convinced of the urgent need to take the state apparatus out of the hands of the capitalist class, if only as a defensive measure to temporarily neutralize the repressive arm of the police and protect popular living standards and common decency.
The Greek elections, 25.1.2015
The forthcoming Greek elections may bring the Left to power. What’s their significance and meaning for Greece and Europe?
As a general matter, I do not ascribe very great significance to elections in the broader social struggle, but it’s obvious that these elections are different. Greece finds itself in a permanent state of emergency, and there is no doubt that this will be the most monumental vote since the fall of the junta. Obviously the prospect of the radical left taking power for the first time in EU history is significant in and of itself, and given Syriza’s stated intentions to renegotiate the debt and take on the oligarchs, there is a genuine prospect of an improvement in overall conditions – if only to provide much-needed breathing space to working people, the unemployed and the movements. And needless to say, the possible demise of the two-party political aristocracy that has ruled the country since the fall of the junta would be a historical development per se.
For the European bankocracy, a Syriza victory would probably be a big shock initially – but I think they will quickly adjust. In the end, I believe a left government in Greece could provide the European project with a rejuvenating impulse from below. Many influential economists and commentators now stress that, if Germany lets it, Syriza could strengthen rather than undermine the single currency. As Wolfgang Münchau of the Financial Times has repeatedly argued, the radical left is the only force capable of nudging the European project into a sensible direction – even if he believes, like I do, that Greece’s interests are ultimately not served by continued euro membership.
The perspectives and the main obstacles for a government of the Left
Which will be, in your opinion, the perspectives and the main obstacles for a government of the Left in Greece?
There are domestic obstacles and international constraints. Domestic obstacles include the difficulties of reforming a dysfunctional, cronyist and corrupt state apparatus; democratizing a police force and deep state that is dominated by fascists; withstanding the ferocious assaults of the media and the continuous dirty politics of the right; and, crucially, maintaining internal coherence (both within the governing coalition and within the left itself) in the face of extreme external pressures. As for external constraints, they are significant and must not be underestimated.
The most important external constraints remains the heavy debt load, the effective exclusion from international capital markets, and the total absence of monetary and fiscal autonomy, without which Greece is prevented from pursuing expansionary economic policies. Of course the debt issue could be addressed if European creditors (read: Germany) consent to a write-down, but I personally do not see many opportunities for a radical political project within the fiscal and monetary straitjacket of the eurozone. At the same time, I also recognize that Syriza has no other options at this point. To announce a euro exit as part of your electoral campaign would be suicidal both politically and economically.
In this sense, Syriza’s preference to stay within the euro and bluff the Germans into debt cancellation and Keynesian reforms of the ECB may have a quixotic quality to them, but they are ultimately the most sensible and moderate demands. On its current platform, a Syriza-led government should be able to find some reasonable allies in the international financial press, in the international financial institutions, and perhaps even among center-left governments and opposition parties in the creditor countries. I see this approach as far from ideal because it perpetuates Greece’s dependence on external actors, especially Germany, but I recognize that the alternatives at this stage – including doing nothing – are much more costly.
This gives the rest of us Europeans, especially those of us from the North, a very big responsibility. We must now exert immense pressure on our own governments to carry out a major international debt cancellation and to transform European institutions into a radically new direction. This will be an uphill struggle, and I urge my Greek friends not to put too much faith in the reasonableness of Northern Europeans. As Nietzsche already pointed out, the German word for debt (Schuld) also means guilt or blame. This reflects a deeply ingrained moralism in Germany surrounding the question of debt. Public opposition to forgiveness remains fierce, and Merkel is feeling the electoral pressure from Germany’s Euroskeptic right.
At the same time, Syriza’s radical internationalism is uplifting and a positive contrast to the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of the business class. If we do not take this struggle to the European level, if we confine ourselves to local communities or nation states, we ultimately leave this crucial terrain to the bankers and the bureaucrats. That would be suicidal.
Mexico, Argentina and Greece
Your research focuses on comparing Mexico, Argentina and Greece – all three countries having faced a severe public debt crisis, but each one of them following a distinct path in its attempt to cope with it. What are the lessons Greece could learn from the two others?
The lessons from Mexico and Argentina are relatively straightforward. Mexico was the first country to experience a major debt crisis in the neoliberal era and it revealed a new norm in international finance: that debtors should be made to bear all the costs of adjustment. And so Mexico was the most compliant debtor during the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s. It duly serviced its debts, carried out all the required neoliberal reforms, and ended up paying the price for it: the 1980s are still known as “the lost decade.” Today, Mexico has one of the most violent and unequal societies in the world, with a handful of billionaires at the top, drug gangs taking over the state, and millions leaving to make a living up North. This is where Merkel and Samaras want to take Greece.
Argentina, of course, took the opposite approach. When financial crisis struck in 1999, it initially pursued a similar path as Mexico, but the spontaneous popular uprising of December 2001 forced the banker-friendly De la Rúa out of office and put the Peronist establishment under immense pressure to make significant concessions to the population at large. In response, it decreed a unilateral moratorium on debt repayments and made a number of populist reforms to restore a sense of calm. Kirchner came to power in 2003 and successfully restructured the debt in 2005. The Argentine economy, as we all know, recovered rapidly throughout the 2000s, although it also benefited from very favorable external conditions – which Greece, notably, does not have.
So far, Greece has effectively followed the path of Mexico. But I think it would be a mistake to say that, under a Syriza-led government, it would enter into a Kirchner-like phase. The two situations are very different now. Kirchner came to power when Argentina had already defaulted and was not repaying any of its debts. At this point, most big banks had already dumped their Argentine bonds on a dispersed group of European pensioners, especially Italians. These “little guys” couldn’t put up an effective front against Argentina, and Kircher was able to force them into an unusually harsh debt restructuring that cancelled about 75% of Argentina’s debt.
Greece is in a very different position today, and either way, Argentina itself is once again facing a crisis, so it’s not clear if Kirchner’s corporatist model is really anything to emulate. Still, in contrast to Kirchner, the moment Syriza comes to power it will still be expected to repay its debt in full. And while the big international banks, just like in Argentina, have already dumped their Greek bonds, Greece’s debt is now very highly concentrated in the official sector: almost 80% of it is held by European governments, the IMF and the ECB. Defaulting unilaterally on these official creditors would be very different from defaulting unilaterally on some faraway pensioners. It would destroy Greece’s relations with its European “partners.”
For this reason, Tsipras is right to compare the present situation not to Argentina’s unilateral default in 2001 but to Germany’s negotiated debt restructuring in 1952, when more than half of that country’s official war indemnities were cancelled. It also makes for a good symbolic demand: we helped you recover from WWII, why won’t you help us recover from the Great Recession?
One lesson that does hold across the three cases is that the national debt has always been a way for dominant capitalist states and private financiers to subject entire populations to a state of sovereign debt bondage. Without a cancellation of a significant chunk of Greece’s debt, the country will remain a protectorate for the unforeseeable future, headed not just for one lost decade but for many. So Greece needs its modern-day Solon and its contemporary Seisachteia more than ever. The future of its democracy (and Europe’s) depends on it.
A government of Syriza and the social movements
Which should be the relationship between a government of Syriza and the social movements?
Radical transformation is impossible without powerful and dynamic social movements. It is not even a question of whether or not Syriza will succeed without a strong mobilization from below; it’s simply a question of popular participation in the transformational process of self-liberation and self-emancipation, without which the idea of radical politics is ultimately meaningless.
As a matter of political strategy, I also believe that social movements need to stand in relation to the party through a principle of externality, that is to say, the movements need to retain a significant degree of autonomy from the exigencies of party politics and official deliberations. The reason is that, upon taking power, even the most radical of parties will be subjected to immense pressure from foreign creditors, financial markets and domestic elites. If the movements become internal to the processes of party direction, for instance if the leader of the campaign against the privatization of water also becomes the party spokesperson on utilities, they risk becoming subjected to the same pressures and will be much less capable of providing adequate opposition where needed.
Moreover, there is the obvious risk of co-optation, or what social movement scholars refer to as “decapitation,” whereby the movements’ most talented organizers become subsumed within the administrative apparatuses of the state and the party. This would not only immediately weaken the movements, but it would also distract them from their principal task, which is to engage in a constituent process from below and construct a political project of the common that can give rise to democratic post-capitalist institutions, like the caracoles in Chiapas and the comunas in Venezuela. Building these alternative institutions is essential to the long-term process of social transformation.
That said, I also strongly believe in the need –at least at this stage– for a broad common front of leftist, anti-authoritarian and extra-parliamentary forces. The first priority, as I see it, should be to end Greece’s debt bondage and its de facto status as a debt slave and a German protectorate. Marx referred to the national debt as “the alienation of the state,” and in the Greek case this is precisely what has happened: the state, with all its attendant means of violence, is now in the possession of the foreign creditors and the domestic oligarchs. We need to wrest it out of their hands, if only to take away their direct control over the forces of repression and provide the necessary breathing space for transformative bottom-up initiatives.
ROAR, “an online journal of the radical imagination
ROAR magazine, “edited by a transnational collective” defines itself as “an online journal of the radical imagination providing grassroots perspectives from the front-lines of the global struggle for real democracy”. Why do you consider that radical imagination is important for contemporary movements? In what sense does the transnational character of your collective adds up to your purpose?
I am convinced that the radical imagination is foundational to progressive social change – if only to overcome the blueprints and dogma from inherited tradition. The challenges we face at this point are much greater than protesting in the streets, seizing state power or overturning the memorandum. We need to think of the day after. We need to think of what a post-capitalist society would look like, how it could function better than the system we have now, how conflict would be peacefully attenuated, how work, goods and resources would be distributed, how conceptions of property would be transformed, how people would be empowered and mindsets and worldviews radicalized, and so on. None of this can be achieved without a healthy dose of political imagination.
Of course we build on a long-standing tradition of workers’ struggle and radical thought, and there is no point in reinventing the wheel. Many have gone before us, and we have many lessons to learn from past experience. But we also have to recognize that our tradition is full of failures and tragedies, many of which could have been prevented with a more imaginative approach to doing politics. We cannot simply repeat the mistakes of the socialist and communist movements of the past. We need to invent something radically new. As Cornelius Castoriadis would have put it, without the creative impulse of the radical imagination, it is impossible to build a truly self-governing society.
As for ROAR, we aim to insert ourselves in important international debates by stressing the need for autonomous movements in the process of social transformation, by highlighting the creative and imaginative solutions ordinary people are coming up with all around the globe, and by trying to indirectly connect these struggles by developing a common discourse about them. This is where the transnational nature of our editorial collective and our network of contributors plays a crucial role. It allows us to look beyond borders, to highlight the common elements in national struggles, and to recognize that what happens in a place like Greece will not stay in Greece. With the right combination of determination, strategy and imagination, it can transform Europe and the world.
Jerome Roos is the founder and editor of ROAR Magazine, an online journal of the radical imagination