Debating Democracy in a European Debt Colony

August 10, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

Days after Syriza’s capitulation to the Troika, radicals from across the world gathered in Athens for a historic conference on the future of democracy.

Image: ‘Hope Dies Last’ (by the great WD).

When hundreds of intellectuals and activists convened in Athens on Thursday July 16 for the Democracy Rising conference, the city was still covered in graffiti emblazoned with “OXI,” the Greek word for ‘no.’

A relic of a hopeful moment flattened just days before, the defiant slogan urged Greek voters to reject another round of austerity measures demanded by Europe’s financial establishment, the so-called Troika of creditors comprising the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

On July 5, a landslide percentage of Greek voters—in step with their left-led coalition government Syriza—voted against the program in a referendum. A week later, Europe’s financial technocracy politically strangled Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras into accepting a €86 billion bailout in exchange for a belligerent and immiserating program of spending cuts, tax hikes, union crackdowns, pension cuts, legislation repeals, and fire-sale privatization of national assets.

Tsipras may despise this deal, but he is nevertheless committed to carry it out despite opposition from Syriza’s left wing. On July 16, the night before the conference’s opening plenary, protests erupted when Greek Parliament passed a first set of bailout measures with 21% of Syriza MPs voting against it. The next day, Tsipras purged his cabinet of rebels. Since then, he again relied on support from opposition parties to push another round of bailout reforms through parliament and has blocked a bid from dissenters to end the bailout negotiations and return to a national currency.

Given these circumstances, the conference’s optimistic title took on a grimly ironic character. The memorandum effectively imposes an economic dictatorship on a popularly elected government. It demonstrates that the European project—currently determined by zombie obedience to neoliberal market logic and vindictive austerity policies—is fundamentally incompatible, not only with the social justice policy of a left government, but with democracy itself.

This is the conclusion, if there is one at all, to be drawn from Democracy Rising, which took place over four days at the University of Athens’ School of Economics and Policy, the same building students occupied on February 21, 1973, helping to kick off the Polytechnic uprising that brought down Greece’s military junta months later.

Given Greece’s critical role as the battleground over the future of radical politics and renewed impetus on the left to seek concrete political alignments, Democracy Rising understandably attracted tremendous attention. Organized in partnership with the University of Athens by the Global Center of Advanced Studies, a new graduate school under the presidency of theory superstar Alain Badiou, the conference’s proceedings reflected—with varied success—its host institution’s aspirations to reconcile activism and intellectual production.

Against the backdrop of a thoroughly postmodern political situation where “no” means “yes,” Democracy Rising forced an encounter between theory-oriented metapolitics of leftist academics and debates from Syriza insiders negotiating a labyrinth of urgent and maddeningly complex questions: Did the capitulators narrowly avert an economic emergency with potentially dire humanitarian consequences? Or did they betray their popular mandate by acquiescing to the same policies that Greek voters—with Syriza’s cheerleading—had rejected just days before? How badly does Syriza’s genuflexion dampen hopes for a greater European Left? Would exiting the Eurozone free Greece from debt vassalage or plunge the country deeper into bankruptcy and proletarianization?

Democracy Rising didn’t produce definitive answers, but a collective sense of battered hope and delicate solidarity, reflecting the confusion of a divided Greek left as it tries to regroup. The historical exigencies of the Eurozone crisis transformed a forum for theory and philosophy into a contentious and occasionally explosive site of realpolitik, leveling the ground between the ivory tower and the sausage factory of parliamentary democracy.

After long days at work, a weary but determined Zoi Konstantopoulou, speaker of the Hellenic Parliament, addressed the opening session of the conference. “These are very difficult times for those of us who believed there was a limit to this anti-democratic, anti-European, anti-human policy.”

One of Tsipras’s most vocal opponents within the party, Konstantopoulou is the muscle behind the Greek Debt Truth Commission, which, with the help of political scientist Eric Touissant, published a preliminary report in June declaring Greece’s debt “illegal, illegitimate and odious.”

In his welcoming address, the Greek Minister of Education Aristides Baltas defended Tspiras’ surrender. If he hadn’t compromised, he said, bank closures would have prevented ships from delivering drinking water to the Greek islands. He argued that, even with Schäuble & co. gripping Greece’s purse strings, Syriza could still help working people by assisting the country’s growing grassroots organizations, social movements and solidarity networks. Costas Douzinas, professor of law at the University of London, also urged his comrades to “critically support” the Syriza government.

On the other hand, British-Pakistani activist and leading left-wing intellectual Tariq Ali called Tspiras’ capitulation a betrayal of the Greek people, underwritten by a fetishization of the single currency and a “fatal trust” in the EU, which he likened to a dysfunctional family headed by a German patriarch “schooled in the old disciplinary ways of Prussia.”

“I don’t think [the Syriza] government can last too long after this,” Ali said plainly. His sharpest knives, however, were reserved for the hypocrisy of Europe’s financial elites—“these jokers who teach lessons to the Greek people like Juncker, who runs a Ruritanian duchy called Luxemburg which is the biggest tax evasion center in Europe.”

The battle over Syriza escalated on the second day of the conference, when economist Costas Lapavistas, a Member of Parliament and delegate of Syriza’s Left Platform, delivered a combustible speech calling the bailout “a disastrous capitulation” to the Eurozone’s “neocolonial” and “recessionary” program. Syriza, he argued, had made a strategic error in betting on the seductive but ungovernable platform to end austerity while remaining within a monetary union “that crystallizes and encapsulates class relations.”

“It will not be possible to change Greece domestically while accepting the bailout,” he said. “What we need to do is withdraw our consent to this agreement and redesign a radical program that is consistent with our values, our aims, and what we told to the Greek people… and that program is impossible without an exit from the euro.”

Lapavistas laid out an exit strategy that includes default on the national debt, nationalization of the banks, and the conversation of all prices and obligations to the new currency at a rate of 1:1 (he expects devaluation to settle at 15-20 percent). The plan, he said, would create a difficult recession initially, but he expects positive rates of growth to appear after 12 to 18 months as the dormant Greek productive sector regains control of the domestic market.

His speech caused pandemonium in the lecture hall, and was met with applause and obscenities in almost equal measure. Lapavistas’s plan, countered Douzinas, “could be the longest suicide note in the history of the left.”

Lapavistas’s projections are contestable, but his plan was the most concrete alternative to the neoliberal austerity doctrine that emerged from the conference. On July 31, Tspiras admitted he had charged former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis with drafting a contingency plan to exit the euro, but claimed it was only an emergency measure. While the prospect of leaving the euro seems increasingly distant, a revolt within Syriza may lead to new elections in September or October, and, with them, a renewed possibility of Grexit.

On Sunday, Stelios Elliniadis of Syriza’s Central Committee spoke candidly to organizers from other European Left parties including Germany’s Die Linke, Ireland’s Sinn Fein, and Spain’s Podemos. He implored them to learn from Syriza’s mistakes. The party, he said, lacked both a serious exit strategy and a plan for staying in the Eurozone and governing within its iron cage. “We failed to have a deeper understanding of the will of the people. The leading group in the Syriza government was surprised and, I should say, scared by the result.”

This post-OXI moment is a time of introspection and self-criticism, but also one of solidarity—a notion that will become increasingly significant whether Greece exits or continues to struggle under the dead hand of Eurozone policy. Leo Panitch, Professor of Political Economy at York University, criticized armchair quarterbacking from those outside Greece and urged Syriza to expand grassroots solidarity networks.

Catarina Principe, a Portuguese activist and member of Portugal’s Bloco de Esquerda, and Eoin O Broin from Sinn Fein maintained skepticism towards the euro while also criticizing inflammatory and divisive rhetoric against Syriza’s leadership. “The EU is showing the cracks in the European project,” Principe said. “They can only accept so much democracy, so much equality.”

Activists Astra Taylor and Laura Hanna drew global connections between the situation in Greece and the student debt and mortgage crises in the US, urging the indebted to challenge creditor morality through economic disobedience. Several panelists reiterated the importance of solidarity tourism, encouraging sympathetic travelers to vacation in Greece.

In a highly politicized Greek society, these conversations spilled beyond the university. At a sidewalk café in the leftist neighborhood of Exarcheia, journalists and activists talked late into the night, inventorying Syriza’s recent failures and weighing the pros and cons of a post-euro Greece. “We mourn together. We don’t sleep at night,” said Mihalis Panayiotakis, a journalist and member of Syriza’s digital policy committee. Despite troubles on the left, he maintains hope that exiting the euro may offer a way out of peonage and austerity.

“People ‘want’ to stay in the Eurozone for the same reasons shopkeepers ‘want’ to remain under some mobsters’ protection racket,” he said. “It’s not because of hope, it’s because of fear.”

“This is the first time someone tried to articulate an alternative to global capitalism,” said journalist Matthaios Tsimitakis. “We failed. So what? There’s a clear class root to the referendum. The rich voted for ‘yes.’ The poor voted for ‘no.’ Maybe people have changed. Maybe it’s not the end.”

Chloe Wyma

Chloe Wyma is a freelance arts and culture critic and a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.

Tags: democracy, Greek economic crisis, Syriza