Last year SYRIZA, the left coalition party elected to lead the Greek government and face down its creditors and European overlords, lost its high-stakes confrontation with neoliberalism. Greece has plunged into an even-deeper, demoralizing and perilous social and economic crisis, exacerbated by the flood of Syrian refugees.
So what does the SYRIZA experience have to teach us about the potential of democratic politics to bring about economic and social transformation? Andreas Karitzis, a former SYRIZA member and former member of its Central Committee and Political Secretariat, provides a rich and penetrating analysis in an essay at OpenDemocracy.net. "The SYRIZA experience’: lessons and adaptations" crackles with shrewd, hard-won political insights explaining why SYRIZA failed to prevail and the necessary future strategies for transformational change.
SYRIZA failed to stop the neoliberal juggernaut, Karitzis argues, because it thought it could work within the established political structures and processes. But the gut-wrenching drama showed that conventional democratic politics is futile when state sovereignty is trumped by international finance. SYRIZA’s ultimate acceptance of the Troika’s deal "arguably betrayed the hopes and aspirations of the popular classes and those fighting against financial despotism," says Karitzis. He now calls on the left to develop a new "operating system," or what some have called "Plan C":
We know that the popular power once one inscribed in various democratic institutions is exhausted. We do not have enough power to make elites accept and tolerate our participation in crucial decisions. More of the same won’t do it. If the ground of the battle has shifted, undermining our strategy, then it’s not enough to be more competent on the shaky battleground; we need to reshape the ground. And to do that we have to expand the solution space by shifting priorities from political representation to setting up an autonomous network of production of economic and social power.
What might this new solution space look like? Karitzis argues that we "need to evaluate and explore concepts like ‘the commons.’" He envisions "the formation of a strong backbone for resilient and dynamic networks of social economy and co-operative productive activities, alternative financial tools, local cells of self-governance, democratically functioning digital communities, community control over functions such as infrastructure facilities, energy systems and distribution networks. These are ways of gaining the degree of autonomy necessary to defy the control of elites over the basic functions of our society."
Karitzis’ analysis has obvious implications for the rest of the world, where trust in nominally democratic institutions is plummeting, elites feel free to flout the rule of law (see the Panama Papers), and bureaucracies are either predatory and incompetent.
Now that "the left" in Greece (and elsewhere) is participating in the implementation of neoliberal austerity politics, forfeiting its moral credibility, it has opened a vacuum that the extreme right is only too eager to fill: "Nationalists and fascists have remained the only ‘natural hosts’ of popular rage and resentment," Karitzis writes. The acrid wind blowing across western democracy comes from implacable neoliberal oligarchs who feel no remorse about causing social misery while defying democratic governance.
This is in fact a key cause of popular despair and a reason why the left must adopt a radically new strategic approach, says Karitzis. "The neoliberal EU and Eurozone have transferred a bundle of important policies and powers that once appeared to belong to the nation state out of reach of the people…..[T]he elected government is no longer the major bearer of political power. In the case of Greece, democratically electing a government is like electing a junior partner in a wider government in which the lenders are the major partners."
SYRIZA might have chosen a "tactical withdrawal" in an attempt to "reassemble our forces that could take into account the escalation of the fight provoked by elites — and form a more effective and resilient ‘popular front’ that would build its resources to challenge neoliberal orthodoxy in the future," Karitzis argues. Instead, it attempted to negotiate with the Troika, and failed. The clear lesson, Karitzis concludes, is that "there is no middle ground between financial despotism and democracy and dignity."
While it may be impossible to ignore electoral politics, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that it will the vehicle for overthrowing the neoliberal paradigm. That is why the most strategic way forward will come from developing an alternative social economy to meet basic needs: the joint enterprise of the movements for the commons, social & solidary economy, peer production, Transition, degrowth, and other post-capitalist movements.
Karitzis’ essay is a somber analysis of Greece’s ongoing trauma, but a smart, level-headed and strategic one. We may be left with some stark choices in the future: "Entering the ominous battlefield of the twenty-first century, the left will either be relevant and useful for the defense of human societies, or it will be obsolete." Read the whole essay here.