Interview with the leading Greek philosopher and author of extremely influential book Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis Costas Douzinas, professor of Law at Birkbeck University of London and director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.
Greece will take the EU presidency on 1st January. It’s true that this is a rather symbolic function, but what does it mean for Europe as it is now: split, under terrible pressure, operating in different gears?
I am afraid it does not mean very much at all. The presidency of the EU rotates alphabetically and the luck of the draw gave Greece the presidency at the lowest point of its crisis. Such a coincidence would have a certain symbolic value if it meant that the problems facing Greece and the whole of the European periphery were put on the agenda and a debate about the future of Europe started. But this is unlikely to happen. The current Greek government is in total agreement with the policies of Mrs Angela Merkel and Mr. Barosso and acts as a collection agent for the lenders cutting salaries and pensions.
The austerity imposed by the European Union and administered by the Greek government has created conditions unprecedented anywhere in peacetime. The GDP bas shrank by around 27%, unemployment and underemployment has reached 34% and youth unemployment 60%. Greece is facing a humanitarian crisis which has fuelled support for the neo-Nazis of the Chrysi Avgi party-cum-gang. The government has no new vision for Greece or Europe. It is a rather sad case of the Munchausen syndrome, claiming that the catastrophe of Greece is a ‘success story’. The only positive they expect from the presidency is to postpone for six months the pending general election, which would see Syriza win. The government argues that according to an obscure convention the country of the Presidency should not have elections during the term. As I said, the presidency at this point is just a coincidence. Unfortunately, this stroke of good luck will not be used by the Greek government thus turning it into a hugely wasted opportunity and a waste of money.
Couple of weeks ago in Madrid, there was a conference of new or “avant-garde” left parties and movements from Europe: do you see a realistic chance that, to use Lapavitsas’s idea, “the European periphery will politically unite against the core Europe”? How is it possible – after all these years of inforced austerity – to fight against Brussels, Berlin and the international financial institutions?
Yes it was the congress of the European Left Party. Its decision to adopt Alexis Tsipras as its candidate for the position of the European Commission President in the May European Parliament elections is an important compensation for the missed opportunity I just mentioned. The ballot papers of the European Left will be led all over Europe by the leader of Syriza. This is the proper symbolic act. It has two aspects. It places the struggle against austerity at the heart of European politics – Syriza has participated fully in the multiform anti-austerity resistances of Greeks. The people adopted it as the anti-troika party and put it in a position of government in waiting. Secondly, having a Greek politician as a candidate puts into focus the selection of Greece by the European elites as the guinea pig to lead the huge austerity social experiment that is now being rolled out all over Europe but mostly its periphery. And of course this periphery is not just the Mediterranean states but also Slovenia, Croatia, the Balkan, Central European and Baltic states. Neoliberal orthodoxy has turned the original idea of a Europe of democracy, solidarity and prosperity into a Europe divided between the centre and the periphery, with the centre imposing neocolonial economic policies.
The ‘structural adjustment’ of Africa the ‘Washington consensus’ of Latin America have now been imported into the heart of Europe. The need of the periphery to unite is important not just for the PIGS. Those who now suffer the most can lead Europe into a new direction which will benefit the whole Union. This is the central plank of the Syriza agenda which finds resonance all over Southern Europe. Only last week, the Italian journalist and author Barbara Spinelli suggested that the Italian Left should unite under Tsipras and run in the European elections with a programme of re-founding Europe. I am afraid that if Europe does not go back to its founding ideas, it will wither away or become just a small club of the rich North seen by everyone else as a new holy alliance against the interests of the working people in the rest of Europe.
Ten years ago, Europe was a second name for human rights and the “positive future model”: now it’s quite opposite. EU is becoming a place of xenophobia and financial terror. Welfare state is dying out. What went so wrong? Where are we heading?
The Europe Union failed to create a European demos, the idea of a people with a common European provenance and culture. This has direct effects on its weak democratic instincts, the European ‘democratic deficit’ is more like a total lack of democracy. There is a kratos – an economic power – but no demos – a common people. The Union has unfortunately become a highly bureaucratic institution defined geographically rather than through its guiding ideas and principles. There is a geographical place called Europe but it does no longer embody the ‘idea’ of Europe as dreamt by Hegel, Husserl or Derrida. A key component of that ideal was redistribution from the rich to the poor, a modicum of ‘transfer union’, which would close the gap between North and South. The social democratic leadership of the 70s and 80s achieved some convergence and integration and promoted anti-discrimination legislation and minimum social and economic rights. Mrs Thatcher’s great victory however was to undermine the project of political integration and social convergence by continuously expanding the membership and turning the Union into just a free market. She prepared the ground for the neoliberal turn for whom the common currency means just fiscal stability. This is more important than social cohesion and, as a result, the common currency has become the means of transfer of resource from the poor to the rich. This is the madness of the current situation. All transfers are from the South to the North either through imports of German cars and goods or through the repayment of loans given to the South so that the Northern banks can get their earlier loans back.
Again it is the Left that is called to help stop this process. But this can no longer be a return to the old social democratic model. Most social democratic parties have adopted the neoliberal recipes, the current orthodoxy is Thatcher + Blair. It has to be a New Left of economic restructuring and redistribution and deepening and spread of democracy. What we need is a new democratic and socialist model.
I spent many months in Greece in last 5 years; following protests and the fall of the state and democracy. Things are really changing fast – as in the time of war. But the protests are getting more silent and smaller. People are obviously too tired. It’s not about politics is anymore. It’s getting strictly social, isn’t it?
I don’t agree. The big campaigns of 2011 changed the political scene when the multitude of the squares adopted Syriza and put on the political agenda the probability of the first ever democratically elected radical left government in Europe. Social mobilization has its periodicity and changing intensity. The people cannot stay permanently out in the streets. This is a people who have lost close to 50% of their income over 4 years and survival is for them the first and daily priority. However what makes the Greek resistance different from usual trade union or social movement activism is precisely its consistently political character. In the recent strikes of National Health Service doctors or University administrators (both are groups decimated through horizontal dismissals) the strikers repeatedly said that the only solution is the change in government. Nothing else can stop the overall destruction of the social bond. Again when the Public Broadcasting Corp was closed in June with 3 channels and 6 radio stations going silent and 2,500 employees dismissed, the answer of journalists and technicians was to occupy their headquarters and put together an independent TV and radio programme that people said was the best ever broadcast. There are many local solidarity campaigns, alternative social economy initiatives etc. But everyone agrees that without a change at the top, campaigns and victories in the neighborhoods and squares will not be enough. It is the EU and government policies that imposed austerity and they have to go.
Did you – couple of years ago – except the rise of neonazism? What caused it?
We could see it coming, even though many turned a blind eye hoping that it was just a bad dream. It was the murder of the rapper Pavlos Fyssas in November that awakened the historical memory of the Greek people. It brought to their minds the dictatorships, the Civil War, the ‘anomalous 50s’, Lambrakis’s murder, immortalised in Costa Gavras film Z. But why there wasn’t the same response when the far right was attacking migrants and small traders or when they were committing all kinds of crimes against immigrants, Roma, gays, leftists? Firstly because there was insufficient reporting by the mass media on these incidents and, secondly, there was no public political stand from politicians encouraging the formation of an anti-fascist front. We are all responsible for this, even the Left. To consider the life of a native Greek as more valuable than a migrant’s is like adopting a fascist ideology. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said, ‘When you kill one human you kill the whole of humanity’. Fascist killings are not responses to acts done but rather responses to who you are: Black, Jew, Homosexual, Left wing… Fascism condemns you because you exist, who you are not what you do. But there is also the huge responsibility of the government which tolerated or encouraged these activities. Just before Fyssas’s murders, right wing politicians and commentators scared by the rise of Syriza in the polls were stating that the ruling New Democracy party should consider collaborating with Chrysi Avgi, if it changed and became more measured and civilised. And of course we now know that there is great collusion between the Nazis and parts of the State.
All States use two types of violence. The first is legal, covered by law and giving the State the ’monopoly on violence’. The second is formally illegal and utilises para-state methods which operate underground and in secrecy. There is evidence in Greece but also in Turkey and indeed every contemporary state of the spread of the ‘formally illegal’ type of violence. When State legitimacy —encapsulated in the phrase ‘the State is doing its job well’—disappears, then the State resorts to these ancillary methods of legitimation, the increasing violence use both openly and in secret. I think it is at this stage that we find ourselves now. Golden Dawn is a symptom of a wider malaise of the ruling classes and the state system that was built to guarantee their permanent dominance.
Is there a chance of a wider social/civic conflict in Greece?
Only if promoted by those underground parts of the state fearing their extinction by a government of the left. Golden Dawn hardcore membership is small, mainly thugs and petty criminals, they are no major threat to civil peace. The poor unemployed desperate people who now support the Nazis in opinion polls will eventually move to where their interests belong, ie the Left. In Greece we are likely to see the reverse of the French Le Pen phenomenon: working people who notionally support the extreme right will move in great numbers to the Left.
How do you see the future of the Mediterranean? North and South. Do you agree that North Mediterranean is fighting for what we had in the past and South (North Africa and part of the Middle East) for the… future? Do you see some common grounds in the protests in Southern Europe and in the Arab World?
Yes and further afield, Turkey, Brazil the rest of the world. The ‘new world order’ announced in 1989 was the shortest in history coming to an abrupt end in 2008. Protests, riots and uprisings have erupted all over the world. Neither the mainstream nor the radicals had predicted the wave and this led to a frantic search for historical precedents. A former director of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service thought that ‘it’s a revolutionary wave, like 1848’. Mason agrees: ‘There are strong parallels – above all with 1848, and with the wave of discontent that preceded 1914.’ Resistance and revolution are in the air. New forms of resistance and insurrection appear regularly. Their timing is unpredictable but their occurrence certain.
But why? Of course austerity and extreme poverty is one cause that links many parts of Europe. Another common characteristic is the victory of neoliberalism and the accompanying decay of democracy all over the world. Neoliberalism is a global ideology and world-view. It distorts the logic of both classical liberalism and social democracy turning politics into the administration of economics. It subjects all aspects of life to the logic of economic optimization and a market-based distribution of goods, values and life prospects. Government has been replaced by ‘governance’ and is ruled by the same logic. The homo economicus becomes homo tout court. Everything is subjected to the market logic. At stake it not ‘the market economy but the market society’.
Truth-telling economists, modernizing bureaucrats and patriotic media have largely replaced political action turning the state into the muscleman for the market internally and a superficially tolerant enforcer of morality externally in our ‘humanitarian’ wars. A permanent quasi-state of exception has been imposed all over the western world. Walls are built everywhere. Those seduced by the fake financial bubble must learn to abandon consumption. It is no longer the excluded third that suffers. All over the world, large parts of the population move from affluent to nouveau pauvre and from power’s beneficiaries to excluded. This has turned our epoch into the age of resistance, it is kicking off everywhere. Where will it be next? Turkey, Brazil, Bulgaria, Egypt? We don’t know where exactly but we know it will happen. The people, the multitude all over has entered again politics and has become the agent of history.
The future of resistance: what could be the next steps, next moves? Especially to the status quo on the streets?
Let me answer by means of three theses that I have developed as a result of my participation in various resistances and my theoretical work.
Resistance is a process or experience of subjectivisation. We become new subjects when we realise a split in identity. Because my particular existence has failed, because my identity is split and cannot be completed. The failure of our daily routine identity opens the road to the universality of resistance. It involves risk and perseverance, resistance is the courage of freedom.
Resistance is first a fact not an obligation. It is not the idea or the theory of justice or communism that leads to resistance but the sense of injustice, the bodily reaction to hurt, hunger, despair. The idea of justice and equality are maintained or lost as a result of the existence and extent of resistance.
Local and regional resistances can become political and succeed in radically changing the balance of forces if they turn collective and condense, temporarily or permanently, a number of causes, a multiplicity of struggles and local and regional grievances bringing them all together in a common central place and time. At this point, resistance becomes a hegemonic force.
Do you believe that Syriza can change things: the ratings are back one year and a half after the elections? Is there a chance of victory, if there will be new elections after the possible fall of Samaras government? Is it possible to achieve the goals inside the existing political system?
To use an expression that will put a smile on many a Marxist or cynical lip, the end of the power system is a matter of historical necessity. Throughout history, revolutions succeed when a power system has run its course and has become obsolete and harmful. This is the case in Greece. Historical necessity can be recognised only retrospectively of course, we no longer believe in the inevitable march of progress. Three elements are required to turn contingency into necessity. A strong popular desire, a political agent prepared to take power. Finally, a catalyst which combines the other elements into a combustible whole. All three elements have converged Greece, popular will in the resistance, Syriza as the political agent and austerity as the catalyst that will lead to the first radical left government in Europe.
Is the left ready, can it succeed? There are acts you prepare for and others that hit you on the head, like a miracle or earthquake. You are never ready to fall in love or to start a revolution. We plan our major steps in life, we balance pros and cons in relations to education, work, our wedding. But the calculation is endless and if you continue you never act. The decision, the act is a little like madness, a coup de foudre, it takes over. Syriza has been adopted by the people as the subject of radical change. To this extent, the question what will the Left do once in power has one answer. The day after will be the continuation of the day before. There is no blueprint or precedent, the Left will have to improvise and adjust, to become brutally pragmatic and uncompromisingly principled. So there is room for planning, developing policies, preparing. But there is also the challenge and response to the event, the contingency of the happening, where history is made not prospectively in some linear progression but retrospectively after the event when a series of unimportant secondary occurrences are recognized as the sequence that led to the change.
Critics of Syriza say that the biggest problem of the party is a lack of sustainable economical programme?
This is wrong. The Syriza economists whom I know well are some of the best economists in Greece and Europe with wide international recognition. You will hear many such criticisms ‘they don’t have developed policies’, they don’t have an economic programme etc. when coming from the right, they are attempts to stop the massive popular move to the Left. When from the left, they are typical example of what Walter Benjamin called ‘left melancholy’, the commitment to defeat and its introjection which refuses or even attacks all prospect of victory. Of course there are problems but they will be solved or not when the left is dealing with them.
Most of my Greek friends say that “the real left” and “the real freedom-fighting” is only present in the new civic movements, not in the parties?
The great achievement of the occupations and the squares was to bring this old conflict to a provisional end or at least a truce. There can be no government of the left without social mobilization and there can be no lasting victories for the solidarity campaigns and the social movements without a change of government. After all it is the state that has destroyed the lives of people and without a radical change at the top all other struggles and victories will remain partial. The future of Europe is played out in Greece. either the catastrophe of austerity will be further increased and exported or resistance will have its first major victory and show to the other countries of the periphery that resistance and struggle is not a losing game because as the elites keep telling us ‘there is not alternative’. There is an alternative and involves both the street and electoral politics. The signs are optimistic. History has started moving again.
*Bostjan Videmsek is foreign correspondent of Slovenian daily DELO and author of 21st Century Conflicts: Remnants of War(s) and Revolt: Arab Spring and European Fall.