Now that Alexis Tsipras has resigned, Syriza has split and Europe’s first radical left government has been brought to its knees in less than six months’ time, it is time to reflect. What have the experiences of the past half year taught us? And how does the struggle move on from here?
The first and most obvious lesson is that there is no space for democracy, let alone for a socially progressive alternative, inside the Eurozone. Of course this was clear long before Syriza came to power, but there were still many among the European Left – Tsipras and his inner circle above all – who seemed to harbor a naïve belief that the monetary union could somehow be made a little bit more humane.
The dramatic failure of Tsipras’ negotiating strategy has now made it abundantly clear that these were, unfortunately, pipe dreams. The Eurozone has its virulently anti-democratic and anti-social nature hard-wired into its institutional framework; the structural constraints on government action – especially for a small and heavily indebted peripheral country like Greece – are simply far too great.
The only way to democratize the euro is to smash it.
The second – and more troublesome – lesson is that one does not simply smash the euro. In this sense, the events of July were not just incriminating for Tsipras, who ended up betraying his promise to end austerity; they were equally incriminating for Syriza’s Left Platform, which – despite nominally remaining “true” to its mandate – in reality had no credible plan at all. But even if it had had a plan, it still lacked the popular support, institutional capacity and intra-party leverage to push for a meaningful alternative.
The truth of the matter is that the Eurozone has become a prison. The trick now is not to bang one’s head against the wall in despair, nor to plot even more brilliant escape plans on paper, but to actually start organizing fellow inmates for a coordinated prisoners’ revolt. This will require a powerful social movement on a scale far beyond anything Syriza’s uninspiring and old-fashioned Left Platform – now reconstituted as a new pro-Grexit party called Popular Unity – can possibly mobilize.
This brings us to the third lesson: the problem is not just Tsipras – it’s the party. If your entire political project falls apart in the space of just six months, and if you are incapable of adjusting to reality by switching strategies accordingly, perhaps it would be wise to do some soul-searching before retrying the same failed approach all over.
The reasons for Syriza’s failure are not just the result of the “wrong strategy.” In this sense, the Left Platform/Popular Unity view exhibits a dangerous political voluntarism that completely ignores a more fundamental reason behind Syriza’s implosion, which is that the party as a whole simply lacked the foundations in society and the internal counter-powers to keep the party leadership to account when it most mattered.
In this sense, the problem lay not just in the naïve left-Europeanism of Tsipras’ inner circle of “pragmatists”, but in the very disconnect between this increasingly autonomous party leadership and the more activist – but increasingly disempowered – rank-and-file.
The problem, in other words, lay not just in the fact that Tsipras was “led astray” by the siren voices of party moderates like Deputy Prime Minister Dragasakis, but in the fact that the party itself did not have the capacity to marginalize Dragasakis and bring Tsipras back in line after he betrayed Syriza’s raison d’être as an anti-austerity force. Outside of the government and parliament, the party’s grassroots activists were powerless.
In short, the problem was not just the lack of political will but the lack of democracy. And this, of course, is a general feature of the vertical party-form, where the delegation of power to the leadership is supposed to increase political effectiveness but in reality ends up distancing the latter from the popular base it is supposed to represent.
For these reasons, the implosion of Europe’s first radical left government should not just occasion a shift in strategy or political objectives; to simply clamor for Grexit as the be-all and end-all of radical politics is unlikely to impress voters anyway. Instead, what the forceful mobilization surrounding the referendum showed is that Greek society is dying to do away not just with austerity but with the old way of doing politics on the whole.
If anything, the referendum revealed a deep desire among ordinary Greeks to actively participate in the country’s political life – to be given a voice, to reject the creditors’ insane demands, to restore a sense of dignity and self-worth, to finally take matters into their own hands. There was an emancipatory, participatory and liberatory kernel in these mobilizations that needs to be nurtured and expanded upon. These potent energies, pregnant with social creativity, cannot simply be “sublimated” into a call for Grexit.
The problem is that old-fashioned party politics – at least in the way it is currently practiced – encloses the popular desire for participation by channeling this social vitality into a programmatic set of election pledges that can subsequently be betrayed without any real political costs, since the organs of popular power that could potentially hold leaders to account remain marginalized both within the party and in society.
The real challenge, then, is not just to regain state power and propose Grexit as an alternative top-down solution to the economic crisis, but rather to start building forms of social power that can push for meaningful political transformation from below and create the collective capacity to sustain social reproduction in the face of the serious short-term hardships that the radical rupture of an eventual Grexit would entail.
This means mobilizing society in the streets, workplaces and neighborhoods; it means building those democratic organs of popular power from the bottom up; it means doing away with vertical party structures, actively encouraging popular participation in the political process, and institutionally subordinating leaders to the movement. But most of all, it simply means creating the social conditions under which no leftist leader could possibly consider betraying their democratic mandate again.
Until then, continued calls for Grexit will remain little more than an empty and ineffective campaign slogan.
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