Comment on the victimisation of Syriza

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In an August 15 essay for titled “The performative dialectics of defeat: Europe and the European left after July 13, 2015”, Athena Athanasiou writes the following:

The affirmative ‘No’ result of the referendum of July 5 figured a break with the logics and logistics of austerity and authoritarianism in Europe. It also created an opening to the performative potential of a plural democracy. The events ensuing this resounding ‘No’, which Syriza had advocated, exposed the appalling extent to which corporate capitalism has taken precedence over democratic agonism. Eager to confirm that “there is no alternative” to neoliberal doctrine, the European leadership sought to defeat and humiliate the Greek government, the first left-wing government ever elected in a EU member state, by forcing it to comply with the axioms of neoliberal governmentality.

The philosopher’s critique of the events surrounding the July 12 Euro Summit is trenchant and insightful. While I do share most of her views, I wish to document my disagreement on an analytical point: a broad understanding of “Europe”, a distinctly generalising attitude towards the European Union, a self-valorising opposition towards a perceivably immutable and universally understood “neoliberalism”, can only weaken an otherwise cogent argument.

Europe is not uniform. It is not just “neoliberal”. It is not “authoritarian” in a strict interpretation of the term. At first, “Europe” has to be understood as a heterogeneous duality of a more benign European Union (EU) and a less desirable Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). Secondly, it needs to be appreciated for what it is: a club of democracies, each with its own ambitions and aspirations, operating in the context of a quasi-confederal, largely inter-governmental order. Thirdly, it has to be examined in light of its particular nature as a sui generis political entity whose mode of conduct is most often based on the principle of “common rules without common politics”.

It is in this complex, interweaving web of political-institutional arrangements that economic and social phenomena are made manifest. It is this multifaceted formation, with its inherent limitations, occasional inner ambivalence or plurivalence, and overall incompleteness, that gives rise to emergent contradictions that necessarily foster technocratic governance.

Let us speak of the specifics, whereby “specifics” encompasses the abstract features of a given case’s constitution, i.e. the totality of factors interoperating to deliver a state of affairs or array thereof.

The narrative I have sought to develop over a series of articles on European affairs (see all posts tagged with “Actual Europe”), is that structures condition the behaviour of situational agents and patients; and that the necessary power impulse for reforming them must account for the “what is” of their presence. One must know exactly what one may change.

To that end, and while fully supportive of Syriza’s cause, I opine that Greece’s radical leftist party was oblivious to a number of facts germane to the EU/EMU it so eagerly sought to reform. They too propounded grand statements against “austerity”, “neoliberalism”, and the like, all while failing to grasp the particularities of euro area governance, Eurogroup politics, and inter-governmental bargaining within the European Council.

Whether Syriza has actually won anything remains to be determined. Yet even if they did succeed on an intellectual level, their shortcomings should not be overlooked. This is not stated for the sake of passing on some armchair judgement, but only for pointing towards the need to learn from past experiences. Left wing thinkers and activists throughout Europe will be better off analysing the experience of Syriza in conjunction with the particularities of the EU/EMU, rather that depict the Greek leftists in government as mere victims of a monolithic and singularly oppressive “Europe”.

Finally, I am among those who are highly critical of the EU/EMU architecture for its inability to deliver the possible goods of a genuinely trans-border European Democracy, resting on social justice. However, I resist labelling the status quo as outright authoritarian, for that entails obliterating the distinction between a group of democratic governments operating within an ill designed inter-state framework (the actual EU/EMU) and the exercise of dictatorial rule by a totally illegitimate force (the authoritarian paradigm).