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Andreas Karitzis: The Left in power. What can we learn from the case of SYRIZA? (Part I)

Note from the LeftEast editors: In this long interview with George Souvlis, Andreas Karitzis reflects on his experience as part of the Syriza leadership during the crucial years 2012-2015, on its underpreparedness for the historic project it embarked on, on the odds stacked against it, and on the configurations of power in today’s world. While Syriza’s fight for a fair deal for Greece and a socially just Europe has suffered (a temporary or permanent–we don’t know) defeat, Karizis’s reflections need to be heeded next time the Left comes to power. Part II will follow next week.

1) Would you like to present yourself by focusing on the formative experiences – both academic and political?

By the time the Soviet Union was falling apart I was becoming a leftist. Having nothing else but the aftermath of a historical defeat around me (even knowing what Soviet Union really was), being a leftist was primarily a choice of deep, personal connection with those humans who fought, and will fighting for a better world, exemplifying the best qualities of our species. The way I saw it back then was that despite the ominous days that were seemingly ahead of us in the early 90’s, there was only one choice: to take my position and engage in the battle. From this moment on, there was no time to whine and be disappointed; when you are in the battlefield all you care about is what is helpful to your cause. The same train of thought is what is keeping me active and creative during these last difficult months after the Greek defeat of last summer.

Additionally, being raised in a poor, working-class family I had from early on a sense of gratitude: the local and global balance of forces that happened to exist when I was a child gave me access to a decent education. I could “see” that I owed this precious opportunity to millions of people who devoted their lives, suffered and died all over the world for equality and freedom. This sense of gratitude and the deep respect for those fighters of the past, helped me to define who I am, the capacities that I have acquired, as being directly involved in political action. Using these capacities in a narrow, selfish way – as a means for individual social ascent – would be disrespectful towards the previous generations, and irresponsible towards present and future generations. I think that this – universal in kind – disposition is one of the strongest influences on me.

Regarding my political experiences, I joined Synaspismos in 1997 and then SYRIZA. I was a member of their Central Committee from 2004 till 2015 as one of Tsipras’ generation of political cadres, so to speak. I have been a member of Political Secretariat (2007-10 spokesman of the party and 2013-14 co-chairing Programme and Political Planning Committees). I also served as campaign manager at the municipality elections of Athens in 2006 (with Tsipras as candidate) and the Regional Government elections in Attica (candidate Dourou, the present governor) in 2014. I was also engaged in media and communication campaigns of SYRIZA in 2007 (national elections) and 2009 (european elections). Finally, among many other things, I have been a member of the managing board of Nicos Poulantzas Institute for the past 8 years.

I studied mechanical engineering, then philosophy and history of science and technology and I did a PhD in contemporary analytic philosophy. My studies were disconnected in content from my active political participation, but they  heavily shaped my political behavior in a rigorous and efficiency-driven direction. Theoretical work on Marxian and left literature was a crucial part of my political engagement, instead of being an academic and abstract kind of work. My traditional influences come mainly from Althusser and Poulantzas among others, like most of the people in the Greek Left of my generation. Gradually, I was immersed in less traditional left literature, that in my case, mainly included Foulcault, and the theoretical debate that was initiated during the last decades by Laclau.

However, being gradually aware of the gravity of the current predicament of humankind, my influences  have been increasingly eclectic, drawing from entirely different resources. My current focus is on methodology of emancipatory politics. This is mainly concerned with organizational issues of building hybrid (from a traditional left point of view) institutions, as well as managerial/methodological issues of building popular power and interacting with state institutions, in the new environment of the radical restructuring of institutions due to the influence of digital technologies in the broader neoliberal framework.

2) How you would describe yourself in political terms?

It’s hard to tell anymore. The traditional terms we use to describe our political identities point to a totally different political and social environment. We need to radically modify these if we want to be relevant to today’s demanding tasks and antagonisms.

Let’s be frank; despite all the subtleties and the complexities of our situation the truth is that we, the people, are facing a brutal attack by the elites that would affect the fate of all humans across the planet. We are now entering a transitional phase in which a new kind of despotism is emerging, combining the logic of financial competition and profit with pre-modern modes of brutal governance alongside pure, lethal violence and wars. On the other hand, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have huge reserves of embodied capacities, a vast array of rapidly developing technologies, and values from different cultures within our immediate reach. We are living in extreme times of unprecedented potentialities as well as dangers. We have a duty which is broader and bolder than we let ourselves realize.

But, we haven’t yet found the ways to reconfigure the “we” to really include everyone we need to fight this battle. The “we” we need cannot be squeezed into identities taken from the past – from the “end of history” era of naivety and laziness in which the only thing individuals were willing to give were singular moments of participation. Neither can the range of our duty be fully captured anymore by the traditional framing of various “anti-capitalisms”, since what we have to confront today touches existential depths regarding the construction of human societies. We must reframe who “we” are – and hence our individual political identities – in a way that coincides both with the today’s challenges and the potentialities to transcend the logic of capital. I prefer to explore a new “life-form” that will take on the responsibility of facing the deadlocks of our species, instead of reproducing political identities, mentalities and structural deadlocks that intensify them.

We often tend to believe that removing our opponents from power means that, somehow, the problems caused by them, and the new challenges we are facing, will disappear. In fact, it is the other way around: by developing ways to administer populations and run basic social functions with decentralized, democratic modes of governance based on the liberation of people’s capacities we will gradually acquire the necessary self-confidence to really challenge the elites’ hegemony and dominance. If we start really believing that we can administer societies differently (in a way that can cope with present day challenges), then the fall of neoliberalism will only be a matter of time. I strongly believe that this is the most crucial part.

It is up to us to make a solid and decisive step towards a new personal/interpersonal and social/institutional configuration that will bury once and for all the concentration of power in the hands of a few as the only way of administering human societies. But we must perform a “paradigm shift” in order to acquire the leverage needed to overcome the elites’ power and the position of capital as the only mediator between people’s activities.

I sense that we need a political identity that embraces the critical situation we are in  and that will allows us to get over the profound problems we face. We must push ourselves to think differently. We must push our collectivities to see differently and spot the potentialities and materials we had never thought of as being useful to us. I strongly believe that we are far stronger than we think. Based on these thoughts, I would prefer not to describe myself in terms that belong to the past.

3) On Syriza’s strategy after the defeat of the new memorandum agreement: can we perhaps historicize this defeat by separating it in two different moments? The first one is between two electoral periods, 2012 and January of 2015. Which were the main pitfalls of the party during this period?

As you can imagine, there are various levels of analysis for this question. I will focus on examples of internal party functioning that reveal the underlying conditions in terms of political imagination, methodology and organizational principles that shaped the range of our preparation, rhetoric, decisions and the eventual strategy.

In the summer of 2012 – in the midst of a joyful atmosphere that comes with being the major opposition party – there was a fundamental issue, at least to my mind, we had to address: the allocation of human and financial resources. We had the opportunity to employ several hundred people, mainly due to having a larger parliamentary group than before. The allocation of human and financial resources is not a secondary issue but the material basis of one’s political strategy. However, instead of engaging in a serious assessment of the present and future needs of the party and an operational distribution of resources (for social organizing, the growth of neo-Nazi groups, trade-union organising, preparation for being in government and for the negotiation process, and so on), there was instead an attitude of “business as usual”. The traditional political imagery, methodology and priorities prevented SYRIZA from assessing the importance of the “material” conditions for its political strategy of countering austerity and neoliberalism. SYRIZA didn’t focus on this crucial issue of preparing for government, and instead reproduced outdated organizational modes and habits.

The outcome was that it maintained the traditional priorities and party functions, as if this were a normal time of social and political activity. The inertia that came with seeing parliamentary work as the most important duty of the party, mainly under the influence of the MPs who tend to prioritize their work in political planning together with the fact that the MPs were the ones who employ all these people, created a framework that ended up with only small changes. That is, a bit more collective work within the parliamentary group, the solidarity4all institution and a minimal increase in various aspects of party functioning. Instead of having a radical rearrangement of forces, SYRIZA just improved the traditional ways of party functioning which were becoming outdated and insufficient to back up its political strategy.

Syriza wins the election in September 2015, despite signing the memorandum in July. Source: Ekathimerini
Syriza wins the election in September 2015, despite signing the memorandum in July. Source: Ekathimerini

Another example is the exponential deterioration of collective internal functioning. The problem I would like to underline is not the obviously negative fact of the marginalization of democratic decision-making and accountability. The problem was even deeper. During this period, the implicit premise that rapidly transformed the political behavior in the party was that the competing views within SYRIZA should be promoted via the occupation of key-positions in the parliamentary group, the government and the state, after a victorious electoral result. This premise led to marginalization of collective planning, competition between groups and individuals and the fragmentation of SYRIZA. Fragmentation deprived the political organs of the ability to collect information, assess it and deploy a complex strategy. Eventually, enormous amount of time was consumed in the efforts of the political personnel to take the lead regarding future positions in the parliamentary group and the government. Of course there was always a political reasoning justifying this move to ever increasing competition among various groups and individuals.

The interesting thing was that the decline of internal collective functioning was predicated on an implicit common premise. That is, that what is needed to stop austerity and neoliberal transformation was an electoral victory along with people supporting the government through demonstrations. Apart from that, the only thing that seemed to matter was who and what group would have more influence and hold the key-positions in the government and the state.

There was an ignorance and indifference towards issues such as the subtleties and the complexities of the implementation process when in government, the operational demands of the negotiation process (multi-level, multi-personal, highly coordinated processes etc), and the methodology and the expertise needed to mobilize people in order to develop alternative ways of running basic social functions. Let me add here that it is necessary to gain some degrees of autonomy in terms of performing basic social functions in order to stop the strategies of the elite (in any way one may think is the right one), since the latter have unchecked control over those functions and can easily inflict collective punishment on a society that dares to defy its power. Issues like these necessarily promote a collective/democratic functioning instead of fragmentation and competition and a focus on people’s capacities and methods of “extracting” them effectively in order to upgrade people’s leverage.

The underestimation of similar issues was even more striking at the Programme Committee and its working groups. It was extremely difficult (if not impossible) to restructure the forms of work from the usual articulation of lists of demands towards managerial/organizational issues regarding steps and methods to implement our policies. Instead, they were sites of political argumentation in the most general and abstract terms.

The ignorance and indifference towards questions of how you implement power was supported by the dominant rhetoric within SYRIZA: that the crucial issues are political and not technical. So all we have to do is decide what we want to do, rather than explore the ways in which we can implement them. The implicit premise here was that the crucial point was to be in the government taking political decisions and then, somehow, these decisions would be implemented by some purely technical state mechanisms.

Apart from the fact that this attitude contradicted with what we were saying regarding the corrosive effect of the neoliberal transformation of the state and the complexities of being in the EU and the Eurozone, the major problem was that a mentality like this ignores the obvious fact that the range of one’s political potential in government is determined by what one knows how to do with the state. The implementation process is not a “technicality” but the material basis of the political strategy. What was considered to be the political essence, namely the general, strategic discussion and decision is just the tip of the iceberg of state-politics. Instead of just being a “technicality”, the implementation of political decision is the biggest part of state politics. Actually, it’s where the political struggle within the state becomes hard, and the class adversaries battle to shape reality. The tip is not going to move the iceberg by itself as long as it is not supported by multi-level implementational processes with a clear orientation, function and high-levels of coordination. This is the integrated concept of state-politics that we have forgotten in practice and by doing so we tend to fail miserably whenever we approach power.

Being at the leadership of SYRIZA during the period of preparation for power, I came to the conclusion that one major failure of the Left is that it lacks a form of governmentality which matches up with its own logic and values. We miss a form of administration that could run basic social functions in a democratic, participatory and cooperative way. The fact that we are talking about a current inside the Left which includes governmental power within its strategy, the low level of awareness regarding the importance of these governmental processes (among other equally worrying weaknesses) reflects the degree of obsolescence of the Left organizations and justifies fully the need for a radical redesign of the “Operating System” of the Left.

4) A second period would be between the electoral victory of Syriza and the signing of the third MOU past August. What about this period? Were there mistakes and miscalculations made by the party’s leadership during this time?

I think that the mistakes made during this period reveal crucial structural weaknesses of SYRIZA – and of the political left more broadly – due to the inability to adapt to the new way you must do politics in the institutionalised neoliberal framework of the EU and the Eurozone.

It seems that the weaknesses of SYRIZA in power resulted from the failed preparations in the previous period that I mentioned above. The appointment of government officials was dictated by the outcome of the internal power games during the previous period, and their mandate was to do whatever they could do in vague terms without having concrete action plans that would support a broader government plan.

In the same vein, there weren’t any organisational “links” that would align the government actions with the party functioning and the social agents willing to support and play a crucial role in a very difficult and complex conjecture. The lack of connecting processes was mainly – among other things –  the outcome of a widely shared traditional political mentality that reduces, firstly, the party from a network for the massive coordination of people’s action, deliberation and production of popular power into a speech making device that supports the government, and, secondly, peoples’ mobilization from a generator of real popular power and leverage against the elites’ hostility into traditional forms of demonstration.

The government was gradually isolated and the pressure on it from various domestic and international agents initiated a process of adjustment of the new government to the existing neoliberal norms and regulations. Deprived of any real tool for reshaping the battlefield, the government and the party gradually moved from fighting against financial despotism towards merely a pool of political personnel with a good reputation that could reinvigorate the neoliberal project. In an era with a complex network of political antagonisms and class struggles, SYRIZA, as a collective agent, couldn’t even realise the form of the fight it had been involved in. This is still true for plenty of people in the Greek Left today, but things are changing and the difficulties force us to adapt.

The negotiation process and especially the way it had been understood and experienced within SYRIZA is indicative of the sloppy and cursory way that preparation for power took place, and of the inability of the party to adapt. But it also reveals the underlying premises that supported those qualities. Starting with the agreement of the 20th of February until the day that the lenders announced that the only real possibility was the continuation of the neoliberal project (1st of June), a pattern emerged regarding the way in which the government and party officials assessed what was occurring. Although the negative indications were overwhelming compared with the hopeful ones, they were focusing on the latter, distorting reality. Or better, they were replacing reality with what they hoped for; what they would have liked to be reality. I am not saying that the problem was that government and party officials were being dishonest; although some of them might be; individual dishonesty cannot explain a collective pattern.

The non-existent reality they were clinging onto was the only one in which the traditional political left knows how to do politics. And since people and collectives are determined not by what they say but by what they know how to do (a material dictum that has been forgotten in political left), it is impossible to become relevant with the real reality without a modification of methodologies, organizational principles and political imageries related to a practice that reflects reality. The problem was that collectively we hadn’t adapted sufficiently into how to do politics in reality. In the case of lack of adaptation of this kind, reality will be imposed on people and collective bodies the hard way…

This non-existent reality that government and party officials were clinging on to was built on the assumption that the elites were committed to accepting the democratic mandate of an elected government. If they do not like the policies that it promotes, they would have to engage in a political fight; opposition parties must convince the people that the policies are not desirable or successful and use the democratic process for a new government of their preference to be elected.

Supposedly, the post-war global balance of forces inscribed in the state institutions a considerable amount of popular power, rendering them quasi-democratic. This consists simply in tolerating – on behalf of the elites – a situation where people without considerable economic power have access to crucial decisions. SYRIZA knew how to do politics based on the premise that the institutionalised (in the past) popular power was not exhausted. By winning the elections, the remaining institutional power – mainly in the form of state power and international respect of national sovereignty – would be enough and it would be used to stop austerity (in all versions of how that would happen, within eurozone, leaving eurozone etc). Based on the premise that the framework within which politics is being conducted hasn’t changed significantly, SYRIZA did what the traditional way of doing politics dictates: supported social movements, built alliances, won a majority in the parliament, formed a government. We all know the results of doing politics only in this way today.

During that summer, the gap between the kind of politics we collectively knew how to do and the new reality grew massively, producing both hilarious and tragic events. The referendum and its aftermath was definitely the peak of this. From the “traditional way of doing politics” point of view, we were using all democratic means available. It was obvious to me and others that we were engaged in an escalation that was not supported by anything that would make the lenders accept a compromise. The traditional, democratic means are simply outdated for doing politics in the new European despotism (although, if embedded in a different methodology of politics, they can still be very useful). But it was a way for the people to step in at a historic moment and give a global message that transcends the SYRIZA government and its short-term plots.

During the week of the referendum a massive biopolitical experiment took place: the closure of the banks; the extreme propaganda by the media, the threats by the domestic, European and international political and financial establishment; the terrorism in workplaces; the hostility and threats towards “no” supporters on interpersonal level and so on, created an environment we have never encountered before. Our opponents used all their resources and they lost! Greek people refused to voluntarily declare that they embrace a life without dignity in order to avoid a sudden death. We are talking about an extremely hopeful and important event for the battle against neoliberalism. Greek people proved that the biopolitical control and influence over people is not so powerful as we might think it is. The message was crystal-clear and gave courage to plenty of us despite the ominous predictions for the immediate future: the battle is not over yet; human societies will not surrender easily.

On the side of SYRIZA, the transformation of government and party officials had already occurred.  The Greek government didn’t negotiate strictly speaking. There wasn’t a coherent negotiation strategy, no improvement of our position in time, no gaining of some leverage, etc. There was only a desperate act of postponing a decision it had to make. By the time that the referendum took place, things had changed. The leadership had shifted the central features of its assessment regarding how best to serve peoples’ needs: from “non-compliance with financial despotism” to “stay in power”. What happened after the agreement is just the natural outcome of this process of adjustment.

5) After the negotiations between the Greek government and the institutions, the transformation of the European Union into an authoritarian neoliberal apparatus became obvious. Are political and economic interests a tautology in today’s European Union? Which were the main political stakes of this battle?

In the last decades (not accidentally, since fall of Soviet Union) the elites made decisive steps towards limiting the ability of the people to influence key decisions. Crucial transformations have been taking place in the power assembly at a global and European scale. The state – by being the institution of power par excellence – was the site of fundamental changes, modifications and developments towards the institutionalization of the neoliberal order. Due to the emergence of the neoliberal structure of the EU and the Eurozone, a bundle of important policies and powers that once belonged to the state has been transferred either to external authorities or directly to the elites – in both cases out of the reach of the people. At the same time, a vast array of neoliberal regulations and norms govern the function of the state. In the EU and the Eurozone today, people’s democratic control has been successfully limited. The elites are no longer committed to the post-war democratic rules. Today the elites feel confident enough to openly defy democracy. Democracy is not taboo anymore.

The elected government is no longer the major bearer of political power, but a minor one. In the case of Greece, democratically electing a government is like electing a (very) junior partner in a wider government in which the lenders are the major partners. The junior partner is not allowed to intervene and disturb the decisions and the policies implemented on crucial economic and social issues (fiscal policy, banks, privatizations, pensions etc). If it does intervene and demand a say on these issues then the people who appointed it are going to suffer the consequences of daring to defy the elites’ privilege of access to these kinds of decisions. The elites – by extracting important powers and decisions on crucial issues from the democratically structured institutions of the bourgeois state – have managed to gain  control over the basic functions of society. It is up to their anti-democratic institutions to decide whether a country will have a functional banking system and sufficient liquidity to run basic services or not. The Left must embrace the traumatic reality: In Europe a new kind of despotism is fast emerging, combining the logic of competition and profit with pre-modern institutions and forms of power.

20 years after the fall of the “actually existing socialism” we are experiencing the fall of the “actually existing liberalism,” so to speak. In historical time, the two processes are simultaneous and mark the beginning of a hard clash between the elites and the people. The neoliberal project signifies an open, ambitious and brutal strategy to radically change the basic coordinates of human societies and modes of subjectivity towards the most horrific form of authoritarianism we could envision few years ago.

Having that in mind, I would say that the political stakes of the clash between Greek people and financial despotism were broader than we usually think. Modern societies are just waking up from the “end of history” illusion. The new political movements (square movements, Occupy movements, etc) are the first glimpses of such an awakening. They are also making use of whatever exists around them, like SYRIZA, Corbyn, Sanders etc. But, we must upgrade our forms of organization and action significantly and modify radically the mentality and methodology of mobilisation. So, we are in the beginning and we must proceed decisively and effectively towards new and better adapted ways of organizing and fighting.

From the Greek front so far, we have had major losses and some gains. Some of the gains are the result of the referendum, the forced choice of the elites to come out of the closet and declare openly that institutional bourgeois democracy is not accepted anymore and the awareness of what kind of politics no longer works. On the other hand, we faced a brutal defeat; we didn’t succeed in checking neoliberal transformation. We also lost a massive political organisation. It could be better, it could be worst. As I said in the beginning, there is no time to be despondent. We learn, we adapt and we move forward. The first goal is to be more relevant next time by creating updated, collective agencies – hybrid and unclassified from a traditional point of view – able to influence the course of our society in a period of time that is unpredictable and full of danger. It’s neither easy nor certain. It’s the question of a new beginning; it’s the creative leap from 0 to 1.

KaritzisDr Andreas Karitzis is a former SYRIZA member and former member of its Central Committee and Political Secretariat. He is a founding member of the “Hub” for social economy, empowerment and innovation.



SouvlisGeorge Souvlis is a PhD Candidate in History at the European University Institute in Florence and a freelance writer of various progressive blogs and magazines (Jacobin, ROAR, Enthemata Avgis).

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