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

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 I is available here.

6) Do you believe that there was an alternative management of the negotiations on behalf of Syriza or was Tsirpas right that there wasn’t actually an alternative available?

According to my understanding, what some people decided and imposed on the rest of us – namely that SYRIZA should remain in power after the defeat – to be considered a left alternative is wrong. We know from the decline of social-democratic parties that there is no middle ground between financial despotism and democracy; if you try to reach such a ground, gradually you are converted into a component of the biopolitical machine that seeks to dehumanize our societies. Implementing the agreement – hoping for a neoliberal revival of the economy – is not a counter-strategy that belongs in the left. Arguing that the implementation of the agreement is the only way out of the present situation is just a reformulation of the neoliberal dictum that there is no alternative. So, how is it the only alternative for the left when it does not even belong to the logical space of left possibilities?

Police measures set by Syriza during US President Obama's visit. Source: HKP
Police measures set by Syriza during US President Obama’s visit. Source: HKP

But it is getting even worse. Let me present you with various highly dangerous consequences of SYRIZA’s choice to remain in the government under the obligation to continue the neoliberal project. The political system has crossed a critical threshold, entering a mode of functioning which could be described as the “squeeze effect”: it has been squeezed and forced to function within the nearly non-existent space of freedom that the agreement allows. It has been pushed in a tiny space, it seems irrelevant to the crucial economic and social issues, struggling to fit its different poles into a space so tiny that these poles eventually overlap and poke through each other.

This effect has highly deforming implications; implications that further erode the function of political representation. We could say that before the neoliberal consensus of the 90’s, in various countries there was a quasi-democratic political system (subject to military coups and the like). Then, the right-wing and social-democratic parties adopted neoliberalism as the political programme, decisively downgrading the function of political representation. And now we are in the phase of institutionalized neoliberalism in which a new circle of political deformation has been launched; a circle that reflects the advanced degree of institutionalization of the anti-democratic neoliberal mode of governmentality in Europe.

Because of the “squeeze effect”, the political system is amplifying the confusion and the feeling of despair within Greek society. Moreover, the “squeeze effect” renders the political personnel sterile in regards to the real life conditions of the population and entirely impenetrable to the peoples’ anxieties and demands. The negative social consequences and psychic implications caused by austerity and social decline cannot  be reflected at the political level, they cannot be represented, democratically expressed, and positively transformed in such a way that contributes to social stability and cohesion. Without a minimally proper function of political representation in place, these social and psychic wounds – in the form of negative and (self-) destructive dispositions – are spread across all social networks of interpersonal relations shaking social cohesion in a deeper way.

SYRIZA was the last gatekeeper of the political functioning through its non-compliance with the financial despotism that the Troika represents. That was SYRIZA’s most precious role over the years that contained the Greek society from a deep decline. The implosion of the political system – via SYRIZA’S choice to remain in power – is the key factor in shaking social cohesion in a deeper way today.

SYRIZA failed to stop austerity and neoliberal transformation in Greece. This is surely a defeat. And when you face a defeat you are going to bear the cost. The quality and the allocation of the costs you might have is a serious and crucial political decision. The primary aim is to contain the damage in order to survive the collective organism. In the case of a left political party that means to safeguard the connections with the fighting part of the population and popular classes. Only in this case can you be useful to the people in the future. So the failure can be endured by allocating the costs wisely. But in order to be able to perform systematic collective processes and take decisions of this kind you must have qualities like the ones that we lacked during the preparation period. In other words, the highly problematic way of approaching government power deprived SYRIZA of a serious and organized way to handle the difficulties after the defeat properly and manage a sustainable retreat.

So, failing is one thing, what SYRIZA did after the failure is another. In this vein, one could argue that SYRIZA didn’t just fail strictly speaking but also wrecked the hopes and the aspirations of the popular classes and those fighting against financial despotism. It chose to remain in power, normalising the coup we witnessed last summer and accepting the neoliberal coordinates that shape governmentality today in Europe.

SYRIZA’s choice deprived the popular classes of a crucial tool after a painful defeat: the political representation of non-compliance with financial despotism. SYRIZA eliminated the chance of a tactical withdrawal, a collective process of reassembling our forces properly that could take into account the escalation of the fight provoked by elites – and forming a more effective and resilient ‘popular front’ that would build its resources to challenge neoliberal orthodoxy in the future.

However, focusing on SYRIZA’s choice, there is a danger of underestimating the strategic defeat that we all suffered in 2015, hiding from ourselves the extent of our current impotence in regards to any serious challenge to financial despotism. We must dare to perform an extensive reassessment of our methodology and tools if we want to be relevant in these new conditions and become really useful to the people. And to do so, we should not preoccupy ourselves with what SYRIZA did and comfort ourselves that this is the source of our problems. The choice SYRIZA made is, among other things, a symptom of the deeper, structural weaknesses of the Left.

7) Syriza’s defeat, part from the split of the party, caused a marginalisation of left forces and social movements in Greece. Currently it looks like there is no solid articulation of an anti-hegemonic left force. The majority of voices that joined to oppose Syriza from the left expressed the need of leaving the euro and the European Union. Is this the answer? Or is it possible for the EU to change from inside?

The major problem is not that we are missing the right answer, but the proper agent to address these questions. And moreover, we do not even seem to notice it, although things are changing in this respect.

The impact of the strategic defeat of last year is still shaping various reactions within the Greek Left. Some people seem content with superficial explanations of what happened and want to return to habitual ways of thinking and acting; others sense the strategic depth of the defeat and turn inwards to disappointment and demoralization. Still others are trying to learn from the “SYRIZA experience” in order to make themselves more useful to people in the future. All of us sense the dangers in front of us but we are far from having a common and feasible strategy.

Unfortunately, the inadequacies spotted above regarding the operational mentality and political methodology within SYRIZA apply to the traditional left more broadly. We usually think and talk like somehow we have already consolidated our capacity to influence the course of things. We  focus on moves, like the one about the currency, as if we are in a position to administer a well-organised popular mobilisation able to perform this or that choice. And we do not really work on creating the conditions of possibility in order to be in a position from which such questions really matter. Let me give you an example.

The Central Committee of SYRIZA was repeatedly dealing with this question (exit from the Eurozone or stay in with a degree of autonomy) and similar ones such as percentage of the Greek debt to erase. These debates were taking place under the assumption that we have (or will have) the power needed to really implement the choice we are going to make. In reality, we were powerless to implement any of these choices. We were functioning as if it was already given – without us working deliberately on them – a properly aligned and assembled popular front and the state mechanisms able to initiate a complex and multi-level transformation.

It seems that the traditional political means of building social alliances, in terms of representing beliefs and demands at the political level, is not enough to stop neoliberal transformation. The popular power once inscribed in the traditional institutional configuration is seriously depleted, if not exhausted. We do not have enough power to make the elites accept and tolerate our participation in crucial decisions. The amount of power we can reach through the traditional political practice is not enough to pave the way for the restoration of democracy and popular sovereignty in Europe. If this is our current predicament, then the urgent question is not find a “right answer” but to set up a new conceptual framework of doing politics both within the state and outside of it which is relevant to the current situation. But, we should be aware that this path requires a different mentality and qualities from the ones we used to deploying through traditional political action.

If we look at the horizon of the political practice of the Left we will see that it contains movement-oriented and state-oriented approaches: organizing movements, demonstrating and fighting in the streets pushing demands to the state and voting, trying to change the balance of forces at the parliamentary level and hopefully form a government of the state. If we look closely we will notice that both of these approaches – and, thus, the entire horizon of our political practice – are mostly shaped around the traditional institutional framework of representative democracy that situates the state at the center of political power. But we know that the elites have already shifted the center of gravity of political power towards anti-democratic institutions and repositioned the state within the institutional neoliberal European order. The elites have managed to gain total and unchecked control over the basic functions of society. In order to be in a position to pursue or implement any kind of policy one may consider as being the right one, we need to create a degree of autonomy in terms of performing basic social functions. Without it we will not be able to confront the hostile actions of the elites and their willingness to inflict pain on a society that dares to defy their privilege over crucial decisions.

If the ground of the battle has shifted, undermining our strategy, then it’s not enough to be more competent on the shaky battleground; actually SYRIZA did quite well in this respect over the last few years. We need to reshape the ground. One way to do it is by shifting priorities: from political representation to building popular power. We must modify the balance between representing people’s beliefs and demands and coordinating, facilitating, connecting, supporting and nurturing people’s actions in the profile of the Left.

Instead of being mainly the political representative of the popular classes in a European framework designed to be intolerant to people’s needs, we must set up an autonomous Network of Production of Economic and Social Power (NESP). A network of resilient, dynamic and interrelated circuits of co-operative productive units, alternative financial tools, local cells of self-governance, community control over infrastructure facilities, digital data, energy systems, distribution networks etc. These are ways of gaining a degree of autonomy necessary to defy the despotic control of the elites over society.

Is this feasible? My hypothesis is that literally every day the human activity – both intellectual and practical – is producing experiences, know-how, criteria and methods, innovations etc. that inherently contradict the parasitic logic of profit and financial competition. Moreover, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have so many embodied capacities and values from different cultures within our reach. Of course we are talking about elements that may not be developed sufficiently yet. Elements that may have been nurtured in mainstream contexts and that are often functionally connected to the standard economic circuit. However, the support of their further development, their gradual absorption in an alternative, coherent paradigm governed by a different logic and values, and finally their functional articulation in alternative patterns of performing the basic functions of our societies is just a short description of the duty of a Left that has a clear, systematic and strategically wide orientation. In the worst case, we will achieve some degree of resilience; people will be more empowered to defend themselves and hold their ground. In the best case, we will be able to regain the hegemony needed: people could mobilize positively, creatively and massively, decidedly reclaiming their autonomy.

8) Where would an effort for the reconstruction of a sustainable movement start and what are the mistakes that shouldn’t be repeated?

Let’s begin with building popular power. It is clear that we must create new popular power if we want to bring substantial change or become resilient instead of just handling the remaining – seriously depleted if not already exhausted – popular power inscribed in the traditional institutions. The question is what it means to do politics in order to produce popular power without presupposing the traditional democratic functioning and in order to restore it by newly transforming it.

From my experience, when people in the Left contemplate and talk about what are we doing, how are we aligning our forces, how are we functioning etc., they tend to agree with the claim that we need to be more innovative, better adapted and more efficient. But when the very same people actually do politics they reproduce priorities, mental images, methods and organizational habits that they already know are not sufficient or adequate anymore. This means that there are implicit, deep-rooted norms that shape crucially the range of our collective actions, rhetoric, decisions and eventually strategy. It’s not important what we think, it’s what we know how to do that matters. And the latter is a product of our collective imagination, methodology and organizational principles.

Moreover, we often tend to underestimate and neglect problems of internal functioning. We believe in and fight for the promotion of the logic of cooperation and democracy against the logic of competition but in practice our organizations suffer severely in terms of cooperation and democracy on the operational/organizational level. Ten people tend to be less effective when they work together, interpersonal dynamics tend to deteriorate our processes and our decision-making processes in larger groups tend to be time-consuming, incoherent and dysfunctional. We must initiate a process for identifying the best practices, methods and regulations – both from the experience of our collectivities and from the scientific production regarding issues such as management, leadership, organizational, complexity and network systems theories, psychology etc. – in order to upgrade our forces.

Our actions and initiatives are currently not connected properly with each other, they are fragmented and isolated, destined to face the same difficulties again and again. It is also vital to upgrade our organisational capacities through appropriate processes and nodes of connection, facilitating smooth flows of know-how, best practices and information, building databases and accumulating knowledge and expertise in an easily retrievable and useful way.

The constitution and expansion of a dynamic and resilient network of production of economic and social power under people’s control requires creative qualities relevant to the current, highly diversified and rapidly changing social field. To be able to offer alternative patterns and ways of performing vital functions that society requires, necessitates integrated circuits, a high degree of coordination and many other qualities. So, constituting and expanding such a network includes the need for building relevant institutions and organisations.

Broadly speaking, one of the advantage of multinational and large corporations in general, in comparison to others consists in that they possess a vast social network and powerful databases that give them the necessary tools to plan and pursue their goals, while at the same time their smaller competitors seem blind and disarrayed in a global environment of rapid changes. We need these qualities if we want really to be relevant and useful to the people from now on.

Secondly, there is another crucial aspect of redesigning the operating system of the Left: what it means to embed the function of political representation within the operational coordinates of NESP? The function of political representation is a fundamental one in complex societies. It’s the function that political parties mostly perform and that shapes the everyday conception regarding what politics is about. Of course, building popular power will invigorate, and possibly transform, the institutional framework, giving back substantial meaning to political representation and the political practice we are acquainted with.

But, the expansion of a network of the sort we are discussing here could and should be reflected on the function of political representation itself. We may be in front of new ways of political representation and new types of political parties. The task here is not to revive “neglected” aspects of politics – like building popular power – or to reinvent relevant collective and individual qualities; the aim is to explore novel ways of performing the function of political representation in order to restructure existing ones and upgrade significantly the political leverage of the popular classes. For example, putting forward a project of shaping political representation as “commons” could give us valuable insights towards new ways of performing political representation.

Thirdly, we must think again what a transformation strategy and methodology look like. The left talks too much about the democratic transformation of the state. In practice, the driving concept is the restoration of state functions as they were before the neoliberal transformation. The expansion of a network of economic and social power under people’s control can unlock our imagination towards targeted reforms of state institutions towards the same direction.

In theory this is an old idea: the transformation of the state is a complementary move to the self-organized collectivities of the people outside of it, driven by these forms of self-governance. Actually, this is exactly what our opponents did consistently and persistently during the last decades; they were designing and implementing reforms in various levels of the state institutions based on the methods, the criteria and the functioning of their own “social agents”, namely the corporations and their own understanding of the nature of public space, namely the market. This is exactly the mechanics of transformation that various intellectuals and leaders of the Left were describing already a long time ago. By shifting our priorities we may be able to revive old but useful ideas that have been forgotten in practice.

9) The revival of the far-right is not just a Greek phenomenon. From the “defenders of the occident” like Marie Le Penn and Wilders, to the governments of Poland and Hungary and the burning of refugees homes in Germany, we can see it growing dangerously strong throughout Europe. Would you like to provide a brief history of the phenomenon? Do you believe that we can observe something similar with the developments that took place during the interwar period, a politically dominant far-right? 

Today in Greece, a left government is implementing austerity, the people of the left are puzzled and the left will gradually be registered as a pro-memorandum political force in people’s minds. The nationalists and the fascists have remained the only “natural hosts” of popular rage and resentment, the expected emotional outcomes of the burial of hope we witnessed last summer. Greeks are sensing that the future of their society is severely compromised.  The majority of Greeks have been sentenced to misery and despair through the imposition of harsh austerity measures without any real hope for the future. If we add to the economic and social disaster that austerity is inflicting on us the waves of refugees that are trapped in Greece – especially the complex and contradictory ways in which their drama impacts on the abused psychic economy of the Greek population – and add also the fear of increased geopolitical instability in the region, then it seems certain that prosperity, stability and peace has left Greece for the forseeable future.

Despite the incredible resilience of the Greek population so far towards the fascists and the nationalists – the last incident was the way the majority of the population acted supporting and helping in any means available the refugees the last months – the psychic and social balance is extremely fragile. It is highly probable that an extreme right wing political formation (it is doubtful that Golden Dawn can play this role) will emerge and absorb those disappointed  by SYRIZA. In any case, a new circle of harsh restrictions of political and civil rights will be launched sooner or later; we have already incidents of this, and moves down this path.

The worrying thing is that we are not talking about a regression specifically located in Greece. This path coincides with the escalation of autocratic governments in the region (e.g. Turkey) and the authoritarian trajectory of the EU, both in terms of European institutions (anti-democratic financial governmentality) and in terms of nationalist gains within individual countries (Poland, France, Hungary, Aurstia etc).

The financial despotism that European institutions promote is not going to stop Europe’s decline. Inflicting the European people with a brutal policy of austerity, and dismantling democracy, together with the fact that Europe consists of many different nations, the most probable outcome will be the rise of neo-fascism and extreme right-wing nationalism. The European countries – under geopolitical and financial pressure – will develop a national strategy to counteract these pressures and in reality will compete with each other. The domination of extreme right-wing forces in Europe will be the end-product of neoliberalism and austerity. It will be their nastiest consequence, the endgame of the decline of Europe. European countries will fight each other, not over who is going to rule the rest of the world, as in the past, but over who is going to be less miserable in a declining region.

The signs of collapse of the standard economic circuit are obvious in Greece but not only there. There is a growing exclusion of people from the economic circuit—having a job or a bank account, having a “normal life”. Modern society in general is in decline, and from history we know that societies in decline tend to react in order to survive. It is up to us to grasp this and start building networks that can perform basic social functions in a different way—one that is democratic, decentralized and based on the liberation of people’s capacities.

10) In geopolitical terms we observe a chaos inside and outside Europe. A clear indication of this the situation in Ukraine, a civil war for the first time in postwar history. Which is your take on current geopolitical developments in Europe? And, do you believe that the European Union at this moment has any rational long-term plan for its survival?

Instead of focusing on neoliberalism as a problem, let’s think of it as an answer to a problem. The world is changing, new global powers emerge creating their own spheres of influence challenging the geopolitcal dominance of the West around the planet. In Europe, the story goes, we used to have an expanding middle class, societies with high standards of living because we were in a position to exploit other parts of the planet. We don’t have this luxury anymore.

So, Europe has to change. We have to become more competitive i.e. we must import into Europe the areas and practices of crude exploitation. We must reduce the rights of the majority of the population, its standard of living and drastically reshape our societies ending the “disturbing habit” of democratic governance. Access to crucial decisions must be an exclusive privilege of the economic elites, and so on.

The neoliberal strategy appears to be the only possible solution to the gradual geopolitical retreat of Europe. It seems to be the only solution due to a conservative cliché, which is widespread and deep-rooted: we are entering difficult times, hard choices must be made to overcome these difficulties. Only the ruling elite know what must be done. Only they are bold enough, only they are willing to do the dirty work. No one agrees with austerity, no one likes it, but it is necessary. No one agrees with  camps for immigrants and refugees, but it is something that must be done.

The left, and progressives in general – the cliché goes – are soft, sensitive, naive people, incapable of leading society in the difficult times when hard decisions must be made. They are whining about poverty, the violation of rights, the weakening of democracy, the loss of social security, etc. They mourn for the loss of things from better times. This cliché – reinforced incessantly and not accidentally by the adventure movies of Hollywood and various other dominant cultural “products” – is the  assumption that fuels the appeal that neoliberal strategy has today. It’s hard but necessary – it is the only game in town if we want Europe to survive.

But neoliberalism and austerity are failing to reverse the decline of Europe. In fact they accelerate the decline, and, as I said, the most probable outcome will be the rise of neo-fascism and extreme right-wing nationalism.

In geopolitics, regions of the planet are assessed by their productive capacity, their military power, their control over trading routes, their population, their resources etc. The European countries are relatively small in size and taken separately, their geopolitical power is not considered to be important. The unity of the European countries is a necessary condition if we want some degree of autonomy, geopolitically speaking. It is a necessary condition if we want to maintain the capacity to co-determine our future.

But, unity can only be achieved through co-operation. The neoliberal dogma that we are going to build unity through competition – not by combining our forces but by using them against one another – is a contradiction in terms. Additionally, the interdependence of the European economies, the unprecedented power of the “markets”, the banks and other financial agents makes it reasonable to assume that the European people will either stand or fall together. In other words, it does not seem plausible that one European nation will be “saved” while the others are dragged down into darkness. European people today more than ever share a common fate. We need a strategy based on cooperation and democracy, as the  one that can reverse the decline of Europe by unlocking the huge capacities of the European people. The geopolitical assessment of a region that seems to be in decline according to conventional standards can be altered drastically if we take into account the capacities of the people. Capacities that can be fully activated if we think of the people as autonomous, pro-active agents of democratic decision-making and productive units that allow them to fully manifest and cultivate even further their capacities, instead of rendering them just as obedient, silent labor place-holders under the control of others.

If we really want to challenge neoliberal hegemony and austerity we need an approach that seems appealing to the majority of Europeans. Situating our strategy in the proposed framework, it appears to be a pragmatic, reasonable and better solution, rather than just a fair but unrealistic list of demands. This is a crucial step if we really want to fight back effectively, to change the course of things, to seriously question the hegemony of an inhuman transformation of our society. Needless to say that at the geopolitical level, a mature Europe which is constantly transforimg its productive matrix following a different path of development will be a force capable of stabilizing the global competition (which is now accelerated alarmingly threatening peace at a global scale) and it would support immensely similar efforts in other regions of the planet.

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).