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Let’s not ‘politicise’: let’s skill

"We are very aware, when it comes to the whole Greek experience, that one of the problems the political left faces is … what it means to be able to implement your own ideas."

lead Andreas in the market place of ideas, Team Syntegrity, Barcelona, June, 2017.Rosemary(R): As someone based in Greece and practised in international debates around ‘new politics’, what did you make of our Team Syntegrity process in Barcelona last June: did it add something to the toolbox?

Andreas (AK): The interesting thing about this three-day event was the fact that people with very different interests and expertise came together. We weren’t exactly focused and working together on the tools or methodologies that would achieve progressive change: we were more diverse than that.

But every now and then it seems that it is important for all of us to check out the relevance of what we are doing in our respective fields, by becoming more aware of what is happening to the people around us working in totally different areas, and by having access to their perspectives on what is going on. I saw how people these days are approaching what is happening, and how they think they should address it. And I have kept in touch with the Greek participants and also with Ashish Ghadiali.

I saw and heard a lot about areas of activity which are not priorities for me, but which appeared to me nevertheless quite crucial to bear in mind. I’m thinking of three of these: the need to find a good way to bring emotions into our calculations of social organisation and political change; secondly, the complexity that different religious backgrounds bring to the table of anyone fantasising about a global identity; and the fascinating things going on in agriculture, of which I know very little, but which turn out to be utterly relevant to the urban challenges with which I wrestle. Pavlos has given me a lot of tips in this regard, despite both of us being so busy.

It was also good to encounter people who simply have different positions in the global division of labour. That was also nice. I have a sense of urgency; I met people who had an even greater sense of urgency; but also people who had considerably less of that sense. We are all part more or less of a global movement for progressive change that we would like to see coordinated; but it became very clear that people do not have the same experiences, the same feelings about what is going on, let alone the same commitment to how to tackle it. That is important to take into consideration.

R: Those were all things you learned from your fellow participants. What about your own ability to share your concerns and priorities with the others? – sowing seeds and seeing them germinate was one of the favourite metaphors of the event.

AK: On that front, I have a dual response. The first is rather negative. I felt that sometimes the point I was trying to make was not well understood by my fellow-participants. I realise that this means that I have to take into greater consideration, as I said, the different vantage points of my interlocutors. You have to find a way to communicate it better. But I came to the conclusion that this was also more profoundly about my diagnosis regarding the way politics functions or rather does not function in liberal democracies today, based on my experience in Greece. Politics no longer works. It doesn’t deliver; and at the same time, it doesn’t allow a space for people to talk convivially about their institutional experience in this regard.

But of course, the extent of the decline is not the same in all liberal democracies. So if you are discussing with people from countries where the institutional framework does not appear so obsolete, it is understandable that talking like this may seem rather bizarre. It must have seemed as if I was trying to warn them of an imminent setback, as opposed to helping them articulate their existing experience of the options before them. So I probably needed a different way of speaking. When I referred to the political functioning of liberal democracies I described it in such a way that made it sound as if it was no longer powerful enough institutionally to allow the prospect of any real political advance. But this is not an adequate description of what is going on in their countries, where it seems to people that, with whatever difficulty, they are indeed able to advance their democratic cause. So I need to find a new frame for the same sort of reasoning that I am engaged in.

Many times, however, even if people didn’t share my perspective, I thought they did glimpse the fertility of the ideas behind what I was trying to elaborate.

R: Were discussions about the UK Labour Party and Momentum’s role that I know you had with one or two of the participants an example of this sort of misunderstanding?

AK: I am very happy that there are people who understand the need to change our priorities and our methodology in working for progressive change. I had exactly the same convictions myself in the years leading up to 2015, when the realities in Greece became so clear. A few years back, I would have argued for the same things, based on the assessments I was making then about what sorts of prospects we faced and how things could evolve. But after 2015, this was no longer an assessment. We had the facts, the reality.

So this has convinced me to be bolder in arguing for a different methodology, one which concentrates much more on the creation of social capital to better prepare ourselves for the forthcoming challenge in various countries. And I find people from other countries are beginning to listen to this.

The Labour Party path seems a fruitful one. I am not a pessimist in this regard. But the UK faces very difficult problems and it will be a hard fight. I don’t have any problem with failure either. I don’t mind that, because I believe that whatever we do during period of time is not a permanent solution to any problem: it is always an attempt to cope with the challenges that will provide valuable lessons for the future. And it’s my role to learn.

R: I wasn’t trying to engage you in that sort of dreary speculation over who the winners and the losers are likely to be, which goes on ad nauseam. I suppose I was hoping to focus on your thoughts on the function of a leftwing movement in rather reactionary countries nowadays. What should they aspire to, what should they look like? This I take it was the main topic of the ‘Transforming the left’ discussion you were involved in last June.

AK: What you are asking for is the core problem we need to address: how are we going to organise socially and politically the majority of the people in order to become powerful enough to influence the course of our societies? This is the question. What we have now, if you ask my opinion, is a pretty good diagnosis in itself of what is not working. We may have the requirements, the specifications of what we need. But we have to fill in these specs with content, with various experiences and with actual processes.

Team Syntegrity, June, 2017.Maybe there are interesting things going on in Britain that I am not aware of. But here in Greece, I can tell you about a similar path that is under way. We are trying to build networks that draw people into activity, while maximising the decision-making opportunities that are appropriate to what people know how to do. These will be organisations constructed around a variety of autonomous and semi-autonomous groupings, which allow people to choose where they are best placed to learn and to contribute. We don’t have to take all the decisions together. We will take qualified decisions while maintaining a basic democratic functioning within the parts and good coordination between the parts.

So if you ask me the new model of organisation that I am describing is not a top down organisation, where people transfer the crucial decisions to those above them: but it will be a network of autonomous entities engaged in their own projects, but cooperating and coordinating together to achieve more complex tasks. That is what we are trying to do now in Komvos – in its experimental phase, based on commons principles and those of a solidarity economy.

The pilot is not a huge network, but we are using it to find out what kinds of qualities the organisers must have, what kinds of digital tools you could use to have this kind of coordination, and the kinds of institutions we need in order to support such networks on a larger scale. If you think about it, for example we need institutions that can scale up the parts of the network that are working well; mature projects for implementation – you may have a good idea and not have a clue about how to translate it into an implementation plan, and there are people who are experts and can do this for others; and we also need a strong funding component, instead of having to create small funding units within each of the cells, that can provide this service to any cell or cluster of cells that needs it. This funding component might include facilities for crowdfunding, donors, foundations, banking and investment skills, everything. It is a new institution. We also need a cultural institution. These are the features of the ‘content’ needed to fill the frame that I was referring to.

Komvos in this sense is a facilitator of this network. We don’t want it to become the organisation itself, but rather to act as a cell that enables a group of other cells to emerge, by mediating between different parts of the network to consolidate better communications overall, and by supplying different processes that enable different cells which are autonomous and up and running already, to work out what they can do best together. These are if you like ‘second order cells’ of a network that are not themselves in the field, but that support all the cells working in the field. This is what I am thinking about and what we are working on.

R: To what extent is it necessary that the members of these cell clusters, or networks, consciously espouse a shared political purpose?

AK: That’s a tricky question, because the people involved in setting up Komvos with me are strongly politically oriented. But we are very aware, when it comes to the whole Greek experience, that one of the problems the political left faces is the underestimation of technical aspects of social capacity, what it means to be able to implement your own ideas. This is because we tend to think that the major problems are political, and a matter of political will. This is right to a certain extent. But if that means that you become totally impotent in terms of your operational capacities, then that creates, as you can imagine, a serious problem.

So in this phase of our actions and operations, we do not want to connect this kind of activity to any explicit political commitment. We know that if we flourish at this level, our skills will be completely essential to any emancipatory politics in the broadest sense of the term, but we don’t want to burden those involved today with political controversy and cat-fights – those are happening of their own accord quite enough anyway – but we don’t want to promote this. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to see and are not working for an indication in a few years’ time that innovative and transformed political platforms are emerging at a municipal and regional level – and why not at a national level too? But they will have been informed about what it means to become involved in politics through the activities in the network that they have been engaged in, and that I have been describing to you.

R:  That’s very interesting, because it tells me that your primary purpose is not to find a new and more productive function for the left in any given society, in this case Greece, but that your primary purpose is to build up nodes of social capacity. You may have your own political motivations for committing to the formation of a certain kind of resilience in the face of the future challenges you anticipate, but that’s it. Those motivations are not the driver for the whole, and theoretically, the skills you seek to form could and perhaps should be nurtured in many different parts of our diverse societies? In our reactionary liberal democracies there are people throughout society who have everything from entrepreneurial and technological skills to caring and ethical skills, which we shall need to bring together in any decent future fight on behalf of democracy and people power.

AK: Yes, that’s it. But let me add to this way of describing what I’m saying. After 2015 here in Greece, I do not have a left organisation that is a point of reference for me. It would be quite different, and I would say more or less the same things but in a rather different modality, if a vibrant left party could have emerged alive and kicking from what happened in 2015. Had that happened, then today we would have an organisational tool that maybe needed improvement and modifications, but which could help in the creation of the network that I was talking about, bringing people from different origins, with different priorities and different political identities together, and this left party could be one crucial factor in its success. We don’t have that. So I cannot say, “First I will rebuild and revive the left and then the new left will do this.” It’s not going to work like that. And so if you ask my opinion, you have to go straight to the people, to the many different people, among which leftwingers constitute only one constituency, who are going to prove useful to this project. I strongly recommend this strategy to my leftist friends, and amongst the leftist organisations, I read in their publications quite a lot of similar ideas and methodological echoes. But I would not choose to work within the left at this period of time. I’m not underestimating those ideas. I did work within those methodologies for twenty years! But I don’t think I have to begin from there to reach the many parts of the people in struggle that surround me. That seems more productive.

Team Syntegrity discussions, June 2017.R: Your vision reminds me of many very different organisational opportunities, from the Greater London Enterprise Board before Margaret Thatcher crushed it, to the exciting municipal experiments in the Fearless Cities network launched in Barcelona. Where, internationally, do you take your inspiration from?

AK: The interesting things happening now in Barcelona and Madrid and other areas in Spain are indeed a major source of inspiration and relevant ideas. Moreover, there we are talking about another European country, which means a similar political context and indeed a shared history. We witness the expansion of similar efforts in other countries. Thanks to Magda at the Team Syntegrity, I recently discovered some of the great work being undertaken by Razem, the new leftwing party in Poland, something similar to what Podemos are doing. And there are similar initiatives in Romania and also in Croatia at the municipal level. It is all at a very early stage, this way of addressing our organisational and methodological problems, but it is happening and will give us new insights.

What is happening in Rojava and the Kurdish areas of Syria is also inspiring. The major argument that comes from there is that democracy and the decentralisation of decision-making and the coordination of equals are not luxuries that we can only aspire to after we have put paid to our enemies, but that they are crucial and essential tools if you want to survive because they are the only way to liberate in full the capacities of the people. That is an absolutely key argument. And a major breakthrough in experience that is going on there, and I use it a lot.

Another source of inspiration comes from the enemy camp, so to speak! I admire the determination, the political conviction and the coordination of neoliberal political formations in every country. They are very dedicated, and very ready to give away their power if that is good for their cause. Take the example of neoliberal politicians who privatise. Privatisation takes away power from the political level, from your level if you are a neoliberal politician, and gives it to major corporations. But these corporations are the proper entities according to neoliberal ideology that should take these kinds of decisions. From our perspective, how often do you see leftwing political leaders come to power who readily give away decision-making to the social entities that their ideology seems to promote? I admire that: I like it. That’s another source of inspiration. Their determination and devotion and being ready to do things that seem to curtail their own influence to promote the wider ideological goals. 

Another inspiring model is the very successful, I should say, social movement, the Islamist Gulen movement in Turkey – Gulen was the former friend and now deadly enemy of Erdogan – which used to work mainly at the social level, organising various basic social functions in Turkey, cornering education and other crucial areas of society, to preserve both the ideas and activities of the people that they favoured at a very profound level. I believe, when I talk about power at the social level, that we need to be thinking about functions like that and on that sort of scale. You literally have to organise vital functions of society in a way that is autonomous, or semi-autonomous, and with several interfaces with the state. Hezbollah is attempting a similar process of becoming the true organisers of life at a neighbourhood level, and combining that with political power, using that leverage to empower themselves at a social level.

That too is a very interesting reversal of priorities if you think about it. In the traditional left we want to produce social power in order to have political power, because we believe that is very crucial and no doubt it is. But in Lebanon, Hezbollah cannot take over the government even if they had the majority: war would break out the following day. So they know their political limits. And they have used the political power that they have in order to acquire a veritable social power, attained through empowering people in various areas in Lebanon.

These are interesting versions of how you can reconfigure and combine political and social power and what kind of priorities you formulate.

R: I wonder, for example, what you would make of that moment in the development of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt when there seemed to be the opportunity to develop a vibrant, pluralist youth movement, but this was never allowed to come to fruition.

AK: They were also operating in a very toxic political environment, and are forced to be active at the social level of influence, as a consequence. But their fight is for other values, not for our concept of emancipation, and so that is bound to set limits. The funny thing is that all too often the left have similar self-imposed limitations even though we say to ourselves that we fight for emancipation, and this is what we promote. If you have a pluralist youth movement around you, you must not be afraid of it. You must see it in a positive light. I can see why the Muslim Brotherhood might find that impossible. But it’s more strange when leftist parties can’t deal with that.

R. There is a big debate in leftist circles about ‘left populism’, and the sort of move that Jean-Luc Mélenchon has made to construct a monocultural French National Us, for example, from the ‘common sense of the social majority’, beyond class, race and gender differences. This again seems designed to bypass the pluralist energies which empower self-organising formations in our diverse societies? Do you see this as a major trap for progressives?  

AK: I agree about the dangers of ‘left populism’. But we can find a solution to this simply by broadening our viewpoint. At this moment in time, this is not at all a problem confined to progressive movements or the left. This relates to a problem human society has encountered since the first permanent human settlement of the Sumerians. Since then, the best way that we have figured out how to take decisions in complex societies is by cutting off the majority of the population from that decision-making. In the broadest sense, this is a description of our civilizational status. Despite exceptional and brilliant moments in history, we have not solved the problem. But I strongly believe that we are living in a period over the last two centuries and increasingly, in which continuing in this manner visibly harms our societies on a huge scale.

So we are about to take an evolutionary step, and emancipation, progressive values, I see these as the ingredients of this evolutionary step. We have to solve this sort of problem within the political left, which is the question you were putting to me, but in order to do this, we have to see the challenge as an instance of a much broader phenomenon that societies are facing. Usually the left don’t do that. We think that it is our problem, and that if we manage to solve it, we will then go on to liberate society.

I have watched this general decline of the default position we have at hand, which is cutting other people off from the decision-making, in order to be able to control and manage complex societies. I see this in various areas of human activity, whether you are looking at surveillance or left factional in-fighting.

But to solve this – we need a broader perspective. The core question is, how is it possible to do mass politics without leaders, leaders not in the sense of those who decide, because as I have already suggested, that is the part that won’t work, but leaders as the symbolic consolidation of values, social trends and commitments. Maybe we don’t need a symbolic consolidation, a person, a face, in order to do mass politics. But up until now we do seem to have connected differently to faces, in a way that we do not to ideas. A person can commit him or herself to ‘solidarity’ as an abstract principle, but someone who is seen to enact this will move people’s admiration in a much more direct, emotional way. This particular woman, with her eyes, and her persona – can have an enormous effect on a public, and we cannot be indifferent to this.

Team Syntegrity,June 2017.R: You mentioned the centrality of the emotions, perhaps particularly to the younger participants in the Team Syntegrity. This may be a generational development, linked to the digital rise of peer group communication. Emotional literacy and the pursuit of happiness is surely a profound cultural, social and political gain, but it coincides with an era only now barely emerging from the sense that ‘there is no alternative’ to austerity. People tend to look for reassurances that they are not going to be losers before they are willing to try anything. Is that your experience in trying to organise change in Greece?

AK:  What stimulated me on the subject of emotionality in Barcelona was my growing conviction that people will be able to make huge sacrifices and take on huge risks for change if they are emotionally attached to other people. That this is the crucial factor.

I have met twenty year olds who are ultra-nationalists. But if they have the opportunity to really get to know someone from another country, and this goes well, these friends may in no time be willing to give their lives for each other. Something is happening in this area of social relations. And I don’t think we have grasped this development or have a serious assessment of what is going on. I am not talking about psychological explanations – these we do have. But I am talking about a serious political understanding of the impact of these developments. The rise of the right in so many countries has to do with this kind of emotional transference among groups of people, and we have not paid proper attention to this.

When it comes to what motivates people to become active, for the next few decades we will probably have to cope with generations of people who implicitly assume that change can be both easy and quick, once they decide on something. Go to a few demonstrations, go and vote, participate in a few meetings, and things must change. But this is not the case. It’s not easy to tell people that they are going to have to ‘try harder’ if they want to live in a decent society. And I wouldn’t exactly want to say that anyway. It’s more a case of them being more ambitious for themselves about what they want to see and to do. People must be more engaged in ways based on their own interests. And for sure, as societies we have to try harder to find these ways.

The ‘end of history’ mentality is so rooted in our minds, which says to us, either there are no serious challenges, or if they do exist, I will deal with these in a way that suits my lifestyle. I may look like a militant activist, but actually, my commitment is two or three hours a day maximum. This approach will not produce results, because the difficult times coming will require a different order of commitment. I’m not just talking about the hours this will take, but the nature and quality of the commitment including my own sense of my identity and interests. We will have around us as you said anxious people who want quick results. We must vote against Trump and mobilise for his impeachment and a change of president; and if we invest in our society in this way and are successful, it must change because we have been willing to do this! But this is not true. A lot of people have to do all sorts of things at all sorts of levels of society, large and small, before a society begins to change and we win the privilege of being able to say, not that we are changing, but that indeed we are influencing our societies in a better direction.

Influencing society is a very hard job. The neoliberals poured a huge amount of effort and money into institutions, foundations, colleges and universities, working for decades to secure the changes that we witness around us. We cannot expect that demonstrating for three days out in the streets, or voting for a political change, will be enough to change the nature and direction of our societies. So this is the false expectation that we should also be thinking about more, and finding ways to overcome it.

R: Thank you, Andreas.

About the authors

Andreas Karitzis is the co-founder of Komvos (hub) for Social Economy, Empowerment and Innovation and a former member of the Central Committee and Political Secretariat of SYRIZA. His website is here.

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, and a member of the coordinating committee of DiEM25.


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