Austerity and popular resistance are essential to a political diagnosis for contemporary Europe. Political developments in Greece will show whether the future of Europe is one of neoliberal restructuring or one of a democratic socialist alternative. An interview with Costas Douzinas.
“After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, George Bush remarked that we had now entered a new world order. If so, it was the shortest order in history,” says Costas Douzinas, extending his ironic commentary to include Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on ’the end of history’. The economic crisis has necessitated the development of a new type of diagnosis of our times, he argues. Costas Douzinas offers a two-pronged approach to such a diagnosis, writing in his latest book, Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis – Greece and the Future of Europe, that we are currently living in an age of austerity as well as an age of resistance.
Neo-colonialism in southern Europe
Most European countries have austerity measures at the top of their political agendas. As we all know, this is particularly harsh in southern Europe, with Greece as the most extreme case.
With its bailout plans initially generating sky-high interest rates and demands for sharp cuts on public spending, the Troika has placed Greece in an economic straightjacket. To Costas Douzinas, these measures are reminiscent of how the west restructured the economies of the developing countries very much to its own advantage.
”With the reforms of the ’Washington Consensus' or 'structural adjustment', we saw radical policies of privatisation and the like, by which the developed capitalist countries wanted to open up the economies of the developing countries to foreign investment”, he says.
”Now, we see the same measures being applied in Europe - in Greece, Portugal, Cyprus and other countries in the periphery. With a touch of hyperbole, one could claim that southern Europe is now for the first time in its history facing neo-colonialism, which is a total contrast to the social contract of post-war Europe, indeed of the EU itself.”
Resistance in the squares
Over the last couple of years, austerity has been a catalyst for a number of popular uprisings.
In Syntagma Square in Athens, Taksim Square in Istanbul, in Sarajevo, and in many other places, people, predominantly young people, took to the public spaces. They established encampments which served as a form of resistance to the way that each of their societies is organised. Costas Douzinas calls this form of resistance, ‘democratic occupation’.
“In democratic occupations, the idea of publicity takes on its physical meaning again, as we know it from the Greek agora and the Roman forum. With direct, participatory democracy and horizontal organization, the people in these squares created a new understanding of politics, in which people participated actively, rather than just mandating representatives. People learned to speak in public, to decide together and to act together,” he says.
“In the squares, new ideas about the provision of services were developed, whether this was media, legal, health services or whatever. People offered their skills and expertise, not in a hierarchical structure, but as a part of what it means to come and be together.”
For Costas Douzinas this involved the politicizing of a number of skills we all make use of in our every day lives but which have nonetheless been depoliticized: “The democratic occupations politicised networking skills, cooperation through social media, being part of a productive collective mind, and so on. These skills are central to the way late capitalism works: but they are not used to transform our existence. This was exactly what the squares did.”
Austerity is a catalyst for resistance
While the popular uprisings in the squares have the same form, there are differences between each of them, Douzinas explains.
Austerity is not the only cause of resistance. This becomes obvious when we see uprisings in countries that haven’t experienced the same economic sanctions as, for example, Greece but on the contrary have performed well economically.
“Countries like Turkey and Brazil were, until a few years ago, the poster boys of the success of neoliberalism. They had respectable growth rates and relatively low unemployment. However, we have in these countries seen insurrections that in their form were similar to the ones in southern Europe and in the Occupy Movement.”
Even though the cause and context of resistance varies, Douzinas points at a common aspect in the many people taking to the streets all over the world: they all attack the same two targets.
“Firstly, they attack neoliberal capitalism, which is based on the idea that we should transform our body and spirit into a little business and make our very existence an entrepreneurial opportunity. Secondly, they attack what philosophers have called a post-democratic condition, that is a political situation in which people have opted out of conventional political participation because they don’t feel that it makes any difference.”
Greece as a neoliberal laboratory
Costas Douzinas’ diagnosis of our present age seems perhaps more pertinent for a country like Greece than for the countries of northern Europe, affected by the crisis to a lesser extent. His central thesis, however, is that the case of Greece shows us two possible directions for the future of Europe.
The first direction is characterised by austerity, privatisations, and other measures on the neoliberal agenda. Douzinas considers that the primary purpose of Greece’s economic straightjacket is not, in fact, to get the country out of the economic predicament its political and economic elite have placed it in, or to secure a decent life for the average Greek:
“Rather, Greece was chosen by the neoliberal gurus of the EU and IMF as a social laboratory for a new model of organisation for Europe. In this laboratory they want to create a person who, under extreme austerity, poverty and social disintegration is totally disciplined and accepts that she has to be a business manager of her own self: if she fails, or if she can’t find sufficient means to finance her education, her healthcare, her old age (if she has a job, that is) she will have to go to the wall, like every other small business.”
“To the extent that the dominant political and economic elite in Greece see these austerity measures as successful, it will facilitate an export of these measures to other European countries,” Costas Douzinas predicts.
“A number of the same methods have already been used in countries that are doing substantially better than Greece. In the UK, for example, we have seen a large increase in tuition fees for public universities, which amounts to a privatisation of the universities. Likewise, the National Health Service is gradually being privatised, and we are being told by our GPs to buy private healthcare to be able to face any serious health problems. Perhaps we are just in the early stages of this development.”
Yet, for now, whether the welfare state is to be dismantled and our lives are to be lived like businesses is to some extent our own decision. Greece is indeed also an example of the fact that resistance matters and that an alternative future is possible.
The left alternative in Greece
“The other possible future for Europe is a future where we can begin to imagine and apply a democratic socialist ideal,” suggests Costas Douzinas.
He believes that we have already seen the beginning of this in Greece. Contrary to other places, the resistance of Syntagma Square has been transferred to the polling stations and converted into parliamentary influence. At the 2012 elections, the Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA, went from having five to 27 per cent of the votes and thereby became the second-biggest party in Greece.
According to Douzinas, this is a symptom of a widespread distrust in the old regime.
“Many Greeks realised that the old political system that had brought the country to its knees over a period of 40 years had to go. The people who were responsible for the corruption, the inefficiency and clientelism of the public sector and for the huge tax evasion in the private sector - these people who had turned politics into a dynastic alternation between the two great families, the Papandreou and the Karamanlis - had to go,” says Douzinas of the two families who, since the fall of the military junta in 1974, have largely shared the Greek premiership.
Yet, the headway for SYRIZA in the 2012 elections wasn’t big enough to give the party the premiership. SYRIZA is well ahead in opinion polls, however. If there were elections tomorrow, it would be the largest party in Greece.
The next national election are planned for 2016 at the latest. But Costas Douzinas reckons that the Greek people are very likely to go to the ballot box in the next twleve months. The reason is the approaching elections to the European Parliament in May where polls predict that SYRIZA will gain the greatest share of the vote: “The government parties, New Democracy and PASOK, will most likely be defeated so badly in the European elections that it will be impossible for them, politically and socially, to continue in government,” he says.
Thus, Greece may be facing the first radical left government in Europe ever.
A change of regime, not government
“The SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras keeps saying that if the party wins the national elections it wouldn’t be a change of government but a regime change. Of course, this is an exaggeration but there is a certain truth to it: a victory to SYRIZA would mean another way to organise the state and politics than the way it is understood in parliamentary democracy as we know it,” says Costas Douzinas.
The reason for such a ’regime change’ is rooted in the connection between parliamentary politics and popular resistance and mobilisation:
“Politics wouldn’t be business as usual if SYRIZA were to win the elections. This is because of the economic difficulties in Greece but also because of the possible support by the people. The Greek people will be on the streets in order to pressure the government to stick to its programme but also in order to defend the government and show European public opinion that this is the change the Greek people want.”
“At the same time, a regime change will depend on developing a novel institutional imagination. They will have to make use of the experience from the democratic occupations of Syntagma Square with its direct participatory democracy and alternative ways of organising public services. The energy, dynamics and resistance practices of the square must be institutionalised and expanded to the state, the social economy, cooperatives, workers’ council, and so on,” says Costas Douzinas and he underlines that it is no easy task that lies ahead of SYRIZA if the party wins.
A new beginning for Europe
Were SYRIZA to succeed, he is nevertheless convinced that the Greek alternative could mean the beginning of a new age for Europe.
In February 2014, Alexis Tsipras declared that Greece, with him in the lead, will work for a partial default on the debts of Greece and of the other economically trapped periphery countries of Europe. Tsipras has been adopted as the candidate for President of the European Commission by the European Left party. A more interesting development is the creation in Italy of an election coalition under the title, 'New Europe with Tsipras'. It brings together independent intellectuals and trade unionists as well as the Rifondazione and Left Ecology Freedom parties. The Greek model has started working in Europe:
“If a small country like Greece is seen to stand up to the great powers of financial capitalism and neoliberal orthodoxy and is able to sustain an alternative programme, it will be a huge encouragement, a huge dose of hope and optimism, to the people of Europe, indeed the world. It will show that resistance matters and that the only battle that you cannot win is a battle you never joined. It will mean a new beginning for Europe,” says Costas Douzinas.
The original article was published in Danish on Modkraft.dk. Thanks go to Bjarke Skærlund Risager for the translation.