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The defeat of inclusionary populism in Greece: what happens next?

The neo-colonial logic of the EU has helped trigger the formation of inclusionary populism in Greece once again. But it is no clearer for any populists in power how to implement radical policies.

lead Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras lays down red roses at the National Resistance Memorial, Kaisariani on 26 January 2015. Flickr/Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας. Some rights reserved.The outbreak of the global financial crisis (2008-9) has precipitated fundamental changes in southern Europe, like the emergence of such left-wing populist movements as SYRIZA or Podemos, which have opposed neoliberalism and austerity policies. The character and style of these movements was inspired by the contemporary populist experiments of Latin America (Chavismo, Kirchnerismo etc.).

In Greece SYRIZA managed to win the crucial elections of 2015, bringing to an end the strong domination of such traditional parties as ND and PASOK. However, the radical left didn’t secure its populist and radical programme after two years in government. So what happens next?

Post-politics and populism

The rise of populism in many countries of the world is a dynamic response to the post-political consensus at the centre. In recent decades, both conservative and social-democratic parties have established a neoliberal hegemony based on a consensus that has undermined the quality of democracy and has led to a political order that neutralizes the centrality of political antagonism. This post-democratic context has created propitious circumstances for populist parties that claim to represent poor and marginalized people.

The rise of populist movements has renewed interest in the concept of populism and its relationship with liberal democracy. However, the dynamic emergence of populist movements has also led to the ideological abuse of the concept of populism by neoliberal political forces. For example, in Greek public discourse the idea that populism is a “destructive” and “decadent” ideology which prevents the policies of the “good” reformist forces has gained the upper hand. This idea is based on the concept of “cultural dualism” that understands contemporary Greek history as a continuous struggle between an “underdog” and a “modernizing” cultural camp. In this framework, populism is associated with the underdog culture and represents an absolute evil for democracy. But is this true? Is populism always a threat for democracy?

According to Mudde and Kaltwasser, populism is a neutral concept, which can have either positive or negative impacts on the quality of a democracy. What exactly is this chameleon populism? One answer is provided through the theoretical insights of Ernesto Laclau. Laclau analyzes populism as a political logic that can be found in any political movement. Populism divides society into two homogeneous and opposing groups, the people and the elites, through the connection of different popular demands (through a logic of equivalence) and the creation of a collective identity (through the recognition of an enemy).

As Laclau points out, “Populism starts at the point where popular democratic elements are presented as an antagonistic option against the ideology of the dominant bloc”. Populist parties promote the idea of a new kind of society, which is based on popular sovereignty and new democratic ideals. In Greece an intense political, social and cultural confrontation has developed between populist and anti-populist political camps.

To see more clearly the political landscape which has been formed, we can also deploy the “high-low” axis of Pierre Ostiguy and Benjamin Moffitt, which crosses the entire ideological spectrum. In the same way that there is a left-right spectrum, there is also a high-low spectrum, crosscutting the left-right axis. The low spectrum is mainly dominated by populist political parties and the high spectrum by anti-populist forces.

While the left-right spectrum is traditionally defined by economic policies, the high-low dimension has to do with “ways of being” and “ways of doing” in politics. This has both a sociocultural dimension (social differentiation between the political parties) and a political dimension (the exercise of political authority and decision-making in the parties). Nowadays in Greece, the lower orders of politics have been dominated by SYRIZA and ANEL (populists), while the higher echelons turn to New Democracy, PASOK and “reformist” forces (anti-populists).

Inclusionary and exclusionary populism

Populism is usually combined with another “host” ideology (e.g. socialism or nationalism). It is thus possible to have politically antithetical articulations of populism, such as left-wing and right-wing populism. According to many researchers, the first is often inclusionary, while the second is exclusionary. What is the significant difference between them? Inclusionary populism allows for the political integration of excluded social groups and people, thus enlarging the boundaries of democracy. On the other hand, exclusionary populism understands the people as an ethnically or culturally homogeneous unit and excludes people (migrants, minorities etc.) on the grounds of racist and nativist premises.

It is crucial to note that Latin-American and south-European populisms are mostly inclusive and egalitarian, while North-American and North-European populisms are principally exclusionary and hierarchical in profile. According to Dani Filc “colonialism is an important key to understanding the development of either form of populism”. Inclusive populism appears mostly in colonized countries and regions (such as Latin America) where the people are constituted by the inclusion of different ethnic and social groups. On the contrary, exclusionary populism appears mainly in former colonialist countries (such as North European) because its nativism is that of the colonizer (and their ethnocentrism produces a racist discourse).

In Greece, inclusionary populism, whether it was led by Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK or Tsipras’ SYRIZA has dominated the populist political landscape since the fall of the Greek dictatorship. Greece was not a colony of a powerful west European country, but it has always been economically and culturally dependent on the west. And as a result, this shadowy dependence on the west (that we can call crypto-colonialism) might explain the dominance of both an anti-imperialist discourse and an inclusionary populism flourishing among the ‘lower orders’ of Greek politics.

Inclusionary populism in power

Left-wing populist forces in Latin America such as those led by Morales in Bolivia and Kirchner in Argentina, have managed to fulfil many popular demands and to create the conditions for a new ‘pluralistic’ and a more democratic society. But what has happened in the case of European left-wing parties such as SYRIZA?

It is true that SYRIZA’s populism in opposition managed to improve the quality of democracy, through its struggles against a neoliberal and technocratic EU. The radical left party was transformed into the most important political movement in Greece and became the “voice” of the marginalized people (“the silent majority”). However, SYRIZA’s inclusive populist promise for a different Europe  – beyond austerity policies and neoliberalism – and for the radical transformation of the political and economic system is still in limbo. Two years on, SYRIZA is conscientiously implementing the austerity policies that it once criticized as inadmissible and has deserted its radicalism. Only a few of the laws and reforms of SYRIZA’s government have a progressive left character, such as a law to counter the humanitarian crisis, together with the citizenship law which has granted nationality to all second-generation immigrants and first-generation immigrant children who have had five years of schooling in Greece. In addition to that, SYRIZA’s solidarity with the refugees was a sonorous rejection of the anti-refugee obsession of the rest of Europe.

But why has SYRIZA failed to fulfil its populist program and to achieve its goals? The fundamental problem of SYRIZA was the idea that it could easily find an alternative way of being a member of the EU without implementing neoliberal policies. But this was no easy task. The leadership’s decision to reject the result of the Greek referendum (No to a new bailout: 61%) provoked an internal crisis in the movement and has caused anger, confusion and frustration among the Greek people. The repudiation of the popular mandate abruptly undermined the dynamic of the Greek social movements and led to the depreciation of the electoral process. Apart from that, the decision of SYRIZA to perpetuate austerity policies after all demonstrated its inability to deepen the social radicalization which had been expressed in the social movements. The new Memorandum, based on the same postulates as the two previous (2010 and 2012), violates fundamental human rights, paralyzes the Greek economy, increases poverty, class polarization and social exclusion and transfers the burden of structural adjustment further onto Greek society. SYRIZA’s government, however, argues that the signing of the third Memorandum was a defeat in a battle, but not a defeat in the war.

What happens next?

Could the Greek radical left take heed of the mistakes and failures of SYRIZA’s government and set about reorganizing the social movements? “The people” of the Greek radical left, called upon to participate in radical democratic change, is a plural and inclusionary subject unbound by ethnic, racial, sexual and gender restrictions. The Greek referendum and people’s “No” was a decisive victory against a powerful and “blackmailing” Europe. But herein lies the problem.

In the period after the fall of the dictatorship, Andreas Papandreou constructed the political discourse of PASOK through the connection of populism with anti-imperialism (and anti-Americanism). The enemy for “the people” of Andreas Papandreou was not the immigrant or the foreigner, but the imperialist powers of ‘the West’ (USA, NATO etc.). Nowadays it seems that left-wing populist movements in Greece (SYRIZA) are a response to the colonial overtones in the relation between Germany and the countries of the semi-periphery. The enemy for “the people” of the radical left today is mainly the neoliberal EU and its neo-colonial character. According to Costas Douzinas and Petros Papaconstantinou, emerging surreptitiously today there is a new kind of colonialism in Europe, in which the Brussels elites treat the European south as “colonial subjects” to be reformed and civilized.

EU political strategy has broken the promise of the initial vision of European integration  – that of a peaceful and equal European society – but aims instead at a neocolonial disciplining of “poor” countries. The neo-colonial character of the EU is represented by these left-wing populist forces as an attempt by European technocrats to transform Greece into “a debt colony”.

The utilization of anti-colonial discourse by left-wing parties in Greece has been connected with the construction of an inclusionary populist discourse, similar to Latin America populism. This should not surprise us, because (according to Nicos Mouzelis) both geographical areas (Latin America and South Europe) historically share a semi-peripheral political culture. It is important to state that the neo-colonial logic of the EU has helped trigger the formation of inclusionary populism in Greece once again. But it is no clearer for any populists in power how to implement radical policies.

Meanwhile, the defeat of SYRIZA in the fierce battle against a technocratic European Union and the continuation of austerity policies and neoliberalism might strengthen the political parties that constitute a danger to democracy.

The fall of inclusionary populism and the weakening of the radical left may well create a new space for the rise of Golden Dawn, an extreme and violent neo-Nazi party. In the event of a return of traditional political parties in power, Golden Dawn will have the opportunity to gain political dominance and to present itself as a bona fide representative of the Greek people – and the only alternative to the corrupted elite.

About the author

Grigoris Markou is a doctoral candidate in Political Sciences, at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.


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