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Greece, when the social movements are all that is left

Skyrocketing abstention, social demobilization and an impending wave of harsh austerity measures call for critical reflection after Syriza’s victory.

Tsipras in solidarity visit to Vio.Me, 2013. Tsipras in solidarity visit to Vio.Me, 2013. Demotix/Dimitris Chantzaras. All rights reserved.There is nothing to celebrate, really, after Sunday’s elections in Greece. The European leftists that arrived in Athens to support Tsipras are understandably celebrating, since they have a vision of Syriza that is external and more often than not romanticized. As far as Greeks are concerned, no one can doubt that there are honest and well-meaning left-wing people who have voted for Syriza or are even (still) members of Syriza. But after the developments of the last few months the last thing they want to do is celebrate.

Why would they celebrate, when tomorrow the new Syriza-led government has to enforce and oversee the implementation of a harsh attack on nature and the popular classes, having given up its capacity to legislate without the tutelage of Brussels and Berlin, and being under constant financial blackmail by the creditors.

Tsipras' new ‘selling point’ is his fight against corruption and the oligarchy, since his newly-adopted ‘pragmatism’ dictates that he cannot any more fight against austerity and neoliberal restructuring. Thus, the horizon of left-wing politics in Greece has become an ‘austerity with a human face’, a ‘less corrupt’ and ‘more just’ enforcement of neoliberal barbarity.

Unfortunately, in the coming months we are going to witness Tsipras' ‘political maturity’ and ‘pragmatism’ extending to ever new areas. Pragmatism dictates that you cannot fight against those who own all the wealth and the mass media in Greece; that you cannot shut down the Canadian-interest gold mine in Skouries, Halkidiki; that, despite the anti-privatization rhetoric, you have to privatize the water companies after all; that you cannot permit worker occupations like VIOME to challenge private property.

In short, left-wing pragmatism is going to achieve everything that right-wing arrogance could not, that is, to subdue a population that has been fighting against neoliberal barbarity for five years. Although the European left is prone to argue that the breach is still open and the war is far from over, a closer examination offers no evidence that anything –apart from the government’s rhetoric – has changed or is about to change in battlefield Greece.

Indeed, the social movements have been tricked into standing by and waiting for Syriza to deliver on its promises. The government is gaining political time, while movement demobilization means that struggles are defeated one by one: the self-managed workers of public broadcaster ERT are banished by the new management, the anti-mining movement in Halkidiki sees the destruction of its land... Who is next? Maybe self-managed VIOME, struggling to legitimize its activity in adverse conditions? Maybe Thessaloniki's water movement, which fiercely fought and stopped privatization, only to see it back on the table according to the terms of the new memorandum? After five years of constant strife, popular resistance only seems to grow thinner, while the forces of capital appear very resourceful in pushing through their policies of dispossession – this time around under the guise of a progressive government.

Likewise, the failure of SYRIZA’s splinter ‘Popular Unity’ to mobilize voters comes as no surprise: despite the anti-memorandum rhetoric, the new party repeated some of the more objectionable practices of SYRIZA. It was constituted in a top-down process, solely on party cadres and without connection to grassroots militants, built around flamboyant and self-centred personalities, projecting a hegemonism towards movements and other political forces, seeking followers rather than allies, projecting its state-centric programme of national capitalist reconstruction outside the euro as the holy grail of transformatory politics.

It failed to mobilise ex-SYRIZA voters, most of whom preferred to stay at home rather than vote for Popular Unity; it also failed to convince the disenchanted movement-friendly party base of SYRIZA, which to this moment remains politically homeless. It thus allowed Tsipras to purge SYRIZA of its left wing, conclude the transformation of the party into a centrist force and emerge as the overall winner of the electoral game.

Someone could argue that Syriza retaining its electoral percentage on Sunday's elections is a sign that the bulk of the population consents to the party's ‘pragmatism’. Two points should be stressed here:

Firstly, it is a perfectly respectable stance to vote for Syriza as the lesser neoliberal evil. Voting by definition involves complex calculations, political blackmail and a host of ethical dilemmas that the Greeks have faced three times in less than eight months. Those who abstain for political reasons cannot have a claim on moral superiority in this fluid and complex political situation. But let's not assume either that all the people who cast an instrumental vote for Syriza are going to stand by with their arms crossed when the government begins its raid against people and nature in the next few months.

Secondly, and most importantly, while the political system is designed to maintain appearances and guarantee the continuity of power, no one can deny that the most important aspect of Sunday's elections was the abstention skyrocketing to 45% from 36% in January and from 29% in 2009. It is easy to calculate that in a country of 10 million registered voters, this translates to over 4 million people who do not vote, or about 1 and a half million people who have lost their faith in the political system since the start of the crisis. This last figure represents about as many people as those who vote for either of the two major political parties.

We shouldn’t hasten to claim all these people for the forces of social emancipation and self-determination, as some anarchists would have it. A wide range of motives and circumstances have led to this disenchantment, which could include depression, apathy, individualism and resignation. Nevertheless, a critical mass of people doesn’t vote because it has a conception of politics as an embodied collective process, not as a ritual stuffing of the ballot box.

While the political system could not care less about this huge mass of disenchanted citizens – as long as they stay at home and they do not vote for protest parties that could cause disruption, it is all the same to them - the ones that should be really concerned about them should be the social movements, as well as the ideological currents that feel closer to the grassroots, namely the libertarian movement and the extra-parliamentary left.  

How can we break through the wall of apathy and resignation, connect with the desires and aspirations of the disenchanted population, cultivate collective spirit, social organization and creativity, desire for change and emancipation? After all, that was SYRIZA’s appeal – that it broke free from the leftist ‘niche’ and directly addressed society. What can we learn from the ordeal of both SYRIZA and the social movements about our practices, communication strategies and means of action with respect to social change?

Unfortunately large chunks of the libertarian and leftist movements are more concerned about preserving their own identity than connecting with the disenchanted classes. We circulate our indecipherable manifests, largely for internal consumption; we cling to our ideological purity and our maximalist rhetoric; we shout out our angry slogans and cradle our flags; we boast when we have a handful of protesters more in our marches or when our parties get a few thousand votes more in the elections.

All the while, millions of people out there are hungry for social change, but are probably resigned to an individualistic existence, and we have no means of getting through to them.

While many would interpret 45% abstention as a healthy rejection of the pointless simulacrum of representative democracy, it can as well be interpreted as a failure, or rather as a chain of failures: the failure of a social order to incorporate large chunks of the population in the mainstream of social life; the failure of a political system to offer credible avenues of changing said social order; the failure of the social movements and the left to create a new imaginary of transformation of this political system.

The politics of “there is no alternative” promoted by our left-wing government are sure to heighten resignation and apathy. Nevertheless, a society under extreme pressure for so many years is definitely bound to explode sooner or later. The social movements in Greece have produced admirable responses towards self-emancipation in the last few years, but they have failed to articulate these responses into a coherent voice, a proposal for overcoming the present political and economic order. They have idealised partiality and fragmentation, they have not addressed the issue of political organization, and have thus been absorbed or marginalised by the hegemonic project of SYRIZA.

The pyrrhic victory of the left in last Sunday’s elections should initiate a process of critical self-reflection, both in Greece and throughout Europe. We have ahead of us difficult moments of dispossession and resistance, and the social movements, however small and insignificant, constitute at present the only remaining antagonistic force against capitalist barbarity.

About the author

Theodoros Karyotis is a sociologist, translator and activist participating in social movements that promote self-management, solidarity economy and defense of the commons in Greece. He writes on autonomias.net and tweets at @TebeoTeo.


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