Can Europe Make It?

The European Left in times of crises: lessons from Greece

The prospect of government did not generate or impose novel thinking, practices, or behaviours within the Greek left.

Andreas Karitzis
24 November 2017

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and his cabinet. PAimages/NurPhoto/SIPA USA. All rights reserved.

The following is an extract from The European Left in times of crises: lessons from Greece by Andreas Karitzis, published by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and Ecuador's Institute of National Higher Studies (IAEN)

The prospect of government did not generate or impose novel thinking, practices, or behaviours within the Greek left.

It revived and enhanced (and simultaneously shrank and marginalised) elements inherent in political parties, institutions, and organisations that are de facto an extension of the state in the broadest sense of the term. But which of these elements were bolstered and which were diminished? Indicatively, we could note that in the road towards national government:

• collective processes were dismantled and individual or factional strategies were reinforced even within political currents;

• executive-level planning and ‘spaces’ for consultation collapsed while departmentalisation, superficial political handling, and a media-oriented culture within the party were reinforced;

• communication among sectors of the party apparatus and the dissemination of information were dismantled, thus boosting the emergence of multiple centres that gradually became isolated and developed competitive tendencies;

• the operational alignment of the emancipatory forces underpinning a comprehensive plan was neglected in favour of personal ambitions and the corresponding strategies.

But what was the driving force of this transformation? The above mentioned changes reflectthe transformation undergone by the state and the institutions of political power in the currentframework of institutionalised neoliberalism. This institutionalisation has resulted in:

• The transformation of the state functionsand their alignment with a market-driven rationale with regards to content and modality of decision-making. As a result, inclusive qualities, democratic functions, and operational capabilities for planning and implementation based on criteria other than profit have decreased, with a parallel increase in the qualities that render state functions compatible with a market rationale.

• The shift of the political power’s centre of gravity to European institutions that are designed to be beyond citizens’ reach. Thus, many state functions have atrophied and been reduced to regional mechanisms of a far broader system of administration and rule.

These developments have resulted in the decline of the democratic profile of state institutionsand functions. It is a decline organically linked to the transition from an inclusive strategy by the elites to a strategy based on exclusion. Correspondingly, the qualities and characteristics that collapsed within SYRIZA during the period before its rise to government are the same that have collapsed at the level of state power in recent decades.

Similarly, the elements reinforced are those which characterise the decline of state functions during this same period. As an opposition party, SYRIZA, in spite of many difficulties, had explored various ways of reconstructing its political operations, but as the official opposition, it was unable to meet the increased demands of its impending engagement with political power and the functioning of a state that had been operationally amputated and organisationally weakened in line with neoliberal views of the state. Faced with this anticipated development, SYRIZA, as a collective body, appeared unable to offer a multi-level strategy to reverse the trend.

Even worse, this was not even attempted, as the true field of battle had not yet been understood. SYRIZA was subjected to a counter-transformation because of the lack—or fragility—of offsetting actions that could have internally changed the balance of forces. If we add the fact that the party was comprised largely by left currents that did not reject the rise to government as part of their strategy, then it becomes evident just how obsolete and incompatible some traditional left’s perceptions of government are today. We could extrapolate that SYRIZA’s weak but present trend of adapting to the new circumstances before emerging as the main opposition—the position that offered the opportunity for renewing its political approach and making it more open to social processes and ultimately rendering it the vehicle for a political overthrow—was unableto withstand the increased demands of the 2012-2014 period.

Without having sufficiently developed the operational qualities and mentalities that would make it a sturdy political force capable of withstanding the intensified social and political struggles that had put it on a path to government, SYRIZA took a transformational course.

From a force for change towards a new direction as a result of its stronger position on the political stage, SYRIZA itself became the object of change. Furthermore, we live in a time of tectonic shifts taking place on several levels. The economic crisis is a symptom of a deeper decline and is unfolding against the backdrop of a multifactored destabilisation of contemporary societies.

Acceleration on several levels (new technologies, environmental instability, depletion of natural resources, reordering of the geopolitical balance of power, etc.) is changing the traditional way of apprehending the type of social and political struggle in which we are engaged. Europe’s restructuring and the rise of nationalist and fascist trends, as well as the dissolution and relapse of state structures in the southeastern Mediterranean basin give rise to obligations and demands that transcend everything taken for granted a decade ago.

The fast pace of developments has led the elites to adopt a destructive strategy, hoping to close a broader cycle that began two-and-a-half centuries ago with the people’s entry onto the social and political stage.The Greek and European left, if it wishes to be relevant to this period, must rise to the occasion and develop a matching strategy for societies’emancipatory course.

We have entered a transitional phase of grave threats but also immense possibilities. We will not further expand upon the tectonic changes taking place around us, but it is worth underlining that SYRIZA was not in a position to follow the broader changes and utilise the underlying potential during the period it was on the path to power. But a force that hopes to become an agent for social change cannot overlook social changes underway or be indifferent or hostile to the potential emanating from human activity in many fields today.

In conclusion, we would like to reiterate that:

• Utilising the embodied capacities of thepeople would have allowed SYRIZA toswiftly change the broader negative framework.

• Adopting a political rhetoric that focuses on the deeper questions regarding what kind of life, community, and set of values we want would have allowed SYRIZA to build stronger bonds with a society that sensed the threats to its existence.

We are living in a period that requires a radical modification and updating of the political imaginary and the organisational principles and methodologies of social and political mobilisation.To make this possible, we must combine the incredible current output of new ideas, practices, regulations, rationales across the spectrum of human activity—which often are not directly linked to the disputes of the social and political struggle but which, under certain conditions, could shape the ground for producing social power that allows people without economic power to acquire the muscle to influence developments—with the conclusions drawn from the weaknesses and impasses of the traditional political left.

Without, however, losing the central idea it bestows upon us, which is none other than the fact that the party function is the condition of possibility for people without economic power to become an autonomous emancipatory force capable of influencing political, social and economic developments.

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