Can Europe Make It?

"A Gramscian party in a non-Gramscian world." An interview with Paul Mason

#ThisIsACoup, a four-part documentary series that sets out to ‘tell the story of how the European Union destroyed the first radical left government in modern history’, premiered on Tuesday. An interview.

Paul Mason Alex Sakalis
17 December 2015

Alex Sakalis (AS): At what moment did you and Theopi Skarlatos decide to make this documentary?

Paul Mason (PM): Well on January 25, when Tsipras was speaking in Propylaea, we had just finished making a 15-minute short documentary about the election and we just looked at each other and said ‘this is going to be amazing’ – the scale of the victory, the fact that they were clearly going to be able to rule with ANEL as a majority government, when most people had thought, probably not.

And what we found in those 25 days of election campaigning was a much deeper level of support and identification, certainly than I at least had realised, when I went into some of the so-called ‘fortress villages’ of Korinthos, to see the way that Syriza swung. One of the villages we filmed in went for something like 37% Syriza, where before it had been a New Democracy and PASOK stronghold. So we just thought: we’ve got to tell this story. We all underestimated the extent to which Germany was prepared to burn its own reputation in the pursuit of, let’s be clear, smashing a left wing government. That’s what it was doing.

And originally we thought that we were mainly going to tell it through the eyes of people – so we filmed a lot of people, a lot of different communities – not just Keratsini, Piraeus, but lots of villages. We went all over at first, but it gradually dawned on us that there was a very compelling story happening inside Syriza and inside the Maximos mansion which we struggled – we struggled for a long time – to get into. Eventually we got enough access to tell that story

AS: When they were elected, what were your initial thoughts, “this is a new dawn for the left,” or, “oh my god this is going to be a disaster”?

PM: Somewhere in between, because clearly the ‘new dawn for the left’ aspect was true. This was an unusual situation where centrist politics had destroyed itself, and if you remember what it was like in 2012/13 when fascists were roaming the streets, breaking up theatre performances, you had the Delta police openly shouting fascist slogans into the faces of anti-fascists they’d just captured. That couldn’t go on. And I think this is an unfolding story. We both understood that it was going to be one episode in an unfolding story – either Syriza would come to some sort of compromise with Europe, or there would an almighty clash. But I don’t think either of us really knew how big the clash would be.

Because you can only believe what people tell you and the Americans were saying, ‘Everything’s going to be alright’. Syriza’s own people were saying, ‘Look it’s going to be tough but we think we can get a deal’. Greek insiders were saying ‘Of course there’s going to be a climbdown', and on the basis of that climbdown, as Varoufakis demonstrated on February 20, there’ll be a deal. But I think we all underestimated the extent to which Germany was prepared to burn its own reputation in the pursuit of, let’s be clear, smashing a left wing government. That’s what it was doing.  

AS: Do you think some people in Syriza deluded themselves into thinking it was easier than it was?

PM: No. Clearly on the evidence, they had the wrong estimation of how hard it would be. But I think this was not ‘deluding yourself’, but originally a misreading of the balance of forces. Obama stood for 20 minutes in public speaking to Varoufakis. I don’t think he ever met Gordon Brown once, except maybe in a corridor, and certainly not in public. American presidents don’t do something like that unless it’s to send a signal to European hardline austerity powers, to back off. And the Greeks read that signal.

But what I think they misread was the signal constantly coming from Wolfgang Schäuble, and the Finns, and the Dutch – and they are still coming from there now, you know - to the effect that debt relief is impossible.

However, I don’t think that the structure of Syriza helped. Because when Theopi shot the Syriza Central Committee meeting straight after the first climbdown on February 20, and I saw the footage she shot, it dismayed me - the number of old, grey-haired middle-aged men sitting at the front of that committee, because I hadn’t really seen that aspect of Syriza before.

It’s not that grey-haired middle-aged men have no right to be in politics. But it did look - coming from covering Podemos, having covered Evo Morales’ movement in Bolivia, for example - that, gosh, this is a very traditional, very hierarchical, quite deferential party. And I didn’t join the dots at that point. But, as the moderate wing of Syriza, the Dragasakis wing, started to set the agenda in the negotiations, you could then see, quite logically, that if people have worked all their lives, have struggled under the junta, some people had even been in jail and worse... and what you want above all is a left government, then you’re going to argue, as they did argue, ‘Let’s do a deal with Europe and let’s govern for a bit.’ ‘Let’s do a deal with Europe and let’s govern for a bit.’

That was a very strong impetus. But having covered the streets in 2011, where you almost never met people like that, I don’t think I had realised quite how strong that tendency was within Syriza. Of course, you could say that within Podemos, there are unofficial hierarchies. But once you’ve got a party that is quite keen on hierarchies, then it is rather easy for that party to impose, through discipline, the compromises it eventually made.

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Celebrations in Athens after the OXI vote. Demotix/Konstantinos Pashalis. All rights reserved.

AS: One of Syriza’s main selling points was the idea of new politics, of doing politics differently, “We’re not going to be like the establishment parties.” Was there anything you found while filming Syriza which differentiated them from other parties and politicians you have previously covered?

PM: There were massive differences. However much, retrospectively, people want to say that they sold out, or they shouldn’t have surrendered or they should have left the euro, one thing you cannot say systematically is that they were in any way captured by the elite, or by the state, or by the oligarchy. One thing you cannot say systematically is that they were in any way captured by the elite or by the state or by the oligarchy.

In fact, what I’ve argued is that they made the opposite mistake. In order to avoid being captured by the state, they never really took part in it. So they would run ministries from the top floor. The top floor would be full of Syriza people, often journalists actually, often people who’d been party activists, so not enough lawyers, not enough experienced civil servants, and then the civil service would be on the floor below.

And what that meant was that the civil service couldn’t spy on you, or it was more difficult for them to spy on you and, they couldn’t sabotage you. But neither could you really control them. So that’s the first thing I’d say about Syriza, and I think it is a very underexplored aspect in current critiques of Syriza: how they actually used and inhabited the state.

As for the level of personal capture, absolutely not. In a way, as a journalist with a certain influence from abroad, I know full well how easy it is to get sucked unwittingly into networks of influence. It’s the usual things like, ‘Come to my villa, let’s have a beer.’ And before you know it, you’re in a network of influence.

What I saw was that Syriza’s politicians were scrupulous in their understanding of that octopus that you’re trying to avoid. Now of course, it is a struggle. Once the octopus is locked onto you with its tentacles, it’s a struggle to get the tentacles off again, and again. But I think they did struggle. I don’t think you could systematically accuse them of that.

But obviously inside Syriza there is this huge debate full of recriminations, where they do feel some ministers did get too close. The other thing is the question of prioritisation. As Euclid Tsakalotos actually says to me in an interview that will come out later, probably over the weekend, ‘Yeah, we didn’t do enough on the oligarchy and corruption.’ Even if they didn’t get captured by the oligarchy and corruption, they now admit that they didn’t do enough on that. Yet the ideal time to fight oligarchy and corruption is when the masses are with you, and everybody’s overwhelmed.

AS: You’ve described Syriza as a Gramscian party in a non-Gramscian world. Can you explain what you mean?

PM: Gramsci argued that you can’t just conquer the state: instead, you have to take the trenches that are defending the state within civil society. And Syriza knew that: they were effectively founded on that understanding. No matter how many people you mobilise on the streets to help you, it doesn’t matter.

But there are two differences. So what they came up with – via Poulantzas – is the idea of the disciplined democratic party and the independent mass movement. So the first thing that’s changed from the Gramscian world is that those mass movements are networked and don’t really want to articulate within the party. You never saw people outside Syriza’s HQ saying ‘please let us in! Please interact with the masses!’ Those networks, whether it’s Exarcheia, whether it’s the dockworkers, it’s not the same. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that the state has changed. The whole Gramscian problem was to answer the question: how do you avoid just attacking the state, and civil society rising up against you, as, for example, in Italy under fascism. The problem here is that the state doesn’t control the economy. The European Central Bank controls the economy. So, no matter how much of the state you take and no matter how many people you mobilise on the streets to help you, it doesn’t matter, because they can’t influence the ultimate power, which is Frankfurt and Brussels. I think that’s what I mean by the Gramscian party in a non-Gramscian world.

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