Can Europe Make It?

Syriza and the rise of a radical left in Europe: solidarity is the keyword

The key protagonist in channelling bottom-up solidarity proved to be – not for the first time in Greece’s history - the institution of the extended family.

Andreas Chatzidakis
13 February 2015
Greece 2004 Olympics flame ceremony.

Greece 2004 Olympics flame ceremony. Mai Linh-Doan/Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Not so long ago, much of Europe’s mainstream media portrayed Greeks as Europe’s lazy and corrupt citizens, the ones enjoying a life of relative affluence and shockingly early retirement thanks to hard-working northern Europeans. Banal racism and quasi-Orientalist attitudes have now given way to a new discourse.

Greeks have resurfaced in Europe’s media headlines as the continent’s longed-for rebels that just had enough of austerity and are ready to deliver a resounding “Nein”: to Merkel, to the troika, to austerity, to a transnational union that has failed its citizens. Syriza’s win in the elections, the government’s subsequent steps and its ministers’ sartorial choices have been subjected to media frenzy, some kind of spectacle – albeit a left-tinged one – that is being hyper-consumed all over Europe. Meanwhile solidarity protests are taking place on a nearly everyday basis, from Dublin to London and into Rome.

I would argue that solidarity has been the silent protagonist in the streets of Athens (and beyond) way before this potential turning point. The rise of Syriza can be viewed as at a critical juncture in what has been a significant and profound reconfiguration of Greece’s institutional landscape; and its embodiment in the everyday logics and practices of solidarity by its residents. Let me explain.

Athens, December 2008: the myth of the so-called “powerful Greece”, comprising credit-fuelled overconsumption, gigantic shopping malls and achievements of Olympic proportions (see Athens 2004, winning the Euro-cup, Eurovision etc) gives way to the December 2008 riots. Greece’s social movements are injected with newly-found confidence.

Within Athens and beyond, various grassroots movements and collectives start experimenting with here-and-now politics such as solidarity trading with Zapatistas and like-minded local producers, various squats of private and public spaces (including guerrilla parks), new producer and consumer co-operatives, anti-consumerist bazaars, collective kitchens, no-ticket cinema screenings, among others. Spaces of rupture and cracks in Greece’s political (capitalist) system began to appear everywhere, marking a new page in the country’s history of bottom-up politics. For some, the amount of hope and energy in the streets of Athens and other cities was comparable to the present-day, although clearly this was utopian praxis from below rather than parliamentary (Syriza-style) politics. There was a widespread belief that although the crisis represented a threat, it was also a welcome opportunity for the cultivation of new ways of doing and thinking politics.

Three years later however, circa 2012, a new politics of time and space had stretched Greece’s social movements to their limits. The utopian “here and now”, that largely inspired the formation of everyday experimentations with doing things differently, was soon confronted by the “here and now” of the crisis: a different kind of logic focused less on ideological imperatives and more on a pragmatic urgent requirement to attend to people’s immediate needs. For example, alternative and solidarity-based economies continued to proliferate the imperative for “fair” and “transparent” as opposed to “low” prices. But this became somewhat redundant. For most people participation in solidarity-trading networks only made sense in their quest for lower prices. Likewise, anti-consumerist collectives and gifting bazaars who took a conscious decision to provide solidarity for all soon turned into spaces of “over-consumption”, catering to an increasing population of “failed consumers” – as Bauman would put it – who kept coming back to acquire stuff they did not really need but could no longer acquire in the conventional marketplace.

In this way, a variety of social movements ended up playing a complementary rather than antagonistic role to the state. They kept themselves busy fire-fighting the gaps left by the demise of the welfare state – the number of self-managed education and health centres, for instance, proliferated – and there was little time left for ideological talks or the cultivation of alternative political subjectivities.

Meanwhile, solidarity surfaced as the key word, within grassroots movements and beyond: it was indeed bound to, given the increasing failure of the state to guarantee a basic level of human dignity and social justice on the ground. Soon discourses of solidarity diversified and multiplied, with various social actors counter-proposing their own solidarity logics and practices. The government, for instance, introduced its own version of additional “solidarity taxes”. In collaboration with various marketplace and religious actors, Sky TV – a pro-establishment broadcaster – launched a relatively successful ‘big society’ campaign titled “Oloi Mazi Mporoume” (United We Can); whereas Golden Dawn, the fascist political party introduced soup kitchens and trading networks “from-Greeks-for-Greeks”. Last and certainly not least, Syriza supported another highly successful solidarity network, i.e. “Allileggi Gia Olous” (i.e. “Solidarity to All”). As stated on its website: “At times of crisis, solidarity is a necessary condition for our survival, resistance is a one-way street and self-management is the impetus for action”.

But the key protagonist in channelling bottom-up solidarity proved to be – not for the first time in Greece’s history - the institution of the extended family. Millions of people were forced to rediscover the pleasures and the perils of (extended) family living: moving back in with one’s parents, sharing meals, consumables and caring duties. This became part of everyday reality.

I would argue that Syriza’s win in the last elections is largely the outcome of that battlefield, the battlefield of solidarity. Syriza not only managed to speak to people’s increasingly dystopian realities, but perhaps more importantly, it promised to re-establish solidarity at the level of top-down provision.

Put differently, the more solidarity became a bottom-up affair, subject to the mobilisation of social movements and extended family bonds, the more it became clear that the welfare engine was running out of steam and that there was not much else to replace it.

In this sense, it is no coincidence, that one of the first things that the new government did was a show of solidarity to the public sector cleaners, notoriously laid-off during the brutal cuts imposed by the previous government. Through the return to some kind of radical neo-Keynesian program Syriza has promised to re-establish a basic level of social justice and dignity through (once again) solidified arrangements and institutions of solidarity.

Whether and how this will be achieved – at times when the whole world is witnessing a transfer of responsibility away from traditional top-down institutions and straight onto the shoulders of the individual consumer-citizen (aka neoliberalism) – remains to be seen. One thing certain is that whatever emerges can only be built upon ongoing struggles for solidarity and their institutional expressions. 

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