The rapid transformation of the priorities of Syriza from a party promising radical change to a party that signs on to carrying out extreme neoliberal policies may require a fundamental rethinking of emancipatory politics.
Here is the thought of R.C. Smith:
“It remains true that, in spite of Syriza’s failures to date, the Greek people need not rely on the relic of the Party. It is possible that the Greek people, its communities, like in any other western country, can still plot a rebellious course of action through grassroots pressure and transformation.
It was always difficult to image that, within the realm of representative democracy, a leftist party could be elected with the expectation that they will be the sole driver of progressive transformative social change. This type of old leftist politics is dead. Instead, what is needed today is new progressive thinking. New forms of revolutionary politics and organisation and social philosophies of societal transformation. The revolutionary process requires guidance, but guidance by a political party (be it a Leninist or a social democratic party) is or should be a non-starter. This sort of guidance perpetuates, as we have seen time and again, the institutional and corporate world. To the contrary: as part of a longstanding, widely developed and recognized thesis at Heathwood, emancipatory politics must have a grassroots centre of gravity and emphasis.
If the election of Syriza was a big moment for the Greek people and for leftist politics, it was always the case that beyond the victory of Election Day, another onslaught of terrifying rhetoric would come, as images of economic Armageddon are propagated by the European elite in attempt to undermine or coerce the direction of policy and action. To date, no other analysis has been more accurate. The challenge from the very first day was whether the party could resist the coercive powers of the instrumental, institutional, and administered world (to borrow the words of Adorno). It was always going to be the case that aside from potentially offering certain resistances to austerity, which Syriza has largely failed to do, the biggest success of the government will have been defined according to whether it can establish a set of policies for the immediate relief of precarious social and economic life, and also how it might put together a plan to assist the process of revolutionary transformation by way of radical reformism that supports the greater autonomy of social movements.
Can Syriza – and particularly Alexis Tsipras – resist the temptation of fetishizing the party and the role of the leader (Fromm), instead focusing on encouraging, supporting and, indeed, creating conditions for the flourishing of autonomous participatory movements, which is the real source of sustainable transformative transition to a post-capitalist world? Presently, it does not look very good. Syriza has offered little to no clue that it embraces an actual progressive mandate. In the end, only time will tell whether the leftist Greek government has the courage to resist old temptations and look toward radical new political horizons, which translates in the increasing critical diminution of their own hierarchical, authoritarian power as a political party – that is, the critical deconstruction of the hierarchical power of the party itself. Indeed, the emancipatory course – the goal for Syriza or any other leftist party – is to take up the democratic challenge, which, ultimately, means a course for the eventual abolishment of their own power. The ‘bigger picture’ – an actual egalitarian (and, impliedly, participatory) democracy – cannot exist under hierarchy, under a party or leader. It would be largely representative of a social landscape of horizontality.
One may instantly refute that in the current system a form of representation is required; because involvement in traditional, institutional politics is unavoidable. This may be true. Negotiations concerning Greece’s future might require temporary hierarchy, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks. But once this hierarchy is no longer responsive to a participatory mandate, it loses all validity. In this sense, Syriza so far bears no legitimacy as being part of a revolutionary movement in terms of the current course of history (as testified by its failure to call for police to cease its assault on protesters?).
Besides, if it is to be expected that ‘in a reified society, political issues will present themselves in a reified and mystifying way’, and therefore the presence of temporary hierarchy may be unavoidable in certain situations; this is not to say that Syriza or any other leftist party should not work toward the transformation of the representative system. As many European Green parties currently argue, for example: one of the key policies for any progressive political party should be to challenge the current status of democracy, even if that means the very existence of the party itself in the long run. The very idea of a possible transition to an actual egalitarian (participatory, horizontal) democracy demands it – it demands or requires roots in grassroots politics. As Richard Gunn explains: “general elections are top-down affairs …/ now it’s time for social movements to come into their own. Participatory social movements are, or should be, the centre of gravity of an emancipatory politics – because emancipation exists in and through human interaction …/ [this] interaction is unlikely to result from hierarchy – in my view, an emancipatory movement must start as it intends to go on. That is, it must start (and continue) in a prefigurative way.”
Yet, if participatory social movements are the centre of gravity of an emancipatory politics, these movements undoubtedly need support at the start. Moving beyond rigid debates between total and stifling hierarchy and the opposite of horizontalism, radical reformism can play a vital role. But radical reformism must be rooted in a revolutionary culture – that is, again, in the efforts of autonomous participatory movements. In other words: the question now with regards to the Greek Crisis might be on some level whether Syriza can still position itself from within the current coercive and ideological social reality of neoliberal capitalist Europe – even when buckling to external pressures to accept austerity – to create systematic subversions from within that context. If truly progressive, if truly a believer in actual democracy, if truly a party of the progressive and emancipatory left, it must find a way to do so. But the bigger question is whether it is willing to align itself with the grassroots, with Greek communities, in their struggle to potentially attempt to create a revolutionary, transformative culture.
What I mean by this last statement is not only how it is philosophically necessary that Syriza prioritise the enabling of resources, time, and space for progressive movements to develop and experiment with alternatives. It is also necessary for the course of economic transformation, that the current left government make its focused task to support the grassroots in whatever possible, in effort to develop an alternative to capitalism from the bottom-up.
What is required, today, is a prefigurative grassroots politics – the sort that we’ve already witnessed in various incarnations in different revolutionary cultures throughout the western world.
In a past series of research papers, I already began to layout an alternative philosophy of systemic change along these lines, which develops and expands on the argument presented in an ongoing project by Heathwood on emancipatory politics and radical (or actual) democracy. It is not possible here to provide a thorough account of the arguments and analyses presented in that series. What can be said is that an emancipatory political philosophy of fundamental system change should reject the idea of a Grand Soir and, instead, take a many-sided, integral view of the process of grassroots transformation. Against the belief in parties and or a radical takeover of the system by a political camp – especially as the driving force of societal transformation, which more often than not proves authoritarian, disempowering, and reproductive of dominant social structures and paradigms – an emancipatory politics would instead be multifaceted, holistic, participatory and prefigurative. It would take into account not only the philosophical, political and economic facets of fundamental systemic change; but also the psychological, emotional, relational, existential, anthropological, developmental, and even epistemological dimensions of change and of the particular needs of people. Based on a theory of how systems actually work, and how change actually unfolds, an emancipatory political philosophy would see social transformation as transitory, and as a transformative political and economic process inasmuch as a many-sided transformative healing process.
Indeed, while I agree with Jerome Roos and others at ROAR Magazine, particularly with regards to Greece’s need for a “Plan C” – that is, for a social and political project oriented toward the commons and communality – to say this is not enough. Capitalism, as a mode of social relations, is alienating. Capitalism’s coercive legacy in this regard cannot be completely overcome in a relatively short period of time. It is a matter of transition, if nothing else. Thus I share ROAR’s commitment to the grassroots, with the caveat that the grassroots politics we’re talking about is prefigurative and mutually recognitive.
In the global context, what is common amongst many progressive democratic movements is not only a shared emphasis on direct (participatory) democracy and horizontality. The deeper connection is an underlying dynamic of mutual recognition – understanding mutual recognition in an egalitarian and emancipatory sense. Positioned against the hierarchical, undemocratic and one-way relations of power that characterise the capitalist world, the mutually recognitive interaction of grassroots politics opens on to a landscape that is inclusive and participatory. Through participatory public engagement, commonising can emerge.
The task of a progressive left government, then, is to find a way, to create set of policies, rooted in and supportive of the further development of the grassroots. In Greece, it is not as though the grassroots does not already exist. In fact, in some communities it is already very strong and healthy. As Jerome Roos recently cited with regards to the Greek context (but also applicable to Europe more generally), we already witness a remarkable proliferation and, indeed, experimentation with commons-based initiatives across a number of social spheres: “think of solidarity kitchens, social clinics, self-managed workplaces, mutual aid networks, alternative currencies, and so on”.
Although examples of emancipatory grassroots movements may vary, in a popular or mainstream sense – consider Occupy-style initiatives, 15m, the movement of the squares, the Indignados, and so on – it is not that a progressive grassroots politics need to necessarily be explicitly political. Grassroots politics can also take less obvious and less directly political forms. Alternative education (as in Summerhill, the Alpha Project for homeless people or the Social Science Centre, Lincoln), basic community projects such as community-based agriculture or energy initiatives, emancipatory constructs regarding the re-organisation of media and communication and, even, technology-focused initiatives – all of these may have an emancipatory grassroots logic. Against the bleak and hopeless narrative of dominant neoliberal capitalist media, the truth is that a lot is happening on a grassroots level in a diversity of forms and across many different sites of resistance.
If we’re ever going to transcend capitalism and eventually move beyond its coercive legacy, the process of healing and transformation must come from below. The goal for Syriza or any other leftist party, then, if it is to have any relevance, is to support the grassroots in the development of an alternative social world from within the current system, and work toward the abolishment of its own required existence as an entity. In the meantime, its power should only be considered in the sea of horizontality, in midst of a mutually recognitive and prefigurative grassroots landscape, never free from normative critique and the challenge of demonstration. This is the only way it can suffice to be an actual progressive partner for people.
So how can Syriza redeem itself? Well, redemption should begin in and through acknowledgment of grassroots demand. As to what those demands might be, they are likely to vary given the particularity of the community, its needs, and the particular needs of its people. But for the government to move forward with any semblance of progressiveness, it must open the channels for mutual exchanges of communication. Perhaps delegates from community democratic assemblies would be one option to making communication direct and effective?
With regards to greater economic transformation – that is, transformation of the economy – I offer several comments which may be of assistance to various grassroots movements, whether in Greece or elsewhere.
There are, generally speaking, two broad levels of focus with regards to the development of alternatives to capitalism. “The first is an alternative to how capitalism organizes enterprises in terms of their internal workings and relationships.” The second is an alternative “to how capitalism organizes the economy as a whole.” Concerning both levels, we can celebrate the fact there are alternative models available in the here and now. From Participatory Economics to Economic Democracy, P2P, Collaborative Economics, the Sharing Economy, worker co-operatives, social enterprises, non-profit organisation (to name just a few) – alternative economic possibilities, varying from market to non-market models, are emerging all around us. The problem is, none are perfect. A lot more development has to take place. A lot more experimenting on a grassroots level has to happen. That is to say that there is still much to do with regards to the process of undertaking further study and critique and redevelopment.
To the best of my knowledge, most of the more ‘concrete’ alternatives – by which I mean theories and models that have been considered extensively on a micro and macro level, and could be considered as immediate substitutes for neoliberal capitalism through a process of deep, radical reform – are market-based alternatives. Of course market-based economics come with a whole list of problems and questions – including structural problems that are in many ways in conflict with actual egalitarian democratic social relations. But if the notion of transition is key to conceptualising a course that begins to move beyond capitalist coordinates in the present, we can at least start to navigate the structural antagonisms of market-based alternatives as we move into a progressive market system which, in turn, would open more space for the experimentation of other future progressive systems – perhaps even a non-market alternative, which should be the ultimate goal. In other words, the position I am drawing on here is one that sees economic transition in phrases. From within one progressive market-based system might another more emancipatory system emerge. From there, perhaps more space develops and more ideas are conceived with regards to non-market possibilities on a micro and macro level. Revolutionary transition is therefore participatory inasmuch as it is a democratic, grassroots and unfolding process.”
Moving then to the Closing Reflections of his long essay, R.C. Smith writes:
“So where does that leave us? Where does that leave the Greek people, or the hope for transformation in the UK or Canada or the US or wherever else? Quite simply: there is no hard and fast answer. It’s a transition, one small step at a time. It is going to be a struggle: such is the demand of an actually progressive (participatory) politics. But the requirements of Syriza should at least be clear. If they refuse or fail, then the grassroots only has to return to exactly where they have started from.
As Theodoros Karyotis recently wrote in his article for ROAR Magazine:
– Syriza’s failure to deliver on any of its campaign promises or to reverse the logic of austerity lifts the veil of illusion regarding institutional top-down solutions and leaves the grassroots movements exactly where they started from: being the main antagonistic force to the neoliberal assault on society. Now is the moment for a broad alliance of social forces to bring forward a ‘Plan C’, based on social collaboration, decentralized self-government and the stewardship of common goods. Without overlooking its significance, national electoral politics is not the privileged field of action when it comes to social transformation. The withering away of democracy in Europe should be complemented and challenged by the fortification of self-organized communities at a local level and the forging of strong bonds between them, along with a turn to a solidarity- and needs-based economy, and the collective management and defense of common goods.
To know that the first steps out of capitalism, however tentative and fragile, is not impossible, is significant. It provides, as Lambert Zuidervaart reflects when writing on Adorno, a real sense of hope in the midst of hopelessness. Indeed, in the same way I have closed so many of my essays: the point is that emancipation must begin as it aims to go on. No matter how one looks at, we have it all to do. If policy is not there to help, this does not mean the first step out of capitalism is lost. Economic Democracy provides an immediate alternative on both levels of transformation – it is within our grasp, even in terms of a prefigurative politics. It is within people’s grasp in the context of existing economic systems and even within existing businesses.
Moving forward, and with regards to the notion of creating revolutionary culture: solidarity, irrespective of policy support, must be created amongst movements and initiatives and campaigns across various or, indeed, diverse sites of struggle – that is, a solidarity that recognizes both the particularity and universality of struggle for a better world. To put it differently: revolutionary theory must recognize transformation as the outcome of a plurality of sources within “the differential fabric of society”. Solidarity must be achieved amongst diversity of progressive movements, whether they’re the fast-food workers’ movement or a student occupation or an environmental campaign or a community agriculture initiative or civil rights struggle or an anti-oppression campaign. Despite the differences in particular focus, despite one’s particular individual focus of concern, progressives throughout the west ultimately share in one way or another a common universal struggle: that is, anti-capitalist struggle.
But if a more concrete object of solidarity is required, then, if not a form of recognition of the various struggles themselves (for a better society), it could, in the least, be found in the anti-capitalist struggle for democracy. Against a system which runs counter to the well-being of all; counter to the prospect of actual democracy, equality and egalitarianism; counter to environmental justice and agrarian rights; counter to participation and freedom; the many diverse sites of resistance today should recognize the fundamentally (bad) social reality in which they all exist. Conscious solidarity of the whole, as Adorno once described it, does not take anything away from the particularity of suffering, conflict and struggle of each group or each community or each individual. It simply recognizes the particular in the context of the systemic whole.
Is such a form of solidarity already being forged among people, communities and the grassroots in Greece? I am not in a position to answer. What I can say is that even in places like the UK, conscious solidarity seems present in certain movements at certain times (however fleeting). However, if it is the case that greater economic lines of sight are required; here, again, Economic Democracy might be proposed. It could be proposed as a potentially widely accessible platform for the basis of many things, including the beginning stages of the process for (re)democratization of food, labour, political-economy, environmental management, the university, and so on. The message is clear, open, engaging, and inclusive. In confronting the bigger picture, Economic Democracy is an easily understandable concept and theory. Seen as the first systemic step, it could be relied on in different ways by progressives across all sections or sectors of society.
In closing: if Economic Democracy is the initial focus, then when all starts to feel lost on a policy level, with neoliberal governments destined to refuse to respect the voice of the people, strategic confrontation with the status quo is still obtainable, particularly by pressuring the inner-most structural constitution of the system: i.e., challenge existing business to democratize. Inject the concept of worker self-management and co-ops into the mainstream. Boycott, if collectively necessary. Turn the capitalist notion of ‘money is power’ on its head. Subvert and pressure and create from within, in whatever way conceivable. Like guerrilla gardeners, plant seeds of transformation within the existing (bad) social architecture – institutions, cultural practices, and interpersonal relations – of contemporary society. From alternative education movements to open-source tech projects and community-based medical initiatives, revolutionary change can occur in the most surprising of places. It is more than possible that, with a concerted effort, the end of capitalism could be closer than what we may all expect or anticipate. But for that to happen, one thing is clear: the development of a revolutionary culture, of conscious solidarity, and all that it entails, is necessary if not vital.”