The great failure of Syriza in carrying out its anti-austerity program and surrendering to the neoliberal dictates of the EU and the Troika signals a wider failure of progressive politics. In these excerpts from a real in-depth conversation and interview, George Souvlis asked an active participant, Andreas Karitzis, “what went wrong”?
* George Souvlis: On Syriza’s strategy after the defeat of the new memorandum agreement: can we perhaps historicize this defeat by separating it in two different moments? The first one is between two electoral periods, 2012 and January of 2015. Which were the main pitfalls of the party during this period?
Andreas Karitzis: As you can imagine, there are various levels of analysis for this question. I will focus on examples of internal party functioning that reveal the underlying conditions in terms of political imagination, methodology and organizational principles that shaped the range of our preparation, rhetoric, decisions and the eventual strategy.
In the summer of 2012 – in the midst of a joyful atmosphere that comes with being the major opposition party – there was a fundamental issue, at least to my mind, we had to address: the allocation of human and financial resources. We had the opportunity to employ several hundred people, mainly due to having a larger parliamentary group than before. The allocation of human and financial resources is not a secondary issue but the material basis of one’s political strategy. However, instead of engaging in a serious assessment of the present and future needs of the party and an operational distribution of resources (for social organizing, the growth of neo-Nazi groups, trade-union organising, preparation for being in government and for the negotiation process, and so on), there was instead an attitude of “business as usual”. The traditional political imagery, methodology and priorities prevented SYRIZA from assessing the importance of the “material” conditions for its political strategy of countering austerity and neoliberalism. SYRIZA didn’t focus on this crucial issue of preparing for government, and instead reproduced outdated organizational modes and habits.
The outcome was that it maintained the traditional priorities and party functions, as if this were a normal time of social and political activity. The inertia that came with seeing parliamentary work as the most important duty of the party, mainly under the influence of the MPs who tend to prioritize their work in political planning together with the fact that the MPs were the ones who employ all these people, created a framework that ended up with only small changes. That is, a bit more collective work within the parliamentary group, the solidarity4all institution and a minimal increase in various aspects of party functioning. Instead of having a radical rearrangement of forces, SYRIZA just improved the traditional ways of party functioning which were becoming outdated and insufficient to back up its political strategy.
Another example is the exponential deterioration of collective internal functioning. The problem I would like to underline is not the obviously negative fact of the marginalization of democratic decision-making and accountability. The problem was even deeper. During this period, the implicit premise that rapidly transformed the political behavior in the party was that the competing views within SYRIZA should be promoted via the occupation of key-positions in the parliamentary group, the government and the state, after a victorious electoral result. This premise led to marginalization of collective planning, competition between groups and individuals and the fragmentation of SYRIZA. Fragmentation deprived the political organs of the ability to collect information, assess it and deploy a complex strategy. Eventually, enormous amount of time was consumed in the efforts of the political personnel to take the lead regarding future positions in the parliamentary group and the government. Of course there was always a political reasoning justifying this move to ever increasing competition among various groups and individuals.
The interesting thing was that the decline of internal collective functioning was predicated on an implicit common premise. That is, that what is needed to stop austerity and neoliberal transformation was an electoral victory along with people supporting the government through demonstrations. Apart from that, the only thing that seemed to matter was who and what group would have more influence and hold the key-positions in the government and the state.
There was an ignorance and indifference towards issues such as the subtleties and the complexities of the implementation process when in government, the operational demands of the negotiation process (multi-level, multi-personal, highly coordinated processes etc), and the methodology and the expertise needed to mobilize people in order to develop alternative ways of running basic social functions. Let me add here that it is necessary to gain some degrees of autonomy in terms of performing basic social functions in order to stop the strategies of the elite (in any way one may think is the right one), since the latter have unchecked control over those functions and can easily inflict collective punishment on a society that dares to defy its power. Issues like these necessarily promote a collective/democratic functioning instead of fragmentation and competition and a focus on people’s capacities and methods of “extracting” them effectively in order to upgrade people’s leverage.
The underestimation of similar issues was even more striking at the Programme Committee and its working groups. It was extremely difficult (if not impossible) to restructure the forms of work from the usual articulation of lists of demands towards managerial/organizational issues regarding steps and methods to implement our policies. Instead, they were sites of political argumentation in the most general and abstract terms.
The ignorance and indifference towards questions of how you implement power was supported by the dominant rhetoric within SYRIZA: that the crucial issues are political and not technical. So all we have to do is decide what we want to do, rather than explore the ways in which we can implement them. The implicit premise here was that the crucial point was to be in the government taking political decisions and then, somehow, these decisions would be implemented by some purely technical state mechanisms.
Apart from the fact that this attitude contradicted with what we were saying regarding the corrosive effect of the neoliberal transformation of the state and the complexities of being in the EU and the Eurozone, the major problem was that a mentality like this ignores the obvious fact that the range of one’s political potential in government is determined by what one knows how to do with the state. The implementation process is not a “technicality” but the material basis of the political strategy. What was considered to be the political essence, namely the general, strategic discussion and decision is just the tip of the iceberg of state-politics. Instead of just being a “technicality”, the implementation of political decision is the biggest part of state politics. Actually, it’s where the political struggle within the state becomes hard, and the class adversaries battle to shape reality. The tip is not going to move the iceberg by itself as long as it is not supported by multi-level implementational processes with a clear orientation, function and high-levels of coordination. This is the integrated concept of state-politics that we have forgotten in practice and by doing so we tend to fail miserably whenever we approach power.
Being at the leadership of SYRIZA during the period of preparation for power, I came to the conclusion that one major failure of the Left is that it lacks a form of governmentality which matches up with its own logic and values. We miss a form of administration that could run basic social functions in a democratic, participatory and cooperative way. The fact that we are talking about a current inside the Left which includes governmental power within its strategy, the low level of awareness regarding the importance of these governmental processes (among other equally worrying weaknesses) reflects the degree of obsolescence of the Left organizations and justifies fully the need for a radical redesign of the “Operating System” of the Left.
*GS: A second period would be between the electoral victory of Syriza and the signing of the third MOU past August. What about this period? Were there mistakes and miscalculations made by the party’s leadership during this time?
AK: I think that the mistakes made during this period reveal crucial structural weaknesses of SYRIZA – and of the political left more broadly – due to the inability to adapt to the new way you must do politics in the institutionalised neoliberal framework of the EU and the Eurozone.
It seems that the weaknesses of SYRIZA in power resulted from the failed preparations in the previous period that I mentioned above. The appointment of government officials was dictated by the outcome of the internal power games during the previous period, and their mandate was to do whatever they could do in vague terms without having concrete action plans that would support a broader government plan.
In the same vein, there weren’t any organisational “links” that would align the government actions with the party functioning and the social agents willing to support and play a crucial role in a very difficult and complex conjecture. The lack of connecting processes was mainly – among other things – the outcome of a widely shared traditional political mentality that reduces, firstly, the party from a network for the massive coordination of people’s action, deliberation and production of popular power into a speech making device that supports the government, and, secondly, peoples’ mobilization from a generator of real popular power and leverage against the elites’ hostility into traditional forms of demonstration.
The government was gradually isolated and the pressure on it from various domestic and international agents initiated a process of adjustment of the new government to the existing neoliberal norms and regulations. Deprived of any real tool for reshaping the battlefield, the government and the party gradually moved from fighting against financial despotism towards merely a pool of political personnel with a good reputation that could reinvigorate the neoliberal project. In an era with a complex network of political antagonisms and class struggles, SYRIZA, as a collective agent, couldn’t even realise the form of the fight it had been involved in. This is still true for plenty of people in the Greek Left today, but things are changing and the difficulties force us to adapt.
The negotiation process and especially the way it had been understood and experienced within SYRIZA is indicative of the sloppy and cursory way that preparation for power took place, and of the inability of the party to adapt. But it also reveals the underlying premises that supported those qualities. Starting with the agreement of the 20th of February until the day that the lenders announced that the only real possibility was the continuation of the neoliberal project (1st of June), a pattern emerged regarding the way in which the government and party officials assessed what was occurring. Although the negative indications were overwhelming compared with the hopeful ones, they were focusing on the latter, distorting reality. Or better, they were replacing reality with what they hoped for; what they would have liked to be reality. I am not saying that the problem was that government and party officials were being dishonest; although some of them might be; individual dishonesty cannot explain a collective pattern.
The non-existent reality they were clinging onto was the only one in which the traditional political left knows how to do politics. And since people and collectives are determined not by what they say but by what they know how to do (a material dictum that has been forgotten in political left), it is impossible to become relevant with the real reality without a modification of methodologies, organizational principles and political imageries related to a practice that reflects reality. The problem was that collectively we hadn’t adapted sufficiently into how to do politics in reality. In the case of lack of adaptation of this kind, reality will be imposed on people and collective bodies the hard way…
This non-existent reality that government and party officials were clinging on to was built on the assumption that the elites were committed to accepting the democratic mandate of an elected government. If they do not like the policies that it promotes, they would have to engage in a political fight; opposition parties must convince the people that the policies are not desirable or successful and use the democratic process for a new government of their preference to be elected.
Supposedly, the post-war global balance of forces inscribed in the state institutions a considerable amount of popular power, rendering them quasi-democratic. This consists simply in tolerating – on behalf of the elites – a situation where people without considerable economic power have access to crucial decisions. SYRIZA knew how to do politics based on the premise that the institutionalised (in the past) popular power was not exhausted. By winning the elections, the remaining institutional power – mainly in the form of state power and international respect of national sovereignty – would be enough and it would be used to stop austerity (in all versions of how that would happen, within eurozone, leaving eurozone etc). Based on the premise that the framework within which politics is being conducted hasn’t changed significantly, SYRIZA did what the traditional way of doing politics dictates: supported social movements, built alliances, won a majority in the parliament, formed a government. We all know the results of doing politics only in this way today.
During that summer, the gap between the kind of politics we collectively knew how to do and the new reality grew massively, producing both hilarious and tragic events. The referendum and its aftermath was definitely the peak of this. From the “traditional way of doing politics” point of view, we were using all democratic means available. It was obvious to me and others that we were engaged in an escalation that was not supported by anything that would make the lenders accept a compromise. The traditional, democratic means are simply outdated for doing politics in the new European despotism (although, if embedded in a different methodology of politics, they can still be very useful). But it was a way for the people to step in at a historic moment and give a global message that transcends the SYRIZA government and its short-term plots.
During the week of the referendum a massive biopolitical experiment took place: the closure of the banks; the extreme propaganda by the media, the threats by the domestic, European and international political and financial establishment; the terrorism in workplaces; the hostility and threats towards “no” supporters on interpersonal level and so on, created an environment we have never encountered before. Our opponents used all their resources and they lost! Greek people refused to voluntarily declare that they embrace a life without dignity in order to avoid a sudden death. We are talking about an extremely hopeful and important event for the battle against neoliberalism. Greek people proved that the biopolitical control and influence over people is not so powerful as we might think it is. The message was crystal-clear and gave courage to plenty of us despite the ominous predictions for the immediate future: the battle is not over yet; human societies will not surrender easily.
On the side of SYRIZA, the transformation of government and party officials had already occurred. The Greek government didn’t negotiate strictly speaking. There wasn’t a coherent negotiation strategy, no improvement of our position in time, no gaining of some leverage, etc. There was only a desperate act of postponing a decision it had to make. By the time that the referendum took place, things had changed. The leadership had shifted the central features of its assessment regarding how best to serve peoples’ needs: from “non-compliance with financial despotism” to “stay in power”. What happened after the agreement is just the natural outcome of this process of adjustment.”