The Postcolonial Bind of Greece

CI-9OOBWUAAybiS-1

A Postcolonial Debt Crisis

To call a country in Europe a post-colony could be considered an insult. Colonialism and postcolonial destiny is for others – countries, nations, and peoples outside the Euro-North Atlantic world, including a few honorary members like Japan and Australia. Europe has given birth to democracy and is naturally democratic. And if there are periods of authoritarianism, do not forget that democracy returns, and returns inevitably, in a “double movement” much like that of Karl Polanyi.1 According to this double movement, history evolves in cycles – periodic dis-embedding movements, when the market, because of its speculative and individualizing logic, is estranged from its social and political foundations, followed by re-embedding movements, when society reorganizes and brings the market back under the considerations of public good. Thus, the argument of the natural inclination of Europe for democracy views financial crisis as a powerful reminder of the inability of markets to self-regulate, and accordingly takes such a crisis as a turning point, when again through the effort of society the market will be brought back under social control.

Most of the anti-austerity social movements in Europe practicing new democratic methods, such as occupation, referendum, grassroots elections, local solidarity bodies, capturing municipal governmental power, etc., thus focus on the links between debt and crisis in order to make a return to democracy possible. Political strategies are designed and pursued accordingly, at times with admirable success. The conventional communist parties failed to link debt, crisis, and democracy in this way, and thus have been marginalized by the evolving political dynamics of neoliberalism, at least for the time being.

There is some truth in this view, and surely the communist movement will have to learn from it. Yet it conceals a fundamental problem: it does not link the fortunes of democracy with postcolonial destiny. Therefore the entire Euro-North Atlantic debate on debt, crisis, and democracy leaves out the question of neo-colonial domination, which is not only the necessary background against which debt, crisis, and democracy interrelate, and democracy’s fortune is determined, but also an almost invariable factor shaping their interrelations. The thesis of “radical indeterminacy”2 is too lazy to take into account the analytics related to colonial and postcolonial histories and the law of unequal capitalist development.

To appreciate this question, we must ask: Is Greek debt an exceptional event? Much of the postcolonial world has suffered for long from indebtedness – ranging from peasant indebtedness to national indebtedness – and has experienced debt crisis. What if we understand Greece as only the latest to feature in a long list of indebted countries? We will then have to ask if Syriza, the anti-austerity Greek party, has studied the global history of debt crisis. With graphic and often visual details of its shuttered banks, public protests, and the plight of a country brought to its knees by a crippling debt burden, the account of Greek crisis has been gripping and tragic. Yet a full-blown sovereign debt crisis was already on in much of the postcolonial world for the last few decades. Greece’s plight is far from unique. Several countries in the postcolonial world – from Sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia – lie in a debt danger zone, where an economic downturn or a sudden jump in interest rates on world debt markets can lead to disaster. Investors from the countries with rock-bottom interest rates have become footloose, looking for bigger returns than they can get at home. In many cases, the mobility has lured and prompted postcolonial states, commercial firms, and financial institutions to go on fresh borrowing frenzies. At times these states are compelled to borrow; at times they build for themselves rosy futures to be realized by cheap borrowings. While there are real differences between the current Greek scenario and traditional national indebtedness of the ex-colonies, there is at the same time an extraordinary relevance of the postcolonial experience for the current phenomenon of sovereign debt.

While debt loads up, many think that the borrowed money can be gainfully deployed towards a diversification of the economy and improvement of infrastructure. But this does not deter the empty financialization of the country, including privatization of all kinds of assets, accompanied by the massive corruption which this process inevitably brings with it. Ghana, among others, is a perfect example. In many countries, government debt is about 30% of GDP or higher, with a current account deficit of over 5% of GDP, and future debt repayments worth more than 10% of government revenue. Even the prospect of recovery reveals a fundamental instability. Tanzania had severe debt crisis in the 1990s. It has now managed to come out of the crisis: repayments have fallen from 27% of government revenue to 2%; child mortality has dropped; fees for primary schools have been abolished; more children are completing their schooling. But in Tanzania government revenues are heavily dependent on exports of gold and precious metal ores. Falling commodity prices combined with a strong dollar have endangered countries in Africa even more, because borrowing is dollar-denominated there. And, yet borrowing seems to be rising again, in Tanzania as in Ethiopia. Likewise Mongolia has welcomed foreign investment to exploit its huge natural resources, including coal, and plans to borrow heavily to create infrastructure suitable for said exploitation.

In short, current levels of lending threaten to recreate debt crises.  Yet it is not just in the postcolonial world that we find that the legacy of the crisis deepens. The temptation to paper over the cracks with borrowed money is truly a global phenomenon, linking the democratic West and the postcolonial world in an intricate but enigmatic knot. One estimate puts worldwide cross-border liabilities (non bank to non-bank, non-bank to bank, bank to non-bank, and bank to bank) increasing from 10 trillion dollars in 1995 to 43 trillion US dollars in 2012.3 The same source also admits that all this debt is probably being accumulated because other sources of growth are increasingly in decline. As Syriza has found, debts appearing manageable one day could quickly become unsustainable the next, if the conditions in financial markets churlishly called “sentiments” were to shift.

In the Eurozone, peripheral countries became the sites of funnelling loans so as to benefit from low interest rates in the core countries, because in this case sharing the same currency as Germany made such mobility of credit easier to facilitate. It only delayed the appearance of the debt crisis, though the effects of a surge of capital inflows on real exchange rates should have been clear to all. Domestic prices rose faster than those of trading partners. Investment increased in non-tradable sectors (such as real estate and construction, mostly linked to a logistical vision of economy) and financial assets like domestic stocks and shares. Everywhere this situation has made exports more expensive and imports cheaper, further aggravating the decline. Everywhere the emerging markets receiving large capital inflows also had real estate and stock market booms, and then downturns. What one economist terms debt-funded profligacy has in the end resulted in capital flight and financial crisis.4 And then, as if in a pre-scripted drama, the lender countries levelled charges of irresponsibility against the debt-ridden countries, demanding that they adopt more “prudent” economic policies. In other words, what already happened in much of the ex-colonial countries has now happened in the Eurozone itself – much as elsewhere, now in Europe we have the north and the south.

So Greece will find its experiences similar to those of Bhutan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Laos, Mongolia, Mozambique, Samoa, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Belize, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Gambia, Grenada, Ireland, Jamaica, Lebanon, Macedonia, Montenegro, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Ukraine, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and many others. Armenia and Ukraine entered this list after the annus mirabilis of 1989. Pro-European Greeks may find comfort in the fact that Spain and Portugal – two ex-colonial powers – also suffer the same destiny symbolized by the post-colonies.5

European exceptionalism, therefore, is a myth. Europe’s periphery is now playing out a script already performed many times in the post-colony. What is happening in Europe is not, as liberals portray, some fallout of an attempt at economic union without political commitment to fiscal transfers. That idea also is a myth and only plays to the neoliberal tune. The European scenario is typical. The European peripheral countries would do well to examine the ways in which debt crisis has been handled or averted or postponed elsewhere in the postcolonial world where countries at times violated global rules, imposed temporary capital controls, depreciated their currencies, effectively defaulting on debts, and followed expansionary fiscal policies at home. The global managers were angry, but could do little. After all, these countries too had faced austerity, which unlike in Europe was not an exceptional phenomenon but a general condition of life. Yet, at some point politics there became incomparably richer. This is where we have to bring back the question of democracy, the postcolonial impact on democratic theory, and the repertoire of democratic experiences.

Debt, Crisis, and the Democratic Closure

The Greek crisis may be seen as a conflict between national democracy and EU governance, particularly after the Greek public rejected in continued austerity in the July 5 referendum. Nevertheless, some think that the clue to a political solution to the conflict is in more EU democracy. Political parties, not only in Greece, have noticed the democratic dysfunction of Europe. It is one of the reasons why many in Europe are advocating an exit from the Euro, and more broadly a return of competencies from the European to the national level. Once again the classic question has come back to the agenda: What is the locus of sovereignty? Where does the democratic will, the general will of the people, reside? If the model of national parliaments is no more to be the true source of legitimacy and the best venue for democratic decision-making, then where is it now, and where should it be? All these questions now vex democracy, particularly European democratic politics – whether practiced by the pro-European liberals or the pro-European Left.
The point is that we still do not have any worthy example of continental democracy. We still have no blueprint of democracy delinked from the nation and the nation-form. The nation-form never meant in the first place an absence of internationalism, international dialogues, and international dialogic arrangements, and international solidarity of the working class and working peoples.

Look carefully at what has happened recently in Europe: the Greek voters rejected austerity policies imposed by the Eurozone, which over the past five years have caused a GDP fall of 25% and a massive rise in unemployment. They responded democratically. It was also democratic to put the choice for more austerity before the people. Yet other countries and electorates in Europe may say No to the Euro, or No to a common constitution for Europe, or No to the massive loan that Greece requires. If the victory of Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, in the referendum renewed his legitimacy at home, then by the same measure French and Dutch voters rejected the EU constitutional treaty, and may even opt for xenophobia against migrants as an overarching policy. This is thus only to some extent a battle between democracy and Europe. The European vision may be colored by a democratic hue, but democratic compromise will involve a substantial technocratic process of identifying Europe’s conflicting wills. The answer is sadly but surely not in democracy as many would like to think.

Once again, a deal is again on the table, and will probably be concluded with all the usual democratic requirements, thus escaping the standoff. Stringent reforms, harsh austerity, massive privatization, along with debt-restructuring at some stage, may stabilize the Greek presence in the Eurozone. The referendum may have been an effective ploy of Syriza’s right wing, which after gaining new legitimacy can now use it to implement a neo-liberal agenda. We shall have to ask: Why did anti-austerity politics have to be framed in terms of staying within or going out of the Eurozone? Was this not a classic case of what Michel Foucault would have called the enlightenment blackmail? Let us recall Alexis Tsipras: “We are confronted with crucial decisions. We got a mandate to bring a better deal than the ultimatum that the Euro group gave us, but certainly not given a mandate to take Greece out of the eurozone.” And then the appeal for party unity: “We are all in this together.”6 One has to ask, did not the Syriza and the European Left drive itself into a bind by framing the question as for it or against it? And why again the framing, if the Euro fails Europe fails? How could a question of pure tactics become one of strategy marked by theological belief? This is how the specter of Grexit was created, scaring and threatening the European and Greek Left into submission. The neoliberal discourse of responsibility rode on the democratic discourse of anti-austerity, turning the latter into its other, and what had originated as the risk of corporate Europe transformed into a responsibility of the common people. Everyone says – from Prime Minister Tsipras to Chancellor Merkel – that a crisis has been averted.7 Every democratic politician says Grexit would have been a disaster and a chaos! To avoid this chaos, Syriza will now streamline the party, marginalize the militant sections, and constitute itself as a democratic parliamentary power. We shall truly see a new form of passive revolution whereby capitalism in Greece will develop. This is the link between neo-colonial form of power and the interrelations between debt, crisis, and democracy.

Can we escape the bind of debt and crisis through the internationalization of the strike movement? One recent attempt frames the agenda in this way:

Austerity is now the new normality in Europe. In these years monetary policies have been used to enforce neo-liberal labour reforms, privatization of the commons, cuts in welfare benefits, and less civil rights. European governments and financial institutions use debt and technical parameters as a political tool to play workers and populations against each other, as the blackmail against Greece has shown… Through outsourcing and subcontracting the strength and the power of strike action is challenged. The many existing struggles throughout Europe on wages, housing, welfare and freedom of movement are confronting, from different sides the current attack on life and working conditions. Faced with the transnational dimension of these attack, it becomes apparent the need to overcome their isolation and to find common priorities… The new forms of mutualism and local self-organization which have developed since the crisis are confronted with the problem of enlargement and inability to communicate with other struggles on wage and working/living conditions. The capitalist divisions between permanent workers, temps and unemployed, migrants and locals, formal and informal sectors create obstacles to the organization of successful struggles inside and outside the workplaces, throughout all of society. While Trade Unions, associations and movements centre their activity within a national context, the transnational dimension of the European government of mobility and labour requires the capacity to build a power on the same scale of the attacks deployed. In front of this situation, we want to build up a process for a transnational social strike that could create connections, organization, transnational communication and strengthen common bonds between social and labour struggles. The transnational social strike starts from the limits of traditional forms of social and labour struggles and the form of trade union organization, from the loss of power that the strike, even when general, has experienced due to precarization and the transnational dimension of production. The strike is the name of a practice and of a process of organization that entails the need to bring labour (in all its current forms) back in the agenda of the social movements… How do we strike where the borders between the inside and the outside of the workplaces are blurring? Are the claims on European minimum wage, income, welfare and minimum residency permit for migrants able to work as tools of transnational organization and of connection between the already existing struggles in different cities and countries of Europe and beyond?… Everyone who is interested in building this process and in contributing to its organization is very welcome to participate in the meeting.8

Even though in this manifesto the word democracy is missing in this manifesto, clearly the idea is to broaden the base of local struggles, overcome divisions among the working people imposed by capitalism, and take the social form of protest to a higher, supposedly (more) political level. Although certainly worthy of support, these attempts still miss the specificity of the political – the politics of democracy. The social is the political to the European Left – the non-communist Left – and they are not aware that their social dream stands against two ghosts: democracy and the nation form. A little awareness of the global history of neo-colonial domination might have encouraged the Left to address these two issues in its fight against neo-liberalism. Regarding the first, that is, the democratic question, the Left thought that democracy continuously practiced would develop endlessly and somehow transform into socialism. As for the second, the national question, it thought the issue would simply vanish with the unfolding of democracy, and in any case was eventually rendered irrelevant with globalization.

  1. To put it briefly, there are four reasons for the innocence of the European Left about the machinations of democracy:
    The social politics of the European Left has de-linked the fight against neoliberalism from the fundamental struggle against capitalism (inasmuch as the old Left, that is the Communist Parties, delinked their struggle against capitalism from the struggle against the new phenomenon of neoliberalism), and thus the European Left focused solely on precariousness, debt, financial crisis, and austerity to the neglect of everything related to strategic politics
  2. As a consequence they have delinked the two issues – democracy and the nation-form
  3. Thus, they threw away the sword (in form) of the nation in the absence of which the bourgeoisie has been able to turn the “global” (that is European) against them
  4. Still more as a consequence they now depend on parliamentary reform measures while agreeing to swallow the bitter pills of capitalism – a political strategy as old as the one advocated by Bernstein.

In other words, with this socially obsessed vision, the European Left will miss the politics of democracy. It is all the more ironic for the Greek Left and Syriza in particular, because they forgot that for centuries some Greek cities had mobilized intense popular participation in politics and war, combining this with monumental public architecture and urban wealth management, giving the whole thing a name, democracy, management of the polis. Freedom in public life encouraged the Hellenic thinkers to develop secular, rational, argumentative, and complex methods of deliberation. Democracy was a pragmatic thing and not an ideology. Freedom meant contributing to that pragmatism. Neo-liberalism in particular and liberal thought in general have turned the pragmatic into the ideological – making it perfect for bourgeois rule to function and succeed. It has become a religion. This is the reason why the democratic route cannot transform the anti-austerity struggle into a higher form of resistance. Indeed the anti-austerity struggle relapses into constitutionalism. That is also the reason why, when delinked from the nation-form, popular democracy loses its teeth. Is it accidental that democracy and the Europeanism of our time have gone ahead hand in hand and have been partners in crime against the people?

Reflections on all these concerns will help us to realize why in place of authoritarianism, democracy became the general route to passive revolution – more so in the neoliberal age. Not without reason Karl Marx castigated republican parliamentarianism as the most sophisticated form of bourgeois rule, and V.I. Lenin saw through the institution of democracy and found only evidence of the most effective form of class rule. Also not without reason, Syriza, by broadly following the parliamentary democratic path, could reach only this far, and to save its rule it now has to push through the throat of parliament a neoliberal agenda – thus constituting itself as a party of order.

Populism

What is the relevance of postcolonialism to all this – to the fortunes of the European South?

It is important to recall that the post-colony also symbolizes the rich and complicated experiences of populism which have left their heavy imprint on the democratic question. And this is where we must connect the two destinies – the European and the postcolonial. I am referring here to the enormous experiences of populist politics with which the postcolonial countries have resisted the bourgeoisie and a very authoritarian institutionalist straightjacket of democracy. In the age of neoliberal globalization, if democracy is the path of passive revolution and capitalist development, populism remains one of the principal weapons in the hands of the lower classes to defend their existence from ruthless corporate interests. Populism evokes the links between the classes and masses, between petty producers and workers. It is the other scene, the displaced site, of what the communists following Mao Zedong used to call once upon a time the united front.9 It represents a historic bloc in the time of neoliberal crisis. It is a response to crisis. Since precarious life is the general postcolonial condition, populism retains an abiding reference to it. In the absence or weak presence of communist movements, populism is the weapon of the weak. Populism enables popular forces to articulate the people’s demands  against indebtedness, precariousness, and governmental austerity measures; to raise the discourse of rights to a new contentious level;and to heighten the awareness that in the time of crisis people need their government, which can protect them at least to some extent, and for that it can throw away bourgeois institutional respectability, conservative discourses of responsibility, and make a case for defending a society under attack. If the social movements in Europe aim to conjure up a form of politics on the basis of social assemblies and assemblages, populist movements in the postcolonial world aim to conjure up a society on the basis of populist politics – a society fractured into classes, groups, fractions, strata, castes, ethnicities, genders, and many other identities to be united on the foundations of some popular perceptions of claims and justice. It has a healthy disrespect for the institutionalist-authoritarian version of democracy. It can to that end become personality-centric, assimilative, coalitional, tactical, and issue-oriented.10

Unsurprisingly, repeated crises in Europe have produced many populist movements (much like in the postcolonial world, which is marked by precariousness and austerity as a general condition), both of the right and left variety. In 2010, a good five years before a left-popular coalition government would be formed in Greece, then EU President Herman van Rompuy called populism “the greatest danger for Europe.” Since then many establishment voices have done the same, warning against populism, while remaining vague on the exact meaning of the word. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, has warned that the Greek crisis is helping to fuel a “pre-revolutionary atmosphere” in Europe. Tusk, who brokered the Greek bailout deal, is reported to have said, “For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe. I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions.It is this ideological and political contagion that really worries the European political class, not just the financial contagion that the Greek crisis may cause.

We have to note that those who have voiced this warning against the supposed omnipresence of populism are mostly the parties and persons in power. In the neoliberal discourse populism is a pejorative word. It is to be denounced because it is a form of politics that combines demagogy, charismatic leadership, rhetoric, and lower culture.

While the neoliberal denouncement is based on false reading of a particular form of politics, it is true that populism sees society as composed of two separate entities: the people and the corrupt anti-popular elite. Thus, a larger political agenda, such as an alternative vision of economy or politics, is not the concern of populist politics. Populism is thus neither inherently the true content of democracy nor its negation. All that we can say is that to a great extent it is anti-liberal democracy. It can be illiberal, but in many other cases it can be pluralist. It is thus neither to the right nor to the left; or can be both. Perhaps it is more on the left in the European South while more to the right in the European North. In Eastern Europe, agrarian populism had a remarkable history. Racist and anti-immigrant parties later embraced populist politics and language. The populist Right in the 1980s, beginning with Belgium and France, spread to Austria, Denmark, Poland, Italy, Finland, Netherlands, and some other countries. It will be safe to say that populism has marked the entire European scene, and has been successful electorally on a number of occasions. In many East European countries such parties exercise governmental power.11

One can also say that the path Syriza has taken may only facilitate further advance of populism in Greece as people will be inclined to base their politics even more on the belief that important issues, such as life and life conditions of common people, are not addressed by political elites. This may further relate to issues such as  integration, immigration, unemployment, and welfare policies.  One can see how populism has grown in strength following changes in labor structure, in Europe and has focused on what can be loosely called “socio-economic issues.”  If the first way is neoliberal and the second is the old left politics, then this is the third way, the way of the center-left.  Overwhelmed by the power of the media in the neoliberal structuring of politics, people think they are powerless before the neoliberal monolith. Feelings of helplessness exacerbate the populist mode of politics. This is precisely the milieu in which the Syriza-led government has worked and has allowed its nose to be smothered to dust. We cannot forget that during Spain’s massive anti-austerity protests and encampments of summer 2011, one of the principal slogans was the quintessentially populist: “We are neither right nor left, we are coming from the bottom and going for the top.”12

Yet the problem is that a party like Syriza will never admit that its fascination with Europe and the Euro – uttered in the same breath – is more due to its populist moorings than to any scientific analysis. Moreover, the scary prospect of anarchy were Greece to exit from the Eurozone is essentially a consequence of that populist conception of what a Left or Marxist politics should be, because this kind of leftism has its origin in the now forgotten story of Eurocommunism. That story essentially centered round the idea that Europe was exceptional, it was instinctively democratic, and all that the Left needed given the lofty European ideals was to incrementally increase its parliamentary following, win governmental power, and reform the state. Europe did not need communist parties; it needed more democracy for society. Therefore it allowed itself to be pushed to a bind, its repeated popular mandates at various levels and times through constitutional means only deepened its illusion, and belittled the power of the enemy. The lack of political audacity stemmed from an almost religious conviction that Syriza, as a responsible party, could not back out; it had the onus of saving Greece from anarchy. Ironically, one may say, it capitulated before the European oligarchs not because it was populist, but because it was not populist enough to play the game. Its seriousness at conducting negotiations without creating other options mocked its own populist origin.

Here is the relevance of the postcolonial experiences of populism. Its relation to democracy, particularly with parliamentary democracy, is much more complex and contentious. Even though it abides by the rules of democratic governance, it is cynical about these rules, almost bordering on a healthy disrespect. At heart it knows that there is no democracy that does not have a populist dimension to it (precisely what Aristotle had taught us). Thus under populist politics in postcolonial countries, allusions to the people have proliferated, if newspapers are to be believed; although to be historically faithful, democracy was always in some respects a business of putting the demos on stage. Filthy talk characteristic of daily life, its coarseness and masculinity, threats, words of coaxing and cajoling, beating into submission – all that we associate with the daily life of the lower ranks has made its mark in populist politics.

The language of politics changes with the entry of lower classes into mass parliamentary politics. The political stakes become higher. Civility can wait. Inasmuch as the earlier civility of language had no reference or equivalence to the administrative methods of law and order, today also the barbarity of language has little relation with the amount of actual administrative coercion. Whatever doomsday prophets may say, life in the postcolonial world is not necessarily nasty, brutish, and short, though the postcolonial world’s share of global violence cannot be denied. Cities, small towns, and villages are not burning in the postcolonial world, where the coarse language of populism signifies something else. Power is now exercised in a different way, on a  different scale, and at a different speed. This is where the demos comes into play. Previously power was exercised in the name of birth, lineage, education, status, caste, patrimony, etc. Now with parliamentary democracy and regular votes, power must be exercised finally in the name of demos.

Yet populism is a double-edged sword. There is no such thing as good or bad populism. Its nature has to be understood in the specific historical context in which it emerges. Populism is not fascism, which the conscientious, responsible, and theological leftists tend to forget, although it may indeed slide into latter. There will be grounds to fight populism in defense of the rights of the people, lower classes of people in particular, when a populist government becomes xenophobic, subservient to autocratic forces and corporate interests. To the same extent, if and when a populist government helps the people with populist measures, however limited these measures may be, the Left, which claims to be the leader of the people, must support them. We therefore need a more discerning view. In the age of postcolonial globalization, liberal democracy may come and go. Populism as a distinct form of politics marked by the presence of the lower classes will remain. That will be the biggest challenge for the Left in coming years in shaping anti-capitalist strategy.

Populism in the Greek case meant that  Syriza leaders underestimated the strength of capitalism and thought that chamber negotiations would carry the day. It also meant that while they allowed themselves to be pushed into a corner, they themselves had not thought of any alternatives should the negotiations fail. The blackmailing of Greece by the creditors left open two paths: Grexit, which meant that Greece would have to decide if it was ready to fight for the  people’s survival; or an agreement with the Troika, which would mean subjecting the necessity to fight for the people’s survival to the hope that the golden day would arrive sooner or later, when Greece’s salvation would be delivered by European-wide class struggle and the goodwill of other European countries. We all know what Syriza decided: to agree to a new memorandum, which means staying within the EU structures at the cost of complete subjugation. Even the Syriza leadership agrees that the Eurogroup’s and IMF’s program amounts not only to global administration of Greece’s debt and insolvency but also the attempt at nation-building in Greece from outside – as one commentator put it, “trusteeship as a shadow government.”  Yet the decision could come only because Syriza had the illusion that Greece was European, independent, and an equal and honourable member in the committee of European nations. Therefore the autonomous act of the popular “Oxi” (No) happened simultaneously with the intensified vulnerability to fiscal blackmail of the state (bank closures, state bankruptcy). Thus, while the democracy of the squares consciously rejected centralist politics, after the verdict Syriza Prime Minister Tsipras could ignore the massive popular mandate and opt for the agreement with the Troika against which the popular verdict had been declared. Democracy in the square was helpless. The situation only signalled a vacuum in the movement of the streets.  And therefore, while in the words of one witness, “in the feverish week of mobilisation, the ‘Oxi’ campaign drew strength not from the Syriza leadership but from the courage of the innumerable activists who created, multiplied, and consequently also socialised their own Oxi on the streets,”13 the leadership question came up again and again. The much maligned vanguard issue brought back the phantom of Lenin which the European Left had all these years desperately wanted to avoid.14 It had all along thought that the conflict was between Keynesianism and monetarism, and the memory of Lenin had to be put aside and confined to polite discussions in Leftist academic circles.  Indeed, Lenin disturbed the neat binary of Keynesianism and monetarism, liberal capitalist welfarism and neoliberalism.

Of course, if one considers the possibility of rebellious actions in the future, Oxi may remain the central political antagonism of the years to come, and at the same time miles ahead of other protest movements in Europe in creating a singular will – the will to revolt. To lead the revolt, Syriza did not have to leave the government. All it had to do was learn the postcolonial lesson – the possibility of dual power existing in Europe, first articulated in strategic terms by Lenin in when he theorized the experience of the workers’ soviets within Tsarist Russia, and later framed by  Mao in the by now famous words, “Why is it that red political power can exist in China?”15

Without this political understanding, the capacities for solidarity, organization, and innovation will be stymied in face of the neoliberal reality of the Eurozone. No wonder all pseudo-left commentaries focus on how anarchy would come down on Greece following its expulsion from the Eurozone. These are typically model-building exercises for the prophesied doomsday. (One may refer to some pages from history: China was not in the United Nations for long, it gained recognition through struggle and self-respect. Revolutionary Russia was not in League of Nations. But the USSR became a co-founder of the United Nations on the basis of strength and self-dignity.) It’s clear that the options open to the Syriza government are even more structured by the way the new memorandum aims to discipline Greece’s integration into neoliberal Europe. The way out of the bind does not reside in comparative exercises on two possible economic policies, but in the field of political strategy: how to unfold and develop revolutionary initiative further? How to lead the democratic inspiration towards further radicalization? The postcolonial experience is important because it is in the post-colony that the reality of the closures and the history of the struggle for the exit from the closures are to be found.

To learn from the postcolonial register of lessons means to first understand how populism has functioned, succeeded, and failed in the struggle against neo-colonialism, imperialism, and corporate bourgeois rule in the neoliberal age.

The Postcolonial Predicament and the Limits of the New European Left

The Greek crisis has put an end to a belief that held the European Left in its grip for long: that there was a distinct European variety of capitalism which could be positively contrasted with the “free market” American variety, as well as the more undeveloped “stagnant,” crisis-ridden postcolonial variety. The labor movements of Europe were considered the decisive force behind greater state economic involvement and greater social welfare measures. With the construction of the European Union and the development of a currency union, it was considered regressive to even think of exiting neoliberal Europe at each phase of its development. The European Left thought either that participation in neoliberal institutions was essential, or that Europeanism under the garb of internationalism was the order of the day. They did not question the principles of free trade and free capital flows across Europe underwritten in the neoliberal character of the Treaty of Rome (for example, the European Stability pact, European Common Market, Central European bank, etc.).  It forgot Marx, who had said that free trade was only freedom to colonize. To escape from that illusion, the European Left should have looked to the experiences of the vast postcolonial world. Now, of course, the hyper-austerity policies pursued in Europe since 2009 in the wake of the second great global capitalist crisis after the Second World War should end the Left’s illusions about Europe. The collapse of Syriza’s strategy in Greece should be a decisive moment in the decimation of those illusions.

Indeed, why look only for the postcolonial experiences? There is a forgotten history of another radical tradition in Europe. Recall, for instance, when in the mid-1970s Tony Benn and others in the British Left opposed the referendum to enter the Common Market, because they recognized the limits that joining Europe would impose on their Alternative Economic Strategy.16 The opposition to joining Europe on the Left of the Swedish labor movement, which advanced the radical wage earners fund proposals, was rooted in the same recognition.17 Likewise, those who subsequently looked to  placing a Social Charter at the core of the process of Economic and Monetary Union were consistently disappointed by the quick march towards the establishment of the common currency regime. This recent history was forgotten, even when it became clear that the core of the Syriza leadership would not cross the boundaries the EU had set for them, and that Syriza had never believed that in the course of developing the struggle they may have exit of the neoliberal EU. To think along those lines would not have been narrow nationalism, as  the Europeanists would have us believe.  Having pushed itself into a situation where they  would be damned if they talked of Grexit and damned if they didn’t, Left populism in Greece could now only flip-flop along its route to discover radical democracy. The search for the weakest link was over as soon as Wolfgang Schäuble threatened Greece with Grexit. The focus was thus cleverly shifted from the proposed harsh measures to the possibility and desirability of expelling Greece from the Eurozone. French President François Hollande was crucial in this neoliberal strategy. Everyone sighed in relief when expulsion was stayed. Nobody said small mercy! No one said that steps like nationalizing the banks, reorganizing them around a new currency, and taking into account the large grey economy were now required. Ingenuity and resourcefulness were clearly not the resources of the Syriza movement.

What is astounding is that since Syriza failed in negotiating the critical moment, European Leftist thinkers from the ex-Finance Minister of Greece, Varoufakis, to the metropolitan Leftist intellectual Slavoj Žižek  are saying that the current situation suggests no possibility of alternative. It is strange that intellectuals like Žižek refuse to think ahead. He said:

The really catastrophic thing about the Greek crisis is that the moment the choice appeared as the choice between Grexit and the capitulation to Brussels, the battle was already lost. Both terms of this choice move within the predominant Eurocratic vision (remember that the German anti-Greek hardliners like Wolfgang Schäuble also prefer Grexit!)… The key question is: how will our engagement in it… affect other struggles? The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilize large crowds with slogans which one cannot but characterise as crowd pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, etc. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realise that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) goes on in a new guise. In Egypt, protesters succeeded in getting rid of the oppressive Mubarak regime, but corruption remained, and the prospect of a decent life moved even further away. After the overthrow of an authoritarian regime, the last vestiges of patriarchal care for the poor can fall away, so that the newly gained freedom is de facto reduced to the freedom to choose the preferred form of one’s misery – the majority not only remains poor, but, to add insult to injury, it is being told that, since they are now free, poverty is their own responsibility.18

Once again we find that the intellectual refuses to examine thoroughly the phenomenon of populism, and therefore thinks that the way ahead cannot be thought through on the basis of the experiences of struggles, and that the Left must reconcile itself to the defeat, which it has actually brought upon itself to a large degree. Even a liberal economist like Paul Krugman pointed out that exit from the Eurozone is an uncharted path, and there is no scientific basis to think that it will be necessarily worse than agreeing in a servile manner to the diktats of the Eurozone. He could have strengthened his arguments with references to the vast postcolonial experiences of China, India, pre-devastated Iraq, and several other countries.19

Make no mistake: Syriza has acted as,what Marx called in a different context, “the unconscious tool of history.” By capturing governmental power on the basis of fighting austerity in neoliberal Europe, calling and winning the referendum, building up an organization on the basis of a network of about 400 solidarity associations, sticking to negotiations to the point of exasperation, rousing pride among the people and the nation against imperialist onslaught, and upholding street-level democracy, it has broken new ground in democratizing and advancing the struggle. It has also shown how to build unity between proletarian and the vast semi-proletarian masses. It has indicated ways of escaping from the bind that gripped the old communist movement. These are positive lessons for all of us. And yet, to the same extent, by rejecting the popular verdict, marginalizing the advanced Left elements in the organization, capitulating to the neoliberal diktats of Europe, and refusing to dare to think of alternatives, Syriza has done immense harm to the cause of global socialism, communism, and revolutionary democracy. Many who thought that Syriza epitomized the profoundness of the Gramscian strategy of hegemony in place of the Leninist idea of striking at the weakest link in the imperialist chain have been made to lick the dust. They have understood neither Lenin nor Gramsci.

Indeed, future historians may say that this was the moment that passive revolution began in Greece. This was the tipping point. From now on institutionalised democracy will increasingly be  the route through which passive revolution and the restoration of capitalist rule will begin. Varoufakis speaks of the coup against Greece and Europe. Who will speak of the coup that happened on July 7 in Athens – against the Left, against the people, and against Syriza itself by the Europeanized and globalized intellectual class of Greece that had no faith in the capacity of the people of Greece, or any alternative vision? We can note in passing that these events also marked the denouement of Antonio Negri’s notion of immaterial labor (teachers, architects, software mechanics, composers, etc.) as all those who were to lead Europe to socialism, as well as Ernesto Laclau’s thesis of radical democracy (which does not need revolution).

There is no doubt that the tactics pursued by communist and workers’ parties in different countries before the Second World War and in the following period of global Keynesianism (roughly from the 1950s to the 1980s) cannot be copied today. The era of monetarism and neoliberalism has given birth to new realities and therefore new strategies and tactics of the Left and the working masses. The focus on the social, the networks, the habitus, street democracy, autonomy, finance, debt, institutions – these and several others features have given rise to new social movements that partly look forward to a new non-capitalist form of society, but also secretly harbor a dream of returning to the good old liberal age of social protection of the poor by the capitalist order. Thus Syriza never understood why poorer European nations within the EU currency zone never supported Greece, which they saw as demanding from Europe privileges that they lacked – such as  decent pensions or facilities for children. The category of the social was thus found to be limited in building coalitions, to a greater extent than the old category of the political – even though coalition-building had been held up as the raison d’être of the social.  The world may see different ways of combining old and new strategies and tactics of struggle for socialism. It would be wrong to write off the communists just as it would be to to belittle the experiences of the Syriza. This is precisely why the dialogue between the communist movements, with their politics of class struggle, on one hand, and the social movements, struggling against precarious life, on the other, has to resume. This calls for, among other things, a respect for and attention to the vast anti-colonial and postcolonial experiences that have always learned from this dialogue how to extricate themselves from the binds of monetarism, creatively deploy populism as a strategy,  and combine the political and the social, which is to say, combine classes, masses, and the nation. It also means recognizing that the new internationalism that these social movements (typically illustrated in world social summits, Seattle-type demonstrations, and occupy movements) are justifiably proud of actually has strong limits. The legacy of the three Internationals has not died. That legacy can still show how to value the national-popular, peoples of various nations, and their spirit of cooperation.

There should be no doubt that what had happened in Greece is not the last chapter in the current epoch of Left movements. The unsustainable debt servicing and loan return program Europe has forced upon the Greek people will give rise to even more struggles against austerity, debt, and precarity.  It will not only pose with greater clarity the old question of the nation form, but also harden the determination of similar movements elsewhere.  From this, the search for an answer to the pressing question of our time – how to combine the old tactics and the new – will spread worldwide – and there is no doubt that the answer will be found in different combinations.

But one thing has to be made clear: We are not going to pursue the dream of a return to the cyclical transition to Keynesianism from the hard monetarism of neoliberalism. The cyclical theory of Polyani referred to earlier in this commentary will have to be put aside as we  develop a new vision of a non-capitalist society.

One of the saddest moments in a socialist’s life is when one sees workers thinks they are equal to capitalists, peasants thinks they are like landlords, the weaker nations placate the mighty for a seat around the same table, and the periphery has the illusion that it is the center, forgetting the cruel reality of domination, the harsh realities of power. Greece was always less about economics than politics, which, as Lenin was never tired of repeating, was the congealed form of economics. The mumbo-jumbo of social vision, social mobilization, social solidarities, social summits – all that had proliferated in this world following the breakdown of the global Keynesian order and the triumph of neoliberalism – has shown its weakness in face of the ruthless reality of the domination of capital. Precisely this weakness has also been responsible for ignoring the radical protest of the organized working class all these years, as in the Greek steel industry.20 In this way, the weakness has contributed to the wobbly character of the social. One cannot forget what Marx said long back, “It is only in an order of things in which there are no more classes and class antagonisms that social evolutions will cease to be political revolutions. Till then, on the eve of every general reshuffling of society, the last word of social science will always be: “Le combat ou la mort; la lutte sanguinaire ou le neant. C’est ainsi que la quéstion est invinciblement posée” [From the novel Jean Siska by George Sand: “Combat or Death: bloody struggle or extinction. It is thus that the question is inexorably put.”]21

Yet we must not forget that Europe through this crisis has shown that it too has peripheries. It too has the South. It too has its neo-colonies, and it too depends on neo-colonial domination. Echoing Mao, one can say that Europe’s peripheries (the countryside) are surrounding the core (the cities) in a protracted war. In this war, the stakes on the both sides are high.

What we require then is not provincialization of European experiences, but globalization of the postcolonial predicament.


  1. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957); on the reflection of Polanyi’s thesis in the current impasse, Martijn Konings, “Progressives, Neo-liberalism, and Austerity: Beyond the Polanyian  Impasse,” The Bullet no. 1141, July 14, 2015. 

  2. Phrase ascribed to Karl Marx by Yanis Varoufakis, “Confessions of an Erratic Marxist,” Yannis Varoufakis: Thoughts for the post-2008 World, December 10, 2013. 

  3. Valentina Bruno and Hyun Song Shin, “Cross Border Banking and Global Liquidity,” p. 5, figure 1, August 2014; estimates however vary. Another analysis suggests: “The past two decades have witnessed a remarkable increase in cross-border bank lending activity. Between 1995 and 2012, total cross-border loan claims almost tripled to reach 20 trillion U.S. dollars.” Eugenio Cerutti, Galina Hale, and Camelia Minoiu, “Financial Crises and the Composition of Cross-Border Lending,” 2014, IMF Working Paper, WP/14/85, p. 6; in the first instance the figure is of total liabilities. 

  4. Edmund S. Phelps, “Greece Debt Crisis: Greece Never Had Austerity, Profligacy was the Problem,” Financial Review, August 11, 2015. 

  5. On the similarity between third world debt crisis, see Heather Stewart, “Beyond Greece: The World  is Filled with Debt Crisis,” The Guardian, July 11, 2015; also, the analysis by Jubilee Debt Campaign, “The New Debt Trap: How the Response to the Last Global Crisis has Laid the Ground for the Next,” Jubilee Debt Campaign, July 2015; and Jayati Ghosh, “The Eurozone can Learn from the Financial Crises in the Developing World,” The Guardian, 29 July 29, 2012. 

  6. Alexis Tsipras, “Alexis Tsipras: bailout a bad deal but the best Greece could get,” The Guardian, July 14, 2015. 

  7. Derek Scally, “Greece crisis: Merkel accused of ‘destroying Europe,’” The Irish Times, July 17, 2015. 

  8. One step beyond. Blockupy from blockades to the transnational strike,” connessioni precarie, May 24, 2015; see also “Towards a Social and Transnational Strike? Invitation to a Working Meeting on 19.03.2015 in Frankfurt,” Blockupy: Resistance in the Heart of the European Crisis Regime, March 11, 2015. 

  9. Mao Zedong, “The Question of Independence and Initiative within the United Front,” November 5, 1938. 

  10. On this my reading of populist movements and politics in the postcolonial world veers away from Ernesto Laclau’s reading in On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005) as well as his and Chantal Mouffe’s thesis on radical democracy, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985). See Dan Hancox, “Why Ernesto Laclau is the Intellectual Figurehead for Syriza and Podemos,” The Guardian, February 9, 2015. 

  11. Cas Mudde, “Populism in Europe: A Primer,” Open Democracy, May 12, 2015. 

  12. Dan Hancox, “Why Ernesto Laclau is the Intellectual Figurehead for Syriza and Podemos.” 

  13. Blockupy Goes Athens, “Understanding the Defeat Means Preparing a Victory: The Greek Dilemma and UsThe Bullet no. 114, July 16, 2015. 

  14. Typical of such views, Leo Panitch, “The Denouement,” The Bullet no. 1143, July 15, 2015. 

  15. V.I. Lenin, “The Dual Power,”  April 9, 2017; Mao Tse Tung, “Why is it that Red Political Power can Exist in China,” October 5, 1928. 

  16. Tony Benn’s alternative strategy of a “real Labour policy of saving jobs, a vigorous micro-investment programme, import control, control of the banks and insurance companies, control of export, of capital, higher taxation of the rich, and Britain leaving the Common Market”; see Tony Benn, Against the Tide: Diaries, 1973-76 (London: Hutchinson, 1989), 302; see also, Sam Aaronovitch, The Road from Thatcherism: The Alternative Economic Strategy (London: Lawrence and Wishart,  1981). 

  17. On this, J. Magnus Ryner, Capitalist Restructuring, Globalisation and the Third Way (London: Routledge, 2002), chapter 7, “Why Social Democrats Become Neo-Liberals – The Swedish Case,”  166-170. 

  18. Slavoj Žižek, “The Courage of Hopelessness,” New Statesman, July 20, 2015. 

  19. Paul Krugman, “Disaster in Europe,” The New York Times, July 12, 2015. 

  20. Nikos Lountos, “Understanding the Greek Communists,”Jacobin Magazine, January 21, 2015. 

  21. Karl Marx, “Strikes and Combination of Workers,” The Poverty of Philosophy, Chapter 2. 

Author of the article

is the Director of the Calcutta Research Group. His particular researches have been on migration and refugee studies, the theory and practices of dialogue, nationalism and post-colonial statehood in South Asia, and new regimes of technological restructuring and labour control.