The Postcolonial Bind of Greece

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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.