Earlier this week, Alexis Tsipras emerged from the summit with the leaders of the European Union nations, humiliated. The EU hardliners rejected even minimal concessions to the program of Tsipras’s party, Syriza. This coalition was elected in January on a campaign for the alleviation of austerity measures taken in response to crippling debt, with this desire resoundingly confirmed by a dramatic referendum last month. The treatment of Greece has been nothing less than jaw-dropping to many observers; the conditions that the EU wishes to impose are harsh and excessive, with no acknowledgment of the democratic will of the Greek people. In response, the hashtag #ThisIsACoup began appearing on Twitter, becoming “top trending” in both Germany and Greece, this week. Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize winning economist, endorsed the slogan, saying:
#ThisIsACoup is exactly right. This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief. It is, presumably, meant to be an offer Greece can’t accept; but even so, it’s a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for.
However, some commentators have raised questions about this slogan. There are many reasons why we can say that what is happening in Greece is not really a coup, because the troika has demanded and received complicity and cooperation from the ruling party (Syriza). Hence, it might seem to absolve not only Tsipras, but the other MPs who voted for the new austerity program to call this coup; it is an inside job, to a degree.
Nonetheless, what is salient to me at this moment is that the program of a democratically elected government, reiterated by a comprehensive referendum, has been abruptly overturned and reversed by outside powers, and this is the utter devastation of one nation’s will by others. Today I think that it is more important to contribute to the unity of the Greek people, against the supranational institutions that brutalize and humiliate them. In this effort, it is necessary to emphasize the artificial and coercive nature of the troika's machinations. Nonetheless, it is very important to review this situation from a sober perspective and determine which strategic errors have led to this unenviable position; and in this, Syriza hardly emerges blameless.
There is no point in negotiating if the entire process is based on a bluff. Syriza clearly felt that “Grexit” (breaking ties with the Eurozone and introducing a national currency) was impossible, or purely disastrous. As a result, the European leaders, and especially the German hardliners, had no incentive to give any ground at all. They can continue to make demands, no matter how unreasonable, with no possible political recourse on the part of Syriza. Hence all Greeks are prisoners of the Eurozone. We are left to conclude that this strategy rested on a serious misreading of the adversary; the failure to realize the extremity of the troika’s leadership. Syriza completely failed to recognize the extent of class war that the European financial institutions and states were prepared to wage.
In the project of building global solidarity for Greece, we cannot neglect the necessity of increasing awareness of the massive human suffering and privation created by the EU’s economic warfare and the cruelty of the troika (the European Commission, Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund). I think that on the academic left, many of us tend to distrust pathos or to take empathy for granted, so we express ourselves in terms of graphs and numbers (for the more empirically minded), or in the language of debates about theoretical and conceptual points about hegemony or the conjuncture (debates over the writings of Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser or Nicos Poulantzas).
These are absolutely valuable, but we cannot neglect the stakes of human survival: The way that social potential is crushed, stunted and deformed by reified economic constraints, the servile obedience imposed by creditors, the many lives that have been wrecked, and the end of hope for anything one could feasibly call “freedom” or health. As one Greek woman said on Sunday, “the Europeans treat us like animals and our children will grow up in a destroyed country as prisoners, not citizens.” The struggle is not about abstract formula or the recovery of historical ideals, but proceeds from the natural desire and need for life and freedom today.
Syriza successfully positioned itself as the left alternative to the political acceptance of austerity, and this is why the Greek people elected them. Their Left Platform embodied the less compromising element of this coalition. The terrible outcome is that Syriza as a whole has marked itself as a toothless opposition, and the Left Platform, at the moment of writing, have not successfully distinguished themselves from this identification. As a result, a left opposition to austerity may appear discredited.
The risk that now faces us is that the hard right, such as Golden Dawn (the Greek neo-Nazi party) will argue that they are the true opponents of austerity and defenders of national prosperity. The other European authoritarian parties, who have offered an entirely disingenuous and superficial solidarity with Syriza, will also take this opportunity to claim that they are the true skeptics of the European project and the authentic advocates of the welfare of the people.
In terms of the question of neo-fascism, I would like to address a certain tendency, sometimes connotative, in discussions of the European situation as it has newly revealed itself. This involves the characterization of the German role. Because the Germans – Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister, and Angela Merkel, the chancellor – have taken the hardline, and enforced the greatest humiliation on Tsipras and on Greece, there is a natural association with the historical crimes that the German state committed in the twentieth century. A worrisome, even unbelievable, thought occurs to us: That the EU is on the verge of even becoming some new Reich, accomplishing old goals by new means. This inference is inevitable, and certainly it’s been surprising for some that the Germans would not show greater self-consciousness about this association.
Nonetheless, the cruelty we see meted out today is the effect of a transnational, European and global system of capital accumulation, and not derived from any cultural tendency. As Jean-Paul Sartre said decades ago, “the meanness is in the system”; “one must not see a national characteristic in it, but the collective situation which our lords have made for us.” As a thought experiment, let us imagine that the Germans were sidelined and that it was the UK, France, Italy, and others deciding what would be done with Greece. They would likewise crush Syriza's program and impose punishing austerity.
I think that they would exact this in a less visible and obviously brutal way; they would work more closely with Tsipras as comprador, produce hegemony of consent to a degree, and make greater concessions to an appearance of transparency. But when it comes down to brass tacks, they would follow the neoliberal model, and this would include all the effects of the debt, however irrational this might appear to Keynesian economists. We might compare these squabbles between national fractions of capital to the perennial debates between ruling-class parties. One prefers the French over the Germans, in the same manner that Hillary Clinton’s speaking voice is more pleasing than Jeb Bush’s.
There is no survival of the old German dreams of empire building, because capitalism today applies post-fascist political methods. It continues certain perennial tenets of the fascist project (such as the dispensability of the weak, reification of economic values into immutable laws, distrust and expulsion of culturally heterogeneous elements), but it does away with the whole grandeur of racial superiority, sacrifice, and martial risk. The problem today is not an effect of Germany, as an ideal or concept, and everything implicated with the profoundly authoritarian logic of the state facilitation of capital accumulation; a process that pervades the globe. With that said, it seems that today we can speak of a “Merkel doctrine” (comparable to James Monroe’s or Leonid Brezhnev’s): Any social democratic experiment in Europe will be immediately crushed. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister pointed out that banks had replaced tanks as the means of abolishing democracy.
G.M. Tamás, the Hungarian philosopher, told me that the troika's disciplining of Greece reminds him of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Prague in 1968. An evocative comparison, because both Alexander Dubček and Alexis Tsipras were attempting democratic socialist reforms within rigid politico-economic constraints, and expected mercy that was not forthcoming. In this analogy, Merkel functions as a mirror-image of Brezhnev, maintaining a favorable balance of trade and regional hegemony without regard for sentimental considerations, like popular legitimacy. This historical image is particularly horrifying, because no Czech political sequence has taken place since then –unless one considers the so-called Velvet Revolution, which has contributed little.
For the present, I would like to sum up some of the likely consequences of this earth-shattering political experience for Europe:
1) Many people will become demoralized and retreat from politics entirely into individual pursuits or lifestyle experimentation.
2) Others will prescribe ultra-left sectarianism, of anarchist or Stalinist vintage, as the only uncompromising, true position.
3) Still others will refuse to accept what has occurred, and retain, zombie-like, a discredited adherence to social democratic illusions and the sham EU democracy.
4) Right-wing nationalism will grow, and some former leftists will grow attracted to this, in some variant of a neo-Strasserist fantasy.
5) I think what needs to happen, and the only viable possibility for popular accountability, is a politics of inter-European and international workers’ solidarity that accepts the real conditions of change: Escape from the European financial institutions as the beginning of a socialist transition that includes nationalization of banks, prosecution of corrupt officials and executives, mechanisms of democratic control of the workplace, renewed social provisioning and emergency measures of public good, and other concrete solutions outside and beyond the inhumane and disgraceful neoliberal consensus.
In the wake of July 2015, those who speak of the “Europe of rights and values” have a corpse in their mouths.
Feature Image via WD Street Art on Facebook.
Andrew Ryder is Visiting Lecturer of the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. He has written numerous articles on Continental philosophy, modern literature, Marxism, and global politics. He is presently finishing a book manuscript, titled Irreducible Excess: Politics, Sexuality, and Materialism, and beginning a project on social reproduction theory.