The unexpectedly strong NO in the Greek referendum is a historical vote, cast in a desperate situation.
I was informed that in Athens people are telling a new version of a joke that originally circulated the Soviet Union in its last decade about Rabinovitch, a Jew who wants to emigrate. In the new version a young Greek man visits the Australian consulate in Athens and asks for a work visa.
“Why do you want to leave Greece?’ asks the official.
“For two reasons,” replies the Greek. “First, I am worried that Greece will leave the EU, which will led to new poverty and chaos in the country…”
“But,” interrupts him the official,” this is pure nonsense, Greece will remain in the EU and submit to financial discipline!”
“Well, “responds the Greek calmly, “this is my second reason…”
Are then both choices worse, to paraphrase Stalin? The moment has come to move beyond the irrelevant debates about the possible mistakes and misjudgments of the Greek government. The stakes are now much too high.
The fact that a compromise formula always eludes in the last moment in the ongoing negotiations between Greece and the EU administrators is in itself deeply symptomatic since it doesn’t really concern actual financial issues—at this level, the difference is minimal. The EU usually accuses Greeks of talking only in general terms, making vague promises without specific details, while Greeks accuse EU of trying to control even the tiniest details and imposing on Greece conditions which are more harsh than those imposed on the previous government. But what lurks behind these reproaches is another, much deeper, conflict.
Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras recently remarked that if he were to meet alone with Germany’s Angela Merkel for a dinner, they would have found a formula in two hours. His point was that he and Merkel, two politicians, would treat the disagreement as a political one, in contrast to technocratic administrators like the Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem. If there is an emblematic bad guy in this whole story, it is Dijsselbloem whose motto it: "If I get into the ideological side of things, I won’t achieve anything."
This brings us to the crux of the matter: Tsipras and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who resigned after the vote in an effort to help future negotiations, talk as if they are part of an open political process where ideological decisions are to be made. The EU technocrats talk as if it is all a matter of detailed regulatory measures. When the Greeks reject this approach and raise more fundamental political issues, they are accused of lying and of avoiding concrete solutions.
It is clear that the truth is here on the Greek side: the denial of “the ideological side” advocated by Dijsselbloem is ideology at its purest—it masks as purely expert decisions which are effectively grounded in politico-ideologies.
On account of this asymmetry, the “dialogue” between Tsipras or Varoufakis and their EU partners often appears as a dialogue between a young student who wants a serious debate on basic issues, and an arrogant professor who, in his answers, humiliatingly ignores the issue and scolds the student with technical points (“You didn’t formulate that correctly! You didn’t take into account that regulation!”).
This passage supposed neutral expert administration characterizes our entire political process: strategic decisions based on power are more and more masked as administrative regulations based on neutral expert knowledge, and they are more and more negotiated in secrecy and enforced without democratic consultation.
The struggle that goes on is the struggle for the European economic and political Leitkultur, (the predominant culture of a society). The EU powers stand for the technocratic status quo which is keeping Europe in inertia for decades. In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative T.S. Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, i.e., when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse.
This is our position today with regard to Europe: only a new “heresy,” represented at this moment by Syriza, can save what is worth saving in European legacy: Democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity.
The Europe that will win if Syriza is outmaneuvered is a “Europe with Asian values,” (which, of course, has nothing to do with Asia, but all with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism to suspend Democracy).
It is not only that Greek fate is in the hands of Europe. We from Western Europe like to look upon Greece as if we are detached observers who follow with compassion and sympathy the plight of the impoverished nation. Such a comfortable standpoint relies on a fateful illusion. What goes on in Greece these last weeks concerns all of us, it is the future of Europe which is at stake. So when we read about Greece these days, we should always bear in mind that, as the old saying goes, de te fabula narratur.
An ideal is gradually emerging from the European establishment’s reaction to the announced Greek referendum, the ideal best rendered by the title of Gideon Rachman’s comment in Financial Times: “Eurozone’s weakest link is the voters.” In this ideal world, Europe gets rid of this “weakest link” and experts gain the power to directly impose necessary economic measures. If elections take place at all, their function is just to confirm the consensus of experts.
The problem is that this policy of experts is based on a fiction, the fiction of “extend and pretend”—extending the payback period, but pretending that all debts will eventually be paid. Why is the fiction so stubborn? It is not only that this fiction makes debt extension more acceptable to German voters; it is also not only that, while the write-off of the Greek debt may trigger similar demands from Portugal, Ireland, Spain… It is that those in power do not really want the debt fully repaid.
The debt providers and caretakers of debt accuse the indebted countries of not feeling enough guilt – they are accused of feeling innocent. Their pressure fits perfectly what psychoanalysis calls superego: the paradox of the superego is that, as Freud saw it clearly, the more we obey its demands, the more we feel guilty. Imagine a vicious teacher who gives to his pupils impossible tasks, and then sadistically jeers when he sees their anxiety and panic.
The true goal of lending money to the debtor is not to get the debt reimbursed with a profit, but the indefinite continuation of the debt which keeps the debtor in permanent dependency and subordination, although much depends on the debtor. Not only Greece but also the U.S. will not be able even theoretically to repay their debt, as it is now publicly recognized. So there are debtors who can blackmail its creditors because they cannot be allowed to fail (big banks), debtors who can control the conditions of their repayment (the U.S. government), and, finally, debtors who can be pushed around and humiliated (Greece).
The debt providers accuse Syriza's government of feeling innocent. That’s what is so disturbing for the EU establishment about the Syriza government: they admit debt, but without guilt. They got rid of the superego pressure. Varoufakis personifies this stance in his dealings with the eurocrats in Brussels: he fully acknowledges the weight of the debt, and he argues quite rationally that, since the EU policy obviously didn’t work, another option should be found. Paradoxically, the point Varoufakis and Tsipras are making repeatedly is that the Syriza government is the only chance for the debt providers to get at least part of their money back.
Varufakis himself wonders about the enigma of why banks were pouring money into Greece and collaborating with a clientelist state while knowing very well how things stood–Greece would never have got so heavily indebted without the connivance of the Western establishment.
The Syriza government is well aware that the main threat does not come from the eurocrats in Brussels, it resides in Greece itself, a clientelist corrupted state if there ever was one. What Europe (the EU bureaucracy) should be blamed for is that, while it criticized Greece for its corruption and inefficiency, it supported the very political force (New Democracy) which embodied this corruption and inefficiency.
The Syriza government aims precisely at breaking this deadlock – see Varoufakis’s programmatic declaration (published in The Guardian) which renders the ultimate strategic goal of the Syriza government:
“A Greek or a Portuguese or an Italian exit from the eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps, while the rest of Europe is would be in the grip of vicious stagflation. Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the eurozone. I, for one, am not prepared to blow fresh wind into the sails of this postmodern version of the 1930s. If this means that it is we, the suitably erratic Marxists, who must try to save European capitalism from itself, so be it. Not out of love for European capitalism, for the eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis.”
And the financial politics of the Syriza government followed closely these guidelines: no deficit, tight discipline, more money raised through taxes… Some German media recently characterized Varoufakis as a psychotic who lives in his own universe different from ours—but is he really so radical? What is so enervating about Varoufakis is not his radicality but his rational pragmatic modesty. If one looks closely at the proposals offered by Varoufakis, one cannot help noticing that they consist of measures which, 40 years ago, were part of the standard moderate Social-Democratic agenda.
It is a sad sign of our times that today you have to belong to a radical Left to advocate these same measures—a sign of dark times but also a chance for the Left to occupy the space which, decades ago, was that of moderate Left center.
But, perhaps, the endlessly repeated point about how modest Syriza’s politics are—just the good old social democracy, somehow misses its target. As if we merely repeat it often enough, the eurocrats will finally realize we’re not really dangerous and will help us… Syriza effectively IS dangerous, it DOES pose a threat to the present orientation of the EU.
Today’s global capitalism cannot afford a return to the old Welfare state. So there is something hypocritical in the reassurances of the modesty of what Syriza wants: they effectively want something that is not possible within the coordinates of the existing global system.
A serious strategic choice will have to be made here: what if the moment has come to drop the mask of modesty and openly advocate a much more radical change which is needed to secure even a modest gain? Maybe, the announced referendum will be the first step in this direction.
Many critics of the Greek referendum claim that it’s a case of pure demagogic posturing, mockingly pointing out that it’s not clear what this referendum is about. At this moment, there is no EU proposal on the table to be accepted or rejected, so what should the Greeks vote about? If anything, they say, the referendum is really about euro or drachma, about Greece staying in EU or moving outside it. This argument is patently not true: the Greek government repeatedly emphasized its desire to remain in EU and in the euro zone. Again, the critics automatically translate the key political question raised by the referendum into an administrative decision about particular economic measures.
In his interview for Bloomberg on July 2, Varoufakis made clear the true stakes of the referendum. The choice is between the continuation of the EU politics of the last years which brought Greece to the edge of ruin and a new realist beginning which would no longer rely on fictions like the idea that Greece can pay it’s debt in full and would provide a concrete plan about how to start the actual recovery of the Greek economy. Without such a plan, the crisis would just reproduce itself again and again.
On the same day, even the IMF conceded that Greece needs a large-scale debt relief to create “a breathing space” and get the economy moving (they propose a 20 years moratorium on debt payments), thereby confirming Varoufakis's point that a new approach is needed to really resolve the crisis.
The NO on Sunday’s referendum was thus much more than a simple choice between two different approaches to economic crisis. The Greek people have heroically resisted the despicable campaign of fear that mobilized the lowest instincts of self-preservation. They have seen through the brutal manipulation of their opponents who falsely presented the referendum as a choice between euro and drahma, between Greece in Europe and grexit.
Their NO was a NO to the eurocrats who prove daily that they are unable to drag Europe out of its inertia. It was a NO to the continuation of business as usual, a desperate cry telling us all that things cannot go on the usual way. It was a decision for authentic political vision against the strange combination of cold technocracy and hot racist clichés about the lazy free-spending Greeks which colored the EU pressure on Greece. It was a rare victory of principles against egotist and ultimately self-destructive opportunism.
The NO which won was a YES to full awareness of the crisis Europe is in, a YES to the need to enact a new beginning.
It is now up to the EU to act. Will it be able to awaken from its self-satisfied inertia and understand the sign of hope delivered by the Greek people? Or will it unleash its wrath on Greece in order to be able to continue its dogmatic dream?