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Grexodus: elections, debts, and the ghosts of post-self-colonialism



GrexodusWe publish a first contribution towards next Greek elections. This is a remarkable text, since it helps overcome domestic oppositions, that is both a declared fidelity to this or that principle and any occasional deployment. Akis Gavriilidis focuses on two crucial questions in a very original way: on the one hand, the role and position of the movements; on the other hand, the peculiar political meaning of the representative moment in today Greek situation. According to Akis, the relationship between social movements and SYRIZA is not limited to the alternative between a direct speech and the silence due when the party speaks. At the same time, the representative moment is contradictorily and unavoidably caught by the crisis of representation. The electoral support to SYRIZA is not a transfer of the power of direct action, but rather a way to overcome the political minority to which Greek people has been obliged in the last years, being regarded as inadequate to the standards established by the neoliberal regime. The possibility of turning what was called the Greek exception into a contagion for Europe is at stake. More than ever, national elections are something which goes well beyond national borders. More than ever, the possible reaffirmation of sovereignty will be marked by its crisis.


If, in parliamentary republics, elections are construed as a kind of institutional representation/ substitute for the state of exception on the level of constituted power, as the moment that temporarily suspends normality in order to re-establish it, then Greece in the past few years has been living in a state of «permanent exception» from this point of view as well. The pre-electoral period was formally proclaimed last December, when the parliament failed to elect a president of the republic, but in practice it had started almost at the wake of the last election (two consecutive elections, in May and June 2012 respectively). Everybody felt that – and was acting as if – Samaras’s position was not stable at all, but rather was at stake practically every moment. For many people it came as a surprise that he even managed to last that long. It is true that these two and a half years were not marked by the vast and unprecedented mass mobilizations that had shaken the country immediately before these two consecutive elections. That was a non-coordinated assemblage of rallies, strikes, occupations, street-fighting and square sit-ins, which had produced institutional blockage and dense political developments – starting with the resignation of Papandreou after the unanimous rejection of his idea for a referendum, domestically and abroad, and leading to the formation of four different governments in a few months’ time.

On the other hand, this period has seen the emergence of micro-level initiatives of solidarity and mutual help based on non-monetary forms of social collaboration. The most important among them being the «social clinics», founded and run in Thessaloniki and other cities by volunteer medical doctors and providing care free of charge for those not able to afford it, whether Greeks or migrants. Not all of these initiatives presented themselves as subversive or radical, (which is not necessarily a problem, it might be an asset as well), and it is difficult to assess their exact size and impact (as they belong to the  «hidden economy», they are not quantified by statisticians). However, they arguably helped the Greek society to survive and not totally collapse. If not materially, at least mentally, in terms of empowerment. Because they created and kept on the public space a place for the idea that people can do things by themselves, through networking, not necessarily against capital and state (or groups of states), but in any case outside them, without depending on them. This is important, among other reasons, because the rationality and capacity of the common people (or the common capacity of the people –or maybe we should more aptly say here, the multitude) was strongly put in question throughout the same period, as we shall see in what follows.

Dignity: «social» or «political»?

The question of the relationship between the intense mobilizations of 2012 (and/or the lack of them subsequently) and the developments on the electoral level, is a complex and open one; it is also extremely interesting, both from a political and from a theoretical point of view. If I was to choose only one word to serve as a beginning for a reply, this word would be: dignity. But, as soon as one says that, one realizes this reply is itself ambiguous, not simple. Let us see why.

Axioprépeia (dignity) is a term that features prominently among the slogans in SYRIZA’s electoral campaign. This choice was not self-evident; this is a term that had never appeared in political discourse in Greece, as far as I can remember. Although no explicit link is made, it is clear that this keyword was borrowed from the discourse of the Aganaktisménoi, «the Outraged Ones», who had been occupying Syntagma square (downtown Athens, outside the Parliament) for many days in the summer of 2011, more or less in parallel with i.a. Madrid, New York and Cairo, where too masses of people had gathered to demand Karama (=Arab for dignity). From the first day of the Syntagma sit-in, and for a long time ever since, the squatters were constantly decried by practically all established political and intellectual authorities in Greek society; neoliberal/ Europeanist professors and journalists, artists, the Greek Communist Party, most anarchists, and many leftists, including some within SYRIZA, were appalled by these gatherings with no apparent purpose, hierarchisation of priorities, or clear political claims. The only slogans that seemed to come out form them were: refusal of the debt, direct democracy, dignity, and rejection for professional politicians who «betrayed» the people and/ or the nation. But these sounded too general, impracticable, superficial, even nationalist. Many referred ironically to these populist, naïve, inarticulate assemblies as «improvised group psychotherapy». Even those people from existing leftist groups who were sympathetic and tried to join, had difficulties in finding a common language with this mixed and turbulent emergence of the multitude. After the squatters abandoned, and/ or were violently evicted from, the squares, it seems that their action was forgotten; nobody ever mentions them, unless in order to reprove or deride them retrospectively. The implicit borrowing of their claim for dignity is the only trace to date of their existence on public discourse.

(De-)Provincializing Greece

Generally speaking, the origin and nature of this fear of the masses/hatred for democracy attitude of modernist intellectuals is not hard to identify: it stems from the classical 20th century vanguardist/ paternalistic conception of how one does politics. But here we also have a particularly Greek variation of it, a brand which is marked by the use of almost (culturally) racist/ orientalist terms and notions. In it, the manifestations of the multitude were framed as backward, violent, irrational … but also irresponsible, as they involved a self-exception from the universality of obligation and credit. This framing was involuntarily, or sometimes consciously, echoing the Eurocentric-neoliberal attribution of poverty to an essentialist feature of «failed»nations, peoples or social groups: the «laziness» of the poor, their inability to become their own managers and adapt to capitalist governmentality. This brand builds on a long tradition of perceiving Modern Greece as a lack, as a non-satisfactory copy of its glorious classical prototype –and of the Western culture as the latter’s continuation-reincarnation. A tradition most usefully termed as «self-colonization»:

For the Greeks «self-colonization» is born out of their internalization of the lessons of Hellenism, which they perceive as both foreign and native, both Other and the Same. […] An autonomous self-conception of modern Greek identity devoid of the political and cultural values and categories of Europe is impossible, since the fashioning of neohellenic identity, its textualized determination, occurs at the same time as Western penetration. Moreover, the colonization of a culture that is within Europe and even considered to be Europe’s point of origin complicates any totalizing notions of  «Europe» at this time. Parts of the «West» and «Europe» are themselves Other and subject to colonization, as anyone in the Balkans need not be reminded. Within this paradigm, Greeks are not weak agents violated by discourse from without. The implication is that they have wielded their own self-colonization all along – they are both their own «aggressors» and «victims»[1].

This self-colonialist feeling of «failure», «lagging behind», and the need to redress it, is in its turn reflected in the discourse of Samaras and of neoliberal analysts, whose permanent refrain is «we must make Greece a normal country again». Sometimes, the «again» clause is omitted altogether. The «norm» of this normality being of course «Europe», conceived as a universal standard of capitalist modernity, which Greece has not yet[2] – or has only temporarily – been able to meet. But, precisely for this reason, the «dignity» slogan can be ambiguous – in the same way as the slogan «We didn’t cross the borders, the borders crossed us» was when chanted by Mexican migrants in the USA. The demand for dignity points to a feeling of humiliation, a loss of self-esteem. Which is this humiliation? It can obviously be at least two things: a feeling of inferiority for «not being a normal country», in which case one is adopting the (self-)colonizing hierarchy of cultures; or else, it can point to an ambition to «provincialize Europe», to see oneself as a province of a larger province, not as a pathological incarnation of an abstract norm.

Voting as exit and disloyalty

I believe this affective involvement with the post-(self-)colonial condition constitutes the main reason of the pro-SYRIZA vote. This of course is not the explanation that the party itself –or at least its leading ideologists- would give. The main tools through which these people mostly conceive and try to carry out their political practice are the notions of hegemony, national/popular sovereignty, and a more or less traditional leftist «expression/ representation» scheme. According to it, SYRIZA gained momentum because it managed to faithfully express the needs of the working classes, to rise to the expectations of the «world (or: the camp) of labour» [o kósmos/ to stratòpedo tis ergasías are terms frequently used in relevant articles and party documents]. In this framework, the «social movements» are seen as good and interesting, but also as «partial», «particular»; they are not there always, so the party, which is permanent, has to «politicize» these struggles in order to bring them on the «central» level, the level of the nation-state, which is conceived as «higher» and more «universal». At best, it is conceived as a «condensation of a social forces relationship», according to the famous formulation by Nikos Poulantzas (who, by the way, until his early death had been a member of what was then called «the Greek Communist Party of the Interior», a small group linked to the Eurocommunist tradition, which can be considered as the «ancestor» of today’s SYRIZA).

As far as I am concerned, I find more promising to read this – and any – situation from the point of view of its lines of flight rather than of its conflicts and contradictions. Condensations of forces are less interesting than dilution, osmosis, dispersion of forces. There was no linear necessity that somebody should turn to this or that party just because of their sociological classification. I strongly believe that SYRIZA’s spectacular ascension is linked not to a faithful expression, but equally, if not more, to an infidelity, a disloyalty. So many people turned to this party not to the extent that they recognized in it the capacity of adequately representing a pre-existing «social» identity on a higher stratum of transcendence called «politics», but to the extent that it gave them the possibility to exit their previously fixed identity. An exit which was at the same time social and political –both of these strata belonging to the same plane of immanence. This voting as exodus means that people opted for this party not because they were convinced by a project (say socialism, equality, national sovereignty) it had for a future society; but because it permitted them to enter a deteritorrialization. This is a type of exodus which is very different, indeed contrary, to the speculations about a Grexit (withdrawal of Greece from the Eurozone), which are being cynically circulated by neoliberals in order to terrorize voters against voting for SYRIZA and, to a lesser extent, by far leftists and other souverainistes as a positive perspective of national salvation.

Invading representation

But here one should most of all avoid the mistake of considering this vote as a «purely negative» one, as one of «selecting the lesser out of two evils». This is not a «rational choice», but an affective one (which does not mean absurd). As such, it has a positivity. As I said, many people turned to SYRIZA not because in it they found at last the «true» answer, not because they finally formed the «right» class consciousness as opposed to a «false» one they had until then; but because they saw in it a way to pose a question, a choice that permits them to leave open their instability. But also, even more importantly, to contaminate this instability to the supposedly «higher level», to transfer it to national and international institutions that determine their lives.

In this connection, I find extremely relevant the term of occupying representation, invented by the Spanish blogger Iohannes Maurus in relation to Podemos. It is true that these two parties «remain very different forces, both from the point of view of their political culture and from the point of view of their history and relation to the movements». But what I am considering here is not what these parties are or do, but what the people do when voting for them. From this point of view, in the way people turn to SYRIZA I can definitely see an element of introducing the non- representable into the sphere of representation (rather than finding the «true» form of representation).

I definitely see a dimension of «camping» in the (so-called) «central political level» by «non-central» elements. Which is quite different from a «dialectical relationship between the social and the political», but also from a purist abandonment of the political on the grounds that «elections do not bring about change» etc. In order to display clearly this difference, let me use the following statement:

Radical transformation is impossible without powerful and dynamic social movements. It is not even a question of whether or not Syriza will succeed without a strong mobilization from below; it’s simply a question of popular participation in the transformational process of self-liberation and self-emancipation, without which the idea of radical politics is ultimately meaningless. As a matter of political strategy, I also believe that social movements need to stand in relation to the party through a principle of externality, that is to say, the movements need to retain a significant degree of autonomy from the exigencies of party politics and official deliberations (Jerome Roos: What happens in Greece can transform Europe).

While I absolutely agree, in practical terms, with the demand for a «significant degree of autonomy», I don’t think that «externality» is the right word to describe it at a moment when what we call «the movements» have already invaded (intermittently) the instance of representation. The formulation  «mobilization from below» sounds obsolete, as it presupposes a dualism between a (political)  «above» and a (social)  «below». This distinction is precisely what the  «movements» contest, with their irruption as well as with their withdrawal.

This is why it would be a symmetrical error to criticize and scorn the masses on the grounds that they allegedly resigned and assigned the political work to professionals, falling short of their revolutionary mission. Withdrawal can also be a form of deterritorialization, not resignation. People abandoned the streets, not in order to accomplish by «parliamentary means» what they failed to achieve by  «extra-parliamentary» ones, but in order to infuse the parliament, and the government, and the European governance at large, with the same uncertainty and the same element of risk their lives are imbued in for the past several years.

Admittedly, if one looks at the concrete discourses produced either from the (so-called)  «below» or the  «above» level, no doubt they will find many objectionable things. But the promising and transformative element lies not in what people literally say, but in what they do by saying that; namely, in the production of an  «identity trouble», a discrepancy. The interest of the SYRIZA moment consists in the performative opening of a void which undermines the waterproof distinctions between the economic, the social, and the political.

To say that this involves many risks would already be a pleonasm, as risk is precisely the name of the tool for this undermining: voting for SYRIZA is a way for the multitude to make contingency contagious. Up to now, the obligation to pay back the debt was justified by the  «economy», presented as an  «objective» factor against which no objections are conceivable; as an absolute constant to which variants had to adapt themselves. Giving the majority to a party which voices precisely such an objection can be a way for the multitude to inverse the direction of the blackmail by using the enemy’s forces in favour of its own purposes. The  «will of the people», and the need that it be respected, forms integral part of the conventions that constitute  «Europe». So, a  «strategic essentialism» of representation can be usefully opposed to the determinism of the markets, as another  «hard fact» that cannot be objected to either. To the remark  «it’s the economy, stupid», a valid reply can be  «and this is democracy, stupid» – an apparent invocation of fixity which in practice deterritorializes the border between the economic and the political, permitting an osmosis, a circulation of risk and non-fixity between the two compartments. This of course can be a double-cutting edge; but, compared to a situation where all the cutting takes place only to the one direction, this is an improvement. Hence, the preference for SYRIZA is admittedly marked by uncertainties and impurities; this constitutes its fragility but also, at the same time, its strength and potentiality.

[1] Vangelis Calotychos, Modern Greece: A Cultural Poetics, Oxford, Bergland, 2003, 52-53.

[2] To use here Dipesh Chakrabarty’s formulation (Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 249).

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