Whilst the announcement of the coalition in Greece has been a vast disappointment there is reason still to hope, and have just a glimmer of optimism about what could well be a transformative moment for Europe and for the idea of left wing alternative.
To talk of democracy is always already to be talking of ideology. This is most clearly visible in the aftermath of some great Event, some disaster that forces us to confront the edge of our own hermeneutic understanding. After the shooting at the headquarters of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, once again the familiar litany was invoked. There was a clash of civilisations we were told. There was a choice between barbarism and free speech, between democracy and terrorism. The language is, and is always, apocalyptic and eschatological. Democracy is our one great constant – the ceaseless bulwark against the void.
However, if there is anything to be learned from the elections in Greece it may seem as if we have to rework our collective understanding of what we understand democracy to be. Nominally, of course, we all know – democracy grounds itself on four principles, namely
- The free and fair choosing of elected representatives
- The active participation of citizens in a political and civic life
- Protection of the human rights of citizens
- The rule of the law.
Drawn from centuries of argumentation and thinking from Cleisthenes onwards, these four simple standards rest upon a simple spatial understanding of how society should be organised. Under this democratic system, the institutions and organisations of civic and political society are subordinated to the will of a particular people within a particular sovereign nation. Politics, in the practical sense of the word, under such an arrangement is the process by which the people and their representatives communicate. Policy then becomes the ideas that most clearly represent the will of the majority and the instruments of civic and political society are put to work in the implementation of it.
Whilst this is a somewhat naïve description, I hope it serves as somewhat recognisable. However from this neat paradigm there should be one immediately obvious omission, namely that of economics.
After the much cited failure of the left in the last century and the ever-increasing domination of late capitalism it seems that the long held notion of how a democratic state is organised has become increasingly obsolete. The integration and globalisation of corporations and business created a supra-national economy. Capital has no need to respect national borders but rather the reverse is true, as the capitalist system, rather than the democratic one becomes the ultimate authority. If democracy becomes subordinated to capital then politics becomes something very different from the ultimate good in a society. Under this configuration policy no longer represents the will of the people, but rather will make its case on (and sometimes solely on) appeal to the extra national economic bodies. Politicians appear on our television with various policy promises all bearing the hall marks of approval of august bodies that have no need to participate in the messy realities of democratic politics. The IMF. The World Bank. Credit Analysts. Goldman Sachs, S&P and all the rest become the means by which a certain political policy achieves a veneer of respectability.
It was obvious in the run-up to polling day in Greece where pundits were trotted out to spout the expect anthropomorphised concerns on the behalf of the market. Watching Greece, the markets were “edgy”, “nervous” or calling for Greeks to “do the right thing.” The desperation was palpable as the realisation that Greek voters might put themselves at the head of priorities rather than the concerns of German bankers. It is not hard to see why – after five years of austerity politics that has more than decimated the population, stripped the people of their dignity and sent thousands fleeing the country of their birth, this election is a chance to say NO. Politics, it seems, is for the people who vote not the businesses and banks who bleed a country dry.
If violence is the pornography of political fascists then the pornography of economic neo-liberalism is austerity. The desire for cuts, for sacrifice, for the squeezing of capital is a clear kink that seems to permeate our contemporary political discourse. The great European project was ostensible designed to be a lesson in the transformative power of democratic action, but as the Greeks have realised over the last five years it’s an exercise in a ruthless form of government that has superseded the democratic the world over– capitalism.
The election is Greece may not herald the end of capitalism or even the end of the sham democracy that neo-liberalism has made the ultimate good. Whilst there is no political movement like the left for taking the very worst from a defeat, the election of Syriza in Greece should be celebrated for two key reasons. Firstly, for the pleasure of messy democracy – of citizens taking part in the civic and political life of their country and choosing to put that above the concerns of economic ideology and political hegemony. Second, the left across Europe has its highest profile win in some years. Activists and students who have grown up under the norms of the neoliberals have seen that resistance movements are not destined to a slow death on the margins and that democracy can still deliver genuine change. As Ernesto Laclau puts it, the great challenge of the left is to construct a universal discourse out of the proliferation of particularities that have emerged. Across Greece a group of socialists, radicals, greens and communists have managed to do just that. Who knows where might be next.