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Does Syriza Matter?

Agreeing to the European Central Bank’s terms on financing Greece’s economy put Syriza’s mandate into question, but the Greek populous has returned to the streets in defiant support of the radical left.

It is true that Syriza has no mandate to move away from the euro, but it is also true that it does not have the mandate not to. The euro is as potentially destructive for Greece today as the dollar was for Argentina in 1997. At the same time, moving off the euro is precisely what the far-right wing would want to do, as commentators with journals like Foreign Policy have made clear (“The euro was a bad idea from the start”).

The risk is similar to a Weimar position in which Germany and much of Europe finds itself—if the imperialist liberals are jettisoned, a left coalition may not be able to stand together against a trenchant right-wing front. The more the right-wing is able to come into proximity with the radical left (for instance, with France’s National Front and UKIP supporting Syriza), the more class war is displaced onto a social and cultural terrain.

If Greece continues moving towards what top-level politicians and movement activists call a “national-popular” state, an entrenchment of authoritarianism and an increased vulnerability to further co-optation becomes possible.
That is why Syriza’s support base must extend beyond the political and reassert its goals in everyday life.

Populism and Its Dissidents

The theoretical edifice held by Central Party officials like Kouvelakis relies on what he calls a “Gramscian-Poulantzian option”—basically, the logics of hegemonic social movements and state power. The national-popular state is much more complex than this precise ideological option, but it remains an important stopgap for a broader movement-based expression of radical politics.

In his critique of the national-popular state, sociologist Alain Touraine explained that it does not afford a “relative autonomy of the state” (Poulantzas’s term) beyond its bureaucracy.

Gramsci, himself, notes that the “the terrain for a subsequent development of the national popular collective rooted in a complete and accomplished form of modern civilization” emerges through “the symbol of the generic leader,” which “takes the place, in people’s consciousness, of the divinity and of the categorical imperative.”

The “generic leader” or what Lyotard calls the “proper name” has been, since the dawn of modern democracy, Bonaparte.

The main concern is that the “failure” of Syriza before the ECB could kick off a greater Bonapartist reaction—a bureaucratization of revolution and a return to conservative patriotism. The formalization of nationalism is already breaking down the connection between Gramscian politics and Poulantzian theory, splitting the party along its weakest point: its inability to reconcile itself with contemporary needs.

For this reason, Syriza is already becoming a kind of “proper name,” a placeholder for a static position, but their influence is more important than their political requirements.

The Right Desire

Golden Dawn, with its fascist connections, becomes the mirror image of Syriza, a right-wing national-popular movement that shadows the potential disappointment of the left-wing. Carl Schmitt declared of the liberal democrats in the lead-up to 1933, they are already a “total state,” but they are dishonest about it. Mutato nomine de te fabula narrator. Golden Dawn can say the same about Syriza: “They are already a nationalist, populist state, but they’re dishonest about its implications.”

The point of honesty is of the utmost importance, not in terms of self-representation, but in terms of consciousness and subverting fascism. The Aristotlean formula of practical reason (phronesis) is “truth agreeing with the right desire.” The crux of populism is precisely this: the mobilization of phronesis and theory (praxis) in accordance with a common purpose of being together.

But the Aristotelian position has been critiqued by such populists as Ernesto Laclau in his overview of Poulantzas’s work. For Laclau, Aristotelian formalism does not abide a “transcendent,” or, rather, emancipatory, existence outside of and antagonistic to the institutions of power—i.e., the space of critique and theory that enables effective praxis beyond mere phronesis.

At this point, it becomes necessary to overcome the overwhelming angst that intervenes before the possibility of political fulfillment, an overcoming of negativity. Adorno’s distillation of the Aristotelian position is apposite: “what would be true is the thought that wants the right thing.” But this thing, itself, is perhaps unknowable without shedding the national-popular skin and projecting the experiment of the radical left into the unknown via praxis.

In his essay “Economic Globalism and Political Universalism,” Samir Amin describes what he calls a national-populist state (a development from national-popular), “The state’s intervention is not that of stupid and awkward bureaucrats bent on pursuing only ridiculous or hidden objectives… Instead, it is the instrument for the affirmation of a mature society that knows what it wants.” This is the of a social movement that develops into a political movement to change global structures by remaining in touch with, and part of, a constituency mobilized through praxis, not bureaucracy.

It is praxis, not sectarianism, that is needed, and such a movement can only come from social mobilization. A “final defeat” will occur if Syriza continues on its way to a form of austerity, Kouvelakis declared in his debate with Callinicos, ending his speech with the assertion, “The truth is a struggle. The truth is a fight. The truth is partisan. The truth is transcendent.”

But the truth is, as Althusser remarked, “doubly-speculary,” a self-reproducing crisis of the subject. Repeating the mistakes of the national-popular governments united loosely under the third world project and UNCTAD is a significant prospect. Something else is needed. The desire to cling to a national-populist system beyond the necessity of practice must be critiqued, just as the will to obtain a formal, institutionalized state must eventually reckon with the situation of relative autonomy.

The Riot This Time

Kuvelakis elsewhere has called for the recognition of a “new temporality,” an intensification of time during struggle; far from buying time, Syriza’s agreements will have slowed down the new temporality, he argues. But perhaps this is the point. As he admits, Syriza may be, to an extent, statifying, digging in, entrenching itself, but the Greek people whose mandate Syriza represents will not stagnate as easily.

Perhaps what is necessary is a return to the riotous temporality of 2008 in the form of both defiance and cooperation, of a joyful movement to strengthen the solidarity within the radical left. The current system cannot be modeled after the old; it must liberate the spirit of resistance and fit the needs and wants of today’s workers. It must involve everyone.

This movement must not be “Europeanist,” it must be internationalist; it must involve immigrants, the working underclass, and it must defend the land from the Eldorado gold mine. An economy must be built on popular consensus, not on extraction; on land reform and resilience, not economic stagnation. This emancipatory movement present also within Podemos in Spain and Blockupy in Germany is for ecology, feminism, and mutual aid.

Syriza has taken the step forward of offering the notion of the basic minimum wage; moving beyond, there would be workers councils, Mondragon-style cooperatives, and horizontal assemblies. These visions are the basis of the success of the radical left. They are being modeled in Rojava in the midst of total destruction, and they are providing the seeds of liberation and collective regeneration.

Aside this necessary popular movement, Syriza simply doesn’t matter.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

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Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

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