Stathis Gourgouris: The Syriza problem: radical democracy and left governmentality in Greece

 Central Committee of SYRIZA, Athens, 30.7.2015. Photo by Angelos Kalodoukas (source: Central Committee of SYRIZA, Athens, 30.7.2015. Photo by Angelos Kalodoukas (source:
Stathis Gourgouris
Stathis Gourgouris wrote a thought-provoking piece on Left Governmentality and the Hapless politics of Grexit. Here follows the main argument on Left Governmentality. For the full version see here.

Although the history of the Left has produced an extraordinary theoretical legacy, which continues to be the nucleus of almost all radical thinking, it has nonetheless left a trail of extraordinary failures in practice.I understand the dialectical relation between theory and practice, of course, but we have to admit that in real historical terms this dialectic is terribly uneven, to the degree in fact that it may render questionable a great many of these theoretical achievements, which, if we are going to be rigorously leftist about it, cannot really stand entirely on their own.

To this general account, I now add a series of realizations that have arisen from the experience of a government of the left in Greece since Syriza was elected, a complex, circuitous, contradictory, and internally conflictual trajectory that is still unfolding in full force.

Anyone who thinks that Syriza as a left phenomenon has ended, been coopted or defeated, etc., is thinking too much too fast. Too much complexity is being swept carelessly under the rug. For this reason, despite everyone’s intense attention to the recent traumatic developments, it’s worth conducting an assessment of the full trajectory of Syriza in government.

Radicalising democracy

As a prelude to mapping the details, let me confess that the overall course of events has made me aware of the weakness of theoretical predeterminations, and especially of the dangerous tendency, common in left thought, of grasping at schematic theoretical straws in the face of the perplexing circuitry of politics in action – all in some fashion remnants of the history of the left, no matter how dressed up with new terminologies and allegedly new significations.

The field of historical action in the last few months has exceeded the theoretical armory that is presumed to be somehow its strongest signifying capacity, so that in all its turns, sometimes even counter-intended manifestations, historical action needs to be considered in itself, from its own standpoint, as it is happening and in the terms that it sets as it is happening, rather than encountered from the safety of our preexisting theories.

I understand how exasperating this is – indeed as exasperating as it has been to experience this phenomenon of the left in government. My hunch is – because it’s too early to tell – that this exasperation with experience and this theoretical incapacity arise directly out of the radical democratic process that makes the Syriza phenomenon different (perhaps even unique) in the history of the Left. It is, in other words, the very precarious, disorderly, an-archic, unpredictable, groundless, perilous, open-ended and resistant-to-closure ‘nature’ of democracy that has radicalized this already uneven dialectical relation between theory and practice in favor of the second.

Left governmentality

My wager here is to investigate a terrain that we can name left governmentality which has emerged as a problematic challenge with the worldwide, even if politically and culturally heterogeneous, phenomenon of the assembly movements since the Arab Spring, to which Syriza’s rise owes a great deal.

As mass withdrawals of consent to existing political institutions, assembly movements produced an entirely different signifying framework of political action and brought back to the fore the urgency of radical democratic politics outside and even against the established ‘democratic’ modes of power. This certainly includes the presumed stability of the party formation, with dire consequences for the political history of the left, and, in the case of Syriza’s electoral victory in a parliamentary terrain, a grave challenge to the most unassailable categories of what government, governance, and governmentality might mean.

To anticipate what I will try to retrace from the events of the last 6 months in Greece, let us remember from the outset that Syriza is an unusual political formation. It is a loose, self-contradictory, and internally antagonistic coalition of leftist thought and practice, very much dependent on the capacity of social movements of all kinds, thoroughly decentralized and driven by the activism of solidarity networks in a broad sphere of action across class lines of conflict, gender and sexuality activism, immigration issues, anti-globalization movements, civil and human rights advocacy, etc., and not entirely determined by the crisis although obviously at the front lines of what the crisis has created.

In this sense, Syriza is not a party per se, even though it had to be legally codified as one in order to qualify for the established parliamentary bonus as victor in the elections. This has key implications in our analysis of what has taken place so far and what is to follow, to the degree that we can even remotely predict.

Syriza is a problem – not a problem to be solved, for nothing in politics can be mathematized, but a problem in the sense of an open framework of trouble in the terrain of politics. It is a problem in the midst of the political – in terms of Greek history, if nothing else, certainly unprecedented and way beyond even the history of the Greek left from which it has obviously emerged. To use a phrase by Edward Said in a different signifying framework, Syriza enacts “a technique of trouble”. It means trouble; it gets into trouble and creates trouble for all presumed-to-be-stable categories, including, of course, the category of the Left. And the fact that it is now politically in trouble is also part of the same rubric.

Syriza is a troublemaker entity in politics, and this is something that we should not lament or wish to extinguish, but rather engage with with an open mind, if we are ever going to get out of the categorical sludge of much leftist thinking, especially since the enormous geopolitical shift of 1989.

From electoral victory to the Greek referendum

Electoral victories that result from popular movements always precipitate a climate of euphoria, even bliss. It’s standard. What is also standard is how short-lived this is. A basic psychological reason is that popular movements always look beyond the temporal frame of governance because their desire manifests itself in the present tense. It does not wait and will not be deferred – all the more, after a victory against the grain of previous history and established power.

Popular movements want the future now, and in looking beyond their place in the present they overlook the shift that takes place from the politics of opposition to the politics of government. Winning power under these conditions always produces enormous expectations; it is the self-propelling force of a dream that must become reality.

Syriza’s victory in the elections of January 25 created unprecedented waves of expectation and hope in a population brutalized by extreme austerity conditions imposed by external financial interests with the full cooperation of the Greek political elite. This blissful wave of expectation was magnified even more if we consider the unprecedented event of an electoral victory of the left, whose symbolic magnitude exceeds Greek boundaries. While from this standpoint such exuberant response was unavoidable, it nonetheless unleashed, from the very beginning of the encounter with the new governmental reality, an internal danger that the left should have been smarter in anticipating: the danger of self-subversion in the name of political oppositional purity.

Less than a month after Syriza assumed government, without really having a chance to govern, precisely because of the political and financial liability against the EU’s great powers inherited from the previous government, we heard voices ranging from prominent Syriza members to key intellectual figures at home and abroad, as well as forces in the movement, manifesting grumbling disapproval, which began to aggravate and wear out the edges of the movement, thus overshadowing both the magnitude of problems faced by the new Syriza government and a cool-headed assessment of its early actions.

This attitude strains beyond the guise of traditional leftist critique from within. Its almost immediate occurrence, even before the dire conditions of the recent events, suggests that it is an endemic issue, not driven by circumstances. The fact that even in the early weeks and months of the new government the elite media interests in Greece had a field day with these presumed critiques seems to have escaped the attention of these critics.

While I would be the first to argue positively that this is the mark of Syriza not being a properly ordered party but a loose coalition of voices, there was – and is, because it continues ever louder – a self-satisfied attitude of pronouncement here that clashes with the hard realities of what it means for the left to govern in the world of global capital. Part of it stems from the great difficulty the left has always had historically – outside the Leninist legacy that still haunts it – with assuming the responsibility of power, even as a mere idea (not to mention the rare occasion of reality).

Part of it, however, also has to do with not understanding the essential non-coincidence between a leftist movement and a leftist government that this movement has brought to power, or a relation of relative autonomy between the two that is the starting point of configuring what ‘left governmentality’ might mean.

With its electoral victory, Syriza ceased being a mere opposition party. It became the government of a country, whose sovereignty and survival are more important short term than even its prosperity long term. As the government of a country, a party of the left is no longer beholden simply to its ranks: to the activist nucleus that forms the movement, and certainly not to its party members. It is beholden first to the voters who have elected it to power (in Syriza’s case some 38%, most of whom are not on the left ideologically), but even more so to the entire national polity, for Syriza now is a government of all the Greeks and bears responsibility for Greece as such, not just some part of it.

When the Greek Finance Minister is engaged in a Eurogroup battle, his primary responsibility is to his country’s viability. This certainly includes his responsibility to the popular will – for this is essential to any democratic government – but ultimately the cherished objective is society’s overall viability. In a bankrupt country, shackled to a regime of creditors who also hold the power tools of fiscal living being, this is a formidable task that requires a sort of acrobatic handling and, let’s face it, a risk that some decisions may be deemed to be deviations from the original vision or even the electoral platform.

“Deviations” is already a compromised word, for it assumes that political criteria remain unchanged, even while political situations are always changing – in this case at extraordinary speed and scale. Let us rather speak of repositionings or reconfigurations of priorities or reconsiderations of conditions, all terms that indicate the need to remain flexible relative to one’s adversarial forces externally and sustainable relative to the internal sphere of consent or contention.

From this standpoint, Etienne Balibar and Sandro Mezzadra’s early diagnosis that what Syriza needs most of all is to gain time (for which ground would be provisionally ceded) still remains correct and has been irresponsibly vilified.

Even after the most recent developments, which I address below, the conditional requirement of Syriza’s’s predicament was the need to gain time, against all odds and at great cost, in order to gain control of the dire situation it had inherited, to organize and apportion its forces to maximum capacity and effectiveness, to gain broader public support to shore up its slim parliamentary control, etc., so as to set in motion the governance of its essential task, which is not so much the settling of accounts with the EU but, above all, the radical reorganization of Greece’s long term corrupt social and political institutions.

In other words, Syriza’s extraordinary problem – which would not be faced by any other political party in government – was to alter internal institutional frameworks under conditions of external institutional assault.

Of course, always but especially in today’s hard political reality, these two aspects – external confrontation and internal reorganization – are linked and, moreover, the link is asymmetrical in all respects: work on the internal front is of much greater magnitude and therefore requires a greater duration of time, while the external confrontation is under extraordinary temporal duress – the EU elites are still doing everything they can to deprive Syriza of time in order to drive it to its death. Therefore, the response to the situation is not a theoretical matter, a matter of what is properly 'Leftist' politics, but more than ever a matter of Realpolitik, which here I would reiterate not simply as a politics of reality but as a real politics.

It was in that spirit – of real politics – that the Syriza government went into the arena of negotiations with EU elite powers immediately after it took office, without even a few days of assessing how profoundly shackled its arms were by agreements it had inherited from the previous regime. The EU elites were counting on this duress, with full anticipation of how to counter the new government’s initial drive to change the previous terms of relation between EU and Greece, which Syriza derived from the democratic electoral mandate.

Their wager had been all along to wear down Syriza’s capacities by stonewalling all its proposals, until it would cave under forced capitulation and the democratic mandate would be withdrawn via popular disaffection. Their plan was, as Costas Douzinas called it early on, to enact a “velvet coup” (which since then has been revealed instead to be made of hard steel): to undermine the democratic will by eroding trust in the government’s electoral platform. For this reason alone, critical voices from the self-ascribed left flanks in the coalition are especially open to charges of political irresponsibility, since they never realized how much they were drawn into the trapping logic of the enemy and, even worse, that they were counted on to be so drawn.

Stathis Gourgouris is Professor and former Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia University

Τhe full text in English is published on
, 6.8.2015