Ch. Haralambous & B. Raine: Greece’s Referendum: “This place has only three exits, sir: Madness, and Death" (*)

Yiannis Tzermias, "Dream", 2002-201012 Yiannis Tzermias, "Dream", 2002-201012
Chloe Haralambous & Barnaby Raine
The “Yes” camp
In the pages of an illustrious American newspaper, Syriza stands accused of “magical thinking”. In the stock view of global elites, the Greek government is naïve at best and guileful or simply deceptive at worst. That characterisation positions Syriza in sharp contrast to “pragmatism” and the rhetoric of the “realistic”. Greek Leftists, outsiders amateurishly playing at power, are thus ridiculed by implicit comparison to those who stride the world stage as if they were born to rule it.

The potency of this view lies in its dismissive approach to dissidence. No amount of human suffering and economic chaos can ever render rebellion reasonable on this analysis, since rationality itself, the luxury of considered thought, is the exclusive preserve of the powerful. They win because they know how to play the game. Their wealth and geopolitical success are evidence of that. Hence Greece’s creditors preside over pitiable immiseration but faith in their reasonableness remains, because their strength is taken as evidence of their trustworthiness. Is this not the deferential logic of the “Yes” campaigners for this Sunday’s referendum, who refuse to lose faith in the wisdom of the very forces inflicting pain on Greece?
Judged in less cynical terms, the creditors’ claims to rationality make little sense. The IMF has long admitted that its programme for Greece is defective, and recent leaks reveal that the ECB’s current proposals would burden Greece with unsustainable debt for decades. The right of the powerful to determine the bounds of the reasonable, however, is not so easily empirically contested. When the facts look bad, they are side-lined as unimportant; a liberal newspaper in Britain admits that Greece may be floundering, but nonetheless sympathises with calls for further austerity. Portugal and Ireland (not to mention countless countries outside Europe) have submitted to equivalent pain, the newspaper notes, so a Greek exemption would be “unfair”. That is an exemplary illustration of the fallacy involved in collapsing power and rationality. The IMF may be dangerously wrong, goes this line, but if it has been wrong elsewhere then fairness demands letting it be wrong in Greece too. That they have enforced austerity before is reason enough for permitting them to do it again. Their longstanding power is taken as a reason to obey them. These are the professionals, the experienced and thus the respectable.
A sense of history is crucial to the creditors’ monopoly over “reason”. The conceptual conflation of the Eurozone with Europe has allowed a devout adherence to austerity to be reconfigured in Greece as a necessary component of subscribing to “Western democracy”, notwithstanding the fact that the management of the Eurozone remains a profoundly undemocratic project, both in its day-to-day decision-making and in its constitutional commitments to low inflation, deficit reduction and free trade – the goals of finance capital take precedence over the demands of larger democratic interest groups.

The coming referendum signals more than anything a disjuncture in the understanding of what Europe means: to the “No” campaign is signifies brutal austerity; to the “Yes” campaign it entails a place in “the West” and in democracy. In this thinking, Greece’s creditors symbolise the forces of reason not just because they are powerful, but also because the grand history of Europe stands behind them. The well-dressed Greeks who have experimented with the art of protest in Syntagma square over recent days, chanting for a “Yes” vote, have political as well as economic anxieties. Outside the European Union, they say, Greece’s functioning as a democratic state would be in jeopardy. The irony is that these forces of the Greek Right have not always proved the most loyal defenders of democracy in the past. Now, though, they see a moment of contested national self-definition, where leftists could remove Greece from the civilised world and insert it into a Russia-China axis.
These recycled Cold (as well as Civil) War images tell a story about modern Greek identity. Always poised on the threshold of the West, seeking legitimacy in its eyes, Greeks have striven with the zealousness of the misfit to prove themselves worthy of a place in the cohort. Meanwhile, the way in which the troika has couched its enlightened mission – to discipline and civilise the “lazy”, Dionysiac Greek and her “irrational”, “infantile” leaders – suggests that Greece is less a member-state than a colonial outpost in the eyes of the EU and ECB. The would-be allies to whom Greece’s “Yes” campaigners appeal as fellow Europeans in fact regard them as outsiders. Rhetorically, Greece has already been kicked out of Europe.
The “No” camp
If supporters of Greece’s creditors continue to laud their ostensible rationality, even their opponents are not immune to the illusion. For over five years, the radical Left has faced the Greek crisis with a heavy dose of eschatology – the final confrontation between labour and capital, between those hurting and those causing the pain, was always diagnosed as being just around the corner. Rebellious as Syriza’s negotiating tactics may have been, the government has consistently maintained a line just shy of bringing such contradictions to the fore. It has preferred to dissolve or, better, to defer them: Syriza’s election-winning promise to end austerity while remaining within the Eurozone pointed to an unwillingness to spur any final confrontation with the austerity-mongers. That disappointed some on the Left, though it represented a sage assessment of the public’s mood.
If Greeks vote “Yes” in this referendum it will be because they believe that Syriza is at last proposing confrontation. That Syriza insists on framing a “No” vote as a mandate for yet more negotiations suggests its continuing reluctance to entertain the prospect of a rupture with the troika and the status quo it represents, but it also suggests an awareness that even after years of bitter austerity there is little public appetite for such a sharp break.
Like the “Yes” campaigners, Syriza complements crude material fear of the troika’s power with deference to history. Ever since the nominal stridency of Tsipras’s election-night demand for “a government of national salvation” in January, he has appeared to treat national sovereignty as one core issue in the construction of a counter-hegemonic bloc to fight the EU, ECB and IMF. That strategy is oriented around the imagery of Thermopylic heroism in the defence of Greece as the supposed cradle of democracy. It is at once an attempt to ingratiate Greece to the romantic (and conservative) sensibilities of the rest of Europe, and to instantiate a bid for national unity. It was always problematic. Equating democracy with national sovereignty eclipses the former’s antagonistic class content; talk of specifically national salvation overlooks the existence of political enemies within the nation’s borders. Its radical power, though, lay in challenging an equivalence between “reasonableness” and “European-ness” in which Europe was coded as entailing German efficiency and Brussels austerity.

If laying claim to Europe’s history is an important mechanism by which elites claim to be “civilized”, Tsipras has claimed that mantle for himself. Where “Yes” campaigners see a choice between “the West” as defined by the troika on one hand, and Vladimir Putin on the other, Tsipras insists that choice is too limited. As he puts it: "Yes, Europe, but Which Europe?" Where the “No” campaigns of the KKE and ANTARSYA seek confrontation and rejection of the European ideal, Syriza’s compound is subtler. In the shadow of Nicos Poulantzas, the governing party identifies radicalism with transforming institutions, not abandoning them.   
Syriza’s political paradoxes have baffled us. Flirting with both quasi-nationalism and the Marxist tradition, both the language of labour and that of the middle-class entrepreneur, consenting to unlikely bedfellows, Syriza nevertheless managed to wield a pidgin language in which millions of the oppressed within Greece and outside it found reflected some measure of their pain and their desires. Their latest move, calling this referendum, is best situated somewhere between the high register of democratic principle and the grubby business of negotiating tactics. It represents a strategic choice, to valorise democracy as a weapon of the excluded: rarely are lines of conflict between oppressors and oppressed so clearly drawn, opposing camps so visible, as in the events unfolding now. It is even more rare that the oppressed should be so empowered to determine the conflict’s outcome. If the result is a Yes vote, the occasion may not be permitted to arise again for some time.
After Sunday
Against a backdrop of widespread trepidation about addressing conflicts head-on, the coming referendum has already performed a valuable service. When No and then Yes campaigners held competing rallies in Syntagma square, much ideological fog was lifted: amid palpable demographic differences between the respective sides, the battle for democracy and accountability was revealed as an antagonistic engagement not (or not only) with the “enemy” Eurozone, but also between Greeks. Lines of conflicting interests that had never found such crude and brazen expression materialised on the streets. Those who have suffered the most witnessed the hidden parallel universe of those who saw that suffering as being to their advantage. Citizens were made to “appear” to each other, “named” into class categories and vulnerable to accountability.
The most immediate significance of a Yes vote on Sunday would be as a keenly sought victory for the demographic that feels angrily disenfranchised by Syriza now: Greece’s old elites, willing to tolerate an election defeat but whose patience is tested by the perceived looming threat of deferred confrontation. A Yes vote would mean Greece siding with them. The troika and its leaders would have the satisfaction of reimagining Greeks by generalising from the protesters interviewed on “Yes” demonstrations, depicting them as willing participants in their own subjugation – as having (literally) asked for it. A morality tale about lazy Mediterranean southerners would be thrown out in favour of a democratic story about Europeans rejecting left-wing naïveté.  
If they get the result they want, Greece’s creditors will capitalise on a referendum called against them, and which they have attempted to sabotage, to complement their hold on “reason” with an ideational power-grab for the besmirched name of democracy too; conservative “rationality” will have usurped the language of the one reliable card against it.
Syriza have strongly intimated that they would leave office – forced out not by an army coup or foreign intervention but by their own people, as the troika will jeer. Their exit and the return of the various old, corrupt political parties after a brief interlude may serve as a radicalising impetus, provoking people into assertive resistance. At least as likely, the hegemony of “reason” could normalise brutality again, and to such a degree that people will forget the short window in which things might have been otherwise. Moments of such significance have been buried before now. In that gloomy context, people might slowly lose their sense of possessing the right to demand better things. Entrenching austerity as the primary language of the Greek polity in the medium term, the pervasive counter-posing of “basic” or “essential” services to the increasingly large realm of supposedly superfluous luxuries will create a new criterion for selfhood and cast a new social subject, formed in accordance to the exigencies of neoliberalism: precarious, submissive, dispossessed of social rights and alone. This is not hyperbole, it is what New Democracy and their “European partners” offer Greece.
Much criticised for its opacity on paper, its ambivalent relationship to a proposal that is no longer on the table and its uncertain significance for Greece’s membership of the Euro, one thing about this referendum is unambiguous. It amounts to a choice between submitting to the powerful and resisting their violence. Both outcomes promise great pain, but only one promises hope – a currency now rare enough to be spurned as “magical”. With words like that, resistance is dismissed not merely as inadvisable but as unthinkable, impossible seriously to envision. We should staunchly oppose these efforts to dismiss the “No” campaign as mere desperation or utopianism: both, of course, forms of unreason.

A “No” victory would resonate because it would mean Greeks refusing and resisting that epistemology. It would mean insisting that power is not identical to reason, so neither Europe’s clout nor the IMF’s muscle can mask the madness of their programme for Greece. It would mean affirming that though rebellion is a path strewn with obstacles, it is the only sensible path because it is the only way out of a death cycle. For as long as the Left project remains rooted in the lives of human beings and committed to the fulfilment of real desires, it will remain a passionately pragmatic project. To abandon it, to call it irrational now, in this moment, is to consent to the passing of an age in which to dream, to argue and to fight in the name of a less brutal world were still considered reasonable.

*“This place has only three exits, sir: Madness, and Death": René Daumal, A Night of Serious Drinking, 1938

  • Translated by: N/A
  • The original text was first published on: Written for AnalyzeGreece!