Despoina Potari: There is nothing more democratic than referendum

 Athens, Greece. 3rd July 2015 -- A man holding two puppets with a yes and a no sign. Photo: Dimitris Parthimos/Demotix/Corbis Athens, Greece. 3rd July 2015 -- A man holding two puppets with a yes and a no sign. Photo: Dimitris Parthimos/Demotix/Corbis

Despoina Potari

So detached have the Greeks been from the spirit and practice of democracy over the past years, that now, when for the first time in Greece’s modern history the opportunity arises to carry out some proper democratic political activity, now that the ‘demos’ is allowed the effective expression of its right to collective rule (‘cratein’) and the voice of every citizen is given the power to cumulatively mould the official voice of the country, many of our fellow citizens feel uncomfortable, numb, suspicious, while some are even protesting against the prospect of exercising their democratic rights.

Why is there so much discomfiture, suspicion and protest expressed against the forthcoming referendum? Why all those desperate attempts to deem it inappropriate, unconstitutional, illegal, unacceptable—which, apropos, are both internationally and locally driven? Even if the content of the proposal we are called to vote upon has been expressed in a way that many consider as insufficiently clear—and perhaps justifiably so—, even if the consequences of the choices it sets before us confront us with possibilities that are sad and terrifying, the question still remains: why is there so much resistance against an institutional practice which is undeniably, nowadays, the political technology that approximates democracy more than any other modern political procedure?

The answer is simple. Numb, uncomfortable and suspicious is the way one feels when confronted with that which is unknown and unfamiliar. Condemnatory towards that which incommodes him. Likewise, the Greeks are right now standing before a situation largely unfamiliar to them: the institution of democratic participation. For further to a mode of rule, effective democratic participation also entails a distinct way of life that incommodes many from the hibernation of self-centeredness and unhealthy individualism, from their attachment to the microcosm of their little private lives which had become almost entirely detached from the collective sphere.

Whoever complaints against the referendum in reality complaints against Democracy. To believe in democracy means to uphold the fundamental normative axiom—not only in words but in deeds—that all citizens can and should be the appropriate agents of the governmental decision and law-making processes of their polity. All those self-proclaimed democrats who are so despairingly fighting against the prospect of the Greek referendum are thus effectively undermining the truthfulness and sincerity of their claim to democracy. And that is precisely the reason behind their discomfort and irritation.     

What underlies the widespread slander and disparagement against the imminent Greek referendum, as well as the attacks against the government authorities which announced it, is something much deeper than merely the expression of concern regarding our economic future or the alleged lack of clarity of the proposal under question. It is the tacit, underlying, unspoken assumption that ‘the people’ are somehow incapable of making the great decisions concerning the future of their country. That they are not epistemically or technically competent enough to meddle in the affairs of the expert technocrats, except for their quadrennial participation in the political ritual of elections, where they merely carry out their role as the symbolic source of democratic legitimation. Nevertheless, it is precisely those kinds of perceptions which have for a long time now undermined inasmuch as negated the possibility of democracy in our country.

If we really embrace democracy, or at any rate at least respect it, we should accept whatever the result of the referendum may be, without any condemnation, complaint or bitterness.
However, before we vote we should remember that this referendum is not only about whether we succumb to specific suffocating austerity measures with which our otherwise ‘friendly’ international partners are blackmailing us in exchange for their help and ‘solidarity’.

This referendum is about the much more fundamental issue of whether or not we accept to surrender entirely our economic and political sovereignty.  Whether or not we give up our right to decide for ourselves how to manage and direct our political life. It is about whether we choose to be a free nation or whether, at our very own will, we end up choosing self-enslavement by surrendering to foreign authorities just because the imprisonment of controllable poverty by now appears to us more familiar, safer and less frightening than the uncertainty, the unpredictability and the unknown which are always entailed by liberty, as its marking features, whatever expression, form and dimension liberty may assume.

Despoina Potari is DPhil Candidate in Politics (Political Theory), Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University

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