Konstantinos Poulis: The line that separates defeat from disgrace

Painting by Tassos Missouras Painting by Tassos Missouras
Konstantinos Poulis
 
There are two fields in Economics:  one is the Economics that I understand and the other is the Economics that I don’t understand – I will deal with the latter in my next article.  As to the former, however, it is clear that the issue is what is euphemistically described as “competitiveness” but which we know to be deregulation pure and simple,  i.e. whether workers have any protection from the designs of employers, and (b) State assets management.  The deal which is about to be signed is in essence a crushing defeat in both these key areas.

In Sophocles’ tragedy Philoctetes, Odysseus asks Neoptolemus to betray his heroic nature -- to use treachery for one brief, shameless day, then for the rest of time be called the most righteous of all humankind, for, as Odysseus says, “victory is a sweet prize to gain.” Fortunately Neoptolemus decided not to follow Odysseus’ advice.  Unlike the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Neoptolemus understood that there is no such thing as “one brief, shameless day.”  You cannot get back to where you were.  Moral identity is a bit like the Euro.  Once you get out, you cannot get back in.

Now Tsipras is undertaking to do something that will disgrace the Left for decades to come.  He has not only suffered a defeat; he has agreed to serve the worst objectives of those who had been his opponents up till yesterday.  Can he really not see through their sleazy smiles? Doesn’t he shudder at hearing their praise? The pro-austerity establishment in Greece and Europe is enthusiastically congratulating Tsipras. Martin Schulz makes their logic clear, explaining why Tsipras is the only politician who can implement the reforms.

This is the key to understanding their sudden infatuation with Tsipras.   It’s not just that they bear him no grudge.  On the contrary, he is recognized as the only politician who still has the political capital to successfully address the Greek people and actually be heard – in other words, he is the only one who can implement austerity policies, at least for now.  This is due to the voters’ justified loathing of those who were formerly in power.  The question is whether Tsipras actually realizes that this capital won’t last for long. It vanishes, day by day, lie by lie.  The inconceivable U-turn of the referendum, the mockery of its outcome: all this is a time bomb – does he not see it?

We are currently witnessing the efforts of the Greek media and political establishment to defend Tsipras.  For us this is quite difficult to understand because we are normal people: we do not change views overnight, on demand.  But if you are a “conscience for rent”, you may well say one thing today and another tomorrow.  And there is a reason why high profile journalists and politicians who are identified with pro-austerity propaganda praise Tsipras.  In Aristos Doxiadis words, “I now support Tsipras; after significant delay he finally understood how negotiations work; and then he assumed the cost and made a deal.  He is the only one who can now implement the key measures within Greece.”

This is cruel irony:  Tsipras will become the vehicle for imposing all those measures that he had been denouncing for so long.  Not just because he lost the battle but because he will actively serve them.  And he will do so better than anyone else because his U-turn proves the point that employers wanted to make all along, i.e. that his aims were mere daydreams.  And I am not referring to negotiations within the euro-zone, but to more down to earth matters, such as collective labour agreements, tax-free income thresholds, starting salaries, State assets management.  Listening to these people rejoice one can only imagine the full wave of deregulation that awaits us; it is the kind of deregulation that leads the hordes of “business world representatives” in their suits and ties (those who correct Stiglitz, and occasionally call him an idiot) to cry “no left-wing obsessions, at last.”

Some speak of defeatism or victimisation of the Left; they believe that this is actually a playing-safe-as-eternal-opposition-syndrome.  They do not understand that defeat is sometimes the price that some people pay for their principles, as their fate may be bound to the fate of these principles. They also don’t understand how some peοple bind their lives to certain ideas, regardless of whether those ideas are hidden away in some corner of public life or are momentarily thrust into the spotlight.  Only he who is always ready to rush to the warm embrace of the majority suffers no defeat.

So SYRIZA’s Left didn’t have the dignity to admit defeat.  SYRIZA’s Left failed to say “this is not me.”  Because reliability would mean to admit to failure, and this could have protected it from public humiliation in the eyes of those it had been criticizing all this time.  Its effort to cling to power even at the cost of implementing the policies of  political enemies is an insult to its very morals. An honest take would be to say “we are here for a cause; if this is not possible, there is no room for us.”  The idea that “I will implement my opponents’ policies but I’ll do it better than they could” is outright political hypocrisy. 

How could anyone fail to say that thirst for power is behind it all?  We read in the official party newspaper (Avgi) that SYRIZA should be cleared of dissidents; we listen to cabinet members lecturing us on resignations – obviously there is the political staff eager to force them.  It’s interesting that all this is presented as some kind of tactical maneuvering by SYRIZA politicians while they are being turned into ignorant pawns of the very establishment that they have been fighting up until now.

Usually in cases like this we are asked what the alternative is.  The underlying argument is that we, along with a small minority, get to hide behind our rightful position while they are cleaning up the mess.  This is exactly what I mean and it seems perfectly fine.  Let me explain why: my suggestion is that everyone should do what they believe is right and be judged accordingly.  The notion that “this is going to happen anyway, it makes no difference whether or not I do it, plus my approach will be milder”, ultimately leads to the cancelling out of different views; everyone just seeks power, using arguments as mere rhetorical ammunition in order to build the camps and alliances that will bring them to power.  In my opinion, the Left – even SYRIZA’s Left - should not do that. The least one can do given the circumstances is not to hand over one’s political credibility – what’s left of it anyway – to one’s worst opponents for them to take advantage of it.  The way things move, SYRIZA will fall apart in a matter of months, just like all the other parties that were identified with austerity policies during the last years in Greece.

So who is this call addressed to? Obviously not to Tsipras; this piece is by no means a kind of “open letter to the Prime Minister” exercise.  It is simply an effort to clear the scene of distortions, propaganda and dishonesty at least for the sake of those who mean well; a humble offering in such turbulent times, but I’m afraid we need it.

Konstantinos Poulis studied Sociology and Greek Drama in Greece and in Britain. His publications include theatre plays, short stories and essays on politics and philosophy. He is a member of the editorial board of the literary periodical “Neo Planodion” and he contributes to The Press Project on a weekly basis.

Translated by Mary Zambetaki

First published in Greek on "The Press Project", 14.7.2015