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Misframing the Greek protest

Albena Azmanova, visiting scholar, Institute for European Studies | February 18, 2015

The calls these days to support the Greek people’s struggle against austerity are in abundance. The Campaign for Democracy group has issued one such petition.

I signed this petition, as I do support the Greek people’s fight for social justice and regaining some control of their destiny. But what a pity this is being framed as a “struggle against AUSTERITY”. It implies that the goal of the protest is a life of indulgence (or at least of non-austere, benevolent capitalism), which makes a mockery out of the Greeks’ legitimate quest.

There will hardly be an escape from austerity even if the country’s international creditors cancel its debt. But more importantly, we all need to, and can, embrace austerity and share it, as the manic economic growth of global capitalism is unsustainable and toxic for both people and nature.

There is a danger that, as the left makes anti-austerity its new grand cause of mobilization for justice, this derails us into reinventing capitalism rather than seeking an alternative.  Maybe the Greeks under the Syriza government will finally spawn that socio-economic model that delivers the life of simple living and high thinking their forefathers in ancient Greece championed as the formula of the good life. Hurray for austerity for all!

And yet the discourse of anti-austerity might be misframing the problem in quite another way — in the opposite direction, as it does not capture the humanitarian disaster that Greek people are living. As the new Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has argued, we need to save European capitalism as a matter of emergency, because “Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.“(http://www.thetoc.gr/eng/people/article/why-erratic-marxist-yanis-varoufakis-wants-to-save-european-capitalism). So, unless we save capitalism now, resurrecting the social capitalism of the now moribund welfare state, the rising tides of racism and fascism will overtake Europe, which would  hardly produce socialism. Getting rid of the neoliberal politics of austerity in which ‘austerity’ is a polite term for eliminating people’s livelihoods, is the step in the right direction — away from the abyss.

Comments to “Misframing the Greek protest

  1. How very interesting. I happened to be the promoter of a minority motion at the first congress of the Greek “Democratic Left” party (April 2011). The motion called for the party to embrace “equitable austerity.” Our argument was that in a country with a 15.4% public deficit, some austerity was inevitable. The task of the Left was not to resist austerity, but to make sure the burden is allocated equitably, to protect the weak and essential services, and to take the opportunity to call for a fresh start for Greece: leaving behind the waste, corruption and empty consumerism of previous years. It may ring a bell: Enrico Berlinguer’s 1978 speech “Austerità, occasione per rinnovare l’Italia” was an inspiration.

    Not much, of course, came of all this. Our motion was narrowly defeated. The party itself, after winning 6% of the vote in 2012, went in terminal decline. The rise of the anti-austerity bloc, which eventually brought the radical left / nationalist right coalition to power, swept everything in its wake.

    One word of caution. The left/right government’s overwhelming aim is not to deal with the “humanitarian crisis” (an overblown concept in itself), but to restore Greeks’ wounded pride. You may think it is a noble aim. But you hardly need to be reminded that the righteous indignation inflaming German hearts and minds in the 1930s was not too dissimilar in nature. And what is so progressive about that?

    • You were ahead of your time with the notion of “equitable austerity” — what makes sense is often politically unthinkable — that’s the tragedy of politics. Equitable austerity is what the Syriza government could hope to achieve at best, but as the notion of austerity is fast acquiring a bad reputation, I fear that Syriza supporters will be disappointed and eventually their discontent will trigger a far-right backlash anyway. I hope the government manages expectations cleverly; the focus they are now putting on decent governance (the stress on anti-corruption, the tone of ‘doing the right thing’ as the finance minister swears by Kant in his NYT interview of Feb. 17) is smart. I am tempted to point out, however, that Kant himself would beg to differ. In his political writings, Kant warned that assumptions about the moral and cognitive capacities of individuals have no place, because such assumptions are unsafe and he advises that, in matters political, we put our energy in designing the right institutions which would deliver positive outcomes even in a ‘society of devils’.

  2. Dear Albena: Here, in short, is my position:

    1) Varoufakis is essentially right, especially on the political point (a collapse of Europe now means a fascist development, not a possibility for the left, whether radical or not). This is not just a “tactical” move to please the European capitalists and their political servants (which has no chance to succeed); it is a strategic view on the situation of politics today;

    2) “Austerity” is a term with different meanings, that needs clarification: in the Greeks’ wording and struggle, to reject austerity essentially means to address what you rightly call the humanitarian crisis; anti-austerity is not equivalent with the religion of growth – but of course the meanings have to be disentangled;

    3) Additionally, “austerity” is a very bad name for the positive value that we progressives, radicals (I will dare to say: communists) need to push for; not only it risks permanent confusion in the eyes of the population with the “austerity” imposed on them, but it refers to a moral (Christian, protestant) discourse which is disgusting. My preferred word is “use” (not use-value, but use, in all its dimensions, as advocated in recent Italian debates around Agamben and others) (if I dared I would say “poverty”, in the Franciscan sense, but many hear it as austerity).

    Of course, you are fully right to ask these questions. While we do our best to support the Greek comrades, we must think and discuss around all the dimensions of the very fundamental questions involved.

    Best, EB

    • Dear Etienne: As I am trying to discern the nature of the new Greek government (the finance minister declaring himself ‘erratic Marxist” and Kantian on different occasions), it occurs to me that they might best be described as “pragmatic humanists.”

      “Aren’t we all?” one might say. Although tackling the humanitarian disaster the policies of neoliberal austerity have wrecked, put in the broader pictures, this pragmatic humanism has a dark side.

      Here is what I mean: The center-left and center-right political elites forged in the late 20th century a neoliberal policy consensus around the TINA policy logic (There Is No Alternative). The so called ‘structural adjustment policies’ that were imposed in the name of increased productivity and competitiveness have started to tear our societies to pieces.

      The answer that even competent and reasonable radical parties like Syriza are offering is crisis management of the humanitarian disaster. But this short-term crisis management functions within the same logic of ‘there is no alternative’ that is the trademark of neoliberalism, isn’t it?

      Let’s hope that once they manage the disaster of abject poverty, the left radical with grab the chance to think bigger.

      Albena

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