Peter Bratsis. Syriza and Its Discontents — Truthout-OpEd

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), speaks in Palai de sport, Thessaloniki, Greece, a few days before the national elections of 2015. (Photo: Arvnick /


One of the key talking points for Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza leadership for the last few years has been that political power is not “won” in elections; that power must be created; that it comes from below. Tsipras often noted that without people on the streets, making demands, pushing the government, demonstrating popular will, a Syriza regime would not be able to achieve its promises and goals.

This question of the production of power has become all the more pressing given recent events. Many have voiced their opposition to the conditions that the Greek government accepted in its recent agreement with its creditors in extending “bailout” loans for the next four months. Notable Syriza members such as Manolis Glezos and Stathis Kouvelakis, as well as supporters such as Tariq Ali (among many others), have been very vocal in denouncing the agreement as an overwhelming defeat and a retreat from Syriza’s campaign promises, these promises having proven to be no more than “an illusion” in the words of Glezos.

There is a call for the mobilization of left forces inside and outside of Syriza to demand that the government follow through on its mandate of ending austerity and not capitulate to fear and threats. Concurrently there is the demand that the Syriza leadership change its tactics or risk further demobilizing Greek social forces and losing the political momentum it has had held since the elections; Kouvelakis noted that thanks to the failure of the negotiations we have come to the end, for now at least, of “the climate of mobilization and rediscovered confidence that we saw in the first weeks after the election.”

The mantra that power comes from below is contradicted by the idea that it is the subjectivity of those at the top that gives coherence and direction to state power.

Leaving aside for the moment the details of the agreement and of whether it is or is not a retreat for Syriza, there is a key fundamental assumption present in the arguments of the Syriza leadership, as well as those of its internal critics: that the subjectivity and will of those at the top are what gives shape and direction to political power and that mobilizations that push these leaders may be necessary for achieving desired political goals. For example, like Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship, Syriza leaders ask for social movements and protests to bind them to their original program lest the siren song of public office and the practical considerations and anxieties of running a government overwhelm and overtake their radical intentions. Indeed, Yanis Varoufakis has gone as far as to suggest that he should be shot should he start acting like a politician.

Popular mobilizations in the form of marches, general strikes, demonstrations, pot banging and a plethora of other possibilities are manifestations of political power and are crucial to any attempt to reshape policies and to counter pressure from competing political forces.

For the Syriza leadership, as well as for their chorus of critics, the “power” that stems from the streets is fundamentally a capacity for shaping the calculations, discipline and political will of those who hold the reins of power. The levers of state power are just that, and the role of the streets and protest movements is to compel those who control these levers to take notice and account of popular sentiment and act accordingly.

Protest and resistance that does not disrupt the everyday does not destroy the existing circuits of power and certainly does not create new ones.

Thus, the mantra that power comes from below is contradicted by the idea that it is the subjectivity of those at the top that gives coherence and direction to state power. When protesters make demands, they are assuming that power is contained in the state institutions and that if enough pressure is brought to bear, we can influence the will of those who hold the commanding positions within these institutions and exercise state power. Is this political power being produced from below?

Where Does Political Power Come From?

Both sides of the coin of the current debates within Syriza are, thus, stuck within a fundamentally undialectial understanding of political power as a property of institutions and that the exercise of power is a matter of will (power as the capacity to impose your will); the strategic dilemma of the day being to create a “strong” will among the party leaders and/or the social classes and movements that support the party. If we take the more Marxist standpoint, however, that power is produced, not immanent to the institution or actor, the strategic dilemmas and debates within Syriza take on new dimensions. Nicos Poulantzas famously defined state institutions as condensations of class struggle, of social activity and relations. The daily struggles, activities and conflicts from the shop floor to the classroom and household are the matter from which even the most grand of state institutions are created.

A new political power, thus, presumes new forms of living, new struggles and new rhythms. Political change is a change of the everyday, or it is not change at all. To say that power comes from ‘below,’ that our own practices are the generators of political power, thus puts the primacy on action and not will.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of Greeks were and are opposed to the many austerity measures adopted in the last few years. So what? To the degree that their daily routines and activities stayed constant, the production of political power continued unabated and the Greek state was able to implement austerity with little difficulty. The minds and will of the Greeks may have been opposed to austerity, but their bodies were fully in support.

What then should a “mobilized” society entail? How can grassroots activity help transform the balance of forces and produce a new political power? The idea that popular mobilization involves taking to the streets to give voice to grievances and demands would seem to contradict the idea that changing practices is the goal of action. Protest and resistance that does not disrupt the everyday does not destroy the existing circuits of power and certainly does not create new ones. Let us remind ourselves of the great failure of 32 days of general strikes and many more days of protests and demonstrations to make any impact on the austerity governments of the last few years. To the degree that such protests and strikes were not new forms of practice but merely a moment of expressing demands and opinions or, much worse, integrated within the existing routines of contemporary Greece, the physics of political power remained unchanged. As such, the relevance of the”‘street”‘ is not as a venue through which people can express their political preferences and demands but as a site of activity.

Retreat or Disaster Averted?

The necessity for Greece to achieve an agreement with the Eurogroup for a loan extension is all the more clear and obvious from this standpoint. The move to crash the Greek banking system by eliminating access to liquidity was a gun to the head of Greek society. Even though the current regime enjoys very high levels of popular support (76 percent in the latest poll), the sudden closing of banks would have resulted in dramatic changes within the everyday practices of Greeks. The production of political power as it is presently constituted would have stopped. Political order would break down; a collapse of the government would be fast and ugly.

That Tsipras and Vaourfakis presented the agreement as a victory should not be taken as simply trying to put a positive spin on what is a capitulation to the demands of the European Union. It is certainly true that the new agreement is not far removed from previous ones in terms of the mandated oversight by the EU, ECB, and IMF, and it is also true that most of the previous austerity measures will continue for the time being, namely the many cuts to pensions and salaries.

It cannot be denied, however, that today we are in a very different climate than before the elections. Whereas the discussions before were in terms of what further cuts would be necessary (increase in VAT and further pension cuts were to be approved by the previous government), the new agreement takes it as a given that the agenda is now the reverse, undoing austerity, and the question is which reversals will be able to be funded and, thus, allowed. Most of all, however, without an agreement, the Greek government’s days would have been very numbered, and there is no question that this would have been a definitive defeat of the left in Greece and Europe more broadly.

The uproar that the presumed “retreat” or “defeat” has created within Syriza is diverting attention from key problems that need to be addressed. The four months of time that this new agreement has given Syriza, not much time at all, is the new window of opportunity for the Greek government to begin the transformation of society and the creation of new circuits of power.

Regardless of the new agreement, it was already a given that any new spending could only be accomplished if new revenues were found. Further loans for the purpose of increasing public spending were not possible; this is not a new development. The expectation is that if indeed Syriza is able to follow through on being able to collect more unpaid taxes and decrease tax evasion, those additional resources could be used to fund its social programs. This is certainly a daunting task but speed here is key, and the sooner that the government can begin its attempts to collect more taxes, the better. But, what has been forgotten and ignored in the frenzy of the last few weeks is the project of creating new forms of political power and to transform Greece into an ever more democratic and capable society.

Lost in these discussions is any attention to all the political and cultural transformations that need to take place for Greece to produce new circuits of power and become rewired so that new institutions of politics and new cultural sensibilities come into existence.

If the temporary deal with the Eurogroup is going to lead to disaster it is not because the Greek people will lose faith in the Syriza government and withdraw support, nor is it because it will demobilize social movements and keep them from actively asserting their preferences and interests in support of Syriza initiatives. We have already seen that public opinion is of no consequence, actions matter, and that protests and strikes are of similarly little consequence today if they do not transform the everyday. The real risk, in my opinion, is that the fear of the Syriza government in alienating segments of the Greek public, combined with a obsession with economic questions and implementing the Thessaloniki program without any delays or changes, will take away all attention from making the changes to political practice and everyday life that are necessary for new a political power to emerge and replace the old.

The Limits to Economic Reason

The question of austerity has overwhelmed all political discussions inside and outside Syriza. This is not surprising. However, it has set up a set of false divisions between those who disagree on how best to undo austerity in Greece. Must the efforts be Europeanist in character or can a more traditional patriotic and nationalist effort be more effective? Must banks be nationalized or can economic growth be furthered through private control? At what price does it make sense to privatize public assets? And, most centrally, can Greece stay in the eurozone and end austerity or must a return to a national currency occur so that Greece can regain the political sovereignty necessary for imposing a new set of policies. One side presents itself as the more “left” option, but the differences are fundamentally ones of tactics and not of values or principles.

Lost in these discussions is any attention to all the political and cultural transformations that need to take place for Greece to produce new circuits of power and become rewired so that new institutions of politics and new cultural sensibilities come into existence.

Marxism has produced a sizable and quite distinguished literature on the limitations and undemocratic nature of the capitalist state. One would expect a Marxist government in Greece to have an agenda of transforming the state in ways that further popular participation of citizens and that transform its functions to those in line with democratic desire. One would expect plans to counter the suburbanization of Athens and renew the cultural and political vibrancy of urban life. One would expect measures to reduce mechanisms of representation and reverse the centralization of political authority. One would expect rapid and decisive transformations of the ideological state apparatus of schooling.

Instead of intense discussions on the foregoing, what we find, in the best-case scenario, is great dedication to combat corruption and eliminate clientelism. In other words, rather than being critical of the state-form as such and thinking of ways that we could try to reconstitute Greece, we are stuck in the liberal fantasy that an objective and impersonal organization of state authority would, finally, provide the conditions for prosperity and justice. Were Cornelius Castoriadis alive today, he would be rolling in his grave.

Raising more money by combating tax evasion is necessary, but it will never be sufficient for changing Greek society. If we indeed understand power to be produced from the bottom up, we need to act like it. If the daily routines and social relations of Greek society continue as they were yesterday and the day before, the possibilities of change are zero. Where will a new political power come from?

The Greek government seems too fearful of endangering public opinion and too obsessed with eliminating austerity to think about the broader political project and tasks that need to be addressed.

The dangers that the current debates within and about Syriza present us with are two-fold. On the one hand, the forces within Syriza risk polarizing themselves over tactical differences rather than fundamental divisions of goals and values. On the other hand, it is precisely these common goals that have limited the discussion to how to undo austerity and have kept us from exploring ways to transform the political and cultural routines of Greek society so as to create new modalities of political power.

If the next four months are focused on questions of economics with no attention to other matters, we lose the chance to begin the work of transforming the society and for creating new power relations. Paradoxically, the Marxists will have conformed to the liberal viewpoint of homo economicus; “humanitarian” programs will have reduced the residents of Greece to “bare life”; our capacity to found our own cultural and political life will have been abandoned to market forces and unthinking repetition.

In this moment of crisis, when so much could be done in changing the rhythms of life in Greece, the Greek government seems too fearful of endangering public opinion and too obsessed with eliminating austerity to think about the broader political project and tasks that need to be addressed.

Etienne Balibar and Sandro Mezzadra are completely correct to point to the importance of the time and space that this temporary agreement between Greece and its creditors has won. This time needs to be used to focus on the materiality of the class struggle and the concrete social activity that political power is founded upon, and we must abandon the idealist fixation on political will.

The real possibility of Greece leaving the eurozone should indeed be prepared for, and we should be planning and thinking about how to minimize the disruptions to everyday life in such an event. At the same time we need to be working on the purposeful transformation of that same everyday life so as to create a new political reality in Greece and finally overcome the limits of liberalism and the nation-state.


Peter Bratsis

Peter Bratsis is associate director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Technology and Work at the Graduate Center and assistant professor of political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York.  He is the author of Everyday Life and the State, editor (with Stanley Aronowitz) of Paradigm Lost: State Theory Reconsidered, and edits of the journal Situations: Project of the Radical Imagination.

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