Is Syriza’s victory a shift for Europe?

Will other southern European countries heed the Greek call for resistance to non-democratic rule?

Greek voters have rejected the suffocating measures foisted upon them, writes Marder [AFP]

The drama of Greek politics, which reached its climax this Sunday, has been a struggle over the status quo, the meaning of politics, and the very possibility of a future.

Represented by outgoing Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the political establishment was intent on fuelling voters’ fear of the unknown, in this case left-wing Syriza, headed by Alexis Tsipras, winning at the polls (as it did).

Samaras’s overall strategy was to associate the existing order with order in general, suggesting that Syriza’s eventual victory would foreshadow not just a different, let alone a more just, political-economic arrangement, but total disorder and collapse.

Indeed, throughout the electoral campaign, the leader of the New Democracy party resorted to a classic tactic, painting an image of his conservative government as a “restrainer”, the katechon (literally, “that which withholds”), the only thing that stood between the Greek people and quasi-apocalyptic chaos.

Two and a half years ago, in the 2012 elections, Greek citizens responded in a lukewarm way to Samaras’ strategy: They handed the first place at the polls to his party, while Syriza finished second with 26.9 percent of the total vote. The real question of Sunday’s polls, however, was whether the majority felt they had anything to lose by voting for a party that promised a completely fresh start for their country. In other words, did some sort of an “end of the world” already happen in Greece, rendering the rhetoric of the status quo ineffective?

The real question of Sunday’s polls, however, was whether the majority felt they had anything to lose by voting for a party that promised a completely fresh start for their country.

The results show that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes”. That is not surprising, given the country’s 25.8 percent unemployment rate(rising to over 50 percent among youths), 34.6 percent relative poverty rate (the highest in the eurozone), plunging consumer confidence (-53.9), and mounting national debt (government debt to GDP of 174.9 percent).

Just as Greece served as a laboratory where the dictates of the Troika were tested and imposed, so, largely as a result of such impositions, it welcomed the first experiment in collective resistance to the non-democratic measures of technocratic rule.

If politics as usual – with a two party system offering no real alternatives, devolution of powers to financial institutions outside the state, and so forth – became unacceptable to Greek voters, it is because they perceived that the national elite’s response to the economic catastrophe was itself catastrophic.

Alexis Tsipras’ emphasis on hope (with the slogan “Hope Is Here”) is a textbook case of offering the people a way of relating to the future that is diametrically opposed to the conservative bet on fear. However, far more crucial than the Hobbesian contrast between the uses of hope and fear as means of stimulating or controlling the population, the political contest has been about the field of possibilities – one might say, about the very possibility of possibility.

On the one hand, Samaras reiterated the conservative and European Union position that austerity is the only way out of the unprecedented crisis in Greece and the rest of southern Europe. Together with Angela Merkel and others, he dismissed suggestions for positive economic change that would not involve austerity measures as naïve, utopian, out of touch with reality.

The array of political possibilities thus narrowed down to one, which rendered politics, as a contestation of alternative views of the common good, superfluous and replaced it with dictates, stemming for the most part outside Greek borders.

Economy main issue in Greece election

On the other hand, Tsipras laid out the vision that another world is possible. Although Syriza tends to be characterised as an “anti-austerity party”, its programme is not an armchair critique of “the way things are”; it contains, for instance, concrete proposals for growth and job creation and a “European New Deal” complete with debt restructuring and EU public investment. 

Substantively, this plan of action offers a future for Greece, where the current levels of national debt and unemployment are unsustainable and inconsistent with the continuation of the social contract. Formally, it reinvigorates political and economic debates with a sense of possibility that, until not so long ago, did not so much as register on the radars of the status quo.

On January 25, Greek voters rejected the suffocating measures foisted upon them by a conservative government in line with the plan devised by the EU together with financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund. Although rooted in the unbearable nature of austerity measures, the collective will expressed at the polls cannot be reduced to a mere reaction.

Syriza’s victory, and even its coalition agreement with the nationalist Independent Greeks party, signal the end of institutionalised consensus, the revival of politics as a whole and a new opening for the future. It is now up to the rest of Europe – and above all, other southern European countries – to heed the Greek call.   

Michael Marder is IKERBASQUE research professor at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. His most recent books include The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium and Pyropolitics: When the World Is Ablaze.