The dignity of Greece

Crowds celebrate the

Crowds celebrate the “no” vote in Athens’ Syntagma Square, July 5, 2015. Photo from @socialistworker

It’s important to remember that a lot of people will suffer because of the vote last night. They would have suffered if the vote had gone “yes,” and they will suffer now because the vote went “no.” To imagine otherwise, to think that from here on it gets easy, is to slight the rooted courage of their rejection. Greeks were ready for defiance because they had already suffered for seven years, in the kind of agony rarely inflicted on a developed economy outside a science-fiction movie; but they know that things can get worse, and in the short run, they will. Theirs is the courage of the indignados and the damnés de la terre, those with their backs against the wall, the heroism twined with the knowledge of relentless Fate that Homer might have described had Homer been an economist with tenure:

ἀλλὰ φίλος θάνε καὶ σύ: τί ἦ ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτως;
κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλος, ὅ περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων.

Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.

Brave and unflinching, Greeks have earned the right to celebrate for a while in Syntagma Square. But the suffering isn’t over. The vicarious victory party now sending the British, or American, or even Spanish left into ecstasy – these revels where you laud starving others for audaciously doing what you didn’t dare to — ought to be tempered by a smidgen of humility and sorrow. After all, these are people who, unlike Greeks, know their ATMs will give them cash in the morning.

The left prides itself on empathy, on getting in the skins of others. Often, though, this means making them your sacrificial victims, singled out by History to play in a Hegelian Hunger Games; stars of your show whose sufferings you can colonize, projecting your emotions onto their hearts and lives. Conservatives never face this problem, since their empathy stops with themselves. For years I’ve thought that the paradigmatic right-wing response to almost anything, elegant in its brisk foreclosure, came from the incomparable racist John Derbyshire, who used to disgrace the pages of the US journal National Review. Reading about what he first took for a cruise ship disaster in the Red Sea, he “learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.” By contrast, a leftist response would be to submerge your head in the bathwater, convince yourself you’d drowned, and then send a Tweet about it (#WeAreAllEgyptians). Neither answer helps.

“No” swept almost every regional unit of the country: Map of voting, by the Guardian

We’re not all Greeks. Only a select sodality of wounded societies have undergone what the Greeks did. The figures on Greece’s suffering don’t inform, they numb. Since 2008, the country’s gross domestic product withered by more than a quarter.  Incomes dropped by a third. Pensions were cut 40%, and often not paid at all. One in four Greeks is jobless, six of ten among youth. In Athens, 18,000 are estimated to be homeless – one-tenth of the city’s unemployed, 3% of its people.

Alex Andreou, who has been writing powerfully on the polity and the crisis, tells one story:

Last winter, I stood outside the Opera House in the centre of Athens looking at the posters in the window. I was approached by a well-dressed and immaculately groomed elderly lady. I moved to the side. I thought she wanted to pass. She didn’t. She asked me for a few euros because she was hungry. …

Her name was Magda and she was in her mid-seventies. She had worked as a teacher all her life. Her husband had been a college professor and died “mercifully long before we were reduced to this state,” as she put it. They paid their tax, national insurance and pension contributions straight out of the salary, like most people. They never cheated the state. They never took risks. They saved. …

In the first year of the crisis her widow’s pension top-up stopped. In the second and third her own pension was slashed in half. Downsizing was not an option – house prices had collapsed and there were no buyers. In the third year things got worse. “First, I sold my jewellery. Except this ring,” she said, stroking her wedding ring with her thumb. “Then, I sold the pictures and rugs. Then the good crockery and silver. Then most of the furniture. Now there is nothing left that anyone wants. Last month the super came and removed the radiators from my flat, because I hadn’t paid for communal fuel in so long. I feel so ashamed.”

“No” supporter in Syntagma Square on the night of July 5, 2015. Photo from @Stratosathens

Europe’s magnates say it’s simple: all about debts betrayed, bad faith. The Greeks didn’t keep their promises. But most Greeks did. They paid into the system; they believed the system would keep its promises to them. The system meant the government, their workplaces, even the oligarchs who profited from their labor. For most Greeks, it also meant Europe. From the start of Greece’s odyssey with the EU, even before membership in 1981, Europe had presented itself as guarantor of a level of prosperity that small nation-states could no longer secure on their own. Europe also promised to be the guardian of democracy. Greece’s entry into the EU, like Spain’s was a reward less for economic performance than for political change: for overthrowing, without violence and without vengeance, one of the most vicious dictatorships on the continent. Europe’s standards of governance would protect that freedom, won after a rending and sanguinary century.

And what did Greeks get for their faith? Betrayal. The EU, as the crisis cinched in, deliberately set out to bankrupt them: not just the state but the people, to take away their jobs, their winter fuel, their homes, even their gewgaws and their memories. Before the referendum, in a final indignity, the European Central Bank cut off Greek banks’ cash, to remind depositors of their abjection. As Andreou writes, it

acted to asphyxiate the Greek economy – the ultimate blackmail to force subordination. The money is there, in our accounts, but we cannot have access to it, because the overseers of our own banking system, the very people who some months ago issued guarantees of liquidity, have decided to deny liquidity. We have phantom money, but no real money. …

But Europe also showed its complete contempt for the democracy it promised to defend. “EU Institutions are now openly admitting that their aim is regime change. A coup d’état in everything but name, using banks instead of tanks and a corrupt media as the occupiers’ broadcaster.” The contempt continues tonight; that ballots were actually cast only makes the rulers angrier. Europe’s magnates spit in fury, red-faced on TV, their fat mouths taut with rage as if they’d swallowed tennis balls, chuffing and lobbing out names. They reduce everything to insults and personalities, because they’ve forgotten what it is like to deal with a people and not merely a person or two, to confront a collective will, to contend in a democracy. They think all decisions are made in small rooms by men in suits. “Tsipras and his government are leading the Greek people on a path of bitter abandonment and hopelessness,” said the vice-chancellor and economy minister of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel. He condemned the very act of Tsipras consulting the Greeks as a “rejection of the rules of the euro zone.” This man belongs to a party which still calls itself social democratic: much as Americans name their sports teams for the peoples they killed.

I  don't make the rules, but I can make you sorry: Sigmar Gabriel

I don’t make the rules, but I can make you sorry: Sigmar Gabriel

There are many lessons from the victory tonight. Three I take to heart.

The first is: nations matter. That might seem self-evident. But both in bureaucratic Europe and in the large swatches of the world where weak states prevail, it’s not. After the crisis struck in 2008, Greeks lost faith in the parties and leaders who had made the Republic in their image since 1975: they abandoned as illusive the nation they’d inherited. And they also lost their faith in the trans-national, overarching EU project that had said it would fix whatever the state got wrong. The disenchantment came the way Hemingway said you go bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Of course, the disenchantment was bankruptcy, pretty much.

When people lose faith that way in the arenas where they used to project their aspirations and play out their plans, it leaves you to ask: what kind of political space can function anymore? When both nation and trans-national institutions look like elaborate schemes to fuck you, what’s left? The anarchist movements so vital in Greece over the last seven years didn’t so much offer answers, as stark and inventive ways of posing the question. How can we act, and where? Are there places in society where we can actually accomplish change, gradual or disruptive, on any scale, maybe the more local and microscopic the better? And what is society anyway, in a catastrophe when it’s being torn apart? The testimonies of anarchists about the protest movements of 2008 and after, many collected by the editors of the excellent anthology Revolt and Crisis in Greece, suggest abysses of questioning that few of the Occupy movements elsewhere plumbed. There was a desire to disrupt the representations that made up existing, illusory political space; to use that rupture to constitute a new beginning; to challenge people to act – but how? Where?

Anarchist graffiti in Athens' Exarchia district depicts a history of state corruption. Photo by Alex Zaitchik at http://exiledonline.com/letter-from-athens-inside-the-greek-crisis-with-anarchists-and-the-radicalized-ex-middle-class/

Anarchist graffiti in Athens’ Exarchia district depicts a history of state corruption. Photo by Alex Zaitchik at http://exiledonline.com/letter-from-athens-inside-the-greek-crisis-with-anarchists-and-the-radicalized-ex-middle-class/

In one 2008 demo,

We interrupt a live state TV news broadcast and silently raise a banner to silence this representation of reality. We call on people to stop being viewers, to step out of their homes, to take to the streets, to resist. The black and white banner that some of us held for eighty seconds articulated no claim, no plan and no certainty. … Against the anxiousness to explain, against the guilt of failing to predict and foretell, to plan and rationalise and fit in, to summarise and nicely narrate violence, we opposed our living thrill of collective and direct action against an absurd but confident reality and said nothing, really.

As with many Situationist-inflected actions, it’s easy to make fun of this – particularly if your ATMs are working. But that’s wrong. The writer expresses exactly the moment when old political space has been sapped of meaning, and when the rupture required to break with it seems (because the exact shape of the new is unknown and unimagined) pointless, undirected, free from the chains of calculation. Novel political spaces were springing up like bubbles in the disruption and decay, but they were both too surprising and too ordinary to be described. The same writer says:

Before December [2008], each one of us lived in one place and worked in another and we were all divided into groups that formed clear networks of representation that ‘vov uld address themselves to other grmlps higher in the hierarchy that would decide when to vote, where to demonstrate, and how schools, workplaces, malls and bars, airports and supermarkets will be distributed around the country…. But once taking to the streets and feeling part of a living community of people, we couldn’t but occupy our cities in a different way. This experience of socialisation could not fit inside our offices and TV screens, coffee shops, shopping avenues, and secured square metres designed for us to live in. Our coming together violently spoiled the facades of all those urban places that actually cancel out our possibility of interaction and chain us to the role of a non-citizen …. [W]e did not transform the spaces given to us, but we created new ones where we could also let ourselves be created. …

Before December, we knew it already — no one was to be trusted, politics was corrupt, things were getting irreversibly worse all the time and there was nothing to do about it. But then we took to the streets, we found each other … Our relating to each other in an equal way and the spaces, words and actions we formed rejected common sense, because they were not just directed against the state; this was a politics of resistance and solidarity that was bluntly stateless.

That this inchoate Utopia culminated, years later, in the comparative banality of a referendum is from one perspective – the pure anarchist one — a story of spontaneity and subjectivity lost, corrupted by the demons of teleology and power. But from another vantage it’s the story of actions that were searching for their proper spaces, and eventually, piecemeal, found them. The loss of spontaneity was also its consummation. Those sudden solidarities stretched out over time and slowly built a new political sphere, a new space for acting.

Anarchist graffiti in Exarchia. Photo by Alex Zaitchik

Anarchist graffiti in Exarchia. Photo by Alex Zaitchik

The myriad small arenas of resistance and solidarity that the political collapse created were themselves creative. They came together. They became movements. The narrative of the last seven years – a history which, in its broadening scope and scale, its mounting urgency, truly has been epic – is how those forces have coalesced, negotiated, melded, expanded, till they speak in this crisis with the whole will of the people. And the people, the society, the nation – all those words returned, after all those years when they seemed to empty and befouled for people to use them. By capturing the nation-state, the movements were able to make it the redoubt for fighting back, battling the FührerBefehlen of the market and its enforcers. They repudiated the old, corrupt, discredited nation. But they recuperated the nation as a site of resistance.

How this growth happened in Greece over seven years should be something for coming generations of the left to study, the way our grandparents read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, or – the more humane among them – Victor Serge. But for now the point seems clear. We can still exalt those micro-spaces of anarchic, everyday resistance; or, alternatively, those big international solidarities wrapped like swaddling bands around the globe. But the nation, the people – those clunky, worn-down political imaginaries in between – have a privileged role, and can be regenerated. They serve a use. In their outcries alone lie the moral credibility and the practical power to check, even temporarily, the market’s encroachments.

The second lesson is: democracy matters.

A lot of people think it always matters, that no other kind of government is legitimate. In fact, though, it’s precisely the countries everybody calls democracies, in North America and Europe, that no longer rely on democratic process to give legitimacy to government decisions. Their laws and policies take their warrant from the market, not the deliberations of the governed. It’s the nasty dictatorships that keep pulling out the plebiscites and elections, the faked presidential ballots with the 98% wins, to lend the sheen of mandate and consent. They don’t know voting is irrelevant! They’re hicks stuck in the backwash of the trend. Democracies themselves, maturer and more orderly, have moved beyond democracy.

If you read one writer to help you understand Greece, make it Wolfgang Streeck. Streeck, a sociologist and political theorist, asks: Can democracy and capitalism still coexist? Contemporary capitalism poses this question itself, insisting it is above politics, that democratic decision-making is incompatible with its charm. “Mainstream economics has become obsessed with the ‘irresponsibility’ of opportunistic politicians who cater to an economically uneducated electorate by interfering with otherwise efficient markets, in pursuit of objectives—such as full employment and social justice—that truly free markets would in the long run deliver anyway, but must fail to deliver when distorted by politics.” But this perhaps understates the case, because the credo of capitalism today is that market logic will prevail even despite democratic interference. In Margaret Thatcher’s mantra, There Is No Alternative.

Maggie forecasts the future: Go vote for Hillary, or Bernie, or Carly Fiorina; I don't give a fuck. You'll still get TINA.

Maggie forecasts the future:
Yeah, vote for Bernie, Hillary, or Carly Fiorina:
I don’t give a bloody fuck. You’ll still get TINA.

The foreclosure of choice is self-fulfilling. States rig their systems to respond to markets, not citizens.

Increasingly capitalists say they can’t work without a framework of institutions completely insulated from the popular will: protection of markets and property rights constitutionally enshrined against discretionary political interference; independent regulatory authorities; central banks, firmly protected from electoral pressures; and international institutions, such as the European Commission or the European Court of Justice, that do not have to worry about popular re-election.

From this Fortress of Solitude, ‘‘the markets’ have begun to dictate in unprecedented ways what presumably sovereign and democratic states may still do for their citizens and what they must refuse them.”

Reification: Georg Lukacs in 1913

Not ready to be reified: Georg Lukács in 1913

Writers from Marx to Karl Polanyi saw a basic contradiction between two visions of justice and law: one in which societies can make shared decisions about goods and values, and one in which markets take over and distribute everything. Markets, their proponents say, should distribute everything because they’re “natural,” hence fair. In fact, they’re human artifacts. But they have the gift of becoming fetishes, of seeming eternal. They infiltrate the mind and don the sacred guise of givens, forces of nature. This ferocious permanence, this mythic immutability, has been constituent to capitalism, and the myth’s authority over imaginations expands as the markets do. Georg Lukács explored this just under a hundred years ago, the way that the seemingly 

“natural laws” of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society; that – for the first time in history – the whole of society is subjected, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process, and that the fate of every member of society is determined by unified laws. This rationalisation of the world appears to be complete, it seems to penetrate the very depths of man’s physical and psychic nature.

But the laws are irrational because they lie, pretending to be natural and not manmade. “This incoherence becomes particularly egregious in periods of crisis.”

On closer examination the structure of a crisis is seen to be no more than a heightening of the degree and intensity of the daily life of bourgeois society. In its unthinking, mundane reality that life seems firmly held together by “natural laws”; yet it can experience a sudden dislocation because the bonds uniting its various elements and partial systems are a chance affair even at their most normal. So that the pretence that society is regulated by “eternal, iron” laws … is finally revealed for what it is: a pretence.

Democratic capitalism, as it flourished for a few generations in Europe and North America, was an uneasy compromise between market distribution and social control. Its politics allowed people limited power to temper how the market worked. In return, their consent legitimated the market’s basic dominance over society. This held together when things were growing, during the trentes glorieuses of rising graphs and expanding possibility. But in economic crisis the compromise breaks down. Then the elites turn on democracy, demand things from governments that the people won’t give, and look for non-democratic means – new mythologies – to legitimate those expropriations. In the economic shambles of the 1920s and 1930s European leaders fled from democracy like scattered lemmings. In our time European states have a collective structure, so they can abandon democracy together.

In the Greek crisis, the elites redoubled their refrain that there was no alternative to austerity, that society must roll over prone before the jagged juggernaut of the market. Yet the crisis, “heightening the degree and intensity of the daily life of bourgeois society” -– unleashing desperation and cracking open spaces of dissent — was an unmasking. It let ordinary Greeks see behind the curtain, where market logic looked not like law but lunacy. No rational system could demand this. Out of the “sudden dislocation” came a democratic upwelling of autonomy and nay-saying, throughout daily life.

The anarchists of 2008 were quite clear that their first experiences of freedom were moments, impermanent, a “living thrill of collective and direct action” that wouldn’t last. The assertion of popular power in the referendum can’t just be a moment, though; it has to be ready for the long run if it’s going to change things. The democratic will has to ensure that state and society don’t lurch back into habits of apathy and submission, where the vote simply legitimates choices made elsewhere.  It needs to build new democratic institutions, immediate ones, close to and permeating daily life. Democracy has to return to workplaces, to schools, to NGOs. Decision-making needs to diffuse throughout society.

workplace-democracyThis is perhaps the third lesson. More is needed; you always need more. The referendum mobilized the nation to say no. But resting content in the space of the nation-state is not an option. The next move has to be both within — democratizing society more and more deeply, so that people have the experience of more and more choices about their lives — and beyond. 

Syriza and the left mobilized nationalism against the austerity hegemons. But while the nation is necessary to resistance, resistance must transcend it. Greek chauvinism is sordid, pervasive, and easy to exploit. (A Greek human rights activist once told me that “Greece has the most progressive policies on ethnic minorities in Europe” — a patent lie — “which is a great triumph because we have no ethnic minorities; everyone is Greek.”)  If the Greek moment collapses back into defending borders and demonizing outsiders, it will turn on itself. Already, as David Graeber points out, Greece ‘has the largest number of military per­sonnel per capita of any NATO country … and the second highest ratio of police (33 per 10,000, or 1 cop per every 303 people).” Police and army have massacred the people before; they can again.

The balance between local democracy, national action, and cosmopolitan vision is exacting to sustain. A few days before the balloting, the anarchist Antonis Vradis wrote that his “no” vote

will go out to the market, this ubiquitous force we have allowed to permeate even the most intimate of our spaces, even the innermost, the core foundations of our existence. It will go out to the parasite scum in suits and ties, the priests of the banking orthodoxy and their pompous, arrogant belief that they can keep running the show, for ever.

But he added:

It will go out to those fueling nationalism in Europe, it will go out against Syriza’s invocation of a Greek “people.” Is there such a thing as a “people”? Of course not; I am not sure what the idea even means. Where does any such commonality lie?

This is a fake question, though. There is a people. It’s constituted by the act of choosing, by saying Here we are; we decide. The Greek people today didn’t exist in the same form the day before the referendum. To keep their sense of their own commonality vivid, viable — to sustain the identity they achieved by choosing — is indispensable. It’s just not enough. 

Demonstrators spell out

Demonstrators spell out “No” during an anti-austerity rally in Syntagma Square, July 3, 2015. Photo by Reuters

The next move has to be beyond the nation-state, because today the pressure on Greece starts up again in Brussels, Berlin, and Frankfurt. (Last night Syriza claimed its victory in the vote, but this morning the Troika claimed the scalp of Yanis Varoufakis.)  “This is when we start re-imagining our cross-border commonalities and interests,” Vradis writes, “this is when we bring down the facade of the market and national unity.” But imagining new common spaces requires the will of those people in London and Madrid, Berlin and Toronto, who were Tweeting exultantly last night but are going to forget about it by tomorrow. They mustn’t forget. They need to abjure their egos and figure out how to stand by Greece concretely, pressuring their own governments to respect another nation. If they don’t, the Greeks will be, again, betrayed.

Dignity” is a term much bandied about, in the headlines on Greece. As usual, it’s mainly rhetoric, more a worn coin than a word with with meaning. Yet in January, after Syriza’s election victory, Alex Andreou wrote about how he voted:

The only promise Tsipras made that truly mattered to me was to “give dignity back to the people.” Of course, he cannot deliver that. Only people can deliver that for themselves. But even mention of that word, “dignity,” in a political context, struck an important chord …

Dignity might be an abstract concept, but its absence is a very real and practical thing. … Spend a day with my mother, who worked two jobs for 45 years, paid every cent of tax and now finds herself diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, with no decent health or social provision and a monthly pension of €400 (£300), and she will explain it to you.

What would she explain? It’s still not clear. Certainly it has something to do with being treated with justice for years of labor and love. But it’s not just passive, not just being-done-to. Surely dignity also means the capacity to choose, to set as far as possible the terms of your life. This self-determination is what what the market stripped from individual Greeks as much as from the nation.

Writing about Hitler’s camps, Tzvetan Todorov identified “dignity” not just as a prisoner’s abstract determination to hold her head high, but as a very concrete possession that helped some to survive, and others to be remembered. It meant the ability to make choices about one’s life and to act on them, even at the risk of life itself. “The important thing is to act out the strength of one’s own will, to exert through one’s initiative some influence, however minimal, on one’s surroundings. … It is not enough simply to decide to acquire dignity: that decision must give rise to an act that is visible to others (even if they are not actually there to see it).” To have dignity in this sense meant to make your life your own.

That is how the Greeks asserted dignity, in their homes, on the streets, as a nation. Now others must affirm that dignity by acting also. I don’t know what will come of that choice; nobody does. But it isn’t just up to Brussels and Berlin anymore. It’s up to us; it’s up to you. Victory is not the same as success; it’s not judged by a vulgar triumph. What matters is not what’s chosen, but the act of choosing.

alexandreou_WzAVoBDNote: The lines in the first paragraph are from the Iliad, Book XXI, lines 106-107; Achilles is speaking to the Trojan Lycaon, who begged for mercy after he was overcome in battle. Achilles kills him. The translation is by Robert Fagles.

And another note: If you like Alex Andreou’s remarkable writing on Greece, read more of it here — and give a little something to support it! He’s crowdfunding his work. Go to the page and check out the right-hand column.

If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any democracy! How can you have any democracy if you don’t eat yer meat?

the moneychangers ARE the temple

False alarm, nothing to see here, move along. Greek premier Papandreou cancelled the referendum on the bailout and austerity plan. Probably the tongue-lashing he got from Merkel and Sarkozy at the G-20 summit played its part; a split in his party did too; but now he claims it was just a coy ploy from the start, a way of blackmailing the opposition for support.

It’s fascinating, really, how widespread was the condemnation of a proposal that (in the words of a rare pro-vote pundit) “though a long shot gamble, was a possible way out — registering a national consensus, giving Mr. Papandreou a mandate for reform, and sending a message to Europe to stop squeezing a stone.” But hold on. Europe didn’t want a national consensus. The bankers didn’t want a mandate. They wanted action, and this messy talk of mandates and messages and ballots got in the way. So the plan goes forward, and the tear gas keeps the rioters at bay, and the commentators tut-tut that “modern states are far too large and complex for direct democracy,” even if the only alternative is “corrupt, complacent and long-lasting oligarchies,” because at least you know how to get the corrupt, complacent oligarchies on the phone when you need something done.

Modern Greek democracy, a very imperfect thing, has been good at spawning corrupt oligarchies. The polity never really recovered from the wrenching civil war that followed World War II; that bloody strife between Communists and rightists killed more than 50,000 and left the nation polarized, fearful, and resentful. Conservative paranoia about the left led to the colonels’ coup in 1967, and a seven-year nightmare of torture, xenophobia, and endless martial music. The democracy rebuilt after the junta’s ignominious exit was based on an uneasy parity between the two great factions; the parties agreed to the alternation of power, but doled massive patronage to their supporters as long as they held the reins. Corruption eased the sting for politicians who knew they could occasionally be voted out of office, but would take a tidy sum out the door.

The system, in other words, sucked. It lacked transparency or real accountability. Successive governments from both sides simply lied through their teeth about the debt they were accumulating.

Still, a true liberal — a true democrat — would insist: the fix for such a massive #FAIL of democratic process is more democracy. You repair the system by giving the people the power to clean it up, to build new mechanisms malleable to their real demands and desires.

By this standard, there are no true liberals or democrats anymore. The expert solution to the Greek crisis is: less democracy. Mistakes have been made, and the people have to pay. The less say, the better.  Too many cooks clutter the kitchen. Citizens have to settle for the recipe they’re served — or served in, as the case may be.

How did this mess start?

Greece was allowed in the European Union in 1981. As with Spain and Portugal five years later, it was a reward for a smooth transition to democracy. The EU saw itself (as it still does) as the democrats’ club.  When Greece joined the Euro in 2000, however, it meant — mixed with the many advantages — loss of democratic control over economic decisions.

The advantages were vivid. The euro brought unified interest rates across the whole currency zone. This made it easier for governments with weaker economies to borrow; the strong economies of Germany and France pressed their fingers on the scale, and tilted the overall interest rate downward.  Money poured into Greece and Portugal and Spain, from lenders confident the Eurozone would safeguard all its members’ debts. “Bonds issued by southern European nations were taken to be as safe as German ones. ”

The disadvantages came home when the world economy shrivelled. Greece’s lenders started wanting their money. The Socialist government found out its conservative predecessor had covered up the true amount of the deficit (as the Socialist government before that had too.) And the problem was that two of the three courses governments usually take in such situations were now out of their hands. Greece couldn’t devalue its currency — print more money to pay for its debts and stimulate its economy — because it didn’t have its own currency. That decision had to be made by the European Central Bank. And it couldn’t lower interest rates to get its strangled economy growing. That decision had to be made by the European Central Bank. Only the third response remained under its control: to cut spending to the bone, and devote the money to settling debt.

Governments rarely choose that strategy alone without some version of the other two, because they’d lose all legitimacy by inflicting pure unadulterated pain on the population. But as long as it remained in the Eurozone, Greece’s economy was in the hands of Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. Tremble, puny politicians! The bankers are in charge.

The irony is that its entry into the EU, which came as a recognition of democratic success, launched a process that snatched power over the economy from the country’s democratic leaders. Now Greeks are told they have to eat the spoiled meat of the austerity plan, and only after that can they vote on it. How can you have your vote before you eat your rotten meat?

When democracy can no longer decide the issues closest to people, people lose faith in democracy. The Guardian sees an ambiguously hopeful anarchism in this:

Greek people are realising they are left with what they had at the outset – that is, absolutely nothing to hope for from the mainstream political scene.

Thousands of workers are to be put on reduced pay schemes across the country and hundreds are being fired on a daily basis. The government has raised already existing taxes and introduced a variety of new ones across the board, while slashing salaries and pensions in both the public and private sector. Official unemployment rose by more than 35% year-to-year and now stands at just under 20%; homelessness is on an enormous increase across the country, while tax on food consumption has shot up from 13 to 23%. At the same time, public transport is being dismantled and hospitals across the country barely function. …

Yet at this very moment – when it is not only the rules of the game that are challenged but the game itself – they seem to feel empowered to act in ways that would not have appeared feasible in the past: they physically attack politicians, mock and cancel military-inspired national public parades and humiliate army officials attending them, participate in neighbourhood assemblies and mass demonstrations (irrespective of the amount of tear gas thrown against them by the police), create grassroots trade unions to demand their labour rights, occupy workplaces, disrupt public services and protest in violent, impulsive, unpredictable ways. In these peculiar times, when there is nothing to lose for so many, everything becomes possible.

But of course, when people lose faith in democracy, there are darker options.

There have been democratic success stories in confronting the financial and human crisis — Iceland is one — but far too many democratic governments have failed. Some, like Greece, found to their paralyzed surprise they had lost authority over the economy altogether. The UK let an antiquated electoral system create a hodgepodge government hellbent on an austerity program that few feel they voted for, and that will likely make the depression worse. In the US, the polarization of an angrily divided public reinforces the deadlock of separated powers, and makes the government look like a terrified wiseguy with his feet in concrete, about to be taught to swim.

In the late ’20s and ’30s, a wave of revulsion at democratic impotence swept much of the (non-colonial) world. By 1936, democracy was wizened and waning across Europe, and casting ballots was outmoded as dancing the gavotte. It’s hard to recapture now how much Franklin D. Roosevelt was adulated by Europe’s remaining liberals as the man who saved democracy, proving it could confront the crisis with compassion and strength. Thomas Mann modeled the hero of his Joseph novels (which I used to call the only great liberal fiction of the 20th century, the only one to show a complex character in full harmony with his society) explicitly on Roosevelt, whom he hailed as the redeemer of civilization.

Hope and change aside, we don’t have a Roosevelt on hand. The bankers are throwing the ideals and methods of democracy in the trash. For the out-of-work, the rejected, the uncertain, the abolished and redundant and afraid, where are the alternatives? How many will invent new forms of solidarity to sustain them, and offer a pattern for another kind of society? How many are learning to listen and to work together? How many are learning to hate? 

Wall Street under occupation: anarchism and the alternatives to power

I like anarchists. I always have. Victor Serge is one of my heroes.  (Go read his memoirs, one of the great books of the last century.) And almost everywhere I’ve seen a struggle for human rights — in Budapest, Moscow, Cairo — the anarchists are the ones who keep the faith, who are willing to go on the streets and march for the causes that are unpopular and despised. They’ll stand up, sit in, and get arrested for the issues none of the respectable human rights activists would want to be associated with.   I might trust the fellow with the business card and the Hugo Boss suit to argue for me in court. But it’s the guy in the ragged black T-shirt with the swirling tattoos, clutching his copy of Alexander Berkman, I’d want standing with me when the riot police charge.

My doubts — and this has to do both with Occupy Wall Street, and with the huge but evanescent victories of Midan Tahrir — are about where the project leads. We are seeing an era of what some pundits call “postmodern” revolutions, which don’t aim to seize the levers of state power but to create alternative spaces where a different kind of politics can be generated or imagined.  Changing the government was so 1789, or 1989. This is the age of Lennon, not Lenin. (OK, of Radiohead, but you get the idea.) That was what almost everybody who was in Tahrir seems to remember ecstatically about the experience: the sense they had created a model society radically unlike the one outside, a different kind of community, an embodied challenge to the divide-and-conquer hierarchies of the old state. (Of course, the revolution overthrew the dictator. But the protesters in Tahrir, refraining from violence, also refrained from claiming power for themselves. The result was that when the apparatus of rule slipped from Mubarak’s hands, not the popular movement but the military stepped in to claim it.  The history of the coming years will show whether this was a beautiful affirmation of the revolution’s purity of spirit, or a missed opportunity and an abnegation.) The ensuing months have not depleted that dream, but they’ve shown that only a few rubber bullets are needed to sweep the alternative space away.

The aspiration not to capture power, but to find another way of living altogether beyond its insidious dominion, is not particularly postmodern at all. Its roots are in the old anarchist tradition and its deep skepticism of all authority, its awareness of how dissent can mimic the domination it opposes.  But without power, how can you change anything — instead of just cultivating a private garden that will get bulldozed whenever the powers-that-be assert their eminent domain?  Without power, how can you even hope to safeguard and preserve the changes you’ve accomplished in your own life and self?

The NY Times recently published an article on young activists who reject the idea that voting changes things. As always, the Times is palpably unnerved by people whose demands would be difficult to fit in an editorial.

[F]rom South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over. They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.

The vague, anarchism-inflected ideas of participatory democracy that drive the spreading protests of 2011 seem to give the Times the willies. Voting behind drawn curtains is quieter and doesn’t break things.

I don’t agree. Making democracy more participatory, against its current colonization by mass media and corporate money, is vital.  And participation starts with the local and immediate, with needs and not abstractions, neighbors and not anonymous citizens. But it’s still the state that has final deciding power over who profits and who loses, who gets ahead and who gets screwed; in some cases, who belongs or who doesn’t, or who lives and who dies.   Really to change things surely means wresting that power away from the amoral entities controlling it now.

A participatory democracy in Midan Tahrir or Dewey Square may be an ideal or model, but it will take more than mere mimesis to make the rest of the world resemble it.  It’s very possible that, out of these inchoate protests, a new kind of politics is being born. But these are the hard questions it needs to ask itself if it’s going to grow, and succeed.