Slavoj Zizek: How Alexis Tsipras and Syriza Outmaneuvered Angela Merkel and the Eurocrats

The rebels in Greece are waging a patient guerrilla war against financial occupation.

Slavoj Žižek

Giorgio Agamben said in an interview that thought is the courage of hopelessness” — an insight that is especially pertinent for our historical moment when even the most pessimist diagnostics finishes with an uplifting hint at the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. True courage, however, is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that no discernible alternative exists. Indeed, the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice, it functions as a fetish that prevents us from thinking to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlight of another train approaching us from the opposite direction. There is no better example of the need for such courage than Greece today.

The “no” of the referendum can only survive if the Greeks continue to lead a patient guerilla warfare against financial occupation.

The double U-turn that the Greek crisis took in July 2015 cannot but appear as a step not just from tragedy to comedy but, as Syriza’s Stathis Kouvelakis noted, from tragedy full of comic reversals directly into a theatre of the absurd. After all, how else can one characterize this extraordinary reversal of one extreme into its opposite, one that would bedazzle even the most speculative Hegelian philosopher? Tired of the endless negotiations with the EU executives in which one humiliation followed another, the Syriza referendum on Sunday, July 5 asked the Greek people if they support or reject the EU proposal of new austerity measures. Although the government itself clearly stated that it supported a no” vote, the result was a surprise for the government: 61 percent voted no” to European blackmail. Rumors began to circulate that the result— victory for the government — was a surprise for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who it was said secretly hoped that the government would lose, as a defeat would allow him to save face in surrendering to the EU demands. (“We have to respect the voters’ voice,” he had said.) However, the morning after, Tsipras announced that Greece is ready to resume the negotiations, and days later Greece negotiated a EU proposal which is basically the same as what the voters rejected (in some details even harsher) — in short, he acted as if the government has lost, not won, the referendum. Kouvelakis put it this way:

How is it possible for a devastating no” to memorandum austerity policies to be interpreted as a green light for a new memorandum? … The sense of the absurd is not just a product of this unexpected reversal. It stems above all from the fact that all of this is unfolding before our eyes as if nothing has happened, as if the referendum were something like a collective hallucination that suddenly ends, leaving us to continue freely what we were doing before. But because we have not all become lotus-eaters, let us at least give a brief résumé of what has taken place over the past few days. … From Monday morning, before the victory cries in the country’s public squares had even fully died away, the theater of the absurd began. … The public, still in the joyful haze of Sunday, watches as the representative of the 62 percent subordinated to the 38 percent in the immediate aftermath of a resounding victory for democracy and popular sovereignty. … But the referendum happened. It wasn’t a hallucination from which everyone has now recovered. On the contrary, the hallucination is the attempt to downgrade it to a temporary letting off of steam,” prior to resuming the downhill course towards a third memorandum.

And things went on in this direction. On the night of July 10, the Greek Parliament has given Alexis Tsipras the authority to negotiate a new bailout by 250 votes to 32, but 17 government MPs didn’t back the plan, which means he got more support from the opposition parties than from his own. Days later, the Syriza Political Secretariat dominated by the Left wing of the party concluded that EU’s latest proposals are absurd” and exceed the limits of Greek society’s endurance.” Leftist extremism? The IMF itself (in this case a voice of minimally rational capitalism) made exactly the same point: an IMF study published a day earlier showed that Greece needs far more debt relief than European governments have been willing to contemplate so far. European countries would have to give Greece a 30-year grace period on servicing all its European debt, including new loans, and a dramatic maturity extension. No wonder that Tsipras himself publicly stated his doubt about the bailout plan: We don’t believe in the measures that were imposed upon us,” Tsipras said during a TV interview, making it clear that he supports it out of pure despair, to avoid a total economic and financial collapse.

The Eurocrats use such confessions with breathtaking perfidity: now that the Greek government accepted their tough conditions, they doubt the sincerity and seriousness of their commitment: how can Tsipras really fight for a program he doesn’t believe in? How can the Greek government be really committed to the agreement when it opposes the referendum result?

However, statements like those from IMF demonstrate that the true problem lies elsewhere: does the EU really believe in their own bailout plan? Does it really believe that the brutally imposed measures will set in motion economic growth and thus enable the payment of debts? Or is it that the ultimate motivation for the brutal extortionist pressure on Greece is not purely economic (since it is obviously irrational in economic terms) but politico-ideological — or, as Paul Krugman put it, substantive surrender isn’t enough for Germany, which wants regime change and total humiliation — and there’s a substantial faction that just wants to push Greece out, and would more or less welcome a failed state as a caution for the rest.” One should always bear in mind the horror that Syriza represents for the European establishment. A conservative Polish member of the European parliament went as far as to directly appeal to the Greek army to stage a coup d’etat to save the country.

Why this horror? Greeks are now asked to pay a high price, but not for a realist perspective of growth. The price they are asked to pay is for the continuation of the extend and pretend” fantasy. They are asked to ascend to their actual suffering in order to sustain another’s — the Eurocrats’ — dream. Gilles Deleuze said decades ago: Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtes foutus” (“If you are caught into another’s dream, you are fucked.” This is the situation in which Greece now finds itself: Greeks are not asked to swallow many bitter pills for a realist plan of economic revival, they are asked to suffer so that others can go on dreaming their dream undisturbed. The one who now needs awakening is not Greece but Europe. Everyone who is not caught in this dream knows what awaits us if the bailout plan is enacted: another 90 or so billions will be thrown into the Greek basket, raising the Greek debt to 400 or so billions (and most of those billions will quickly return back to Western Europe — the true bailout is the bailout of German and French banks, not of Greece), and we can expect the same crisis to explode again in a couple of years.

But is such an outcome really a failure? At an immediate level, if one compares the plan with its actual outcome, obviously yes. At a deeper level, however, one cannot avoid a suspicion that the true goal is not to give Greece a chance but to change it into an economically colonized semi-state kept in permanent poverty and dependency, as a warning to others. But at an even deeper level, there is again a failure — not of Greece, but of Europe itself, of the emancipatory core of European legacy.

The no” of the referendum was undoubtedly a great ethico-political act: against a well-coordinated enemy propaganda spreading fears and lies, with no clear prospect of what lies ahead, against all pragmatic and realist” odds, the Greek people heroically rejected the brutal pressure of the EU. The Greek no” was an authentic gesture of freedom and autonomy. The big question is, of course, what happens the day after, when we have to return from the ecstatic negation to the everyday dirty business? And here, another unity emerged, the unity of the pragmatic” forces (Syriza and the big opposition parties) against the Syriza Left and Golden Dawn. But does this mean that the long struggle of Syriza was in vain, that the no” of the referendum was just a sentimental empty gesture destined to make the capitulation more palpable?

The Greek no” and the ensuing compromise clearly demonstrated that Greeks have no illusions of democratic cooperation and solidarity with the EU. Any serious analysis of the situation was preempted. Greece was brutally blackmailed into submission. So it was a heroic act on the part of Greeks to state so publicly. The catastrophic thing about the Greek crisis is that the moment the choice appeared as the choice between a grexit and the capitulation to Brussels, the battle was already lost. The parameters of both choices lie within the predominant Eurocratic vision. (Recall that the German anti-Greek hardliners, like German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, also preferred grexit!). The Syriza government was not just fighting for greater debt relief and for more new money within the same overall coordinates, but for the awakening of Europe from its dogmatic slumber.

Linguistic theory elaborated the opposition between syntagm (the chain of speech) and paradigm (the structure which sustains this chain). Playing with the ambiguity of the word syntagm” (which also means in Greek constitution”), we can describe the authentic greatness of Syriza. Insofar as the icon of the popular unrest in Greece were the protests on the Syntagma [the Constitution square], Syriza engaged in a Herculean labor of enacting the shift from syntagm to paradigm, in the long and patient work of translating the energy of rebellion into concrete measures that would change everyday life of the people. To be precise: the no” of the Greek referendum was not a no” to austerity, in the sense of necessary sacrifices and hard work, but a no” to the the EU dream of just going on with the business as usual.

Varoufakis repeatedly made this point clear: what was needed to give the Greek economy a chance to rebound was not more borrowing but an overall re-haul. The first step in this direction would be an increase in the democratic transparency in regards to the exercise of power. Our democratically elected state apparatuses are increasingly impaired by both a network of agreements” (TISA, etc.) and by non-elected expert” bodies that wield the real economic (and military) power. Here is Varoufakis’s report on an extraordinary moment in his dealings with Jeroen Dijsselbloem:

There was a moment when the President of the Eurogroup decided to move against us and effectively shut us out, and made it known that Greece was essentially on its way out of the Eurozone. … There is a convention that communiqués must be unanimous, and the President can’t just convene a meeting of the Eurozone and exclude a member state. And he said, Oh I’m sure I can do that.” So I asked for a legal opinion. It created a bit of a kerfuffle. For about 5 to 10 minutes the meeting stopped, clerks, officials were talking to one another, on their phone, and eventually some official, some legal expert addressed me, and said the following words: Well, the Eurogroup does not exist in law, there is no treaty which has convened this group.” So what we have is a non-existent group that has the greatest power to determine the lives of Europeans. It’s not answerable to anyone, given it doesn’t exist in law; no minutes are kept; and it’s confidential. So no citizen ever knows what is said within. … These are decisions of almost life and death, and no member has to answer to anybody.

Sounds familiar? Yes, to anyone who knows how Chinese power functions today. After Mao’s death, Deng Tsiao-Ping established a dual political system: the state apparatus and legal system are redoubled by the Party institutions which are literally extralegal — or, as He Weifang, a law professor from Beijing, put it:

As an organization, the Party sits outside, and above, the law. It should have a legal identity, in other words, a person to sue, but it is not even registered as an organization. The Party exists outside the legal system altogether.

It is as if, as Walter Benjamin put it , violence which sustains state power remains present, embodied in an organization with an unclear legal status. As Richard McGregor writes in The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers:

It would seem difficult to hide an organization as large as the Chinese Communist Party, but it cultivates its backstage role with care. The big party departments controlling personnel and the media keep a purposely low public profile. The party committees (known as leading small groups’) which guide and dictate policy to ministries, which in turn have the job of executing them, work out of sight. The make-up of all these committees, and in many cases even their existence, is rarely referred to in the state-controlled media, let alone any discussion of how they arrive at decisions.

No wonder that exactly the same thing happened to Varoufakis as happened to a Chinese dissident who, some years ago, formally brought to court and charged the Chinese Communist Party with being guilty of the Tien An Mien massacre. After a couple of months, he got a reply from the ministry of justice: They cannot pursue his charge since there is no organization called Chinese Communist Party” officially registered in China.

It is crucial to note how the obverse of this non-transparency of power is false humanitarianism: After the Greek defeat, there is, of course, time for humanitarian concerns. President of the European Commision Jean-Claude Juncker immediately stated in an interview that he is so glad about the bailout deal because it will immediately ease the suffering of the Greek people which worried him very much. This was classic: A political crack-down is followed by humanitarian concern and help, such as the postponing debt payments, etc.

What should one do in such a hopeless situation? First, one should resist the temptation of grexit as a heroic act that rejects further humiliations and steps outside — into what? What new positive order are we stepping into? The grexit option appears as the real-impossible,” as something that would lead to an immediate social disintegration. Krugman wrote:

Tsipras apparently allowed himself to be convinced, some time ago, that euro exit was completely impossible. It appears that Syriza didn’t even do any contingency planning for a parallel currency (I hope to find out that this is wrong). This left him in a hopeless bargaining position.

Krugman’s point is that grexit is also an impossible-real that can happen with unpredictable consequences and which, as such, can be risked:

All the wise heads saying that Grexit is impossible, that it would lead to a complete implosion, don’t know what they are talking about. When I say that, I don’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong — I believe they are, but anyone who is confident about anything here is deluding himself. What I mean instead is that nobody has any experience with what we’re looking at.

While in principle this is true, there are nonetheless many indications that a sudden grexit would lead to utter economic and social catastrophe. Syriza economic strategists are well aware that such a gesture would cause an immediate further fall of the standard of living for an additional, at minimum, 30 percent, bringing misery to a new unbearable level, with the threat of popular unrest and even military dictatorship. The prospect of such heroic acts is thus a temptation to be resisted.

Then there are the so-called left” calls for Syriza to return to its roots: Syriza should not become just another governing parliamentary party, the true change can only come from grass-roots, from the people themselves, from their self-organization, not from the state apparatuses. This is another example of empty posturing, since it avoids the crucial problem, which is how to deal with the international pressure concerning debt, or, more generally, how to exert power and run a state. Grass-roots self-organization cannot replace the state. The question is how to reorganize the state apparatus to make it function differently.

It’s nonetheless not enough to say that Syriza put up a heroic fight, testing what is possible. The fight goes on, in fact it has just began. Instead of dwelling on the contradictions” of Syriza policy (after a triumphant no,” Syriza accepts the very program that was rejected by the people), and of getting caught in mutual recriminations about who is guilty (did the Syriza parliamentary majority commit an opportunistic treason,” or was the Left irresponsible in its preference for grexit), one should focus on what the enemy’s actions. The contradictions” of Syriza are a mirror image of the contradictions” of the EU establishment as it gradually undermines the very foundations of a united Europe. In the guise of Syriza contradictions,” the EU establishment is merely getting back its own message in its true form. And this is what Syriza should be doing now. With a ruthless pragmatism and cold calculation, it should exploit the tiniest cracks in the opponent’s armor. It should use all those who resist the predominant EU politics, from British conservatives to UKIP in the UK. It should shamelessly flirt with Russia and China, playing with the idea of giving an island to Russia as its Mediterranean military base, just to scare the shit out of NATO strategists. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, now that the EU God has failed, everything is permitted.

When one hears the complaints that the EU administration brutally ignores the plight of the Greek people in their blind obsession with humiliating and disciplining the Greeks, that even Southern-European countries like Italy or Spain didn’t show any solidarity with Greece, our reaction should be: Is this a surprise? What did the critics expect? That the EU administration will magically understand Syriza’s arguments and act in compliance with them? The EU administration is simply doing what it was always doing. On top of this is the reproach that Greece is looking for help in Russia and China — as if Europe itself is not pushing Greece in that direction with its humiliating pressure.

Some claim that the political ascendency of Syriza demonstrates how the traditional Left/​Right dichotomy has outlived its usefulness. The argument goes like this: Syriza in Greece is called extreme Left, and Marine le Pen in France extreme Right, but these two parties have effectively a lot in common: they both fight for state sovereignty, against multinational corporations. It is therefore quite logical that in Greece itself, Syriza is in coalition with a small Rightist pro-sovereignty party. On April 22, 2015, Francois Hollande said on TV that Marine le Pen today sounds like George Marchais (a French Communist leader) in 1970s — voicing a patriotic advocacy of the plight of ordinary French people exploited by international capital. No wonder Marine le Pen supports Syriza. This weird claim doesn’t say a lot more than the old Liberal wisdom than Fascism is also a kind of Socialism. The moment we bring into the picture the topic of immigrant workers, this argument of political parallels falls apart.

The ultimate problem is much more basic. The recurring story of the contemporary Left is that of a leader or party elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a new world” (Mandela, Lula) — but, then, sooner or later, usually after a couple of years, they stumble when they confront the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the mechanics of corporate capitalism, or does one decide to play the game”? If one disturbs the mechanisms of capital, one is very swiftly punished” by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest.

The heroism of Syriza was that, after winning the democratic political battle, they took a risk and and issued a second threat to the smooth run of Capital by demanding radical economic changes in the EU. The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our ultimate reality. That is to say, today’s protests and revolts are sustained by the overlapping of different levels, and this combination accounts for their strength: They fight for (“normal” parliamentary) democracy against authoritarian regimes; against racism and sexism, especially the hatred directed at immigrants and refugees; for a welfare-state against neoliberalism; against corruption in politics and the economy (companies polluting environment, etc.); for new forms of democracy that reach beyond multi-party rituals (participatory democracy, etc.); and, finally, today’s protests question the global capitalist system as such and try to keep alive the idea of a non-capitalist society. Two traps are to be avoided here: False radicalism (“what really matters is the abolition of liberal-parliamentary capitalism, all other fights are secondary”), as well as false gradualism (“now we fight against dictatorship and for simple democracy, forget your socialist dreams, this comes later — maybe”). When we are part of a specific struggle, the key question is: How will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? Our general rule should be, when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case across the Arab world in 2011, it is easy to mobilize large crowds with slogans that are best characterized as crowd pleasers — for democracy, against corruption, etc. But from there we gradually face more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realize that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) continues in a new guise.

In Egypt, protesters succeeded in getting rid of the oppressive Mubarak regime, but corruption remained, and the prospect of a decent life moved even further away. After the overthrow of an authoritarian regime, the last vestiges of patriarchal care for the poor can fall away, so that the newly gained freedom is de facto reduced to the freedom to choose the preferred form of one’s misery: the majority not only remains poor, but, to add insult to injury, it is being told that, since they are now free, poverty is their own responsibility. In such a predicament, we have to admit that there was flaw in our goal itself, that our goal was not specific enough. For example, standard political democracy can also serve as the very form of un-freedom: Political freedom can easily provide the legal frame for economic slavery, with the underprivileged freely” selling themselves into servitude. In short, we have to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realize a noble principle, democratic freedom, is a failure inherent to this principle itself. We are thus brought to demand more than just political democracy. We must demand democratization also of social and economic life.

Today, the the keepers of our ruling ideology mobilize their entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. They start to tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibility, that it comes at a price, that we are not yet mature citizens if we expect too much from democracy. In this way, they blame us for our failure: in a free society, so we are told, we are all capitalist investing in our lives, deciding to put more into our education than into having fun if we want to succeed, etc. At a more directly political level, the United States foreign policy employs a detailed strategy that exerts damage control by way of re-channeling a popular uprising into acceptable parliamentary-capitalist constraints — as was done successfully in South Africa after the fall of apartheid regime, in Philippines after the fall of Marcos, in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto, etc. It is at this precise conjuncture, radical emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: How do we push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over? How to take the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of the totalitarian” temptation — in short, how to move further from Nelson Mandela without becoming Robert Mugabe.

The courage of hopelessness is crucial at this point. The no” of the Greek referendum can survive only if the Greeks enact their enforced surrender in the right way, only if they continue to lead a patient guerilla warfare against financial occupation.

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Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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