Slavoj Zizek: The Greek Apocalypse: Versailles or Brest-Litovsk?

A response to my critics and the case for a guerrilla war within the Eurozone

Slavoj Žižek

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, a man who the author calls an "authentic hero," (R) talks with Syriza lawmaker Nikos Tsoukalas during a session at the Greek parliament on July 22, 2015. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP/ Getty Images)

When my essay on Greece after the referendum The Courage of Hopelessness” was republished by In These Times, its title was changed to How Alexis Tsipras and Syriza Outmaneuvered Angela Merkel and the Eurocrats.” The substance of what I wrote however, was far less optimistic. Yet I have been attacked by many on the Left because I refuse to think of Tsipras’s acceptance of the EU terms as a simple defeat, because I refuse to condemn Tsipras’s treason.”

The entire rhetoric, so beloved by the New Left, of acting at a distance from the state, has to be abandoned.

The reversal of the No” of referendum to the Yes” to Brussels was a devastating shock, a shattering, painful catastrophe. More precisely, it was an apocalypse in both senses of the term: the usual one (catastrophe) and the original, literal one (disclosure, revelation) — the basic antagonism, the deadlock, of the situation was clearly disclosed. But many leftist commentators (Jürgen Habermas included) got it wrong when they read the conflict between the EU and Greece as the conflict between technocracy and politics. The EU treatment of Greece is not technocracy but politics at its purest, a politics that even runs against economic interests. After all, the IMF, a true representative of cold economic rationality, declared the bailout plan unworkable. If anything, it was Greece that stood for economic rationality and the EU that embodied politico-ideological passion. After the Greek banks and stock exchange reopened, there was a tremendous flight of capital and fall of stock prices. This was not primarily a sign of distrust of the Syriza government, but rather of the distrust of the imposed EU measures — a clear brutal message that — as we put it in today’s animistic terms — capital (as represented by governing bodies like the IMF) itself does not believe the EU bailout plan will work. (Of course, but banking industry loves the bailout. Most of the money given to Greece goes to the Western private banks, which means that Germany and other EU superpowers are spending taxpayers’ money to save their own banks, which made the mistake of giving bad loans. Not to mention the fact that Germany profited tremendously from the escape of the Greek capital from Greece to Germany.)

When former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis justified his vote against the measures imposed by Brussels, he compared the deal to the Versailles Treaty, an unjust international agreement that harbored a new war. Although his parallel is accurate, I prefer to compare the EU measures to the Brest-Litovsk treaty between Soviet Russia and Germany at the beginning of 1918, in which, to the consternation of many of its partisans, the Bolshevik government ceded to Germany’s outrageous demands. It’s true, Soviet Russia retreated, but this gave them a breathing space to fortify their power and wait. The same goes for Greece today: We are not at the end. The Greek retreat is not the last word for the simple reason that the crisis will hit again, in a couple of years if not sooner, and not only in Greece. The task of the Syriza government is to get ready for that moment, to patiently occupy positions and plan options. Holding onto political power in these impossible conditions nonetheless provides a minimal space to prepare the ground for future action and for political education.

Therein resides the paradox of the situation: Although the bailout plan will not work, one should not lose one’s nerve and exit the situation, but rather follow it until the next explosion. Why? Because Greece was obviously not prepared for the brutal pressure from the EU — and next time, it must be. Until now, the Syriza government has operated without really controlling the state apparatus, with its 2 million employees. The police and judiciary mostly belong to the political Right, and the government administration is part and parcel of the corrupted clientelist machine. It is precisely this vast state machinery that the Syriza government will have to rely on in the case of the immense work required for a Grexit, or in the even more challenging case of regaining monetary autonomy while remaining within the Eurozone. (This was the policy advocated by Varoufakis: to regain monetary autonomy by supplanting Euro with a parallel currency.)

A thorn in the Eurozone

We should also bear in mind that Grexit was the enemy’s plan. There are even rumors that Schauble offered billions to Greece if it would leave the Eurozone. What makes the Syriza government so troubling to the Eurocrats is precisely the fact that it is the government of a country inside the Eurozone. Writing on Open Democracy, Stathis Gourgouris observed, The international significance of this event and the vehemence with which it has been opposed is due precisely to Greece’s existence within the Eurozone. Who would really care, now that there is no Cold War, if a government of the left had come to power in a little country with drachma as its currency?”

What space does the Syriza government have to maneuver when it is reduced to enacting the politics of its enemy? Should it step down rather than enact a policy that is directly opposed to its program? Such a move is all too easy. It is ultimately a new version of what Hegel called the Beautiful Soul: the position of a moralist who criticizes reality from a comfortable distance, ignoring the way he is part of this reality. As Etienne Balibar put it, Syriza needs most of all to gain time, and the EU powers are doing everything they can to deprive Syriza of time — they try to push Syriza into a corner, enforcing a fast decision: either total capitulation (step down and open up the way for an apolitical” expert government of national unity) or Grexit. Time for what? Not only for preparing itself for the next crisis. We should always bear in mind that the basic task of the Syriza government is not the Euro nor the settling of accounts with the EU but, above all, the radical reorganization of Greece’s long-corrupt social and political institutions. Syriza’s extraordinary problem,” writes Gourgouris, which would not be faced by any other political party in government, was to alter internal institutional frameworks under conditions of external institutional assault” — much like Germany itself did it in early 1800 under French occupation.

The problem Greece is confronting now, writes Gourgouris, is the one of the left governmentability,” in other words, the hard reality of what it means for the radical Left to govern in the world of global capital. What options does the government have? The obvious candidates — simple social democratization, state socialism, withdrawal from state and reliance on social movements — are obviously not enough, The first two belong to the era prior to the new phase of global capitalism that began three decades ago.We have to accept that the epoch of the Welfare State is over, and that the solution for the Left is not to return to the golden era of social democracy. As for the third candidate, the true novelty of the Syriza government is that it is a governmental event: the first time that a Western radical Left (rather than an old style Communist one) took state power. The entire rhetoric, so beloved by the New Left, of acting at a distance from the state, has to be abandoned. One has to heroically assume full responsibility for the welfare of the entire people and leave behind the basic leftist critical” attitude of finding a perverse satisfaction in providing sophisticated explanations of why things had to take a wrong turn.

The choice the Syriza government faced was an actual difficult choice that should be dealt with in brutal pragmatic terms, not a big principled choice between the true act and opportunistic betrayal. The accusations of the Syriza government’s betrayal” are made to avoid the truly big questions: How does one confront capital in the shape it is today? How does one govern, how does one run a state, with people”?

It is all too easy to say, as Gourgouris does, that Syriza is not just a government party but has its roots in popular mobilization and social movements:

[Syriza] is a loose, self-contradictory, and internally antagonistic coalition of leftist thought and practice, very much dependent on the capacity of social movements of all kinds, thoroughly decentralized and driven by the activism of solidarity networks in a broad sphere of action across class lines of conflict, gender and sexuality activism, immigration issues, anti-globalization movements, civil and human rights advocacy, etc.

Okay. However, the question remains: How does, or how should, this reliance on popular self-organization affect running a government?

In his essay in the London Review of Books, Greece Has Been Betrayed,” Tariq Ali wrote:

At the beginning of the month they were celebrating the No’ vote. They were prepared to make more sacrifices, to risk life outside the Eurozone. Syriza turned its back on them. The date 12 July 2015, when Tsipras agreed to the EU’s terms, will become as infamous as 21 April 1967 [the day the Greek generals staged a coup d’état.

After he resigned as finance minister, Varoufakis put it this way:

In the coup d’état the choice of weapon used in order to bring down democracy then was the tanks. Well, this time it was the banks. The banks were used by foreign powers to take over the government. The difference is that this time they’re taking over all public property.

This parallel between 2015 and 1967 is convincing but simultaneously profoundly deceiving. Yes, tanks does rhyme with banks, which means: Greece is now de facto under financial occupation, with strongly reduced sovereignty, all government proposals have to be approved by the Troika” before they are submitted to parliament. In today’s Greece, not only financial decisions, but even financial data, are more and more under foreign control. (Varoufakis didn’t have access to the data of his own ministry — he is now accused by the Greek judiciary of treason for trying to access it). And, to add insult to injury, insofar as the democratically elected government obeys these rules, it voluntarily provides a democratic mask to this financial dictate. (As to the recent charges against Varoufakis for treason, they display obscenity it its purest: While billions disappeared in the last decades, and the state manufactured fabricated financial reports, the only person charged was the journalist who rendered public the names of the owners of illegal foreign bank accounts. But Varoufakis was now instantly charged on ridiculous pretext. If there is an authentic hero in the entire Greek crisis story, it is Varoufakis.)

Should Greek exit?

Should, then, Grexit have been risked? We are confronting here la tentation evenementielle, the evental temptation — the temptation, in a difficult situation, to accomplish the crazy act, to do the impossible, to take the risk and step out whatever the costs, with the underlying logic is that things cannot be worse than they are now.” The catch is that they certainly can get much worse, up to exploding into a full social and humanitarian crisis. The key question is: Was there really an objective possibility of a proper emancipatory act of drawing all politico-economic consequences from the No” of referendum? When Alain Badiou talks about an emancipatory Event, he always emphasizes that an occurrence is not an Event in itself — it only becomes one retroactively, through its consequences, through the hard and patient work of love” of those who fight for it, who practice fidelity to it.

We should thus abandon our attachment to the distinction between the normal” run of things and the disruptive, exceptional Event. Here is how the story of that distinction goes: We are immersed in our daily cares and rituals, and then something happens, and we Awaken, in a secular version of a miracle, the social emancipatory explosion. If we are faithful to this Event, our entire life changes, we are engaged in the »work of love« and endeavor to inscribe the Event into our reality. At some point, then, the evental sequence is exhausted and we return to the normal flow of things.

But what if the true power of a socio-political Event should be measured precisely by its disappearance — the extent to which the Event is erased, and »normal« life changes?

So, back to Greece, it is easy to count on the heroic gesture of promising blood, sweat and tears, to repeat the mantra that authentic politics means one should not remain within the confines of the possible but to risk the impossible, but what would this imply in the case of Grexit?

The options before us

First, let’s not forget that the referendum was neither about the Euro (75 percent of Greeks prefer to stay in the Eurozone) nor about staying in the EU or not. The question was: Do you want this situation to continue or not?” Which means that the result also cannot be read as a sign that the Greek people are ready to endure sacrifices and more suffering in order to assert their sovereignty. The No” vote was a No” to their continuing situation, which was the situation of austerity, poverty, etc. It was a demand for better life, not a readiness for more suffering and sacrifice. Any new additional suffering brings the risk of the growing dissatisfaction with the Syriza government, even of a revolt. (In general, the motif of readiness for immense suffering” is extremely problematic.)

Second, in the case of Grexit, would the Greek state not be compelled to enforce a series of measures (nationalization of banks, higher taxes, etc.) which are simply a revival of the old national-sovereignty-state-socialist economic politics? Nothing against such politics, but would they work in the specific conditions of today’s Greece, with its inefficient state apparatus and as a part of global economy? Here are the three main points of Syriza’s Left Platforms anti-austerity plan, listing a series of absolutely manageable” measures:

(1) The radical reorganization of the banking system, its nationalization under social control, and its reorientation towards growth.

(2) The complete rejection of fiscal austerity (primary surpluses and balanced budgets) in order to effectively address the humanitarian crisis, cover social needs, reconstruct the social state, and take the economy out of the vicious circle of recession.

(3) The implementation of the beginning procedures leading to exit from the euro and to the cancellation of the major part of the debt. There are absolutely manageable choices that can lead to a new economic model oriented towards production, growth, and the change in the social balance of forces to the benefit of the working class and the people.

Plus two additional specifications:

The elaboration of a development plan based on public investment, which will however also allow in parallel private investment. Greece needs a new and productive relationship between the public and private sectors to enter a path to sustainable development. The realization of this project will become possible once liquidity is reestablished, combined with national saving.

Regaining control of the domestic market from imported products will revitalize and enhance the role of small and medium-sized enterprises, which remain the backbone of the Greek economy. At the same time exports will be stimulated by the introduction of a national currency.

It is difficult to see in all this anything more than the usual set of state-interventionist measures: returning to national currency, printing money, financing big public works, supporting domestic industry. Such measures, if properly calibrated, may work — but would they work in today’s Greece, with an enormous foreign debt not only of the state but also of private individuals and companies (which cannot be cancelled without cutting off these individuals and companies from their foreign partners), with an economy fully integrated into and dependent on Western Europe, relying on food, industrial and medical imports? In other words, where, in what outside, would Greece find itself? In an outside of Belarus and Cuba? These are questions that the 25 Greek MP’s who were members of the Left Platform and who left Syriza and formed the Popular Unity party — have yet to address.

As Paul Krugman recently wrote, one has to admit that nobody really knows what the consequences of the Grexit would be — it’s an uncharted territory. But one thing is nonetheless clear, as Gourgouris writes, Grexit is a name for none other than a politics of national independence.” No wonder that some partisans of the Left Platform even resort to the extremely problematic and (for me) totally inacceptable characterization of their stance as national populism.” (Incidentally, one has to reject both optimistic myths, the Left Platform myth that there is a clear rational way to do Grexit and bring new prosperity, as well as the obverse myth — advocated by, among others, Jeffrey Frankel—that, by faithfully enforcing the bailout plan, Tsipras can become a new Lula.)

So the choice was never simply Grexit or capitulation.” There is a third option. The Syriza government finds itself in an unusual situation, obliged to do what it is opposed to. The third option is neither to capitulate nor to risk the Grexit but remain within the Eurozone and fight a guerilla warfare within it, slowly occupying strategic positions. To persist, while still not buying into the EU’s plans is true courage. This is why the truly dangerous enemy of the Syriza government is now not the former members of the Left Platform but those who take the defeat sincerely” and really want to play the EU card.

As Varofakis told me, this danger becomes clear when one takes into account the effect of the capitulation on Syriza itself:

[The capitulation] de-radicalised those left in the ministries, the result being that they are either incapable of or unwilling to (lest they upset the Troika) plan for the next rupture. Moreover the Troika is keeping them like guinea pigs on a treadmill, making them run faster and faster to implement its toxic measures. Within days they have become co-opted and incapable of planning anything of the sort.

Lastly on this point, and crucially, the Troika is cleverly forcing upon the government legislation that spreads and entrenches further its own fiefdoms within the state. So, the tax fighting units are now absorbed by the General Secretariat of Public Revenues (whose ownership by the Troika I exposed) so that the government has no instruments left at its disposal to fight tax evasion by the oligarchs. Similarly with privatisations. The Troika is setting up new organs’ that it controls fully.

Is then any hope left? The true miracle of the situation, and one of the few sources of modest hope, is that, in spite of the capitulation to Bruxelles, it seems that around 70 percent of Greek voters still support the Syriza government. The explanation is that the majority perceives the Syriza government as doing the right thing in an impossible situation. This is why Tsipras made the right choice when he stepped down and opened up the way for new elections — with the hope to return to power stronger than ever.

There is no clear a priori answer here. Any decision can only be retroactively justified by its consequences. There is a risk that the Syriza capitulation will turn out to be just that and nothing more, enabling the full reintegration of Greece into EU as a humble bankrupt member, in the same way that there is a risk of Grexit turning into a large scale catastrophe. What one should fear is not only the prospect of the further suffering of the Greek people, but also the prospect of another fiasco which will discredit the Left for years to come — and at the same time allow the surviving leftists to argue that their defeat proves yet again the perfidiousness of the capitalist system.

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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.
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