All we are saying is give Greece a chance

Slavoj Žižek

De te fabula narratur


Imagine a scene from a dystopian movie which depicts our society in its near future decay: uniformed guards patrol half-empty downtown streets during the night, looking for immigrants, criminals, and other suspicious types in order to brutally collect and evict them… what seems like a cheap Hollywood image is a reality in today’s Greece. Every night, members of the Holocaust-denying neo-Fascist Golden Dawn movement (which got 50% of the policemen votes!) patrol the streets of Athens, checking and brutalizing those who appear suspicious… this is how one defends Europe in the Spring of 2012.


A century ago, G.K. Chesterton deployed the fundamental deadlock of the critics of religion: „Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church. /…/ The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.“ Does the same not hold for the advocates of religion themselves? How many fanatical defenders of religion started with ferociously attacking the contemporary secular culture and ended up forsaking any meaningful religious experience? In a similar way, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight the anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will end by flinging away freedom and democracy themselves if only they may fight terror. If the “terrorists” are ready to wreck this world for love of the another world, our warriors on terror are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalize torture – the ultimate degradation of human dignity – to defend it… And does the same not hold also for the recent rise of the defenders of Europe against the immigrant threat? The true threat to the European legacy is the Golden Dawn zealots patrolling the streets of Athens: with friendly defenders like this, Europe needs no enemies.


But these anti-immigrant defenders are not the principal danger: they are just a collateral damage with regard to the true threat, the politics of austerity which brought Greece into such a predicament. Now that June 17, the date of the new Greek elections, is approaching, the European establishment is obsessively repeating the warning that these elections are crucial: not only the fate of Greece, but maybe even the fate of Europe will be decided on that day. On the one side is the continuation of the painful but inevitable process of recovery through austerity measures, on the other side – if the “extreme Leftist” Syriza wins – is chaos, the end of the (European) world as we know it. These prophets of doom are right, but not in the way they intend it.


Critics of our institutional democracy often complain that elections as a rule do not offer a true choice: what we mostly get is the choice between a center-Right and a center-Left party whose program is almost indistinguishable. On June 17, there will be a real choice: the establishment (New Democracy and Pasok) on the one side, Syriza on the other side. And, as is mostly the case, such moments of the real choice threw the establishment into panic: they paint the image of social chaos, poverty and violence if the wrong choice wins. The mere possibility of the Syriza victory has sent ripples of fear through markets all around the world, and, as is usual in such cases, ideological prosopopoeia has its heyday: markets started to talk again as living person, expressing their “worry” at what will happen if the June 17 elections will fail to produce a government with a mandate to continue with the EU-IMF program of fiscal austerity and structural reform. The ordinary people of Greece have no time to worry about these prospects: they have enough to worry about their present actual life which is becoming miserable to an extent unseen in Europe in the last decades.


Such predictions, of course, work as self-fulfilling prophecy, causing panic and thus bringing about the very state of things they warn about. If Syriza will win, the European establishment clearly wants to teach all of us the hard lesson of what happens when one effectively tries to break the vicious cycle of mutual complicity between Brussels’s neutral technocracy and anti-immigrant populism. This is why, if Syriza wins, the first task will be to block the panic effect – as Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, put it in a recent interview: “People will conquer fear. They will not succumb; they will not be blackmailed.”  The task of Syriza is almost impossible: Syriza is not the “extreme Left” madness, but the voice of pragmatic reason counteracting the market ideology madness. By their readiness to take over, they broke the fear of the Left to take power and displayed the courage to clear the mess created by others. They will need the formidable combination of principled politics and ruthless pragmatism, of democratic commitment and readiness to act fast and brutally when needed. If they are to be given a minimal chance to succeed, they will need an all-European solidarity: from the pressure in all European countries to treat Greece decently, up to more creative ideas, like the promotion of solidarity tourism this Summer. The stakes of their struggle are very high, they concern us all.


In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative T.S.Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, i.e., when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is our position today with regard to Europe: only a new “heresy” (represented at this moment by Syriza) can save what is worth saving in European legacy: democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity… The Europe that will win if Syriza is outmaneuvered is a “Europe with Asian values” (which, of course, has nothing to do with Asia, but all with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism to suspend democracy): the key European legacy will be kidnapped.


One should bear in mind the circular paradox which sustains the “free vote” in our democratic societies: one is free to choose on condition that one makes the right choice – which is why, when the choice is the wrong one (as it was the case with Ireland rejecting the EU constitution, or with the Greek PM even proposing a referendum), the “wrong” choice is treated as a mistake, and the establishment immediately imposes a repetition in order to give to a country the chance to correct the mistake and make the right choice (or, in the case of Greece, the very proposal of the referendum is rejected as a false choice).


There are two main stories about the Greek crisis in the public media: the German-European one (the irresponsible and lazy free-spending, tax-dodging, etc., Greeks who have to be brought under control and taught financial discipline) and the Greek one (national sovereignty threatened by the neoliberal technocracy from Brussels). (One of Jacques Lacan’s outrageous statements is that, even if what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) turns out to be true, his jealousy is still pathological. Along the same lines, one could say that, even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true (they exploit Germans, they seduce German girls…) – which, of course, is NOT the case -, their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) pathological, since it represses the true reason WHY the Nazis NEEDED anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position. And exactly the same holds for the accusation that Greeks are lazy: even if this were to be the case, the accusation is a false one, because it obliterates the complex global economic situation which pushed Germany, France, etc., to finance the »lazy« Greeks.) When it became impossible to ignore the plight of the ordinary Greeks, a third story emerged: ordinary Greeks are more and more presented as humanitarian victims in need of help, as if some natural catastrophe or war has hit the country. While all three stories are false, the third one is arguably the most disgusting one: it obliterates the fact that the Greeks are not passive victims, they fight, they are at war with the European economic establishment, and what they need is solidarity in their struggle, because it is not only their struggle, but the struggle of us all.


Greece is not an exception, it is one of the main testing grounds to impose a new socio-economic model with universal claim: the depoliticized technocratic model where bankers and other experts are allowed to squash democracy. Greece is thus Europe’s nodal point at which the historical tendency which shapes its present appears at its purest. This is why we should not only save Greece from its saviors – from the European consortium of an economic equivalent to dr. Mengele testing on it its “austerity measures” – but also save Europe itself from its saviors, this same consortium promoting their bitter medicine.


What lurks in the background is a much more unsettling question: one should not read the ongoing dismantling of the Welfare-State as a “betrayal” of this noble idea, but as a failure which retroactively enables us to discern a fatal flaw of the very notion of Welfare State. The lesson is that, if we want to save the emancipatory kernel of the notion of Welfare State, one should change the terrain and move over its basic implications (like the long-term viability of a “social market-economy,” i.e., of a socially-responsible capitalism). Otherwise, we will only contribute to the process which we try to reverse.


Link to: London Review of Books