Christian Salmon: Greece’s declaration of independence

For Christian Salmon, announcing the referendum amounted to a declaration of independence from Tsipras, asserting democracy against the "zombie" of a financialised Europe that has lost all grip on reason. This article was originally published in Mediapart. Translated by David Broder. 



By Christian Salmon, 30 June, Athens

Announcing on the night of 26-27 June that a referendum is going to be held, Tsipras has exploded the juridical and accounting framework that the leaders of the Eurozone wanted to shut him into. In submitting to the Greek citizens the measures that the lenders wanted (namely the European Commission, ECB, and IMF), he has put the sovereign people back into the negotiation. And brought out into the open the war that had previously been playing out behind the façade of negotiations.

In a speech that lasted a few minutes, Alexis Tsipras breathed life and meaning back into the European idea, which has become bogged down in the story told by institutions and bankers: "Greece, the cradle of democracy, should send a strong democratic answer". So this wasn’t a politician’s manoeuvre, but rather a clarification that put the question of democracy back at the heart of the European debate. You could see as much if you were present among the thousands of demonstrators at Athens’s Syntagma Square on Monday evening, in front of the Greek parliament, if you heard their chants and slogans, and saw hundreds of placards bearing the now famous OXI (NO!) that so resembles – even in how it is written – a OUI, a yes to something else. In calling this referendum, Alexis Tsipras has put an end to negotiations that had no purpose other than forcing his own capitulation. But he did more than that: he pronounced what makes for a true casus belli for the European leaders and creditors: a declaration of independence!

In calling for a Yes vote in the referendum that Alexis Tsipras has announced for 5 July, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker doubtless failed to understand the true significance of his gesture: not only did he interfere in the internal affairs of a member state, but he has a posteriori legitimised the holding of a referendum that the EU’s leaders considered a provocation. But Juncker and the Commission are no strangers to contradiction, and when war is declared you don’t get too worried about this sort of nit-picking – and now there can be no possible doubt that war has indeed been declared. A "war" of a new kind, whose object is not only the Greek debt but also Syriza’s political credit.  

A war of a new kind, whose theatre of operations is no longer the traditional battlefields, but the financial markets; it is no longer fought with planes and tanks, but with computer algorithms and rating agencies’ reports. It is a war of movement that no longer moves at the pace of troops crossing land, but at the rhythm of the microseconds of virtual market operations. Rhythms and algorithms. Credit and speculation. It’s no longer necessary to besiege cities: now we speculate on the downgrading of the sovereign debt rating. It puts together programmes and governments. It imposes reforms and re-workings. A political class that’s on command, populated by stooges. It is not a matter of negotiating, as in traditional diplomacy; it is enough to speculate on the fall of a government. And if that government does manage to resist, you unleash a "bank run", a financial panic, as we’ve seen in the last week: a true "financial coup d’état". Standard and Poor’s was not mistaken when it characterised the referendum as a bad sign for the country’s "economic stability", and downgraded Greece’s rating to CCC-. This was a call for defiance, for the markets’ attention; a striking signal of the subordination of European policies to the financial markets!

But it is also a media war that opposes rival narratives and mobilises images and words for the purposes of persuasion or captivation. It is a war whose series of battles are made up of performances that either succeed or fail. National pride is invoked and then soon smashed up by the fear of tomorrow. Threat and insult are mobilised. He who loses negotiating positions can win credit for his courage. And vice versa.  "Tsipras the swindler", Der Spiegel called him after he announced Greece’s referendum. Bild complained of "Greece extorting Europe". The Libération correspondent in Brussels announced "the president’s resignation and the cancellation of the referendum"! Le Monde provided advance legitimation for a coup d’état against the Syriza government. "Him or someone else" – it doesn’t matter! "If Tsipras wants to play poker, why don’t we?" But who are "we"? We, the patriots of finance? We, the legionaries of ordoliberalism? We, the heirs to the European oligarchy? How often the truth comes out of children’s mouths!

We often repeat Rudyard Kipling saying that "the first casualty of war is the truth", and the financial war is no exception. But the truth is not only a collateral victim; it is also the stated enemy. The virtual world of finance needs to create its own reality. How can you speculate without the media, without amplification via social networks, without the help of little hands writing editorials?

This is the first war of speculation, a financial and digital war that uses the new information and communication technologies in order to discredit, intoxicate, create epidemics of panic, and destabilise sovereign governments. It is not a matter of negotiating, as in traditional diplomacy, but of speculating on the fall of a government.

On Michel Feher’s blog he has repeatedly (read here and here) provided very strong analyses of the changed political paradigm that neoliberalism imposes on its opponents. Fighting it is no longer a matter of negotiating how capital and labour share out income, on the basis of a power relation between capitalists and employees, but of "getting a grip on the capital markets in order to change their conditions of accreditation – and, in this case, to make sure that a people’s wellbeing is valued more than its readiness to be bled dry in order to bail out the banking system". And Michel Feher also adds a strategic consideration: this "requires the emergence of politicians who are capable of speculating for their own account". According to Feher, "Yanis Varoufakis has established himself as the first among them … the new Greek government’s finance minister does not negotiate: he speculates and, better still, compels his interlocutors to speculate, for their part, on his intentions. Instead of haggling over the restructuring of the Greek debt, he simultaneously bets on each interlocutor’s goodwill and the risk he would take in contravening it".

So has he managed to change "the conditions of accreditation"; that is, to establish that "a people’s wellbeing is valued more than its readiness to be bled dry in order to bail out the banking system"? According to Michel Feher, nothing could be less clear. There are a lot of reasons for that, the main one being linked to the abundance of proposals advanced in the negotiation. While the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble held onto his pincers – the alternative of "submission or Grexit" – the Greeks multiplied their proposals, at the risk of becoming more opaque. For example, as Feher recalls, they proposed replacing the existing obligations by growth-linked ones, and then by perpetual ones; then for Europe to help Greece better collect its taxes (with public investment to this end); and then for Europe to help Greece reform (the swollen military budget, the Church and the weapons companies’ exemptions…).

Tsipras and Varofakis have defended the Greeks’ sovereignty and respect for the mandate that they received from the electors, all the while never ceasing to repeat that their commitment to Europe forced them to compromise on their programme in order to find space for a deal with the lenders. "Everything in this panoply is good, smart and defensible", Feher concludes, but you can be spoilt by having too many riches – there’s not enough time to nail down these points and make oneself heard – and as such they risk giving the impression of vagueness, or even leaving themselves open to the accusation of amateurism.

This is not the first time that the leaders of the Eurozone have trampled on the sovereignty of the states that compose it; but previously when governments were overthrown, as in the case of Papandreou or of Berlusconi, this was done under the nose of European public opinion, very discretely, in the corridors of the 2011 G20 summit in Cannes. Never before did it mount such an offensive against a member state of the European Union across several months. Never was the resistance of the leaders who had been disavowed by Brussels so determined, going beyond the stakes of the struggle against austerity in order to take on an exemplary value. What is in question in the Greek referendum is democracy in Europe itself, as Wolfgang Munchau observed in the Financial Times, accusing Greece’s creditors of wanting to destroy democracy after having pillaged its economy.

What arguments can we oppose to the hyper-real propaganda of the financial powers, which misinforms and disorients, spellbinds and spreads panic? Stricto sensu: nothing! This is asymmetrical warfare: faced with the conquest of hearts and minds, there is little to oppose to it except hearts and minds. The courage of Achilles. Ulysses’ ruse. A synchronous anger against the arrogance of the powerful, teaching people that they can indeed be citizens. But this anger has powerful performative effects, unknown to the spin doctors. The Arab revolutions left the dictators tumbling.

In calling on Greeks to give a "big No" to the lenders, Tsipras invoked the Greeks’ great national narrative, Metaxas’s "big No" to Mussolini’s ultimatum on 28 October 1940, which is one of Greece’s two national holidays. Every Greek knows Churchill’s homage to the fighters’ courage: "Until now, we knew that Greeks were fighting like heroes; from now on we shall say that the heroes fight like Greeks".

Even as it waves around the great ideals of democracy and human rights, European construction has constantly put off till tomorrow the question of the democratic legitimacy of its institutions. Its leaders have always bypassed universal suffrage, as in the case of the No votes in the 2005 referendum. So it has not only contributed to destroying the sovereignty of the nation-states that compose it, but it has brought to bear a new and undemocratic "decisionism". The power to act manifested in the control of currency and territory has freed itself from the power of representation. Elected governments have been deprived of the levers of power, while the new European institutions have been disassociated from any kind of representativeness. That is what has produced this Janus face of European un-sovereignty. On the one hand, faceless decisions; on the other hand, powerless faces. The result of this dislocation: action is perceived as illegitimate, and political commitments have lost all credibility.

The Greek crisis has unmasked this faceless construction. The powerless faces have not changed in appearance, but the powers without a face are now right on display. The personalities of this "larger than life" series have come to resemble their caricatures: Moscovici is more an assistant [commis] than a commissar, Mistress Merkel is accompanied by her valet Matti Schäuble, and Jean-Claude Juncker is the ringmaster of the "Europa" circus. Schäuble’s wheelchair and Varoufakis’s motorbike. On the one hand, the characters in a comedy where malice battles it out with ridiculousness, where the discourse of the powerful is no longer hindered by sophisms and reveals itself as the cold resolve of the strongest – as in the most despairing of La Fontaine’s fables – where the wolf of Wall Street no longer bothers to disguise itself as grandmother Merkel in order to sink its huge teeth into Greece’s Red Riding Hood.

Since Syriza’s victory in Greece, the war has been silently building up like a brush fire, sweeping across the European councils, jumping from one Eurogroup meeting to another, but been muffled by an optimism-on-command, by the reassuring communiqués (just like during wartime) evoking a meeting of minds, and by the ever-postponed prospect of a (still-possible) accord. On the finance ministers’ abacus they align the schedule of repayments and so-called structural reforms, the cuts in social budgets and pensions, the new tax income… like the usurer Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the lenders have every intention of taking their pound of flesh from the Greek social body, if they can’t recoup the debt in full – and even if they had to play at letting the negotiations collapse, with the collaboration of the media won to their cause…

On screen the tension between the negotiators was almost palpable, as were the great clacks coming from Jean-Claude Juncker, the Gogolian master of Europe’s clownery. Christine Lagard went as far as appealing to the adults in the room, forgetting that she played the role of the gendarme in a Guignol theatre, a gendarme that far from ensuring the financial stability of the Eurozone, worked with the ECB to stir up a banking panic in Greece in order to force the Syriza government to capitulate. In organising chaos in a Eurozone member country, its leaders were intent on bringing Greece to its knees, rather than fulfilling their mission of solidarity and coming to its aid. They thus trampled on the spirit as well as the letter of their famous treaties, and disgraced themselves before history.

During these long months of negotiation we have seen "the Institutions" little by little dropping the mask of rigour and reason, losing their anonymity – the guarantee of their effectiveness and power – and taking on a face that is also a mask. At the same time a new political generation incarnated by Tsipras and Varoufakis have become the symbols of peoples’ resistance to the domination of the powerful – the rentiers – taking the lead of a rebellion against this Europe, which Habermas called a zombie and which indeed no longer has either a heart or a soul.

Lagarde, Schäuble, Dijsselbloem, and Draghi may well have the world’s best communications agencies, but they can do nothing for them. Storytelling is effective, but you can’t reanimate a zombie by whispering nice stories in its ears; the powerfuls’ narrative mouth-to-mouth is powerless faced with the anger of the peoples… And little by little I have understood that what we have been witnessing is no longer a piece of theatre nor a comedy, nor even a series born of a mix of Game of Thrones and House of Cards. Rather, it is an irreversible, madly pathetic process, a sort of mummification or "zombification" of Europe.

The Greek episode was neither an outcome nor a prologue, nor the consequence of the European debt arrears, nor the incredible decline in Europe’s business class, which for more than half a century, generation after generation, lacquered in privileges, has made the European Union ever more mediocre, to the point of admitting neo-Nazis, racists, anti-immigrant types…

The decoding of discourse and images, scenographic analysis and cultural sociology no longer suffice to explain what has happened in the last few months on the European stage, since the truth of this process does not come from demystification or deconstruction but from a process of historical revelation, of clarification. A Europe lacking in sovereignty has appeared not through the media, but immediately, through a sort of historical clarification: Aufklärung. Kant defines Aufklärung as an "exit", a "way out" that frees us from the state of a "minority". But what does this minority condition mean, for Kant? It is a certain state of our will that makes us accept someone else’s authority in leading us into domains where what is needed is reason. The essential condition for man escaping from his minority condition is that a clear distinction is established between what pertains to obedience and what pertains to the use of reason. That is what the Greeks have just done. In denouncing the irrationality of the creditors, they have shorn them of credibility. Now things are clearly separated out: on the one hand, an authority without reason, losing credibility – Europe’s authority; on the other hand, a common reason on the march toward its authority – the reason of history. 

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