In July, in the wake of the ‘No’ vote in Greece’s referendum, the philosopher Alain Badiou expressed his hope that a new sequence was opening up. A few hours after Alexis Tsipras’s resignation, he bemoaned the Greek prime minister and his advisors missing this ‘unique’ political opportunity.
Translated by David Broder
1 We thought that we were right in thinking that the guiding principle of Syriza, winner of the Greek elections, was a vigorous ‘No’ to austerity. As such, we thought that it would categorically refuse all the anti-social, regressive conditions – attacking the most basic principles of the aspiration to equality and a tolerable life for the people – which the various financial authorities and their European cover made the condition of their loans. Many people furthermore rejoiced in the possibility of a new political orientation finally emerging in Europe, one absolutely different from the reactionary consensus in which all states have kept their respective public opinion for thirty years, whether out of consent or by force.
2 Of course, already at that time we could find a lot of arguments for moderating this hope. Not least this miserable word ‘austerity’, which gave the impression that we could achieve its opposite (which is what – ‘wellbeing’?) without changing too much, even when everything seemed to indicate that [Syriza’s] opponents – the people in power and their sponsors in the globalised, untamed economy – had not the least intention of changing anything, and even sought to consolidate and aggravate the dominant tendency, which they manage and profit from. So we noted the danger of accepting inalterable rules in order to get into power: elections, uncertain majorities, little control over the state apparatus and still less control over financial powers, the organised temptation to make corrupting compromises – in short, a very narrow margin for manoeuvre. And finally we saw that Syriza did not truly entertain close and organised political links with the mass of people. Rather, its success was a success in terms of public opinion – which is by definition fickle – and above all lacked controls, providing no guarantee against the both internal and external assault by opportunism, for which reaching power and staying there is the only rule. For all these reasons, I belonged to the camp of sceptics.
3 I must admit that just as the five months of ‘negotiations’, which passed without the Tsipras government undertaking any spectacular initiatives, were discouraging and provided justification for my reasoned pessimism, the decision to take recourse to the referendum – and, even more so, the excellent result (with a sharp, mass ‘No’ to the creditors) – could be interpreted as the thing that would finally open up an absolutely new political sequence. It seemed that a true adventure was on the order of the day, in a rediscovered dialectic between the state and its people. In these columns, I myself displayed such hope.
4 We can say that it was nothing of the kind, and that we were mistaken in our judgement.
5 What did we imagine might happen (wrongly, it seems)? Well, simply that the Greek government and Alexis Tsipras were defining a new stage in their politics, deciding to draw the consequences from the referendum, and from the referendum alone. Which amounted to saying: there is now an imperative popular mandate for categorically refusing the measures that the creditors demanded – and, moreover, this conformed to the hard core of Syriza’s programme. And it was necessarily to make this statement not only without declaring that Greece was leaving Europe, but also in explicitly and loudly stating, on the contrary, that Greece was staying in Europe, as the majority of Greeks wanted. And that Greece’s decisions to come, taken by the state under the authority and under the watchful eye of a mobilised people, would give all peoples and all governments the example of a new and free way of being part of Europe.
6 In the wake of the referendum it was possible to put the ball back in the Eurocrats’ court, speaking in the following terms: we are in Europe and the euro, but our people have mandated us to categorically reject your conditions. We have to resume the negotiations, without repeating the grave error of these conditions, which as the referendum showed, are working against the Europe of peoples and not for it. There should have been a firm statement to that effect on the night of the referendum, forcefully emphasising the three points that 1) this was no rejection of Europe, 2) there could be no acceptance of the conditions posed for the payment of unjustified and unpayable debts; 3) this was the beginning of a new path, open to all, toward a peoples’ Europe and not the banks’ Europe.
7 Your politics exist only if you substitute a different problem for the one being posed by your opponent. Your opponent says: either you obey me, or else you quit Europe. It is the opponent and the opponent alone who creates this notion of ‘Grexit’ and starts waving it around. The Greek government absolutely should not respond by playing along with the same script as the Europeans, with the sharp German mother, the kindly but timid French daddy and the naughty little Greek kid – a narrative that it seems that Tsipras did, alas, ultimately take his place in. Why not instead tirelessly respond ‘Grexit isn’t on our horizon. There can be no question of this. For us the problem is: either you change your conditions, through negotiation, or else we will bring about a different way of dealing with the crisis, and will fully accept the consequences of this. A different way that we propose that all the governments capable of doing so should rally to, together with all available political forces across all of Europe, which you have no means of excluding us from’ – ?
8 To put it another way: perhaps there was no immediately practicable plan B on the currency question (which, again, is far from certain) but there was a political problem B, which it was necessary to carry forward unwaveringly, and cannot be reduced to the problem ‘either accept, or else it means Grexit! That was not the attitude that Tsipras and the group advising and supporting him took. They agreed to play the role of the troublesome schoolboy making progress, in the piece of theatre put on stage by the European capitalist Seraglio. They slowly but surely adopted a position within the terms of the problem as it was posed by the opposing camp, and day after day they continued to do so, solely to make people believe that it’s for the best that they are in power rather than the other parties (who they will soon be governing with!). In fact, if things are as they claim, then it would be more honourable for them to depart, which would be an infinitely better preparation for the future. This type of capitulation is worse than the previous governments’ limp and abject deference, because it weakens a little further the idea – which is already very ill-at-ease in Europe – of true political independence; and it has done so in exchange for insignificant gains, or even at the cost of a tangible worsening of the people’s situation.
9 In this whole affair, the referendum and the referendum alone created what I would call a pre-evental situation. The government appealed to the people; the people responded positively, and expected the government to respond to its response within the register of the act. It was a unique moment. Alexis Tsipras ‘responded’ saying… that he would continue like before. He denied that the very thing that he had organised was of any relevance, on the register of political decision. What we can say of such an attitude is not even a question of Left or Right; Tsipras and his advisors proved themselves incapable of doing what even conservatives like De Gaulle or Churchill could do, not to speak of great revolutionaries. They could not, or did not want to take a true political decision (which is indeed something rare – that much is true): the decision that creates a new possibility, whose consequences have to be explored, and in so doing mobilising all those grasped by the urgency of the act, far beyond the political authorities alone. Faced with the European bureaucrats, they did not adopt the same style that Mirabeau and the deputies of the Third Estate did in 1789, after the King called on them to disperse: ‘We like you are in Europe and the euro. Unlike you, we are the bearers of another vision of both Europe and the euro, through the will of the people. If you want Grexit, then say so clearly, and try and inflict it on us by force!’
10 In short: in my view, the downfall of Tsipras and his group was simply the fact that they did not do politics when, miraculously, perhaps in the scope of just a few hours (the night of the referendum?) it was up to them to do so. After this missed opportunity, I fear that we will return to the usual mishmash: Greece won’t mean anything to anyone anymore, it will pay what it can, people will be a bit more demoralised and miserable, and we will forget this whole episode in the great turmoil of capital across the planet.
11 If history’s great moments have one lesson it is that any political opportunity is rare, and will never come around again. We could say that since the nineteenth century social democracy has defined itself as follows: in never grasping in the act the rare opportunity to make a new political possibility exist, but, on the contrary, in doggedly working to act as if this opportunity had never existed. Are Alexis Tsipras and his government team the new social-democrats – which capitalo-parliamentarism has such great need for, given the constant, tired wretchedness of the old ones - ?If that it is the case – if it is simply changeover time for the established order and its guard on the Left – then let’s speak of it no more. If new twists and turns – including the fraction of Syriza that is opposed to the present course of things becoming more structured and powerful – show that the search for a new political path at the European or even world level is still alive in Greece, then we will rejoice in that wholeheartedly.