Syntagma, Syriza: between the square and the palace

This is a translation of an interview conducted by Amador Fernández-Savater with Stavros Stavrides, originally published 7th February 2015 on the Interferencias blog on eldiario.es.

Stavros Stavrides.Photo by Burkhard Lahrmann (via eldiario.es)

Stavros Stavrides.Photo by Burkhard Lahrmann (via eldiario.es)

Syntagma, Syriza: between the square and the palace (interview with Stavros Stavrides)

It has been told that the occupation of Syntagma square in Athens was an effect of 15M. Someone in the Puerta Del Sol put up a poster that read: “quiet, we’ll wake the Greeks”, and they in turn took to the streets. On the 25th May 2011 they occupied Syntagma and hundreds of squares throughout the whole country. 100,000 people surrounded the parliament, with a big sign in Spanish that read: “We are awake. What time is it? It’s time they were gone”.

This was not the social movements; rather, (as with 15M), it was society in movement. Stavros Stavrides, an Athens-based activist and lecturer in architecture was there. He lived the whole Syntagma experience and has spent a great deal of time thinking about it. For him, the occupation of the square was not merely a collective form of protest or demand, but rather “a way of laying claim to our own lives and putting forward a different way of composing social life”. A reinvention of democracy, public space and social relations based on the ideas-practices of equality, self-reliance, mutual aid, and non-delegation.

And now, three and a half years on, the victory of Syriza. How should thus be interpreted from the perspective of Syntagma? How might the relation be thought, today in Greece, perhaps tomorrow in Spain, between the movements from below and the governments that challenge neoliberalism? We spoke to Stavros Stavrides about this. His theoretical work focuses on urban movements and conflicts. And his book Towards a city of thresholds, in which he investigates, among other things, the experience of the occupation of Syntagma square, will be published in 2015 in Spain by Akal.

***

1. (Amador Fernández-Savater) Right now, what is the reality and the vitality of the processes of self-organisation that hatched in 2011? Is the legacy of Syntagma square still alive, and how?

Stavros Stavrides. The legacy of Syntagma is a reality that is not always visible in the foreground of social and political life. It needs to be traced out into diverse initiatives that are very much merged with people’s everyday life, such as the collective kitchens in neighbourhoods, in municipal or autonomous medical centres that attend to those who have been excluded from social security, in the practices of exchanging goods and services without middlemen, in the movements against evictions along the lines of the PAH in Spain, in the cooperatives that keep cropping up, etc.

Syntagma has helped to create networks of mutual aid that sustain the lives of many people in Greece and at the same time generate new social relations, beyond individualism. There is a legacy, a living legacy of Syntagma, which has changed the mentality of society in many ways.

2. How did Syriza relate to the movements in Syntagma?

It’s important to say that Syriza was the only party of the official left that was not against Syntagma, as the KKE was explicitly. There was no single position within the party, but many Syriza activists contributed to the activities in Syntagma. Even certain parliamentarians (not all of them) made a symbolic approach to the square and said “we are with you and not with a parliament that has been taken hostage and removed from the will of the people”. Syriza was not against Syntagma, but rather the opposite, but it is not a result of these movements, as Podemos might be.

3. What do you mean?

Syriza existed before Syntagma. It is connected to a long tradition of the non-Soviet left in Greece. Its origin goes back to 1968, when the then illegal Communist Party split in two: the Eurocommunist part and the Stalinist part. Syriza is the evolution of the Eurocommunist part of the Communist Party and it more or less shares that tradition in terms of organisation, vision of the State, the relation between the party and the movements, etc.

4. But a few years back its electoral reach was insignificant, around 3 or 4%. What influence do you believe the movements of Syntagma have had in Syriza’s latest victory?

There is no determinist, cause-and-effect connection between the two moments, but I think -as many others do- that Syntagma created a new consciousness in society: it helped neutralise part of the fear that pervades everything right now in Greece, and to question the ‘necessity’ of austerity policies. The Syntagma movement was destroyed by force and repression, but the spirit of resistance and defying fatalism remained, and it spread beyond the square. Syriza would not have won the elections had that spirit not existed.

5. Though in Syntagma people were not thinking about the vote as the route to transformation…

Indeed. The spirit of Syntagma was based rather on the idea of people’s resistance and the rediscovery of democracy as direct democracy, as a complex co-ordination -and without any centre- of a plurality of collective initiatives. It was a movement against representative democracy.

But in the absence of the victory of the movement over austerity policies, Syriza appeared to the population at a certain point as the only option for change. As the only party that was not corrupt, that was not subordinate to the Troika, that could guarantee a democratic change and halt the measures that are destroying the life of society. The shift of ordinary people and the movement towards the vote was a shift brought about by conditions.

At any rate, Syriza does not replace the movements. And perhaps, with Syriza in government, there arises an environment in which the movements can develop more and better.

6. What capacity for affecting the policies of Syriza do these experiences of mobilisation retain?

We have to wait and see. No one can be very sure what is going to happen. Syriza has made very positive declarations with regard to certain demands from the movements in the areas of education, health, with regard to the minimum wage etc. There is an explicit willingness on Syriza’s part to satisfy these demands. They are measures that cannot be implemented in a matter of days, but Syriza also knows it will not enjoy a long period of tolerance and that it must act immediately to show it really believes in what it is saying. If not, there will be new social eruptions. But right now we are in that wait-and-see period.

7. In your article “After Syntagma”, you spoke about how, on the left and below, you had two ideas of democracy in Greece: an idea of participative democracy (represented by Syriza) and an idea of direct democracy (represented by Syntagma). How do you imagine there can be coexistence between the two?

Coexistence, no. Unfortunately, Syriza has evolved of late towards a party model that is more closed in around a small upper tier. It has verticalised and ‘presidentialised’ a great deal. This is a criticism made even within the party itself. I do not think Syriza can be a direct conveyor of the will of the citizens, a channel for people’s participation. It can, however, represent voters, by opting for policies that channel society’s demands.

Direct democracy plays out at another level, it redefines politics as an activity that is not specialist that cuts across all levels of daily life. It is a politics of the everyday.

I believe that right now we can intervene on the two levels: to push representative democracy beyond its limits, through forms of radical and direct democracy, but keeping in mind that representative democracy (with a party like Syriza in power) can open up zones of freedom and more favourable settings for the autonomous experiments that prefigure a different society. We can demand, on the one hand, measures against corruption or in favour of transparency in administration, and, on the other, challenge the limits of representative democracy, through conflicts and counter-examples, through forms of self-rule that go beyond public authority. Playing on both levels.

8. Is this the end of austerity, as people are saying everywhere? What can a government do faced with the neoliberal logics of contemporary capitalism?

We don’t need to rush to find a headline, let’s see. There can be serious and important changes of orientation in a moment of widespread questioning of the neoliberal context. The struggles from below can have an influence and so too the actions of a State. A truly progressive government can play an important role in inverting the correlation of forces within the EU. There are numerous levels for action, and they are not necessarily contradictory. I mean: renegotiating the debt is very important, but so too is rethinking and questioning the dominant models of development and growth. From above one can have an influence on neoliberal policies but to exist the neoliberal framework there will need to be changes that can only happen from below.

9. After three years of very strong social struggles in Spain, we have reached a series of limits. External ones, in that austerity policies continue as devastating as ever. And internal ones, a certain crisis of political imagination in the movements (how and where to go on). And right now the attention and desire appears to have shifted to storming the palace. Do you think that autonomous movements and processes of self-organisation have intrinsic limits?

I’m not in a position to offer clear answers. I am simply trying to think alongside you, and with comrades everywhere, about how we can overcome this situation.

I think that the limits we see are historical, not logical or ontological. We have not reached a kind of unsurpassable limit from which one has to do things according to the modes of traditional politics. I do not believe this. The State is a specific form, historically set in time, for organising social relations. It is not eternal, nor is it the only possible form of social organisation. We can go beyond the state model.

In this sense, the social creativity that unfolded in the Arab Spring, in the squares of 15M or Syntagma ought to be our only guide. That is why I judge the politics of above according to how much it opens up space to the processes from below. If these processes are subordinated to the politics of above, then there is no deep and true change possible. The marks left by the movements of the squares are barely sown seeds that need time to grow shoots and bear fruit. And we must take care of them and ensure their growth.

10. Different authors, such as Alain Badiou and the Invisible Committee, think that the only way of going beyond the pendulum swinging between neoliberalism and social democracy is reopening and rethinking the question of revolution, the problem of the radical transformation of society. What do you think?

I agree, but provided we rethink revolution beyond the religious imaginary of life after death, of the event that splits the history of humanity into a “before” and an “after”. Societies do not change in a kind of instantaneous volcanic eruption that consumes the past and creates the future. The time of change has different rhythms, different levels, and they are not always synchronised.

We need of course to hang on to the idea of rupture- changes are not fluid and smooth, but I’m suspicious of the idea of change as something extraordinary and led by extraordinary subjects. I believe more in the Zapatista maxim: the rebels are normal everyday people. Not heroes, not exceptional people, not ‘the chosen ones’, but common people who need to rebel in order to lead a dignified life.

If we rethink revolution in this way, from below, I think the revolution is already here and there are already examples being built that the desired society can exist. It is already possible: we know what solidarity and generosity can create. Revolution is not a total and immediate change, rather it is a series of experiments that go about producing changes. The sudden eruptions are no more important than what happens day-to-day under the radar of the media and what ultimately generates the decisive changes.

11. An Argentinian friend asked me if I believed that the underlying movement of what was happening from 2011 onward in Spain was the desire to go back to a “tranquil capitalism”, or if it was the search for new forms of living. What would you say, with regard to Greece?

I think that inventing new forms of living remains the desire of a minority, but the minority is not so small as it used to be. And it is no longer a question of ideology, but of experience. The groups in the neighbourhoods have not reinvented solidarity because they are communists or anarchists, but because it is the only way of living with dignity.

Of course, there is a desire on the part of many people to go back to living in the illusions of before (I say illusions because the “tranquil capitalism” was never a reality for the majority), but there is also a very powerful opportunity opening up for influencing the social imaginary. Because right now the individualistic forms of living simply cannot be sustained. The new forms of living are being built slowly, full of contradictions and devoid of any purity, but they are being built and they are influencing the consciousness of more and more people.

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