Principals and Agents

'The ruins of Greece are beautiful, but not to live in!' - El Roto, El País, 10th July 2015

‘The ruins of Greece are beautiful, but not to live in!’ – El Roto, El País, 10th July 2015

So, the deal taking shape means the Syriza government in Greece has now welcomed its former ‘partners’ as its rightful overlords.

The Syriza leadership, such as it is, proposes to take a courageous and resounding No vote against austerity, delivered by a people in revolt, and cast it to one side. Its credibility has begun to nosedive, and its plans are likely to meet with fiercely hostile resistance. When it put the proposals of its ‘partners’ to a referendum last week, the erstwhile Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said –in the language of economics- that the government was merely the agent, but that the Greek people were the principal. Varoufakis has made way, and the real principal, according to Syriza today, is the Troika-that-dare-not-speak-its-name.

It was never clear to me whether the public Europhilia of prominent voices in the Greek government was a rhetorical ploy, or whether it rested upon deeper convictions about what the European Union has to offer. Perhaps this public stance masked a private awareness of the suffocating straitjacket of currency union and the need to get out. Then again, these people genuinely believed that the EU institutions and the IMF would be amenable to so-called partnership on a progressive solution to Greece’s crisis.

Maybe they genuinely believed and that a persuasive counter-narrative to EU neoliberalism would bear fruit, by dint of sheer reasonableness. Maybe they were counting on greater solidarity from other Eurozone member states. I would prefer to think they knew what was happening all along, but in the cold light of day, with each new revelation, it is hard to shake off the feeling that they were labouring under a glaring naïveté.

The EU institutions, when they conduct negotiations, operate based on consensus. But this is a consensus that tends in one direction only. It is a consensus because EU policy elites already agree on the broad shape of things anyway. This consensus tend in the direction of greater ‘competitiveness’, that is, greater impoverishment of Europe’s working class, the continued dismantling of the welfare state, further privatisations, etcetera. From the point of view of those involved in the negotiations, this is all to the good.

Some states will, of course, get leeway on this and that, but always provided that it paves the way towards greater ‘competitiveness’. Any reversal of the overall tendency is unthinkable, out of the question, absurd. And as Dardot and Laval stress in The New Way of The World, sweet reason will get you nowhere:

To go on believing that neo-liberalism can be reduced to a mere ‘ideology’, a ‘belief’, a ‘mind set’ which the objective facts, duly registered, would be sufficient to dissolve, just as the sun dispels morning clouds, is in fact to mistake the enemy and condemn oneself to impotence. Neo-liberalism is a system of norms now profoundly inscribed in government practices, institutional policies and managerial styles.

Syriza, it seems, begged to differ. And as negotiations went on, ‘beg’ appeared to become the operative word. Those who voted OXI, on the other hand, were too proud to beg. And to give the Greeks what they were looking for would mean the entire European political establishment forswearing its most cherished beliefs. It would mean exposing itself as weak and susceptible to pressure. But it has been exposed, by the OXI vote, in a way that never has happened before. Never has the EU appeared so bereft of any kind of democratic inclination. Never have its leaders appeared so venal and vindictive, so ideologically hidebound. They could hardly let the Greeks away with that.
Syriza as a political force is going to sustain heavy damage as a result of this. But the damage sustained by the EU institutions is likely far greater than they would be prepared to let on.

It is a commonplace to point out that there is no European demos. What keeps such a thing from emerging is the way the EU’s institutional architecture, its normative framework, maintains a strong sense of national identity in member states, resting on this compulsion to compete. But when the oppression perpetrated by the EU appears far and wide as a collective enterprise, as something exacted by those at the top, regardless of their national affiliation, then it is harder to contain the sense felt by all those under attack that they have something in common. I realise this is a wildly optimistic extrapolation. But nonetheless it remains possible. If Greece is compelled to leave the euro -as Schauble and others appear to desire- the damage to the currency will be fatal. Maintaining credibility will become more fraught than ever. So, even as some doors close, others open.

Greece these days is turning into a canvas upon which people elsewhere can envision the fundamental conflicts in their own countries. In Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm talks about how Spain in the Civil War period was the global symbol for the conflict between the ‘fundamental political issues of the time: on the one side, democracy and social revolution, Spain being the only country in Europe where it was ready to erupt; on the other, a uniquely uncompromising camp of counter-revolution or reaction’.

Something like that is happening with Greece, albeit not on the same scale of carnage. The attempted humiliation of the Greek populace -and now the apparent humiliation and ignominy of its government- is beyond used as a warning fable by forces of reaction across Europe: do you see what happens when you lift your head above the parapet?

Here in Ireland, the Syriza government, the Greek people more generally –and you, by extension, for thinking they could make the case for a more democratic Europe- are “clowns”, “eejits”, and “lunatics”, according to those in the know (the words come from senior cabinet ministers, as reported in the Sunday Business Post, and from Michael O’Leary).

Accept reality, embrace competitiveness, pull on the green jersey, bow to the inevitable, and we might throw you a bone the odd time. The objective, of course, is to make any form of resistance futile. Whatever one’s criticism of Syriza from outside the country -and plenty can certainly be made- their difficulty should not be allowed to become the opportunity for the reactionary hordes in Fine Gael and Labour, for example, to make hay out of Greece’s misery. Solidarity with Greece means standing up to the curs at home. It means striving to prevent normalised resignation taking hold altogether. It means extending last Sunday’s OXI into every recess. Neoliberal rule in Europe means there is no room for imagining a demos split into principal and agent: it must be both. We are free to do otherwise, of course. But ‘otherwise’ in this case means, quite simply, embracing the darkness.


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6 responses to “Principals and Agents

  1. Bogman's Cannon

    Reblogged this on The Bogman's Cannon.

  2. jack dempsey

    I think you are being a little uncharitable in quoting Dardot & Laval at Syriza without elaborating on what Dardot & Laval actually see as the solution to neoliberalism. For the uninitiated they see the need to construct a new left ‘governmentality’ that can oppose the hegemonic neoliberal kind. Now this is all well & good (I happen to think Dardot & Laval is one of the better books on neoliberalism to date) but such a project is not going to happen just cos a left party gets State power. Especially not in the context of Greece right now.

    However, Syriza itself can be seen as the beginnings of such a new governmentality seeing as it managed to overcome the putrid need of left wing groups to split into purer and purer sects. But that’s an argument for another day.

    As for ‘sweet reason’ getting you no where, you are misapplying the quote to Syriza’s situation. Firstly where ‘reason’ (a certain kind of reason) is important for neoliberals is economics. Varoufakis, as someone said, speaks this better than the ‘institutions’ themselves. The loathing (as he put it) that he conjured among the Finance Ministers wasn’t cos he was flamboyant, dressed differently, rode a motorbike etc. It was cos he spoke with facts and logic and yes, reason, better than all the finance ministers. Their reaction of ostracizing him wasn’t some neoliberal imperviousness to ‘sweet reason’ but the normal run of the mill group psychology. Where the ‘impervious to reason’ operates in this situation is where the media (at least the Irish media) operates at the level of the Spectacle where the rational arguments were rarely if ever recounted but ‘the narrative of the dangerous rebel Greek who rubs people up the wrong way’ was played ad naseum.

    Why the neoliberals can ignore Varoufakis and his economic reason comes down to Power rather than being impervious to reason. I think a lot of old style Leftists thought that the mere fact of a Left party taking State power would be enough to reverse austerity and Syriza’s seeming failure here has left a lot of people disillusioned this past week (but much like the neoliberals they seem to take it out on Syriza rather than examining their own outlook, such imperviousness to sweet reason may cut across the political spectrum). This brings us back to Dardot and Laval’s belief on the need to construct a Left governmentality. The european nation state is no longer the ultimate repository of Power. (This is not to say that it doesn’t hold any power). Power largely lies with unelected and democratically unaccountable institutions. Syriza’s decision to hold a referendum last week can be seen as a very small step towards the creation of a new left governmentality. Their focus on democracy against the institutions is not a mere rhetorical ploy but the very basis on which power can be taken back.

    The reason the neoliberals are now going for Greece’s throat is because they realised that.

    • Thanks for the comment. I wasn’t really quoting Dardot and Laval “at” Syriza, but rather “at” what I imagine to be the more curious section of my modest readership. I think Dardot and Laval are right about the need for a “Left” governmentality; I just don’t see how Syriza’s activities in recent weeks are an example of that, or a concerted attempt to generate such a thing.

      Offended personal vanity may have been one of the factors at work in the antipathy toward Varoufakis, but the interpersonal relationships are not, I think, the primary factor behind Greece’s current humiliation. Tsakalotos, his replacement, was a far more congenial figure in this regard, but it didn’t make any difference to how Greece has been treated overall.

      When I say that sweet reason will get you nowhere, it is not a criticism of Syriza as such. I mean that there are substantial material interests that will hold sway within the EU institutions as they stand, because the institutions are designed for that purpose, regardless of the impressiveness of the arguments that can be made against them.

      • Just to add to the above about how sweet reason doesn’t work. Varoufakis’s summation appears to back up my hypothesis:

        HL: What are you referring to?

        YV: The complete lack of any democratic scruples, on behalf of the supposed defenders of Europe’s democracy. The quite clear understanding on the other side that we are on the same page analytically – of course it will never come out at present. [And yet] To have very powerful figures look at you in the eye and say “You’re right in what you’re saying, but we’re going to crunch you anyway.”

  3. Struck me kinda funny, that you would think only the EU institutions are acting under an ideology. Or at least only mention theirs.

    In fact there is a second ideology that has been thoroughly exposed.

    That is Syriza’s soc dem, ameliorate capitalism, and their belief that a return to a kind of postwar economic boom is possible or even desirable.

    I would ascribe sweet reason to the KKE in fact, who reasoned that syriza’s course of action would lead to more devastating attacks on the working class, as has proven to be the case.

    Those attacks made possible by syriza’s implementation of a memorandum far worse than any previous admin could have gotten passed.

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