Slawek BLICH: Former Czech president Vaclav Klaus said that the main result of the referendum is a slap in the face of European nomenclature. Did you have a hand in that?
Panagiotis SOTIRIS:Yes, I voted OXI, obviously. I also campaigned in favour of the NO vote, because it was a necessary rejection of harsh austerity and the policies of the European Union, as well as a demand for more popular sovereignty and democracy. It was not just a ‘no’ to the proposals made by European institutions, but rather a ‘no’ to the stance that the Eurozone has currently taken.
In your recent article in Jacobin magazine, you point out that the idea of a referendum was correct, because it liberated social forces. Why did that seem impossible previously?
For the first time you saw a liberation of a social and political mobilization among so many people. We saw hundreds of thousands of people giving a rebuff to austerity and becoming a true movement, united in the campaign for the NO vote. People were going out, talking to each other, holding mass rallies. Last Friday in Athens, one of the biggest political rallies in Greek history took place.
Were they the same people who elevated SYRIZA to power in 2015?
It was not just a ‘no’ to the proposals made by European institutions, but rather a ‘no’ to the stance that the Eurozone has currently taken.
If you look at the rise of SYRIZA to political and governmental power, it is a very complex and contradictory era to analyse. On the one hand, you had the electoral victory of SYRIZA as a result of the social dynamics of the past 5 years, especially of the explosive 2010-2012 period. But on the other hand, when it comes to the Realpolitik, especially on the international level and negotiating with the Troika, you will see that the current position of Alexis Tsipras’ cabinet is about the same as before: Greek representatives going to Brussels for never-ending negotiations, the negotiations getting more and more difficult, so the government has to make even more concessions, up the point when it is practically forced to accept all the basic premises of austerity.
Such a situation of tiresome, endless and pointless negotiations could not possibly encourage people to go out and take to the streets, it could not create any powerful social and political dynamics. In contrast, the decision to hold a referendum created exactly this kind of dynamics.
This could also explain why there was such an unexpectedly strong No in the referendum.
Yes, it was a historical vote, especially if we take into consideration that Greek society was under very open blackmail. The threats were not just verbal – they were real. Mind that we held a referendum with closed banks and all the consequences associated with that. I claim that the spectre of bankruptcy and humanitarian catastrophe has been the most convenient tool for the open blackmail of an entire society. But Greek voters have overwhelmingly refused to be blackmailed and to accept more cuts and austerity measures. In this sense the referendum unleashed social and political dynamics of people taking fate in their own hands.
So you agree with PM Alexis Tsipras then, who in his post-referendum speech also emphasised that democracy cannot be blackmailed.
As long as there is still an open possibility of the left being the leading force in the democratic struggle within the EU, there is not much space for the likes of the Golden Dawn.
I do agree with what he said in principle, but I could also find plenty of reasons to criticize the Prime Minister and the Greek government.
Could you give any of them?
Not only did they embrace this tactic of endless negotiations until the moment of the referendum, but they had also already made significant and very painful concessions to the dominant logic of the Eurozone.
But at the same time, the referendum gave Mr Tsipras a stronger mandate to negotiate a sustainable solution to end the crisis.
That’s just a fantasy. The real problem is that we have reached a state where it is practically impossible to hold negotiations in the sense of reaching a compromise. I am afraid that the European institutions will continue to act in the same manner, including blackmailing the whole of society and want all their demands to be fully met. This is the problem Greece will face in the next couple of days.
So you don’t believe that the Greek government can get a deal that would prevent the further deterioration of the Greek economy?
I am afraid it is practically impossible. If they get a deal, it would surely be just a prolongation of austerity, recession, and the shrinking of the public sector. This is not something that the people have voted for. People voted OXI not to reject a certain proposal, nor did they vote in favour of the government. Instead, they took a more existential decision, if I may describe it in that way.
Don’t you think that the creditors are also ready to soften their stance and offer a more conciliatory proposal to the Greeks? Even the IMF conceded that Greece needs a debt relief scheme to create “a breathing space”.
Well, first of all the main player in the negotiations is the European Union. The IMF itself can easily say that it is in favour of continuing negotiations, but what it really means is imposing just another austerity agreement on Greece. When the IMF says it wants to help, it wants to help the banks and the creditors, not the Greek people. The same thing applies to the European Union and I don’t believe that we’re going to see any major change of direction in their negotiation strategy.
Let’s talk about Yanis Varoufakis’ departure. He resigned after alleged pressure from the creditors. What is your view on the former Greek finance minister?
We should wait a little bit until it’s clear what the new Greek negotiating team is going to propose to the institutions.
Varoufakis indeed made himself clear in his letter of resignation that he was practically asked to step down by the Prime Minister Tsipras to facilitate the negotiations. What’s more important is that Varoufakis was replaced by Euclid Tsakalotos. And despite Mr Tsakalotos not being as flamboyant as Varoufakis, he nevertheless leans more towards the left side of the SYRIZA party. And this is something they don’t talk about in mainstream media. Of course he still wants to negotiate and he opposes a Grexit, but even within this position he is a little bit more to the left. And this makes it even more tragic that he has the task to negotiate a rather humiliating agreement with our creditors
The leaders of three Greek opposition parties have agreed to back Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in the debt negotiations. Is this an important development?
Well, there was a common conference where they all agreed to back the government and to work on a common communiqué, with the exception of the Communist Party, which refused to sign the common statement, and Golden Dawn, which did not take part in the meeting.
So the Greek government is now trying to woo the European partners with the idea that SYRIZA won the referendum with the NO vote, that it has the whole political spectrum on their side and that it even removed the provocateur Varoufakis to facilitate negotiations.
Will it be enough to woo the creditors?
The problem is the exact logic of negotiations, in which we are trying to find a middle ground with the European Union. The truth is that whenever we tried to do this in the past 5 months, it usually ended up with Greece making concessions and the European institutions making advances. Now we have reached a critical point, we have an unsustainable debt and are totally dependent on the ECB’s good will, because without increased injections of liquidity the Greek banking system cannot make it for a period longer than a few days.
That’s why I think it would have been much better to seriously contemplate a radical alternative – something that the Greek government refused to even discuss.
After the NO vote and after the EU’s refusal to actually offer something that could be a deal, by which I mean reducing debt and putting an end to austerity, the alternative would have been a decision for a sovereign exit from the Eurozone.
And I think this is exactly where the dynamics of the referendum can actually make sense, because it opens a true possibility to say: “the people have rejected austerity, they are fed up with their suffering, they are ready to stand alone and they are ready for a rupture”.
When you say exit from the Eurozone – do you mean exit from the European Union?
Well, in technical terms it would be possible to quit the Eurozone and reintroduce the national currency without getting out of the European Union. But I also think that in the current institutional, financial, and monetary architecture of the European Union, the decision to leave the common currency would practically mean disobeying the core treaties of the EU and, in the medium run, it would also mean an exit from the European Union.
Slavoj Żiżek illustrates this dilemma with a joke that there is only one scenario worse than poverty and chaos after leaving the EU – and that is remaining in the EU and submitting to its financial discipline.
Nobody knows exactly what would happen, but I would also like to underline that there are things Greeks have to struggle with on a daily basis and these are not abstract or speculative. I mean that we are in an urgent need of instant solutions to prevent catastrophe. The lethal danger in which the whole Greek economy and society finds itself today requires radical solutions.
Could you be more precise?
For example reclaiming the monetary sovereignty to deal with the banks on our own terms. We should have the courage to talk about nationalizing the banking system, or controlling the Central Bank of Greece in a democratic way. Moreover, I don’t claim that this is something to do in the long run – I am saying that it could be necessary now if we want to avoid a dreadful humanitarian crisis.
Yet there was an international wave of rallies and protests in support of Greece taking place across Europe.
Definitely, that’s the most important and authentic manifestation of an anti-austerity movement in Europe. The true allies of the Greek people are social or political grassroots movements in other European countries, organizing those mass rallies in the main European capitals. The very fact that there was such a broad expression of international solidarity with Greece over the past weeks shows the necessity for a different way of thinking about political alliances in the postmodern world.
In one way or another Greece is today in an asymmetrical relation to the EU as a whole and in this sense only asymmetrical alliances can actually work. We should look beyond the obvious solutions to find the support of grassroots movements, and therefore create political pressure strong enough to change the balance of forces in modern societies.
What do you mean by an asymmetrical relation?
If we think in terms of governments, or parties forming governments, I don’t think there are any actual natural allies of Greece right now in Europe. I think that most of the European governments have aligned themselves with the harsh austerity orchestrated mainly by Germany. Even France has not really challenged the German version of austerity.
How about Italy’s Matteo Renzi, who posted a short statement on Facebook that Europe must find a permanent solution to the Greek crisis by going beyond austerity?
Matteo Renzi occasionally makes statements of this kind, but at the same time he implements his own austerity package in Italy, in order to avoid a much worse European Union austerity package. I could go on like this about any other European country.
So the war of all against… one?
One of the interesting and at the same time very sad aspects of the contemporary balance of forces in the EU is exactly this alignment of all the countries, including the peripheral ones, plus the countries that are not even in the Eurozone, or the ones that cannot even benefit from an austerity-driven European Union, and they still suicidally align themselves with Germany, and take an aggressive stance against Greece.
Some suggest, that Europe’s attitude was in fact an open attempt to push the SYRIZA government out of office, just to make sure the same rupture would never be possible in Portugal, Spain, or Italy.
Maybe we should finally realize that it is the EU who needs a radical shock therapy, not the indebted countries. It is the EU who needs a democratic injection.
Yes, I agree – the whole position of the European institutions and the leading European countries was not a neutral economic response, or a standard technocratic approach to the fiscal or monetary crisis that happened in Greece. I think that in fact there is a serious political design behind their stance. It aims at crushing and humiliating any new form of political movement, or any new agenda outside of mainstream European politics. This was exactly the political rationale behind the tactics of the European Union’s representatives in the negotiations so far: firstly to offer Greece truly humiliating terms, the kind of deal that would asphyxiate the Greek economy, especially in terms of bank liquidity, and bring the whole of society to its knees, then force SYRIZA to accept something that is unacceptable both for the party leaders and for the electorate, and consequently force them out of power in order to reinstate mainstream pro-austerity parties.
History does not really repeat itself but one can surely learn from it. Many people compare the economic situation currently plaguing Greece to that of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that had helped fascism grow in the 1930s. Is it something you think could happen to Greece if SYRIZA fails?
Well, the rise of Golden Dawn, especially from 2011 to 2013, had elements of this classic narrative of the rise of fascism. That is, there was a society in deep crisis, intensive social and political polarization, and the emergence of both left-wing and fascist radicalisms. So in this sense there are some common elements.
However, what is interesting is that as long as there is still an open possibility of the left being the leading force in the democratic struggle within the EU, there is not much space for the likes of the Golden Dawn. In this sense, for example, it’s interesting that although the Golden Dawn strongly advocated for the NO vote in the referendum, it was not the Golden Dawn that defined it and made it possible. It was much more thanks to the people of the left. So as long as the left is struggling to reclaim democracy, sovereignty and the rupture with austerity, there is not much space for the far right to expand its influence.
What would it mean for SYRIZA to be defeated?
Surely something far different from just being thrown out of power. Today the main danger is not SYRIZA losing its power – the real danger is SYRIZA and the left in general becoming just another variation of mainstream politics. Accepting another austerity package could easily lead to this. This is the real danger for the left.
The citizens of Greece said that austerity isn’t the way to end the economic crisis. So what is a sensible and reasonable agreement for Greece today?
If we think in abstract terms, a reasonable agreement would bring an important reduction of the debt burden, get rid of most of the neoliberal reforms that were imposed as part of the austerity package, and some actual solidarity from the EU in the sense of economic support, public investments, and financial aid to help bring back growth in Greece.
But I have to say what this is something that we can only think of in the abstract. I think that in real terms it is impossible to have a good deal with the EU now and it is very unlikely to see a profound change that is necessary if we want to get out of the vicious circle of austerity, recession, unemployment, and poverty.
So what’s the implicit alternative for Greece?
I think that now is the best time for rupture. Maybe we should finally realize that it is the EU who needs a radical shock therapy, not the indebted countries. It is the EU who needs a democratic injection and if there was at least one country – and this is of course a historical challenge for Greece – choosing the road of rupture to create schismatic waves all over the EU, such a country would inspire new social and political movements and would really change the balance of forces. In this radical dialectic, the Greek rupture is the only possibility for some dynamics of change emerging within the EU.
is a scholar, lecturer, author, activist, and leading figure of Antarsya.