Qalandar Bux Memon: Can you please talk about the spaces in Greece that opened up, started by the people who were trying to support and help the refugees and by refugees?
Costas Douzinas: Yeah, the solidarity centers - which flourished in the last few years. They were helped by, not so much by the government, but by the party members [Syriza] and the wider solidarity movement. My daughter, who is a social anthropologist did her PhD, her field-work, in a city in north-eastern Greece - in the area with many Turkish and Muslim people. So, she observed for her field-work a social/community soup kitchen, a social-community health center, and another place where they give out clothes to people. It was quite amazing you know, following her work and then, of course, her theorisation. Especially, how many ordinary people, who were not leftists or anything, became mobilized around the call for solidarity. It was the refugees and the poor because of the economic crisis that the country was going through. What was very exciting to read about and hear from my daughter Phaedra, was the way in which those people, particularly, middle-aged women who have always spent their lives in provincial towns - at home, cooking, looking after their husbands and their children and so on - suddenly acquired a kind of public life with new relations, new friends, and created a community. So, it was sort of a double good or a win-win situation. They got out of their homes or should I say the rather oppressive surroundings of a traditional provincial Greek family home and, of course, they provided a great service to the people who needed it. So, in a sense that part of the crisis, the emergence of the, quite often, spontaneous movements of solidarity towards the refugees, towards the immigrants, and towards people whose lives have been devastated by the crisis, was one of the beneficial side-effects of the crisis, you could say.
QBM: And as you have started talking about the crisis, the refugee crisis, you talked about the people-to-people level solidarity...there’s that element but there is also the other element. I am speaking of the, not necessarily increase, but the magnification of violence from Golden Dawn, for example. Can you talk about that? Also, I think, now that SYRIZA is not in power, we are seeing New Democracy [The party of the government, 2019-present] evict people and close these spaces - community spaces of various kinds...
CD: Let me start with the extreme right wing. Of course, in the next, perhaps, two to three months, we are going to get the verdict of the court case that lasted for over 3 years and in which the whole leadership of the Golden Dawn gang were defendants. Both in relation to specific events like the murder of the rapper Fysass [Pavlos Fysass, 1979-2013], the murder of Egyptian fishermen, the attacks on immigrants and fishermen and left-wing activists in the area of Piraeus - events, which are extremely well documented. We have for the first time perhaps, in European history that I know of, the trial of what passed as a political party; the trial will be of a criminal gang or a mafia. This trial, as I said, lasted for well over 3 years. It was extremely well and forensically detailed. Particularly, because it was of the leaders of a party or a presumed political party, including the members of parliament. It was conducted extremely carefully to ensure that we have a full record. And the convictions that we all expect as a result of that will end the life of this supposed party in politics. It had to be very well-documented.
This is because it will detail the way in which extreme right-wing Nazian-Fascist ideologies were able, in the last 10 or 15 years, to take roots within civil society and then to use murderous weapons and murderous campaigns against immigrants, refugees, against gays and lesbians and against the minorities that have usually been excluded from our families. And rather than being punished for that, (they were able) to get elected into parliament.
So, we are going to have a very important document that needs to be read examining this whole history. Not just for Greece but the wider world, because of the recent increase of right-wing ideologies and their successes. I am referring not only to electoral success around Europe but also the huge increase of right-wing violence that we have seen recently. So, that is one thing. I think it is very important that this trial comes to a conclusion and that we have the convictions that we expect, and therefore, we can move on to rid, to cleanse Greece, and hopefully the rest of Europe, from those ideologies.
On the other hand, of course, we have the immigrants and refugees. The wave of immigrants and refugees that we had in 2015-16, where in a period of just a few months, close to 1 million people passed through Greece coming from Turkey and Syria - from Turkey to the Greek islands and then on to Central Europe. It was a movement of humanity which, of course, stopped to a large extent just after north Macedonia and the so-called Western Balkan route was closed. They closed their borders with Greece. So, the flow was then reduced. However, a large number of people got stuck in Greece, people who did not want to stay in the country or seek asylum in Greece but they wanted to go to Germany, Sweden or Britain.
The permanent presence of those people in camps and other places of inhabitance, which were not particularly well-presented and have very limited facilities and amenities, has obviously created a wider problem. Let me say two things. The first is that when in 2015-2016, unexpectedly, this huge wave of refugees started arriving, the immediate reaction of the majority of the Greek people - particularly, those islanders, many of whom come from refugee families - was to welcome those people to help them in any way they could. And there was really an amazing set of events, of poor people going out to rescue them first, to save them from drowning and to help them and so on. Something that was clearly acknowledged internationally, by people from the General Secretary of the United Nations to the Pope and various others in between. So, that was a very positive development. Of course, it helped the public image of the country, which had suffered as a result of the events of 2010-2015.
I remember that in 2015, before I became a member of the parliament in September, Greece was on the front-page of the news all over the world. I was here in London myself but it was all negative. When the solidarity movement for refugees and immigrants started happening, at the end of 2015 and in the beginning of 2016, the image changed and the country was helped very much by its own people.
The problem, however, was created when it became clear, the problem that we are faced with right now, that the large numbers of people were not going to be able to leave the country. Therefore, they are here to be catered-to, they need proper places to live, to survive, for kids (we have a large number of unaccompanied kids) to go to education, to be provided with health-care and so on. The left-wing, the SYRIZA government, to a large extent, managed the problem. So, we adopted new laws that gave citizenship to all children born or educated in the country. We changed the pre-existing basis of citizenship law which used to rely on the so-called law of the blood; that you have to come from Greek parents to be a citizen. We changed that. We created quite a few reception classes in the refugee camps, so that kids could go to school to learn languages like English and Greek as well as some basic mathematics and so on. And we also offered a universal health-access system. In addition, we started, over the period of four years, to move a number of refugees from camps which existed and exist all over Greece to rented accommodation. It was not excellent, one could not feel proud for the situation of many of these camps, particularly, in the Islands. But at-least, things were happening and we had made it absolutely clear that the legal and humanitarian rights of these refugees and immigrants were going to be fully respected.
Now, things started changing after the election of the right-wing New Democracy party, last July. Some of the developments, some of the changes, were quite shocking. For example, the government withdrew health-care for refugees. They also withdrew the identity number system which allowed people to have both access to the hospitals and health-care but also with their identity number they could try and seek work and be able to have some employment. In combination with increased flows of refugees from Turkey, now we have a situation in which, for example, in the Island of Lesbos, we have camps that in full capacity should hold people in the region of 5000 but now there are about twenty thousand people there. And [take note of] the reaction of the local societies led by the right-wing and extreme right-wing politicians who are saying that they are not prepared to keep these refugees on these islands, even in conditions of concentration camps - which have been announced by the government as the next step. So, the government has gone as far as to say that we are going to expedite asylum application-processing and, then immediately, send people back, although, it’s not very clear where they would send them back to. Those people [people in the government who tried to send refugees back] failed, because you cannot just send people back to Pakistan or Afghanistan, you know. You need a deal, an intergovernmental deal, so the countries of citizenship may take these people back. No such deals exist. So, the answer for the New Democracy government, basically is, to create closed spaces which can be called “concentration camps”. To imprison people indefinitely. People who have not committed any crime but people who have become in Agambenian terms, ‘Sacred Life’ [Homo Sacer/Sacred Man/Abandoned Man as conceptualized by Giorgio Agamben]. They are not allowed to stay in this country and, of course, they cannot be sent to any other country. So, people who are there are permanently stuck and permanently imprisoned without any future.
Then you have this reaction of the local communities. Now in every country, in every people, there are elements that are going to be racist, elements who are going to be extreme right-wing and even have Fascist or even Neo-Nazi ideology. It is not the case that Greece is more or less of that or anything. There is always such an element, particularly, in a country where you had a brutal German occupation, communist resistance, and then a civil war. It has lived through a long period of anomaly, political anomaly, for the larger part of the second half of the 20th century. So, there is that but a large majority of the people are not racist or Fascist or Nazi in an ideological sense. However, if you have a situation such as we are facing right now! On the one hand, the state is failing to provide the necessary amenities for Greek people and refugees to cohabit in a particular space without bothering each other. On the other hand, you have the European countries, particularly, the countries of eastern Europe like Hungary, Poland, Czech and Slovak Republic and the Baltic countries who are not prepared to take even a small number of refugees and relocate themThis would reduce the burden on Greek Islands but also create a sense of solidarity, which would entail that there is a club of countries which have common challenges and common risks and they have adopted solidarity measures both towards countries of first entry and refugees. In this kind of soil Xenophobic, racist and even Fascist ideologies can take root much easier. And this is what is happening at the moment; the politics of fear, the politics of making ordinary people feel threatened about their security, their property, their future and the future of their kids, is being used, I think, quite extensively by right-wing leaders, in order to, create this strong sense of dislike for the refugees and, therefore, create the environment in which extreme measures like the creation of concentration camps, like the imprisonment and maltreatment or push backs of refugees, can take place.
We are in a situation in which: Europe does not help; the government which is, of course, of a right-wing and nationalist ideology, is stuck because they have to manage the problem but their own ideology, the ideology of their mayors and that of the local councils in the islands and in the main-land is not helping. I am afraid this could become a major problem, a major social problem and, perhaps, lead to an extreme right-wing turn of Greek society. We hope this is not going to happen. I think that the left movement, left parties and solidarity campaigns should start to take to the streets again. Somehow, they have stayed behind for the last few years, hoping that the government will deal with the problem This is the time again for people to start going out now actively, energetically and dynamically to stop the Fascists and Xenophobes and also to create a situation in which those people who, of course, are fleeing war, death and destruction can feel at home and start a new life.
QBM: A few follow-up points, if you could kindly address them. You mentioned the EU [European Union]. Could you please expand on the role and response of the EU, in terms of, both the legal setup for refugees and its informal suggestions to the government when you were in power? Moreover, you mentioned Pakistan. Could you please, talk more about that too?
CD: Let’s start with Pakistan. You know in June, during my tenure in Parliament, I was the President of the Parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee and I was involved in managing foreign relations. I was representing the parliament in an area which was extremely important in that period. I had an active role at the time in all kinds of negotiation. Of course, the most important job to do, in my position as the representative of parliament, was to stay in touch with ambassadors, ministers and so on. So, on a number of occasions I met the Pakistani ambassador and, of course, people from Afghanistan in Greece.
I was really saddened by some of their demands or requests which included that of trying to help identify bodies of relatives of citizens of Pakistan and Afghanistan, who had gone missing and were presumed to have drowned. The number of people who have been reported to have perished in the Mediterranean region is huge - more than 5000. In the morgue of Lesbos there were a number of unidentified bodies. It was in relation to the requests to identify or to find their relatives coming to the Pakistani embassy in Athens and an attempt to match those missing persons with the dead bodies in the morgue that I was and others were asked to help. We did get in touch with the authorities of Lesbos and we did put the embassy in contact. In only a few cases, the link was found, but in most cases it was not.
It was a pretty sad and clearly dispiriting experience because, you know, this idea of looking after the dead body or giving the rite of passage to the dead body, which is a deep and important tradition in our societies - both in Pakistan and Greece. Consider the myth of Antigone who goes to her own death, in order precisely, to bury her dead brother. So, you know these were ‘un-mourned bodies’ as Judith Butler has famously written. In these situations, I think, all people involved and all governments involved should have done more to prevent those deaths. As I said it was an extremely sad and moving situation. We could see the letters of the people who were asking the Pakistani authorities to help in identifying the missing relatives and loved ones.
This was the Pakistani position. Pakistan and Afghanistan have not signed and are not prepared, understandably so, to have any bilateral agreement with Greece or any multilateral agreements with the European Union; agreements which would automatically allow those countries [European countries] to return those who have not been given political asylum. I think I agree with them. I think that this is a problem of the Europeans. They cannot, as it were, pull it back, send people back or kick then back to Pakistan.
Now on the European question, already in the summer of 2015, the European Union leaders took a decision under which the refugees and some economic migrants had to be equally shared by all European countries. So, the asylum procedure under the so-called Dublin Convention had to be conducted in the first port of entry (in the first country in which people enter European space) and that should be Greece and Italy and in some cases Spain. Once, however, these people have been accepted as legitimate political refugees, then the decision was that they had to be distributed across the 28 members of the European Union, taking into account the size and population of those countries. We are not talking about huge numbers. In relation to Greece at this point there may be one hundred thousand refugees in the various camps. You know, a number of countries could take a few thousand of them each and lessen the burden that, as I said earlier, creates huge problems in the local populations. That did not happen.
One could say that one of the reasons for the political, I think, success including the increase in the votes of extreme right-wing parties in western Europe including the Lega Nord [Northern League] in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France, Orbán in Hungary and the Home & Religion Party in Poland, is indeed, the demonization of refugees. Particularly strange, of course, [is the case] in some places like the so-called Visegrád Crown [Visegrád Group] including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and The Czech Republic] which have not taken any refugees. In a sense, the refugees have become the typical example of Satan or the Bad Other who is coming to invade. There is this crazy theory of the replacement of the populations. That, somehow, there is a conspiracy to change ‘white’ Christians with ‘black’ Muslims coming over to Europe. So, it is strange to see the actions of these countries which have nothing to do with any burden on their fiscal positions or their populations because we are talking about minute numbers. It had nothing to do with how a large and wealthy club like the European Union could and should treat those people. But it had everything to do with the fact that in this reaction to globalization by right-wing movements, the politics of fear, the politics of contamination or the fear of contamination by strangers, by others, by other religions, other races or different looking people have become so central to the way in which they base their political party.
Now, we are in a situation where the European Union, the commission, took countries to the European Court of Justice because they were not meeting their obligations. The Court of Justice found them guilty of breaking their legal obligations but nothing has happened. At some point, there was a suggestion that the countries who do not take in the number of refugees that have been distributed to them should pay a kind of compensation per person that would go to those countries that have accepted the burden. Although, it is quite offensive, I think, to try and calculate the value of a person by means of a few thousand Euros but even that did not happen. So, now we have a situation in which the legal system, basically, has collapsed because there is no accepted way for which the asylum application can be processed. The so-called Dublin Convention on political asylum has been renounced, it is basically dead, and there is no currently active program of distribution of refugees from Greece and Italy to other European countries.
It seems to me that the problems that Europe faces with refugees are characteristic of the wider, I think, dysfunction,, the existential crisis that European Union is going through. My impression is that there is not enough political will or leadership. Leaders that are not prepared to understand that this is not a local problem. This is not a problem for Greece or Italy but this is a wider crisis. It is of course related to wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and so on. But it creates only a spike in the movements of people. The decline of the west started a long time ago, perhaps, in the 1960’s right after decolonization. I think it is gaining force and gaining speed and, of course, the population movement is a part of it. Unless, Europe or the west or the North realizes that we have to enter into a new global dispensation and a new division of global wealth and resources, that would be fairer towards the Global South.. It seems to me that the illiberal democracies, that we see all over the place such as in Turkey to Hungary to Poland and so on, have used and will use the refugees as the kind of sacrificial lamb, in order to, impose new, quite oppressive, and totalitarian ways of running democracies.
QBM: Two questions (1) So, my own research tells me that when, although it is a generalization, particular technologies of domination are used on a particular group, let’s say the concentration camps that have now been formed for refugees in the case of Greece, in a sense, they become addictive for those in power and they universalize. The gap between the other and the citizen starts to close. So, can you please comment on that in relation to Greece and whether you see that already happening under New Democracy?
(2) Since, I have already noted reparations here, could you talk about Greek reparations in relation to the German occupation. We are also sitting near the British Museum (both laugh), so could you please touch on that and also please explain in more detail, what you mentioned about a new global system that is more equitable and what you envision?
CD: Ok, so we started about the technologies of domination.
I mean, as you know very well, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has actually argued that the model and the symbol of modernity is the camp. Of course, in his case, he was referring to the German extermination camps but, also widely, the way in which modernity has created, you know what here in Britain they have come to call ‘the enemy within’. The enemy within can either be exterminated, of course, we have seen that extensively or can be taken out of the relation, out of life, out of society, into places of permanent containment. Again, here in Britain, particularly, during the Irish, so-called ‘troubles’ [Also known as the Northern Ireland Conflict] we had this extensive practice of preventive detention in the infamous H-Blocks [Her Majesty’s Prison Maze also known as The Maze or H-Blocks]. Republican sympathizers would be arrested and because there was no evidence for prosecuting them, instead of going through the formal and criminal law process, they were just put away in the camps.
Now, we have a kind of post-modern version of this already in Australia, in the way that Australians are dealing with potential refugees. They have created agreements with some of the pacific Islands. They send people who may be coming from the Philippines, Indonesia or Afghanistan, who may be asking for political asylum; they keep them in those Islands and they pay the islanders money, in order to stop them from entering their own [Australian] territorial waters. So, this is the strange thing. The International Law relating to the refugees says that once a penitent, someone who is asking for help, has entered your territory then you are at-least obliged to look into their claim for political asylum. So, the Australians have started this new kind of idea of keeping people imprisoned and contained in islands and other places, before they enter the territorial waters of Australia.
Here in Europe, this idea has already been discussed as a possibility. You know, either in combination with some Middle Eastern country, perhaps Jordan, where big camps could be created. Or people trying to get into Europe via Greece or Italy could be kept there. In Greece, there has been the mention of the possibility of taking them to one of those un-inhabited islands, because there are so many of them in the Aegean Sea archipelago with - two or three thousand islands - and putting people there, so that, they don’t go to the inhabited islands and create problems for the authorities there. Something similar is now happening in Morocco and Sub-Saharan Africa where various walls and camps have been created to stop people from coming up north towards the Mediterranean and get into Spain. So, that technology of containment, the technology of taking people out of circulation or out of society, because either they are “dangerous”, because they are “economically useless” or “we don’t want them” has been used extensively, to keep the ‘undesirables’ out.
That is then, in a sense, reproduced domestically through the rich ghettoes. We have the ghettos of the rich, whereby the gated communities of extremely-wealthy people cannot be accessed, unless you are a resident or have been invited by them. Those people live in their own kind of camps and exclusion zones which, in their case, is that of wealth. This idea of segregation, of moving people out, as it also happens in Palestine with the wall – of raising barriers in order to stop the exchange, the coming together, the touching of people – is one of the major ways or the techniques of power in our society.
So, we have the great contradiction that on the one hand, globalization and the theories of the global teach us that all communications and movement is free. Information, money, commodities and capital can move around. However, it is precisely now in our period that, as far as, labor, people and humans are concerned, we have the application of the tallest and higher walls that we have had in human history. The greatest and the largest attempt in human history, to keep the people out. So, that is your paradox. In a society of supposed openness or open borders and open communication, the one entity that cannot move around and will have to be imprisoned and contained in islands, camps and ghettos, is the human being.
Then, you asked about the...
CD: Yes, reparations. I mentioned in passing earlier that I believe that we are going through a long historical cycle. Perhaps, a cycle that started with the great discoveries of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the discovery of the new world and the beginning of colonization, is coming to an end. Not just, in terms of colonization, which we have in the different forms of neocolonialism. What’s coming to an end, is the way in which the west, through colonialism and imperialism was able to create its “civilised” political, economic and social system. A system in which through the use of the transfer of value from the colonies, it [the west] was able to create a pretty civilized (in our own terms/in western terms) welfare system - of social and economic rights of elections, pluralism and political parties.
However, this period of ascendancy and domination of the west is, now, gradually coming to an end. I should say, perhaps, that this decline has set in from the 60s onwards. It is very characteristic that the importance of the United States to impose its will in the Middle East decreased and it continuously threatens to withdraw from different parts of the world. Second, what I call the existential crisis of the European Union that seems unable, despite the various very interesting things it has done, to deal with the major crisis of migration. So, this change, this decline of the west, I think can be measured both, in terms of, the transfer of capital from the West to the East - in other words, the change in the global distribution of wealth and income - but also the transfer of power including military power and military might, from the north to the south or from the west to the east.
Now, the question of reparations. In particular we are talking about the long and historical reparations, as it has been claimed by some friends and comrades in the United States in relation to slavery and in other parts of the world in relation to the crimes of colonialism. At this historical point, these claims will be resolved, I am afraid, according to the current existing balance of forces. But the important moral side, the moral foundation of the claims, the actual resolution of these issues will have to partly take place through processes of openness and recognition of responsibility, atonements and forgiveness, not totally dissimilar to the truth and reconciliation commission of South Africa. Despite all the problems with the TRC we had the introduction of a new system, of resolving major conflicts, not through vengeance, not through killings, but through some process of mutual recognition, so that is one thing.
The second thing is that, it seems to me that those questions of imbalance and of injustice and of theft, that colonialism has led to, has to be answered today in terms of a new world economic order. We had the New International Economic Order that the third world tried to develop, in the 70’s and the 80’s. That failed, I think, through concerted attacks on the economists and politicians who promoted in the last attempt of the western powers to reassert their domination, which was basically globalization. So, we need to think of the creation of a new and much fairer economic order. If we don’t think that kind of a new economic order through negotiations and discussions between the different stakeholders of the world system, then, I am afraid that the decline of the west will continue without the possibility of creating a new more equitable world order. We could, of course, end up with pretty catastrophic developments which could include both wars and the final undermining and destruction of any kind of democratic pretense in domestic politics. A decline of democratic politics and a hatred of democracy, that I think, we are already witnessing in the Western World. So, there is a question of reparations. But we would have to combine moral claims and morally just demands with the need of a new economic order. We have to discuss, negotiate and agree upon not just some compensation for past ills but the creation of, perhaps, a new future for the whole world.
QM: I want to move towards the particular of Greece. The left in Europe and the rest of the world was very encouraged by the rise and coming-in-power of SYRIZA. Now, you were involved in that whole process. In the last elections, however, the broader left outside Greece didn’t give SYRIZA a chance. Yet, Syriza didn’t do that badly in the election.. So, what can we learn from SYRIZA today, including their time in power?
CD: Oh yes, I published a book recently.
QBM: ‘SYRIZA in Power’?
CD: Yes, that was a couple of years ago. This one (referring to another book) just got published in Greek, that is called ‘From the University Chair to the Parliament’s Benches: The Life and Times of a Left Government’, which is an attempt to assess or give an account of what has happened. Of course, it is the beginning of a long process. I am the president of the Nikos Poulantzas Institute, which is the think tank of SYRIZA. There we have started a series of internal discussions including seminars with former ministers who are going through the difficulties they faced, the problems, the obstacles and so on. But there is also a wide public discussion in which I am involved, both as the president of the institute and as an involved political philosopher in Greece. It will take a long time to find out what went wrong and what went right, and why, but we have some reflections for now.
So, let me start by saying what went right. In terms of all major criteria one could use in order to judge a government, in the particular context of Europe and Greece, the place that SYRIZA found in 2015 and the place that it gave to the right wing opposition in 2019, the two places were almost totally different. In 2019 the country found itself in a better position in almost every ground in comparison to what it had seen in 2015. But, particularly, in terms of the more left-wing interest in topics such as class politics, human rights, civil-political rights, stopping the humanitarian crisis. It had, this, amazing and totally unexpected success in the negotiations with North Macedonia and solving this pestering sort of poison in Greek culture and Greek foreign relations; all these things were extremely good.
Now, when you start enumerating and trying to assess the problems that we faced and which also led to the electoral defeat, clearly you have a major job. At this point there are public statements; in my book, very much written in hot blood, in immediate response to the defeat. If we want to draw lessons for the whole European left, to put together an organized debate and reach a real set of conclusions about this period, it will have to take place in cold blood. We need, position papers under conditions of proper research and even some kind of scientific exploration of what went wrong.
But at this point, I can say two or few things. First, there was extremely limited preparation for government. Partly because of the huge ignorance of governing in the key members in the leadership of the party. Also, because of ignorance about what it means to run a state. These were people who had no experience, whatsoever, of administration, particularly public administration. Therefore, we were really caught unaware by the way in which a strong state, which has been created by the right-wing and the socialist party as a tool for aggrandizement and clientelism, was going to react to a party and a government that rhetorically at-least was speaking about regime change. The reaction was absolutely poisonous. The senior civil servants acted, as I have written in my books, basically as enemies of the government; to the extent that when they were being asked by ministers to give data and files they didn’t comply. And the government and party for all kinds of reasons, I think wrongly, decided not to replace top civil servants and appoint people who were either friendly or neutral towards these policies. Like the British civil servants who would be equally happy, to a large extent, to work with Brexit as well as remain. So, that did not happen. That was I think a general conclusion shared by all ministers and this was my own experience. It was a government that was almost a hostage to a number of senior civil servants who were basically acting as if they were working for the opposition. They were working, in order to, help expedite the so-called short left interval.
Then, there were all kinds of internal and external problems.. The European Troika was the source of huge problems in negotiations and through the financial stranglehold it was applying. They were not prepared to see a small leftist party in a small country defy the dominant neoliberal ideology.
But there were also lots of internal problems.
I have mentioned lack of preparation. Then, lack of coordination was another one. The government did not act in a coordinated manner and with the exception, perhaps, of negotiations with the Europeans, did not have a very clear-cut program of where they wanted to go. Except for mitigating the humanitarian crisis and dealing with the refugee problem; improving here and there. The problem was that the state continued operating as in the past. So, the people didn’t see improvements not only in the family budget but also in the way the public service treated them.
Then, there were a number of party problems; one was that a large number of the party cadres – the leadership and the first rank of the party below the leadership – were removed ‘into’ the government. In addition, the party more or less remained leaderless, and that I think worsened an already existing problem in the relationship between members of the party and its leadership. Members of the party informed the government about problems, but when there was no response, they came to feel that the party leadership, which now was the government, had no interest in their decisions, their demands and requests. There was a kind of detachment between the government and the party members and this existed even in the relation between the government – the ministers – and the members of parliament. You know we, members of parliament, not necessarily I, but generally there was this continuous complaint that there was no link, that there was no rapport, no on-going and permanent liaison. And that was our problem. Not about the dignity or the self-esteem of members of parliament but about the input and participation in decisions of party members, people who live in society and know its problems. They had not been isolated into ministries and government offices, and therefore they could identify and touch the pulse of the people in their neighborhoods, towns and cities. They were in the position to pass their observations on to the government but that did not happen.
The third major estrangement and alienation was that between the whole or part of the government and the social movements. Once you have an election, once the multitude becomes the people, the voting citizens, and then a party is elected which claims to agree and be in the business of implementing many of the movement’s demands this leads to the weakening of the movements, the ballet papers empty the streets. And this happened and it was understandable in the first year, particularly at a point in which the whole society, not just the government and the movement, but everyone was totally preoccupied perhaps wrongly but preoccupied with negotiations and what was going to happen over the Brexit and the future of the relationship and the negotiations with the Europeans. When, later, the government returned to some kind of normality after the second election in September, there was no attempt to populate movements, to create a sense of dynamism in the streets again. Doing that could have helped the government by pushing it, in order to, keep to its more radical pledges and ideology. You know not only the feasible radical promises that could be delivered in the period of the fiscal strangulation but also, in order to give a clear sense of where the activities and the policies and the decisions of the government are going. That did not happen. So, you had this process of distanciation between a number of ministers and top political leaders, and then the members of the party, the members of parliament and the movement. The government and the leadership of the party became totally isolated. It was clear in some of their decisions, policies and even more in the way that they communicated with the public, that they were not fully aware of the way in which existing right-wing hegemony in society, combined with some of the mistakes of the government, was actually turning the people radically against them. It was quite shocking for those of us who went out in the streets. And we were campaigning and going into local associations, societies and local councils and so on. Perhaps for a year before the elections, a kind of cordon sanitaire had been built by the right-wing and the socialist party around SYRIZA. Even appearing in public meetings with people immediately led to heckling, bullying, unpleasantness. It was obviously a major success of the right-wing and the media to achieve this; to isolate the government so much. But I feel that we contributed to that. Of course, there were no mass media including TV channels and newspapers that supported SYRIZA, but it wasn’t just that. Occasionally I think, we tend to criticize the messenger when perhaps the message also might have been problematic.
QBM: I wanted to ask something more positive as well because you know SYRIZA did come into power and I think, what would you say about the processes that led to you coming into power. What is still today quite an achievement with all the changes with the right-wing and their victories, what can we learn from that moment?
CD: I mean, I did emphasize the perhaps negative aspects because this is what people want to hear and they don't want repeated by a future left government. And I start from these because I have an inside gaze which is not widely available. However, let me put it in historical terms beginning with the period that comes after 1989 – after the New World Order began or after the announcement of the “end of history”. The left all over the world went into a period of retreat. From the left’s point of view, it was a period of huge conservative reaction which combined on the one hand the total domination of neoliberal capitalism but also this eventual and gradual change and movement of the world towards right-wing views.
We on the left although we publicly denounced the motifs of the end of history, perhaps, we were the people who had accepted it more than anyone else. And there was a change in the form of a move away from class-politics, state politics and so on, towards local small projects including human rights, micro-politics, small and local issues. These were and are important issues, . But it also meant a kind of indirect, and sometimes direct, acceptance that perhaps the radical left or the socialist left could no longer win state power. And in that situation, first we had the wave of resistances and the revolutionary wave that started with the Arab Spring in 2010-11 that moved all over the world to Occupy Wall Street and Occupy St. Paul here In London and which I think is still happening. I mean, perhaps, some people said that after 2011 and 2012, this wave of resistances or revolutionary wave came to an end. No, it did not. We now live in a permanent insurrectionary situation. Today you will read news from all parts of the world, whether it is Hong Kong or Ukraine or Turkey or Lebanon there is always something happening. So, we live in a world, at the moment, in which the resistance, particularly the resistance of young people, has become one of the main characteristics of the world scene. We say that we live in a globalized period, in terms of, economics, finance, communications, trades and commodities and so on. I think the reaction of the world’s youth and people all over, is a turn to the period of great resistance that we haven’t seen worldwide since the 1960’s. This series of victories helped inspire the resistances in Greece which compared with those in other European countries was far more intensive and extensive. And without this rise of resistance, there was no chance that a left-wing party or a more radical left party like SYRIZA could gain that much support. And then its victory was hailed rightly by the world left as a victory of the left at the level of formal politics – at state level. It is the reason why the world-left has been interested in both the 2015 and the July 19 elections and is still interested today. The world-left is extremely interested in the process of coming into power, the period of power and of course what may happen in the future. In that sense, SYRIZA has acquired a symbolic and emblematic position.
I really hope that we have such movements developed in other countries like Spain, which is in a very hopeful situation at the moment, and also Portugal which has a government in which there is an informal agreement between leftist political forces.
So, the point remains that when you have such a huge attack on popular rights, popular income and a huge increase in inequality, while resistances become the lubrication of left politics, you also need to win power in a state. You cannot in some kind of extreme leftist aristocratic way, cut yourself off as people like Alan Badiou or Jacques Ranciere and some left opposition organizations in Greece have done. They claimed that, somehow, we have to keep our hands clean or wash our hands away from power because any involvement with power leads to contamination of your ideas and your purity. It is not wrong that, obviously, once you are in power, you have to make certain compromises, you have to have a certain pragmatic attitude to life, politics and decision-making.
While, on the other hand, let me repeat that for me, the government and the streets have to move on parallel lines and that is the only way I can see what we used to call the democratic way to socialism working. You must have in the streets all kinds of movements that address central class questions but also movements related to identity politics, human rights, social-economic rights and to environmental issues. These must be there in the streets, pushing the party. But at the same time, you have to have some kind of central-left or left government which would respond to these movements and create a dialectic through which you keep reforming institutions, and reforming and deepening democracy and democratic rights. It is a process. Both these two things have to dance together.
I think, if nothing else, we have gone through the years which were extremely exciting but also quite difficult – an existentially difficult period of government – with some extensive experiences that hopefully we can develop, theorize and generalize, but also we can pass it on to other comrades all over the world.
QBM: you talked about the Arab Spring and how that also filtered in. What is often ascribed to the Arab spring kind of took place in Pakistan with the Lawyers Movement (2006-2009), which ousted Musharraf (dictator). You know, it was the Arab Spring before the Arab Spring - in terms of the methods of resistance - and I am sure there are other movements from the south that are not recognised but could claim something similar. I guess my point is that coming towards the connection between the South and Europe. That of expanding how the European Left thinks to connect with you know what is happening in the Global South. You know, because you see in the Global South, there is a huge history of radical movements and we are going to win together. Do you want to comment on that?
CD: There is a strange thing. You know, there is quite a lot of unhappiness within SYRIZA about how the European Left did not help us very much. I think there is that aspect and I think some people do exaggerate it, however, in terms of solidarity we found it on much greater levels from the non-European left-wing movements – from Latin America and Asia. Obviously, their ability to help either in terms of negotiations with the Europeans, or a more active and dynamic participation in the Greek struggle, was limited. But there was clearly an understanding which was, perhaps, not as pronounced with the big leftist European parties. There was no recognition that this is something important, that this is an experiment where these people are fighting hard and are honest in what they try to do. They are not trying to pretend that they are doing better than they are doing. They are not trying to pretend that they don’t live in a continuous contradiction between their ideology and the program that they have to implement as a result of their defeat in the negotiations.
You know my friend Slavoj Zizek was extremely supportive initially of SYRIZA but later he changed. I think he is ambiguous. I take from him, through the titles of one of his recent books in which he refers extensively to SYRIZA and my work. He calls it “the courage of hopelessness”. He says that there is a certain courage to continue fighting after you have lost and mentions and mentions SYRIZA in that context. You know, once you are in the corner – once you have no way out – there is obviously the way out that mostly people thought and believed on the Left; give up and say: “okay fine we cannot do this, give it to the right-wing and get on with the building of our own ideology, our own party and our own organization”. So, imagine, what would happen if the right wing New Democracy was in power when one million refugees passed through Greece in the end of 2015 and 2016. And there is you know this courage! The courage which is, in a sense, about what we used to call voluntarism in the old days. You decide that you are not prepared to go back and you will continue. You may hit a wall and you may have to break your head in the wall but you are still going to do it. And it seems to me that with the benefit of hindsight, that was the right decision. There were moments in which comrades and myself very seriously considered resigning. I am happy we didn’t do it and I am happy that we went to the end. Our loss, in a sense, the loss of July 2019 elections, was determined in July 2015 when Tsipras accepted the third memorandum. So, that was there. However, what we succeeded for ordinary people in, what we learnt for the left, and what we can build on with those four years’ experience is quite invaluable. And I think it was the right thing to do.
QBM: Yeah, I mean I guess that's why the Global South was more sympathetic because they have had that question of, you know some leftist governments had power in the Global South, and they faced these problems, so they know the gap between what you can do or what you want to do can’t be done always in a straight line.
Interview conducted: January 2020.
Portrait Drawing of Costas Douzinas by Aqsa Fazli
Costas Douzinas is a philosopher, academic, and former member of the Hellenic Parliament for SYRIZA. He has taught at institutions in China, Australia, Greece, Italy, South Africa, the United States and in the United Kingdom. Currently he teaches at the Birbeck School of Law, of whom he is one of the founders, and also serves as the Director of the Birbeck Institute for the Humanities. As part of the Syriza government he served as the President of the Permanent Committee of National Defence and Foreign Affairs. He also serves as the President of the Nikos Poulantzas Institute. His work is prominently concerned with political philosophy, postmodern legal theory, critical jurisprudence, human rights and aesthetics. Published in various journals and translated in to thirteen languages, some of his publications include Critical Legal Thinking: Law and the Political, Adieu Derrida, Syriza in Power: Reflections of an Accidental Politician and the Radical Theory of Rights.