Since at least the beginning of this year, the project of achieving a decent, reasonable Europe had set its eyes on Greece. I say nothing of radically transforming Europe into something just and fair and ecologically sound — that prospect is far beyond the present horizon — but hopes that Europe could slowly turn away from its current path toward self-destruction had been pinned on Greece. Those hopes, it seems, have now been shattered.
Unless the Greek left can somehow, unexpectedly, overturn the latest parliamentary decision to accept a third bailout Memorandum, and in the process reestablish itself as a vector of popular discontent, the events since the July 5 bailout referendum can only be considered an unmitigated defeat. But I don’t say this to be defeatist. I say this because I think it’s the only way forward, the only way to put into perspective those battles that have not yet been lost — and might still be won.
It is not only implausible to claim that Greece actually won some concessions in the deal it’s been offered, as Alexis Tsipras seemed to be saying for a time, until he apparently realized how ridiculous such statements sounded. What’s more important is that such claims distract from the one real gain that has been made over the past several weeks: that finally, after years in which the Greek crisis was presented in the international media as a matter of fiscal morality and economic expertise, it has been revealed as a play of brute force — which Tsipras and his government have lost.
If we say that an “agreement” was reached, we imply that all sides accepted tradeoffs and reached some kind of mutually satisfying outcome, the result of a legitimate process of give and take. But it has now become abundantly clear that the Eurozone leaders never really negotiated with Greece in good faith. A deal that is signed under duress is better labeled, as even much of the press has admitted, “capitulation.” The difference is significant. An “agreement” dissolves tension. It allows all sides to act as if their interests and dignity were respected, and it asks them to wait until the agreement expires before going back to the bargaining table again. A capitulation, on the other hand, is humiliating and infuriating. It does not quell opposition and can at most only drive it underground; and it is only accepted as long as the power relations remain that forced it to be accepted in the first place.
Tsipras has made tactical errors. Above all, he made the outrageous mistake of acting as if the Eurozone leaders were reasonable and could be negotiated with. He acted as if the Eurozone leaders still cared about maintaining the financial stability of the Euro and the political integrity of the European Union. He discovered that the Euro and the Union are less dear to them than austerity and fiscal morality (read: punishment) imposed for their own sake. And in the process, more clearly than at any previous moment, the utter bankruptcy of neoliberalism as an economic project has been exposed. The economic rationale of neoliberalism has been stripped away, and the project has been publicly unmasked for what it always was at heart: a system of planned impoverishment and technocratic domination, a negative morality designed to reward the strong and discipline the weak. As such, it has become increasingly obvious that the imposition of austerity on Greece is not a solution tailored to Greece’s specific economic situation but is a general plan to be applied wherever the Eurozone’s powers prevail.
This is why SYRIZA’s five months of fruitless haggling have not been in vain. This is why the “No” vote to austerity two weeks ago was not pointless, though it won nothing — in fact, less than nothing — by way of concessions from the Eurozone. SYRIZA, whatever it might be worth today, got the world talking about Greece, which is to say: it forced the world to talk about the absurd logic of austerity as a motor of recession, about debt as a tool of power, about finance as the antithesis to democracy. Tsipras’s populist pleas to the people of Europe, and former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis‘s conflict with the Eurogroup — that is, what both were ridiculed for by self-proclaimed responsible and experienced political observers — remains today as an emblem of SYRIZA’s one great accomplishment. Before SYRIZA’s election the Eurozone leaders still could pass themselves off in the global press as responsible economic caretakers come to rescue an insolvent Greece. Now they appear as bullies and worse, much worse. Neoliberalism has probably never enjoyed so much power — and yet so little support.
The Eurozone leaders, who had long counted on the docility of their debtors, showed their capacity for and willingness to engage in economic violence in order to get their way. By threatening to make Greece’s economy scream, they brought the dissident Tsipras to his knees and made a collaborator of him. But Greece’s suffering and anger will only increase, and if it can no longer be channeled through SYRIZA, it will be expressed in other forms.
SYRIZA’s utter defeat, however, has allowed us to see how difficult it is for Greece to wage this battle on its own. For the past five months, we have been hoping for change to come to Greece. Greece has shown that it cannot fulfill those hopes without change elsewhere. The leaders of the Eurozone have shown that as long as they are in power, no change toward a decent Europe is possible. They’ve issued a challenge to every resident of Europe: remove them from office, or accept the generalization of humiliation and misery. The southeastern front has been overrun. But resistance could — has to — spread behind the established battle lines. When the Eurozone leaders return victorious from Greece, let’s prepare their defeat at home.
Joseph Grim Feinberg is a research fellow at the Philosophy Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.