Despite negotiations, perhaps the Greek Prime Minister wants to lead his country toward a Latin American-style leftist populism, like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.
MUNICH — What if money isn't everything to Syriza? And what if the current showdown with Europe isn't even about the dignity of the Greek people? What if, instead of all that, the Greek government's real goal is to "Latin-Americanize" the country in the spirit of Argentine theorist Ernesto Laclau (1935-2014)?
Seen from that perspective, the path that Alexis Tsipras is pursing is not as irrational as one might think. What looks like irresponsible financial and economic policies may instead be an attempt to provide a "new way of educating the people," or establishing a new political hegemony in Greece, as Laclau, who was keen on removing the taint from the word leftist populism, would have said.
The establishment of said hegemony will, inevitably, lead to confrontations with internal as well as external enemies of the state. And so it's a moot point to lament Syriza's lack of willingness to compromise.
The lessons of Peron
Laclau taught for a very long time at the University of Essex, where Tsipras' recently resigned finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, and Rena Dourou, the Syriza governor of Attica, both studied. Together with his wife, Belgian political scientist Chantal Mouffe, Laclau attempted to release Marxism from its chains of narrow-minded economic class analysis.
The Argentine professor was a lifelong admirer of Juan Peron, who served as Argentina's president for two terms (1946-1955, 1973-1974). Peron's legacy continues to influence Argentina, where the political arena is divided into two camps: Peronism and Anti-Peronism.
Peron's success taught Laclau that a successful leftist project has to be populist in nature, and that to challenge the ruling elite, it must unite the public's various grievances — the assorted issues that the liberal or neoliberal state fails to address with administrative measures — under one symbolically charged theme. In an ideal world, the people of a country would then stand united against internal and external enemies.
Another key aspect of this model is to portray the old elites as a homogenous "caste." This is not exactly difficult to achieve in countries such as Greece or Spain, where the ruling parties, on both the right and the left, have bled the state and demonstrated their economic incompetence.
The legacy of war
But it's also important to keep in mind that both countries were traumatized by civil war in the 20th century. In Greece and Spain — as well as in Austria, whose civil war in the early 1930s tends to be overlooked — the state was used to bring peace to a polarized society. Clientelism and proportional representation may not have been the most democratic approaches, but they did serve to pacify an ideologically deeply rifted people. For a long time, politicians in those countries felt obliged, first and foremost, to seek compromise, not confrontation.
Syriza and the Spanish Podemos movement are marshaling their powers against these old systems. Their goal isn't just to hold power, but to fundamentally alter the political culture. The cultural shift is akin to the concept of cultural hegemony as put forth by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, one of Laclau's most prominent sources of inspiration.
When seen from that particular angle, "symbolic politics" are not inferior. Quite the opposite. In the long run, symbolic politics are the most important form of politics.
Inspired by Chavez
Latin-American countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are specific examples that Podemos is attempting to emulate. They represent the avant-garde in the fight against global neoliberalism. In all three countries, emerging leaders, disregarding existing laws, were able to establish assemblies to draft new constitutions. Ultimately they were able to unite the masses behind them and challenge the old elites. They also took on the U.S., which always supported the enemies of the people.
Likewise, the intellectuals of the Podemos movement have declared war not only on the old political parties but also on the constitution of 1978, which was a compromise solution for the interim period between the Franco-dictatorship and the establishment of democracy. But the prospect of having to endure a "Bolivarian revolution" à la Hugo Chavez should be enough to discourage many a Spaniard, despite the wish for change in the political party system.
Time to lend a hand
The defenders of the new "radical democracy," a term coined by Laclau and Mouffe, cannot always agree on everything. But they will always agree on the answer to the question as to who betrayed the people: the social democrats.
The vacuum left behind by the discredited parties such as Pasok in Greece and PSOE in Spain is now being filled by a generation that was radicalized by the financial crisis and makes its presence felt in Syntagma Square, in Athens, and the Puerta de Sol, in Madrid.
In the 1970s, Germany's Social Democratic Party, the SPD, actively helped their comrades in countries that had just stepped onto the path leading from dictatorship to democracy. There's a lesson to be learned there. Those who don't want a Southern Europe à la Laclau should ask themselves a question: How can the social democrats of today can help those in need of support?