It is common (as it was in the past) to brand Syriza as populist. In fact it is common to brand as populist every left wing force that comes close to achieving a position of influence. A message that is not ‘orthodox’ or mainstream it seems can only be populist. I participated in this ‘convention’, even though I was consistently critical of orthodoxy. In my 2013 book I wrote:
In the two elections of 2012 a pro-European (presumably pro-austerity) coalition of parties narrowly prevailed because the population feared the consequences of a Grexit more than they hate the austerity programme. During the latter part of 2013 with further evidence of unending recession (and money running out for hard hit consumers) perhaps people begun to feel they have less to lose from a Grexit than initially thought. The main beneficiary of such despair will be the populist left wing Syriza coalition which pledges an end to austerity funded via endless support from the EU, obtained apparently through blackmailing the European institutions with the threat of a disorderly exit from the Eurozone.
I was forced to challenge my pre-conception of Syriza as ‘populist’ after reading Tsakalotos work. He has complained that a blanket accusation of populism serves to avoid discussing the real issues put forward by the left.
Influential European public intellectuals such as Jürgen Habermas have in the past fought for the creation of ‘public spaces’ to accompany, and to counterbalance, the common market and monetary union. Habermas has been particularly critical of Europe’s experiments with constitution-making, especially with respect to the Treaty of Lisbon, but more recently has withdrawn to a more conservative stance, perhaps fearing that mass mobilisation in current circumstances can only mean a return of nationalistic and populist currents. Other public intellectuals, such as Etienne Balibar, have insisted that the fight for democracy and against nationalisms within Europe must be based on popular mobilisation; nothing less than the creation of a European people is called for if the hollowing out of democracy is to be reversed. SYRIZA’s strategy, which sought to appeal to labour in both the South and the North, was an attempt to reconnect the left with such a democratic aspiration.
I decided therefore to give Syriza the benefit of a doubt and I argued in 2014 that we should be cautious when using the populist label.
The financial crisis has reinforced the notion that a financial capitalism disconnected from the real economy and the interests of society is a dangerous and unsustainable development. Alongside this realisation there is a growing perception that the ‘technocracy’ that has been a response to the crisis in many states leads to a progressively less-democratic capitalism which is unsustainable. The cornerstone of technocratic, supposedly apolitical policy making rests on the suggestion that de-politicised economic decision making ensures long term stability and has been critically reinforced by the financial crisis. However, such a move to cement the dis-embeddedness of the economic from the political creates both unmanageable discontent and is self-defeating. Responses to the crisis have been dominated by the desire to erect legal barriers that separate the popular will from economic decision making. The last five years have been dominated by efforts to do the ‘right’ things (from a neoclassical economic perspective) while keeping at bay the ‘populist’ forces of resistance. While we can debate the extent to which the law caused the problem (by its presence, or most likely through its absence), we can agree that the law is much present as part of the solution, but in unanticipated ways. Law is there not in efforts to re-regulate or control markets, but in establishing firewalls between politics and economics. It is surprising that a crisis that shares so much with the Great Depression ended up in causing further desegregation of the economic from the political (with law as the tool), in total opposition to the movement for greater social embeddedness of market processes that was the response in the 1930s. This is not a development to be content with.
What is the result therefore? Is it right to brand Syriza as ‘populist’?
My entire work has been built around the idea of allowing more democratic input into economic decision making. While I never offered any solutions (I admit to that) neither in my examination of Russia’s experience of post-communism, nor in my reflection on the financial and European crises, I consistently argued that a technocratic capitalism that runs on an orthodox auto-pilot is unsustainable and wrong. What would be right (even if we do cannot know what solution the people will choose in advance) would be to offer the people the choice.
If this is what my research led me to, why did I oppose the Greferendum? Wasn’t this an opportunity for the people to choose the nature of their state, the mix of their economy vis-a-vis markets? The answer is that democracy and choice are only possible when the politicians (and in the Greek instance currently this includes Syriza) offer competing visions of a political-economy for people to choose from. If people are asked to choose, but the choices are wholly, or partly, fantasy, then the choice is not democratic, the outcome is populism.
I resisted the call for the Greferendum and I have turned against Syriza because my initial fear (when I was writing the book in 2012) turned out sadly to be correct. Syriza is populist, it offered no alternative to the organisation of the market-state relationship other than a return to the 1980s funded by others. For all the insightful writing of Varoufakis and Tsakalotos, Syriza offered a populist lie, and to add insult to injury, put this lie to a referendum.
Syriza turned out to be both populist and wrong.
PS. Dear Reader, please use the comments section below to offer your thoughts. All comments are accepted, so long as they do not contain links I cannot verify (I am trying to keep users from catching viruses) and do not contain offensive remarks. This blog is an opportunity for me to reflect on my work and to share my thoughts with others. The discussions on the comments pages are the best thing that has come out of writing the blog. Thank you for your contributions.