On Syriza and ‘Populism’

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.

laskos&tsak Soundings, 2014, Vol. 57

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Europe’s experiments with constitution-making, especially with respect to the Treaty of Lisbon, but more recently has withdrawn to a more conservative stance, perhaps fearing that mass mobilisation in current circumstances can only mean a return of nationalistic and populist currents.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.

EJLR cover

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.


11 thoughts on “On Syriza and ‘Populism’

  1. mikenetherlands says:

    In the first place, sorry for my poor English. I am absolute not an high educated person. (On the contrary) I am an Wikipedia editor. I wrote many articles of Greek politicians, Greece, etc. End october 2011 I found somewhere an article of the total unknown Yanis Varoufakis and decided to write an article on Wikipedia-NL about him. (And his of his wife Danae. By the way, today I removed a lot of nonsens out of here artikel on WP-English about Pulp.)

    And, exactly like you, I was impressed by him on his blog what I found when I was writing the article. I can write a lot of thinks now , for instance that Yanis must be glad there is an leak of democratic in Europe, because if you read the commons in te Dutch newspapers the sentiment is, sorry, very, very negative about the Greeks and Greece. The only thing you read and hear is kick them out the eurozone and Rutte is to soft. There is no sympathy for Greece anymore. Not at all.

    Anyway, I wish we had the old Yanis back. He should close the comments on his blog, because I am reading only some Soviet-talk and not the intelligent discussions we had before. I hope Yanis calms down, and start thinking, what can we do the best in this situation. He can’t chance the Eurozone, the facts are the facts. It is European democratie, Greece is only a small country. My hope is that he stop blaming our politicians, the only thing they do is what most of the people of our country wants. Maybe it is not the right way thinks are going, but stop blaming.

    In Holland we are all, from right wing till left, shockt by the way SYRIZA is handeling. First the compleet crazy promesses by the elections of free ouzo for anyone, the crazy referendum, etc.
    Yanis is an clever man. We all understand that something must happen with Greece. But stop negativism Yanis! I have the feeling Tsipras starts to understand how Europe is working. Help him. Make out of SYRISA a reliable partner for us. Nobody here wants really an Divorce. But we also don’t want a black hole. The system in Europe is Neoliberal, deal with it and make the best out of it. Nobody here is interested in Soviet Union and trade union nonsens and talk out of 1980! We want clever solutions within the political possibilities.

    This is what I think as an common person;).


    • mikenetherlands,

      Baie mooi gepraat. Dank u wel.

      Your comments are perfectly understandable. You wrote in English, what I certainly could not write in Dutch. Thank you for informing us of the sentiment in the Netherlands.

      The way that you have described the actions of Yanis V, Tsipras & Syriza and what their responses should have been, is remarkably perceptive, if it is true what you say that you are not a highly-educated person but a Wikipedia editor. I can’t quite make out if you are joking or being serious (I mean about not being highly-educated).

      And, by the way, I agree completely with everything that you said.


    • Briefly, in response to mikenetherlands,

      Before he resigned as Prime Minister, I read two articles about Yanis Varoufakis in which he said 2 things that now I think shine a light on his emotions:

      One thing I read is that when he got divorced and his ex-wife took their daughter to Australia to live, that this apparently took him several months of intense thinking and soul-searching to get over his shock and loss, and I would imagine his anger. I think he even mentioned this in his blog.

      The other thing I read was in an interview where he described that during the time of apartheid in South Africa, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He was very upset at the injustice of it, and he said “Other people could stop thinking about it, but I couldn’t.”

      So based on reading those articles, I think it might be the nature of Yanis Varoufakis, who has an exceptionally powerful mind, to need to think obsessively about what he feels has been wrong, or hurts him personally. He has been terribly abused in the international media — even if you disagree with Syriza, and even if he made large mistakes — he has been very distorted, his views, his person. So it would be understandable if he is very angry.

      When he was named Financial Minister, his friends apparently told him not to write in his blog. But he said he would continue. He doesn’t listen to all the advice he gets about changing his public face — so this is just who he is, and he cannot be spared the consequences, but I, for one, take a highly favorable view of him, even with the flaws that sometimes make me wince.


      • LeaNder says:

        “He has been terribly abused in the international media”

        that’s what I have been told by a US prof who calls himself his friend and I am rather open to evidence. So far he managed to irritate me only, from the moment I took a closer look.

        I have to admit that although I an bit old I was fascinated by him too initially, but in the end reflected how it could be related to earlier comparable experiences, some of my earlier heroes. Pop musicians also seemed to say it the way it should be said. Or, Joschka Fisher’s outfit when he became a member of the parliament, and his change over the years, a mental change too. But I didn’t really follow news here or internationally, thus cannot see if he was indeed slandered and libeled, as this prof suggested.

        Maybe one day someone will write a thorough study on the issue. My basic feeling is communication goes both ways, at this point in time.

        More generally, solving the problems of Greece shouldn’t depend on one single hero, but that may be a bit of a German perspective on matters. I am not too fond of “heroes” or “leaders”. Although quite fascinated by how Tsipras manages to handle it now. Apparently even Yanis voted yes yesterday.

        Slightly analogous to Iannos 1999 reminiscences, I struggled with the domination of the classroom by the leaders of the diverse left parties in the early 1970s in Berlin. Occasionally they managed to kick out the whole reading list for Marxist-Lenist texts they had chosen. Ironically enough even if the topic was the failed 1848 revolution in Germany. None but these texts were allowed as the class proceeded. Without any doubt its not a bad credit strategy to force a young prof to give you his credits based on texts and a larger argument you are already quite familiar with. Should I have written cynicism alert? Although his description reminded me of the only one could seriously consider a non-authoritarian teacher in my highschool years, pretty important in post WWII times for us. .. The result is, my knowledge in biology is rather bad.

        But to what extend are Yanis’ texts thoroughly known, let alone understood by his supporters? Game theory, e.g.? The history of macroeconomics that would be necessary to understand? All I can see is, that I would need to read up on many issues to grasp his suggestions, ideally understand what they could mean from a Game Theory perspective in the recent political context.

        There are passages where he seems to suggest that speculative forces may be nothing but some type of health service forces in the marketplace. The idea that speculators could attack the currency of weaker European countries, did never happen before the Euro? The idea of the creation of the Euro was a purely German idea to uphold its surplus economy and thus make others pay?

        As an economical nitwit, I would love to ask you, what would be the terms for the economy of a state or states, versus the economy of the respective countries businesses. And how these two perspectives are related and interact?

        If I understand him correctly, he suggests the surpluses should flow to the deficit countries. How could that work? I would assume that surpluses as far as exports are concerned may no doubt be held by banks or be reinvested partly somewhere, but I assume they are basically private possessions. I surely don’t know, but is he suggesting to dictate the surpluses of medium and large firms or multis should be invested somewhere specifically, should be nationalized and then redistributed? Based on what precise methods and rules.

        I ordered his modest proposal. No doubt there should be a larger European discussion, and there will be. But to become a fan of his, I would first need to understand. E.g. understand how I am responsible for German surpluses. I doubt the left over here could change that thoroughly. I also doubt they can ever be elected into power, other then into a coalition partner of social democrats, Green party and The Left. If the discussion in our parliament is any hint, this would a lot better for Greece. But how do you think would the semi-anonymous financial market would react to it? US grading agencies?

        Ok, l’ll look into the modest proposal as soon as I have a little more time. 😉


  2. Molly Mason says:

    Me too……. Yanis is far too important to be allowed to fade into the background.
    Syriza and the Greek people need his continuing input.
    I have little doubt that he has a great deal of pent up frustration and anger following the events of the past months but he is capable of so much more than fist waving recriminations.
    The deed has been done – we all of us now need his help – new approaches, new ways forward and renewed HOPE


  3. I think you are correct in your analysis.

    I am certainly no expert on Greek politics, however this is my layman’s take on how the politics unraveled over the past 6 months.

    Syriza’s election victory was a direct result of appealing directly to the electorate that their frustrations with the “Pro-European” political system & the consequences of the course that Greece was following, would be addressed. Also, to distance themselves from the old political elites, I guess that Syriza was happy to be labelled as populist. The 2015 election was probably a surprise to many, including Syriza, and it is hard to believe that they had a government “in waiting”. Then their victory at the polls meant that they had to suddenly take on one of the most important tasks in Greek history, with very little preparation and with inexperienced politicians. And with no Plan B, or so we were told!

    The Syriza leadership then got hung up with their insistence of upholding the “peoples mandate”. This was naive, to say the least, and exposed their lack of maturity as a governing party to understand that it is a governments job to take tough decisions and make compromises in order to achieve the best result – within the wider mandate that the electorate gives them, ie. to govern the country. And this is the conundrum. Political leaders have to ensure that their economic decision making is in line with the broader wishes of the people. To lose sight of this principle is a mistake that has been made many times in the past.

    It is for this reason that I maintain that, for a ruling political party who had become doubtful of their populist support, the referendum was actually intended to restore their confidence. Here is my interpretation. The actual question being asked was, of lesser importance than the question of whether the electorate would merely show support for the government or oppose them. Unfortunately, Syriza/Tsipras messed it up afterwards. They returned to their populist dogma of needing to uphold their electoral mandate, which was always a non-starter…..”reverse austerity but stay in the Eurozone”. Instead, I believe that the people were saying, in effect, “Show leadership! We will support your decisions”.

    I fully understand your argument regarding a “normal” referendum. What it should be used for and how the question should be framed. As I have explained above, I maintain that this was not a normal referendum. An inexperienced government, struggling to come to grips with enormous problems, suddenly had self-doubt. How to erase this self-doubt? Syriza decided….ask the people if they support us or not. The actions of a government doing the exact opposite of what the population asked them to do is a paradox that can only be explained as I have described.

    You state….”My entire work has been built around the idea of allowing more democratic input into economic decision making.” I agree entirely. How this will occur is obviously what we are continuing to explore and debate.

    So your conclusion is correct. Will they learn the lesson on how not to do things in the future?


  4. To comment on the main idea regarding Syriza and Populism:

    Whether or not Syriza deserved the label, and precisely what the definition of populism should be is beyond me to address. However, I would like to direct your attention to an interview with Beppe Grillio that appeared a few days ago in Bloomberg online, and also to some past interviews with Bernard Connolly and writings by him which touch on these subjects if you read all the way through them:




    As for my own views, I am not sure it is fair to Syriza to accuse them of selling a fantasy and for failing to provide clear choices without asking whether the elite of Europe have not also been selling fantasies and muddying the vision (deliberately), and also using blackmail tactics to an even a greater extent that Syriza did — if it did at all.

    Perhaps naivete is not to the credit of a poltician, but it seems abundantly clear to me that Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis actually believed in what they thought was the “good Euro”. We all know now this is a fantasy, but we honestly didn’t know it last January. Reality has been as shocking to us as it has been to AT and YV. This to me is quite different from those in Europe who have been selling the popular dream of “solidarity” and the children’s book fiction of “austerity brings prosperity to all” when they themselves are making plans to reconfigure the Eurozone to a few northern countries and forcing all others out (unless they need some as colonies).

    As to the specific issue of the Greferendum, someday we hope to hear the truth about what AT was thinking when he callled it, and he must bear responsibility for the politics that flowed from it. However, while I realize that the voice of one person is not “data” in any meaningful sense, I was ver struck reading in the Guardian the quote of one OXI voter who said: “I voted ‘no’ because I feared if I voted “yes” that it would bring back to power all the corrupt Greek politicans who had brought us into this terrible mess.”

    That says to me that perhaps you are right that the “cleaner” course would have been to call for new elections, although I struggle to imagine how such campaigning would have gone forward at the peak of the crises, with the banks closed and being threatened with seizure, and what difference their outcome would have made to the intentions of Germany and its cabal determined to make an example of Greece and even drive it out of the zone.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Since the Greferendum, the Greek gov’t has made a sudden and quite unexpected U-turn that appears to contradict the popular voice. Of course Syriza has been “populist” in the sense that bold promises were made to the electorate, promises that (in hindsight) were impossible to meet.

    Even Prof. Paul Krugman is puzzled: “…it didn’t even occur to me that they would be prepared to make a stand without having done any contingency planning …amazingly – they thought they could simply demand better terms without having any backup plan. So certainly this is a shock. But, you know, in some sense, it’s hopeless in any case. …it’s not as if the terms that they were being offered before were feasible. I mean, the new terms are even worse, but the terms they were being offered before were still not going to work. So I, you know, I may have overestimated the competence of the Greek government.” (Paul Krugman on CNN 2015-Jul-19)

    Actually the U-turn can be explained fairly easily, I think. Syriza was essentially an “OXI” movement (namely “we don’t want austerity, we don’t want to behave as responsible members of the eurozone club, we don’t want to leave, and we don’t want to be expelled either”) with an underlying strategy, conceived by former Finance Minister Varoufakis, of coaxing today’s and future Europe into paying the bills for the past and for the relaxed policies. But shortly after the referendum, Syriza leadership suddenly became aware that this strategy didn’t work and couldn’t work – the strategist had overplayed his hand by lack of cards – hence the turn.

    See in particular:
    (1) Why Syriza Will Blink (Anatole Kaletsky, May 14, 2015)
    (2) Varoufakis’ Great Game (Hans-Werner Sinn, May 29, 2015)
    (3) Why I Voted NO (Yanis Varoufakis, Jul 21, 2015)

    Beyond failing, the strategy also wasn’t fair to the other eurozone members and of course that’s why our representatives couldn’t give in. We’re not some sort of naive Utopia that could endlessly exhibit much more solidarity with Greece than the Greeks among themselves (cfr. massive backlog of tax arrears, approx. €80bn, and massive capital flight, approx. €100bn).

    The really sad thing is that the whole issue has been framed for too long (certainly by the Greek left) in terms of warfare and in terms of some academic exercise or experiment in game theory, while in fact the welfare of millions of people is at stake. That wasn’t necessary. Other eurozone countries have gone through hardship and are recovering well with plenty of cooperation and financial support. But it’s nearly impossible to help those that insist on shooting themselves in the foot. Time will tell how it all turns out.

    Liked by 1 person

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