Europe and the Spectre of Democracy – interviewed by Michel Feher (Part 2 – When short-termism lasts)

In early January 2016, Michel Feher interviewed me in Paris in advance of our announcement of DiEM25.

Click here for the Zone Books – Near Futures website, to watch the video and/or read the transcript. 

MF: For almost three decades, the European left has tried to reassure itself that the neoliberal turn initiated by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US would be a passing nightmare: neoliberal policies wreak such social havoc, the reasoning went, and the economic theories on which they are predicated are so silly, that people will surely rise up against their enforcers, either in the voting booths or in the streets. However, the kind of short-termism that is the name of the neoliberal game has proved that it was not necessarily short-lived, even in the face of a major financial crisis and the Great Recession that resulted from it. Thus, more recently, the European left has shifted from confidently announcing the impending end of the neoliberal era to warning that, unless ruling elites change their ways, a resurgent fascism is around the corner – under the guise of the French National Front, the British UKIP, the German Pegida and AFD, and of course, Golden Dawn in Greece. These extreme right wing parties may indeed come to power, but it may also be the case that the fear generated by such a prospect is what enables the short-termist neoliberal elites to stay in place – though not without gradually implementing large sections of the extreme right’s program. The recent regional elections in France provide a good illustration of the latter possibility: while poised to win the presidency of several regions, Marine Le Pen’s party ended up winning none. Yet, the reforms to the Constitution that the French socialist President is now promoting largely borrow from the National Front’s rulebook. So, this means that the challenge we are facing does not only involve the electoral victory of the right wing populist parties, but also the undoing of our already-damaged democracy at the hands of the familiar and ostensibly reasonable people who are in charge today.

YV: Spectacularly apt point! Let me give an example. In the spring of 2012, when the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn were emerging out of the woodworks in Greece, soon to take their place in the Greek parliament, they stormed power without going anywhere near government. In the winter of 2012, a Minster of Health in the Socialist Party, in association with another Socialist Party member, the Minster of Public Order (the police), went into cahoots to have women arrested from the streets of Athens. The reason they gave was that the women were posing risks to public health under the pretext that they were operating as prostitutes infected by the HIV virus. They were picked up randomly from the streets, placed in police cells, forcefully tested for HIV, and those who were HIV positive had their photographs posted on the Internet. Now, I cannot imagine what kinds of even worse things the Golden Dawn thugs would have done if they were in power, especially given that all of this was also portrayed in a fully fledged racist manner. The women who were arrested were presented in the press as being black, being Russian, being Ukrainian and, in the end, as being Muslim. At that time, some of us rose up and wrote fiery articles, and there was a beautiful documentary made on the subject. The point here is the same one that you made earlier: the fascists and the Nazis don’t need to enter the buildings of the ministries. They are in power without being in the government, whereas those in the government are not in power. This is the greatest danger, the greatest fear, and the greatest peril that we are facing. I believe this is an intermediate state that we have been in. In a sense, this has surreptitiously, and without any central design or plan, prepared for the moment when we say, well, we have the Nazi policies, let’s have the Nazis as well, or that it doesn’t really matter if Marine Le Pen is the President if her policies are being implemented by the Socialist Party anyways.

My greatest fear is that Marine Le Pen will seem like a decent development as president because at least she has something to say about the incongruities and the irrationality of Europe, whereas President Hollande doesn’t. He allows, in a sense, for an ultra-right wing social agenda to be introduced in order to avoid losing more votes to Le Pen. He does so without having the strength of argument that Le Pen has with regard to the flimsiness of the monetary situation under which the French social economy suffers.

MF: Let’s try to move to a more hopeful subject. Since your resignation from the Syriza I government last July, you have been traveling and addressing a number of audiences all over Europe. I would like to get your report on the spirit you have encountered in the countries you have visited. In the wake of Alexis Tsipras’ decision to surrender to the dictates of Greece’s creditors, there was an understandable fear, throughout Europe, that Syriza’s broken resistance would have a devastatingly depressing effect on the various movements, and more generally the people, seeking to change the course of European politics. And indeed, it seemed, at first, as if the star of Podemos in Spain – which had been Syriza’s strongest ally – was fading (though the young party did not do badly in the December general elections). In Britain, however, just a couple of months after Syriza’s surrender, Jeremy Corbyn unexpectedly surged to the leadership of the Labour Party. More recently, the legislative elections in Portugal resulted in a new kind of alliance between the Socialist party, the so-called Left Bloc, the Communists and the Greens. What is your assessment of the post–July 12th moods of the anti-austerity movements and constituencies across Europe? Let’s start with Britain, where you have spent a lot of time.

YV: Let me begin by saying that when we were running for government about a year ago, just before the election on the 25th of January 2015, our slogan was: “We are challenging the austerity in Greece in order to change Europe.” We challenged austerity unsuccessfully, we were defeated, and so we surrendered in July. Our failure cast a dark shadow over many people throughout Europe, even people of the center-right who were hoping that what we were doing in Greece was going to create a new agenda, a new dialogue, and a new possibility for the European Union. Our defeat had this depressing effect on many people. So the first thing I tried to do, since my resignation, was to connect with as many Europeans as I could to make sure that such a depression would not happen. We acknowledged that we lost the battle. It was an important battle, and then we set it aside. Now we are moving on and taking the battle to many other frontlines. The main frontline is now the whole of the European continent, not just the Eurozone. And this is where Britain comes in.

I started my travels in France, Germany and many other places, where I addressed a multiplicity of audiences – not all from the left, including (even as recently as a few days ago) a bunch of bankers and financiers. The good news is that – and this is the segment of our interview which is more evangelical – the vast majority of people who came to talk or listen to me didn’t do so out of an urge to show solidarity with the Greeks. They arrived with a sense of foreboding, and a sense of concern, about what effect the crushing of the Greek government would have on them, their societies, their welfare state, their pensions, their local hospital, their local schools, and on the capacities of their communities to make decisions pertinent to their own life. That was a great source of satisfaction, joy, and hope for me. Very soon I had this idea and scenario in mind: as Europeans we either harness the feeling that truly binds us together and allows us to redefine European identity on the basis of resistance; or, through the terrible false dilemma according to which, if we don’t accept the powers that be in Brussels and their catastrophic policies, we must espouse the narrative of Grexit and fragmentation, in which case, we are effectively moving back into the cocoon of the nation-state.

We can harness that spirit of concern for locality alongside the concern for the globality of Europe in order to create an alternative. We can stay in Europe in order to challenge head-on the highly anti-democratic processes and institutions of the European Union, and we can salvage Europe and the European Union from it. I experience the glimmerings of this possibility wherever I go in Europe. There are no guarantees and no certainties, but there is enough hope to make me excited, to make me wake up in the morning, and to make me throw all my energies into this lot.

The referendum that the Tory government has called in Britain is a splendid opportunity for the whole of Europe to redefine its identity. Most Brits are opposed to Brussels. They don’t like to be bossed around by an unaccountable bureaucracy in the European Union. At the same time, they are very coy about leaving the devil they know for the realm of the unknown and about sailing into the Atlantic and distancing themselves from the continent without a clear destination. So it is important for those of us who believe in breaking down and opposing the false polarization – between Euro-loyalism (being loyal to Brussels and to Frankfurt) and the fragmentation processes of the European Union – to side with the forces of progress and improvement. It is important to effectively forge a common alliance and a common mandate for contesting the European Union and wrestling it away from the forces that are so loathsome and contentious of democracy and that lead us toward an economic crisis, which only strengthens authoritarianism and the anti-democratic tendencies of Brussels. I think of Britain and the referendum that will be taking place – we don’t know exactly when – as a wonderful opportunity for a new movement that sees the democratization of the European Union as its number one priority; a movement to reunite the parts of the Eurozone and the parts of the European Union that are not in the Eurozone; a movement that wants to see Europe growing stronger through democratization and through confrontation with the current powers that be.

MF: Do you believe that the Labour Party’s new leadership shares your views and feelings on this issue?

YV: Absolutely. I think they understand very well that it is essential for the Labour Party to map out a third path: neither the blind acceptance of what Brussels is and how it operates (which some Blairites are happy to condone or some, very few, Tories like Kenneth Clarke have the tendency to adopt); nor the acceptance of the Euro-skepticism of many of the Tories as well as a few sections of the Labour party, which seem to believe that Britain does not need the European Union. The Labour Party leadership understands that they need to create a radical third alternative that says something very simple: we want to be part of the European Union in order to fight against Brussels, and to fight against the deep contempt that Brussels has for the democratic processes. They understand this while also knowing that an exit from the EU is not going to take Britain on the road to socialism, but towards a kind of isolationism, a “little England-ism,” which would make it more vulnerable to awful trade agreements like TTIP, and towards the loss of sovereignty through free trade agreements.

MF: Now let’s move on to Spain, where there seems to be, not exactly a rift, but a debate between two strategies within the anti-austerity left. 

On one side of the debate, there is Podemos, or more precisely the leadership of Podemos, whose priority is to build a party capable of winning elections at the national level. Early on, as you remarked many times, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain emerged almost at the same time as the twin beacons of hope for those who wanted Europe to stray from perennial austerity and ever-shrinking democracy. In fact, for his part, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, has remained loyal to Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras. Though perhaps with less enthusiasm than before, Iglesias has kept his solidarity with Syriza even after Tsipras signed the Third Memorandum of Agreement last July – despite the risk of slightly dampening the hope of radical change that Podemos is supposed to represent. 

On the other side of the debate in Spain, there is the so-called confluencia approach represented by Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, which is also popular in Valencia, Galicia and other places. Its supporters advocate a horizontal alliance between different social movements (some focusing on evictions, others on the tourism industry, others on the privatization of public services, etc.) and the representatives of left-leaning political parties. Instead of giving precedence to national elections, they focus primarily on the local level – municipal and to some extent regional – as the proper springboard to build a trans-European movement.

What is your view on this strategic debate, especially in the wake of the December elections, where the proponents of the confluencia strategy played an important role in Podemos’ relatively good results? 

YV: The recent Spanish election was a magnificent result primarily because it put an end to the toxic narrative of the success story of austerity. It’s clear that the Spanish people rejected the narrative that austerity worked and that Spain was a glowing example of how the policies of the Troika, if adopted enthusiastically by the local elites, are going to work. The Troika’s policies didn’t work, and the Spanish people said so. The second reason why it was a remarkable experience for me is because of the confluencia, as you put it. I’m thinking of the ways in which the variety of social movements – such as Barcelona’s Ada Colau, whom you mentioned, as well as her colleagues and comrades – rose up by targeting predatory tourism and home foreclosures from a banking sector that was being salvaged by the weakest of tax payers. On the basis of that, they went all the way from zero to having control and wrestling power in the great city of Barcelona. This is a great beacon of hope for all of us. The capacity of the cities to produce progressive politics flies in the face of the failures of the left in the last hundred years.

Our pan-European movement to energize and bring together Europeans – whatever it may be in the end – has to be energized from the cities to adopt the methods, the narrative, the esprit and the élan of these movements. Our movement has to adopt such methods and narratives in order to create a potential for reconstituting the dynamics of European progressive politics. I am very pleased that Podemos has adopted this line and embraced those movements.

Having said that, I am convinced that – despite all the right incentives and motives – any progressive party like Podemos is mistaken when its leaders think that we can stop the European Union’s degeneration process through the electoral process at the level of the nation-state. The best thing that a political party like Podemos can hope for is participation in some kind of coalition government such as the one in Portugal. If we, the opponents of the Troika’s Third Memorandum, were to set up a political party, the best thing we could imagine happening would be some kind of coalition with Syriza II, as you put it. But all of these coalitions would only be formed under the conditions of accepting the rules of Eurogroup! These are the rules of the Troika; they are the rules of the game that have been rigged to ensure that all of these mandates of progressive movements are crushed before they even get a chance to find expression at the level of national politics.

This is why I believe that what happened in Barcelona and in Valencia; what is happening in the streets of many cities, villages and towns; what is happening in Greece, in Denmark, in Britain, and so on and so forth: all of these developments will only find an expression that does not betray their initial ideology and impetus if we are able to bind together at the level of Europe and to exert pressure everywhere simultaneously.

MF: What you just said seems to convey that, while local experiments may thrive, there is a real deadlock at the level of the nation-state. To put it crudely, it conveys that the best Podemos can hope for is to broker a coalition like the one that is now governing Portugal, with the prospect of soon becoming something similar to
Syriza II. 

YV: Look at Portugal! In Portugal, the President of the Republic made an explicit condition for the formation of the left coalition government; they had to accept commitments to the Eurogroup and to the rules of the Eurogroup. That is astonishing! It might be that you accept the rules but, at the same time, you have a policy of going to the Eurogroup and demanding that the rules be changed. For instance, imagine this: if a national parliament commits to never changing the constitution and to never enacting new pieces of legislation that contradict the older ones! What is the point? You might as well not have a parliament. So any party of the left that accepts the rules and that commits to not challenging them legally effectively has no reason to exist and cannot affect change through national politics. To get the audacity, the strength, and the courage to go against these prescriptions by the President of the Portuguese Republic, the Socialist Party of Portugal and the left parties all over the periphery would need to have the support of like-mined Europeans throughout the Eurozone and the European Union. If we had such a movement, which effectively pressured the government of Austria through the national parliament of Austria (or those of other countries, whether Slovakia, France, or Germany) to end the pressure on a new government in Portugal and to remove this rule about never challenging the rules, then there would be a possibility that even the Socialist Party of Portugal could find the courage necessary not to effectively commit themselves to political oblivion.

MF: Insofar as the trans-European movement in which you put your hopes – and, as we shall see, your energy – is still very much in the making, where does the current situation leave the parties on the left whose representatives have either won elections or are currently competing in national elections? What possibilities remain for the ruling parties in Portugal, for example? How should anti-austerity parties, such as Sinn Féin, prepare themselves for the upcoming elections in Ireland? What kind of “survival kit,” if there is one, is available to a government intent on avoiding the lot of Syriza I?

YV: It depends on the country and on the state of its finances and banking system. The weaker the banking system and the state’s finances, the easier it will be for Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin to snuff out any kind of resistance from a newly elected progressive government in Ireland or Spain. The answers will have to be tailor-made according to the respective member-state. The most important aspect of this is precisely what I was saying before: to help create a sense of solidarity amongst the progressives throughout the EU, which would allow progressive parties in the member-states to find the courage to even think of the question you posed. That is the first point: to help them stiffen their lip. Secondly, once that has been achieved, you need to maximize your capacity as a government to fend off threats, and in particular the threat of bank closures. The threat of bank closure is how they pushed us [Syriza I] in a hole, by starting a bank-run, a run on the Greek banks, before we were elected, which they then accelerated through the rumor that the Central Bank was not going to support the Greek banks. At some point, while this self-fulfilling prophecy was creating a bleeding of deposits, they said, “ah, this is what you have done by not negotiating properly,” and then closed our banks down, effectively forcing the Prime Minster to choose a position between surrender and a complete cessation of the banking payment system.

Let me give one brief practical answer to your question of “what is the survival-kit?” In other words: how do you bolster your bargaining power? You would have to digitize your payment system. When the banks closed in Greece on the third of June, 85% of the pensioners didn’t even have debit cards to use and buy things in shops or to take out the 60 euros that the government allowed them to withdraw from ATMs. This, of course, was tantamount to a humanitarian catastrophe – that is, when 85% of pensioners, the elderly, have no access to any payment mechanism. If every transaction was digitized, the threat of bank closures would be far less, and therefore the degrees of freedom for the Greek government would be far greater. These are technical issues, but it is important to keep them in mind because the Central Bank and the powers that be do keep them in mind. I am afraid it’s important that we have defenses in mind that are based on the same logic.

MF: Would these defenses merely represent emergency measures, a way to buy a little time?

YF: Not necessarily; I don’t think there is anything wrong with a digitized payment system. Estonia is the only country I know which has fully digitized transactions and it’s actually a great thing. The Bank of England has suggested it for England. In a sense, it is the way things are going and we might as well get there very quickly. It helps defeat tax evasion completely and utterly, and it even allows us not to use quantitative easing, but to pose negative interest-rates to stimulate the economy. There are many benefits to a digitized system, and one of them is reducing the power of the European Central Bank to blackmail a recalcitrant member-state government.

MF: Such a measure could, for instance, help bolster the bargaining position of a small country such as Portugal?

YV: Of course! Because bank closures mean a humanitarian crisis, and Frankfurt has the capacity to close banks; then your bargaining power is much lesser.