Europe and the Spectre of Democracy – interviewed by Michel Feher (Part 3 – DiEM25)

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

Click  here for Part 1, here for Part 2 or here for the Zone Books – Near Futures website, to watch the complete video and/or read the transcript. 

MF: Let’s move to the trans-European democratic movement that you are not only talking about, but that you are also endeavoring to build. Democracy in Europe Movement, or DiEM, is its name; it is in the making and will be officially launched, in Berlin of all places, on the ninth of February 2016. What could be the modes of operation of a trans-European movement such as DiEM? If I understand correctly, it will neither be a political party nor simply a lobby – although you emphasize that it is concerned with a single issue, the democratization of European institutions. This means that its purpose is neither to secure votes – what parties are about – nor simply to influence ruling elites – what a lobby does. And DiEM is not a union either, whose purpose would be to negotiate better political conditions with the representatives of the European institutions. So, how do you envision the modes of operation of the movement: how do you see DiEM exercising the kind of pressure that would prove helpful, for instance, to a government confronted with the demands, and the might, of the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup?

YV: The number one lesson I learned during my five, six months of negotiations at the level of the European Union, the Eurogroup, etc., is that the old way of doing politics in Europe is kaput – finished. The old way was: we set up a party, an organization, or a movement in one country and we work very hard to create a manifesto, an electoral program, or promises of what we are going to do if our compatriots, in Germany, France or Greece, vote us into government. Once elected, we learn how to use the instruments of the member-state’s government in order to effect this mandate. Only then, as an afterthought – once we’ve done all that work, once we are in government, or at least once we have a substantial percentage in the national parliament – only then do we try to find allies with some like-minded parties in Europe.

This tends to be flimsy; very soon, and especially at the level of Brussels and the European parliament, it degenerates into a farce. If it is true that the nation-state-based political organizations have failed to connect to Europe, to create a conversation that leads to a consensus, and to bind various movements and parties together into a force to be reckoned with that stands up against the Troika and the lenders that are running the Eurogroup at the moment, then what is the alternative? The alternative is to invert the pyramid. Instead of starting at the level of the nation-state and forging an alliance, which is flimsy and brittle, how about starting a movement throughout Europe on the basis of a very clear manifesto that binds us together? How about a movement with some very simple ideas of what we want to do as Europeans? To begin this conversation, we are starting in Berlin and taking it to other cities. Anyone who respects and feels for these elements, irrespective of political affiliation or ideology, can join and participate. If this conversation proceeds well, it will be dialectically creative and, as a result of this conversation, it will produce a consensus that will then find electoral expression in the different member-states. The expression can take different forms in different countries depending on the circumstances. So DiEM, or Democracy in Europe Movement, can compete in elections as a party in some countries; in other countries it can go into collaboration with existing parties, or it can effectively lend support to parties. This is not for me to decide; it’s not for you or anyone in DiEM to decide: the whole point is that this would evolve organically.

DiEM is a movement. It is not a party, a trade-union, a think-thank or a conference. It’s a surge: a surge of European democrats who are moving together to seize control, to put the demos back in democracy at the European level, and to infect every nook and cranny of the EU with democracy. It is a totally utopian project, and it’s very likely to fail. But it is the only alternative to the awful dystopia that we are facing if we don’t do anything at all.

MF: Staying with the question of DiEM’s modus operandi, it seems to me that one of the main problems facing social movements today is one of “occupation” – to borrow from the “occupy” initiatives of 2011 – albeit less of space, squares, or parks, than of time. The activities of traditional organizations, such as political parties and labor unions, are geared toward “discrete” moments: elections, strikes, street demonstrations, etc. While these manifestations of popular will may certainly have an influence on policy-making, by definition, they can only occur from time to time: people vote once every few years. Financial markets, on the other hand, and in particular the bondholders who are the ultimate arbiters of a country’s attractiveness, vote every nanosecond. The time in which they operate is “continuous,” and this goes a long way toward explaining why governments give precedence to the wishes of the investors financing their budgets over the demands of their constituents. In such a context, I would argue that one of the major challenges for a movement like DiEM would be to find ways of occupying time and intervening “continuously” so as to compete with investors for the “hearts and minds” of governing agencies. Don’t you think?

YV: You are raising an issue that has been of central importance to liberal democracy since at least the early nineteenth century. The constant triumph of the economic sphere over the political sphere, and the way it has been cannibalizing the political sphere, is part and parcel of the evolution of contemporary capitalism. There is a predatory relationship between the economic and political spheres. The population of predators that are overly successful in eating their prey at some point starve to death and their numbers shrink; the prey would pick up again, and the balance continues. This is more or less the relationship between the financial sector, or the economic sector more generally, and the political sector. Financial capital in particular has the capacity to make inroads into the space of politics and to take over its power. Yet, with its encroachments increasing and with political power shrinking, the economic and financial sphere is destabilized. This is because the economy needs politics to stabilize itself. Thus the political sphere reasserts some of its capacity to control capital, the economic and financial sphere, as it did under Roosevelt, for example. This process continues; it goes on and on. There is nothing new there.

In the case of the EU, because it was stabilized as a cartel in the 1950s and, to this very day, it doesn’t operate like a normal state, we have a very interesting incongruity and paradox. I will phrase it in personal terms. When I speak with bankers in Europe, even though I am admonished as a left winger, a radical left loony, and so on and so forth, I am usually met with a blanket agreement about what I am saying. They are very worried. They see a source of irrationality in Brussels. Brussels’ irrationality might have been useful to them when they were bailed out, but nevertheless they don’t trust the current regime in the EU with creating circumstances amenable to their banking and financial enterprises. So I don’t believe that the great threat to a democratization process in Europe comes from the bankers. It comes from the very bureaucracy of the European Union and the political regime that is centered upon it.

Recommended citation: Varoufakis, Yanis (interviewed by Michel Feher). “Europe and the Specter of Democracy.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016)