The European Left’s Machiavellian moment: notes on Costas Douzinas’ 'Syriza in Power'

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras attends swearing-in ceremony of newly appointed ministers in migration, the economy, and defence at the Presidential Palace, Athens, March, 2018. Angelos Tzortzinis/Press Association. All rights reserved.Costas Douzinas’ Syriza in Power
(Polity, 2017) carries a wondrous resemblance to Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513). The latter is penned by a state official turned
humanist philosopher; the former – by a humanist philosopher turned an
accidental state official.

Both works scrutinise without
moralization the world of politics at a critical historical juncture – the
experimentation with republican rule in Italy and the experimentation with
radical left rule in Greece, respectively. In both cases, the authors deem
effective truth more important than abstract ideals. As they set out to expose the
tensions between the logic of moral rectitude and the demands of public action,
they advance positions that are in direct conflict with the dominant doctrines
of the time. The insights
into the world of politics are invariably delivered with flair and erudition
that simultaneously seduce and intimidate.

Three narrative lanes: slow, fast, and furious

In Syriza
in Power
, three narratives compete for the readers’ attention – I will call
them the ‘the fast’, ‘the slow’ and ‘the ‘furious’.

The first, ‘the fast’ one, is told by a
venerable London-based Greek-expat academic who, to his own surprise, becomes a
Greek politician to participate in the skandalon,
the miracle-like event of the rise to power of Syriza – a small party hailing
from the ‘Eurocommunist’ tradition.

Here Douzinas, Chair of the House
Standing Committee on Defence and Foreign Relations, speaks as ethnographer of
everyday politics and reports with no objectivity or neutrality, as he admits, on
the fall of the ruling elite and its system of power in Greece and the spectacular
ascendance of the radical left. “I left the comforts of pure conscience […] when
I joined parliament”, he writes with aberrant frankness.

Readers are treated to a vicarious
experience of Greek politics: from street protests to boring committee meetings
and drafting parliamentary resolutions – a life for which an academic expertise,
we are told, proves entirely useless (“Parliamentary life has minimal overlap with
the life of the mind”). 

We share in
the parliamentary café life of “laughter, bonhomie and anxiety” of Syriza MPs
who “treat the whole thing with a sense of historic responsibility and a dose
of self-irony and deprecation,” while observing across the hall the vacuous grandiosity
of “some sixty moustaches of all styles” that dominate the lounge preferred by right-wing
New Democracy members.

There is
even a spontaneous marriage proposal amidst jubilations on Syntagma square. The
story carries the excitement of a suspense novel as we watch Syriza’s
“unconventional government of hopefully incorruptible semi-professionals” fighting successfully, against all odds,
two humanitarian crises – one suffered by the Greek population by dint of austerity
policies administered by neoliberal elites; the other – suffered by asylum
seekers by force of the failing EU common immigration policy. Syriza, in his
account, handled both crises with a mixture of pragmatism and humanism that
should be the hallmark of democratic rule.

Within this
story line, the narrative is probably at its best when it debunks the widely
shared misperception that the Greeks had inflicted on themselves the austerity
straightjacket through a combination of government profligacy and citizens’ hedonistic

indebtedness, Douzinas discloses, is not a result of feckless indulgence, but
of decades-long institutionalised practices of clientelism, nepotism and
mismanagement in which politicians, industrialists and the media were complicit,
thereby entailing what Douzinas calls ‘state delinquency’.  As corruption becomes a “normal state of
affairs, universally known and widely tolerated”, it permeates everyday life,
with the infamous fakelaki (little envelope in which one places the bribe) being
“part of the Greek lore”.

In more
familiar terms of political theory, we might describe the Greek state as a
uniquely noxious symbiosis of state failure (in which incapacity to levy taxes
is a textbook feature) and state capture (public power overtaken by private
interests). Add to this the recent reducing of Greece by the Troika to a
quasi-protectorate, and we grasp the magnitude of the obstacles Syriza faced in
fulfilling its mandate. 

overarching lesson that emerges from the ‘fast story’ is, indeed, about the abyss
between the presumed status of political office and power:  “winning elections is far removed from
gaining power” Douzinas warns; being in
does not mean having power.  “Winning elections is far removed from
gaining power” Douzinas warns.

The 'slow story' and ‘the furious’

The second,
‘slow’ story, is told by Douzinas the intellectual hedonist. With the vivid erudition
for which he is renowned, spanning political economy and philosophy, he treats
the reader to a feast of intellectual experimentation where Nietzsche’s
reflections on debt meet those of Husserl on Europe; Greek mythology meets politically
subversive literature and film (e.g. Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’, John Carpenter’s
‘They Live’): this is intertextuality in bold action. If so disposed, readers might
imagine themselves on a scenic Greek island, in a conversation with a local
sage in a café shaded by a 200-year old vine, where understanding relies on the
unspoken camaraderie among strangers connected through shared texts.

The third
story, ‘the furious’ one is told by Douzinas the critical political thinker: it
is the story of the rise of a radical left government in the midst of a
European and world crisis, embedded within a dense reflection on the conundrum of
‘the left’ in the twenty-first century. It is a narrative about the capacity of
the left to transform anti-establishment anger into a victorious battle for a
more just society.

In what
follows, I propose to dwell in some detail on moments in the third story that
help us discern the fate of the left in our times.

The radical left in the twenty first century

assumption of power in 2015 created a perfect ‘Machiavellian moment’: a radical
left party took the ultimate risks that go with the exercise of power,
including betraying the very mandate for which it was elected.[1]
The austerity policy that the European Commission, the European Central Bank
and the International Monetary Fund (the Troika) began imposing on Greece in
2010 fomented the public discontent
that propelled Syriza to power. Yet securing the funds needed for coping with
the humanitarian crisis that austerity policies had generated forced the radical
left party to accept conditions of the bailout that were neoliberal in nature –
from privatising public assets to cutting social provision.  A public necessity required actions that the ethics of leftist ideology

Syriza is
now awaiting the judgment of fate: had it failed to secure funding for basic
services, it would have lost office – reinforcing the radical left’s reputation
of being inept at ruling. Yet effectively solving the humanitarian crisis at
the cost of abandoning left politics, as Syriza did, turns out to be equally
damning: the left, once in power, ceases to be left. In the assessment of Slavoj
Žižek, one of the most ardent and articulate proponents of the radical left, “Syriza became the
most faithful enabler of austerity policy”.[2]  Indeed, when accepting the conditions for the
disbursement of its loans, Syriza radically departed from the 2014 Thessaloniki
Programme – the manifesto calling for a reversal of austerity measures that was
the policy platform on which it was enthusiastically propelled to power at the
January 2015 Parliamentary elections.

The verdict we
pass on Syriza now is not confined to Greece. It is a verdict on the European left,
maybe even on democratic politics altogether – on the capacity of popular
mobilisation to chart a path out of the neoliberal quagmire. Has Syriza come to
embody the Failure of the Populist
as the title of Cas Mudde’s recent
book announces? The jury is still out, and the analysis Douzinas offers might
nudge the pending judgment of history.

Here is the
broad frame: our particular historical moment is marked by a wide and intensifying
discontent with neoliberalism whose policy dogmas, implemented by political
elites across the left-right ideological divide, have devastated the lives of
millions of people. Syriza rose to power on the fury of the indignant masses.
Its task, the task of any democratic political actor with a similar fate, is to
transcend and expand the traditional left agenda focused on workers’ rights
into a unifying broader political imaginary, as well as transform immediate
material grievances into demands for systemic change. The story of Syriza in
power, as told by Costas Douzinas the critical thinker, offers a blueprint.

The ‘Oxi revolt’

Let me begin with
the most trivial understanding of Syriza’s alleged failure: in a referendum on
5 July 2015 organised by the ruling Syriza, the Greek people rejected the
bailout conditions of the Troika with a resounding No vote (the ‘Oxi
revolt’).  Shortly after the vote, the
government accepted the bailout funds, agreeing to undertake drastic pension
cuts, tax increases and other austerity measures, thus betraying the
unequivocal mandate the public had given to it.

It did so because it
had no real choice, the familiar argument goes. As the German government
official Hans-Peter Friedrich put it after the 2015 election: "The
Greeks have the right to vote for whom they want. We have the right to no
longer finance Greek debt." But this story is far from complete.

Even if Syriza
was unable to reject the specific policies requested by the Troika, this does
not mean that it accepted the neoliberal orthodoxy, Douzinas tells us. Syriza
ministers and activists not only kept denouncing austerity policy, but more
importantly, they enacted a programme of social justice (e.g. free health care
to two million uninsured people, minimum solidarity income to the poor, the
offer of a dignified life to refugees). 
This parallel programme not only mitigated austerity but it paved the
way for a left policy turn.

Douzinas is adamant that
the reason why Syriza’s gaining political office failed to translate into a
rule of the left has much to do with the European left, and more generally,
democratic forces, turning their back on Syriza. “One reason for the July 2015
retreat was the absence of a strong solidarity movement by the European Left
and Social Democracy.” Thus, a precondition for left agency is a trans-European
and international mobilisation of democratic forces. International solidarity
is not a novel idea for the left. However, solidarity is not enough; the
institutional and economic entanglement among the member-states of the European
Union, the imbrication of national democracies into the global political
economy now demands active mobilisation of a broad spectrum of democratic forces
applying pressure in a common direction against the neoliberal consensus.  

In order to secure
such a mobilisation of forces, Douzinas urges the left to shed its facile
ideological puritanism, to resist what Walter Benjamin called ‘left melancholy’
(a militant’s commitment to a high ideal at the expense of action), and to
assume responsibility for running a country, which inevitably entails pragmatic

Politics at ‘degree zero’

Moreover, radical
left agency is to be rooted in more than mass discontent with unpopular
policies. Nominally, Syriza came in on a platform for rejecting austerity
policy, which it effectively failed to do. Yet, Douzinas makes it clear that its
mandate was much larger. Syriza’s political leadership evolved from the
cumulated protest movements and acts of resistance against a broad spectrum of
acts of political depravity – it is in ’politics at degree zero’ that political
subjectivity first emerges; the overwhelming sense of injustice infuses the
multitude – beyond class, age, and ideological divides – with political agency.

That resistance was
inaugurated by the two-week insurrection by Greek youth in December 2008 in
protest at the police murdering the 15-year-old student Alexis Grigoropoulos, a
protest that culminated in the occupation of Syntagma and other squares in 2011.

Thus, what propelled
Syriza to power was a popular will to break not simply with the life of economic
deprivation imposed by the Troika, but with the neoliberal logic of humiliation
and de-humanisation of which austerity policy is just but one element in the complex
logistics of economic, political and moral devastation. The persisting
popularity of Syriza after the ‘July 2015 betrayal’ should be understood in the
light of this larger historical mandate. Breaking the grip of biopolitical
control … Douzinas notes, is ‘not simply a matter of parties, elections and
governments’: it is a much bigger struggle.

Breaking the grip of
biopolitical control through which neoliberal capitalism permeates society, Douzinas
notes, is ‘not simply a matter of parties, elections and governments’: it is a
much bigger struggle.

To be able to win,
the left must redefine its task beyond calls, as many now do, for recapturing
the working class vote which it has lost to the far-right in many western
democracies. Here, Douzinas offers an ambitious recasting of radical democratic
politics along trajectories I will next attempt to discern.

In and against the state

In our times, Douzinas
notes, the left should not confine itself to resistance and rebellion; and the
old reform-or-revolution dilemma of political rule no longer applies. The left, while
assuming power, has to be both in and against the state, disrupting the
institutionalised balance of social forces. The Greek case is particularly
revealing of the magnitude of the challenge.

‘State delinquency’
is not an unfortunate feature of the Greek polity, it is a strategy of rule:
“State practice has consistently mobilized corruption and favouritism for
pacifying dominant class tensions and micro-delinquency for keeping the people at
bay”. Subverting the vested interests that permeate the state is a precondition
for enabling a ruling left force to enact its mandate.

Douzinas notes with
regret that this did not happen early enough on during Syriza’s rule, which
further weakened its capacity to carry out its double mandate for cleansing politics
and mitigating the blow of austerity policy. Notwithstanding Syriza’s
particular performance, its experience charts the double policy task for any
radical left – clean politics (e.g. anti-corruption, rule of law) alongside
social justice. These are not two separate political imperatives; the former
creates the institutional conditions for achieving the latter, for transforming
a political mandate into an instrument of rule, thus closing the gap between being
in power and having power.

If the reform agenda starts with
the full application of the rule of law, and the left turn begins with reducing
the misery inflicted by neoliberal forces, the horizon is that of isodemocracy or democratic socialism – the
simultaneous pursuit of equality and democracy. 
In order to fight possessive individualism, and the aggressive
consumerism and xenophobia that characterize our times, Douzinas pleads for the
creation of ‘democratic communitarianism’ rooted in a humanistic ethos, with
its three elements filia
(friendship), filotimo (love and
pride in honor), filoxenia (hospitality).  In order to fight
possessive individualism, and the aggressive consumerism and xenophobia that
characterize our times, Douzinas pleads for the creation of ‘democratic
communitarianism’ rooted in a humanistic ethos – friendship, love, pride in
honor, hospitality.

These values, he observes,
have effectively returned in the resistance, the social movements and
solidarity for refugees in Greece and elsewhere. Such a return to humanity and citizenship (values that have been
replaced by commodities and money under neoliberalism) enables the left to cleanse
Modernity’s dark side – its propensity to subvert its liberating aspirations
and twist them into what devastates humanity and nature.  The union between the Enlightenment tradition
of emancipation and self-development and the radical tradition of dissent and
social justice can only be inaugurated by the radical left: this is its
ultimate vocation.

Losing, winning and abrupt ending

The overarching message of the book seems to be this: Syriza did lose
the battle with the Troika, but it won a bigger struggle. It gave voice to a
tenacious popular will to go against the predominant political common sense: “Ordinary people
created the historical opportunity by being well ahead of theory and party”. Syriza’s
electoral victory displayed the ability of the radical left to travel the path
from resistance and revolt to rule. It is the vocation, nay, the responsibility
of the left, to proclaim that ‘radical change has returned to the historical
agenda’ and chart a road ahead.  

The book ends
abruptly, without a concluding chapter. Readers of the first story would wonder
whether the marriage proposal was accepted. Readers of the second one might be
disgruntled by a missing synthesis among the various morsels of philosophical
insight. Those following the third one might still hunger for an overarching
formula for the Left of the Twenty-first century. Such a concluding chapter
would not only convey an unwelcome intellectual hubris, but it would be out of place due to historical

A Machiavellian
moment is one of turbulent opening, it is alien to the closures of definitive
pronouncements. And so Douzinas, graciously, offers no final verdict. Niccolò
Machiavelli also wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry. I wonder what
Costas Douzinas might be up to now.


[1] We owe the term
‘Machiavellian moment’ to J. G. A. Pocock who, in his
monograph The Machiavellian Moment 
University Press, 1975) coined it to discuss that critical point when a new republic (as in 16th
century Florence, the English-Civil War Britain, and the American Revolution) confronts the problem of its institutional survival
while maintaining its ideals.

[2]  Slavoj Žižek on the The
Dailymotion’s Couchtripper show, 8 March 2018

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