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The end of politics and the defence of democracy

April 21, 2010

by Costas Douzinas

In this month of the ‘Greek passion’ one thing is certain. The country will never be the same again. But while the commentators, academics and ‘experts’ discuss endlessly the economic crisis, the deep political malaise has gone unnoticed. The three ‘waves’ of ‘stability’ measures have befallen Greece like an evil tsunami which will turn the current recession into a depression with no clear end. But they also attack the foundations of democracy. The unfolding events offer a panorama of the symptoms of ‘the end of politics’.

In a first obvious way, the government’s astonishing volte-face is worthy of a gymnastics Olympic medal. PASOK’s manifesto attacked New Democracy’s neo-liberal policies and promised social justice, re-distribution in favour of the poor, strengthening the welfare state and job creation. Four months later every single promise and undertaking lies in tatters. Political scientists bemoaning the apathy, lack of interest and increasing voter abstention claim that the repeated breaking of manifesto promises is a major reason why citizens turn away from politics. On this basis, the Greek case will become a textbook example of political rather than statistical dissembling. It is morally unimaginable  how professional politicians can live with such a violent reversal of promises or hope to go to the polls again promising anything. But what does losing the trust of citizens mean when the country has lost the trust of the ‘markets’.

This unbelievable fraud is quickly passed over through the unconvincing excuse about the lies of the ‘others’ (the previous and alternating political elite, the lying statisticians, the ignorant and inefficient European inspectors etc). Still one would have expected at least an apology from the government and perhaps a Japanese style self-immolation. It was not to come, since this gargantuan lie is the symptom only of a much deeper problem.

Politics operates on two axes and forms of power: Auctoritas (legitimate authority) expresses the ‘common interest’ or the will of a people to live together. Potestas, on the other hand, is the force that keeps society together through the domination of the few over the many. The function of politics is to express, condense and provisionally mediate social and economic conflict, to build legitimate authority against the permanent background of insuperable antagonism.

This basic political fact has been occluded by the neo-liberal convergence of right wingers and social democrats. Neo-liberalism is not just a pernicious economic model. It is a global ideology and world view making people understand their lives and relate to others as infinite appropriators and desiring machines and turning politics into the administration of economics. While the economic catastrophe is now clear to all, its political repercussions have been largely ignored.

The politics of neo-liberalism takes economic and moralistic forms. In the former, politics becomes an activity resembling the market-place. Individuals, interests and classes accept the overall socio-economic balance and use politics to pursue marginal improvements of interest and profit. In the second, politics is presented as a process of argumentation where rational consensus about public goods can be reached.

Approached as a neo-liberal market-place or as a town-hall debate, neo-liberal politics pronounces conflict finished, passé, impossible, and, at the same time, tries to disavow and foreclose its appearance. Its replacement by a collaboration of ‘truth-telling’ economists, modernising bureaucrats and patriotic media turns the state into the muscleman for the market internally (exemplified by police brutality) and a superficially tolerant enforcer of humanitarianism externally (as seen in the recent ‘humanitarian wars’).  But conflict does not disappear – the neo-liberal recipes increase inequality, fuels antagonism and turns the anger against immigrants and the undeserving poor.

It is precisely this attitude to politics that recent events introduced to Greece. None of the unprecedented measures was discussed or approved beyond a small number of government insiders. Their imposition was presented as the inescapable result of greedy market action and perfidious European inaction (which lies behind the markets greed). They are presented like a humanitarian campaign to save the victims of a natural catastrophe. Neo-liberal economists, experts and the mainstream media pronounced that there is no alternative and then launched one of the most sustained campaigns to persuade the public. (By the way with a few exceptions, public intellectuals have been largely absent from this debate which will determine the future of the country. I will address the ‘silence of the shepherds’ in a future column.)

Austerity and honesty, salary cuts and moral righteousness is the universal neo-liberal recipe.  It will take a harsher form than Ireland or Iceland here because the (economic) punishment must match excessive moral laxity. This is a virulent type of postmodern cynicism. For real politics, on the other hand, the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ does not exist. Democracy is precisely the expression of disagreement and conflict, a form of life through which the most imponderable problems can be put to debate and testing, solutions can be found and then acted upon. This is precisely the reason why the experts and commentators had to pre-empt public opinion by announcing that the most controversial problem of our times belongs not to political judgement and normative evaluation but to the truth-telling discourse of experts.

Two strategies were used to present this most conflictual matter into a question of scientific objectivity. The first was to present the neo-liberal diagnosis and recipe as the only available ‘truth’.  Understanding the problem (its history, causes and context) and discussing alternatives was peremptorily dismissed as ignorant or naïve. But even in Britain, the cradle of neo-liberal idolatry, a large number of senior economists insisted recently that the worst thing to do in a recession is to cut public spending.  Greek economists know better.

The attempt to cow people before the mystical knowledge of experts and disqualify alternatives was followed by a strategy of the normalisation of the extreme. It was the poor man’s version of the politics of fear developed in the Anglo-American ‘war on terror’. As the prime minister said on Wednesday morning ‘Greece is at war’. But whom do we fight? The only conclusion is that Greece is fighting the Greeks. Fear is accompanied by a paroxysmal patriotism which rhetorically attacks the foreign ‘agents’ of our travails while adopting all their commands.  Greece, we heard, has lost its sovereignty, it is like the Titanic, a guinea pig, a proud country resisting the Germans etc. This was crowned by the ‘tragic kitsch’ of the anonymous wage earner (anonymos misthotos) who accosted the Prime Minister to offer his salary and the OAP Nana Mouscouri who gave her pension for the salvation of patrida. These are model cases where the Foucaultian technologies of self are fully adjusted with the biopolitical correction of the whole population. The homo sacer has mutated into the Hellene sacer, something that needs further comment.

If the political elite had adopted a political and not accountancy (logistiki) approach, it would have started a national debate. It would have called a referendum and built a hegemonic bloc behind the examined and adopted solution. It would have negotiated with those who represent the guiltless victims. But such a solution could not result in the most radical transfer of resources and power from the public to the private sector and the most extensive attack on the weakest on record. It would not prepare the ground for a further undermining of the role of trade unions and marginalisation of left wing ideas, or the destruction of labour law protections, or the further flexibilisation of employment and the lengthening of the unemployed queues.

It would be premature to assume that the government necessarily wants these results. But these measures are not just economic. Their consequences, intended or not, are inevitable and well-known from other parts of the world. Almounia and various ‘experts’ have insisted that improvement in productivity and labour market flexibility must follow. The economic measures are a part only of a wholesale radical restructuring of life. Democracy must be reformed first because its operation could offer the only effective resistance.

But this strategy carries risks for its inventors. The term ‘legitimation crisis’ describes the mass loss of trust in the (always fragile) social contract, which can no longer mobilise popular assent to a balance of power so palpably and unfairly stacked against the interests of the majority. Such crises arise when the omnipresent gap between rulers and ruled becomes an unbridgeable chasm and the claim of political elites to represent the public interest no longer convince.  The end (telos or purpose) of politics is social justice; when they lose that end politics comes to an end. This is where we stand today: the Greeks must fight for the survival of politics. In turning from guinea pigs into the vanguard of the counter attack, they will be offering a service to the world as important as that of the invention of democracy.

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