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Alain Badiou and Stathis Kouvelakis on Syriza and whether a radical break from the eurozone is possible


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Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras via Jacobin.

On Jacobin, French journalist Aude Lancelin and political philosopher Alain Badiou are joined by Syriza central committee member Stathis Kouvelakis in conversation about the retreats, confrontations and contradictions within Syriza and the necessities of politics and strategy in the mobilization of Syriza’s negotiations with the European Central Bank.

Read David Broder’s translation of the conversation:

Aude Lancelin
It’s a little over eight weeks since hope arrived in Greece with the election of Syriza, a formation of the radical left determined to break with Europe’s austerity policies.

Today, it looks like there’s a very uneven test of strength under way, with the troika reasserting its authority (even if with a euphemistic new name) and the Greek government having to juggle a terrible liquidity crisis (which Stathis is going to tell us about), with its future prospects now looking very difficult indeed.

So a first question for Stathis: can we say that Alexis Tsipras and Syriza as a whole were too optimistic in terms of the amount of pressure they thought they’d be able to put on the European institutions — starting with the European Central Bank, which was the first to strike after Tsipras’s election?

Stathis Kouvelakis
I think that Syriza — its leadership, and also its activists — knew that this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. I think that what happened was largely to be expected — and I am not the only one to think that.

Syriza’s election provoked a collective attack from the European institutions, with the ECB being the first to strike. Indeed, following the ECB’s February 4 decision to shut off the main tap funding Greece’s banks, the Greek government really had its back up against the wall in its discussions with its so-called European partners. (I could hardly think of a less appropriate term, given that they are in fact its enemies, resolute enemies who are extremely determined to defeat it.)

So it had to cope with this very difficult situation, and when it finally signed the February 20 deal it faced the prospect of the banks not being able to open the following week. Since the start of the election campaign, there was constant movement of liquidity withdrawal, and the beginning of a banking crisis, which accelerated with the ECB decision.

This is a classic problem: all left-wing governments in the world who were determined to change things ended up faced with this kind of obstacle. At the heart of this question, is Syriza’s, or its leadership’s, decision to break with austerity within the framework of the European institutions, and, more particularly, within the terms of the eurozone. This was the basis Syriza was elected on, and this has been its line throughout the last three years in particular.

Now we can say that we’ve seen the limits of this strategy. We’ve seen that these European institutions are not receptive to this kind of political or democratic argument, which says “we’re an elected government with a mandate to carry out, and you’re our central bank, and we can expect you to do your work and let us do what we were elected to do.”

This is not at all what it is about. These institutions are there in order to lock in extremely harsh neoliberal policies, to lock in the troika supervision of entire countries. And that’s exactly what they’ve set out to do, forcing the Greek government into making retreats — very serious retreats — in the February 20 agreement. And indeed the troika has made its reappearance, renamed as “the institutions,” and at this very moment the teams of troika experts are in Athens scrutinizing Greece’s accounts.

What’s new though, as compared to before, is that there has actually been a bras-de-fer — and it’s still continuing. Syriza has been forced to make a retreat — and indeed, within the terms of this strategy it simply had no other choice. “Within the terms of this strategy,” to be clear.

Now the European Commission has even tried to order the Greek government to hold off passing two bills that are currently being discussed in the Greek Parliament: one on so-called humanitarian measures, to deal with an emergency situation and meet some basic pressing needs; the second, concerning people who are behind on their tax payments.

And the government has decided to press ahead. So ultimately that’s what’s different about Syriza: that there really is a confrontation underway. There has been a retreat — we have to be clear on this — but the confrontation isn’t over yet, and it will particularly be fought in the next few months, over summer, which will be decisive. And we have to reflect, and put an alternative approach in place in order to avoid a repeat of what was decided in February.

AL
Alain Badiou, are you surprised by this turn of events?

Alain Badiou
I should say right from the start that in this kind of situation, I don’t want to wade in like some sort of know-it-all — the skeptic who can see everything in advance. I hate that kind of posture. After all, here we’re dealing with uncharted territory, and when you’re addressing something new, by definition you need to look at how it develops, its inflections, the contradictions it raises.

But this is the question I want to pose Stathis: Syriza’s project is to produce a rupture with the old policies — not only that, a rupture with the policies that dominate Europe as a whole, and indeed the whole world. That means asserting a very strong singularity.

So it seems to me that we can currently see a contradiction at work between the newness of this project and the political method used to achieve it. Its current method is a classic one: occupying the heights of power within the terms of constitutional/electoral legitimacy, and then proceeding to maneuvers and negotiations with the “partners” — or as you rightly point out, the enemies — hoping that all this can lead to an effective resolution of the situation.

But as you say, the enemies aren’t playing that game: that’s not their approach. And it’s very important to understand that. So how do you think Syriza, political forces in Greece, and ultimately the Greek people as a whole, can engage with this situation in a different way from what has gone before?

SK
Classic? Well, yes and no. If we examine the current Greek sequence, by which I mean the last five years, we can see that it features some very classic aspects, others much less so.

What is less classic in this sense is the fact that Syriza would never have come to power — having been a small party until just a few years ago — if not for the emergence of popular mobilizations and social movements in Greece, which are without a doubt greater in scope than anything we’ve seen in Europe since the 1970s. And it’s no coincidence that the other country in Europe that’s witnessed similar mobilizations — indeed, ones that are innovative in several regards, with the occupation of town squares, not to forget the dozens of days of general strikes in Greece — is Spain, which also has its own Podemos phenomenon.

So there’s an interaction between popular mobilizations and political processes, which are also expressed at the electoral level, and I think that’s absolutely crucial. And it’s something new in Europe: we’d seen something similar in Latin America in the recent period — and even earlier in Chile, with Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity — but also more recently, for instance, with Evo Morales coming to power in Bolivia.

But in any case, I think it is certainly new on this continent, or at least in Europe during the historical cycle we’re in. So, Syriza’s election is the product of that mobilization but the temporalities of the present cycle, the social temporality and the temporality of the political process, are not synchronized — that would too much asking. And that’s why politics and strategy are necessary.

Nor are these temporalities synchronized at the European level, and that’s something we ought to recognize. There will be no miracle solution spontaneously emerging from below and powerful enough to overthrow the whole balance of forces in one fell swoop; it’s more complicated than that.

But the fact that Syriza has been able to get as far as it has done thanks to popular movements also allows us to say that its coming to power makes for the possibility of a new cycle of mobilizations. And we saw as much in the weeks following its election.

Something quite exceptional happened then, which [Prime Minister] Alexis Tsipras himself underlined in his general policy statement at the very beginning of February. He finished his speech by making an appeal to the Greek people to mobilize, to take to the streets, and to the town squares. He asked them to uphold the constitution, invoking its final article, which is similar to the one in the French 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man, which specifies that the constitution resides in the people and its patriotism, in the French 1793 Jacobin sense, its right to rise up.

And indeed we saw something that I thought was unprecedented by European standards, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets of Athens simultaneously both to support the Greek government in this confrontation with the [European Union], but also to put pressure on it. And that continued right up till February 20.

This movement also spread to a European level: February 15 was a Europe-wide day of mobilization in support of the Greek people. In several cities thousands or even tens of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate, for example in Paris, but also in Rome, and other cities too. In this recent period we’ve seen the hope you talked about also translating into action.

AL
Would you say the strength of popular support for Syriza in Greece has kept up, even though some of its campaign promises seem to have been put on hold — or, at least, they might face criticism on such grounds?

SK
The popular support is still very strong, and indeed it amounts to a lot more than Syriza’s own electorate. And just like in 2011 the people mobilizing in the demonstrations came from far beyond the ranks of habitual march-goers, or even Syriza’s own base.

At the same time, well beyond that, Greek society in general is becoming conscious of the difficulties it faces. It won’t be taken in by any simplistic accounts about what’s happened. It knows that it’s very difficult and that there’s an enormous amount of pressure and that the power relations are heavily unbalanced.

So now we’ve arrived at a different point, but I think we need to re-establish the conditions for continuing precisely this interaction — between movements, popular mobilizations, and the battles that will follow on the institutional level in Europe and internationally.

AB
I totally agree with what you just said, and that really gets to the heart of my question. Which is about whether this political novelty — and politics, as we’ve been saying, doesn’t mean just the existence and the actions of the state, but also the interaction, and the mobility of the interaction, between popular movements and the state – is playing out in a new and unprecedented fashion.

I am well aware that the Greek situation has all sorts of significant, interesting, even unprecedented characteristics, from that point of view — absolutely. And even across a period of several years: we can remember the 2008 insurrections, etc. So the story in Greece is a story of popular movements, of uprisings, people taking to the streets across a number of years, that’s true, I totally agree. Syriza — and Podemos, each operating according to its own register — are a product of this singularity of recent years, not only with regard to classic politics but also in terms of “inventing” politics . . .

The question that’s bothering me , I might say, perhaps excessively motivated by the eventual outcome of the [François] Mitterrand government, is the following one: when Mitterrand was elected — and this victory had also been on the horizon throughout the 1960s and 1970s — tens of thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate his victory.

But very quickly we saw the emergence of a type of government action that very quickly abandoned all that, little by little retreating into the traditional workings of the state order, giving in to conjunctural imperatives. And that broke this movement. All that happened within about two years. Now with Syriza we’re not two years in yet, but all the same I’m rather haunted by this image. And I certainly hope, very much so, that this time around won’t be a repeat of what happened then.

You wrote in one of your pieces that the danger here is that if popular mobilization isn’t able to control the state’s actions, via the mediation of the organization that this movement created or made possible, state institutions themselves will bring everything back under control.

I was very struck, at the time of the Mitterrand period, by the speed with which we saw, with which we could read, this kind of “statization.” Particularly when it came to economic and financial policy: remember, Mitterand had an extremely ambitious program of nationalizing central parts of the French economy, most of the banks, etc. — and indeed he did so.

But despite all that, I think that in the long run a political method, a way of being political, is all-determining, and that’s why I asked you — whose readings of Syriza I find so fascinating — if it does express a new type of relation — new for Europe in recent times, at least — between state processes and popular movements. For me that’s the heart of the question.

AL
All the same, the Syriza leaders are very different in profile from Mitterrand: Tsipras came from a radical left, or even communist, background, whereas Mitterrand’s political coloration, as a longstanding politician at the end of his career, was much muddier.

AB
It was less clear, yes, but even so, the Communists were in the government, and its stated objectives were much more radical than those of Syriza today. For the moment its political program is mainly negative — “no to austerity,” “another way is possible,” but its contours are not very specific . . . it makes no explicit challenge to private property, though that’s at the heart of the communist tradition.

But I’m not worried by that, I understand perfectly well that the question of its immediate program initially has to be proven through its first decisions in government. What interests me in the new scenario is precisely the possibility of a new dialectic between the popular movement and state actions, which is why I asked you about it, that’s the new and different thing. Syriza’s leadership is made up of new kinds of organization, but that leaves us with the question of whether its way of engaging with the state is new.

SK
I agree with what Alain Badiou just said. Just one word on the program: I think that a program’s radicalism is best measured in terms of the conjuncture, and not in the abstract.

AB
That’s right.

SK
And in the current conjuncture, even very modest or moderate demands take on what I would even call revolutionary dimensions. As we can see, today to demand the cancellation of the debt is to draw a sharp demarcation line, disorganizing the enemy’s forces. And this enemy also knows where the dividing line, the point of conflict, now lies.

We need to inflict defeats on neoliberal policies, and the Greek example shows that movements and mobilizations are the indispensible condition and the starting point of this process, but they do not alone suffice. We have to take over the state but without being wholly taken over by the state. That’s the whole problem.

I was in France throughout almost the entire Mitterrand period, and I was struck by the fact that the only sector of society to mobilize — indeed, very soon after the Left’s victory in 1981 — were the car workers. And for the most part, indeed these car workers were immigrant workers.

AB
Which the government explicitly attacked.

SK
Exactly, that was when Pierre Mauroy [the prime minister during the first three years of Mitterrand’s presidency] made statements such as the claim that these strikes were being manipulated by Iran, by Islamists, etc.

AB
It was a crucially important episode.

SK
Yes, it was a crucially important, particularly in the sense Alain Badiou has been talking about, the question of political method. If a government makes clear that a part of its own base — indeed, a highly emblematic one — is seen as its enemy, and that it considers such a mobilization as a threat, then the process is clearly going in the wrong direction.

The other important level at which the Mitterrand government failed was, indeed, the European one. The choice it faced at the time was whether to exit what was then called the European Monetary System — meaning, continuing with a policy of active state intervention, in the direction traced by the nationalizations and giving a stimulus to the economy – or else to remain within the European framework and make a neoliberal turn.

And it went for the second option. All things considered, Syriza’s options today are not really that different. Either it takes a path of rupture with the European framework — and the contours of that move would have to be explored, that’s the main challenge for Greece’s political and social forces today — or else it will have to give in, which would be a very heavy defeat with potentially disastrous consequences. Not only for Greece, but also for the whole political struggle going on in Europe at the present moment.

AL
Indeed, I wanted to talk about the euro, as you’ve just referred to. Some observers would have us believe that Tsipras wanted to buy these four months — that is, before the next round of negotiations in June — precisely in order to secretly prepare the ground for eventually pulling out of the eurozone. Or you hear at least some people saying that.

You know what is happening inside Syriza. So what exactly is the balance of forces between the internationalists — in the broad sense, that they stick to the idea that a break with Europe is unthinkable — and those, including yourself, I believe, who don’t agree with staying in the eurozone at whatever cost and regardless of the consequences.

SK
I have just a little objection to one term you used there. I can’t accept it being said that those who insist on staying within the eurozone, including the Syriza comrades with that kind of position, are internationalist while the rest of us are not. Even if I think that these comrades are internationalist, and this is also the way they think of themselves.

Personally I would say that the European Central Bank has nothing to do with internationalism, I don’t see the slightest hint of internationalism in Mr Mario Draghi, and I think internationalism is on the side of those are now opposed to Mr Mario Draghi, his politics, and everything he embodies — including him personally, physically.

This question of the euro has always been the object of intense debates within Syriza. And it’s posed as follows: there’s this view that given that leaving the euro would lead us into very serious problems — and this is true — for instance in terms of its potential effect on purchasing power and the country’s productive activity, we are better off trying to fight our battles within the existing institutions. The idea is to base ourselves on public support and the movements that are out there, and fight a battle that takes advantage of the current contradictions in Europe. But now we’ve seen that this doesn’t work.

The four months we’ve “won” are not four months of breathing space. The country is still under extreme pressure and constant blackmail. In fact, the Greek state is on the brink of not being able to pay its bills, and it faces a continuing series of loan repayment deadlines — by no means did the deal put a stop to this infernal machine of debt.

It is quite possible that next month it will find itself unable to pay civil servants and pensions, and face a situation of insolvency. The same goes for the Greek banking system, which is extremely precarious. But I think the line is changing.

The day before yesterday Alexis Tsipras gave a really noteworthy interview to a Greek newspaper, which asked him if he had an alternative plan in the event of a liquidity crisis. To quote almost word for word, he replied, “Of course, we have an alternative plan. Greece does not do blackmail, but nor will we accept blackmail from others. The country has a lot of possible options; of course we don’t want to reach such an impasse, but . . .”

So that’s where we are at the moment, in sum. In my view, there’s no other way, and that also goes for the European negotiations. If the enemy — and it is an enemy — knows in advance that there is a line that you won’t cross, he’ll naturally focus all his pressure exactly there. And that’s exactly what’s happened, and will continue up to the point of besieging Greece and forcing its capitulation.

For Europe’s political elites and the economic interests they represent, it’s vital not only to force Syriza into a retreat, but to humiliate it politically. Such a political humiliation would also be a shot across the bows of Podemos and all the social and political forces in Europe that challenge austerity policies: “See what happened to the Greeks? That’s what’s in store for you if you try and do the same.”

AL
But how much of Syriza is prepared to make such a break? To quote an interview you gave in January, before the election I think, to Jacobin magazine, you said that for some Syriza leaders, “avoiding the break with the euro at any cost acted as almost a mythical guarantee for an internationalist and socialist perspective.” And that’s what’s orienting Syriza’s policy at the moment. So what’s the balance of forces among these tendencies — how many people agree with your line?

SK
It’s really hard to describe a balance of forces, in such a tense situation, because what we really have is fluidity. What I said in this interview is that I think the Greek situation is one where there’s no middle course between rupture and capitulation.

This isn’t a scenario that plays out in one instant, it lasts some time — but there’s also a limit how far it can go on, and in my view it will be resolved one way or the other in the next few months, by the summer. This short, dense period will see the resolution of a lot of issues and contradictions both within Syriza and in Greek society more broadly.

AB
I wonder, though, whether in reality the choice you present as being at the end of the current scenario, its future horizon, of doing everything that staying in the euro demands and thus letting the enemy know that one way or another you’re ultimately going to capitulate — entirely so, giving in on all of your main principles as far as the enemy demands — is not in fact constitutive of the current situation.

On the other hand, the question of where the Greek people will find the possibility of resolving the current situation is a lot more complex and unclear. Something that really struck me in the recent period is [former French President Valéry] Giscard d’Estaing shifting toward a view supportive of Greece leaving the euro.

He’s no friend of yours in terms of the rupture and all that, but he said things anyone might find reasonable, that Greece should leave the euro and go back to the drachma, so it could undertake major devaluation, and, in that context, little by little reduce the debt.

So even a man like him can say that all things considered, Greece leaving the eurozone would be best for everyone concerned . . . doubtless it would cause problems in Greece, but you’d have to take care of that, and ultimately we could see what the lay of the land is after you’ve devalued your new currency.

I mention that in order to emphasize that the tension over this issue is a question of tactics, a conjunctural question concerning your relationship to Europe — but what would be the political, popular, programmatic basis for such a measure in terms of your positive vision of Greece and the future of the Greek people? This is a question which is being very much debated at the moment, also in various technical aspects, of leaving and devaluing or staying and persisting.

So what I’m asking is how you see the next phase, or a bit beyond — and some would say that communists’ task is always to see the phase after next! I’m interested in what you see as coming after this current battle, even if I can understand that this itself has all its own ins and outs and raises all sorts of tensions both within and outside Greece.

SK
We’re in a moment of crisis. At such a moment even the adversary, not only our side, is hesitating between various different strategies. For the moment, though, the dominant strategy isn’t the one you mention, though it does exist: part of the German elite also agrees with Giscard’s position, that it’d be better to cast off the Greeks, from some points of view even at any cost.

But what the dominant forces in Europe really want now is to shake down the country. They want to keep Greece in the “iron cage” and force Syriza to do what all the other governments of the Left in Europe ended up doing. They want to show that Syriza is just the same as all the others, that it’s inevitable, that there is no other way. That’s their real strategy, to show that Tsipras is no different from [French President] François Hollande, no different from [former Italian Prime Minister] Romano Prodi, no different from what we recently got from the social-democratic left across Europe.

As for the question of possibilities, there’s an expression you use in your book The Rebirth of History that really struck me, where you say that we’re not in the moment of the possible, but of the “possibility of the possible.”

And, honestly, that came into my mind the evening of the Greek election, because one of my Syriza friends said that the people hadn’t really voted for hope, so much as for the hope of hope. I believe that’s where we’re at, in a phase where our task is to break out of the straitjacket. And it’s then that the question of possibility will really be posed, in the flesh, if you will.

I would also pick up on another of the themes you raise in your writings. Like you, I believe we need an idea, and that there’s no other word for that idea but communism. But for me communism isn’t just an idea, it’s also, if you like, the real movement.

AB
Of course.

SK
So there’s a tension there. And I think that the Greek situation perhaps allows us to pose this question once again. Not in simplistic and naïve terms as imagining that Syriza “is” communism — I am not saying that at all. But rather, that the sequence we’re currently living through, this experience and the various elements underlying it, allow us to return to this question because it offers elements of an answer.

Not a ready-made answer, but elements that allow us to work on it once again — including a point that you’ve notably left aside, namely taking over the state. And by that I’m talking about more than elections — to become the government is something quite different from holding state power! But we need to take over the state in order to win victories, to break off the straitjacket, and to break with the internalization of defeat.

Across a whole period the radical left has suffered from this, internalizing its subalternity, and to overcome this situation we need victories — not one, but several victories. What happened in Greece was not the victory, but it was one victory, and one that points in this direction.

AB
I totally agree. I myself experienced Syriza’s coming-to-power in exactly the sense you describe, as a victory that clearly changes the regime of possibilities in Europe today. Certainly. I wasn’t among those of our friends who talked about voting Hollande with a view to perhaps opening up some new possibilities, only to find out eventually that wasn’t the case at all — I could see that much, at least!

To put it in more schematic terms, in this matter there are three terms and not only two. There are the end goals, there is the movement, and then there is the procedure by which we engage with the state. Naturally this is only possible thanks to the movement, yet at the same time in reality it is executed or realized by clearly identifiable, organized political actors.

And in Greece, Syriza is the name for the new way in which politics is organized, in terms of the relation between popular movements and the state, a relation that it has itself transformed. That’s a more abstract way of describing the situation.

So my question is what you think will become of this dialectic, not just right now but also in the near future. So I can see Syriza’s engagement with the state, the beginning that represents, with its involvement electoral process — and if something good comes of that, then great! Then I can see what remains of popular pressure and popular mobilizations in Greece. These movements were, however, in decline before the election. It’s not like Syriza won the election because they were on the rise.

SK
Of course.

AB
That’s the way thing usually go. In France in June 1936, the great social movement came after the election, in Greece it came before, but in neither case were these moments synchronized. But anyway, what I don’t see clearly is the third term, by which I essentially mean how the other two terms are articulated in the figure of the political movement, which in the last analysis means Syriza — it is the political movement, and it’s taken on a very important role.

I’ve been following what you’ve been writing very closely, and to me it seems that Syriza is somehow fragile. That’s something that’s really struck me about it. By that I don’t just mean the disparate origins of its component parts, but the fragility resulting from what is probably a still minimal agreement among these different elements, an agreement that probably isn’t up to the task of immediately addressing the conditions of the party’s engagement with the state.

The conditions, as you rightly put it, for really taking power, for really taking over the state. So I wonder what you would have to say about the relation of these three terms, from Syriza’s point of view, as it were.

SK
I think Syriza allows us to make some progress in terms of dealing with the question of the party form. Of course it is a project in becoming: one that still has open prospects ahead of it, and which is itself a site of contradictions. So we have to find a way of dealing with all that.

Syriza is an attempt to bring together the revolutionary movements and radical left cultures inherited from the twentieth century, and make them work in a common endeavor. But sometimes it seems like these cultures coexist without yet succeeding in producing a new political culture, even if there has been some progress in that direction.