Syriza And The 21st Century Left

*Book review by Albena Azmanova published on (

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 indolence.

Greek 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.

The 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 powerdoes 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

Syriza’s 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. 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 condemn.

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”.  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 Promise, 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 compromises.

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 circumstances.

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.

First published on Open Democracy