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Stathis Gourgouris says the SYRIZA project is not over yet, but leftists must be more realistic about governing Greece

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Stathis Gourgouris, our next guest, penned an article in the Bullet and Open Democracy titled The Syriza Problem: Radical Democracy and Left Governmentality in Greece. He wrote, anyone who thinks that Syriza as a left phenomena has ended, been co-opted or defeated, et cetera, is thinking too much too fast. Too much complexity is being swept carelessly under the rug. For this reason, despite everyone’s attention to the recent traumatic developments, it’s worth conducting an assessment of the full trajectory of Syriza in government, he writes. Joining us now is Stathis Gourgouris. He is the director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University, and he joins us today from Greece. Stathis, thank you so much for joining us today. STATHIS GOURGOURIS, DIR. INSTITUTE FOR COMPARATIVE LITERATURE AND SOCIETY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Thank you. Good afternoon. PERIES: Stathis, as you wrote, these are traumatic times for the people both politically and economically. And let me add, emotionally as well, since when we were there recently and found that this is a very heated discussion and debate within Syriza and also on the streets. People feel let down, defeated by democracy itself, and by Syriza and Tsipras for not implementing the results of the referendum. Further, the prior actions and now these latest bailout requirements demanding that essentially $50 billion in government assets be set aside, and possibly privatized, all has everybody in an uproar. So why should the people hold out hope and faith in the Syriza government? GOURGOURIS: Well first of all, I need to if you don’t mind correct a few things, or at least elucidate their complexity. The first is that the result of the referendum is not as simple as people tend to make it in reporting. Yes, 62 percent of Greeks voted against the continuation of the status quo of the austerity measures. But not 62 percent of Greeks voted to get out of the European Union or the eurozone. According to polls, 70 percent of Greeks or more that are in favor of remaining in the euro, though they don’t like the conditions under which they are in the euro. This is a very contradictory in many ways situation. So when the government is faced with the possibility of being expelled from the euro at a time when it is incapable really of going out on its own, since Greek, the forces of production are essentially at sub-zero levels, they have to face a real problem of negotiating, again. The second thing is that the 50 billion euros, the assets that are being set aside, it’s very important to look at this in depth. It isn’t as if 50 billion euros of assets need to be sold tomorrow. The fund is created where assets that belong to the state can be placed as in some ways collateral while they’re being developed, and presumably made more effective and valuable. They in return do not necessarily need to be sold. But if they were to be sold they would not change hands in the period of 30 years. This would enable the Greek state, in fact, to not sell off its assets as the previous regime had it, sell them for nothing, in essence. But in fact, developing and protect them. This is not to say, I want to make this clear, that the memorandum is a good thing or the new, or that these new agreements, that’s what memorandum means, it means an agreement, is a good thing and that we should be cheering. Nor will I take going to the rather nitpicking work of trying to compare between agreements saying that this may be slightly better than the other, although people are convinced that it’s worse and that’s not the case. But that’s not the point. These agreements are not good. None of them are good. But they’re not catastrophic either. In any case, we really need to see how this whole thing plays out. PERIES: What do you make of the argument, while Alexis Tsipras has come out saying he himself don’t like these agreements, but he’s forced to support them and ask for the support of passing these prerequisites and so on, in order to nail the deal? And of course he’s speaking from both sides of his mouth, which a lot of people are criticizing him for. What do you make of that? GOURGOURIS: Again, I think that’s unfair. I will tell you why. First of all, I mean, if we leftists are very happy to hear resistance talk from the mouth of leftist leaders, but Mr. Tsipras is not just a leader of a leftist party or movement. To be more accurate, he’s a prime minister of all of Greece, and all of Greeks, regardless of what their political beliefs are. And he’s faced with the great responsibility of making sure that the country doesn’t go bankrupt. Because this could, [at least] for my view, create conditions of–well I mean, utterly catastrophic conditions bordering on starvation of the people. And the people who are the ones that have been most, let’s say, burdened by the previous agreements and the austerity measures will be the ones that would be hurt most. So it’s not as if he’s talking from both sides of his mouth. He’s talking, he has spoken before as a leader of a leftist movement, and he’s now speaking as a prime minister from a position of weakness in the geopolitical sphere. I think that’s something that we need to somehow figure out a way to balance. And that’s my argument in this article that you mention, is–. PERIES: And you say these kinds of left political governmental motions put against history, when you look back on it it will actually be a reasonable moment. But that anticipates that both Alexis Tsipras and Syriza are truly left socialists that want to see a different kind of Greece. Now, having signed these memorandums, in the long term is that going to be possible? GOURGOURIS: Well, that’s a very good question, and I don’t think anyone has an answer. I think that if people who claim that it’s not possible very easily claim that it’s not possible really have no ground to say so. But neither would I say that it is possible, period. Because what Syriza, the Syriza agenda, the most significant part of the Syriza agenda is the transformation of the Greek corrupt clienteleist elite system. And I think that in creating better conditions [of] social justice, and greater freedom among the citizens and so on. There’s all kinds of other issues, the immigration issue and so on. I think that that’s much more important than figuring out how to settle accounts with the Europeans, which is in many ways a matter that is decided before him, according to the structure that he inherited, which became even more dire than it ever was for previous governments. So in order–I mean, if Tsipras were, let’s say, to not go into negotiation and sign an agreement the country would go bankrupt and he of course would have the government fall, he would have to resign. Because no government that has presided over bankruptcy ever in the history of the world has ever remained in power. So I think that that would be the end of the Syriza project. And God knows what would be after that, because there really–in effect there is no alternative political position to take over government in this country. And so that would be a very irresponsible position for him to take as a country’s leader in order to simply stay true to principles. That’s my position. I think we need to be more realists as leftists when we come to these situations. PERIES: Stathis, point us in the direction of the most positive and as well as the benchmarks, landmarks, that Syriza has managed to accomplish in the brief period that they have been in government, that we can hold on to as hope in terms of the future of Syriza and the future of Syriza staying together as a party. GOURGOURIS: Well, this is a paradox, of course, Syriza has done very little governing in five, six months, because all of its energies have been put into negotiating a better situation with the European Union. The rest of the European Union leaders. This has really hampered the capacity for governing. However, some interesting things that I think are underreported that are linked very much, mostly to the solidarity networks and the kind of, let’s say, social justice or managing the humanitarian crisis aspects of Syriza, less so to the, less than let’s say its directly governing power. The bill that enables, children are born in this country from immigrant parents and become citizens is certainly an avant garde bill by European standards. There’s nothing like it in Europe. The fact that the government has provided a system by which Greeks who are hit harder from the austerity, who are in essence utterly impoverished, can procure foodstuffs from markets, the fact, even that tax collection in Syriza is five, six months of governance, was higher and more efficient than ever before, which is itself an interesting thing to interpret. It does not lend itself to direct interpretation. Would be some of these aspects. But these are very, very few and very small. In many ways Syriza will be tested as a governing force only once this European Union business is settled. Because as long as it remains unsettled, nothing really can happen in this country in terms of governing. PERIES: Stathis, I know some very difficult parliamentary decisions are being made this week. GOURGOURIS: As we speak. PERIES: Can you highlight what some of them are in relation to, of course, the latest negotiated bailout deal, and how you think the results will unfold? GOURGOURIS: Yes. Okay, as we speak, right now, that is, in parliament there is an emergency session that is to decide whether the new package will be approved. Not as a bridge package, but as a full package. I think that I don’t need to spell out all the issues, it’s quite complex and very long. But people of course can check these things out. What’s important right now is a certain kind of democratic battle that takes place within Syriza ranks, because a number of MPs–a minority, but a significant number, is against the agreements. Which means that the agreement, if it passes, it will pass with votes of the opposition parties, which raises all kinds of issues again of governance for Syriza. And Syriza, as I have mentioned in my article, is not a party, properly speaking. It’s a coalition of forces from different kinds of left viewpoints, quite a range. Quite democratic [and decentered], which always was characterized by a great deal of dispute and disagreement. Which I think was always to its credit. It’s a very sort of polyphonic, heterogeneous formation. However, we’re seeing this sort of radical democratic capacity of Syriza to sustain this agreement and dispute and debate. We think it’s really tested at this point because it’s one thing for, it’s one thing to be a movement where one can be democratic, as democratic as one wants. Another thing to be a government where decisions have to be made under sometimes adverse conditions like these. So I think in addition to what the agreement will mean, which we will not know. We will need some months before we have a sense how it will affect markets and social capacities, what it would do to the impoverished population and so on and so forth. One of the things that we will be looking at to see very quickly is whether Syriza can sustain itself as a governing formation, as a governing party, let’s say, we’ll use that word. Because it will be I think very hard when a minority position in the government itself is against implementing disagreements. So it is also a test of democratic politics in Greece right now. PERIES: Stathis, we at the Real News of course have been following the debate, the developments, and we’ll do so on an ongoing basis. And I hope you can join us again very soon. You present a very important point of view, and we look forward to having you back. Stathis Gourgouris, thank you so much for joining us. GOURGOURIS: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for the invitation. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Sharmini Peries was a co-founder of TRNN, where she harnessed the power and expertise of civil society institutions. Previously, Sharmini was Economic and Trade Adviser to President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela. Prior to that she served as the executive director of the following institutions: The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System, The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. She also managed the Human Rights Code Review Task Force in Ontario, Canada. She holds a M.A. in Economics from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her Ph.D. studies in Social and Political Thought at York University remain incomplete (ABD).