Democracy at the Edge of Europe
Politicians, having very little actual power, deal largely in gestures. Which is why the criticism of Syriza’s “stunt” over the weekend seems a little unfair. After all, what else could the Greek Government do but attempt to secure a democratic mandate to bolster the position they are taking as they undertake Mission Impossible in the Halls of Power today. Despite what is being said by their critics, I don’t imagine that there are very many Greek Voters who dreamed that an Oxi vote would magically transform the attitudes of the European Central Bank. The Bank has its own existence and logic for that existence to defend. The Greek electorate know very well – better than most – that their “local” democracy has its limits, that self-determination is a negotiation principle and not a fact. But it has been remarkable in the 24 hours since the wild-eyed newbies of Syriza won that election back in February (January?) dared to call the democratic bluff not only of their own domestic opposition (with its total control of the media and its tainted history) but of the European Project itself, how even a decisive mandate for renegotiation is being airily dismissed.
Make no mistake, the human values of the fiscal and political crisis of the “one size fits all” Euro project have been quite brilliantly dramatised. On the one hand, the elation of Syntagma Square, and on the other, the big bad villain refusing to send any more bank notes to pay anybody’s pensions. The basic assumptions which underlie the very fabric of modern life, as well as the global financial assumptions that pump the complex circulation of actual value and imaginary cash are under their most serious challenge since neo-liberal capitalism replaced Keynsian orthodoxy back in the eighties.
At least, they are under challenge in Europe in a way that would have been difficult to foresee…unless you lived in South America or Africa. It is an unspoken and unspeakable truth that capitalism’s pretensions to universality are exactly that – pretended. The Euro, from the Greek perspective, is a German racket designed to keep down the costs of exports, just as the IMF is ultimately designed to serve the interests of the rich in the USA. Even the most ardent globalists serve what are ultimate parochial cultural interests.
So here we are at the opposite corner of Europe discovering for ourselves the limitations of democracy, of self determination. The parallels, politically anyway, between Alba and Hellas, extend way further than our both having Parthenons on top of the hills in our capital cities. We even have our own wide eyed newbies in Westminster sitting open-mouthed in astonishment at the degree of contempt with which they are regarded by the honourable members around them, The parallels have been well rehearsed, from having a government opposed by the media to the mutual disintegration of our morally exhausted parties of the “left.” We were repeatedly told we’d end up like “Greece without the sunshine” if we dared to assert our human value. And we have just exercised our democratic muscles in defiance of the doomsayers, just like the greeks did.
But it is the limits of our democracy having to negotiate within the self-interested and almost unconsciously arrogant contexts of the larger world that we will both be exploring over the next months, the Greeks with rather more urgency.
The SNP and Syriza have both scored decisive victories at the ballot box. Both feel empowered within their base, their own territory. Both feel the democratic wind in their sails. Both are being told, quite clearly, that no one gives a tuppeny toss what they voted for. And both can see the rocks of “the way things are” of “reality” being waved at them by self-justifying nihilists elsewhere. It is hard to resist the conclusion that democracy is held to be of very little account by those in power whose mantra always used to be that capitalism and democracy were somehow the same thing. That social unity and the unfettered market were compatible. That power is in safe and responsible hands.
From China to Argentina and from Athens to Edinburgh, tell it to the seagulls.
The European Project, like the Union of Nations turn out to be the merest gestures in the face-with-no-face of the global forces that they have up representing and apologising for. There is nothing substantial that can be done against “the way things are” is the ultimate argument of the Nay-sayers. Some of them are representing their own interests, of course. The owners of new-papers are doing very nicely, but the deeper tragedy is that many otherwise progressively minded people argue against the “gesture politics” of the Syrizas and SNPs and Podemoses of the world out of the deep pessimism that seems to have infected and hobbled “progressive” culture since the Fall of the Berlin Wall. We are all supposed to be characters in a Beckett play., we are all supposed to recognize the end game of human hope. Thus far and no further. Nothing to be done.
Who knows? Today in Parliament as the Commons debate on the nature of EVEL and Alexis Tsipras grins into the stony face of Angela Merkel, it may well be that we have reached the limits of democracy, the limits of debate, of logic in the face of the crass arithmetic of power, of any real hope of social and cultural progress. It may be that “progress” has passed its sell-by-date. But just as it is the business of life to defy the death that always wins in the end, it is surely the business of civil society, of politics, to act as if we had faith. Just because every life ends in death, is that really an argument that we should be on death’s side?
To find hope in the very process of hope…to refuse to accept “the way things are’. How else did we ever make what progress we have already made? Call it gesture politics if you like. What else is any politics supposed to be? What else has it ever been?