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Transformative Power: Political Organisation In Transition


In a context of uncertainty and flux, it helps to start from the specific. My starting point is the rise of Syriza, the radical left coalition rooted in the movements resisting austerity that has become the main opposition party in the Greek parliament. Syriza’s ability to give a focused political voice to the anger and despair of millions has made a breakthrough from which we can learn.

This is a matter not only of its soaring electoral support, which rose from 4 per cent of the national vote in 2009 to 27 per cent in June 2012 on the basis of a refusal of the policies imposed by the IMF, the European Commission (EC) and the European Central Bank (ECB), but also of the fact that this electoral mandate is reinforced by organized movements and networks of solidarity that Syriza has been part of building.

This is not to imply that Syriza’s success is stable or that its momentum will necessarily be maintained. One of its 71 MPs, the ex-Pasok member and trade union leader, Dimtris Tsoukalas, warns that ‘votes can be like sand’.1 Threatening winds will blow persistently from a hostile media determined to exploit any sign of division; from national and European elites creating an atmosphere of fear towards the left and from an aggressive fascist party exploiting xenophobic tendencies in Greek society with some success, having won 7 per cent in the polls.

Syriza does not provide a template to apply elsewhere; it is a new kind of political organization in the making. Reflection on its rise, however, which has taken place alongside the collapse of support for Pasok (from around 40 per cent of the vote in 2009 to no more than 13 per cent in 2012), throws the present quandary of the left, especially in Europe, into relief. Such reflection also stimulates fresh thoughts on forms of political organization that could help us find ways out.

Failure of social democratic parties

The quandary is this. On the one hand, there is the inability of social democratic parties to stand up to, or even seriously to bargain over, austerity for the masses as a solution to the financial crisis. To varying degrees these parties are demonstrating their inability to rise to the challenge of a visibly discredited neoliberal project. The decay in party democracy and culture, moreover, combined with an entrenchment of market-driven mentalities, has meant that in social democratic parties the forces of renewal are negligible or very weak.

On the other hand, most political organizations of the radical left, with the notable exception of Syriza, are in weaker positions than they were before the financial crisis of 2008. In addition, the traditional forms of labour movement organization have been seriously weakened. There has been an impressive growth of resistance and alternatives of many kinds, many of them interconnected and many, like Occupy, besmirching the brand of an already dodgy-looking system. But through what strategic visions, forms of organization and means of political activism they can produce lasting forces of transformation is an open question under active and widespread discussion.

In other words, while the right, in the form of neoliberalism, was ready for the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the left in the North, when faced with capitalism coming as near to collapse as it can – given its ability to call in state guarantees – has been unable to find appropriate ways of building a dynamic of change driven by its alternative values and directions for society.

Syriza in its current form has been forged in the intense heat of the most ruthless turning of the screw of austerity. Syriza is going to face many problems, both within its own organization as it changes from a coalition of parties and groups to becoming a party with its own direct membership, as well as in the face of new pressures that will come from its opponents both inside and outside Greece. However, after interviewing a wide range of activists and reading interviews and reports by others, I have a grounded belief that the long and difficult process of developing a framework of rethinking political organization beyond both Leninism and parliamentarism is producing qualitatively new results.

Many of the political resources that shaped Syriza’s response to the present extremities and led it to a position in which it is uniquely – but still conditionally – trusted by so many people in Greek society are the outcome of considerable learning from the trial and error of other radical parties across Europe and the experience of the European Social Forum.

This essay seeks to contribute towards continuing this dialectic of transnational political learning on the left. By generalizing from the distinctive features of Syriza, and also bearing in mind lessons from other experiences where parties with similar ambitions have been unable to sustain their transformative dynamic, I will suggest approaches to problems of political organization, further consideration of which might help to overcome the quandary of the left.

Transforming the state

My discussion of these themes will focus on the problem of transforming the state. This is a major issue for Syriza as it campaigns and prepares for office in and against a notably corrupt and anti-democratic state. One of four sections of the programme drawn up in 2009 by members of Synaspismos, the largest party in the Syriza coalition, is entitled ‘Restructuring the state’.

My framework for approaching this fundamental issue sees sources of democratic transformative power autonomous from the state as decisive to the possibilities of change.

The economic dimension here is crucial. Political change is seriously hindered if it lacks a base in non-capitalist relations of production, including the production of services and culture, however partial and incomplete. At the same time, it must be said that a conflictual engagement in as well as against the state is a necessary condition for systemic change. Such an engagement has to be rooted in, and accountable to, forces for democratic change in society. Without a strategy of this kind to transform and, where necessary, break state power, transformative struggles will recurrently lapse into containable counter-cultures and their potential for the majority of people will be unrealized.

Drawing lessons from local democratisation

To develop my argument, I draw particularly on the experience of the radical left of the Labour Party in governing London in 1982-86; and that of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) in opening up decisions about new municipal investment to a citywide process of popular participation in Porto Alegre from 1989 until 2004. Despite these cases being well known, their lessons for political organization have yet to be fully distilled.

For my argument, what is significant is that their achievements – each of the city experiments involved a redistribution of resources and, for a period, power and capacity, from the rich and powerful to the poor and marginalized – depended on opening up to and sharing resources with autonomous sources of democratic power in the cities concerned. In other words, they combined initiatives for change from within government structures with support for developing wider, more radical sources of power outside.

But it was very significant that not only had such a strategic orientation failed to change the Labour Party in the UK, it also turned out that neither did the PT in Brazil adopt such a dual strategy once it was elected at the national level, which partly explains the limits of the Lula government in fulfilling many expectations it had aroused for radical social change.

In the Greater London Council (GLC) and Porto Alegre experiments political parties used their electoral mandates to move beyond the constraints imposed by the existing system and instead to strengthen and spread challenges to that system. The spirit they embodied can also be seen in widespread campaigns by public service workers and users against privatization that involve effective strategies to change the way that public services are managed and public money administered, dragging political parties after them.

All these experiences have underlined the importance of struggling to create non-capitalist social relations in the present rather than defer them to ‘after winning power’. Lessons from these local experiences, however, can help the rethinking that is necessary of what political organization needs to be like in a context of plural sources of transformative power.

In drawing these lessons, we need also to bear in mind that there are further distinct problems in changing state and quasi-state institutions on national and international levels. To understand the wider significance of the way these local political experiences combine a struggle as representatives within the local state with support for democratic movements and initiatives outsaide, we need to distinguish between two radically distinct meanings of power.

These are on the one hand power as transformative capacity and on the other hand power as domination – as involving an asymmetry between those with power and those over whom power is exercised. We could say that historically, mass social democratic parties have been built around a benevolent version of the second understanding. Their strategies have been based around winning the power to govern and using it paternalistically to meet what they identify as the needs of the people.

Both the experiences of the GLC in the early 1980s and the PT in municipal government in the 1990s were attempts to change the state from being a means of domination and exclusion to becoming a resource for transformation by campaigning for electoral office in order then to decentralize and redistribute power. I would argue that in practice Syriza is attempting the same project at a national level.

Syriza and the dynamics of social change

The most distinctive feature of Syriza, in contrast with traditional parties of the left, is that it sees itself as more than simply a means of political representation for movements, but as being involved practically in building the movements. Its political instincts make responsibility for contributing to the spread and strengthening of movements for social justice a high priority.

In the weeks following the election of 71 Syriza MPs in June 2012, its leaders stressed the importance of this as central to ‘changing people’s idea of what they can do, developing with them a sense of their capacity for power’, as Andreas Karitzis, one of its key political coordinators, put it. While the party believes state power is necessary, it is clear that, in Karitzis’s terms, ‘what is also decisive is what you are doing in movements and society before seizing power. Eighty per cent of social change cannot come through  government.’2 This is not just talk.

This view of strategies for social change influences how Syriza is allocating the considerable state resources it is receiving as a result of its high level of parliamentary representation. The party will get €8 million (almost triple its present budget) and each MP is allocated by the parliament five members of staff.

The idea at the time of writing is that a high proportion of the new funds should go to solidarity networks in the neighbourhoods – for example, to employ people to extend initiatives such as social medical centres, to spread what approaches have succeeded, to link, online and face to face, people in the cities with producers of agricultural goods. Funds will also go to strengthening the capacity of the party in parliament, but a greater proportion will be directed towards Syriza’s work in building the extra-parliamentary organizations for social change.

Of the five staff allocated to MPs, two will work for the MP directly. One will work for policy committees that bring together MPs and civic experts and two will be employed by the party to work in the movements and neighbourhoods.

Behind these priorities is a learning process arising from the vulnerability shown by left parties in other European countries to letting parliamentary institutions, with all their resources and privileges, pull them away from the movements whose political voice they had intended to be.

Committed to movement building as much as party-building

From its origins in 2004 at the height of the alter-globalization movements (which had a particularly strong impact in Greece), Syriza was at least as concerned with helping to build movements for change in society as with electoral success. There was also a learning process through the European Social Forum and then the Greek Social Forum.

This contributed to not only Syriza’s clear strategic view of the limits of state power for social transformation, but also a self-conscious insistence on norms of pluralism, mutual respect and openness to the new ways in which people were expressing their discontent and alternatives.

Providing a constant reminder of the political methodology they were trying to avoid was the KKE, one of the last orthodox Communist parties in Europe, self-confident in its self- imposed isolation and wary of contamination with ‘unorthodoxy’. Syriza activists, by contrast, were very much part of the open, plural, curious culture of mutual learning promoted by the European Social Forum, and it was explicitly one of their goals that their new political coalition be infused with it. The effects of this were clearly seen in how Syriza related to the youth revolt after the police shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos in 2008, not pushing a line or seeking to take control. And they acted in the same way when the protests gathered in Syntagma Square and beyond through 2011.

Syriza activists contributed their own principles – for example, not allowing any anti-immigrant slogans – and applied these with others, anarchists for example, to find practical solutions through the general discussions. The youth wing of Synaspismos had a workshop near the beginning of the Syntagma protests to explain and discuss this non-instrumental, principled approach.

Syriza is also shaped by the converging culture of the different generations and traditions that make up the coalition. The younger generation, now in their late twenties or early thirties, came to the left independently of any ‘actually existing’ alternative. The older leadership had been part of the resistance to the dictatorship in the late 1960s and 1970s. Many of them became the left Eurocommunists of the 1980s.

Both generations were active in the alter-globalization and social forum movement. This meant that the collective processes of knowledge and cultural production in the movements resisting neoliberal globalization, both inside Greece and internationally in the 1990s, were central to the personal political development of Syriza activists rather than being a sphere in which they ‘intervened’ to promote an alternative that had already been worked out elsewhere.

Syriza activists at all levels are emphatic about going beyond protest and of having alternatives that are convincing to people who are discontented with the corrupt Greek state and the ‘troika’ of the EC, the IMF and the ECB. This has led to an emphasis on support for initiatives that could make an immediate difference now rather than waiting for Syriza’s election to government. For instance, as the cuts destroy the public health system, doctors and nurses in Syriza are involved with others in creating medical centres to meet urgent social needs and at the same time pushing for free treatment in public hospitals and campaigning to defend health services.

Syriza is also bringing together sympathetic frontline civil servants with teachers, experts and representatives of parents’ organizations to prepare changes in the organization of the Ministry of Education to make it more responsive to the people and to release the stifled capacities of state employees who genuinely want to serve the public.

It is also mapping the social and cooperative economy in the country to identify how it can be supported politically now as well as to determine what kind of support it should have when the party moves into government to realize Syriza’s goal of an economy geared to social needs. The party’s responsiveness to the steady rise in self-organized forms of solidarity economy amidst the crisis, recognizing its potential in terms of constructing an alternative direction for society, is reminiscent of what Andre Gorz’s meant when, in outlining the strategic concept of non-reformist reforms in his Strategy for Labor, he stressed the importance of ‘enabling working people to see socialism not as something in the transcendental beyond but as the visible goal of praxis in the present’.3

When Alexis Tsipras declared that the party was ready for government, based on an unequivocal rejection of the economic policy memorandum, it concentrated the minds and organizational discipline of Syriza activists. The movement style and culture of the organization gave way to a single- minded campaign in which loyalties to this or that group or tendency in the Syriza coalition weakened and a new closeness emerged.

But complaints also emerged about a certain opacity of when and where decisions were made and how to influence them, and fears expressed that the large parliamentary group could reinforce this if it becomes too autonomous. And there is recognition of the danger of Tsipras becoming a celebrity symbol on which the future of the party can end up becoming dependent, weakening internal party democracy and diluting debate – shades of Lula in Brazil, shades too of Andreas Papendreou in 1981. Although the coalition is united on the importance of its claim on government, much thought is being given to how to share leadership, maintain accountability to party and movement activists, how to sustain a critical politicized culture of debate, challenge and strategic militancy; to avoid in other words becoming ‘another Pasok’.

 

Rethinking the franchise: from atomistic to social representation

Syriza’s experience gives a practical focus to recent discussions in the alter- globalization movement about whether, in liberal democracies, to engage in, as well as struggle against, the political system – and, more specifically, whether to seek political representation for more than propaganda purposes, and if so with what forms of organisation.

Syriza’s self-conscious combination of organizing for government with spreading the capacity for change autonomously from the political system – through solidarity work in the community, agitating at the base of the unions, campaigning for social and political rights, as well as against racism and xenophobia and so on – raises anew the question of whether the vote is still a resource for social transformation or a perpetual source of disillusion and alienation.<

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