Wednesday, 28 January 2015

What is the Meaning of Syriza?

By Dr Mark Featherstone

What is the meaning of Syriza, the big winners in the Greek elections earlier this week, whose rise to power led the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to warn against increased economic uncertainty and turbulence? The root of Cameron’s concern is clear – Syriza are against austerity and want to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s bailout package with the EU and centrally their German creditors. It is well documented, by writers such as Costas Douzinas, that Greece’s debt repayment plan has effectively destroyed the country’s social structure and left people without food and healthcare. From the point of the view of the infamous troika, which represents Greece’s creditors, this harsh medicine is necessary in order to balance the country’s books, but also ensure that its debts are repaid in full. In this respect, austerity is considered necessary and unavoidable. The people must weather the storm in order to begin to live within their means. The problem for Cameron is, of course, that the Greek turn against austerity, which is premised on a belief in the importance of human life and human dignity relative to financial considerations concerned with profit and immiseration, may stimulate resistance elsewhere and ultimately at home. The markets will not be pleased. 

Herein, I would suggest, resides the deeper significance of Syriza that stretches beyond Greek, and even European, economic and political issues. Unlike the contemporary political mainstream, which is fragmenting before our very eyes into a kind of Weimar-esque kaleidoscope, Syriza has an idea, and I mean this in the Platonic sense of a concept or principle able to organise action. The same could, of course, be said about the Greens, and the various racist parties across Europe, and I would include UKIP here. But what is important about Syriza is its concern for human dignity and opposition to capitalist, or more accurately neoliberal reason, which reduces everything to the bottom line. Of course, capitalism has always been concerned with profits and losses, but the deeply depressing conclusion of neoliberal instrumental reason is that there is nothing beyond this balance sheet. Life itself is a balance sheet. Everything is subordinate to economic calculation and human value is understood in terms of a kind of sentimental left-over that we can no longer afford. In this respect neoliberalism realises the horror show that the classical sociologist Max Weber captured through his image of the iron cage. In the contemporary neoliberal iron cage, there is no human value or human dignity. In this posthuman universe humans are objects that need to justify their existence in terms of their ability to make a profit. 

Advocates of neoliberal reason, such as the followers of management thinker Peter Drucker, would suggest that this new world is about creativity and imagination and that the market is best placed to encourage innovation, modernisation, and development. But it’s hard to sustain this story in contemporary Athens, unless you turn to the idea of creative destruction, and suggest that the misery of Greece’s collapse will somehow produce a stronger social and economic system without the losers and the wasters who cost, but fail to contribute. In this way it may be that the very best neoliberal story is one that revolves around competition – a kind of social and economic Darwinism – that makes money, and the ability to make money the arbiter of human value. The creativity of neoliberalism is, thus, absolutely limited and restricted. The only creativity, and only imagination, that matters is the creativity and imagination associated with money. There is nothing else.

It is on this basis that I would argue that contemporary capitalism has become a necro-economic system – a space of extinction. What does this mean? In basic terms, the obsession with money (a) kills thought because thought is irrelevant outside of neoliberal reason (dead thought), (b) makes life subordinate to profit because life itself has no value outside of its ability to create money (dead animals, dead humans), and finally (c) attacks the biosphere itself which matters less than the ghoulish health of the neoliberal machine (dead environment, dead planet). Although the desert, the empty space were very little lives, is not the primary objective of neoliberalism, this is precisely what contemporary capitalism threatens because its focus on money screens out all other considerations. In this way, I do not use the term ‘obsession’ lightly. Karl Marx knew that money is a fetish and this is more true today than ever before. Money is the ultimate obsessional object in the contemporary world that has become a kind of profane container for every other value. I can buy absolutely anything I want with money. There is nothing beyond it. Indeed, even the future no longer survives today because it is sold off under the guise of debt.

In the neoliberal debt society, the social and political theorist Maurizio Lazzarato explains that even my future, which is surely uncertain, becomes an object for calculation. I have no prospects, beyond repayment, and my life is set out before me. There is no possibility in this system, but only the certainty of misery, and living under the thumb of creditors. Indeed, there is no doubt that my final act should be to ensure that I have balanced my books, not centrally in order to ensure that my children can live a life free of debt, but rather to ensure that my creditors are not left out of pocket. This is precisely why Syriza’s election is so important, and has a kind of existential significance, because their desire to write of debt, aims at the redemption of the future, a future of human value, a future beyond calculation. Beyond their immediate political and economic objectives, Syriza are truly, and very precisely, the party of hope, because they want to break out of the iron cage of neoliberal unfreedom. Outside of this cage, what I know is that one day I will die. My mortality is assured. However, it is precisely because of this certainty that I cannot sell my uncertainty, my possibility, which is the possibility of life itself, to a stupid, nihilistic, system that cannot think. Human life cannot be reduced to a number on a balance sheet, regardless of what the champions of neoliberal reason want to believe.

In the wake of Syriza’s victory we have been told that renegotiation of debt will be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, and this is, of course, true within the bounds of the neoliberal universe – when there is a debt it must be paid, regardless of the costs. Given the limitations of neoliberal reason, the unthinkability of the renegotiation of debt is unsurprising, because thought itself, or thought outside of the weighing of costs and benefits, is largely obsolete in the system. As the most profound philosophers of the 19th and 20th century, including Nietzsche, Marx, Weber and Heidegger, taught, capitalism is ultimately a nihilistic machine. It cannot think. This is why, I think, we should support Syriza, and support the Greeks, who have said that enough is enough, and sought to take back their future. By electing Syriza they have sought to escape from the necro-economy in the name of the dignity and incomparable value of human life. My point here is very simple – we cannot sacrifice human value and human dignity to balance books.

In the neoliberal universe life is largely worthless unless it can somehow prove its value, precisely because it is incomparable and cannot be reduced to the meaninglessness of the ultimate mediator, money. What Syriza’s politics offer is an alternative perspective that elevates the value of life and puts money back where it belongs – the profane, miserable, world of things. Of course, money will never go lightly. The neoliberal miser clings to money and his balance sheets because his life is full of fear. Life, possibility, and the future create bottomless anxiety in the miser who prefers to surround himself with the certainty of his accounts. The balance sheet is necessary, safe, and requires very little thought. Perhaps we could say that the balance sheet thinks him. When he is surrounded by numbers, he knows where he is and what he must do. Syriza, which represents an impossible political project from the point of view of the neoliberal universe, is against the neoliberal miser everywhere, and there are little misers in every walk of life who seek to reduce the value of life to the meaninglessness of money.

While neoliberalism began life in the philosophy of Hayek and others who were opposed to state intervention in economic life, it quickly became a political project concerned with waging class war on the working classes. In its second phase, which coincided with the New Labour project of Blair and Brown, neoliberalism became a form of management of life itself, which must be organised in order to turn a profit. Beyond these two forms, what is most troubling about the current phase of neoliberal development that Syriza wants to fight is the way in which these two forms of neoliberalism have fused to create a managerialist form of exclusionary politics which denies its own name. Where the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher fought class war, and there was a more or less open admission about the class nature of her struggle against the miners and unions, in the current phase of managerialist neoliberalism the political dimension of exclusion, the reduction of those who have no monetary value to the level of subhumans, has been hidden behind a kind of objectivism. In other words, people who fail to turn a profit, cannot consume, and have no financial value, become objective nobodies by virtue of their failure to conform to the cast iron laws of neoliberal reason which are simply self-evident truths. This is precisely how people can easily be dehumanised in the way in which the Greeks have been dehumanised by economists and politicians who believe that they must simply take their medicine.

Following the Darwinian aspects of the neoliberal principle of competition, there is sinister dimension to this form of objective exclusion, which becomes about the racism of the poor, who become naturally or biologically deviant. In a sense, then, I think that contemporary neoliberalism, which remains in a state of crisis, is balanced on the edge of waging a race war against those who fail to conform to the rules of neoliberal reason without ever really making a sound. We can, clearly, see evidence of the emergence of this race war in the rise of parties such as Golden Dawn and Front National in France who blame economic failure and social problems on immigrants and outsiders. Of course, and it is important to note, all of these outsiders are poor. Against this silent racism, the value of Syriza is that it cuts through neoliberal objectivism or what is sometimes called post-politics and says that this destruction of the poor, the immigrant, the outsider is no longer acceptable. It can no longer be tolerated in the name of money.

Moreover, this is not simply a Greek issue. I would suggest we find the same phenomenon in the rise of UKIP in the UK because what we have here is less national socialist racism (Nazism), or a racism of the left which blames economic collapse on what it considers transnational elites, but rather a capitalist racism that justifies its exclusionary vision on the failure of foreigners (the foreigner here is simply the outsider who has not made it) to conform to the principles of neoliberal reason. This is what I have, personally, always found intriguing about UKIP – why is it that its racism is directed towards poor immigrants ‘taking jobs’ and so on, but not transnational elites buying up property and driving ‘local’ populations out of town? In the wake of the economic crash of 2008, I recognised the possibility of a return to a fascist politics of racial exclusion, but I was mistaken in thinking that this would be a return to a Nazism of the middle classes directed against what they considered transnational elites. This is absolutely not what has happened.

Instead, I think, we have seen the rise of the racism of the capitalist new right – a racism against the losers in the market which has been biologised by the natural laws of neoliberal reason. For example, I would argue that UKIP is symbolic of this new form of neoliberal, capitalist, racism which organises its exclusion on the basis of a person’s failure to be a good economic man or woman and then projects this objectivism into biological signifiers of outsider identity. The figure of the neoliberal miser is key here. In this instance, the miser seeks to keep his own money in the middle of an economic crisis and projects his anxiety into attacks against others who are somehow different on the basis that she might take his money away from him. Again, the miser’s identity is organised around fear – fear of life, fear of otherness, and fear of the very possibility of somebody else who is not like him. In order to escape the other who is not like him what does the miser do? He retreats towards money – the empty object.

Finally, how does this detour relate to Syriza? My point is that it is no longer possible to accuse the left of a kind of defensiveness that is resistant to others, and somehow suggest that capitalism is the transnational mode of social and economic organisation that is open to difference, because what I think we see today is the rise of a form of capitalist racism that excludes on the basis of neoliberal reason and racial categories. Why Syriza? What is the meaning of Syriza? Syriza wants openness to the future and openness to other people. Syriza is for human value, and against the miserly politics of neoliberalism, which are absolutely concerned with closure. This is precisely why I think Syriza matters beyond the Greek case and we should support them and the support the Greeks who voted for them because the nihilistic machine they want to challenge is the nihilistic machine which dominates all our lives and reduces all of us to the status of so many objects.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Keele Refugee Week 2015 Call for Events

It may be five months away but we are already gearing up for Keele Refugee Week 2015!

‘Refugee Week is a UK-wide programme of arts, cultural and education events and activities that celebrates the contribution of refugees to the UK and promotes better understanding of why people seek sanctuary’ (Refugee Week 2015).

Last year Keele University joined Refugee Week for the first time by hosting a weeklong photographic exhibition, an opening event with a musical performance and a poetry open mic night organised by students. This was co-organized by staff and students in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, including Siobhan Holohan and Ala Sirriyeh from Sociology.

Following on the success of last year, Keele Refugee Week 2015 we are now gearing up to host an even richer week of events. We are therefore calling on individuals, departments, Schools, Faculties, Societies (KSU), students’ groups or community groups who are working with (or would like to establish links with) a group in the university, to submit proposals for a variety of events to be held during Keele Refugee Week 2015 (8-14 June). Write to us with any ideas for events you wish to organize within Refugee Week! Events should be relevant to the ethos of Refugee Week (for more info see

Ideas for events include (but are by no means limited to):
• Poetry, drama, creative writing
• Debates, public lectures, Q&A sessions
• Art exhibitions
• Lectures and workshops
• Music performances, dance
• Film screenings
• Children activities
• Storytelling
• Open mic sessions
• Events already planned within your yearly activities which may ‘fit’ within
Refugee Week
• Any other ideas you may have
• See also the national website for Refugee Week 2015 which has many more examples of events you could hold (

“Keele Refugee Week 2015” organising committee* provides a framework to build in and timetable events across the university, it offers advice to anyone willing to put up an event, and it produces the overall marketing and publicity materials for the week. Keele Refugee Week does not cover any costs or provide funding.

Please submit your event suggestions to by Monday 16th February 2015. Please include your name, affiliation, contact details and a brief summary of your proposed event (max 1 page). In proposing the event, think about the following: venue, resources, costs (if there are any).

We look forward to receiving your proposals.

The organising Committee:

Jon Granger (President KPA)
Bolu Oyewale (President KSU)
Mariangela Palladino (Lecturer, English)
Annie Piper (Vice President KSU)
Ala Sirriyeh (Lecturer, Sociology)

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

New paper by Ala Sirriyeh on class and the new UK family migration rules

In July 2012 the Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition government introduced a new set of family migration rules. These rules set a sharp increase in the minimum income threshold for people sponsoring partners and children to join them in the UK. Consequently, there has been a significant reduction in the number of visas granted through the family migration route.

The journal Critical Social Policy has just published an article I have written which examines these new rules. The article is called ‘‘All need is love and £18,600’: class and the new UK family migration rules’ and started life as a post last year on this blog. This article explores the themes of class in connection to transnational relationships and citizenship in the formulation of the new family migration rules, in the justifications that have been made for the rules and in the impact of the rules on applicants. It is argued that in the context of international migration and transnational relationships, class-based moralism and regulation has been entwined with exclusionary discourses on ethnicity, national belonging and citizenship and has been extended beyond the nation-state border towards the governing of particular kinds of international family.

NB/ The quote in the title of the article is a slogan that has been used by campaigners protesting against the impact of the new rules on families living apart.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Botswana Democracy ignored by the Global Media by Pnina Werbner

Pnina Werbner is Professor Emerita in Anthropology at Keele University and author of The Making of an African Working Class: Politics, Law and Cultural Protest in the Manual Workers' Union of Botswana (Pluto Press 2014).  In this post Pnina considers how Western ‘bad news’ perspectives on Africa disguises the strength of civil society and trade unions in protecting democracy and the public interest.

Botswana is the oldest, fully functioning democracy in Africa. You would never guess it, however, by the way in which the country is ignored by the western – and global – media. Bad news travels far and fast in Africa – the Ebola epidemic, kidnappings, civil wars, massacres, dictatorships, rigged elections, all make headline news. If Botswana is mentioned, it is in relation to the HIV/Aids epidemic or the dispossession of Bushmen. Not so, however, when it comes to holding free and fair elections or the defence of the Constitution by an independent judiciary.

About the same time Botswana held its elections for a new Parliament, on 24 October 2014, there were runoff presidential elections in Brazil, won by Russeff, and national elections in Tunisia, won by its secular party. These were clearly important events of undoubted significance for the West. Botswana’s elections were not even mentioned, let alone analysed, yet they too were something of a watershed. For the first time in the history of Botswana, a united opposition alliance, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), almost won. The ruling party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDC) which had repeatedly won all the elections since independence, in 1965, got only 46% of the vote, though it gained 37 of the 57 parliamentary seats in a first-past-the-post electoral system. The cause of the opposition’s failure was a small party, the Botswana Congress Party (BCP), which had shortsightedly refused to join the main opposition alliance, thus splitting the vote in many constituencies. But the writing was clearly on the wall for the Botswana establishment: young people and city dwellers were fed up with the status quo, which had led to allegations of cronyism, corruption, secret surveillance and ‘tendrepreneurship’(corruption in awarding public contracts), emanating in the popular view from presidential autocracy.
Cartoon of President Khama tied to a tree

Despite his alleged autocracy, however, the President, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, was a democratic, publicly committed to giving up his office lawfully after two terms, as spelled out by the Constitution. This would mean, in effect, passing the presidency onto his Vice-President mid-term, as had happened when Khama himself became President. African presidents are known for their repeated attempts to extend their constitutional rights to office, clinging on to power come what may. In the case of Khama, the prevailing rumour was that he intended to appoint his younger brother to the vice-presidency, despite the latter's political inexperience and lack of popularity. In the local press, headlines proclaimed Khama's ambition to create a 'dynasty'. This led to a series of cliffhangers which tested Botswana's democracy as never before.

Unionist leaders in front of the High Court and
Court of Appeal Building
Before Parliament was dissolved it passed a ruling allowing for the election of the Vice-President, the Speaker of the House and the Deputy Speaker in parliament by secret ballot. After the elections, the President, through the office of the Attorney General, challenged this ruling in the High Court and later the Court of Appeal. The accepted view was that an open ballot would allow him to intimidate members of his own party, despite the widespread feeling, reported in the press, that elected parliamentary members of the BDP strongly objected to the nomination of the President's brother.

Cartoon of Masisi, now Vice-President, oppressing workers
As always in Botswana, the whole nation mobilized in anticipation of the court verdicts, crowding into the court, crammed wall to wall, packing the corridors. When the dismissal of the presidential challenge by the High Court bench of five judges was announced, it was greeted with ululations and a general sense of relief. The Attorney General managed, however, to get the appeal of the ruling heard on an urgent basis in the Court of Appeal, the highest in the land. Could the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ian Kirby, a conservative judge and long-term friend of the President, be trusted to defend the common good of the nation? At stake was the independence of the judiciary in Botswana. The whole country held its breath. When the Court of Appeal, presided over by Kirby, supported the verdict of the High Court the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Botswana democracy had been redeemed, with the Constitution safeguarded by the judiciary. In the event, the candidate selected for the Vice-President , Mokgweetsi Masisi, was an unrelated long-term politician, voted in by the ruling party unanimously in Parliament in a secret ballot.

Duma Boko, leader of the Opposition, speaking to
public sector union strikers
As in Tunisia and Brazil, the struggle and mobilisation by trade unions against inequality played a major part in this unfolding saga.  In Botswana, the public sector union federation (BOFEPUSU) in particular worked hard to create a unified opposition alliance. As I document in my recent book, The Making of an African Working Class (Pluto 2014), the unions urged and agitated the opposition parties, while taking the government constantly to court in judicial review, thus charting the way to legal activism and the demand for justice.

The global media's myopia with regard to Botswana is particularly short-sighted at a time when new democratic regimes in Africa are growing in confidence and strength. It would seem to be the duty of the media to support these nascent African democracies, and at the very least report on their struggles, rather than engaging merely in tired Afropessimistic reportage.