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.

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