0. Building Power

Page 3

Movements and Power

SYRIZA’s crash landing exposed broken promises, lost opportunities and a bitter divorce with the movements. The future now lies with the commons.

Chronicles of a Defeat Foretold

When viewed from the outside, the relationship of the SYRIZA party with the grassroots movements that have been resisting austerity on the ground in the past five years can easily be idealized. After all, both were responses to a barbaric attack on the Greek popular classes, and both aimed to put an end to neoliberal structural adjustment. A closer examination, however, demonstrates the fundamental differences between the two projects, and can reveal that their confluence was a mere marriage of convenience that ended in a bitter divorce.

Does this engagement of the grassroots with political power always have to end in disappointment? Is there anything a “progressive” government can do to expand the field of action for emancipatory efforts through the promotion of social self-initiative? Is the state an appropriate instrument of social change for those who seek to transform everyday life and social relations from the bottom up?

Crash landing

The crash landing of the once meteoric SYRIZA project has been a traumatic event not only for the Greek middle and lower classes, which had deposited a lot of their hopes on the promises of the party to reverse the Troika’s nefarious austerity measures, but also for the European left, which envisioned a change of course for the project of European integration, and saw in the face of ambitious Alexis Tsipras a leader who would be up to the task.

It is now painfully clear that the strategy of reversing austerity without breaking with the institutions of neoliberal domination has backfired.

It is now painfully clear that, despite the Greek government’s intentions, the strategy of pursuing a reversal in the terms of austerity without breaking with the institutions of neoliberal domination—the EU, the Eurozone and the IMF—has backfired. Its negotiation tactic, that is, to use mere force of argument to try to convince the hardened ideologues of the EU and the IMF that austerity in Greece has not only created recession and misery, but has also failed to make the sovereign debt any more manageable, has utterly failed. The real agenda of said institutions is the continuation, at any cost, of a set of policies that facilitates the penetration of capital in all spheres of life.

This is because European capitalist elites are facing a crisis of their own—a crisis of profitability, provoked by the race to the bottom among capitalist superpowers. The preferred way out for the European capitalist class is to maintain their levels of profitability by turning their own crisis into a social and environmental crisis: on the one hand, to lower production costs by compressing wages and externalizing the cost of social reproduction (resulting in precarization as well as the dismantling of public healthcare, education, benefits, and so on), and on the other hand to create new opportunities for accumulation by commodifying ever more spheres of the social and natural world (again, through the privatization of healthcare, education, infrastructure, but also of water, energy, land and minerals).

In this respect, there is no better excuse to bring about this transformation than to capitalize on the sovereign debt crisis. The structural adjustment of the Greek economy is a prelude to the transformation of social relations across the whole continent in favor of capital. The outcome of the negotiations is a reminder that governments cannot simply “opt out” of this process.

Unconditional surrender

The terms of the Greek government’s surrender to the neoliberal forces in Europe are humiliating. Not only were there no concessions made to the new government, but the “partners” went out of their way to make sure the measures would be punitive and disproportional. Some analysts even argue that the current program is designed to fail, creating further pressures for adjustment and holding the people of Greece hostage.

Not only has the SYRIZA-led government foregone the totality of its electoral “Program of Thessaloniki” to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, but it was forced to enact a series of harsh measures designed to further dispossess the middle and lower classes through horizontal cuts and unjust taxation, privatize major public infrastructure—ports, highways, airports, water and energy companies among them—and hand over political sovereignty to the institutions of the Troika.

Tsipras’ main priority is that the “first-ever left-wing government” holds on to power, even at the cost of having to implement a thoroughly right-wing structural adjustment program.

In an ironic turn of events, the government has disregarded the overwhelming popular rejection of austerity in the July referendum and adopted the exact same arguments of the previous administrations to push through a set of measures that are disastrous for the social majority, all the while maintaining the rhetoric of social justice and opposition to the oligarchy. Tsipras’ main priority is that the “first-ever left-wing government” holds on to power, even at the cost of having to implement a thoroughly right-wing structural adjustment program. What we are witnessing, then, is a renewal of the political elite without a considerable change in the underlying politics.

Tsipras’ newly-adopted “responsible stance” and “pragmatism” is now applauded by the most unlikely allies: the European elites and the right-wing opposition in Greece. And the European hawks have plenty of reason to celebrate: it would be unthinkable to impose such a far-reaching austerity package under the previous, fragile and isolated right-wing government. It took a new, progressive government with enormous reserves of political capital to be able to do that.

Austerity with a human face?

SYRIZA’s new political project, that of being a more benign administrator of capitalist barbarity, signifies its transformation into a moderate, centrist, social-liberal force: the party has completed in only a few months the rightward trajectory that European social democratic parties took decades to complete. This development is attested by the split of the party’s left-wing and its molding into an anti-eurozone, anti-austerity force that goes by the name “Popular Unity” —intentionally reminiscent of Allende’s front of the same name in 1970s Chile.

These developments also put into question the basic programmatic premises of the entire European left: has the fight for “less austerity” and “more growth” become the insurmountable horizon of emancipatory politics today?

Has the fight for “less austerity” and “more growth” become the horizon of radical politics today?

Indeed, of all of SYRIZA’s mistakes and betrayals, this one is the most damaging for the cause of social emancipation: in its quantum leap from anti-austerity left to social-liberal centrism, Tsipras and his team of pragmatists have imposed a peculiar “End of History” on the Greek population: neoliberal adjustment is viewed as something inevitable, much like a natural disaster, which needs a heroic and determined public administration to alleviate its effects on the people, to manage the misery and destruction it causes.

And although Tsipras still has a good chance at winning the general elections—imminent at the time of writing—the phrase “there is no alternative” sounds absurd when uttered by politicians who nominally belong to the radical left. Yet it sounds even more absurd as an argument directed at a society that has for several years now been proposing and implementing countless radical alternatives from below.

A marriage of convenience

Throughout the years of resistance to the neoliberal assault, two conceptions of politics played out within the social movements: on the one hand, politics as “the art of the possible,” related to the growing influence of SYRIZA in social struggles; on the other hand, politics as an exercise of radical imagination and experimentation, put forward by the commons-based alternatives.

Since 2010, the severe crisis of legitimation of the political system and its satellites—parties, trade unions, and so on—brought forward new political subjects and innovative projects that aimed to challenge the state and the capitalist market as the dominant organizing principles of social life, to propose new avenues towards social and economic wellbeing. Movements based on equality, solidarity, self-management and participation, which proposed innovative models of collective use and management of the commons.

Even when they do not explicitly state so, these movements are deeply anti-capitalist, as they aim to cut off the lifeline of European capitalism by weakening the market’s grip on society (through workplace occupations, solidarity economies, barter networks, food sovereignty, and the like) or by resisting attempts to commodify the natural commons (through movements against mining and water privatization, for instance).

Syriza_Breaker_FIX

Despite the admirable efforts of innumerable people across the country, these new commons-based movements failed to produce a political expression—and by political we should not necessarily understand electoral, but rather a unifying force to gather the disparate experiments in social creativity and bring them together into a coherent proposal of wholesale social change. SYRIZA took advantage of this shortcoming in the movements, allowing it to ride the wave of social mobilization in Greece and construct a solid hegemony within many social struggles in the past five years.

Syriza’s hegemony within many social struggles came at a great cost for the movements.

This hegemony, however, came at a great cost for the movements. By its nature, SYRIZA is much more understanding of the type of struggles that envision a stronger state as the mediator of social antagonisms. This has resulted in the curtailing of demands that did not fit into a coherent program of state management—including most projects that revolve around popular self-management of the commons.

Starting in 2012, the meteoric electoral rise of SYRIZA put an end to the crisis of legitimation, since it produced a long awaited institutional response to the crisis. With it came a relative demobilization, and a desire of institutionalization of the struggles. This desire was not peculiar to the Greek context: Spain is another country where powerful grassroots mobilization gave way to a desire to “storm the institutions” (“asaltar las instituciones”).

Important theorists who championed and celebrated the horizontal movements of 2011 soon found themselves seduced by the electoral rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and advocated for alliances between the grassroots and the rising left-wing parties that fought for control over the state—or in Negri’s terms, between constituent and constituted power.

Constituent and constituted power

Negri’s theory undercuts a lot of the analyses arising amid the post-squares hangover. As expressions of constituent power, the movements aim to transform social reality and propose alternatives from the bottom up. The party, by capturing the heights of the constituted power—the state and its institutions—is responsible for bringing about widespread social change, based on the social creativity of the constituent power.

While a small part of (the old) SYRIZA has always had a grassroots mentality, from 2010 onwards the party has invested quite a bit of effort in consolidating its influence within grassroots struggles. Despite having only a negligible presence within trade unionism—a sphere traditionally dominated by the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the now near-extinct PASOK—SYRIZA steadfastly established its presence within all grassroots social struggles.

A strategic part of this was the founding of Solidarity4All, a party-funded organization which, despite having its legitimacy as a facilitator or mediator called into question repeatedly by many grassroots groups, has had a remarkable presence and activity among the endeavors in social and solidarity economy in Greece. Its organizational capacity, its ability to have full-time paid organizers, its access to funds and the media, and a promise of political solution to conflicts, allowed SYRIZA to establish a conflictive but lasting hegemony within the social movements.

Despite the centripetal influence of SYRIZA, the Greek grassroots movements have molded themselves into a genuine constituent power.

Despite the centripetal influence of SYRIZA, the Greek grassroots movements have in the past five years molded themselves into a genuine constituent power, using their radical imagination to bring into being new institutions, new social relations and new approaches to the organization of social life. The occupation and self-management of the Vio.Me factory in Thessaloniki; the self-management by its own employees of ERT, the national broadcaster shut down by the previous government; the dozens of solidarity clinics; the proliferation of workers’ cooperatives; the proposal of Initiative 136 in Thessaloniki to bring the city’s water provider under citizens’ control—these are just a few of the more visible efforts to transform society through social self-initiative.

Has SYRIZA also fulfilled its part in the implicit bargain, that of the administrator of a “constituted power” that will turn these experiments in social self-determination into legitimate institutions? Has SYRIZA’s capture of state power been an opportunity for the movements to achieve institutional recognition of their demands and struggles?

The “conquest” of state power

Quite the contrary: it soon became obvious that SYRIZA’s state project does not quite dovetail with the demands of a society that is exploring ways to govern itself, but also that SYRIZA is unwilling or unable to deliver on its own electoral promises. This realization has led to a bitter divorce between SYRIZA and its former allies within the movements, and has largely lifted the veil of illusion regarding top-down solutions to social, environmental and class conflicts.

It has become obvious that SYRIZA’s state project does not quite dovetail with the demands of a society that is exploring ways to govern itself.

Of course it is evident today that the national government represents only a tiny part of real power. There are parts of the Greek state that are permanently out of reach of the government, especially the deep state of the judicial power, which is by its nature very conservative; the armed forces, which are penetrated by the extreme right; and the state’s entrenched bureaucracy. There is also, of course, the all-pervading power of the mass media and the oligarchy that controls them.

SYRIZA does not only seem incapable of confronting these powers; what is more, elements within the SYRIZA-led government (such as the influential former Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis) have actively aligned themselves with the domestic and international elites, thus guaranteeing the continuation of the policies of the previous governments in many areas.

Syriza_Peeps

Photo by Jan Wellmann via Flickr

This is not only a weakness inherent to SYRIZA: it is an indication of the inadequacy of modern representative democracy. Vast areas of real power are completely out of reach of democratic control, even for the flimsy democratic control afforded by the institutions of representation. Prime Minister Tsipras spent months reiterating that “we have the government but not the power.”

However, his vision for the active involvement of society goes as far as organizing impromptu pro-government demonstrations, as was the case during the recent debt negotiations and the mobilizations ahead of the referendum. This conception of “popular power” as an accessory to governmental power is simply a caricature of what a real popular democracy would look like.

Broken promises and lost opportunities

So, what can a government that has a financial gun against its head do to deserve its “progressive” or “left-wing” credentials? Many people, both within the government and the movements, hoped that it could use its power to help expand the spaces of action of the popular movements, help safeguard the conquests of the popular struggles, side with the weak in their fight against the powerful.

Rather than raising a criticism of the government’s approach in the field of Greece’s relation with its creditors, a criticism which seems to be the main concern of the new Popular Unity party and most of the left-wing opposition, let us focus on lost opportunities and broken promises: let us look into some examples where the SYRIZA government, instead of ratifying what the popular struggles have conquered, has—by action or by inaction—sided with the old regime against those who have nominally been its “allies” in the previous years.

The ERT broadcaster:

Until it was shut down by the previous government in 2013, ERT was Greece’s national broadcaster. Many of the workers became unemployed and some found work at NERIT, the new public broadcaster set up exclusively on partisan criteria. A great number of militant media workers, however, occupied the ERT buildings and kept broadcasting in a self-managed way, with all decisions taken in a horizontal manner, and with the citizens playing a protagonistic role in shaping the broadcaster’s programming.

The workers thus set the blueprint for a new kind of public—or common, in this case—radio and television. They repeatedly described their vision in detailed proposals for the operation of ERT. SYRIZA was involved in the struggle and promised the broadcaster’s reinstatement and a victory for the proposals of the workers.

The government ignored society’s proposal to create a new model of broadcasting as a commons.

However, the new law passed by the SYRIZA-led government in May totally disregards the period of self-management. It reinstates the workers under the same top-down structure and imposes a CEO of questionable intentions, with no provision for society’s involvement in content creation. The new management went as far as cancelling the shows of the media workers who heroically kept ERT open for two years as “too radical.” All in all, the government ignored society’s proposal to create a new model of broadcasting as a commons, and it reinstated the pre-crisis model of corporatized public television.

The Vio.Me factory:

Vio.Me was a building materials factory in Thessaloniki. As so many other companies in Greece, the owners abandoned the workplace leaving millions in unpaid wages. The workers of the factory, with the support of a vibrant solidarity movement, seized the means of production, and have been manufacturing and distributing ecological detergents out of the recuperated workplace through horizontal and collective procedures.

However, the state-appointed trustee, in collusion with the ex-owners and powerful business interests, are trying to liquidate the premises, and thus create the legal ground to evict the Vio.Me cooperative. Through militant action and continuous struggle, the workers demanded a political solution to the conflict: that the state activates legal mechanisms of expropriation (since the state is one of the main creditors of bankrupt Vio.Me) to ensure the continuation of production.

The nominally “left-wing” government lacked in political will to side with the workers against capital.

This mechanism, which has been used with significant success in Argentina, presupposes that employment, the continuation of production and society’s efforts to reactivate the ailing economy are valued higher than the private interests of those who want to see through the destruction of this experiment in popular industrial self-management. That is, it presupposes the political will to put the interests of the many over the interests of the few.

However, despite the initial commitment of the government to push forward a political solution and create an adequate legal framework, the corresponding ministers kept silent, and the promises to use governmental power against economic power remained unfulfilled. All the while, the trustee is stepping up the legal battle against the recuperated factory to anticipate any political solutions to the conflict. Despite the imminent threat of liquidation, the nominally “left-wing” government lacked in political will to side with the workers against capital.

Thessaloniki water company:

In 2011, the government announced the privatization of the water and sewerage company of Thessaloniki. Democracy activists who were at the moment deliberating in the squares united with the water workers to propose an innovative model of water self-management as a commons. They created Initiative 136, with the aim of participating in the public tender to claim the water company in the name of the citizens, and bring it under social control through local non-profit cooperatives, inspired by the Bolivian water committees—briefly discussed in this issue by Oscar Olivera.

Syriza_WaterPoliticians linked to the SYRIZA party upheld the state management of the company and, totally unfamiliar with the vocabulary of the commons, tried to marginalize the plan of Initiative 136 and defame it as “popular capitalism”, despite the obvious absence of a profit motive.

Notwithstanding the internal divisions, Thessaloniki’s water movement organized to confront the common enemy, in the face of the transnational water company Suez. After a non-binding grassroots referendum that demonstrated the overwhelming opposition of Thessaloniki’s inhabitants, as well as a decision by the constitutional court that upheld the public character of water, the privatization process was paralyzed.

It is ironic that the party that claimed hegemony within Thessaloniki’s water movement will now oversee the partial privatization of the company: according to the terms of the new memorandum, a considerable part of the water company’s shares is up for grabs. Although the majority has to remain state-owned, in line with the court ruling, this partial privatization of the water company is only a preamble to capital’s assault on this vital element. The water movement now has to rise up against its former ally and today’s administrator of neoliberal policies.

Skouries gold mine:

In Skouries, Halkidiki, a gold mine is in development by the Canadian company Eldorado Gold in collaboration with AKTOR S.A., Greece’s “national contractor”, owned by Giorgos Bobolas, the personification of Greek oligarchic power. The local population has waged a long and radical struggle against the environmentally disastrous mine, which is built among the region’s old-growth forests, and which will poison the aquifers that provide irrigation and drinking water to an area of 500km2, endangering the local flora and fauna and putting on the line thousands of jobs in agriculture, bee-keeping and low-intensity tourism.

All the while, the mining company, despite having acquired the mining rights in a scandalous deal with corrupt politicians that was condemned by the European courts, uses the language of “progress” and “investment”, utilizing the miners as a human shield, effectively promoting a civil war climate in the area.

While in government, SYRIZA proved incapable of opposing the plans of the Eldorado mining company for the gold mine in Skouries.

SYRIZA took a central role in the struggle while it was in opposition, but it always pushed for a “political” solution and it opposed the more radical actions of the movement and its efforts to coordinate and mobilize outside of formal institutions. While in government, it proved incapable of opposing the plans of the mining company. Instead of delivering on its electoral promise to cancel the mine, it engaged in a small-scale “bureaucratic war” with the mining company, revoking and re-examining permits, all the while reassuring the miners that their jobs are not in danger.

Even the halting of Eldorado’s activity in August 2015—perfectly timed with the announcement of national elections—does not seem to be aimed at stopping the mine, but rather at obliging the company to “adhere to environmental regulations”—seriously degraded by five years of structural adjustment. Prime Minister Tsipras declared that he cannot “destroy 5,000 jobs” by shutting down the mine—a gross overestimation of Eldorado’s real number of staff. This stance has already sparked mass resignations of party members in the area.

The anti-mining movement is now well aware that the strategy of the government is to gain political time, without planning to confront national and transnational capital in the area. Trusting SYRIZA’s “political solution” now looks like a lot of wasted time, while the police keep violently repressing all protest and the judicial powers go on criminalizing the struggle and prosecuting local residents in the hundreds.

Police repression:

Syriza_PoliceAnother important source of discontent within the movements relates to the issue of police repression. Before its ascent to power, SYRIZA members were part of the protesters who were systematically beaten, tear-gassed, persecuted and framed by the forces of order. It is common knowledge that the Greek armed forces and police are penetrated by supporters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, and have been involved in appalling incidents of power abuse in the past years.

In spite of SYRIZA’s electoral promises, however, the Minister of Interior appointed by Tsipras did not even try to root out the fascist elements from the police. On the contrary, he appeared determined to justify the ongoing cover-up of investigations of police brutality, and he declared—much the same as his predecessors—that the main problem of public order is ‘anarchist violence’.

Civil rights:

At home, the only field where the SYRIZA-led government proved to be effective is in the field of individual civil rights. It granted citizenship to second-generation immigrants, it reverted a handful of—but not all—repressive laws passed by previous governments to criminalize popular resistance, and it has extended the right of civil union to same-sex couples.

Without underestimating the importance of such social advances and the struggles required to bring about such progressive reforms, we should point out that it seems peculiar how a “radical left” government has limited its field of action to an area that constitutes the province of liberalism par excellence.

Indeed, since the European left wholeheartedly embraced the capitalist economy as the insurmountable horizon of our times, thus precluding the possibility of collective social emancipation, it has taken up the historical cause of liberalism as the champion of individual liberties and human rights, without challenging the underlying economic and power relations, or questioning the farcical nature of representative democracy.

Nostalgia-driven modernization

There is, moreover, a fundamental oxymoron at the heart of SYRIZA’s political project. On the one hand, its conception of social change, as simply a defense of the pre-austerity “golden years” of Greek capitalism, is making it advocate for policies that are oddly in line with those of the old political regime. On the other hand, it could be argued that SYRIZA’s real project, a lot like that of European social democracy in the post-war period, is not the gradual overcoming of capitalism, but its rationalization and modernization.

In reality, SYRIZA dreams of turning a feudal, parasitic and colonially-minded Greek oligarchic upper-class into a real agent of production, investment and employment, which would promote economic growth as a precondition for prosperity. At the same time, it aspires to be the political force that guarantees this capitalist modernization.

SYRIZA aspires to be the political force that guarantees capitalist modernization.

Let us take an example that has been talked about a lot in the Greek context—that of the radio frequencies. The Greek oligarchic mass media, in their rentier mindset, consider the airwaves their “birthright”. They occupy them arbitrarily, emitting as they please without paying a cent for their use. What would be the alternative models of allocation of this common resource?

The traditional communist left would nationalize the radio frequencies—i.e., bring them under state control—and allocate them according to a set of criteria of perceived ‘public interest’. In a commons-based or post-capitalist approach, by contrast, the users would self-manage the radio frequencies, collectively setting the rules and limits of use, thereby permitting the existence of community media, now driven to extinction by commercial TV and radio stations.

So what is SYRIZA’s much-advertised position? To auction the use of the radio frequencies to the highest bidder, thus imposing the law of supply and demand onto this field. By what perverse twist of logic is enforcing the laws of the market considered a “left-wing” policy when it comes to crushing oligarchic power?

Although the rationalization of a corrupt and clientelist state can be a welcome change, we should never confuse this with the move towards a post-capitalist future, which has been the raison d’être of emancipatory politics ever since its inception in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

At the same time, we should also be cautious about celebrating the state-centric “Plan B” of national economic reconstruction outside the Eurozone, advocated by the left-wing opposition, which includes SYRIZA’s splinter party Popular Unity, led by former Energy Minister Lafazanis. Popular Unity represents another top-down perception of politics, which aims to guarantee growth and jobs through the reassertion of national control over fiscal and monetary policy.

This conception still envisions sovereign Greece as a competitive economy in the international markets, without challenging the underlying assumptions of a “return to growth” and the expansion of production, consumption and credit. And arguably, being competitive today invariably means to attract investment by compressing the living standards of workers in favor of capital, while “growth” can only be achieved through environmental and labor deregulation, the commodification of nature, and a continuous reliance on the fossil fuels that are heating up our planet.

The only place the commons have in the plans of the Greek left is as a “safety net”.

A reasonable alternative course of action would have been to envision a form of political decentralization, food autonomy, an alliance with the forces of society against capital, and a promotion of the commons as an alternative source of prosperity. Unfortunately, the only place the commons have in the plans of the Greek left is as a “safety net”, a method of social containment which will prevent eruptions of popular discontent and will give the government an inexpensive instrument to exercise social policy while at the same time dismantling the welfare state.

Is the left nowadays prohibited of dreaming of a world beyond capitalism? Has the desire for productive reconstruction, growth-fueled prosperity and the welfare state as a mechanism of social inclusion become the horizon of emancipatory thought today?

The state as vehicle or as obstacle?

It is true that in this cycle of mobilization against capitalism’s mutation into an all-pervading totality, an old debate within the emancipatory movements has been reheated, and two different—and seemingly incommensurable—conceptions of the state and its relationship to social change have come to the fore.

On the one hand there is the conception of the state as the last frontier of democratic control, the last bastion of power accessible to the common man, before we enter the uncharted territory of corporate domination and opaque centers of power imposing their rules on social life. Much of the contemporary left is plunged into a nostalgia of the European post-war settlement, where the state mediated class conflicts and established the necessary consensus for capitalist domination. That arrangement is taken as the yardstick by which to judge social progress in present-day Europe.

While we should resist the idea that we can somehow “smash the state,” we should also reassess the idea that we can simply ignore state power.

Despite the failures of the twentieth-century left—reformist and revolutionary alike—in turning the state into an instrument of social emancipation, a vision still persists that the conditions of our emancipated future, the new social relations that will shape our post-capitalist life, can be regulated into being through the seizure of state power.

On the other hand there is the opposite perception, which suggests that even in its more benign forms the state is an instrument of domination and of the professionalization of politics, effectively usurping society of the ability to govern itself. Advocates of this vision propose to either fight against the state or act despite the state.

While we should resist the idea that we can somehow “smash the state”—the state is a social relation rather than a thing, so simply “smashing” it entails a host of practical problems—we should also reassess the idea that we can simply ignore state power; that building our new social realities in the shell of the old world suffices to eventually do away with the structures of domination altogether.

Syriza_Ship

The question of power remains unresolved

Although the bottom-up transformation of social reality is a sine qua non for overcoming capitalism—a fact too easily overlooked by the institutional left—the question of the capitalist totality, of resisting, subverting and confronting the powers that be, is too complex to be addressed by a disparate and unconnected assortment of grassroots post-capitalist endeavors. The debate on political organizing, on collective action, on transgressing the dominant institutions, on confronting power, is as timely as ever.

The state is neither the fount that social relations spring from—as much of today’s left-wing thought seems to imply—nor a force we can simply ignore or destroy. And, given the token nature of representative democracy, the state is not something that can simply be “captured” either.

To approach self-determination, organized society should find creative ways to constitute itself as a counterpower.

To approach self-determination, organized society should find creative ways to constitute itself as a counterpower, without becoming absorbed within the existing institutions of power. There is no doubt that the movements’ relationship with the state, even with a nominally “progressive” government, should remain autonomous, confrontational and antagonistic. However, militant and creative ways of penetrating and subverting the institutions have been proposed by many emancipatory traditions, most prominently libertarian municipalism.

It is not the objective of this article to establish a doctrinal one-size-fits-all approach regarding the relationship between movements and institutions. Each movement, according to its territorial and historical circumstances and the conjectural correlation of forces, can decide on a strategy of subversion, overriding, infiltration, cooperation, confrontation or penetration in regard to the dominant institutions.

However, we should beware the transformation of the party, initially approached as an “instrument” of the movement, into an organizational and discursive center point. Confronting the social power of capital calls for the permanent mobilization and involvement of society; getting sucked into the discourse of state administration and electoral politics entails a visible danger of incorporation of movements into the dominant political order.

Indeed, the ordeal of the Greek left has demonstrated the limits of the state-centric approach to social change. The social imaginary of a return to a fair and inclusive capitalism lies in tatters. This can lead to a long winter of depression for the people under attack by the forces of capital, but perhaps this stage of collective disillusionment is inevitable. Sooner or later, the field will be open for the real agents of social change: tangible, everyday collectives and individuals rooted in concrete struggles at the local level, disrupting the flow of power and bringing forward alternatives.

This is the real constituent power, and it has to be independent of the dominant order, not subdued to state and party priorities. Eventually, as the divorce between SYRIZA and the social movements is being consummated, we have to accept that social transformation will be a conflictive and contradictory process—not simply the outcome of bringing all social forces under the hegemony of a progressive political party.

If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past and prevent the emergence of another messianic electoral force, we should place emphasis on organization, communication and linking our disparate proposals and groups into a coherent counterpower. The antagonistic movement should mold itself into the diverse and broad prefigurative project of a transition beyond capitalism, extending its reach into all areas of social life, to confront on the ground the enormous social power of capital.

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Theodoros Karyotis

Theodoros Karyotis is a sociologist, translator and activist participating in social movements that promote self-management, solidarity economy and defense of the commons. He writes on autonomias.net.

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