In Search of a Pragmatic Future

From the Series: Europe in the Balance

The elections for the European Parliament in May 2019 and the Greek Parliament in July 2019 present us with a paradox. After a long crisis Greece becomes politically enabled when Europe is in a process of disablement. In Greek national elections, the center-right New Democracy Party (ND) won in a landslide against Syriza (“Coalition of the Radical Left”), forming the first single-party government in a decade. Despite its application of harsh neoliberal policies under the so-called Third Memorandum (the European Union’s third Economic Adjustment Program), Syriza kept its ground (31.5 percent of the vote) as the second pillar of the political system. Together, the “two party system” received 71.5 percent of the vote, making a spectacular recovery from a record low (35.6 percent) in 2012. Further, the surge of extreme, right wing euro-skepticism sweeping the EU seems to be politically contained in Greece, with the Golden Dawn suffering huge losses and failing to enter the Greek parliament.

The comeback of Greek bipartisanship with a new content is not yet fully accomplished. This essay explores competing social perceptions of temporality that inform Greek politics in the age of trouble, with particular attention to Syriza.

The Pragmatic Turn of the Radical Left

Over the past decade, agonistic politics at the grassroots, in the solidarity and anti-memorandum movements, were anchored between the dual phenomenologies of nostalgia and utopia, two temporal dispositions that promoted a contradictory attitude toward present realities. Nostalgia privileged the “past,” the “normal times” before the crisis, informing a desire of “return” to the good old days. Utopia focused on a “future” disconnected from the present, privileging a perceived transcendental moment when deep structural changes in society allow it to overcome its past ills. Nostalgia prevailed among “ordinary” solidarians, utopia among ideologically principled ones.

Syriza was quite receptive of these grassroots temporal sensibilities. In summer 2018, the Left government employed the slogan of a “return to normality” to signal “exit” from an era of compromised sovereignty. Since then, a deep and quick change in the temporal consciousness of crisis has shifted the framework of political practice, from the past, framed in nostalgia, to the future. Future would seem to be the temporal consciousness that pairs best with “normality,” yet this is a new kind of future, not the utopian future that prevailed in the left-wing imagination during the crisis, but instead a pragmatic future.

The pragmatic future bridges present realities with their possible forms of tomorrow—it is deeply rooted in the present through calculative logics of detailed empirical understanding and analysis of the “people’s” socioeconomic positionality and political intent. This vision has been the soft spot of the Left in Greece and throughout Europe.

Syriza has been bound to the temporal orientation that fits the oppositional politics that brought it to power. In the 2015 electoral campaign it focused on “hope,” adopting the utopian promise of “getting rid of the memoranda” here and now. Once in government, Syriza suffered from anti-memorandum inertia. Despite the futuristic aspects of the neoliberal reformsthat were actually applied by the Radical Left, Syriza remained committed to dealing with the injuries, inequalities, and injustices of the past. Its leaders privileged the role of rescuer rather than modernizer. In so doing, Syriza surrendered the vision of a pragmatic future to its conservative opponents inside and outside Greece. For example, the so-called plan of the lenders, with its neoliberal reforms, was regarded by the Syriza government that actually applied it as a component of the time-space conquered and colonized by the “lenders.” It was delivered by Syriza in a defensive and contradictory way.

At the same time, the governing Left worked to remain faithful to a defensive “parallel program” “to keep society on its feet” and “leave no one behind.” In pursuing, quite successfully, this project of “social salvation,” Syriza stayed on the oppositional course that brought it into power. Syriza’s identity as a revitalizing force in Greek politics was thus produced through semantic opposition to the “old regime” and the foreign lenders. The past became a temporal habit for Syriza.

Syriza’s dependence on mixing utopia with nostalgia was further reinforced by sociocentrism. Its policy of “leaving nobody alone to deal with the ills of the crisis” was informed by a commitment to recapture “society” as an inclusive totality born and sustained through mutual “solidarity.” After 2016 and the decline of social movements, Syriza’s vision of society as a rescuing force became more closely tied to Durkheimian organic (and moral) metaphysics, with its emphasis on reproduction and slow time. Syriza was thus pushed to the side of inertia. Syriza the rescuer of society became increasingly at odds with Syriza the innovator of Greek politics.

In the Prison House of the Past

During the 2019 electoral campaign, Syriza failed to grasp these changes in temporal consciousness. Its policy measures—e.g., restoration of the “thirteenth pension,” increase in minimum salary, management of outstanding debts, and banking regulations for first home auctions—were articulated in a language of reciprocities: as a sort of debt repayment to all those who have suffered and contributed to social survival. The government’s attempt to defend these measures in terms of redistribution suffered poor results because the opposition’s depiction of them as “provisions” resonated with the transactional idiom through which ruling elites had exercised politics before the crisis. Reminders of the scandals of previous administrations and exchanges of insults related to past doings further alienated significant sections of Syriza’s electorate.

What matters to voters, particularly in the “dynamic” age groups and the “middle strata” that brought Syriza into power in 2015 are neither issues connected to the failures of the old regime nor righting the “injustices” from the past crisis. Instead, voters are most interested in the shape of the immediate, tangible future.

Investment has emerged as the epitome of the ideal future, and it comes in a shape known as “development.” New Democracy promotes a simplistic, perhaps dangerously naïve, neoliberal discourse that reduces “development” to quantitative growth. Along with the promise of lesser taxation in the here and now, ND’s position fits the new temporal orientation of Greek voters. The conservatives’ promise of “development” gained force given its one-dimensional vision of the “Greece of tomorrow” as a haven for foreign investment.

If indeed the sense of time that informs current Greek politics is that of the pragmatic future, then the challenges which the two main protagonists of Greek bipartisanship currently face should be conceived through this angle. Recapturing the future, in pragmatic and not in utopian terms, as well as organizational restructuring, if achieved, will suggest the completion of Syriza’s pragmatic turn. Bridging the gap between party and society is a much more complex and difficult task that will test the innovative dynamism of the Radical Left.