From Crisis to Resistance?

‘Exception’, Neo-liberalism, and Two Voices in the Left

in Social Analysis

Christos Laskos and euclid Tsakalotos, Crucible of Resistance: Greece, the Eurozone and the World Economic Crisis (London: Pluto Press, 2013), 192 pp. ISBN 9780745333809.

Costas Douzinas, Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe (London: Polity Press, 2013), 220 pp. ISBN 9780745665443.

Resistance, via James Scott and the moral economy school, has established itself as a central notion in political anthropology for decades now, while crisis, as a core subject of historical investigation, has been more recently resuscitated (see, e.g., Koselleck 2002). Some current discussion of the crisis in anthropology and sociology has leaned toward the idea of resistance and dissent. In that sense, the subject of the two books under review—comprehending and resisting an ongoing crisis—might refresh our understanding of these notions’ relationship, as well as illuminate the dizzying temporal processes of the age of austerity. Both books recognize that the current politics, as a strategic exercise in stretching social consensus, has begat an ‘age of resistance’ (for Douzinas) and ‘organization against austerity’ (for Laskos and Tsakalotos). There might be an underlying Polanyian predicament here in the form of a ‘double movement’, but the authors do not lay claim to that intellectual genealogy in order to conceptualize societal responses to economic deregulation and neo-liberal fiscal austerity measures.

The normalization of crises in the capitalist core since 2008 has both shifted global attention to the ‘rise of the BRIC’1 and brought the logic of precarity regarding our experience and appreciation of history closer to home. The critical juncture of the European sovereign debt and the related processes that brought the euro to the brink of collapse have been the most heatedly debated aspect of the post-2008 crisis world, with some arguing that it marked the peak of the enduring global crisis and is its most resilient outcome. This crisis world has come to be geographically associated mainly with the EU’s semi-periphery, which experiences years of slow growth or even recession, most notably in Southern countries, from Portugal to Cyprus, and in Ireland. It has, moreover, been politically linked with two main and related issues. The first is austerity, the remedy of governments across the board in Europe for the sovereign debt crunch, which, as expected, has been proven deleterious, as it has exacerbated recession. The second is the grassroots perception of the crisis, which concerns the social responses against austerity, mainly demonstrations and other forms of dissent.

All of the above configurations (recession, austerity, grassroots protest) have arguably been nowhere more salient than in Greece. By the time it entered its sixth year of recession, the country had seen its economy contract by one-fourth (Lapavitsas 2012), the largest crunch any ‘Western’ European state has ever experienced during peacetime. It has seen radical structural adjustment in the form of austerity measures and privatizations imposed by a troika—and now quartet—of international and regional institutions, composed of the financial cum political European Central Bank (ECB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the technocratic European Commission, and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). These policies have often been met with violent forms of local protest on the ground, especially in the period 2011–2012, the time in between the imposition of the first and second loan agreements, called ‘Memoranda’ in popular Greek parlance. Although fervent mobilization has since receded, the country has also seen the first democratically elected government of the Radical Left in post-war Europe in the form of SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left). The Left in power raised a different voice for a while, but it eventually ended up adopting austerity, even signing a new Memorandum in August 2015.

All these features, it has been argued, render the ‘Greek case’ somehow exceptional. Some authors argue for ‘Greek exceptionalism’ or refer to Greece as a ‘state of exception’. At the same time, maybe paradoxically, some commentators have called attention to the significance of the country for contemporary capitalist crises globally. Many, ranging from politicians of the Left to academics, have pointed out that the country’s dire state today is an image from the future for wider global processes. In that sense, Greece is the agent/ victim in a punitive paradigm—neo-liberalism’s guinea pig. Greece’s case is then understood as a disciplinary mechanism to enable fast-track structural adjustment elsewhere.

Regardless of how one feels about this stance, a critical engagement with the ‘Greek crisis’ as a model for contemporary capitalist crises elsewhere (or, indeed, anywhere) is nonetheless more than welcome. The authors of both these important books—arguably the most read books published in 2013 on the Greek crisis—share some of these assumptions. This includes the case’s dialectical appeal, which works both economically, as an outcome of globalized capitalist crises (Tsakalotos and Laskos’s primary focus), and politically, as a paradigmatic case (Douzinas’s main concern).

Two Different Points of Departure

Although the books come from different disciplines and utilize different approaches and methodologies, they both follow a critical direction. With a background in critical legal studies, Douzinas endorses a methodology of contemporary radical theory, combining politics with psychoanalysis brackets. Tsakalotos and Laskos are economists who follow a political economy route, one based on heterodox and Marxist convictions. The differences in conceptualizing ‘crisis’ and ‘resistance’ as a dialectical dipole in these two approaches are largely rooted in this methodological divergence. Both books assert that there is a vivid grassroots dissent movement under way in Greece, which is presented as an example of resistance of a ‘people’ (Douzinas) or of a ‘society’ (Tsakalotos and Laskos) that should also concern audiences outside the country. While Douzinas characterizes Greece’s crisis as a “state of exception” (100–101), Laskos and Tsakalotos vehemently refuse this approach from the start (2–4).

Both books have an agenda, are rooted in the same historical circumstance, are inspired by similar movements on the ground, and are largely aligned with the Left and, more specifically, SYRIZA. With regard to this last similarity, a few contradictions, including the authors’ stances on the phenomenon they describe and embrace, have arisen in light of recent events. At the time of publication, in late 2013, Douzinas was a fervent supporter of SYRIZA, while Laskos was a member of the political secretariat and Tsakalotos a member of Parliament (MP) for SYRIZA. Two years later, in mid- to late 2015, Douzinas was elected a SYRIZA MP, while Tsakalotos was present in all SYRIZA cabinets and has been the country’s finance minister since the summer of 2015. Laskos quit the party after it signed the third Memorandum. Today, he writes articles openly critical about the government’s austerity program.

I am under the impression that it is precisely in the spirit of this enduring, relentless critique, in a nod to Marx, that both books were written. While converging, the books stem from different epistemologies and raise differently tuned voices within and from the Left. Despite this, they both claim radical attributes: Douzinas is in dialogue with Žižek, Badiou, Butler, and others, throughout his book. Laskos and Tsakalotos are in dialogue with Marxist-leaning economists and social scientists; their take on neo-liberalism draws on David Harvey and Perry Anderson, among others.

Troika Neo-liberalism as Biopolitics: Unexpected Contributions

Costas Douzinas’s (2000) influential book The End of Human Rights established him as a leading thinker in critical legal scholarship and inscribed his contribution in the post-structuralist scene. This book was written under the pressing impetus of history in his native Greece and represents at once a departure from the aloof heights of post-theory and a repetition, or reconfiguration, of his intellectual repertoire, unboxed from legal critique and applied to specific readings of the historical circumstance.

Neo-liberalism as biopolitics is a central idea here. For some, such as Agamben (2011), biopower has an all-encompassing disciplinary controlling aspect as a theological-economic paradigm. For others, such as Hardt and Negri (2000), biopolitical ‘care of the self’ allows for resistance. Despite drawing heavily from Agamben on the nature of ‘exception’, it is this latter route that Douzinas follows. He avoids the historical discussion on what preceded, and partly culminated in, the crisis and follows a philosophical take: Greece is thus seen as a battleground for a “biopolitical project,” an expression of “debt’s desire” (32–48). In his description, there is little by way of the ‘roots’ of both the crisis and the resistance against it. To be sure, events involving the exposure of the sovereign debt crunch and the austerity regulations that followed, as well as grassroots dissent against them, are all thoroughly discussed. However, we are left in the dark regarding what the pre-2010 financial and economic processes were and how the pre-2008 popular dissent (the December ‘riots’ or ‘revolt’, depending on one’s viewpoint) was configured. The Greek crisis is presented as a full rupture with social continuum and cosmological normality; the vehemently poetical and polemic language of the book constantly alludes to historical dislocation. Faced with this lack of historicization, the reader struggles to grasp the rightful resistance on the grounds that Douzinas describes. It is due to such lack of historicization that this current period appears as a new ‘age’.

An explanation about the underlying currents in Greece’s economy and society that led to its virtual collapse would have helped to contextualize it more thoroughly. In fact, social movements against social security deregulation were rampant in Greece before the events of 2008 and 2010. Historians have questioned the idea that crises are exceptional breaches. Koselleck (2002: 243), for example, has argued that they bring to the fore undercurrents of social contradictions and deep tensions that interact with continuities and memories of struggle.

Certainly, crises often appear in the relevant literature as ruptures with historical processes—as deep cuts in the body historical (Roitman 2013). They are then understood as marks of discontinuity, thresholds between periods, or points of no return; yet they are equally seen as heralding a ‘new era’. Douzinas’s account, however, associates this new era with ‘resistance’. Claims that “social ethos” is the backdrop of Greek society’s “resistance” (49–56), however, are not among the book’s strong moments. Although elsewhere the author cites anthropologists, that part of the book decidedly steers away from the anthropological work on Greece, which has repeatedly emphasized rich aspects of its social life and tenuous relationships with institutions, which cannot be leveled down to a unitary social ethos. It is the agonistic, antithetical, even contradictory forces present in the discourses of different social groups (antitheses exacerbated in the crisis) that have been crucial in our understanding of Greece. This richness of a fragmented yet potentially solidary social domain has been pointed out in different ways by diverse authors.2 Douzinas himself partly recognizes this reality (168–170), positing a geographical dichotomy (true to the grounded facts) regarding the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ squares in Syntagma’s indignados or ‘indignant’ movement.

Ethnographic work can help here to open up the discussion, as anthropologists have looked into these developments of political dissent and the controversies that have arisen and have unearthed the intrinsically varied discourses that often deviate from a constituent polity, the way the ‘age of resistance’ would have it. The reason might be the somewhat hectic need to provide an axiomatic antithesis to neo-liberal structural adjustment, in this case, following the author, posited from ‘outside’.

Although Douzinas is certainly not crafting a cookbook for a future, he is committed to presenting a future-oriented analysis, wherein Greece serves as the subject of the neo-liberal biopolitical order, the manifold site where structural adjustment is designing, as the author repeatedly points out, a future for Europe—or even the world. While Douzinas’s methodology falls victim to the lack of historicization, the book offers a great historical contribution. Maybe surprisingly, its major achievement is its theoretically informed, intricate narrative of the historical events that Greece experienced during the first two and a half years of the crisis. Stopping short its periodization of the ‘age of resistance’ just before he sent the book to the publisher, Douzinas offers an insightful, vivid account of a turbulent period in the crisis, from early 2010 to late 2013.

This analysis of the biopolitical order of troika neo-liberalism might benefit from incorporating a materialist take, to avoid romanticization. Douzinas’s book, like others, sings the praises of Greece’s body politic during an economic crisis and finds, in a typically post-structuralist fashion, the ‘political everywhere’. But some of the most efficient and enduring movements in Greece—perhaps especially those that have survived the 2011–2012 ubiquitous dissent and continue their resilient practice—are of an ‘economic’ nature, such as the ‘solidarity economy’ movement. The permeability of politics in this movement is indisputable, but economic resistance is not discussed in the book. Supplementing the very interesting political discussion with a political economy critique on the dialectical relationship of top-down economic policies and grassroots events would have given an even more enduring appeal to the book’s otherwise comprehensive account.

Rupture or Not?

It is in this way that Laskos and Tsakalotos’s book fills a gap. The major question here is, for this reader at least, how we analyze crises when we ponder on a historical anthropology of contemporary capitalism. The answer provided by these authors is of a wholly different tone and timbre than the ‘post-voice’ analyzed above. Tinted by a political economy approach, it is less prone to see crises as ruptures. Tsakalotos and Laskos recognize that crises are intrinsic to capitalism, particularly in its neo-liberal format, and should thus be explained endogenously (5–6), especially in the context of macro imbalances in the Eurozone (82–86). The authors are thus able to historicize structural adjustment in Greece before the austerity era. Formulating their critique with regard to the post-2008 crunch, the socialization of sovereign debt, and the structural problems of the Eurozone, they manage to provide a convincing analytical narrative of how “permanent austerity” has become the norm—and even a naturalized reality—in the European South (111–112).

The basis for this transformational process was, of course, laid before the crisis—a point on which the two economists’ explanatory narrative radically differs from Douzinas’s account. In fact, before Greece became a ‘model’ for austerity politics, they argue, a process of neo-liberal modernization was already taking place, rendering the country one of the most unequal societies in Europe (21–32). This program’s series of privatizations left next to nothing of the piecemeal Greek welfare state. To be sure, aspects of welfare continued to be exercised in order to fill this huge gap and appease social conflict, but this was maintained only via systemic corruption and patronage. Apart from explicating this ‘Greek reality’, Laskos and Tsakalotos’s analysis also elucidates how this type of quasi-welfare was intrinsically unequal, as only certain networks had access to it (51–54).

A combination of structural (but thoroughly political) deficiencies and austerity measures applied before the crunch resulted in what we have called the Greek crisis. The authors then manage to historicize and explicate the very burning question: why Greece? (95–97). They answer this question with an integrated methodological arsenal that combines global history and the idiosyncrasies of the Eurozone. In that way, they are able, in my opinion, to de-provincialize the ‘Greek case’. They do not isolate this crisis from the larger picture; instead, they consider issues that have been at the forefront of the various mainstream exegeses of the Greek collapse as outcomes—rather than causes—of more structural phenomena. In that way ‘corruption’, for instance, is rightfully seen as a response to structural inequalities, as well as a reproduction of them, rather than the causal element of the crisis.

One issue lurking in the background, however, especially for anthropologists with an awareness of political economy, is the implied linearity of this historical argumentation. The exegesis seems to be formed in a subtly quasi-teleological format as it lays out why, for Marxian economists, the crisis was not unexpected. Indeed, it was seen as almost inevitable. To be sure, formulating their critique within the post-2008 crunch, the socialization of sovereign debt, and the structural problems of the Eurozone, the authors have given us a bigger, more detailed picture. However, in this spirit of a broader picture, explaining how ‘permanent austerity’ has become naturalized in the European South might benefit from juxtaposing the Greek story to other, less dramatic cases. The comparative potential entailed in approaching similar types of capitalism is already there in the book, and it would be rewarding to see it expanded in future editions.

Alongside the other merits of the book as a major Left voice in the analyses of the Greek crisis, Laskos and Tsakalotos dedicate the last two chapters to painting a different picture for Greece. As the book’s title suggest, a ‘crucible of resistance’ is again not to be isolated and explicated via claims to ‘exception’ Instead, it should be integrated within the broader historical circumstance of unevenness in the Eurozone, the euro crunch, and, of course, the post-2008 world. As the authors argue throughout the book, austerity—the elites’ panacea for the debt ‘emergency’—produced a crisis for those inhabiting Greece and the European South, culminating in a narrative of “social resistance and political radicalization” (113). The imaginative and decisive social struggles that the authors describe, those that occurred both before (115–124) and during the crisis, all tell a coherent story. This is not the narrative of struggling for livelihoods. It is an outright rejection of the disastrous austerity politics and a proposal for a radicalized, different future. For the authors, this culminated with the rise of SYRIZA, a party phenomenon.

Instead of conceptualizing the party’s rising trend, the authors—high-ranking party members themselves—attribute SYRIZA’s success to its identification with street protestors (also described by Douzinas) rather than the more traditional, Communist Left. The party’s rise, the authors argue, is associated with the afore-mentioned struggles. Its value, however, lies with the analytical potential it capitalized on: “a class analysis of the capitalist crisis and a historical understanding of the dynamics and dangers of nationalistic politics” (139).

The party, as described in the book, stood at the threshold of a pro-euro policy, an alternative EU political project, and an anti-capitalist politics. Whether this was the inclusive Left of the future or a contradiction in terms has already been answered by SYRIZA’s embrace of the politics of TINA (i.e., “There Is No Alternative” to neo-liberalism) and austerity—an absolute U-turn on all the promises that, in an often debatable fashion for the Left, it had made to the public. This is where Laskos and Tsakalotos’s volume, just like Douzinas’s account, contributes to our understanding of crises in ways that its authors might not have expected. It operates as a capturing of a historical momentum with multiple reads, of which I can envision at least two: those who are disillusioned or distrustful can see in it a mausoleum of leftist strategy, while those who remain optimistic can see a snapshot of hope and genuine faith in a program that was meant to be a real alternative to neo-liberalism.

Conferral Politics?

Douzinas and, especially, Laskos and Tsakalotos offer a nuanced and much-needed analysis of the two very divergent voices of the Left that developed during the crisis, to which SYRIZA capitulated. The multifarious party seemed to endorse both voices. For instance, in London in November 2012, the party’s president, Alexis Tsipras, opened a speech with the statement that Greece is an experiment in the biopolitical neo-liberal order. Yet the idea of the Greek crisis as a neo-liberal accident waiting to happen was also embraced by Tsipras when he ascended to power as Greece’s prime minister less than three years after that speech.

The scope of the two books, in that respect, could have benefited further from envisioning a rising trend that has since become central to events in Greece and was already tangible in the last months covered by these narratives—that is, the relative lack of organized resistance in the form of protests, strikes, and demonstrations post-2013. “Silence is the sound of austerity,” argues Douzinas (49), in a paradoxically and non-consciously prophetical manner. Resistance, at least in the obvious forms of ‘indignant’ mobilizations or strikes, as described in the books, had been relatively stagnant before SYRIZA became locked in a double bind between being socialist in mind and neo-liberal in praxis.

The elections of 2012 marked a shift in the configuration of political dissent in Greece, which has since remained the same. There appears to be a ‘politics of the people’ rather than a ‘politics of the multitude’, as Douzinas seems to be suggesting in his quasi-ethnographic discussion of “demos in the square” (155–175) and his theoretical discussion that refers to classical theorists of the social contract and contemporary ‘radical theory’ (the likes of Antonio Negri and Alain Badiou) in light of the relationships of multitudes, crowds, and people (127–133).

Rather than a dissent movement that argued for direct democracy, between mid-2012 and early 2015, an expectation for ‘democratic representation of dissent’ was formed in Greece. This was most observable in late 2014, with SYRIZA’s likely victory if elections were to be held at anytime. It was also the case for Spain, which has experienced vivid grassroots mobilization similar and prior to the aganaktismenoi movement that Douzinas refers to (160–162). Spain has—more slowly than Greece—shifted toward Podemos’s suggestion for a new form of Left, largely grown in and from the indignados movement. However, despite original optimism, Podemos is today the third party in Parliament

This process of conferring dissent—of bestowing popular anger with austerity politics to the instituted Left—is not fully documented or conceptualized in either book. However, it should not be taken lightly, as it formulates a resilient politics of the future, which will develop in and survive the crisis. It is a development that still awaits its intellectual history. It also marks a broader problematic: what I call ‘conferral politics’. When Greece’s Parliament voted to approve the third Memorandum in August 2015, the ‘silence of austerity’ in the streets of Athens (with the exception of marches organized by the Communist Party and anarchist groups) cut a deafening contrast with the vivid dissent a few years earlier that Douzinas describes. It urges us to think of the author’s narrative in light of new events and new silences.

In that respect, the last chapter of Laskos and Tsakalotos’s book is valuable. Titled “Out of the Mire: Arguments within the Greek Left,” it offers us a sneak preview of the processes of transformation within and around a radical party (SYRIZA) and the broader Left (Communists, anti-capitalists, and others) of the country. The chapter aims to provide the readers of the book, voters in Greece, and the concerned global audience with the nearest possible account—to that date—of what the future would hold in the very likely case that Greece (and the European South, by association, the authors seem to argue) should turn decidedly to the Left. A year and a half after the book’s publication, that did in fact happen. But almost none of the recipes for the cookbooks of the future, in another nod to Marx, materialized, despite the fact that the Left has been governing the country for a year and a half now, alongside a smaller party of the populist Right (led by a nationalist, conspiracist demagogue).

The authors of both books offer an insider look at SYRIZA—a political party that initially captured the impetus of anti-austerity dissent, only to contribute later to its partial retreat. This insider look allows us to appreciate a glimpse of what could have transpired if an anticipated major shift in institutional politics in Europe had taken place. In this respect, these books provide valuable information about the historical imagination of their authors, all of whom participated in the institutional changes: as pointed out earlier, Douzinas was elected an MP, Tsakalotos is the country’s current finance minister, and Laskos has quit the party and is openly against the government. It is in the spirit of an enduring, relentless critique that the analytical narrative of both books was written. And this is despite, or possibly because of, the authors’ different political trajectories.

Notes
1

The acronym BRIC stands for Brazil, Russia, India, and China—countries that are undergoing a relatively equivalent stage of economic advancement.

2

See, for instance, the articles by Herzfeld (2016) and Papataxiarchis (2016) in a special issue of Social Anthropology that focuses on solidarity networks in Greece.

References

  • AgambenGiorgio. 2011. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Trans. Lorenzo Chiesa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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  • DouzinasCostas. 2000. The End of Human Rights. Oxford: Hart Publishing.

  • HardtMichael and Negri Antonio. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • HerzfeldMichael. 2016. “Critical Reactions: The Ethnographic Genealogy of Response.” Social Anthropology 24 no. 2. Forthcoming.

  • KoselleckReinhart. 2002. The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History Spacing Concepts. Trans. Todd S. Presner. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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  • LapavitsasCostas. 2012. Crisis in the Eurozone. London: Verso.

  • PapataxiarchisEvthymios. 2016. “Unwrapping Solidarity? Society Reborn in Austerity.” Social Anthropology 24 no. 2. Forthcoming.

  • RoitmanJanet. 2013. Anti-Crisis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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Contributor Notes

Theodoros Rakopoulos is a Research Fellow in the ERC Egalitarianism Project within the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen. He has conducted long-term fieldwork in rural Sicily and urban Greece. His research interests include cooperatives, solidarity, food, the Mafia, labor, land management, and ‘conspiracy theory’. He has published in anthropological and regional journals. His monograph due for publication in early 2017 is titled From Clans to Co-ops: Confiscated Mafia Land in Sicily.

Social Analysis

The International Journal of Anthropology

  • AgambenGiorgio. 2011. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Trans. Lorenzo Chiesa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DouzinasCostas. 2000. The End of Human Rights. Oxford: Hart Publishing.

  • HardtMichael and Negri Antonio. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • HerzfeldMichael. 2016. “Critical Reactions: The Ethnographic Genealogy of Response.” Social Anthropology 24 no. 2. Forthcoming.

  • KoselleckReinhart. 2002. The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History Spacing Concepts. Trans. Todd S. Presner. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LapavitsasCostas. 2012. Crisis in the Eurozone. London: Verso.

  • PapataxiarchisEvthymios. 2016. “Unwrapping Solidarity? Society Reborn in Austerity.” Social Anthropology 24 no. 2. Forthcoming.

  • RoitmanJanet. 2013. Anti-Crisis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.