The Greek referendum

What percentage of Greeks are actually in support of the text of today’s referendum? Five percent? Ten percent? Shipping magnates, no doubt, probably a wider swath of the upper classes. And that’s it, because everyone else would be (further) impoverished by the Troika’s latest proposal (which, it bears repeating, is more or less the same proposal the antiausterity government led by Syriza submitted a few weeks before the current impasse). Greeks already voted no on the specific questions in the referendum when they elected Syriza in January.

So what is the point of the referendum if not to vote on a proposal that no one supports? The government has been consistently dodgy about that. It seems to want to intimate that a No would eventually lead to an exit from the euro, but publicly it says that a No would lead to the immediate resumption of negotiations. That happens to be the same result as a Yes vote would lead to, which literally makes the vote meaningless. I can’t decide if this is tragedy, farce, or absurdism.

Given the inconsequentiality — or at best the indeterminacy — of the results, the main thing the referendum seems designed to do is fortify the government’s position in both its dealings with the Troika and as administrator of the state. This is Syriza acting as most institutions do, ensuring its own survival. But it’s doing more than that: in its chosen form, the referendum, and in its rhetoric, the party and its supporters are redrawing the lines of the political in ways that substantially trace the lines of the national.

First, the referendum. Balibar and his crew hope that a No vote will convince Europe to “restate” is commitment to equality, justice, and solidarity. But Europe’s institutions have repeatedly ignored those principles and committed themselves instead to fiscal rules and contractual conditions. Similarly, Greece’s European cohabitants, especially those in Germany but also in most other countries, have made it clear they support the institutions’ strict approach. European transnational politics are long dead, and they were killed as much by Europeans’ rejection of solidarity as much as they were by their institutions’ insistence on austerity.

Not that Greeks should have just accepted those realities. But the fact that the country’s ruling party, whose victory is attributable to a substantial degree on its ability to tame and redirect Greece’s social movements to electoral ends, decided that protesting them would happen through referendum should raise more questions than it has. Does it really signal a recommitment to European Enlightenment values — every one of those words makes me want to vomit — when the people polled are the eligible citizens of one small nation at the periphery of Europe? For Europhilic Marxist intellectuals, the answer seems to be yes. The trans-European subject will be (re)created by newly (re)nationalized subjects.

And it’s not just the difference between national citizens and non-nationals that Syriza and its fans think is irrelevant; they also ignore or erase the differences within the national. In an article that unambiguously chest-thumps for No, a left Syrizan notes “that it is only among pensioners and housewives that ‘yes’ leads or is close to majority support.”

Pensioners and housewives are absolutely right to be leery of a No that could lead to an exit from the euro. Who is likely to be most affected by a renationalized Greek state and economy but the “nonproductive” elements of society? This is true if Syriza and their right-nationalist coalition partners stay in power, and even more so if another, more Golden Dawn-influenced, or military, government takes control. The EU-dictated austerity will be brutal for them, but at least they will know their position to a more predictable degree, and the link to the EU could provide them some protection from the ravages of rightwing nationalist maniacs, or the military, taking power. For outsiders and Syriza academics with posh positions in UK and US universities, there’s not much consequence in saying No, just as there are good reasons for ignoring differences in people’s positions within the national hierarchy. For people who have to live through the consequences, things are quite a bit different, and for pensioners and housewives there is nothing irrational about fearing the worst with renationalization.

For a lot of commentators, though, it is the return to old lines of decision that makes Syriza’s gamble so “democratic.” In the strict sense, they are right in that the referendum is designed to express the power (kratos) of a national people (demos). But that’s not how they mean it: they see it as a bold, radical move licensing free political decision in solidarity with the rest of the world, without acknowledging that the referendum form is the expression of an already existent people, and not even something as meager as a people-to-come. That’s why “democracy” has so often been paired with “national sovereignty” and/or “dignity.”

Some people writing on Greece have raised the issue of nationalism, but for them it is something perpetrated by the Troika’s “supporting [of] the traumatic, nationalist narrative in Greece by actively attempting to undermine and destroy the internationalist, democratic alternative.” But Syriza’s modifications of its program since 2010 — detailed by TPTG — have also played a role in shifting the ground of politics from internationalism and class to nationalism. In particular, in its accepting of and being willing to negotiate further drastic cuts in social investment and pensions and increases in value-added taxes, Syriza has helped flatten the country’s class differences and created something like a homogenous national body politic. This deflation of antagonism has been so thorough that in the runup to the vote, outsiders have expressed solidarity with “Greece” but very rarely with pensioners, unemployed youth, women, queers, migrants, and the like.

None of this is to actually argue against a No vote. I’d like a big, fat fuck-you to the Troika as much as anybody. But since Greeks will not be any more in control of their political existences after the vote, and given the costs to achieve even the choice to say no, the victory will be a Pyrrhic one.

1 thought on “The Greek referendum

  1. This was written before the vote but edited and posted after. I don’t see that the No vote, even in its landslide margin, changes anything I’ve written.

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