By Leonidas Oikonomakis
If you are expecting yet another hagiography of Syriza, their “no-tie, casual style,” their proud “no” to the Troika, Varoufakis’ glamorous new family home (with a view to the Acropolis, eh!), and everything else you have been reading elsewhere lately, do not bother with this article. I don’t like hymns and hagiographies, especially when we are talking about a government, and I have long been studying similar processes in other parts of the globe to be wary enough and not to get over-excited with the electoral victory of a center-left party.
The Pink Tide
Three years ago, when Syriza was just starting its incredible rise and when Podemos was just an imagination, I wrote a piece for ROAR with the following post-script: The pink tide reaching the shores of Europe?
I was referring to the rise to power of left or center-left parties in several Latin American countries over the past fifteen years, riding on a wave of discontent against the neoliberal policies that were implemented by national governments across the continent; a wave of discontent that was cultivated largely by grassroots movements. Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia are exemplary cases.
Of course all of these cases have their own local differences and specificities. But they also have some striking similarities: a neoliberal assault on the social character of the state; a wave of discontent rising from below and seriously challenging representative democracy as a system of governance and the political party as an organizational form; a network of grassroots movements leading the resistance and proposing autonomy and direct democracy as a radical alternative; and a left (or center-left) party that eventually won the elections to overturn the neoliberal restructuring of the state and restore the “lost honor” of the political system.
Just like in Greece today — and maybe in Spain tomorrow?
The rise of center-left governments in Latin America came to be known as the Pink Tide — exactly for that reason: they seemed to constitute a diluted form of red. Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and the Kirchners, among others, became the protagonists of a kind of left-populism whose passionate rhetoric sounds revolutionary yet whose practice and politics look more like capitalism with a human face, or like social democracy. Environmentally-friendly rhetoric and supposedly pro-poor policies combined with an economic strategy based on not-so-pachamama-friendly neo-extractivism: oil and gas in Bolivia and Ecuador, Monsanto’s GM soy fields in Argentina.
I am not saying that Syriza or Podemos will necessarily walk down the same road — the social, political and economic contexts in Greece and Spain are completely different, after all. However, there’s something that we should not be overlooking: the relationship of the movements that created the conditions for Correa’s, Morales’ and the Kirchners’ rise to power, with the center-left governments they eventually formed. Taking a look at how that relationship evolved in Latin America in those ten to fifteen years, we may learn a lesson or two that may be applicable to Greece today and maybe to Spain tomorrow.
Autonomy and direct democracy!
If there is one common factor between the Latin American and the Greek experience, it’s the evolution of a network of horizontal movements focusing on prefigurative politics, direct democracy and autonomous self-organization as a response to the financial and social crisis and the legitimation crisis of the political system more generally.
Between the piqueteros and the neighborhood assemblies in Argentina, theCoordinadora por la Defensa del Agua y la Vida in Bolivia, and the Movement of the Squares in Greece, several striking similarities can be drawn: the rejection of representative democracy as a system of governance and of the political party as an organizational form, and the articulation in its place of a horizontal, directly democratic, autonomous form of self-organization from below.
Each of these movements was the expression of a “constituent power” that never managed to create its own institutions and become “constituted” as a new social and political order. However, these movements did manage to challenge the legitimacy of the state’s representative institutions, and they did create a wave of discontent that eventually managed to overturn governments and presidents.
All these cases have one more thing in common: when eventually elections were called, those horizontal, autonomous and directly democratic initiatives ran out of steam and lost ground to political parties — of the left this time — that managed to capitalize on the popular discontent and grasp state power. From my point of view, the reason behind this shared experience is simple: the proposal of the grassroots movements did not manage to translate itself into a tangible, solid structure.
To be fair, the movements did not even have the time to develop such structures. When elections were eventually called, the movements — and together with them the overall population — had to make a decision: do we ignore the elections and continue building our own institutions from below that do not yet exist, or do we participate in the institutions that already exist, despite the fact that we do not really believe in them, in order to bring the left into power?
The easiest choice was the latter.
Unfortunately, when those center-left parties rose to power, despite their promises of reinforcing autonomy and direct democracy, they actually ended up co-opting the grassroots movements that could be co-opted, and repressing the ones that could not, in the process establishing a divisive discourse — ‘you’re either with us or with the right-wing’ — that basically stigmatized the autonomous voices in case they dared to challenge the government’s policies. The reason for this dynamic is obvious: political parties, even the most left-wing ones, are top-down structures based on verticality and, of course, representation.
Take as an example the process through which the election of the President of Greece took place under the left-wing Syriza government. I am not going to comment on the selection of a right-wing politician (Prokopis Pavlopoulos, ex-deputy of Nea Dimokratia), who voted for all the memorandums and whose name is implicated in several corruption cases. But what I will criticize is something that clearly reveals the hierarchical character of Syriza’s political project: the fact that its deputies were warned by the party leadership that they would be forced out of the parliamentary group should they fail to vote for the right-wing candidate selected by the party leadership.
That is, even if Syriza’s MPs strongly disagreed with the choice of Prokopis Pavlopoulos — and several of them openly expressed their criticism — they would have to vote for him. I personally do not see any difference between that and the “yes to all” mantra that the MPs of previous Greek governments were forced to repeat during the parliamentary voting procedures on the Troika memorandums. Clearly this type of logic cannot be squared with the horizontality and direct democracy of the movements, which operate according to an entirely different worldview.
However, with the electoral victory of left-wing parties there’s an additional process that begins to unfold: a process that has to do with the restoration of institutional politics, of representative democracy, and of the party as an organizational form — exactly what the grassroots initiatives of previous years had challenged.
Finally, another common element among Pink Tide governments is that they initially enjoyed a honeymoon period — a sort of truce — with the grassroots movements upon entering office. This truce broke down later on, at the expense of the movements, of course. Take for example the repression of the indigenous peoples mobilizing against the construction of a super-highway that would pass through their territories in Bolivia (the TIPNIS National Park), or the case of Rafael Correa breaking of his promise not to drill for oil in the Yasuni National Park, or his attack against the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and his efforts to “register and control” the country’s social movements.
A further misconception I notice, especially when it comes to the case of Syriza (and Podemos) is the belief that with a center-left government in office, grassroots initiatives will be able to revive, re-occupy social spaces, and strengthen their proposals. The Latin American experience, however, points towards a different direction. The restoration of the representative logic actuallydemobilized both the overall population and the movements that had previously engaged in radical prefigurative autonomous experiments. And for those that were not demobilized, co-optation and repression gradually ensured their irrelevance.
I am not saying here that the same process will necessarily repeat itself in Greece and Spain as well. Only time can tell whether it will. What I am saying, however, is that the Latin American experience is there, and if we don’t pay attention to it we may suffer the same fate in Southern Europe — at least those of us who believe in a different world: one that is autonomous, directly democratic, and built form below and to the left!
Leonidas Oikonomakis is a PhD researcher in Social Movement Studies at the European University Institute, a rapper with the Greek hip-hop formation Social Waste, and an editor for ROAR Magazine.