Alexis Tsipras in the Heart of the State

Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for a meeting as his lawmakers of Syriza party applaud him at the Greek Parlia
Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for a meeting as his lawmakers of Syriza party applaud him at the Greek Parliament in Athens, Friday, July 10, 2015. Tsipras will seek backing for a harsh new austerity package from his party Friday to keep his country in the euro — less than a week after urging Greeks to reject milder cuts in a referendum. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Much of the key to understanding SYRIZA's controversial, puzzling and quite detrimental position during the intense developments which preceded and followed the July 5 referendum need not be sought in conspiracy theories, nor in improvisation disguised as substantiated fact.

Among neo-Marxist circles prevalent within SYRIZA there is great admiration for the theory and practice of the increased autonomy of the political element with respect to the economy. During the second phase of the regime change (Metapolitefsi), when the PASOK was in power for its first four-year term (1981-1985), the state implemented policies which served the interests of small and medium-sized businesses and unions in complete contradiction to its role. Because at least from the point of view of orthodox Marxist theory, the state is a tool of "class control," since it has been taken over by officials who work to defend the interests of the upper (bourgeois) class. Paradoxically during the first years of Andreas Papandreou's administration, Nicos Poulantzas's theory on the "relative-autonomy of the state" seems to be borne out, since the state transforms and regulates the demands of capital. Ostensibly, such a conclusion would seem to be true, but it is not.

Poulantzas defined power as "the ability of a social class to realize its special objective interests," maintaining that the obligation of the state is to regulate the system as a whole, safeguarding its long-term interests, which are always bourgeois. He also explained that the state has the strategic goal of regulating and limiting class struggle, so that this can be conducted within the bounds necessary to guarantee that insurrections can be avoided. Within the framework of the parliamentary system this is achieved not with the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force but through ideology. Poulantzas's theory ascribes to the state a "relatively autonomous" functioning, which implies, and has as a consequence, delicate balances. The way in which the PASOK exercised power in 1981, increasing the state sector of the economy, with the private sector already contracting at the end of the '70s (let us recall here that under the New Democracy the businesses of Onassis, Niarchos and Andreadis were nationalized as they were heavily indebted), resulted in bankrupt and profitable businesses being "socialized." The state donned the suit of the businessman, while the old guard of the domestic elite retreated.

One might argue that besides the Left, which defended the "radical transformation" of the state and not its revolutionary overthrow, it was really the PASOK who understood and utilized the neo-Marxist theory on the "relative autonomy" of the state. It exploited the state institutions and succeeded in using them as a way of serving its interests, that is, the interests of small and medium-sized businesses who guaranteed that it would remain in power. Around 1978 Poulantzas started to believe in a strategic type of entity of the forces of "change," fearing that Euro-communism was developing into "Champagne Socialism." However, the acceptance of the special nature of the Greek case does not result in a confirmation of Poulantzas's theory, since the state did not act as regulator of outside moneyed interests. On the contrary, the movement of capital was channeled by the state which had been rendered (purely) and completely "autonomous" by the PASOK, which "created" the new powerful families who became active in the private sector. Still directly dependent on the state and within a climate of tenuous class conflict and favorable connections. Consequently, if we accept that the state is the preeminent forum for the exercise of power, the PASOK took complete control of it during the '80s and thereafter during the period of the party's modernization. A large part of the extreme extra-parliamentary forces, who were disappointed by the socialistic Utopia of the PASOK, turned to an ideological tolerance for the Stalinist logic of armed organizations, the ELA and the November 17 (group), whose contribution to the political nihilism of the political changeover has not been analyzed in depth. The domestic Devils of Dostoyevsky were a spectacle while another nexus of power continued undeterred and unperturbed to create conditions for tolerating the political amorality. SYRIZA's fixation on theories of the state, which were established during the '70s within the framework of the geopolitical confrontation brought about by the Cold War and well before globalization transformed the economy and political system, explain the last six bizarre months and what they left behind. SYRIZA was forced to attempt and then to retreat from the expectation that it would develop anew and implement a local theory of the "capitalist state," which would emerge from the preferential relationship of the political over the economic. Indeed, it was ambitious enough to test this theory within the framework of a negotiation, with Greece on the verge of bankruptcy.

Those nation states, from Europe and North Africa to the Middle East who for many decades were able to develop while maintaining relative state autonomy, were forced after the end of the bipolar world, at times with great difficulty and at times dramatically, to adjust to a new reality. And in catastrophic instances, anarchy and the collapse of the institutions of state autonomy led to a country's complete collapse and its categorization as a "failed state."

SYRIZA, underestimating realpolitik and the geopolitical conditions within the framework of a fragile globalized balance, collectively refused to accept that longing for resistance does not necessarily translate into a readiness for resistance. That the question of a willingness to resist is not a fiery manifesto against neoliberalism but a realistic program that at a minimum protects against the (negative) repercussions of neoliberalism. Therefore, the acceptance of the "humanitarian crisis" argument should simultaneously have averted its use as a negotiating strategy within a Europe correctly diagnosed as tough and conservative.

A strategically deficient fixation on revolutionary rhetoric and the simultaneous belief in a new universal "autonomy" of the state was defeated in the face of a reality that requires modern analytical and problem-solving tools as well as a new theory for the future.

The prime minister, in a crescendo of controversial maneuvering, understood that he should have rejected at the outset the defense of institutions and practices which contribute to the "continuation of the state." Not just any state, but the state which contributed to the accumulation of deficits, corruption and ballooning debt. He also understood that the diffuse nihilism of the anti-memorandum rhetoric played into the hands of those who were heading toward and planning for a Grexit.

Between "memorandums" and the "new deal," the latter was preferred. Whether you call it a third memorandum, or a rescue program, it does not matter. It is however an agreement, a compromise.

In 1974, Greek democracy was replaced by the Right, under the aegis of Konstantinos Karamanlis. At that time the Left made the decision to support Karamanlis and endorse the controversial "Karamanlis or tanks" motto, which proved to be one of the success stories of the political changeover. Time will tell whether Alexis Tsipras's conclusion of an agreement with the European institutions will constitute the start of a new political changeover with some minimal state autonomy, but on the basis of a world as it really exists today. Time will also test the opposition parties in regards to whether they will stop reproaching Tsipras for what happened and whether they support him with what needs to be done. Besides, both the PASOK and the New Democracy are the last ones who should have attributed to SYRIZA the "ethical" and "natural" corruption during the political changeover period. They too will need to adapt to developments. For better or worse, Alexis Tsipras must manage a reality fraught with political and national perils. The place of the Marxist elite is in its books, the place for its outdated revolutions in its memories, and the place of the citizens is in the work and belief in their possibilities, which can only be ensured within a European framework. In six months, SYRIZA offered 40 years of political changeover in digest form. From the PASOK's eight-year reign to the "dirty '89" and the end of G.A.P (Giorgos A. Papandreou). Now we are called on to put into effect that which has not been achieved but which is imperative to our future: the assurance that conditions will be put in place for a reformed state governed by law that will preserve social cohesion and allow its citizens to plan their lives and daily routine, just as people in the rest of Europe do. "Self-flagellation" and "chaos" were never the solution; the present will not be a "militant" walk, nor will it be a metaphysical cycle of history. Alexis Tsipras finally finds himself in the heart of the state.

But the state doesn't have a heart, just citizens whose welfare it has the responsibility to defend within the context of durable compromises, difficult decisions and an optimism for a future that is discernible. It need not be glorious, but let it be our future.

This post originally appeared on HuffPost Greece and was translated into English.

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