Social Movements and Contestation in Post-Crisis Capitalism: A Case Study of Syriza

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Abstract:

This article explores the potential of radical social movements in Greece which have emerged post-2008 to address the perceived democratic deficit that characterizes institutional politics at both the national and regional (EU) levels. Various empirical and ethnographic approaches have examined protest cultures, foregrounding their self-organization, spontaneity, flexibility and absence of hierarchy as characteristics which have allowed them to mobilize such impressive amounts of people. This paper critically argues, however, that the organisational form of contemporary mass social movements and their reluctance to engage with state power has actually inhibited their potential and prevented them from realizing their political goals. The case of Syriza, a Greek radical leftist political party is examined, which intends to contest Troika-mandated austerity in Greece by mediating the transformative potential of the street and the square via electoral politics in order to effect durable socio-political change.

Introduction

The global financial crisis has manifested itself in a variety of ways in different locations and around the world, producing a variety of protest and social movements on a massive scale not seen since the late 1960s. The contemporary politics of the street and the square are timely mobilizations against financial shocks, the commodification of public services, reckless consumerism, rising levels of public and private debt, and a widespread perception of malfunctioning democracy and elite-driven politics. In occupying squares and other public spaces, the multitudes engaged in these new politics contest the claim that 'there is no alternative' and in doing so, create a voice for themselves by refusing to engage with the fake conflicts constructed by neoliberal hegemony. Contestation and protest are necessary elements of democracy and civic participation, since the electoral process (institutional politics) has proven itself to be an insufficient vehicle for class struggle, and requires additional pressure from below (non-institutional politics). The two are both necessary and interrelated. Resistance to economic orthodoxy in the post-crisis era is a pressing urgency since governments dogmatically pursuing structural adjustment are doing away with basic democratic rights and whittling away the welfare state-the hard-won products of a long series of struggles.

This essay argues that we must step back from particular theoretical frameworks and concepts of resistance since they have very real ramifications on politics and protest movements, in some cases inhibiting their potential. The contemporary left, infatuated with anarchist ideology, has developed an allergy to the idea of taking state power and is hesitant to consider the state as a site of political contestation. Furthermore, there appears to be an emerging tendency among today's activists to fetishise the procès suai aspects of democracy (selforganization and horizontal, open-networks, assemblies where all participants are free to voice their concerns) at the cost of enduring political gains. This trend shall be demonstrated through the case of the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) which refrained from directly engaging with the state apparatus, and instead opted to occupy space on its peripheries, a strategy which was ultimately ineffective in shaking the hegemony of neoliberal economics.

In response, this essay will conceptualise a more suitable theoretical perspective by analysing Syriza, a Greek radical leftist party. Syriza is the exception to the aforementioned trend because it demonstrates that if social movements are to fulfil their aims and induce political change that is not only meaningful but durable, they ought to make strategic associations with the state apparatus rather than neglect it as a site of struggle. Syriza is in that sense the counterpoint to OWS. This is not to say that egalitarian self-organisation at the street level is a bad thing, however it is a recognition of the fact that if social movements are to contest the social effects of the crisis and generate outcomes for large numbers of their populations, for example by means of public policy, they must develop from mere carnival and into enduring aspects of their respective societies. …