Barely one week ago, Syriza secured a landslide victory in the Greek elections. Its electoral slogan was ‘Hope is Coming’. The promise to end austerity and the obvious futility and failure of the then existing political trajectory in Athens carried Syriza to become the first radical left, anti-capitalist, party to win national elections in Europe. With the defeat of the pro-austerity forces, the mood in Greece quickly changed. People celebrated long into the night. A new cheerfulness became apparent in the streets and cafes. The barricades in front of the Parliament were removed. Riot police no longer greeted demonstrators. The government became more friend than enemy. Excitement and hope took the place of dread and fear.
Only a few days later, with Yanis Varoufakis in place as finance minster, Jeroen Dijesselbloem (the Dutch finance minister and head of the Eurogroup) visited Athens in order to discuss a renewal of the so-called ‘bailout’ agreement. To his surprise, after explicating some arguments on why Greece had benefited from and should continue with the bailout, Varoufakis responded that Greece was not interested in any further loans and would end its relationship with the infamous ‘trokia’ of creditors. In Varoufakis’ words, referring to the troika, “.. and with this if you want – and according to European Parliament – flimsily-constructed committee we have no aim to cooperate.” A visibly shaken Dijesselbloem suddenly got up, ending the press conference, reluctantly shaking hands with Varoufakis and storming off.
This dramatic, almost comic, moment has had an immense impact within Greece. Going well beyond a renewed sense of hope, many now took on a new subjective standpoint also. In one afternoon, Greeks seemed to go from cautiously optimistic economic monads to a defiant and proud collective. Mikis Theodorakis, the famous composer, very well summed up the force of this moment and is worth quoting at length:
‘And so he arrived like an arrogant boss, to scold a nation worthy of laughter and tears, a nation that held its head high forgetting they are the second-class citizens of Europe, the Eurogroup and its President, Mr. Jeroen Dijsselbloem.
But then a miracle happened, like those forgotten in the depths of my memory. Two representatives of these second-class people, Tsipras and Varoufakis, with a rare calm and coolness, presented him with two luminous yet kind “NOs” that angered him to the point of forgetting his role as a “European nobleman” — prompting him to storm away looking for the fastest exit.
It is at this point that all is forgotten. We once again become beautiful Greeks. We stand taller. How and why it happened, and where it will lead are details for the Greeks who have lived and survived with symbolism. And I consider it cowardly to focus on trivialities in a moment of national pride.’
Theodorakis, who had not been a Syriza supporter, suddenly declares that ‘all is forgotten’, all the previous calculations and capitulations go out the window, ‘a miracle’ has happened. Now, a new fight has emerged, a new subject in the making has appeared. To put things in more conceptually precise language, what Theodorakis alludes to is what Alain Badiou terms an ‘event’, a sudden rupture that brings a new political body into being, a truth that takes place and completely transforms that which came before and that which may follow.
Most of us today who have been schooled in Marxist theory are heavily indebted to Antonio Gramsci. In his schema of class struggle there is the ‘war of position’, which involves transforming thinking and values through struggle in the schools, media, arts, etc., and the ‘war of maneuver,’ which is the direct battle between political forces for control of political institutions and the machinery of physical coercion. Accordingly, most of us have conceived of radical social change as needing the prior constitution of a revolutionary political subject through the war of position, through a successful counter-hegemonic project that is sufficient for brining about the actor who can wage the war of maneuver.
Badiou’s arguments are quite distinct. For him, the revolutionary subject can come about without such prior counter-hegemonic struggles. We are all capable of recognizing the truth and, when an event takes place, such recognition does occur and leads to a new political subject. Rather than a product of a protracted counter-hegemonic project the agent of revolution can emerge on its own.
Although I do not doubt the utility of Gramsci’s arguments, the potential for the emergence of a revolutionary subject despite the lack of a sufficient war of position remains. The situation in Greece, very quickly unfolding as it is, points to this. The sudden emergence of a revolutionary subject being one potential outcome of the current unrest and uncertainties that characterize Greece today; as the great Niccolo Machiavelli himself had noted may times, political upheaval is a necessary, but not always sufficient, condition for the new to emerge.
Indeed, in the aftermath of Varoufakis’ ‘event’, everyday political discussions quickly changed. From trying to predict the chances and costs of a ‘Grexit’ (from a cost-benefit calculation on demanding a debt reduction verses continuing with austerity) we went to the demand for dignity and political autonomy above all else. Where you would once hear arguments on how bad it would be if Greeks had to go back to the old days of a weak currency and expensive imported goods now people shrug their shoulders and laugh, saying that a quick death a preferable to a slow bleed and, regardless, to stand once again as a self-governing people is worth the economic risks. For many who did not even vote for Syriza a week ago, this one moment qualifies the current government as a success and has transformed them from being observers paralyzed by trepidation and fear to enthusiastic participants for the battles that may come. This transformation has been completely unexpected and unbelievably widespread.
It is certainly too soon to tell if we are in the midst of an ‘event’ and the emergence of a new revolutionary subject. Recent years have seen other potentially transformative ruptures (Hurricane Katrina) that ended up becoming quickly forgotten and politically inconsequential while others (May 68) are still playing out and opaque. The incredible transformation taking place in Greek society, however, has been so abrupt, unexpected, and widespread that a new set of political possibilities and judgments are now thinkable. At a minimum it would appear that Syriza has been very fortunate in happening upon a newfound reservoir of militant support for its efforts to transform the tenor of European politics and break with the dominance of neo-liberal policies.
A new political subject that looks down on economic calculation and thinks itself an eternal truth (‘forgotten in the depths of my memory’ in the words of Theodorakis) may emerge that will radically and completely transform the current political situation in Europe and elsewhere. A new agent of change that has broken free of the shackles of consumerist desire and economic reason is a real possibility. A sudden rebirth of the ‘beautiful Greeks’ once again may demonstrate the unpredictability of history and the rapidity with which revolutionary change can happen.
Peter Bratsis teaches at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York. He is the author of Everyday Life and the State.