Readers of my blog will know that I often feature articles on here written by Yanis Varoufakis.
You will also have gathered that, although I sincerely hope that Yanis could be the catalyst to muster forces sufficiently large and powerful enough to be able to shift the EU into a new and better paradigm, I am not that hopeful that he will be successful.
And others here in Europe have their doubts as well.
George Souvliss a doctoral candidate in History at the European University Institute in Florence and a freelance writer for various progressive magazines including Jacobin, ROAR and Enthemata Avgis.
Samuele Mazzolini is a regular columnist for the Ecuadorian daily newspaper El Telégrafo and is currently studying Ideology and Discourse Analysis at the University of Essex. He has worked as a political analyst and consultant for the Ecuadorian government.
It is not their credentials that impress me, but their carefully thought out and well presented questions. However, I do think that it is important to show that it is not just your average, amateur blogger like me who has doubts about Yanis’ new endeavour.
by George Souvlis and Samuele Mazzolini (10 April 2016)
We decided to write you this letter after following closely the launch of DiEM 25 in Rome on 23 March. The missive aims to discuss a series of issues regarding your initiative that we found unconvincing by offering a well-intentioned criticism of it.
We clarify at this point that our aim is neither to dismiss a priori the project nor to appear like smarty pants that know better than anyone else how things should be done, something not totally foreign within the universe of ‘the Left’. Rather, with this letter we wish to raise some questions publicly that we suspect many may have already thought about and discussed informally and that could be used as sparks for improving the initiative.
Let us start with the identity of DiEM 25. During your presentations, you have often repeated that DiEM 25 is a ‘movement’ fighting for the democratization of Europe by attempting to change the content of the already existing structures of the European Union. However, what escapes us is who DiEM 25 exactly is and who its ‘enemy’ is meant to be. More precisely, who are you fighting against? Is the enemy the structures of the European Union? Or possibly the economic elites? Or just the Brussels’ bureaucrats? And who is DiEM? Is it something that is constituted by individuals, pre-constituted groups, or is it just a narrative related by Yanis Varoufakis?
It may well be too early to find a definitive answer to this issue – after all certain things become clear only as they are developed, but the type of social movement that you are trying so keenly to build seems to carry a certain statutory uncertainty inscribed in its very foundation. Every social movement of the last decade or so has had a specific definition to the question of ‘who?’ – both in terms of who ‘we’ are and who ‘they’ are – even in cases when the movement emerged as an outcome of very complex and contradictory processes. For example, the anti-globalization movement focused its criticisms and activism against the multinational corporations that were responsible for stripping political power from states through trade agreements and deregulated financial markets. The question of identity is really a crucial one not just for abstract or psychoanalytic reasons but from a strategic perspective.
The strategic dimension takes on even more significance when considering another feature of your initiative. The ambiguous physiognomy of DiEM 25 is further reinforced by rendering the political affiliation of the people who will join your initiative irrelevant as a criterion for their involvement. You insist that: “We are not a coalition of political parties. The idea is that anyone can join independently of political party affiliation or ideology because democracy can be a unifying theme”.
We appreciate that DiEM intends to reach out beyond the restricted circles of the ‘converted’, but it should be noted that it would make little sense to belong to a conservative party (or even a social-democratic one for that matter) while also adhering to DiEM. In this regard, the nature of DiEM 25 runs the risk of depoliticising its members, as it totally neglects the fact that the differences between the various political traditions are not limited to an abstract and harmless plane of ideas, but extend to the meanings and understandings of the democratic process as such. Let us not forget, for example, that the liberal and the aristocratic views of liberal-democracy at the beginning of the twentieth century in many European countries did not include the participation of subaltern classes: their political involvement was won only through strenuous processes of struggle. In other words, the content of democracy was not something given but an issue of struggle and definition.
We consider that what is happening nowadays is in many respects similar: the destabilization of the representative institutions that the economic and political crisis has brought about puts the very meaning of democracy under contestation. While the political establishment considers the state of exception that has been imposed on a number of countries a democratic one, the new protest movements that emerged in 2011 (Indignados in Spain, Aganaktismeni in Greece, Occupy Wall Street in the US ) also claimed back for themselves the concept of democracy. Do they amount to the same thing? Do they serve similar interests? Are these two types of interpretations of democracy not contradictory?
We do not dispute that we need to disengage people from their previous political identifications and that this requires openness towards those coming from different political paths. What should be avoided, however, is a frontist strategy in disguise that fails to highlight that the democratic deficit is the fruit of the irresponsibility of those political traditions that are now so uncritically called upon. Moving to the European level and considering that the aims of DiEM 25 are limited to the democratic reestablishment of the structures of the EU, do you think that people with such diverse conceptions of democracy can agree on common agendas? We are very doubtful of this.
This leads us to a further strategic issue: what exactly is to be done? It seems that DiEM has put all its bets on the European dimension, entirely bypassing the national one. How cogent is this move and how effective is it likely to be? Is it really necessary to delete the state from the map as a locus of progressive democratic reforms and to consider it as an outdated and old-fashioned obsession? We do not think so! We consider the radical reestablishment of democracy within the various nation-states as equally important to action at a European level. Holding both the nation-state and Europe as political horizons does not amount to entrenching oneself behind a form of backward nationalism, as many DiEM followers have suggested.
In this sense, it is particularly striking that in the argumentation you developed in Rome there prevails an utmost disregard for other experiences of resistance towards austerity measures. In fact, if there has been any advance made towards the undoing of neoliberalism in recent times, that has only happened in Latin America. We are aware that Latin America offers models that are now running into crisis and which have often been treated with deep suspicion by many sectors of the European left. But maybe we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. Blinding ourselves to the many achievements of Latin Americans in the last decade or so would amount to crass Euro-centrism.
Many lessons can in fact be learnt, as Podemos, for example, has done. One of these is the recognition that the nation-state is certainly in difficulty, but its death certificate has not yet been issued. The neutralisation of the Washington Consensus and its stabilization packages has been achieved through a reactivation of the nation-state in two different ways.
Firstly, as a locus of identification. Despite all its regional internationalism, the Latin American pink tide was first and foremost a collection of national phenomena. Chávez’s Venezuela served as a powerful source of inspiration, but each experience manifested its own distinct particularities which resulted in a case-by-case seizure of power, only to be followed by some inter-state convergence at a later stage (ALBA, UNASUR, CELAC). In other words, recent Latin American progressive projects have demonstrated the importance of speaking the language of the nation and its people, a language of course expunged of any type of chauvinist or racist connotation. Even though the Bolivarian spirit pervaded to different degrees all these processes, it was the reference to the concrete material problems and issues pertaining to each country that made Chávez, Morales, Correa and the Kirchners popular and thus electorally hegemonic.
DiEM, on the contrary, seems to place too much faith on a European cosmopolitan spirit in a continent where cultural and linguistic differences are a hundred times more pronounced than in Latin America. It is a language which runs the risk of remaining unheard precisely by the people who are suffering the democratic deficit the most and to whom the initiative should be able to speak.
Secondly, the state has been turned towards the achievement of democratic goals. This was not an easy task in a context where many of the administrative functions of the state had been dismantled in the name of market equilibrium, and where its bureaucracy was so imbued with a neoliberal ethos. Nevertheless, and despite lying at the periphery of the world, the ‘re-oriented’ state has often been able to mount challenges to global capital that were deemed inconceivable and unrealistic by the neoliberal mantra.
This does not amount to a denial of the fact that globalised financial capital exerts pressures that are difficult to cope with at a national level and that many of the dilemmas that Europe is facing require large-scale efforts, as in the case of the refugees crisis. It just means that ruling out entirely the possibility for states to act upon the situation is an oversimplification, especially if Greece is taken as the sole example (other countries, Spain in primis, would have a very different bargaining power vis-à-vis the creditors). It means moreover that it is only by directing our efforts where there are realistic chances of some tangible result that any step towards the democratisation of Europe can be made.
Raising awareness at a continental level is crucial. But if left to itself, it leads sooner or later to its exhaustion. If not accompanied by the attempt to transform the institutions, the mere demand for their democratization is unlikely to produce any real change. And their transformation can only go through the nation-state, as a fully fledged European politics, capable of interpellating all citizens, does not yet exist, and given the demographic and power asymmetries, one wonders whether it is desirable that the European Union existed in the first place.
Last but not least, Yanis! The issue of democracy within DiEM 25.
We were negatively impressed by the fact that nobody apart from you spoke on behalf of the project and that the issue of representative structures within DiEM 25 was quite ill-defined. Is it possible, Yanis, to try to democratize something as big as the EU without previously having created solid democratic structures within your project? Is it not a bit at odds with your own aims? We think that at this point you totally neglect the very recent experience of Syriza.
In our understanding, Syriza’s attempt failed terribly not only because the leadership of the party chose the wrong strategy in its negotiations with the institutions, but also because it abolished even the most elementary forms of democratic functioning within the party before and during the period of the negotiations. The party structures were incapacitated and a tiny minority – Tsipras’ group – dominated over the decision-making process. This bureaucratization of the party promoted a very distorted version of how politics should be conducted by considering that people and social movements should not have any say, as running the party is a job of the party elite. The outcome of this process is the one that we all know. We are really afraid that DiEM25 may go along the same route if it continues to be a one-man show.
We consider the formation of truly democratic structures within the initiative as a vital necessity that will prevent a similar evolution to the one that happened within Syriza. Needless to say, this process should also have a gender balance and people should be coming from different social and cultural backgrounds. The experience and know-how of the various social movements should be a crucial component in making DiEM a more solid and democratic structure. This is the only way through which DIEM can be grounded socially and cease being an elitist leader-centered top-down forum.
Such a process will be able to guarantee the democratic accountability of DiEM as well as the marginalization of the opportunists that will attempt to use it as a vehicle of their own interests. Summing up, we believe that DiEM 25 faces the same choice as the EU: democratization or barbarism!
George Souvlis & Samuele Mazzolini
[This letter was first published on Left East]
This was the reply from Yanis:
by Yanis Varoufakis (10 April 2016)
Shortly after DiEM25’s Rome launch, I received a splendid Open Letter from George Souvlis and Samuele Mazzolini. It reminded me of another such letter I had received from John Malamatinas prior to DiEM25’s Berlin launch. George and Samuele raise crucial questions about DiEM25 and our project to democratise Europe. Here comes a feeble attempt to answer them.
Who/what is DiEM25? What escapes us is who DiEM 25 exactly is and who its ‘enemy’ is meant to be. More precisely, who are you fighting against?
DiEM25’s Manifesto answers as follows: We call on our fellow Europeans to join us forthwith to create the European movement which we call DiEM25
To fight together, against a European establishment deeply contemptuous of democracy, to democratise the European Union
To end the reduction of all political relations into relations of power masquerading as merely technical decisions
To subject the EU’s bureaucracy to the will of sovereign European peoples
To dismantle the habitual domination of corporate power over the will of citizens
To re-politicise the rules that govern our single market and common currency
Going beyond the Manifesto, and speaking personally here, DiEM25 would have been unnecessary if:
– we did not have an EU founded on a cartel of oligopolistic central European industries and run by a bureaucracy on the basis of rules that were designed to ‘de-politicise’ politics and a common money (which is essential for the cartel’s price stability) – a process that leads to a class war against waged labour and small business
– this cartel-like EU had not entered (as it was inevitable it would) a process of disintegration that manifests itself through a combination of mutually reinforcing authoritarianism and deflation.
This degenerate yet incredibly powerful process and its agents (that include the EU bureaucracy and the national elites feeding it while being fed by it) is the ‘enemy’ against which DiEM25 member are banding together.
Is DiEM25 apolitical? The ambiguous physiognomy of DiEM 25 is… reinforced by rendering the political affiliation of the people who will join your effort as an irrelevant criterion for their involvement as you literally said that: “We are not a coalition of political parties. The idea is that anyone can join independently of political party affiliation or ideology because democracy can be a unifying theme”… In this way, the nature of DiEM 25 runs the risk of apoliticism…
To invite members across political party affiliations is not the same as inviting them to join an apolitical movement. Political parties in EU member-states have become, like the EU, utterly… depoliticised. There are neoliberal parties implementing the largest tax-payer funded bailouts of private companies (banks!) in history. And left-wing parties implementing the worst austerity in history. This ‘anomaly’ reflects the success the EU cartel has had in de-politicising politics, which means creating a classist, toxic form of unrepresentative, anti-democratic politics. DiEM25 is as political as they come. But to be political in a meaningful manner it needs to appeal across existing political party lines.
Furthermore, DiEM25 is founded on the belief that the EU’s cartelised capitalist organisation is unique around the world and that its crumbling packs immense destructive potential (that is also unique globally). Europe’s exceptionalism is, thus, not due to the fact that Europe is great and superior (to other parts of the world, e.g. Latin America, China) but that it is so terribly structured that its inevitable fragmentation will inflict massive damage upon not only Europeans but also the rest of the world. (If, to give an example, the Latin American leftwing governments are now imploding, this has a great deal to do with the failure of Europe to get its act together after 2009, to raise investment, and thus to prevent China’s deflation which, in turn, caused the recessions in Brazil etc.)
If our analysis is correct (and I sincerely hope we are… wrong), we are at a moment in history very much like 1930. Just after the crisis (1929) and in the ‘early’ stages of a slide toward an abyss comprising deflation, xenophobia, hyper-nationalism, competitive devaluations, jingoism etc. What was the duty of progressives in 1930? It was, I suggest, to reach across party affiliations and borders to create a pan-European movement of democrats (radicals, liberals, even progressive conservatives) in opposition to the forces of evil. I very much fear that this is our duty today too.
In this broad context, DiEM25 is not in the business of becoming a confederacy of existing nation-state parties who, courtesy of the transfer of power from the nation-state to the anti-democratic EU institutions, end up with electoral programs which they have no chance of implementing once in government. Nor is it about being yet another leftwing movement that provides a home exclusively to people like myself, and possibly you (i.e. radical critics of globalised and European capitalism) but which fails to bring other opponents of the unfolding process into its ranks so that we can, together, offer meaningful resistance to the emergent misanthropy.
So, make no mistake here: DiEM25 is as political as they come. But to be political in a meaningful manner it needs to appeal across existing political party lines. DiEM25’s deeply political character/project can be seen just by perusing the four principles listed in its Manifesto:
No European people can be free as long as another’s democracy is violated
No European people can live in dignity as long as another is denied it
No European people can hope for prosperity if another is pushed into permanent insolvency and depression
No European people can grow without basic goods for its weakest citizens, human development, ecological balance and a determination to become fossil-fuel free in a world that changes its ways – not the planet’s climate
Is this apolitical? Hardly? Is the call for democratisation apolitical? No way. After all, Aristotle defined democracy as “the constitution in which power rests with the free and the poor, being in the majority”. Not a project that the establishment would consider politically neutral…
The prospect of consensus. Moving to the European level and considering that the aims of DiEM 25 are limited to the democratic reestablishment of the structures of the EU, do you think that people with such diverse conceptions of democracy can agree on common agendas? We are very doubtful of this.
Allow me to say that the aim of democratisation can never be thought of as ‘limited’. Authentic democracy is an incredibly radical and far-reaching concept. If it is to spread to every social relation, including the workplace, democratisation becomes synonymous with a far-reaching revolution. What we do say is that prioritising the nation-state and calling for a retreat from Europe into its bosom is, indeed, a retrograde step.
On the question of whether I think we can agree on a common agenda, allow me to suggest to you that we do not have the right (even if we have good reason) to be pessimistic. We both have an obligation to understand the obstacles and a duty to adopt Gramsci’s optimism of the spirit.
A European or national agenda? This leads us to yet another strategic issue: what exactly is to be done? It seems that DiEM has put all its bets on the European dimension, entirely bypassing the national one…
I can see why you may think this but I assure you it is not the case: DiEM25 is not neglecting the national, or the regional, dimension. Not in the slightest. Our view on the Europe-Nation juxtaposition is a dialectical one. We reject the standard trade-off theory (common in Brussels and amongst the EU-loyalists) according to which any democratisation of the EU requires further centralisation which, in turn, requires further loss of sovereignty at the national level. In sharp contrast, DiEM25 believes strongly that more democracy at the centre would reinvigorate the nation-state and return more sovereignty to the national parliaments.
Europe’s progressives, you and me included, must make a stark choice quickly. The truly awful EU we have is disintegrating. Are we to help speed up its disintegration, with a return to the nation-state? Or are we to try to stem this disintegration with an attempt at democratising the EU’s institutions? This is the question.
There are good arguments on both sides here. I have personally disagreed with excellent comrades from around Europe on this. But this is fine – progress demands disagreement. DiEM25’s position on the matter is clear, judging by the Manifesto’s proclamation that DiEM25 rejects both of the following options with equal fervour:
– Retreat into the cocoon of our nation-states
– Surrender to the Brussels democracy-free zone
You write: Holding both the nation-state and Europe as political horizons does not amount to entrenching oneself behind a form of backward nationalism, as many DiEM followers have suggested.
You are, of course, right – except that no DiEMer I know has said that holding on to the dialectical equivalence of the two horizons amounts to backward nationalism. What we do say is that prioritising the nation-state and calling for a retreat from Europe into its bosom is, indeed, a retrograde step.
The Manifesto explains this well:
“While the fight for democracy-from below, at the local, regional or national levels, is necessary, it is nevertheless insufficient if it is conducted without an internationalist strategy toward a pan-European coalition for democratising Europe. European democrats must come together first, forge a common agenda, and then find ways of connecting it with local communities and at the regional and national level.”
Blinding ourselves to the many achievements of Latin America in the last decade or so would be crass Euro-centrism. Just because we did not discuss Latin America in the Rome meetings that does not mean that we have ‘blinded ourselves’ to its significance. (As someone that has spent countless hours debating with Ernesto Laclau, when we coincided at Essex, I think I can safely claim not to be guilty of this accusation…)
Last but not least, Yanis! The issue of democracy within DiEM 25… Is it possible, Yanis, to try to democratise something as big as the EU without previously having created solid democratic structures within your project?
No it is not! DiEM25 must practice democracy and transparency fully within its ranks before it can hope to democratise anything else, let alone… Europe.
Let me convey to you our thinking on this and the problems we are trying to overcome. Our thinking has been, as you suggested, influenced heavily by the experience and know-how of the various social movements – after all most of us have been involved in them for many years. Democracy requires institution-building before it gets to be practiced properly.
DiEM25 began life when a small number of people came to the conclusion that it is time for a pan-European movement that traverses both national and political party dividing lines. We put together the Manifesto as our defining text, by a process of to-ing and fro-ing. Then we convened the Berlin and Rome launches with as broad a call to European democrats are we could muster. Thousands responded. And thus the usual problem of ‘organisation’ emerged.
We are in the process of developing, amongst our members (i.e. those who joined DiEM25 on our site), our organisational structure (or lack thereof). I am sure that you understand that this can only be work-in-progress. Indeed, if the structure had existed before the members joined, that would have been a glaring contradiction.
The basic idea is to combine coordination and spontaneous order, the physical and the digital.
On the one hand, DiEM25 will have a coordinating committee in every EU member-state, and one overarching pan-European one, that emerge through physical (e.g. ‘town hall’) meetings convened by initiators whose job it will be just to get DiEM25 members into one physical space, before representatives are elected.
On the other hand, we have already initiated our DSCs (DiEM25 Spontaneous Collectives). Here is how it works: DiEM25 members discover each other in their towns, regions etc. and spontaneously form a collective (between 7 and 15 members-strong). Then they act as a unit in any way they think appropriate to promote the Manifesto’s goals. They need not wait for approval from anyone. They have the right to represent DiEM25 (constrained only by the Manifesto’s principles) in any way they want as long as they respect three simple rules:
– First, they must not collect money on DiEM25’s behalf.
– Secondly, they cannot form pacts or associations with other organisations or parties. Thirdly, for a DSC member to put something out on behalf of DiEM25, they must have the consent of at least another three members of their own collective.
Dear George, dear Samuele,
There is so much more to say. Thank you for your critical questions and the opportunity to think harder and deeper about these crucial issues. Please consider DiEM25 to be your movement too. And if you see we are doing things wrongly, just step in and do it better!
[This reply was originally published on March 29, 2016, on Yanis Varoufakis’ blog]