The Social Science Collective








s there any room for manoeuvre towards emancipatory politics in the

current global context? It is true that today things are pretty tight when

it comes to the implementation of non-neoliberal policies. Especially in

Europe, today’s neoliberal configuration is ever harsher towards other political

orientations. A huge bureaucratic apparatus of processes and mechanisms, a

vast network of regulations, norms, and directives, discards without the need

for political argumentation any attempt to follow an alternative economic

and social path. We see here the institutional instantiation of the famous

phrase ‘TINA’.

There is absolutely no reason to argue over whether the current battlefield

is negative or not for emancipatory politics. It is obvious that it is. But it

has always been negative; it will always be negative. We are talking about

overthrowing a dominant, brutal, exploitative and disastrous system with a

dominated, fragmented and feeble conception of emancipation. Successful

emancipatory politics in a hostile and toxic environment is our task: our ‘job


It is extremely valuable in this context to specify the exact nature of

present-day modes and techniques of power in order to engage with

them effectively. And at the same time, we must radically transform our

political imagination, which – at least from my experience – is fixed within

coordinates that prevent us from accessing the only resource we really have

at our disposal: people’s embodied capacities.

So is there any room for manoeuvre? It depends. No, if we seek quick

and easy ways to implement alternative policies. Ways that presuppose the

respect of elites for the democratic will of the people. Ways that will not

disturb the naïve and comforting conception that we do not really need to

engage profoundly in collective practices that go beyond singular moments

of participation. As if we can somehow solve the urgent problems of our


societies with such orthodox means as demonstrating and voting, relying on

states and governments to respond to our demands.

I do not mean that representative democracy has no value. On the

contrary, I think it is a crucial dimension of a mature society. But we often

ask too much from it, and its failure to deliver on our expectations generates

a misguided devaluation. Neither do I mean that governments sensitive to

people’s needs are not crucial factors in this battle. I am just stressing the fact

that we must have a broader view of the agents and processes needed if we

want to change things.

So again, is there any room for manoeuvre? Yes, if we are determined and

systematic enough to work under the radar of the neoliberal configuration,

inventive enough to formally coincide with it while at the same time acting

to empower people against it, and decisive enough not to give in to threats

and blackmail.

In order to respond adequately in these suffocating conditions, new

organizational standards and methods are needed for engaging thousands

of people in this day-to-day and multi-level fight. Negatively put, without

people who possess the necessary knowledge aligned into collaborative

groups embedded in a vast network of democratic decision-making that

produces policies of our own logic, no government will be in a position to

wage this battle.

Are we moving in this direction in Greece? Not wholeheartedly.

However, the everyday inability to implement alternative policies through

traditional governmental means has created the conditions for the emergence

of a new awareness inside Syriza: that this requires a qualitative shift in our

organizational and methodological principles. But in order to engage in

such a shift we must abandon the tendency to think that things will change

easily and quickly through the revival of the institutional and political

configuration of post-war liberal capitalism. We must finally confront the

reality that neoliberals are burning the bridges to the past behind them.


Syriza’s severe dilemmas since it formed a government at the beginning of

2015 sharply pose the question of whether the state is the suitable place for

emancipatory politics. Of course, there is no theoretical reason why one

should actually choose between working within or outside the state. We

have known for quite some time that transforming the state and the social

practices beyond it are both crucial aspects of emancipatory politics. Although

they are autonomous in the sense that they have their own temporalities,

different organizational and methodological requirements, etc., they stand or

fall together in the end.

There is no way to transform the state in a meaningful and durable way

without forging a strong interrelation between processes of expansion of

alternative social practices, including democratically organized productive

units, respective non-commodified circuits of distribution, a different civic

mentality, etc. And alternatively, there is no way to promote seriously and in

a non-marginal way alternative social practices – which are feeble and hard

to sustain in a hostile environment – without the support, the protection, or

at least the concession by the state of free space to develop the roots and scale

that would allow for quasi-sustainable reproduction and expansion.

However, in politics choosing between these two is often a real question:

in practice, we have limited resources at our disposal and we must allocate

them according to the criterion of efficiency. Then the question is not

whether we should work within the spheres of state power or not, but is

rather about the optimal allocation of resources and time between working

within the state and outside it. And secondly, in practice we are engaged

in a brutal war, and sometimes you must focus on seizing state power or

other forms of power just to wrest them from the hands of your opponents.

For example, in Greece, we couldn’t afford to leave state power to the


On the other hand, the present-day situation of the state and the intensity

of the neoliberal attack on societies attribute an existential twist to the

theoretical claim that we must work both within the state and outside

it. A bundle of important policies and powers that once belonged to the

state have been transferred either to external (European or domestic, but

‘independent’) authorities or directly to elites – in both cases out of the reach

of the people. At the same time, a vast number of neoliberal regulations and

norms increasingly govern the state and social life. These two conditions

combined render state power not the political power, but just one pole of

such a power, shaping a hostile environment in which considerable effort is

needed just to open some space for the implementation of a different policy.

In other words, as I mentioned previously, state power – as it is traditionally

conceived in isolation from social movements and bureaucratic in nature –

is not enough to wage the battle we are engaged in. More than ever, we

need the expansion of democracy and cooperation in social practices, and

new social institutions. We need social innovation for new forms of popular

empowerment. The fate of any left government depends on our ability to

build new social and institutional structures that empower people. And the

duty of a left government is not just to exercise diminished power, but also

to function as a facilitator for such popular empowerment to take place.

But such a duty requires a new political imagination that transcends the

established view of being in the government. The traditional methodology

dictates that people through demonstrating and voting express their will, and

then the government uses the state to respond to them. This is no longer

viable even if we wanted to do it. Instead, we need a different conception

of the state and a new model of leadership. Being in the government is

a way to use the remaining resources of the state (by transforming them

accordingly) to facilitate (by organizing efficient democratic decision making

and productive processes) the planning, implementation, and monitoring

of the policies and projects of an alternative political orientation by social

agents. And this is not a path our ideology forces us to follow; there is no

other way to implement a different policy today than to liberate and use the

embodied capacities of the people.


This obviously raises the question of the relation between the Syriza

government and the social movements in Greece. It is not easy to answer

this question. We are in a vague, fragile and transitory situation in Greece.

The government was not fully allowed to govern so long as the negotiations

between it and the EU and IMF were going on with no significant

movement, and the social movements were also on hold – although there

were of course demonstrations for a variety of reasons.

The relation between the government and the movements seemed to be

very close for the first six months, but it was not easy to decode the growing

tendencies in various domains since the relation was overdetermined by the

unique situation of the crucial negotiations. It seemed the political function

was suspended and the various agents were waiting to situate themselves in

the new context that the outcome of the negotiations would create, with

it being reasonably assumed on all sides that in the case of an agreement

that embodied the austerity demands of the lenders, there would be tension

between various movements and the government.

But whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the most important

question is how are we going to transform the established relation between

the movements and activists, and the state and government? The institutional

framework of representative democracy marks the traditional relation; people

vote and movements demand. This is not viable anymore. The state cannot

deliver what people need and want if we do not change the mentality both

of the people in public administration and the government, and the people

that participate in the movements.

We need a new mentality that promotes cooperation and joint effort

between the state and the movements. In order to move towards this new

mentality the government must ensure the state transfers decisions and

allocates resources to those social agents who can maintain a coordinating

role and safeguard the political orientation that brought this left government

into the state, in terms of democratic decision making, multi-dimensional

planning of priorities and goals, long term sustainability, etc. And for their

part, the social agents must overcome a corporatist mentality, a partial view

on the issues, and share with the government and as much of the state as it

controls the responsibility for results that serve the public good. Instead of

acting solely to secure from the state the satisfaction of the demands of the

groups of people the movements represent, these social agents must think of

their role as contributing to the broader public interest.

This involves the gradual transformation of the state and the movements

towards an institutional and social configuration based on a new ideology and

logic. It involves widening the logic of cooperation and democracy within

the state and society, both in terms of their scope and their functioning, even

building new institutions shaped by this new logic and these new principles.

This is our duty, especially in a period when traditional means and tools are

not available anymore.

One of the major problems in moving in this direction is the traditional

left’s limited political imagination, which reflects its own commitment to

the previous social and institutional configuration. Any suggestion, proposal

or innovation regarding a different role for the state and social agents (like

trade unions) is considered dangerous and suspicious. However, we are

perhaps lucky in Greece, since the difficulty of implementing a different

policy in traditional ways has created the conditions for a new methodology

to emerge.

Another problem is that Syriza is very traditional when it comes to the

idea of ‘development’. The implicit dominant view is the classical one: we

must develop the productive forces and capacities of the country based on

a growth-oriented pattern in order to recover. We are sensitive to labor

and environmental issues, we might even want to create productive activity

through public means so that the benefits will return to society, but we do

not conceptualize a different framework in which economic growth is not

its cornerstone.

Of course, there are many of us who understand deeply that we need a

strategy of transforming the productive matrix. The question is how we can

shape an economic recovery based on merging efficiently today’s and future

social needs by transforming our patterns of producing and consuming.

Even though there are voices inside Syriza that posit these considerations,

including through specific policy projects that actually promote different

models, priorities, and organizational principles, we largely continue to

think and act according to the established coordinates of development.

At the rhetorical level, the economic and social disaster in Greece is

considered to be a political condition that does not allow the exploration

of an alternative productive framework, which is thought of as a luxury we

cannot afford. At the same time, and for the same reason, the economic

and social disaster, taken together with the economic pressure on Greece

by the lenders and economic elites, in practice cancels out any prospect of

economic recovery in a traditional way. So we are caught in a situation in

which the dominant traditional conception of development is not working,

but we do not have an overall alternative framework to replace it. There is

a window of opportunity for a different path here. But we need a clear and

unified strategy that points in a different direction.


We stand in this respect at a historic crossroad in Greece. The lenders

have refused to make a mutually beneficial agreement, that is, refused to

acknowledge the possibility that the Eurozone should allow economic

pluralism, or at least tolerate different economic orientations based on

democratic choices of the people. This has left us with two painful choices:

either a bad agreement that traps Syriza in a neoliberal austerity framework

or a non-agreement that sets in motion a series of events that will radically

change the coordinates of the Greek political, social and economic context.

The first scenario inevitably entails hitting Syriza badly and society even

more so, crashing the last democratic hope for Greece. The hit could only be

a decisive one in a society that is already collapsing. Gradually, but faster than

one might expect, rationality, civic mentality and the notion of respect for

community and society would be compromised. No one could feel obliged

to follow any kind of rule, since the government itself would be following

the orders of the powerful elites despite the fact that the government and

the majority of the people disagreed with them, a clear violation of the rules

of democracy. The ‘rule of the powerful’ would remain in this scenario the

only social norm in people’s minds and behaviour.

Without Syriza articulating and bearing hopes for substantial change,

Golden Dawn – or something similar – will definitely rise as the dominant

political power. Needless to say, this would be the successful outcome of the

memorandum period: transforming a developed society (with many, many

problems) into a social desert in which barbarism and fascism would prevail.

Apart from social decline and its consequences for everyday life, the

continuation of austerity and recession could only further shake the

administrative capacity of Greek authorities, and even threatens the integrity

of the country in a region already destabilizing rapidly, with maritime

boundaries as well as the conditions for peace being severely challenged in

the southeast part of Mediterranean, while the Balkans are plainly affected by

the confrontation between the West and Russia over Ukraine.

All this said, it must be recognized that the second scenario entails

immediate political, social and economic turmoil. Syriza can maintain its

unity and its popular support, especially from those who have been pushed

into poverty. On the other hand, when it comes to the reaction of the

elites, we know they lack any sense of respect for democracy, or even much

wisdom (in the deep sense of the term) or sense of social responsibility.

Moreover, we know that neoliberals actually want the emergence of chaotic

situations, for they believe that the disorientation of the population and the

collapse of the existing institutions and modes of social functioning create

favourable conditions for deepening and extending the neoliberal order.

We are living in a period in which no one can actually assess the dynamics

of the situation. Who would have thought two years ago that war would

again take place in Europe, as it is in Ukraine, and that the EU and US would

openly support neo-Nazis! So, we are talking about a turbulent situation.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the lenders will still find a

way to postpone the clear choice between scenarios one and two, waiting to

see whether broader changes will take place in Europe. Spanish elections are

critical in this scenario, and perhaps other events could take place that might

change the current balance of forces.

But this only underlines the difficulty for a society to accept that its future

is so severely compromised, that ordinary life as we have known it is no

longer available. This is difficult to digest. It is not easy to accept that you

cannot control or influence the situation you are in. It’s not easy to accept

the fact that you cannot escape from what is going to happen. This is a

delicate issue both within Syriza and in Greek society in general. Strong

psychological defence mechanisms are involved, and arguments are not

convincing as people prefer to dream of transforming their desperate hopes

into reality, overlooking at the same time the clear signs that are in front of


We are entering a period that will be marked by economic, social and

political turmoil. Political action in this new environment will challenge

the political imagination of previous decades. The sooner we overcome

the perfectly normal feeling of denying reality when it becomes harsh, the

better. We must adapt ourselves quickly into the new conditions in order

to be effective.

So, ahead of such a crucial moment, we cannot prepare ourselves for the

mid- or long-term future. The fundamental parameters of today’s situation


are going to change rapidly, shaping a future we cannot foresee for the time



We need to engage efficiently and profoundly in transforming the people’s

way of thinking of themselves and their lives. In the last decades, in the western

world at least, people were raised believing that a good life is essentially an

individual achievement. Society and nature were just background, wallpaper

for our egos, the contingent context in which our solitary selves evolve

while pursuing individual goals. The individual owed nothing to anyone,

lacked a sense of respect and responsibility to previous or subsequent

generations, and was indifferent to social problems and conditions. Without

transforming this spoiled teenager-like modern subjectivity into a mature

grown-up subjectivity ready to bear the responsibility of taking on the

difficult and demanding task, there is no way to achieve our goals of saving

the planet, transforming the economy, and coping with social problems and

other challenges.

It is extremely important to continue analyzing, monitoring and explaining

what our opponents are doing, what their strategy is, what techniques they

are using. However, we need to think about how we are going to face

today’s challenges and problems according to our logic. The modern world is

declining fast, and at the same time we have never before been in a position

with so much potential. It is not only a matter of seizing power, it is a matter

of identifying the deep causes of this decline and engaging in a process of

transformation based on the potential for change this decline has opened up.

We must develop a conception of ruling the world differently, of actually

performing everyday activities differently. We often tend to believe that

getting rid of our opponents means that somehow the problems caused by

them and the challenges we face will disappear. It is true that it is extremely

important to get rid of the neoliberal elites; however, neoliberalism is deeply

entrenched in social practices as well as the state. We must develop ideas and

ways of doing things differently. And in order to do so, we must imagine

our own world and what the future is going to be like. And there are lots of

good practices and social innovations that can point us in the right direction.

We are stronger than we think. But we must combine the existing elements

effectively, to incorporate them within a unified – but not one-dimensional

– conceptual and organizational framework, and gradually acquire the

necessary self-confidence to change the world.

This is a slightly revised version of a talk at the Transnational Institute (TNI) annual

meeting in Amsterdam, 20 June 2015.

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