Badiou on the Greek Debt Crisis

Nicholas P.

Alain Badiou, Greece and the Re-invention of Politics (Verso 2018)

Following the collapse of the communist bloc, capitalist neoliberalism expanded throughout the world, developing new imperialist economic zones. State socialism, as implemented by the Soviets, was no longer a model for most Marxist movements. In both neoliberalist and state socialist societies, a “single politics” (or “no politics”) prevailed. There was a need to encourage the left movements and to re-introduce Marx’s vision and the “communist” hypothesis. French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou put his hopes in the Alliance for a Radical Left (Syriza) of Greece as a new type of movement that would challenge the neoliberal Eurocrats. However, Badiou’s optimism was soon followed by “melancholy” as the Syriza government “capitulated” to the Eurocrats. Aside from that, the Syriza movement, like many of its contemporaries and predecessors. was based more on “negation” than “affirmation”. Badiou admits his misjudgment and goes on to stipulate new tactics and criteria for left-oriented social movements and for a “way out” of “single-politics” situations.

Greece and the Re-invention of Politics brings together Badiou’s interventions in debates, articles in French newspapers, and talks in Athens covering a six-year period (2010-16) – essentially most of the Greek crisis period and three different administrations: that of George A. Papandreou (2010-12); the coalition government of Antonis Samaras (New Democracy – ND), Evangelos Venizelos (Panhellenic Socialist Movement – PASOK), and Fotis Kouvelis (Democratic Left – DIMAR)1 (2012-14); and the coalition government of Alexis Tsipras (Alliance for a Radical Left – SYRIZA) and Panos Kamenos (Independent Greeks–ANEL).2 The collection is an anthology of readings, making more difficult the task of finding a common thread to the author’s arguments and risking some repetition of ideas.

The first chapter, on “Questions and Methods” (2010), starts with the idea that France has been experiencing for the last 30 years a “disorientation” that makes things “unreadable” for youth and workers and that is inherent to sequences involving periods of revolution and counterrevolution. Badiou salvages the communist idea by dividing the communism sequence into three phases: stage 1 (1848-71), the workers’ movement and insurrection, followed by the apogee of imperialist capitalism (1871-1905); stage 2 (1905-76), the “effectuation” of the communist hypothesis, followed by the collapse of the “single-party socialist dictatorships,” a “massive denial” and “disorientation”; and a new stage 3 that Badiou is proposing. He feels confident that a third phase is feasible, through a re-introduction, a redefinition and renovation of the “communist hypothesis.”3 He describes several prerequisites for its achievement, such as a “provisional morality,” which means “holding onto a substantial subjective figure such as the ‘undocumented worker’,” showing a “courage” that implies endurance of “the impossible regardless of the world’s laws,” and rejecting the notions of worker “sacrifices in the name of a nebulous future” – a feature of both state socialism and parliamentary democracies (election promises).

In “Greece, the New Imperial Practices … and the Re-invention of Politics” (2012), Badiou describes how modern neoliberal oligarchies employ the “new imperial practices” (NIP), deploying capitalists not only to third-world countries but also to Europe. The ultimate aim is to reverse whatever social welfare gains were made by worker insurrections and social democracies. The oligarchies do this by creating “zones” and by collaborating covertly with armed bands and/or private armies to secure their economic interests. They rationalize their deployment using various pretexts, such as overthrowing “domestic dictators,” “restoring human rights,” or responding to “the demands” of a crisis that the oligarchies themselves have created – the latter being the case of Greece and other SE European countries. Government by proxy gradually replaces government by representation. In addition, European bureaucrats expect the “weakened” countries to incorporate fiscal policy principles into their constitutions. Badiou’s new “zones” could constitute a variant of neocolonialsim, albeit more covert, invoking updated types of capitalist rationalization. In any case, the NIP cannot be combated by social-democratic governments of the Zapatero or Papandreou types but must be resisted by “left-wing parties,” by mass protests, and through a re-foundation of the communist hypothesis on an international basis.

The articles “Democratic Non-Existence” and “Contemporary Impotence” (both from 2013) can be discussed together. Despite a historically strong organized left4 and the “tenacious” youth revolts (Greek indignados 2011, etc.), Greece cannot “resist the total grip of a capitalism that has been unleashed by its own crisis” (23). Badiou attributes this inability to 1) the hold of a “democratic ideology” (cult of elections, cult of individual freedom, myth of popular participation, myth of the middle class as a guarantor of democracy etc.) that has brought no real societal changes and 2) a “movementist ideology” characterized by “negation” (e.g. “against,” “resist,” “resign,” “down with” etc.) and a “langue de bois” (wooden language) rather than by “affirmation” and the use of a clear homogeneous language that encourages formulating a strategy for emancipation.

With regard to the Greek indignados (aghanaktismenoi), I conducted a study of the largest mass protests in Greece, those that had occupied Constitution Square (summer of 2011) using participant observation, content analysis of slogans, posters, banners, and graffiti, and also survey results. There arose a need to distinguish between the “upper” (in front of the parliament) and “lower” (park-fountain) parts of the square. During the first hours of the daily protests (8-10 pm), all of the indignados, irrespective of ideology, assembled in the upper section, shouting derogatory slogans and making disparaging hand gestures against politicians – especially the G. Papandreou government, the troika and the journalists. After 10 pm, a large segment of the crowd moved to the lower section, to take part in the “general assembly” applying the ancient principles of “direct” or “immediate” democracy. Two political subcultures emerged with the more right-wing (nationalist, super-patriot, neo-fascist) groups remaining in the upper section and the more left-wing groups (parliamentary left, extra-parliamentary left and anarchists) descending to the lower section.5 When those from the upper section came to the lower section to intervene in the general assembly, there were clashes, especially on issues involving immigration. These clashes led the organizers (mainly SYRIZA and ANTARSYA6) to try to defuse the confrontations, saying that they should give priority to the “common” pursuit, which is to defeat legislation on the bailout agreement with the troika and to bring down the G. Papandreou government. Indeed, the “negative affect” predominated, regardless of the “sub-culture.” The intention to come out with a “political platform” (what Badiou would call an “affirmation”) by the organizers in the lower section never materialized. In addition, there was no “homogeneous” language. Though the Greek indignados failed to block the legislation in progress, overall, these so-called non-partisan mass demonstrations managed to contribute to 1) the shrinking of the two dominant political parties (ND and PASOK) that had governed Greece for 35 years after the fall of the junta (1974), 2) the birth of the new nationalist party (Independent Greeks – ANEL), and 3) the strengthening, more or less, of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, the Democratic Left (DIMAR), and the Alliance for a Radical Left (Syriza) – the latter being the biggest beneficiary. They also contributed to the need for coalition governments that were not always progressive.7

Without having participated in a “militant political inquiry” and without an immediate knowledge of the Greek situation, Badiou admits to “subjectivity” and is reluctant to recommend a solution for the economic crisis. However, he claims that the mass protests and demonstrations had no impact for reasons already mentioned (negative affect, no clear-cut homogeneous vocabulary etc.). Moreover, they were followed by prolonged periods of “counterrevolution” that saw a retreat from classical terms (such as “class struggle, “nationalization without compensation” etc.) and a facile acceptance by progressives of the enemy’s equation of “communism with totalitarianism” that constituted a setback for revolutionaries and exacerbated their impotence.

To overcome this “contemporary impotence” – and to respond effectively to the challenges of mounting poverty, social destruction and the related problem of arrogant fascist and racist groups – Badiou proposes a new “path that can only be found through the disciplined sharing of a common idea and the incrementally widespread use of a homogeneous language” (36). More specifically, he propοses a re-introduction and a redefinition of the word “communism,” so that it will designate 1) dissociating freedom from property and from the acquisition of commodities, 2) societies based predominantly on “free association,” 3) a “need for international political organization,” and 4) a clarification of the concept of “people” – rejecting its two negative associations (the “fascist” and the “parliamentary democracy” versions) and accepting its two positive associations (the national liberation and egalitarian-emancipation versions), with the third version constituting a transition phase to the stateless society which is the final aim of all communist social revolts.

Badiou devotes two chapters to the “Greek Situation” i.e. the management of the debt crisis as a source of inspiration (Ch. 5) and of “melancholia” (Ch. 6). Chapter 5 was originally published in Libération three days after the 5 July 2015 referendum.8 I assume that Badiou was aware of the results of that referendum (61% “NO” and 39% “YES”). He had expected that Prime Minister Tsipras would exploit this strong mandate to generate a popular movement, demand a cancellation of the accumulated debt, and contribute to a “reawakening of Europe,” while making it clear to the troika institutions that the “No” of the Greek people was not against EU or the Euro but against the bankers and for a change of the rules within the EU.

Chapter 6 was published in Libération on 20 August 2015 – the day after the Greek government had approved the third Economic Adjustment Program (EAP) with the support of the opposition (ND, PASOK, POTAMI). Tsipras justified the reversal on the pretext of preventing a GREXIT and the inevitable sequel of total bankruptcy. As usual, he and his team dissociated themselves from claiming ownership of the EAP, saying “it was not their choice.” Besides leading to a split in the governing party,9 the 180o turnaround by Tsipras10 caused melancholia in Badiou, who did not understand how Tsipras could ignore the positive results of the referendum that he himself had organized.

Although Badiou had been skeptical, from the start, that a left government could make radical moves within the parliamentary system, he admits that he had made a faulty judgment about the Tsipras government. He felt that Tsipras had “capitulated” to the adversary – something that was worse than the “abject deference” of the previous government – and lost the rare opportunity to generate a new political sequence. Badiou saw the referendum as a “pre-eventual situation” that could have led to a moment of truth (an “event”). Rather than capitulate, Badiou believes that Tsipras should have resigned and accumulated political credit for the next round. It is true that before he capitulated he had said he would rather resign than put his signature on another bailout agreement accompanied by austerity. But he did not resign, and this was another of the hundreds of kolotoumbas that Tsipras performed, including a reversal of his stance on the privatization of public utilities.

What may constitute for Badiou an “event” opportunity may have been tantamount to a social disaster for Tsipras. The threats of a Grexit, and a consequent bankruptcy, were real. Many Northwestern, Central-Eastern and Baltic EU member countries, including the President of the EU Commission (Jean C. Juncker), had essentially, and for various reasons, equated a “No” to the bailout agreement with Grexit. Moreover, Tsipras’s attempts to rally support from the Southern EU members were not as effective as anticipated, as some of these countries (Portugal and Spain) had gotten out of the bailout program, after sacrifices. There was overt but not unequivocal support by France and Italy (yes, but you must conform to the “rules”). Finally, the Greek government’s recourse to Russia and China for alternative sources of debt-funding brought no substantial results, despite promises of Russia to Tsipras’s emissaries. In fact, Russia advised Tsipras to find a solution within the EU framework. Tsipras was not about to risk a total bankruptcy that would have resulted in a Grexit, especially in the absence of a strong cross-EU social movement against the bailout-austerity programs. Tsipras saw the reversal not as a capitulation but as a salvation for the country – perhaps a tactical maneuver in a Marxist-Leninist sense, one step backward, two steps forward, on the road to socialism.

Aside from that, Tsipras could affirm his left ideology by invoking the progress his government made in the sector of human rights, including the liberalization of citizenship requirements for immigrants and their children born in Greece, the extension of “cohabitation contracts” and “foster-parent rights” to same-sex couples, and the legalization of marijuana for medical use.11 However, it remains a question whether progress in this sector (“superstructure”) could save Tsipras from charges of capitulation (cooptation) in the main economic issues (“substructure”).

In the chapter entitled “On the Supposed Refugee Crisis” – presented at the Athens University Law School less than a year after the summer 2015 influx into Greece of close to a million refugees and migrants to EU via the Aegean Islands – Badiou explains his idea of the “provisional morality” necessary for “re-introduction of the communist hypothesis.” He starts out by commending the exemplary way that “ordinary” Greek people responded to the refugee waves, especially during the height of the crisis; they taught Europe a lesson in universalist values. He then identifies the basic causes of migration/refugee flows: maldistribution of world income, the “new imperial practices,” and the exclusionist policies of those that caused the refugee crisis. He replaces the previous terms “migrants” and “refugees” by the term “nomadic proletariat.” Furthermore, he rejects static identitarian politics, theories of civilization clashes, ideas of integration into the “dominant” society, and a global capitalism that places “commodities” above “universal values.” Badiou asserts that, “for the most part, we here today [meaning the audience] are part of the Western middle class where life remains possible, even if it’s at times difficult.12 We have to seize every opportunity to build links between ourselves and the new nomadic proletariat, including refugees” (68f). He concludes by invoking Marx’s idea that the “proletarians have no fatherland” and Book 9 of Plato’s Republic where [communist] politics is possible not in the city in which one was born but in a foreign city. For Badiou, refugees provide an opportunity for a politics of the future and for a realization of humanity’s destiny.

Badiou’s commendations notwithstanding, a combination of factors – neo-fascist and racist exclusionist reactions in some of the EU countries (Western and Central Europe), lack of EU personnel to speed up the political asylum process, the absence of an effective redistribution program on the part of the Greek government, and the increasing laxity, lately, on the part of Turkey, to enforce the EU-Turkey agreement – has led to congestion of migrants and refugees in the NE Aegean islands. The numbers of refugees and their needs exceed the camps’ capacities. Aside from the periodic riots among ethnic groups, there have been several protests by islanders themselves, fomented by local right-wing groups, demanding immediate decongestion, speeding up of asylum procedures, and transfer of migrants to the mainland.

The final chapter, “On Politics Today” (a May 2016 talk at the French Institute of Athens), represents a recapitulation but also a greater specification of Badiou’s “new politics.” According to Badiou, the idea that the current parliamentary system operates on the basis of multiple politics is a fiction; there is only a single politics and that is neoliberalism, not really different from classical liberalism. The prefix “neo” was added after the “shaky period” of six decades “between the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the end of the Cultural Revolution in China in 1976” (75f). In the meantime, most of the communist parties are gone and “social liberalism” (social democracy) has “rallied to the consensus of global capitalism.” Mass movements, such as the recent ones in the public squares (Spain, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, France [Nuit debout], Hong Kong) are significant historical moments, preconditions for politics, but were based on negation, not on affirmation. For Spain and Greece, the indignados evolved into parliamentary organizations, mere correctives for social democracies – as Syriza showed by its capitulation.

Badiou develops a two-axes typology, claiming that the world situation since the 1980s must be represented by two contradictions: a horizontal axis with two poles (capitalism and communism)13 and a vertical axis also with two poles (traditionalism and modernity), with the two axes cross-cutting one another. Connecting the four poles of the axes, he comes up with a quadrangle, with three sides indicated by single solid lines and the fourth side by two dotted lines. The line between “capitalism” and “tradition” is identified with “fascism”; that between “tradition” and “communism,” with the “socialist states”; that between “capitalism” and “modernity,” with the “West”; and that between “modernity” and “communism” (which is dotted) with the “new political truth.” He recognizes the “historical rupture” brought about by the socialist states (i.e. private property is not the natural basis of societies), but criticizes them, especially after the 1920s, for 1) not developing concepts of modernity (in a technological sense and in terms of social values such as freedom), thereby allowing the “West” to monopolize modernity and inducing the peoples of the world to want to flock to the West, and 2) developing a “despotic state capable of depoliticizing society completely.” The task of the new movements is to solidify the dotted lines between “communism” and “modernity,” through “the invention of a new political truth that, on the one hand, “confronts the principal contradictions between capitalism and communism and, on the other, institutes and develops a new modernity” (88f). Moreover, the new movements should reject the propagandistic assertion that “capitalism is the only natural form of modern societies.”

Το evaluate the new movement’s program, Badiou invokes essentially Marxist criteria to suggest that it is possible to organize 1) collective life around something other than private property or profit, 2) production around something other than specialization and division of labor, 3) collective life on some basis other than closed identitarian units like nations, religions, languages and customs, and 4) collective life on the basis of free association rather than a state. If none of these criteria are invoked, then “what is happening is not heading in the general strategic direction that is necessary for the creation of a new politics” (95f).

Theoretically the European Adjustment Programs will end in August 2018; further subsidization of the Greek economy, along with the oppressive and systematic monitoring by troika and the demand for further reforms, will terminate, after almost a decade (2010-18). Aside from an €18 billion “cushion” for liquidity and the repayment of the debt (€314 billion or 177% of GNP, Eurostat 2017), Greece’s economic needs would henceforth be met by loans from the open market, not the troika institutions. The Greek government coalition of SYRIZA – ANEL maintains that it will be a clean break with the “memorandums of understanding” (bailout program agreements coupled with reforms) and that the government will have more latitude to implement its own program. The opposition (mainly the New Democracy and the Movement for Change14) replies that the idea of a “clean break” is a delusion. In fact, the government has already voted fiscal measures and has made commitments to troika institutions at least until 2022 (e.g. substantial reduction of social security payments during 2019-20, lowering of the non-taxable income ceiling, maintenance of a high 3.5% primary surplus). These and other measures such as continuation of the voted reforms (privatization etc.) will require close monitoring if not a permanent presence of the troika representatives.

The opposition calls for elections after the formal termination of the bailout programs, though the Greek constitution does not preclude snap-elections – leaving the choice to the government. National elections before the formal termination of the bailout programs do not favor the Syriza government. The government could use its one remaining year to take popular economic measures, and perhaps bargain for a substantial restructuring of the huge public debt. These measures would increase party cohesion, win back disillusioned members and betrayed voters who have defected to other parties, and reverse the unfavorable poll results.15 However, the probability is high that the government, seeking to forestall further losses, will decide to have a snap election following the formal exodus from the bailout programs, before voters feel the negative impact of measures that take effect at the start of 2019. Whenever the elections take place, there is little chance for Tsipras to reverse the outcome and secure a parliamentary majority. He has made overtures to the new center-left coalition (social democrats) for pre- or post-election cooperation, but they are not about to salvage Syriza. The way out of capitalist neoliberalism and Plato’s cave remains a challenge for new social movements.

Undoubtedly, the “capitulation” by the Tsipras government to the Eurocrats after the July 2015 referendum, his subsequent political platform reversals, his compliance with parliamentary democracy, and his flirtation with the “Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats” of the European Parliament and the Greek Center-Left (Social Democratic) parties, may have increased Badiou’s sense of “political impotence.” However, the risks entailed by a GREXIT and the consequent lack of financial support for the Greek economy would make almost inevitable a total bankruptcy with all the attendant consequences for the further impoverishment of the Greek people and the growth of neo-fascist and racist movements. The latter may constitute a “pre-event” situation much worse than the “capitulation” of the Greek PM to the Eurocrats and his calls for wider progressive coalitions among grassroots movements, trade-unions, civil society, left and social democratic parties, aimed at reforming the EU in the direction of a Social Europe.


1 After one year, DIMAR withdrew from the coalition invoking differences with the government regarding the status of the employees in public TV.

2 The ANEL is a nationalist party to the right of the center-right ND party. There was no common ideology between SYRIZA and ANEL, except for their anti-bailout platforms, and the mutual “chemistry” between the two leaders. This strange coalition became a constant source of internal tension among SYRIZA cadre, as well as an obstacle to human rights and foreign-policy legislation. The latter were usually passed with the votes of the social democratic and communist parties.

3 Refers to the three “maxims”: egalitarianism is immanent in human nature; societies can be organized without a state; and other forms of division of labor, besides manual vs. intellectual etc. are possible.

4 Greece is the only European country with a relatively strong orthodox communist party; its voting strength fluctuates between 5% and 6%. It participates in the bourgeois Greek parliamentary system and in mass demonstrations with the main slogan, “the law is the rights of the worker.”

5 The Greek communist party dissociated itself from the Greek indignados.

6 An acronym for Anti-Capitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow (Anti-Capitalistiki Aristeri Synergasia gia tin Anatropi).

7 Nicholas P. Petropoulos, “A Sociopolitical Profile and Political Impact of the Greek Indignados: An Exploratory Study,” in N.P. Petropoulos and G.O. Tsobanoglou, The European Crisis in the Eurozone: Social Impacts, Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014, 342-394.

8 The voters were called upon to approve or disapprove a proposal made by the troika – the European Commission, the Central European Bank and the IMF – for a new economic adjustment program. The government of Syriza campaigned for a “NO” vote.

9 Syriza lost 25 deputies, who became “independent” and formed the new party “Popular Unity” (LA.E.). However, during the September 2015 national elections, Popular Unity received only 2.86% of the popular vote, just below the 3% required to enter parliament. Syriza (Tsipras) was reelected as the first party but did not obtain the parliamentary majority of 151 MPs. He again formed a coalition with ANEL – the right-wing party – that limited his policy options.

10 Greek journalists, the opposition, and anti-Syriza voters used the vernacular term “Kolotoumba” (forward or rearward somersault) to describe the turnaround. The reversal had such repercussions that the term was also unofficially adopted by Brussels and by European newspapers (Financial Times, El País) to describe analogous domestic situations – one of Syriza’s cultural contributions to Western civilization.

11 It is noteworthy that these measures became law with the votes of the social democrats and/or the Greek Communist party, and not with the votes of his right-wing coalition partner (ANEL).

12 Although the economic crisis has led to shrinking of the middle classes (MC) in most southern European countries, the worst hit has been that of Greece due to the reduction in the public employee hire/retire ratio, a series of salary and social security payment cuts, thousands of business closures, high unemployment levels, flexible forms of employment (including part-time), increased health insurance holdings, excessive taxation on free-lance professionals and new property taxes. The middle classes have suffered substantial losses in terms of income, numbers, and savings (estimated at 31% between 2011 and 2016). The depression (crisis) has led to new professional migration and has given birth to the “gravata” (necktie) movement. Heirs don’t claim property, as they can’t afford to pay the new property taxes. Revenue from the over-taxation of the middle classes results in a non-productive government surplus that the Syriza government redistributes to low- or no-income classes in the form of allowances, to maintain its left-profile. In a sense, there has been a proletarianization and impoverization of the MC. Thus, the higher classes (oligarchs) don’t make trade-offs with the MC, but aim to displace them, which from a dialectical Marxist (not an Aristotelian) point of view could be in the right direction.

13 Badiou adds: “if the word ‘communism’ still troubles you, you can substitute it with ‘politics of emancipation’, ‘new politics’ and everything that crystallizes the need to end the inegalitarian, oppressive and scandalous order that private property imposes on humanity” (84).

14 Movement for Change is new center-left coalition party, consisting of the former PASOK, POTAMI and other center-left factions, still in the process of consolidation. Among its goals are to secure at least the third position in parliament, to displace Golden Dawn, and to play a pivotal role in the post-crisis reconstruction.

15 The vote intention estimate (after taking into account the volte in previous elections) was 22% for Syriza and 32% for the center-right New Democracy party, with the latter maintaining this difference during the last year; the “rallying” factor (voting for the same party as during the last elections) was around 47% and 82%, respectively, which means large defections from Syriza to other parties, the largest being to the ND party. The expected win-performance factor was 22% and 56%, for Syriza and ND, respectively. The new center left coalition, Movement for Change, and the neo-fascist Golden Dawn parties each received 8% on vote-intention estimate and vied for the third position. (Source: Pulse, SKAI-TV, 13-15 May 2018).