The decision of the Greek government, late last Friday, to put the proposals of the creditors to referendum caught by surprise even those who, from a grassroots perspective, have been fighting against the murderous austerity in Greece in recent years. After all, the negotiations had just come to yet another impasse, the bailout program was coming to an end, and the institutions previously known as the “Troika” had once more rejected the proposal of the Greek government to transfer the cost of the debt crisis to the well-off, demanding instead more sacrifices on behalf of the disadvantaged: further reductions in wages and pensions, a renewed attack on our public and common goods, further decline in our labor and social rights.
All in all, the continuation of an austerity program that had not only plunged a whole society into misery, but had also demonstrably failed to achieve its own proposed goals: to make Greece’s sovereign debt more manageable and to reactivate the country’s ailing economy. To top this off, even the 47-page proposal of the Greek government, rejected as insufficient by the institutions, had all the distinguishing features of a new austerity package. The movements were therefore preparing to resist yet another memorandum; there were even preparatory meetings for the revival of the Movement of the Squares of 2011.
In this context, the decision to organize a referendum appeared honorable even to those critical of the government among the left and the movements. Tsipras had admitted that the mandate that the Greek people gave him in January, that of reversing the terms of austerity without coming to a rift with the creditors, was impossible to carry through. It was imperative, therefore, to consult the citizens on how to proceed. In a European Union governed by technocrats who are in effect employees of the economic establishment, asking the people to participate in decisions that affect their destiny seems like a radical act; indeed, the totality of the Greek pro-austerity forces denounced the announcement of the referendum as a “coup d’étât.”
However, we should keep our distance from the voices that triumphantly present the referendum as an act of “direct democracy.” Direct democracy is the constant involvement of citizens in the management of their own affairs, without the mediation of professional politicians. It is the ability of ordinary people to define the agenda and the content of public debate. We cannot call a referendum that asks people to take sides voting YES or NO on highly ambiguous matters an “act of direct democracy,” especially since the agenda itself has been defined in a series of meetings behind closed doors. Indeed, the Greek people are called to decide on this “historic” referendum without really understanding the question, unable to anticipate or control the consequences of their verdict, and without having produced a solid “Plan B” for the day after.
This ambiguity constitutes precisely the weak point of the referendum. The government urges the people to position themselves regarding the ultimatum of the creditors. The creditors, in turn, insist that this ultimatum has been withdrawn, and that the real question of the referendum is a YES or NO to the permanence of Greece in the Eurozone, or even in the EU. The government has not made adequate efforts in explaining in detail what the proposal which we are called to reject entails; in opening a round of consultation and dialogue regarding the future of the country; or in even explaining what the implications of a NO would be, beyond insisting that a negative verdict is an instrument of pressure at the on-going negotiations.
This “creative ambiguity” most probably means that a NO vote will be used to promote an agreement based on the latest proposals of the Greek government, which resemble a memorandum in all but name, and which have been heavily criticized by the social movements and the left-wing forces, including the left flank of the Syriza party.
This instrumentalization of the popular verdict is creating an atmosphere of distrust. Tsakalotos and Varoufakis, the chief negotiators of the Greek side, have claimed that the referendum could be cancelled, or the government could ask for a YES vote, if a “favorable” agreement is reached before Sunday. Not surprisingly, many people feel deceived, given the open recognition that the all-powerful “popular sovereignty” can be transformed into a mere pawn in a game of political-financial chess at the blink of an eye.
A determining factor is that, at present, for a vocal minority of the population it is evident that democracy and social justice have become incompatible with the European project; that the people of the European periphery are treated as scapegoats and called to pay the cost of the structural crisis in the Eurozone; that the venerated “European integration” project currently means nothing more than the penetration of capital into all spheres of life and the sacrifice of the environment, the commons and the welfare of the subaltern classes in the altar of capitalist profitability.
After the failure of the Syriza-led government in creating even the slightest fissure in the European neoliberal hegemony, there is a growing awareness that, despite the great cost of a transition, a simple and self-sufficient life outside the Eurozone is preferable to perpetual debt bondage within it. However, for most people, their stance towards the euro is not related to their long-term material expectations, but to the fear of the unknown, to the fear of short-term economic destabilization or even to inculcated fears concerning the Greek national identity and their membership in Western civilization. This explains why recent demonstrations in favor of YES, organized by the pro-austerity right-wing elites and championed by wealthy families, were joined by people of the middle or lower classes, which have no material interest in the perpetuation of austerity.
Of course this confusion and ambiguity is exploited by pro-austerity forces to promote a campaign of fear, in order to influence the vote on Sunday. After the raw political intervention of the ECB, which denied liquidity to Greek banks and forced the government to put capital controls in place, the mass media controlled by the oligarchy — that is, all but the recently resurrected public ERT channel — are bent on creating a climate of terror, repeating incessantly that what is really at stake is the bankruptcy of the country and the ensuing economic chaos.
The repeated threats of European officials, the images of senior citizens waiting in long queues under the hot sun to collect their pensions, the disgraceful interventions of bureaucratic trade unions calling for the cancellation of the referendum and a series of employers who refuse to pay the June salaries under the pretext of the bank holiday are contributing to the demoralization of the electorate. To top this off, various ministers and government MPs are breaking ranks, putting into question the utility of the referendum. There is no doubt that the “sovereign people” are going to the polls on Sunday with a gun against their heads. Panic ensues even among professed opponents of austerity, and the balance appears to be tilting towards YES.
However, all the above does not mean that the popular movements can afford to maintain a “neutral” position to this affront; this is, unfortunately, a stance that, from the vantage point of a revolutionary idealism, is promoted by the Communist Party and sectors of the anarchist movement. It is evident that the duty of a popular democratic movement is to fight for ultimately overcoming the political context that presents us with this type of blackmail and false dilemmas.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that a possible YES in the referendum on Sunday will entail a major setback for popular struggles. It will signify a moral victory for the supporters of austerity, a renewed attack on the few popular conquests still standing, an opportunity for European bureaucrats to interfere in the politics of the country and organize a parliamentary coup, putting in place a subservient government, as they did with the Papademos cabinet in 2011. And, although the government of “national salvation” led by Syriza leaves much to be desired in terms of fulfilling its campaign promises, in terms of proximity to the social movements and the demands of radical democracy, in terms of its will to confront the power of the oligarchy in Greece, and in terms of its fixation on the capitalist ideal of growth, any other governmental option at present will bring about a significant setback in all these fields.
Fear-mongering and propaganda have polarized Greek society and have made it impossible to predict the outcome of the referendum held on Sunday. The fact that the avalanche of criticism by international analysts over the European officials’ handling of the crisis falls on deaf ears proves that the real agenda of the powers-that-be is simply to isolate, demoralize and punish the Greek people, thereby ending any prospect of resistance to neoliberal domination on the continent. The Greek people are facing the major challenge of once again overcoming fear, the psychological basis of neoliberal governance, and of finding the integrity to vote NO in the referendum on July 5.
Surely, our task does not end with a NO vote; the formulation of a plan of action that is antagonistic to the neoliberal integration project is still pending, a plan based on the initiative of organized society and on solidarity between the peoples of Europe. Nevertheless, as opposed to the prolongation of austerity, dispossession, suffering and disintegration of the social fabric that will be attested by a YES vote, taking responsibility and embarking on the opportunities that a NO will set in motion is the only option that can strengthen the popular movement, that can open up spaces of intervention of the social forces for the defense of our common goods and the fortification of our collective endeavors.