The revolutionary power of the Greek ‘No’

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"Better the devil you know" is one of the more reactionary idioms in our parlance. It's the sort of thing that only the devils we already know tend to say — the rallying cry of any ancien regime. Happily, the sentiment did not carry traction for the majority of Greek voters in Sunday's referendum. Over 60 percent of voters said "No" to the European troika—the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank—and its draconian plan for further austerity measures in exchange for rescue loans. The beleaguered Greek people will risk meeting unknown devils. It's a brave choice, but empirically sound, too: Oppressive systems haven't historically fallen under the slogan, "well, it could be worse."


Referenda are a strange democratic tool. At once they collapse complex political choices into a blunt "for" or "against" binary. But in certain cases, like Sunday's vote in Greece, a referendum provides an opening for the sort of radical political rupture not usually on offer in a ballot box. Namely, the opportunity to say "No" to a current system, without having to put forward fully formed plans for an alternative. This is the strength of the No vote, not its weakness.

Indeed, the great lie of many elections is that they channel the general will of the people, while rarely offering a "None of the above" option; voting systems are not in the business of including a revolutionary will. But the Greek "No" should be seen as a revolutionary act, insofar as it is a popular refusal to live by the dictates of the existing regime. I don't mean, as my colleagues Felix Salmon and John Walker have suggested, that the vote should be read as a referendum on Greek desire to stay within the Eurozone. Polls put the likelihood of a Greek exit from the Euro at 60 percent, but Greece voted the Syriza party into power on an anti-austerity, pro-currency union platform. This hasn't changed in any essential way.


The revolution, rather, is against the punitive moralism German chancellor Angela Merkel and her technocratic henchmen have insisted is a condition for necessary humanitarian assistance. The "No" was not a referendum on the Euro, per se, but a rejection of the neoliberal ideology that has become definitive of the European project — namely the management of countries, determined by an un-elected committee, according to a near-religious faith in market vagaries and a full-delusional faith in the efficiency and morality of austerity and repression.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek framed the EU's insistence upon vicious austerity in terms of what psychoanalysis calls the superego. The superego, he wrote, is "a sadistic agent, which bombards the subject with impossible demands, obscenely enjoying the subject’s failure to comply with them. The paradox of the superego is that, as Freud saw clearly, the more we obey its demands, the more we feel guilty." The EU, as superego, has Greece in an inescapable bind, in which the more it fails to comply to EU demands, the more it is punished and asked to feel guilty. "That is what the EU establishment finds so disturbing about the Syriza government," Zizek noted, "it admits debt, but without guilt. Syriza got rid of the superego pressure."

Unlike Zizek, I don't credit Syriza with the slaying of the EU superego, although its decision to call a referendum and its platform against austerity are to be lauded. Syriza's election to power indexed a popular rejection of EU-enforced austerity, but Greek resistance resides in sites beyond the newly-elected party and its supporters. It is in the grassroots movements, working to redistribute goods, medicine and services outside of the now decimated state provisions. It is also in the anarchists who tirelessly fight riot police and Golden Dawn mobs in the streets. It is not only Syriza and its supporters who have said "No" to austerity, and "No" to troika moralizing.

If the options are sadism or chaos, it seems right to choose chaos. Indeed, it is the very meaning of pathological to opt for sadism again and again. And, to be sure, the troika has been nothing but sadistic. Austerity measures have left nearly a million people in Greece with no access to healthcare, infant mortality rates have soared, suicide rates are up 35 percent since 2011. With these statistics in mind, we should ruminate on the words of EU President Jean-Claude Juncker in urging Greeks to vote "Yes" on Sunday. "You shouldn't commit suicide out of fear of death." Only a fool or a monster would level such words at a country whose people have already been pushed to literal suicide when faced with sickness, poverty and death.


And, as Nicholas Mirzoeff, NYU Professor of Media, Culture and Communication, points out, "Knowing that you are going to die from disease is one of the greatest reasons for suicide." Equally, he notes, we have no shortage of heroic history and mythology surrounding those who opt for suicide instead of oppression or murder. Mirzoeff brings up Sophocles' Antigone — the story of Oedipus' daughter who breaks King Creon's edict by burying the body of her slain brother, who had fought against Creon and lost. Creon buries Antigone alive. "Greece is once again Antigone," notes Mirzoeff, "If it says ‘no,’ it will be buried alive. If it says ‘yes,’ it will be put to death by a still slower, more exquisite process. Yet at the end of the play it is Creon who says, ‘I am no one, nothing.’ Let us multiply the ironies."

Whatever happens next for Greece, the resounding "No" should be celebrated as a bold act that opens up more options, rather than fewer, simply by refusing the status quo. Greece's leaders, now without newly-resigned Finance Minister and leftist heartthrob Yanis Varoufakis, are back at the negotiating table with their European creditors. The referendum result does not negate the fact that Greek banks face the risk of collapse within days unless a rescue deal is reached. Yet victories are not always solutions, and Greece's "No" is not an empty symbol just because negotiations with the troika go on. It a serious message that the Greek people will risk a whole pandaemonium in order to climb out of their current hell. Their revolt deserves nothing less than our solidarity.

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