We need a new movement for democracy in Europe

Published on ZNet (first on red pepper.org), Jan 27, 2016.

What do you see as the main threats to democracy today?

  • The threat to democracy has always been the disdain the establishment has for it. Democracy by its nature is very fragile and the antipathy towards it by the establishment is always extremely pronounced, and the establishment has always sought to undo it.  
  • This story goes to back ancient Athens when the challenge to establish democracy was immense. The idea that the free poor, who were the majority, could be put in control of government was always contested. Plato wrote The Republic as a treatise against democracy, arguing for a government by the experts.
  • Similarly in the case of American democracy, if you look at the Federalist Papers and Alexander Hamilton you will see it was an attempt to contain democracy, not to bolster it. The idea behind a representative democracy was to have the merchants represent the rest because the plebs weren’t considered up to the task of deciding important matters of state.
  • The examples are countless. Just look at what happened to the Mossadeq government in Iran in the 1950s or the Allende government in Chile. Whenever the ballot box produces a result the establishment doesn’t like, the democratic process is either overturned or threatened with being overturned.
  • So if you are asking who are and have always been the enemies of democracy, the answer is the economically powerful.

This year it seems democracy is under attack from entrenched power more than ever. Is that your perception?

  • This year is special in this regard as we had the experience in Greece where in the elections the majority of Greeks decided to back an anti-establishment party, Syriza, which came to power ‘speaking truth to power’ and challenging the established order in Europe.
  • When democracy produces what the establishment likes to hear then democracy is not a threat, but when it produces anti-establishment forces and demands, that’s when democracy becomes a threat. We were elected to challenge the Troika of creditors and it was at that point the Troika asserted quite clearly that democracy cannot be allowed to change anything.

From your time as Greek finance minister, what did the experience reveal to you about the nature of democracy and power? Were the things that surprised you? … //

… We seem to be living in both a hopeful but also difficult time. We see the growing popularity of parties such as Podemos in Spain, the Left in Portugal, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and so on, but at the same time we have the experience of Syriza being unceremiously crushed by the Troika. What hope do you hold out for these popular rejections of austerity politics given Syriza’s experience?

  • I think the rise of these anti-austerity parties and movements shows clearly that European peoples, not just in Spain and Greece, have had a gutful of the old kind of politics, the consensus-centred policies that have reproduced the crisis and pushed Europe onto a path that leads to disintegration. There is no doubt about that.
  • The question is how can we harness that discontent? In our case in Greece we have failed. We have a major disconnect between the leadership of the party and the people who voted for it. So this is why I believe the focus on the nation-state is beyond its sell-by date. If Podemos enter government, they will do so under the same extremely constraining conditions imposed by the Troika – just like the new government under formation in Portugal. Unless such progressive parties are bolstered by a pan-European movement that exerts progressive pressure everywhere and at once, they will end up frustrating their voters, forced to accept all the rules that prevent them from fulfilling their mandates.
  • This is why I put my emphasis on building a pan-European movement. It is because the only way of changing Europe is to do this by a groundswell that rises throughout Europe. Otherwise the protest vote manifesting itself in Greece, Spain, the UK, Portugal, if it is not synchronised everywhere, will eventually dissipate, leaving behind it nothing but the bitterness and insecurity produced by Europe’s unstoppable fragmentation.

(full interview text).

(This interview is taken from the Transnational Institute’s annual State of Power report, a collection of essays on the intersection between power and democracy).



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Bernie v. Media, on merican Herald Tribune, by Bernie v. Media, Jan 22, 2016;

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Making Money from Misery – Disaster Capitalism from the Migrant Crisis to Afghanistan and Haiti, at 26.16 min, on Democracy Now, by Antony Loewenstein, Oct 09, 2015;

Essay: The death of international development, on red pepper.org.uk, Feb 2015: Development has failed to deliver. The reason, Jason Hickel argues, is that development organisations have failed to address the structural drivers of poverty.

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