Michalis Spourdalakis is Professor of Political Science at the University of Athens. Since April 2014 he is also the Dean of the School of Economics and Politics. Professor Spourdalakis is a founding member of SYRIZA and a member of the board of the Nicos Poulantzas Institute.
Professor Spourdalakis holds a Ph.D. from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He has published in the field of political sociology in both English and Greek, and part of his work has been translated into Spanish and Chinese. His books and articles have elaborated themes on political representation with an emphasis on political parties' relation to society, culture and the state; on local and regional administration and development; on the welfare state and collective consumption; and on Greek political institutions and policies since 1974. His books include: The Rise of the Greek Socialist Party (1988); Populism and Politics (in Greek, with Nicos Mouzelis and Thanos Libovats, 1990); PASOK: Party-State-Society, (ed., in Greek, 1998). His recent publications in English include “Left strategy in the Greek cauldron: explaining Syriza’s success” (Socialist Register, 2013), Rekindling Hope: Syriza’s Challenges and Prospects (Transform! Network, Yearbook 2016) and Becoming Syriza Again (January 2016). Professor Spourdalakis is the editor of The Socialist Register in Greece.
Michalis Spourdalakis spoke to Rethinking Greece* about the evolution of the discipline of political science in Greece, the detrimental effect of the dominance of the "underdog vs. modernist" scheme in Greece public discourse and its role in legitimizing specific policies, the colonization of the social democratic project by neo-liberarism, the elements of irrational dishonesty some opposition parties demonstrate as well as their belief that they have 'property rights' on public inistitutions. Professor Spourdalakis also talks about SYRIZA´s struggle to survive in a hostile political enviroment and the need to support weaker classes while solidifing the board social coalistion that brought the party to power. Finally, he stresses the importance of reversing the current representation crisis, so that the Left can implement one of its prime goals: "to create the conditions and the space so that the subordinate classes and strata can fight for a greater social transformation."
In your 1991 paper with Nikiforos Diamantouros on "Political science in Greece" you mention that “Greek political science has had so far a minimal impact on state and societal development in Greece”. Is this still true?
To begin with, there is no unified and universally accepted theory of political science. There is no such thing as value-free political science, and more generally social science. Thus, one has to qualify the term, especially when we talk about its impact on the field of “state and societal development”. Since there is no value-free science, it should be clear that there is a huge difference between “critical” and “apologetic” political science. We can now qualify this general statement as well as clarify what we mean by state power or societal development. Again, these terms are not neutral or free from competing interests; thus to judge the impact of political science on them, one has to be clear on the criteria used to measure said impact.
At the time the above mentioned article was written, political science in Greece, due to turbulent and undemocratic circumstances, was grossly underdeveloped, especially if one were to compare it to the state of the art in other European countries. Indeed, political science, in all of its traditions, had very little impact on public life. However, it must be noted that the political and social developments of the post-Dictatorship era did affect the course of the development of the discipline and vice versa. This can be seen in the issues with which the rather small community of social/ political sciences, most of them having returned from abroad (usually Western Europe, and North America), was preoccupied. The research was focused on: the transition to democracy; general studies of democratic institutions; the prospects of the country’s membership in the European Community (EC) and after 1981 on the issues arising from its accession to the EC /EU; on the imposition and the nature of the Colonels regime; as well as more macro studies on the key aspects of the Greek social formation (social classes, state power, studies on aspects of the country’s of political economy).
Roughly speaking, in the first couple of decades of the Metapolitefsi, research in political science focused on themes deriving from the pressing challenges the country faced. Within this context, many studies tended to be over-theorized but clearly maintained a strong inclination towards the critical tradition of the discipline and therefore had indeed limited impact on the country’s development. However, since the 1990s, as the country struggled with the challenges of Europeanization, and under the new influence of EU research money, the discipline’s strong critical theoretical inclination gave way to more mainstream studies which, while one has to recognize their technical and even academic superiority, were less theoretical and more issue oriented and thus served as a strong legitimizing force for governmental policies. One of the extreme consequences of the latter was the public intervention of key representatives of the discipline during the crisis, when the borders between research results and propagandistic statements became very unclear.
How do you think the predominance of the “underdog vs. modernist culture” paradigm in Greek political science has influenced public dialogue in Greece?
Simplistic schemas and frameworks for understanding complex macro-phenomena generally tend to become popular. Their simplicity provides an easy and convenient analysis for mainstream researchers and/or laymen, who have no interest in challenging given perceptions and understandings. After all, even the artificial or the fictitious tend to be more easily operational. Even when they appear polarized and divided, societies are an epiphenomenon of very complex processes and never the result of ideological or political choices of the involved parties. Thus, although arguments of cultural dualism were common for analysing issues in countries during periods of de-colonization and democratization, they were proven more politically than analytically useful.
The Greek use of the above mentioned analysis is no exception. The artificial divide between "underdog and modernist culture" has primarily functioned as a legitimizing force to the modernizing strategy led by PASOK governments (1993-2004) as well as to the complementary strategy of New Democracy (2004-2007) which aimed at the "re-foundation of the state". In fact without great risk, I would argue that this understanding of the Greek social formation even affected the content of the political polemics during the 2010 crisis: The unilaterally biased definitions of "populism" and their inflationary use by the dominant political forces legitimized the most unholy political alliances, which not only organized the imposition the most aggressive austerity polices but also promoted the so-called theory of the "two extremes", equating the rise of the extreme right forces with the radical left. This was a development that soon displayed its detrimental effects upon democracy, as Golden Down entered the parliament with a commanding share of the popular vote.
According to some commentators, SYRIZA seems to be taking a social-democratic turn, an example of which is Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras participation in the task force meeting of European socialists in Paris last March, and his appeal to the values of social democracy as a means of ending the crisis facing Greece and Europe. Do you agree with this assessment?
There is no doubt that this assessment is a rather superficial one. To some extent it reveals the shallow analyses that characterized public discourse in Greece. First of course, we must clarify what we mean by "social democracy". Do we mean the left wing current that dominated the politics of advanced capitalist democracies for thirty years after the Second World War, or its evolution in the last some twenty years under the adoption of Blair’s Third Way strategy, essentially hegemonized by neoliberalism? If by social democracy we mean the former, whose close ties with the working class led to programs with strong social considerations, why is this so negative for SYRIZA, or for any other radical left party? After all, SYRIZA is struggling to survive within the framework of the imposition of very aggressive policies and the political turmoil caused by neoliberal domination, both in Europe and worldwide.
This assessment reveals an additional misunderstanding, or rather, confusion. Those who claim that SYRIZA has reoriented its strategy towards social democracy because Alexis Tsipras, as Prime Minister, attended the meeting of the European Socialists, seem to be at the very least ill informed as well as confused, when they identify the government, or in technical terms the "party in office", with the party and its strategic identity. It is necessary to understand that seeking allies in Europe as a "party in office", and in fact in a coalition government, has very little or nothing to do with a change in the strategic orientation of the party, when its cadres consider that the polices implemented are the result of the setback of the summer of 2015 and "the coup" imposed by the country’s debtors, and not in fact actual choices.
To be fair, I must say that this confusion is expressed even by some SYRIZA supporters and even its functionaries, as they operate exclusively within the government with little or no relation to the party. This rather minority view of mainstream social democracy stems from the pressure that comes from the lopsided balance of power faced in the current conjuncture. This pressure makes some -especially those latecomer supporters of the SYRIZA project- settle for a renovated project similar to the modernizing one of the social democrats.
The anti-austerity movements that were so strong during the first years of the crisis in Greece and vital in the Greek Left´s rise to power seem to have died down. Care to comment? Does Syriza maintain its electoral appeal in the lower social classes and those more affected by the crisis?
No movement can maintain its strength, stamina and ingenuity indefinitely. The Greek case is no exception. We should also keep in mind that even the most self-confident movements, with a highly organizational capacity do not avoid the traditional trend of delegating their power to official political organizations. In the case of Greece, following the electoral victory of SYRIZA, naturally this trend became dominant, as the resistance movement sought its validation in the political change.
From day one, SYRIZA’s coalition government took initiatives to support the socially weakest strata. It was a countervailing position met with the vehement opposition of the debtors and their supporters among politicians of the establishment. However, in the long term, this is not sufficient to secure the electoral base of the party. SYRIZA’s rise to power has been, to a great extent, the result of a broad social coalition of a wide range of social strata (workers, unemployed, working poor, new and traditional petit bourgeoisie). The only way for SYRIZA to maintain its political base is to promote policies that somehow solidify this alliance. Therefore, its concerted efforts in support of the social strata hit the most by the crisis and the austerity cannot been seen as a sole guarantor of its future electoral success.
What do you think of the opposition in Greece, minor and major? How do you explain the furious reaction the government has faced from the centre-right despite its moderate policies?
There is no doubt that the opposition to the present coalition government is not only poor and disappointing, but also irrational. Putting aside the fact that it is often arbitrary and certainly off-centre with regard to its constitutional role, it seems clear to me that it utilizes strong elements of irrational dishonesty (see: its reaction to the electoral reform, to the social programs, to the reforms to private education, or its discourse on the government’s attempts to attract foreign investment, etc). The latter is clear among the political forces that in one way or the other have participated in or supported the governments since the crisis. They also have voted in favour of the measures imposed by the debtors since the retreat of the summer of 2015.
It seems that the opposition is either the victim of false ideological premises that in fact have turned them into conservative observers of the political dynamics (this is the case of KKE) or of the propaganda that aimed to legitimize the policies of austerity even before, but especially since 2009 (ND, PASOK, To Potami). To put it simply, the mainstream parties seem to believe their own lies. Using all the available means (media, bureaucratic control of organized interests, local and regional governments) and with the support of all the "traditional intelligentsia", who have always been committed to "efficient governability", they have contributed to creating a climate which is extremely hostile to SYRIZA.
In addition to the shortcomings and the contradictory political strategies which they produce (eg. ND has been calling for elections constantly, almost immediately since September, 2015), the opposition’s entire polemic discourse reveals the fact that the old established political forces have extensive structural relations with both the so-called "deep state" and powerfull socio-economic interests. Obviously, the "cartel parties" of the opposition, having long withdrawn from the social field, know that their survival is dependent upon the maintenance of their links to state resources. This explains the remark made by many observers that the functionaries and the cadre of today’s opposition behave as if they have property rights to public institutions.
There is one more comment that should be made about the so-called left-centre forces. One might have expected that these political forces, given the new (forced) orientation of the government, would have been more conducive to it, disassociating themselves from the centre-right and its eclectic and growing relations with the extreme populist right. However, this has not happened. On the contrary, without any self-criticism on their strategy and development of the last twenty five years, they have failed to reconnect with their historical origins and to break off from the neo-liberalist hegemony. This failure of this part of the opposition has made the term “Pasokification” an international one.
Have recent developments in Greece and Spain affected the Radical Left’s vision of a different politics in the EU? Is it a temporary setback, or is it proof, like some commentators say, that the Radical Left’s proposals for improving the relation between democracy and capitalism are outdated and inapplicable?
For the moment we cannot argue that the radical Left’s development in the European South has led to a clear strategy and a new vision vis-à-vis the EU prospect. However, it is only fair to say that the undemocratic structure and functioning of the EU, in combination with the deepening of socially insensitive policies, have contributed to a spreading of the scepticism for the future of EU. The negative developments (Brexit, rise and strengthening of radical right political forces) will possibly speed up among the radical Left parties -especially within the Party of the European Left- the process of putting forward a new and effective vision and strategy for the European future in juxtaposition to the present dominant one.
How can we rethink of Greece and Europe after Greek Left’s rise to power and one year and a half of government experience?
To me there are no surprises in this regard. Especially after the agreement of July 2015 and the realization that the Memorandum is not just an agreement to 'fix' the country’s fiscal problems, but rather a strategy to restructure the entire social formation so that it becomes completely in tune with market principles. In this context, and given the ammunition of all those to have subscribed to the full success of the Memorandum, under certain conditions we can be optimistic.
Optimism can come from initiatives that aim to reverse the crisis of representation, and to limit the phenomena of post-democracy that alienate the people from democratic processes, eliminate accountability and give rise to political cynicism. To make a positive effect, the Left’s coalition government has to reverse that trend. This is necessary, not just for the rehabilitation of the rule of law but also if the Left is to implement one of its prime goals: to create the conditions and the space so that the subordinate classes and strata can fight for a greater social transformation.
*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi and Nikolas Nenedakis