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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Populism in power: Syriza's challenge to Europe

Syriza has increased its domestic popularity even as it confronts deep institutional resistance to its anti-austerity agenda. Yannis Stavrakakis argues that, in voicing the 'despair and demands' of the Greek people, Syriza has been able to convert populism in opposition into charismatic leadership in power.

Against a background of traditional populist mobilisations (Agrarian populism in the US, Russian Narodnichestvo and Latin American populisms in the 1940s and '50s), recent decades have seen a resurgence in political populism, especially in Latin America (Chavismo in Venezuela, Kirchnerismo in Argentina, and similar developments in Equador, Bolivia and even Brazil) and, more recently, in the US (where, ironically, the Tea Party movement, Obama and the Occupy movement have all been branded as 'populist'). Europe has not been left untouched, witnessing the development of (extreme) right-wing populism in core countries like France (father and daughter Le Pen), Austria (Haider) and the Netherlands (Wilders). As evidenced by the results of the 2014 European parliament elections, this trend continues to strengthen.

At the same time, the European picture is gradually being diversified by the emergence of populist hybrids – notably Ukip in Britain as well as Grillo's 5-Star Movement in Italy – which diverge from the 'classical' extreme-right model in various ways. Last but not least, within the context of the European crisis, left-wing/egalitarian populism – or perhaps populisms, plural – seems to have sprung forth, especially in southern Europe. Thus both the 'Indignants' in Spain and Greece, and the parties that purport to represent this popular indignation at the brutal implementation of austerity policies (Syriza and Podemos respectively) have been described in the media and in academic discourse as populist.

How can one make sense of this complex and sometimes contradictory picture? No doubt, the often-restrictive association of populism with the extreme right in European debates, which is largely the result of a Eurocentric bias, can mislead us into overlooking the democratic and inclusionary potential of recent developments, such as Syriza's victory in the Greek general election in January.[1] Indeed, within a framework that is dominated by democratic elitism and the post-democratic mutations of representative government imposed by neoliberalism, 'populism' often becomes the negative index through which European political, economic and intellectual elites attempt to identify, stigmatise and contain demands for dignity and recognition, wider participation, egalitarian justice and the radicalisation of democracy.

Obviously, some of the forces claiming to represent such popular demands may in fact prioritise antidemocratic and anti-European political orientations, and such political projects have often been labelled 'populist'. And yet, such forces are antidemocratic and/or anti-European not because of their populism but in spite of it – assuming, that is, that they are populist at all. Our failure to call them what they really are – nationalist, racist, xenophobic or even neo-Nazi, like the Golden Dawn in Greece (a group which, ironically, has also been described as 'populist') – leads to confusion and to an inability to register the importance of some of these emerging egalitarian/left-wing populist movements for European democracy. In effect, what is increasingly at stake in the European debate around populism is nothing less than the way we conceive of the survival and renewal of democratic political subjectivity in times of crisis, set against the post-democratic drive to replace popular sovereignty with market sovereignty and the antidemocratic and anti-European drive of an authoritarian backlash under the auspices of an increasingly pragmatic, appealing and 'normalised' extreme right.

The south-European populist challenge to European post-democracy

I have recently been rereading an interview that the political theorist Ernesto Laclau gave while in Thessaloniki for a series of lectures in 2008. He was asked a question on the financial crisis, which had just irrupted. His answer was that at some point the crisis in Europe would reach a melting point, he believed, eroding the institutional infrastructure of European societies and making necessary a radical reconstitution, without a clear political force to assume this task. Isn't this exactly what we are experiencing today? The struggle between alternative narratives about the crisis, its causes and probable solutions? The struggle between antagonistic political projects of administration and/or exodus? It is in the context of this antagonism that the axis between populism and anti-populism emerges as a dominant ideological rupture in Greece, the European south and beyond. The neoliberal policies implemented there became increasingly unpopular, triggering popular mobilisations that in turn are denounced as irresponsibly populist.

What happens, then, when the failure of neoliberal, post-democratic forms of governance leads to a set of structural impasses and societal dislocations that are politically expressed in ways which effectively exert pressure on the political system? One possible scenario here is a shifting of the rules of the game in an egalitarian, redistributive direction, which usually manifests itself in a populist guise. The emblematic cases of such a change can be found in what has happened in Latin America over recent years, with all the ups and downs, the setbacks and the fluctuations, the inconsistencies and the excesses.

What has been happening, during the same period, in the eurozone? At Europe's core, we see the economic, political and intellectual elites still insistent on keeping alive a post-democratic zombie-capitalism and its ethico-cultural articulations at all costs. This narrow focus keeps them from attempting even the slightest acknowledgment or appropriation of the egalitarian dynamic of the populist drive. What is more, it forces them, in a desperate attempt to maintain some ideological coherence and influence, to articulate an aggressive 'antipopulist' discourse: today, whoever diverges from the dominant neoliberal administration of the crisis is immediately discredited and denounced as an enemy of European values. In this, the (largely inaccurate, Eurocentric) association of populism with the far-right can prove to be an extremely useful tool: it adds legitimacy to anti-populist rhetoric even when that rhetoric targets political forces and arguments that share nothing with a far-right outlook.

This is, of course, a vicious cycle. As long as the autocratic imposition of austerity remains dominant, inequality and unemployment will continue to grow and the demands of the oppressed and impoverished middle and lower classes will intensify. Because these demands are usually expressed in a popular-democratic egalitarian grammar, referencing 'the people' as its signifier, they will be discredited and denounced in turn as 'populist'. In this explosive context, Greece is a crucial case in point, with the confrontation between populism and antipopulism emerging as a crucial ideological division in the nation's public sphere. On the one hand, as was to be expected, the demands of citizens and social groups suffering from austerity have gradually come to be articulated within a framework pitting 'the people' against domestic and European political and economic elites. On the other hand – and perhaps this is less readily expected – these elites, being unable and reluctant to productively register the 'popular', have sought to suppress the latter, reducing it to its 'populist' equivalent, on which they can conveniently blame any misfortune, including all their own institutional failures.[2]

When debating populism we are, thus, firmly located within the field of representation in both its meanings: as political representation, or the means to influence decision-making on behalf of popular claims or demands, and as symbolic or discursive representation, being a process of articulation through which such claims/demands are shaped, staged, invested, accepted or rejected, idealised or even demonised. Hence populist movements and discourses are typically articulated with and around 'the people' as their nodal point, claiming to represent its claims, to voice its grievances and demands. To the extent that the frustration of these demands stems in the first place from an unequal and hierarchical distribution of power, from the silencing of alternatives and the exclusion of 'the people' from decision-making and social incorporation, the representation of society that populism typically offers is predominantly antagonistic, dividing society into two blocs, two chains of equivalence: the establishment, the power bloc versus the underdog, 'the people'. This perspective stands in stark contrast to dominant, antipopulist political discourses that assert the continuity of the social fabric and prioritise non-antagonistic, technocratic solutions.[3]

Is Syriza populist?

Keeping in mind these characteristics of populist movements and discourses, we can now assess whether the party that won the recent elections in Greece, swiftly forming a coalition government, qualifies as populist or not. Obviously, this has to be examined against the background of the continuing liquidation of the post-authoritarian Greek party system under conditions of a largely enforced economic collapse and humanitarian catastrophe – what the new Greek finance minister has aptly called 'fiscal waterboarding'.

The story is more or less known. Amid a global economic crisis, Greece's debt and deficit were overnight declared unsustainable and draconian austerity measures were demanded by the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in return for a bailout agreement. The policies implemented induced an economic and social situation comparable only to the 1929 crash in the US: GDP contracted by 20 per cent between 2008 and 2012 and unemployment soared to 27 per cent, with youth unemployment reaching 60 per cent. It was obviously impossible that the ensuing frustration, anger and despair would sidestep party identification and the political process. The parties affected included those entrusted by the troika to implement austerity policies, tough fiscal discipline, radical budget cuts, massive privatisations and structural reforms of the neoliberal type. Against this background, the Greek radical left, Syriza, led by its young political leader, Alexis Tsipras, managed to appeal to and mobilise a noteworthy share of voters. Initially, in May 2012, Tsipras's Syriza coalition received 16.8 per cent of the vote, more than tripling its previous best. These numbers would rise even more in the elections of June 2012, in which Syriza enjoyed 26.9 per cent support. This upward course culminated in the party's victory of January 2015, with Syriza securing 36.3 per cent of the vote and an 8 per cent lead over second-placed New Democracy.

Syriza's programme, embracing as well as filtering most of the demands of the country's popular movements, was an alternative yet pragmatic mixture of policies involving a break with the so-called 'Memorandum' (the loan agreement between Greece and its emergency lenders signed in April 2010) and the politics of austerity. It demanded a renegotiation of debt (which currently stands at roughly 180 per cent of GDP) and promised to control both tax evasion by the wealthy and corruption, all while keeping Greece within the eurozone, respecting the latter's rules on balanced budgets and the like. However, from a psychosocial rather than a policy point of view, Syriza's emblematic pledge lay in their recognition of the suffering of the lower and the rapidly impoverished middle classes, with their construction as a political subject proper of 'the people' with a voice that deserved to be heard. Syriza promised to restore their dignity and represent their interests against the Greek and European establishment, thus breaking the omert? that surrounded the 'success story' of the eurozone, which had been declaring the end of the crisis and a return to 'normality' – even if, on the ground, this 'normality' felt like nothing but a euphemistic reference to the normalisation of the effects of the crisis, a perpetual continuation of crisis within other means.

If Syriza can be designated as populist, then this surely follows from the central role reserved for 'the people' in its discourse and its division of the social space into two opposing camps: 'them' (the establishment) and 'us', the establishment and the people, the power and the underdog, the elite (domestic and European) and the non-privileged, those who are 'up' and the others who are 'down'. In other words, Syriza interpolates a (political) subject that is tightly bound to collective action and a project of (partial) self-emancipation that works through a common lack attributed to the action of a clearly delimited adversary, both external and internal. This is a process of creation that clearly relies on the dichotomisation of social and political space and on privileging the signifier 'the people' as the proper name of this emerging collective subjectivity. It thus involves a truly political logic destabilising the TINA – 'there is no alternative' – dogma of the dominant technocratic discourse.[4] Similar developments can be observed in the way political forces in other European countries, like Podemos in Spain, have been shaping their strategies.

At any rate, if such a discursive and psychosocial profile can, to some extent, explain the appeal of Syriza before the elections, its victory and the formation of a coalition government afterwards was bound to create new challenges. It is a long-held belief that if populism can be beneficial while in opposition, it can become problematic when in government. It is, obviously, too early to judge the ability of Syriza to sustain its appeal in the long run, to create deep and affective bonds with its electorate. And yet its first handful of weeks in power have already provided an indication, which is noteworthy to the extent that it offers the raw material for a case study in political charisma.

Consolidating charisma: what happens to populism in power?

It seems that very few people sincerely believed that Syriza would make a real effort to stick to its pledge to voice the popular demand for an end to the austerity avalanche destroying Greek society. Such talk may be fine for an electoral rally in Athens but it would highly inappropriate for a Eurogroup meeting in Brussels, surely? Here, two logics clash: the political logic of democratic representation and the economic logic of a neoliberal 'business as usual' prioritisation that seems to value austerity over democracy and actively stamps out even the merest mention of the failure of the policies it imposes.

However, from his first days as prime minister, Tsipras made clear that honouring Syriza's contract with the Greek people remained his main priority. 'The present government can only be the voice of this people,' he declared in parliament. In doing so, he committed his party to breaking the eurozone's collective vow of silence. As Yanis Varoufakis, the finance minister, has added: 'It is time for what has been up to now said only when the microphones were closed to be voiced openly in the public European debate.' No wonder that this stance was met first with surprise and then with the wrath of dominant European circles. As a result, negotiations between Greece and the eurozone on the way forward are deadlocked, with all outcomes and scenarios (from the most benign to the most catastrophic) remaining open.

At any rate, Syriza's stance in the first weeks after taking office has already produced significant effects at the level of popular identifications with the party and its leader. Previously unable to speak (and even breathe) due to the aforementioned 'fiscal waterboarding' and its disastrous effects, Greeks have suddenly realised that they do have a voice and that this voice can be heard even in Brussels. 'Tsipras' strategy gives Greeks a voice' was the title of a recent article published on the Deutsche Welle website.[5] The article includes an interview with an unemployed woman that provides crucial insights into how Syriza's post-election strategy has strengthened the populist bonds of democratic representation:

'[A] quiet and determined middle-aged mother, [she] had long wanted a leader who stood up for the interests of Greeks, "not bankers, Eurocrats or German politicians". ["] "We have lost our money and our dignity these last five years. We can't let leaders in Brussels and Berlin continue to hit us with austerity. It's not working!" ["] So she's been relieved and heartened to see 40-year-old prime minister Alexis Tsipras, whose leftist, anti-austerity party Syriza came to power two weeks ago, stand up to everyone from eurozone finance chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem to Greek oligarchs evading taxes. "I hope he fights them all", she said. "I will be really disappointed if he backs down. I don't want to see another Greek politician lower his head to people who treat us like we're nothing."'

Recent opinion polls have captured the broader sociopolitical dynamics involved here too. A series of surveys conducted since Syriza took office has shown a remarkable surge in public support for the way it has acted in power, with around 70 per cent of respondents approving of its approach to the eurozone institutions. Support for political parties is also exhibiting dramatic shifts in one recent opinion poll, with Syriza receiving support in excess of 45 per cent and extending its lead over New Democracy to 27 per cent. In light of the recent extension of Greece's loan programme by four months by the Eurogroup and IMF, in return for a commitment to run all significant economic policies past Greece's creditors, it will be interesting to see if Syriza can maintain this level of support. The chance remains that Syriza will lose support if it has to make further concessions that go against some of its core pledges.

Nonetheless, to the extent that Tsipras and Syriza seem to be increasingly appealing to parts of the population that have never previously supported them, and have managed to build in a very short time such a remarkable level of approval, this may signal the 'charismatic investment' of Syriza's populist appeal. Of course, charisma has an established pedigree both in the social sciences – Max Weber's name instantly comes to mind – and within populism studies, where it is usually presented as evidence of the irrational and potentially dangerous nature of the populist link between leader and people. However, one should not underestimate the importance of charisma in times of crisis 'as an extraordinary force of symbolic change and an institutional-legal creation able to break with the limitations and constraints of traditionalism, formal legal-rational authority, and bureaucratic rule',[6] something that may have broader implications for the way we think about democratic leadership in general. Political anthropologist James Scott has offered such an analysis of charisma, revealing the mechanisms of its creation and consolidation.[7] These mechanisms are directly relevant to the post-election reality in Greece, but could, similarly, hold lessons for progressive political parties across the globe.

In Scott's overall schema, every social order or political institution (the European edifice, for example), every process of domination, 'generates a hegemonic public conduct and backstage discourse consisting of what cannot be spoken in the face of power'.[8] Thus, two transcripts emerge, one public, the other hidden. 'If subordinate discourse in the presence of the dominant is a public transcript,' he says, 'I shall use the term hidden transcript to characterise discourse that takes place "offstage", beyond direct observation by powerholders.'[9] Under relatively normal conditions, these hidden transcripts are rarely exposed. And yet, occasionally, when conditions enter the realm of the extraordinary, they storm the stage, dramatically reorienting the situation: 'the most explosive realm of politics is the rupture of the political cordon sanitaire between the hidden and the public transcript'.[10] So charisma is not a quality possessed by someone – it has less to do with 'personal magnetism' than with a socially produced reciprocity.[11] Such a reciprocity is created when something hidden, something foreclosed by the powers that be – the predicament, the grievances and the demands of a subordinate group – suddenly becomes sayable, establishing a charismatic bond between this subordinate group and the agent openly voicing the 'hidden transcript'.

Surely, the 'no alternative' dogma of eurozone austerity and its repetition of Europe's 'success story' in the face of social destruction qualifies as this kind of 'public transcript'. And suddenly a new player appears who breaks the cordon sanitaire and pledges to represent the demands of the previously excluded people, exposing the 'hidden transcript'.

As Varoufakis put it in an interview with the Guardian newspaper: 'We've lost everything. ["] So we can speak truth to power, and it's about time we do.'[12] No wonder that such a stance triggers such a remarkable surge in Syriza's approval ratings. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to argue that it constitutes a 'charismatic act', one that intensifies the populist bond between Syriza and the Greek electorate.

To what extent it will also lay the foundations for the hegemonic consolidation of a long-term charismatic relationship is, of course, impossible to predict. A lot will depend on the final outcome of the negotiations between the Greek government and the European institutions. Regardless, if voicing the despair and demand for dignity of a European citizenry eventually proves impossible for European institutions to bear, if it is deemed to be something that must be punished with excommunication or humiliation, then the fate of Syriza's populism will not be our most pressing concern, academic or political. At that point, it will be surpassed by other challenges, such as the obliteration of popular political representation by the ordoliberal framework and the mutation of post-democratic Europe into a state of 'managed democracy'.[13] To avoid all that, the eurozone establishment may be urgently in need of its Christopher Hitchens, of somebody who is willing to break the omert? around 'fiscal waterboarding' simply by confessing what everybody already knows: 'believe me, it's torture!'[14]

Yannis Stavrakakis is professor of political discourse analysis at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and Leverhulme visiting professor at Queen Mary, University of London.

This article appears in edition 21.4 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.


1. For a useful distinction between inclusionary and exclusionary populism, see Mudde C and Rovira Kaltwasser C (2013) 'Exclusionary vs Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America', Government and Opposition, 48(2): 147–174. ^back

2. For a more detailed account of this argument, see Stavrakakis Y (2014) 'The Return of "the People": Populism and Anti-Populism in the Shadow of the European Crisis', Constellations, 21(4): 505–517. ^back

3. This take on populist politics draws on the work of Ernesto Laclau and the so-called Essex school of discourse analysis. For more, see Ernesto L (2005) On Populist Reason, Verso, 2005; Panizza F (ed) (2005) Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, Verso. The Populismus research project is currently pursuing a series of research activities within this theoretical and methodological framework. ^back

4. This argument is fully developed in Stavrakakis Y and Katsambekis G (2014) 'Left-wing Populism in the European Periphery: The Case of SYRIZA', Journal of Political Ideologies, 19(2): 119–142. ^back

5. Kakissis J (2015) 'Tsipras' Strategy Gives Greeks a Voice', Deutsche Welle website, 9 February 2015. ^back

6. Kalyvas A (2008) The Politics of the Extraordinary, Cambridge University Press: 11. ^back

7. Scott J (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Yale University Press. ^back

8. Scott 1990: xii. ^back

9. Scott 1990: 4. ^back

10. Scott 1990: 18. ^back

11. Scott 1990: 221. ^back

12. Smith H (2015) 'Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis: "If I weren't scared, I'd be awfully dangerous"', Guardian, 13 February 2015. ^back

13. Wolin S (2008) Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, Princeton University Press. ^back

14. Hitchens C (2008) 'Believe Me, it's Torture!', Vanity Fair, August 2008. ^back