From the 'nation that was' to the 'people to come’ Interview of Panagiotis Sotiris by Thomas E. Goes

31st Aug, 2017

Interview of Panagiotis Sotiris by Thomas E. Goes.

Originally published in

From the 'nation that was' to the 'people to come’



1.       How would you describe the political situation in Greece today?

The political situation is determined by the rhythm of the imposition of the austerity policies and neoliberal reforms imposed by the EU, the IMF and the ECB, under the terms of the Third Memorandum. In fact, as part of the constant evaluation processes, which are part of the Memoranda, the SYRIZA - ANEL government has just signed what equals another Memorandum, accepting huge budget surpluses along with extra cuts on pensions and extra taxation in beginning 2019. At the same time 14 regional Airports have just been privatised and sold to a consortium led by FRAPORT and the government is planning the privatisation of large number of public thermoelectric stations.

The main opposition party, the centre-right New Democracy, which leads the polls, is calling for even more aggressive neoliberal policies, and all systemic political forces accept the inevitability of the austerity packages. The Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn still has a significant presence, despite the trial of its leadership that is underway and is attempting to make a return to the streets with attacks etc. On the left of the political spectrum, the Communist Party (KKE) combines anticapitalist rhetoric with sectarianism and an insistence that no immediate gains are possible and a rejection of any ‘transition’ demands such as exit from the Eurozone. Apart from that, the Greek Left is marked by the difficulties of cooperation and coordination of the forces the anti-EU Left (Popular Unity and ANTARSYA).

The social situation in Greece is very difficult because of the prolonged austerity policies and an economic depression without precedent. Wages are very low, especially for young people, the official unemployment rate is still over 21%, most new posts are part-time and precarious, there is a mass flight of highly qualified degree-holders abroad. A sense that there is no future prevails leading to a mixture of fear and atomised despair instead of the sense that change is possible that prevailed until 2015. The capitulation of the government of Alexis Tsipras during the summer of 2015 despite the tremendous show of determination from the part of the subaltern classes in the referendum has enhanced a feeling of helplessness and of the impossibility of change. This can account for the absence until now of social explosions despite the severity and harshness of the measures. It is only on particular concrete and localised battles and in practices of solidarity towards refugees that you still see some of the dynamics of the previous period.

At the same time, the elements of a deep political crisis and a potential crisis of hegemony are still here. The dominant classes are in no position to offer a positive narrative towards the subaltern classes and there is a constant erosion of any sense of democratic procedure. However, without a reconstitution of the possibility of an alternative it would be difficult to see social explosions or mass movements fuelled by the belief in the possibility of change.


2.       What are the reasons for this development?

The reasons for this development have to do with the inability of the Greek Left to actually have a strategy of ruptures that could stand up to the pressure by the EU, the IMF and the Troika. It was obvious that there was no progressive solution inside the Eurozone and the EU treaties, because they represented exactly the condition of reduced sovereignty and embedded neoliberalism that led to the Memoranda. After the 2010-12 movement sequence, which at certain points came close to having an almost insurrectionary character, especially during the so-called “Movement of the Squares”, most people placed their hopes upon a political change that would bring along a change in policies.

SYRIZA represented to the eyes of many people the way towards a political solution, since the ‘normal’ process of movements inducing pressure upon governments to change policies out of fear of political cost was no longer functioning in Greece. However, the deeply rooted Europeanism of SYRIZA and the belief (which also represented the dominant thinking of the bourgeois forces) that an exit from the Eurozone and the EU would be a disaster led to the capitulation of the summer of 2015 and the signing of the Third Memorandum. The fact that the government that supposedly represented the possibility of a rupture with austerity and represented the hope of change capitulated, enhanced the feeling that there is no alternative to austerity and led to disillusionment, despair, increased insecurity and a turn away from collective struggles.

The crisis of the Left became crisis of the movement. This unpreparedness for the level and intensity of the confrontation was not limited to SYRIZA but was a symptom of the entire Greek Left. Even the forces that had an anti-EU position failed to have a concrete plan for the exit process along with the necessary transition program. Moreover, despite the turn of large segments of the subaltern strata towards the Left, this remained within the limits of electoral representation. There was no effort to work upon the tectonic shifts in political representation in order to work towards a new ‘historical bloc’ in Greek society, as the combination of an alliance of the subaltern classes, an alternative narrative for society and the elaboration of new forms of organising new potential (counter)hegemonic apparatuses, based upon the collective experience and ingenuity emerging in the struggles. 


In Europe today we are experiencing the crisis of the European integration process which coincides, and is related dialectically to, with the global economic crisis and the fact that a new regime of accumulation that would guarantee long term profitability has not emerged yet, with the crisis of neoliberalism as a hegemonic project and with the crisis of a certain form of internationalisation of capital. 

The crisis of European Integration is evident in the very fact of Brexit – when the 5th economy of the world decides to exit the supposedly most advanced example of economic integration, obviously things are not really functioning – and also in the inability to answer the dynamics of the crisis, since the particular brand of European austerity only made things worse. Moreover, the systemic social violence unleashed upon peripheral societies by means of the austerity packages exemplifies the problems with European integration.

All these have also taken the form of a deep political crisis running through most European societies. There is a growing sense of distance between the political elites and European societies exemplified in widespread distrust for politicians and the feeling that the ‘revolving doors’ between political and business leave no room for actual social needs. This also takes the need for a renewed demand for democracy and popular sovereignty, a demand that so far mainly the Far Right has attempted to hijack by mixing it with its own racist, reactionary, xenophobic agenda.

I think that the Left should base its policies upon the main contradictions of this process. At the level of the economy it is obvious that today European integration and especially the monetary, financial and institutional architecture of the Eurozone and the various austerity mechanisms inscribed in European Treaties are eroding any sense of a ‘European social model’ and have been inducing austerity policies and neoliberal reforms. A rupture with austerity, as the dominant strategy of capital in Europe, means a rupture with the Eurozone and the framework of the EU treaties. There is no room for alternatives within the current architecture of the EU.

On the political level the crucial contradiction is the actual erosion of any pretension of democracy with the reduced sovereignty condition of the EU. In this sense, reclaiming popular sovereignty not in the nationalist sense of ‘national strength’ but in the progressive sense of reclaiming the collective democratic potential for self-determination is an urgent priority with regard to the crisis of legitimacy of the current forms of governance in Europe both at the national and the EU level.

Ideologically, this requires an intervention of the Left in the open terrain of the struggle to redefine the people. In the current context of the conflict between the attempt to incorporate traditional invocations of the people in the European context, with all the references to Europe as our common home, and the Far Right’s attempt to reclaim the people but in reactionary, nationalist and racist terms, the Left should attempt to reconstruct an emancipatory conception of the people as the unity of all those that share the same demands, struggles and hopes for a better life, regardless of ethnic origin, race, nationhood, or religion, a unity in struggle against the forces of capital.

4. On the German Left it is not very common and popular to talk about “the people”, much less to see it as something that has to be part of its strategy. For example, popular classes – in German Volksklassen – isn’t a notion that is used. Partly this is due to our history. Moreover, for larger sections of the radical left “the people” is an issue of the right. What would you answer to these comrades?

It is true that in the German context the connotation of the word ‘people’ and its derivatives are usually associated with the Far-Right and even Nazism. This is due to the fact that in German people and nation are treated as similar concepts (something made evident by the fact that the German word ‘Volk’ can be translated as either people or nation).

However, I do not think it is only a question of ‘translation’. This highlights an actual tension running through the notion of the people. On the one hand, we have indeed the identification of the people and the nation, in the sense of an ‘imagined community’ of supposedly common history and identity that enables the full establishment of bourgeois hegemony, legitimises class exploitation and oppression (since we are all part of the ‘people) and can fuel nationalism and racism.

On the other hand, we can have a different notion of the people, a notion that distinguishes and opposes the people to the nation. In such a perspective, the people has nothing to do with common ‘history’ or ethnicity, but with a common condition of subalternity, resistance and struggle in contemporary societies. In such a perspective, the people have nothing to do with nationalism or with the abstract identification of the ‘sovereign people’ offered by constitutional texts; rather it refers to the potential unity of all those segments of society that, one way or the other, depend upon selling their labour power in order to survive, the potential alliance of the subaltern classes.

This is also a post-national and post-colonial conception of the people, since it is based upon a common condition of exploitation, oppression and struggle, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. It is the potential ‘collective will’ of all those that live at a specific geographical space, share the same condition and the same desire for a better life and want to struggle together, against all those that exploit and oppress them. In this sense, immigrants and refugees are part of this potential people, in contrast to capitalists, bankers and rentiers. We can say that we talking about a ‘people to come’ instead of a ‘nation that was’. We are not talking a supposedly common past, but about a common present and future. 

I am not saying that this is an easy task, since it requires a collective effort to build common struggles, to create common spaces of struggle, to fully acknowledge, accept and face the trauma of racism and colonialism, to see the histories, cultures and identities of migrants and refugees as contributions to the formation of a new popular culture, based upon solidarity and common struggle but also upon the struggle against all forms of racism. The crucial aspect will be exactly a new ‘narrative’ for our societies, against the embedded neoliberalism of the EU, a renewed socialist project based upon the collective elaboration, experimentation and ingenuity of social movements in struggle.

In such a perspective, this reference to the people as part of a strategy for a new historic bloc (the articulation of a broad alliance of the subaltern, a program of deep transformations and new forms of organisation and collective intellectuality), is rooted in a Marxist class perspective and represents an intensification of class antagonism, both social and political. This perspective is opposed to what we can describe as ‘left populism’ which is based upon a conception of the people as a discursive construction and as a result of forms of political communication.

Theoretically, it is opposed because I insist of a class perspective, namely the people as class alliance related to the dynamics and contradictions of capitalist accumulation. Politically, it is opposed because I think that ‘left populism’ treats the question of organisation in terms of ‘electoral machines’; whereas I insist on the need for a united front based which could bring together different currents, movements, forms of representation but also help the emergence of new forms of collective critical political intellectuality as Gramsci has suggested, in an attempt to create the ‘Modern Prince’ of our times.

5. Could you deepen a little bit more, how "creating a people" is related to class struggle and class alliances? Some people would argue that there is no need for a collective subject called "the people", as wage earners are the majority of the population. Instead of "creating a people in struggle" the would argue for a broad mobilisation of the working class.

When I refer to “creating a people” I am referring to a complex process of articulating not just a social alliance but what we might call, using Gramscian terms, a potential historic bloc, that is the historical dynamic of a potential working class hegemony, in the sense of not only a broad social alliance of the subaltern classes, but also of a transitional program that could offer an alternative non capitalist narrative and political organisational forms of an expansive, participatory democracy from below that is the ‘superstructural’ form adequate to such a programme of profound social transformation and a new socialist perspective.

Although, I agree that in contemporary advanced capitalist social formations the vast majority of the subaltern classes can be defined in terms of wage earning, yet at the same time I think that simply calling them all “working class” is not very accurate. In this sense, we must still think in terms of a broad social alliance that comprises the working class, large segments of the traditional and new petty bourgeois social strata, state employees, youths, intellectuals etc. Poulantzas uses this reference to the people in the sense of a broad alliance under the hegemony of the working class and of course we can also think, in its own particular socio-historical context, the way Mao thought of the workers-peasants’ alliance in the Chinese revolution.

However, the people is not just a synonym for a social alliance. In my use of it, it refers to a particular political condition of radicalisation, politicisation, mass mobilisation, and confrontation with the forces of capital, national and international, and in this sense it requires also the emergence of a collective political subject, a left radical social and political front that could play the role of the “Modern Prince” in the formation and creation of such a people.

However, this emphasis on the political aspects of the construction of the people does not mean a detachment from class analysis. I strongly disagree with the tendency to treat the people as mainly a discursive construction or simply as the result of rhetorical or ideological interpellation, tendency one might see in thinkers but also political currents (the leadership of Podemos being the first to come to mind) influenced by the work of Laclau. Such an approach underestimates the importance of actual social and historical processes and conditions that create such a condition of social alliance inside the people. In contrast, I insist that processes such as increased exploitation, precariousness, job flexibility, privatisation of basic social infrastructure, indebtedness, all contribute to a common social condition, create common grievances and create the terrain for common struggles and demands for democracy and social justice. It is here in the common condition of exploitation, oppression, resistance and struggle that I see the potential for the emergence of the people.

6. Let us come back to the task of “defending popular sovereignty”. Isn't this a nationalist trap? For example, Marine Le Pen also claims to defend the people of Europe against the EU and - importantly - the German government. What would a strategy look like that doesn't fall into the trap of developing a nationalistic discourse? Or to put it differently: What is the difference between the right and the left defending sovereignty?

I would like to be very clear. In contemporary societies, in particular European societies we can no longer identify the people with the nation conceived as common ethnicity, history and culture. We must accept the reality of mass migration and of refugee waves, face the fact that the contemporary working class (and the other subaltern classes and social groups) is multinational, and of course deal with the real trauma of colonialism, not only as the dark side of recent European history but also, and mainly, as the persistence of colonialism inside modern European societies. Nationalism and racism (the distinction is not so easy nowadays), when reproduced inside the subaltern classes, lead to divisions and antagonisms that only help the forces of capital and their hegemony and domination.

That is why need a definition and conception of the people that is post-national and post-colonial. For me it is the unity of all those that live, work and struggle here (“here” meaning a particular European society), regardless of their origin, ethnicity, religion, gender etc. This requires extended forms that enable this unity (struggles for full political rights, opening up of trade unions and political organisation to migrants and refugees), but also an acceptance from the part of the movements of the ‘national’ population that migrants and refugees have their own right to their own histories, representations and forms of identification and, therefore, it is not a question of “assimilation” and “integration”. Moreover, one might say that the ‘national’ population must learn by means of this process of the actual histories of colonial domination and exploitation, in many instances occulted or distorted in official European histories.

Rather, we are talking about the construction of new complex forms of popular identities, based upon common conditions and struggles, that make use of these different elements, representations, imaginaries and histories as part a collective process of creating new forms of the “popular”, interlinked with processes of social transformation and a renewed socialist perspective. It is exactly this anti-nationalist and anti-colonial element that draws a line of demarcation and confrontation with the xenophobic Right and Far-Right.

Consequently, what I am referring to as “popular sovereignty” refers neither to the traditional ‘constitutional’ definition, not to a nationalist rhetoric. I am referring to the potential formation of a popular “collective will” namely a collective project of the subaltern classes, regardless of origin, ethnicity, religion, to become the leading forces of society against the forces of capital and in the aim of profound social transformation and experimentation with post-capitalist social forms. 

7. So what are the tasks for the European left today?

I think that the left in Europe must acknowledge and understand its deep strategic crisis and engage in a process of recomposition of all the elements that redefine the very essence of the Left. In a certain sense, what is needed is a ‘Constituent Process’ for the Left as a force of emancipation and transformation. This process requires

  • An attempt to recompose and reconfigure the social movements and in general the organisation of the subaltern classes. Work within established trade union etc structures is indispensable, yet it is not enough. New forms or precariousness, mobility and flexible labour, especially for the younger segments of the labour force, require new forms of organising, new more inclusive structures, new forms of intervention that combine the work inside the workplace with solidarity and ‘external’ campaigns.  New challenges such as working with refugees and migrants require new forms of solidarity movements. The situation of youth, the ‘weak link’ and the target of all the violence of unemployment and capitalist restructuring requires new forms of youth movements. Moreover, all these require a new democracy of struggle, active participation by members and new forms of coordinating struggles. The Left should see this as an urgent aspect of the process of recomposition instead of just trying to be the left wing of existing trade union bureaucracies.
  • An attempt to rethink strategy. Until now strategy for most currents of the Left meant thinking either in abstract terms about socialism or in tactical terms about a potential anti-neoliberal or anti-austerity government. This meant that real questions of strategy such as the relation between a transitional programme and socialist perspective or between participation in government and mobilisation from below were never discussed. When the Left actually confronted the question of power the results have been disastrous, as exemplified by the capitulation of SYRIZA. A rethinking of strategy must move, in my opinion, in two main directions. One has to do with the question of the programme. A transitional programme should not be only a set of grievances and demands, it must be an alternative, yet coherent narrative for societies and in Europe in should have the rupture with the Eurozone and the EU as the starting point of a programme based upon nationalisations, new forms of participatory democratic planning, workers’ control and self-management. The other question has to do with the question of power. The Left should have no illusions regarding governmental power, even if in conditions of acute political crisis there might be a possibility for the Left to achieve governmental power. However, from it is necessary to think this questions in terms of a ‘permanent dual power strategy’ which means the full development of popular struggles and forms and organising from below to counter the capitalist strategies and priorities inscribed in the very materiality of state apparatuses.
  • An attempt to rethink the centrality of the united front. Taking into consideration the relative fragmentation of the forces of the radical Left in Europe the notion of a front acquires an urgency. However, we must avoid the tried and tested idea of the simple ‘anti-austerity front’ or even worse, as the case of the Italian Left in the 2000s exemplifies, of the front against a common enemy. We need fronts around common strategies which means around the main points of a transitional programme and clear positions on strategic issues. That is why today Europeanism is an important dividing line in the Left, because it represents the possibility of capitulation to the dominant capitalist strategy, as the case of Greece illustrates. We also need fronts that are not simple electoral campaigns but are actual democratic political processes, that enable members and militants to engage in the debates, that enable learning from the collective ingenuity and experimentation coming from struggles, movements and solidarity practices, that are, to borrow an expression from Gramsci, laboratories of new collective militant intellectualities. 

8. With regard to these considerations - what tasks do you see for the German Left today

It is not easy to indicate tasks to comrades from other countries. However, I think that it would be important if the German Left took a position against the current institutional, monetary and financial architecture of the EU and in particular of the Eurozone. It is important to explain to the broad masses of the working class and the other subaltern social groups that the Eurozone has not contributed to the prosperity of workers in Germany but only to the profit of German corporations. To remind us all that the price paid for the avoidance of the more ‘catastrophic’ aspects of the crisis has been austerity, extreme flexibilisation of labour relations, mini-jobs and intensified exploitation and to insist that in a next phase of the crisis (and the EU is more than crisis-prone) working class people will be the target of the attack.

In the sense, it is important to insist that the ‘German’ working class has much more in common with the new wave of migrants and refugees but also with the working people of the European South than with German corporations and their political representatives. I understand than in the current conjuncture this is not an easy task, however it is necessary. Simply criticising austerity and calling for “another EU” is not a solution and, in the end, enhances Europeanism and the hegemony of the bourgeoisie.

It is not possible to ‘reform’ the EU and recent developments offer the necessary proof.  Such a rupture with the dominant bourgeois strategy also calls for the elaboration of an alternative production model, a new project for society, beyond the simple anti-austerity demand of redistribution and increased social spending. Of course, I am not underestimating the importance and urgency of such demands; what I am stressing is that by themselves they do not offer a radical alternative to the existing social configuration, only a more progressive and just version of it. This cannot counter bourgeois hegemony. In contrast, a broader alternative narrative based on the rupture with the European project (in the sense that the EU and the Eurozone must be dismantled), nationalisations, new forms of workers’ control and a return to much more socially and ecologically sustainable productive practices instead of the competitiveness/export model, could be starting points. Along with the emphasis on the unity of working people beyond national, ethic, religious divisions.