The scope of the Greek defeat


Jan Blommaert

(translation: Adelei van der Velden)

The chronicle of bad decisions in Brussels and Athens has produced a small interim decision. After 17 hours of discussions by a group of weary, impatient, irrational and biased people, there is an “agreement” signed with Greece (see link below). Juncker calls this “agreement” a “win-win” situation “without winners or losers”, which according to Michel even has “hope” and “optimism” to offer. For whom, is the question.

Tsipras takes a series of demands back to Athens only to find their match in the requirements imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. The most urgent requirements are well known (tax reform, pension reform, etc.) and note that all these things are expressed in the most vague terminology (“broadening the tax base” for example, or “Modernizing Governance”, or constant references to “best practices” in the OECD or even “Internationally” – more vague is unfeasible), so there is plenty of room for manipulation in interpretation of actions and results.

Note also that the Greek vision included a number of important points (a) it  revolved around a tax shift from poor to rich. On this the document says virtually nothing, except for the aforementioned super vague “broadening the tax base”. Those measures, as we shall see later, are fully subject to the approval of the Troika. (b) Strengthening of the government, rather than a reduction of it, and (c) the entire Greek democratic control over the economic recovery plans, while international partners kept a say in the financial recovery plan. In addition, certain items were rejected a priori, while other proposals (the primary surplus, for instance) were stressed.

Note that these issues were also preserved in the “final proposals” of Tsipras to the Euro zone, as I explained in an earlier piece. That explains why these proposals were not a “capitulation”: they followed up on the approach already started in the proposals brought forth by Varoufakis in February this year. That this can not be seen as a submission to Europe was also apparent, needless to say, from the fact that it took 17 hours before the EU was able to define a position, and that this position is completely different from the Greek proposals, issued from February until last week. Only the current agreement is a defeat, and a defeat of enormous proportions.

Let us see what remains of the former Greek points, and what the Greeks now have to swallow.

  1. In the urgent demands there are the two points that were expressly rejected in February by Varoufakis as measures that would only deepen the recession: using VAT as an instrument, and reducing or delaying pensions. These expressly rejected items now need to be implemented. Also the privatizations, of which Varoufakis said they should be considered on a case by case basis, have been torn from the hands of the Greeks – not officially (Tsipras will explain that it is the Greek government that will do so) but effectively they are, because the EU is supervising the privatization and assesses their ‘implementation’ in a binding way.
  2. There is no longer a reduction of the primary surplus – another core requirement of Varoufakis in February. The structure of this surplus through an absurd 4.5% of GDP determines the rhythm of the budgets, and thus the austerity. Varoufakis proposed to reduce it to 1.5%. The document gives no figures, but “ambitious targets” which, if not met, should lead to “quasi-automatic spending cuts”. Moreover, this must be cast in a law by Wednesday. Needless to say that the Greeks are not the only ones who have a say in this: everything is under strict supervision.

“• full implementation of the relevant provisions of the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, in particular by making the Fiscal Council operational before finalizing the MoU and introducing quasi-automatic spending cuts in case of deviations from ambitious primary surplus targets after seeking advice from the Fiscal Council and subject to prior approval of the Institutions;”

  1. Furthermore theFebruarysectiononthelabor market has disappeared, in which the Greekswanted to followthe recommendations of theInternational Labor Organization. Whatwehavenowis this:

“• on labour markets, undertake rigorous reviews and modernisation of collective bargaining, industrial action and, in line with the relevant EU directive and best practice, collective dismissals, along the timetable and the approach agreed with the Institutions. On the basis of these reviews, labour market policies should be aligned with international and European best practices, and should not involve a return to past policy settings which are not compatible with the goals of promoting sustainable and inclusive growth;”

In plain language: collective labour agreements and the right to strike should submit to the chains. In a country where wages have fallen enormously, this is disastrous. And organized civil society also ceases to exist as a force in labour relations.

  1. Here we seeimmediatelyhow wide theEU conceives “economic policy”. EVERYTHINGfallsunder this label. While oneofthe fundamental elements ofthe Februarytext by Varoufakiswas thathe made adistinctionbetweena “financial” problem (in which others mayhavetheirsay) and”economic” problems(in which theGreek governmentis the onlyresponsibleactor).Thisdistinctionisreplaced here bytheclassicalelastic concept that”economic” is defined so broadly that it covers allpossible policies.
  2. That isthe next point.WhileSYRIZAexplicitlyrejected theinfluenceofthe Troika, a rejection to which itowed itsvictory, the Troikais back andstronger than ever.The Greekshave toswallowanunprecedentedmeasure, as you can read below.

“• to fully normalize working methods with the Institutions [= the Trojka] (…) The government needs to consult and agree with the Institutions on all draft legislation in relevant areas with adequate time before submitting it for public consultation or to Parliament.”

First, who decides what is ‘relevant’? Probably not Tsipras. Secondly, it is un-be-lie-va-ble that a political EU meeting imposes on a Member State to switch off its parliament and reduce it to a formalism. Legislative work is defined here as something that begins with the government, then goes to the Troika, and then finally to parliament (where amendments may again have to pass through the Troika). While we thought the parliament was the “legislator” in a democracy. The Troika checks here both the government and the parliament. It is indescribable that the EU imposes such a way to operate. And this is called NORMALIZATION of the methods of cooperation with the Troika. So this is “normal.”

  1. Moreover,andeven more mind-boggling: the Greekshave to roll back laws that were voted democratically:

“With the exception of the humanitarian crisis bill, the Greek government will reexamine with a view to amending legislations that were introduced counter to the February 20 agreement by backtracking on previous programme commitments or identify clear compensatory equivalents for the vested rights that were subsequently created.”

So, the Greek rule of law ceases to exist. A law that has been approved in a sovereign country can now be canceled by unelected external forces voted. Never demonstrated before in the EU.

  1. Tsiprassays this all is compensated by two things: an aid packageandadebt restructuring. As forthe aid program:watch how conditionally this has been formulated: thesummit”takes note” of a “possible” aid program, it asksthe Troikato examinehowthe aid packagecan be reduced(!!)through measures which further erode theroleof the GreekGovernment, and points tothe fact thatmoreneoliberalism allows for less support.

“The Euro Summit takes note of the possible programme financing needs of between EUR 82 and 86bn, as assessed by the Institutions. It invites the Institutions to explore possibilities to reduce the financing envelope, through an alternative fiscal path or higher privatisation proceeds. Restoring market access, which is an objective of any financial assistance programme, lowers the need to draw on the total financing envelope.”

  1. With regard to debt restructuring, this is also just a “rain check”. The Eurogroup is “ready to examine” whether there are “possible” and “necessary” “complementary measures” to be taken regarding the debt. BUT: (a) what is possible is just delay or spreading of the debt payments; (b) completely depending on the “full execution” from the rest of the agreement, and (c) with exception of real debt cancellation.

“Against this background, in the context of a possible future ESM programme, and in line with the spirit of the Eurogroup statement of November 2012, the Eurogroup stands ready to consider, if necessary, possible additional measures (possible longer grace and payment periods) aiming at ensuring that gross financing needs remain at a sustainable level. These measures will be conditional upon full implementation of the measures to be agreed in a possible new programme and will be considered after the first positive completion of a review. The Euro Summit stresses that nominal haircuts on the debt cannot be undertaken.”

Conclusion: there is simply nothing left anymore of the views of SYRIZA before and during the elections, of their Government Declaration, and even of  the plan by Varoufakis of February, which in itself was a major break with what went before.

The role of the Troika is even more extended, and Greece as legal construction is now fully in the position of a protectorate. Its executive power is controlled by the Troika, which takes all legislative work from the hands of the parliament. End of the democratic institutions as we know them.

The content of the agreement does not contain a single core element anymore of the plan Varoufakis submitted to the Euro zone in February. Every fundamental issue has been removed and replaced by perfectly orthodox neoliberal positions. It asks Syriza to destroy trade unions, to make the labor market entirely flexible, to sell off public assets, reduce or delay pensions. Of a more efficient Greek government remains nothing: the government is now back in Brussels and Washington, not in Athens.

And en route this informal club of State and Government leaders has on top of this abolished the sovereignty of an EU Member State, cancelled its rule of law, and rejected the cornerstone of Western democracy – the separation of powers. Surely something that creates “hope and optimism”. Until the day the same is applied to their own country.



Bye bye Montesquieu? How the EU redefines the “trias politica”


Jan Blommaert 

In the “agreement” concluded between the informal EU-summit and Greece on 13-07-2015, a remarkable statement was made, one that formally puts an end to two centuries of democracy-as-we-know-it. Here it is.

The government needs to consult and agree with the Institutions on all draft legislation in relevant areas with adequate time before submitting it for public consultation or to Parliament.”

“The Institutions” is shorthand here for what is more widely known as “the Troika”, the technocratic body composed of members of the IMF, the European Commission and the ECB and deployed in debt-ridden countries such as Greece. This body has no formal status and has, needless to say, no democratic statute. That means, concretely, that it is in no way publicly accountable for its decisions and actions, and that it cannot be in any way sanctioned by those affected by its decisions and actions. But this is unremarkable: the so-called “EU-summit” that acts as author of this clause is in itself an informal construction: it is not the EU Council, nor the Commission, let alone the Parliament acting here, but an ad-hoc “upgrade” of this other informal EU-construction, the so-called “Eurogroup”. Meetings of such bodies are in camera and not minuted. Formal control and democratic response are, thus, excluded.

Observe that the presence of the Troika as the all-powerful agent in determining the course of austerity policies in Greece – and the lack of democratic sovereignty following from that – was one of the key themes that propelled Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza party to a landslide electoral victory in January 2015. The acceptance of the Troika as an even more powerful actor is probably Tsirpas’s greatest defeat in the negotiations with the Eurogroup.

So let us return to the main point here. In the clause quoted above, the EU summit defines legislative work: it starts from the government, passes on to the Troika, and then ends in Parliament for “public consultation”.

Since Montesquieu defined the “trias politica” as the cornerstone of the modern democratic institutional architecture, the government is the “executive” branch, the elected parliament the “legislative” (the third, “judicial” branch is less relevant here). Put simply: laws are made in and by Parliament and then handed to the government for implementation. What the exhausted, frustrated and impatient political leaders present at the EU-summit (who in their own country undoubtedly would see the separation of powers through the “trias” as a sacrosanct item) have now written down, black on white, is the exact reversal: laws are drafted by the government, which thus becomes the “legislative” power as well as the “executive” one, while the elected Parliament is now openly reduced to “public consultation”, not decision. For in between both, now, stands a third party: the unelected (and, in effect, foreign) technocrats of the Troika, accountable to exactly no one, who act as ursurpers of both the executive and legislative powers in – what we still encouraged to call – a “democratic EU member state”. Observe that the possibility of legislative initiatives emerging from the parliamentary floor is not even entertained in the text of the agreement.

In a crisp but perplexing phrase, then, all of this is presented as the way “to fully normalize working methods with the Institutions“. This, in the eyes of its eminent authors, is normal “democratic” (or whatever) procedure. While it would be a violation of the Constitution in every EU member state, and remains the criterion defining the difference between a “parliamentary democracy” and, say, a dictatorship or a totalitarian system..

Not some obscure bunch of antipolitical technocrats has come up with this termination of the “trias”; but democratically elected political leaders meeting in an informal, but consequential, setting. These elected leaders will now have to defend this in their respective national parliaments. It would be good if democratic parliamentarians would raise this redefinition of the fundamental democratic institutional architecture, and ask them explicitly whether they really mean what they wrote down. I am sure that some strange responses will be forthcoming.



Seminar on Howard Becker’s “Outsiders”.


Jan Blommaert

Howard Becker’s classic study “Outsiders” (1963) demonstrated that there is, in actual fact, no “mainstream” – just sets of separate and connected “niches” with their own knowledge and normative system, in power relationships with others. In this seminar I discuss the symbolic-interactional background of Becker’s work, review its main theses, and point towards contemporaries such as E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Michel Foucault and others who contributed to the “de-mainstream-ization” of social thought in the 1960-1970s.

Listen to the seminar on this topic (10 February 2015, Tilburg University):

A free pdf of the book “Outsiders” can be downloaded from:

Click to access File:Becker_Howard_Outsiders_Studies_In_The_Sociogy_Of_Deviance_1963.pdf



Jan Blommaert 


Anachronistic thinking

A crisis such as the one that rocks the EU at present is in essence a process of ultra-rapid social change, in which the disruptive effects of the crisis are being turned into alternative, non-mainstream patterns of social behavior and social structuring. And part of what we see as the crisis, is the application of anachronistic frames of thought to such new social structures. Responses to forms of social behavior inspired by the need to escape the crisis, so become part of that crisis – they add a layer of ideological crisis to the economic, social and political crisis we can witness. Aspects of behavior are included in definitions of what goes wrong in our societies, they are seen as problematic; while for those who developed them, they are effective solutions to critical problems in life.

Two tendencies can be singled out as examples of anachronistic thinking. One: the increasing pressure to continue seeking solutions within the mainstream – people need to adjust and adapt to standard trajectories sketched, a while ago, as the ideal trajectory for European societies out of the crisis and towards prosperity. Two: the increasing use of state violence as the main tool to control non-mainstream behaviors.

The second aspect does not demand much explanation here. The “unrest” (in itself an anachronism) spotted by authorities in the EU is answered by the deployment of riot police forces and by the rise of a huge network of electronic and technological surveillance online and offline. This line of response is old, and it goes back to the perpetual tension between “the street and the seat”: the necessity in institutional democracies to seek solutions to any social issue through traditional parliamentary policy-developing work, continuously challenged by organized or grassroots mobilization outside of the institutional channels. Taking to the street is as old as democracy itself; violent responses to it by the authorities as well. The more unrest we currently witness – millions of Europeans demonstrate on an almost daily basis in the EU – the more spectacular the responses of the institutionalized democracies become. They now face a “danger” not hitherto experienced: invisible “mobs” active on the Internet and capable of causing major harm to the online branches of institutionalized democracies. Wikileaks is the most outspoken example of this form of activism in recent years, but in a more general sense, the growth and development of effective and large online networks of activists, and the widespread usage of electronic media in public debate all across the EU, are causes for concern for the security branches of EU governments.

The first aspect is more interesting, so let us spend some more attention to it.

The pressure of the mainstream

The EU has defined itself in a series of Treaties as potentially the most prosperous society on earth. These definitions are drawn within a broadly capitalist frame – prosperity will be generated by private property and free-market processes – and critically include an emphasis on knowledge. Europe, says the Lisbon Treaty, is on its way to become the core of a global knowledge economy driven by a large workforce prepared for this knowledge economy by exceptionally high levels of education. The older Bologna strategy, tailored to shape a unified market of higher education, is a key building block for this strategy, and the EU wishes to see terrific increases in higher education enrollment in the near future.

Young Europeans, thus, are offered a kind of “standard trajectory” based on progression through levels of institutionalized, formal education, the finality of which is insertion into a private-industry workforce producing innovative knowledge products. This trajectory, one can say, is that of the “winners”; while other, deviant trajectories are those of “losers”. Or, in an even more oppressive sense, the standard trajectory is that of “normality” within the EU social imagination, while others are “abnormal”. This trajectory is enforceable: the availability of “white collar jobs” is said to be increasingly clustered within this knowledge economy, while jobs outside of it are projected to be precarious and lowly salaried. Jobs, furthermore, no longer organically lead to “careers”. The labor market doctrine of “Flexicurity” projects a future of labor frequently interrupted, in response to conjunctural shifts, by periods of being laid off, being re-trained and re-inserted in segments of the labor market then in expansion. “Careers” become fully subject to flexible responses to the law of supply and demand.

Connected to this focus on knowledge economy labor markets and careers, the EU assumes a status-quo in terms of social structure. A large and highly educated middle class will dominate the institutional democracies of the EU. They will be affluent and display the patterns of consumption that have turned the EU into the most dynamic consumer economy on earth. The working-class is supposed to shrink and diminish in terms of political influence, since traditional industrial production will gradually give way to the smart economy envisaged by the EU.

This, then, is the mainstream which is offered to young Europeans. The road to “normalcy” as a young European is: to pursue the highest possible levels of education, to deploy the skills thus accumulated into high-profit private knowledge industries, to flexibly respond to economic shifts, and to continue consuming in the ways deemed appropriate for an affluent middle-class. All of this is politically surrounded by the institutions of classical democracy: elected representative parliaments and nation-state governments responding (flexibly, again) to a higher scale-level of governance, the EU; which in turn flexibly responds to the tactics of a global private business scale.

The problem

This, however, does not work. Or at least, this mainstream ideal appears to be extraordinarily vulnerable to convulsions in the global business cycles, resulting in a situation, such as the one now experienced, in which extraordinary high numbers of young people become and remain unemployed, incapable of turning their exceptional skills into progress on the standard mainstream trajectory, entering (perhaps for an indefinite period) the “precariat”. And “switching off”, so to speak.

Since 2008, the EU has seen an explosion of new social, cultural and political movements, tied together by accusations of the system not living up to its promises and by a rejection of systemic features of the standard trajectory just sketched. I emphasize the term “systemic”: protest is not, or surely not only, about surface features of the system – the distinction, let us say, between a conservative or a left-wing government in the capital. The rejection is fundamental and targets the key features of the social, economic and political mission statement designed by the EU through its most recent Treaties. The system of parliamentary representative democracy, in control of the public sphere and civil society, is challenged by the construction of local or transnational forms of deliberative and self-governing communities (challenging, one can observe, the scalar order of the system, in which decisions are distributed over the different layers of institutionalized politics), and by invading the public sphere by means of several new forms of message-making and communication.

The latter includes a broad range of internet-based “citizen journalism” news media (known earlier on, as “micromedia”), network-organizing social media activities often leading to “offline” effects (such as flashmobs) and characterized by the unpredictable “virality” of certain messages, exchanges of hacking skills targeted at “democratizing” the knowledge of the state(s) and emancipating those who might be victims of such knowledge. Wilileaks and Anonymous, thus, have been responsible for some of the most high-profile forms of activism in recent years: the leaking of millions of classified documents shedding light on the “dark forces” of market capitalism and established politics; and the successful blockading and sabotaging of crucial electronic tools of governance. All of this is achieved “off the streets”, is therefore hard to imagine as a form of social activism, and leads to increased encroachments by governments into the free world of the internet.

And there is more. In several parts of the EU, young people increasingly appear to refuse to embark on the standard trajectory of knowledge-economy middle class careers. They leave schools and refuse higher degree training, and rather opt for lives in alternative economic, social and political environments. They start small shops, grow and produce alternative products – organic food, hemp, home-made clothes and appliances – and choose to live in alternative social units deviating fundamentally from the traditional family-based units. Squatter communities all over the EU now form a huge population, and people organize sharing-based and crowd-sourced economic forms of survival, withdrawing from consumer capitalism. Crowdfunding is a popular strategy for financing new forms of entrepreneurship, avoiding the standard templates of commercial banking. This is no longer “marginal”.

Most of these alternative forms of social organization are seen by the authorities as “problems”, as forms of “rebellion” and “dissent” – and thus illegitimate, perhaps inspired by anti-systemic political ideologies such as anarchism, and potentially endangering the stability of the current status-quo. They are therefore targeted as potentially dangerous by security forces, and the rise of such new communities is a general cause of concern for powerful observers such as the IMF, who see this development as a form of social instability.


Such interpretations of what is different as potentially threatening have a very old pedigree in Europe, of course. (E.P Thomson noted decades ago that stability, like revolution, has its own system of terror.) As soon as alternative forms of life leave the fringes of statistics and demography, and become massively visible, “rebellion” may be replaced as a label by “revolution”, and a crackdown is to be expected.

These interpretations, however, can also be seen as persistent anachronisms that fail to capture the positive and problem-solving potential of such phenomena and developments. In other words: what is currently seen as a “problem” might only be a problem for those who try to impose a specific hegemony; for those who reject that hegemony, it may effectively be a solution.

Squatters solve a critical problem for themselves: homelessness or the exploitative aspects of a housing market driven by speculative capitalist forces, increasingly unaffordable in times of recession. Organic small-scale farmers solve their problem of unemployment and lack of income; citizen journalists solve a problem of disinformation and manipulation by the large commercial or state-owned mass media; crowdfunding solves a problem of lack of solvency or creditworthiness as a customer in commercial banking, and so forth.

Interestingly, almost all of these alternative forms of social, economic and political organization emphasize a democratic idealism, again solving a problem of lack of legitimacy, voice and impact in the established institutional systems of democracy. While such developments, therefore, have an anti-systemic dimension – of rejection and withdrawal from the mainstream – they also have a constructive and positive dimension reflecting a genuine concern about the quality of life in the social, economic and political mainstream. If this mainstream has just unemployment, mystification or exploitation to offer, a better life can be built outside of it.

And further

These non-mainstream alternative contain possibly highly relevant ideas, methods and reflections, and do not necessarily represent a failure of “integration” in an institutionally scripted mainstream, but a constructive critique of the assumption of “integration” itself. If young and potentially highly “useful” people switch off and abandon the trajectory towards mainstream integration, they do not choose the void as an alternative: they design and develop another trajectory which reflects their present concerns, needs and ideals. Thus, the political distinction is not between the mainstream and chaos – it is between different mainstreams, all of them seen and argued for as fulfilling, worth pursuing, and legitimate.

An investigation of such different mainstreams, the trajectories of access they require, the resources they reflect, gather and deploy, and the meaning they have for the people involved, may provide possible solutions for several key systemic problems presently experienced socially, economically and politically, and it is good to realize that these key systemic problems are real and are often the trigger for young people to switch off and “reset” their lives. In other words, the very fact of switching off, of people abandoning the (single institutionalized) “mainstream”, is an indication not just of the possibility of anti-hegemonic alternatives but proof of their existence and practicability. It is not as if alternatives have to be invented: millions of people already live in them. And rather than perceiving such people as “losers” who consciously opted for a life in the margins, we can see such margins as “centers” in their own right, as alternative “mainstreams” in which people spend considerable efforts and deploy considerable amounts of competence and skills so as to make them worth living, and equivalent – if not superior – to what the institutionalized standard trajectory has to offer them in the way of a life and a future.

A crisis such as the one that has marked the past decade will not be solved by means of anachronisms. Solving it sustainably – the opposite of patching up what is there – requires explorations of all and any counter-hegemonic ideas that point towards systemic alternatives. This work, Ibelieve, is to the benefit of all, even if it might aggravate and unnerve some.