Because democracy, as the Greeks know better than anyone, is a matter of mediation, representation and orderly delegation of power. It is not ordinarily a matter of referendum. Or, when it is, it is by exception, occurring when elected leaders are out of ideas, when they have lost the confidence of the electorate, or when normal procedures have ceased to work. Was that the case here? Had Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras been so weakened that he had no better choice than to pass the buck to his people and to resort to that extraordinary form of democracy that is democracy by referendum? And what would happen if Greece’s partners, each time they confronted a decision that they lacked the courage to make, broke off discussions and demanded a week to allow the people to decide? It is often said – and it is true – that Europe is too bureaucratic, too slow to decide, too unwieldy. The least that can be said is that the Tsipras approach – if, God forbid, it were to inspire a Podemos government in Spain, for example – would not make up for these defects.
Well. Let us suppose that the decision before Tsipras was so crucial and complex that it merited this exceptional step. But, in that case, the popular consultation should have been commensurate with that complexity. A careful and deliberate sounding of the will of the people. A polling organized and carried out with due respect for the stakes involved and a recognition of the informational requirements inherent in the situation. Instead of which we got a hastily arranged referendum. No public- information campaign worthy of the name. An opaque or downright incomprehensible question. An appeal for a “no!” that no one understood because, from the “no” to the euro of the first days to the “yes” of Sunday night, passing through the “no” to the proposals of the country’s creditors (undisclosed to the voters), its meaning changed three times in the space of a week.
Ancient Greece had two words for the people. The “demos” of democracy and the “laos” of the mob, the group demagogy that the Romans called “turba.”
With his puerile call to shift onto the shoulders of Greece’s fellow Europeans the burden of his own errors and his reluctance to reform, Tsipras is clearly leaning toward the second meaning, which has always been the dark side of politics in Greece.
He might object that his concern was not so much to sound out the people as to use the sounding to engage in a test of strength with partners who had the intolerable audacity to demand from him progress toward the rule of law, social justice and the taming of the shipping magnates and of the clergy. All right. But here again, which democracy are we talking about? Is not the European Union a peaceful place in which people have learned, little by little, to replace the old logic of confrontation and conflict with that of negotiation and compromise? Is it not, despite its very serious defects, a laboratory of democratic innovation in which, for the first time in centuries, an attempt is being made to settle differences not by political war and blackmail but by listening, engaging in dialogue and synthesizing different points of view?
And what twist of mind enables one to find an act of “resistance” in an insult delivered to 18 countries, some of which face situations no less difficult than Greece’s but that nevertheless made considerable sacrifices in granting it, in 2012 alone, debt relief of €105 billion while remaining accountable to their own populations? Here lies another mystery. Since Sunday, many have acted as if Tsipras were the last democrat in the euro zone. As if he had faced a “totalitarian” clique (in the words of far-right politician Marine Le Pen) against which he valiantly “stood firm” (far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon). I will not dwell on his parliamentary alliance with a conspiracy-minded Right (the Independent Greeks) whose leaders do not shy away from diatribes, one day against gays, the next day against the “Buddhists, Jews and Muslims” who allegedly do not pay taxes. Nor will I dwell on the fact that Tsipras did not refrain, when assembling parliamentary support for his referendum plan, from soliciting the support of neo-Nazis (Golden Dawn), whose help would have disqualified any other European leader. His 18 fellow leaders are no less democratic and no less legitimate than he. The countries of Central Europe that passed through the hell of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism do not need lessons in legitimacy from anyone – especially not Alexis Tsipras. Not to mention the brave Baltic countries, the “legality” of whose independence is reportedly being studied by Russian President Vladimir Putin, another unsavory pal of the Greek prime minister (AFP, June 30). They have not yielded to panic or succumbed to the temptation to turn their misfortune into another’s debt or to use it as a pretext to default on their duty of solidarity with Athens.
None of this means that we should write off the country of Pericles as a member of Europe. And nothing would be sadder than to see a people who paid so dearly, in other times, for their “no” to Nazism and then to the fascism of the colonels, pay now for Sunday’s sorry “no,” which was the recurrence as farce of the earlier noble acts of defiance.
May the leaders of the euro zone have the forbearance to understand this and be more Greek than the Greeks. May they act in such a way that the Greeks will never have to face the moment when, after negotiations resume and fail, they are confronted with the true, tragic meaning of Sunday’s vote.
The author is one of the founders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement. His books include Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.
Translated by Steven B.Kennedy.