Interview with Rena Dourou
What strikes you most about the development of the socio-economic situation in Greece, which, today, is on the edge of bankruptcy?
Rena Dourou – First, there are no good surprises. Daily life is continuing to deteriorate, to such a point that nothing is surprising any more, as if the country was relentlessly living through an already proclaimed death. Among the bad surprises we can count the infamous remark by Theodoros Pangalos (the current Deputy Prime Minister in Papademos’ government and number two in PASOK) “We have eaten it together” (the money of the debt). This sentence, by itself, sums up the woolly state of mind that oppresses the citizens’ representatives in the face of the crisis.
Many of my compatriots consider Theodoros Pangalos an odd, capricious and crude political public figure who regularly comes out with provocative remarks. Yet he has not just come out with the umpteenth cynical phrase. He in fact calculated his remark to give Greek citizens a violent belly-punch, both to intimidate them and to buy time for the government. His phrase aroused reactions and divisions even in the left. How can a leading politician, with a particularly bloated physique, living in a privileged social situation, allow himself to address ordinary citizens by accusing them of complicity in this waste?
Yet Pangalos planned his move well: he succeeded in tickling the conscience of the average civil servant by reminding him that he had secured his post not by merit but in exchange for his electoral support of one of the two dominant parties that alternate in office. At the same time he gave an excellent argument to the dominant media and its journalists, who support the Memorandum and are automatically inclined to declare that all Greeks are “guilty” of having omitted to pay for their plumbing work against an invoice.
This nasty surprise is a sign of the way in which things are developing in Greece. It explains, at least in part, why the drastic reductions in pensions and wages, the fiscal measures that ruin the low-income strata, the repression and the democratic crisis that overlays the economic crisis, all continue to work to neutralise the resistance of the citizens and those political forces that oppose them. It should be realised that the deterioration of conditions of existence do not automatically arouse protest movements, as certain extreme left organisations presume. The “tolerance” of the masses and the “passiveness” of progressive parties play a major role in history.
What provisional assessment can be draw of the multitude of collective mobilisations (national strikes, trade-union demonstrations, the sudden emergence of the “indignados” movement) against the Memorandum policy over the last few years?
Rena Dourou – The country has experienced strong mobilisations and unprecedented movements all through this period, without, however, inverting the course of events. How could it be otherwise? On the one hand, the great economic and political interests, as well as their media supporters, are extremely powerful. On the other, Greek society lacks experience and needs to learn a lot about social movements. The politicisation of the left itself is partisan rather than social. All those who took part in the various initiatives of the Social Forums seem almost “picturesque” to public opinion. At the risk of hurting the feelings of some trade unionists and left leaders, I think that all this collective action, including the indignados movement, is part of a necessary process of maturing for passing on to a new stage.
The problem with this type of view is that the political capitalisation of struggles is neither linear nor cumulative. A new kind of awareness is in danger of evaporating into resignation caused by the crisis or else into the ambient consumerism that is at the same time the deprivation of the vital needs of individuals.
Rena Dourou – I agree with that observation. It is hard to give an objective answer, since I myself am a leader of a radical left party that will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2012. However, this is the first time since I joined the party that so many citizens are looking to us for concrete proposals and solutions. My impression is that a non-instrumental capitalising of the experience of struggles is taking root. The radical left, while neither just a protest party nor the lifebelt of a social-democracy in historic decline, is in the process of winning back the moral advantage that it had lost during the years of national carelessness, of which the Olympic Games were the culminating moment.
How can this positive citizens’ trend be transformed into active support for your political project rather than mere electoral reinforcement?
Rena Dourou – The present gamble is fundamental. We are credited by public opinion with having carried out a political opposition on all fronts, including in the Greek and European Parliaments. And now, with a certain acquired maturity, we are also looking at our relations with other left parties. Indeed, our appeal for unity was not motivated by communication considerations but reflected urgent political needs, especially as this period of acute social and political crisis requires that all the leaders of the left give clear answers to the austerity policies being carried out by the successive governments of Messrs. Papandreou and Papademos.
At the same time, we must not forget that citizens are suspicious of traditional political organisations. Young people of twenty, who have grown up with social media cannot meet in gloomy offices to hear the party’s reporter and be satisfied by asking him questions before leaving. The crucial issue at the moment is to take note of the fact that people will not spontaneously come to us, and so they go towards them. The game is far from being won but the conditions for turning sympathy into confidence are accumulating.
Nevertheless, the question is not simply one of strengthening the radical left electorally but of asserting social recomposition and ensuring the emergence of solidarity movements capable of carrying enough weight in the balance of power to be able to support oppressed people.
Rena Dourou – The left that aims at social transformation is faced with a formidable contradiction. On the one hand, traditional political organisations are neither attractive nor effective. On the other hand, the movement of the indignados or Occupy Wall Street raise the famous question of the political representativeness of a direct-democracy kind of approach. Yet speaking about political parties is already a matter of speaking about mediation or even representation.
Paradoxically, the left forces that are optimistically projecting themselves in these citizen movements are applauding something that contradicts their existence that, in essence, invalidates them. Their historic task is not to smooth things out or to exercise hegemony over the practices of direct democracy. Yet how can we manage to get this experience of protest expressed in the ballot box so as to strengthen ourselves and act in the political and legislative battle? Without an accelerated maturation in our way of working as a political organisation, we are in great danger of missing an historic appointment with the new radicalism that is being expressed today in society.
What, then, must be changed at the organisational level?
Rena Dourou – We must first admit that people who live in a given situation are not necessarily equal to that situation and able to find the solution. Can they be up to it? The answer we can give as political experts is fundamentally uncertain. Our party cannot be asked to have the same reflexes as when it was founded in the past: its party organisation is typical of the 1980s. Then it was the first Greek party to build an internet site, even if the others have largely caught up since. It has, on numerous occasions, shown its capacity for taking the pulse of social upheavals, the anger of the youth and the country’s malady. However, we have been strikingly incapable of putting out alternatives. The ways we take up responsibilities or share tasks within the organisation are patterned on the way it is done in the Council of Ministers or the European Commission. Consequently, the party does not have enough sensors to understand things that exist outside it. Even our youth movement has reproduced the same faults. In particular, SYNASPISMOS took a long time in realising that the social media are not “apolitical” tools, easily identifiable with life styles. We should remember that the news of Alexis Grigoropoulos’s assassination, in December 2008, was mostly transmitted on Twitter, which reduced the possibility of a police manipulation of this tragic event. Symbolic loss of time costs hard cash since in politics timing is vital.
The same goes for the necessity of changing the organisational structure by introducing some horizontality into the decision-making process and carrying out projects and objectives. In the end, what may save SYNASPISMOS is a more flexible articulation of its component parts. What previously was a defect, to the extent that flexibility implied inaction, could now become an asset in taking decentralised initiatives. The proliferation of such initiatives can have a positive influence on the organisation’s working.
The party’s “full timers” should, moreover, keep tabs on emerging mobilisations on the internet and on the issues that impinge on their area of responsibility rather than managing their “domain” as if it were a ministry. This displays an out-of-date mentality that is not in synch with the requirements of present day society. And therefore it has to change – as quickly as possible! Rotating positions in the organisation is also desirable to avoid getting cut off from real life along with the other inevitable results of routine activity.
What about the question of political communication?
Rena Dourou – This is a long story, due to the demonising of communication and publicity by the left – not only in Greece but also throughout the Western world. This attitude prevents us from building bridges between the party and public opinion by bypassing and diverting the dominant media system. In fact, politics and communication are inseparable. It is impossible to have a strategy of communication in the absence of a political message. However, this message, to exist, must be delivered by appropriate forms. It is not a matter of changing the colour of the speaker but of making them shine.
Thus the left has lost an opportunity for appearing like a force for innovation, for change, for breakthroughs in form and content. A force for renewal capable of taking up the challenges of a rejuvenated and feminised political activism, capable of recruiting among the working-class strata and not only among petit-bourgeois intellectuals that represent the main electoral and militant components of SYNASPISMOS. From this point of view, our party’s composition is complementary to that of the KKE (The Greek Communist Party) whose electoral sociology is notable for the predominance of the traditional working class.
The question of the youth deserves special attention. As Gramsci said, party leaderships tend to be reproduced identically in political youth organisations. Yet the course of events is not always linear – it is also marked by breaks and discontinuities. The present situation will, perhaps, create a new militant youth that “disobeys” the party and is capable of giving a new meaning to political commitment and of reinventing collective action.
How can the key issue of policy be reconstructed to reflect the preoccupations of the new generation?
Rena Dourou – It should be recalled that SYNASPISMOS is the only Greek party whose rules recognise the existence of tendencies. However, with time the tendencies ceased to represent currents of ideas and became grouping based on personal relations. The party’s majority tendency created the youth organisation, to such an extent that in our young activists’ initiatives and festivals speakers from the minority trends are completely absent. This explains why the party’s pathologies crossed over to the youth organisation and vice versa.
In these conditions, how can the political organisation be adapted to society’s needs? In particular, how can it be politically linked to the young unemployed the unemployed and insecure apart from the student youth? It is extremely difficult to change this conventional way of working, especially in a context marked by Greek society’s preference for public sector jobs and the left’s suspicious attitude to the “private sector”.
Nevertheless, the party’s link to social movements, which today seems natural, had been a strategic choice that met with tremendous resistance within the party on the grounds of traditional stereotypes (“rainbow” collectives, disorganisation, etc.). However, SYNASPISMOS’ youth organisation was able to overcome all these obstacles and take part in the alter-globalist mobilisations and the different social forums. This shows that new fields of political redeployment are possible, based on strategic choices that must be clearly accepted. From this point of view, the crisis is a unique opportunity for reviewing the real needs of Greek youth, whose demands have great difficulty in being expressed.
How can the emergence of such issues of struggle be politically pushed forward?
Rena Dourou – We have already begun some initiatives, particularly in 2004, on the exploitation of trainees, then on the “700 euros generation”. However these initiatives have not been followed through. How can they be embodied in a strategic project that consists of reactivating social resistance against the various forms of insecurity and subjection of wage labour? To sum up, we must experiment with solidarity networks, mutual assistance, shared projects, alternative news and information – networks for the 21st century, which have to be built not only through the internet but above all in the real world through actions addressing problems of everyday life. The stakes are high but the fight is well worth it.
The interview with Rena Dourou was conducted by Michel Vakaloulis in Athens on -December 20, 2011. Rena Dourou is a member of the political secretariat and responsible for the European policy of SYNASPISMOS.