Yannis Varoufakis, the Greek economist, philosopher, and charismatic former finance minister in the SYRIZA government, which was crushed by the neo-liberal European establishment last year, 1 came to Berlin and announced the formation of his new political movement, Democracy in Europe, or DiEM 25. 2 The movement aims to fundamentally transform the character of the EU into a living pluralist democracy, based on solidarity and environmental sustainability.
The Greeks’ appalling experience with the real inner workings of European institutions exposed the EU’s true nature in full nudity. Today in the EU, economic concerns founded on technocratic principles (that commit damages even by their own criteria) stand above all legitimate, democratically-formulated interests. And unfortunately Germany, as the EU’s lead influencer is responsible for this terrible condition the EU is in now, despite all the admiration we may have for Germany today.
Instead of retreating into a comfortable secluded academic life, Varoufakis – perhaps the greatest contemporary European political dissident – continued the political struggle against the radically undemocratic nature of current European politics, his personal experience reflected in DiEM 25´s manifesto. The same day Varoufakis made his announcement, the press reported that Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest bank came near collapse. The concurrence of these two events could not have been more artful, almost serving up some historical irony. 3
In Berlin Varoufakis turned to his political opponents in perhaps the most powerful moment of his speech saying, “when I became the Greek Finance Minister, I learned, actually not far away from here, in my colleague Schäuble’s office, that election results may not be allowed to change the way the economy operates. And so I ask you, liberals, Christian democrats and social democrats, whether you are OK with the European Union’s functioning this way? Do you really consider democracy a system in which a misguided economic orthodoxy is superior to the results of a free democratic elections? We do not, and that is why we are here today.”
An attempt to save Europe from the phantoms of its past
Varoufakis´ movement could possibly even gain the patronage of its more enlightened opponents. It is a movement, consciously and explicitly building on the traditions of European humanist universalism. It does not condemn the EU or European integration, but calls for a fundamental transformation of its content. DiEM 25 resembles Charter 77, not only in the rhythm of its name, but because it also holds criticized institutions accountable for breaking their own rules.
Just as Charter 77 demanded that the Czechoslovak Communist power abide by its signed international commitments, the DiEM 25 requires the EU, as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to behave according to its own guidelines.
This is obviously not happening. Due to weakness and a truly historical failure of Europe’s democratic Left led by Europe’s Social Democrats, a catastrophic reactionary regress has occurred. Today the escalation of xenophobia, hatred and mutually competing nationalisms, are now offered as a basic political alternative to Europe’s collapsing neoliberalism.
We fear the rise of defeated ideologies born by Marie Le Pen or Mussolini´s Czech reincarnation, Martin Konvička, those we thought had been laid to rest long ago. 4 The phantoms of the past’s pied pipers, who benefit from Europe’s democratic crisis, building their arguments on suspected or arbitrarily constructed enemies, have escalated hatred and fear and then saddled it to their advantage.
There is another, third option alongside this neoliberalism, which is being driven by its own contradictions either to collapse, or to authoritarianism, or to the reduction of the world into full hatred and mutually competing nationalisms. Social, ecological and vibrant democracies will restore property and income redistribution and uncompromisingly subordinate financial interests to the social, ecological, cultural and political priorities of society.
This kind of noble populism, that has grown out of the emancipatory traditions of European radical democracy, stood at the roots of SYRIZA´s electoral victory in Greece. It also translates into the rise of the Podemos political movement in Spain, can be seen in the subtext of Portugal’s political changes, was a primary source of the strength that brought Jeremy Corbyn to power in Britain´s Labour Party and has made Bernie Sanders a competitive candidate in US presidential primaries.
This political thinking can be seen in the environmental and socio-ecological movements that have been springing up around the world, rejecting economic globalization since the end of the Cold War. This thinking has been deepened in World Social Forums, and become fundamental to the platform of the new Left, which has celebrated success in Latin America over the last two decades. It has gradually made its way into mainstream global green politics, and has been woven into the social movements of the “indignant,” from the US’ Occupy Wall Street movement to diverse European movements against austerity policies and the shrinking welfare state, like the Czech Republic’s ProAlt movement. 5 Today this ideology forms the core of the efforts to restore the democratic Left in the Western world.
Perhaps the fundamental value and benefit of the Varoufakis enterprise lies in the fact that it attempts to provide a common platform or space for all civic initiatives, social movements and new and old political formations operating within parliamentary politics. Within this space they can strengthen each other, inspire and above all more effectively convince the European political public that a different, better EU is indeed possible. Whether it will succeed, remains to be seen.
The display of intellectual and organizational forces of the European Left
Because DiEM 25 is not a political entity but a platform aimed at connecting all those trying to fundamentally bolster Europe’s emancipatory tradition, four active parliamentarians from different parties (who all happened to be women) – two representatives of the radical democratic left and two green – received invitations to the Volksbühne Theatre’s stage, following Varoufakis´ introduction.
Apparently it was not by chance that this quartet who spoke consecutively, two via teleconference, represented the largest Western European nations: Germany´s Chairwoman of Die Linke, Katja Kipping; the phenomenally progressive mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau; 6 England’s first and only representative of the Greens in British Parliament, Caroline Lucas; and France’s Cécile Duflot, a Green politician who resigned from Holland´s government when it became clear that principled policies were being compromised.
The content of the all four women´s speeches corresponded to the spirit of the primary aspects of DiEM 25´s founding statement. In summary it claims that the current way the EU operates is unsustainable and will lead to collapse, because it puts the interests of corporations and the financial oligarchy above democracy, social cohesion and environmental sustainability. It urges all politicians to principally come forward in the tradition of European humanism, which now calls for greater solidarity and openness towards refugees.
The teleconferenced speeches given by celebrities of the European and world Left, such as Žižek, Assange and Galbraith, alternated with live speeches of the not-so-famous representatives of old and new civic initiatives, social movements and political parties. A young radical woman from Blockupy, the German movement of civil disobedience against austerity policies, a representative of one of Germany’s largest trade unions and politicians representing the new consistent Left and the Green parties from Portugal, Spain, Denmark and Ireland, all spoke. If a video from Pope Francis had come on at the very end, no one would have been surprised. It would have fit nicely in the dramaturgy of the evening.
Anatomy of Gesine Schwan’s reluctance
Varoufakis introduced the veteran German Social Democratic party (SPD) member, Gesine Schwan, one of the most influential figures of the SPD, the party’s 2004 and 2009 presidential candidate and his only ally in the German political establishment during last year’s excruciating Greek debt negotiations. He added that although he tried to involve her as one of the DiEM 25 movement’s founding members, she had not accepted.
Schwann agrees with DiEM 25 protagonists in their steep condemnation of European institutions’ unacceptable behavior towards Greece andshe also believes the EU can be re-formulated so that a more desired target state of the European politics can be reached. However, she declined to participate because of one essential and divergent viewpoint regarding Varoufakis analysis of the causes of SYRIZA´s defeat.
The DiEM 25 thinks the solution to EU institutions’ democratic deficit is more transparency in political processes, while Schwan believes the solution lies in changing the nature of the EU’s political majority. Put simply, she sees the solution in content – not in form.
Schwan identified her support for the red-red-green coalition in Germany, 7 clearly condemning the behavior SPD’s leadership exhibited towards Greece, while stressing that during her numerous meetings with members of Germany’s Social Democrats, she had not encountered a single ordinary party member who disagreed with her view. This could mean that at the very essence of the German social-democratic movement, there lies a dormant conflict similar to the one that recently bubbled to the surface in Britain with Jeremy Corbyn’s election as chairman of the Labour party.
Schwann does not believe that promoting more transparency in the EU’s decision-making bodies is key to changing its character, but instead lies in the creation of a progressive left-wing majority, comprised of the radical New Left, the Greens and the Social Democrats.
While the key objective must be focused on such an alliance in Germany, it is ultimately needed everywhere in Europe as well. This of course assumes that a productive dialogue seeking a common denominator within the social-democratic environment (if still possible) will occur, one that will above all determine if Varoufakis´ movement has what it takes to integrate European social democracy or rather establish a “partnership,” like Mrs. Schwan talked about. She clearly expressed her distance from Varoufakis´ movement saying, “I have been a reformist all my political life. But I know very well that reformists can only succeed if they have a radical social movement near them, and vice versa.” Is Varoufakis’ project only a radical social movement, or is it a reformist political force as well?
I am sure that Varoufakis would have been happy to have Gesine Schwan as a founding personality of the DiEM 25, because it would mean the movement had a firm foothold in Germany and by extension, European social democracy. The reasons why he and his friends have not yet succeeded, are likely to be key to his enterprise’s further development.
The efforts to build a political alliance wide enough to alter the direction of European politics does not have to begin and end with the Social Democrats. If the majorities the new policy seeks are not to be fragile, vulnerable and only transitory, as was the case after SYRIZA´s victory in Greece, it is necessary to look in the background for a new policy environment that includes the Christian Democrats. And there is a real need to see Pope Francis as a first-class political ally. The alliance of progressive Christians and socialists used to be the main drive behind the European Left in the 60s, the last time it possessed cultural-political initiative and superiority in Europe.
What do we remember about DiEM 1989?
One apparent deficit of Varoufakis´ enterprise was that a figure representing the former Soviet Bloc was missing from the Volksbühne´s stage. The fact that Varoufakis´ intellectual friend and young Croatian philosopher Srečko Horvat, along with Slavoj Žižek, himself, spoke there, changes very little. Yugoslavia was not part of the Soviet Bloc, but like Greece or the countries of the Iberian Peninsula, enriched Europe’s postwar history with a very specific, respectable historic path and experience.
The absence of representatives from Central or Eastern Europe, the Baltics and post-Communist countries might be explained by the extremely difficult periods these countries are enduring: the result of a quarter-century-long exposure to the cynicism resulting from the last decades of Soviet socialism, and to an extremely brutal version of neoliberal globalized capitalism, combined. The political public has been so devastated that the political structures or intellectual currents that might inspire progressive Pan-European political movement, as it was in the 60s, 80s and partially in the 90s, is virtually absent.
Yet it is pity that Varoufakis and his friends are not looking for possible partners in the region to collaborate with, inspiring his movement even further. It is fascinating that during pre-event sessions in Berlin, where the activists and intellectuals involved in Varoufakis´ movement discussed the inspiration of past successes, not one person mentioned the European civil movement that preceded the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Have we experienced any greater success of civic activism during our lifetimes?
That Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, 8 Poland´s Solidarity 9 and other Central European dissident´s structures managed to change the Soviet regime in a revolutionary way, and for a very brief moment in history, establish a democracy in Europe. This is a feat every other similar movement should study and take inspiration from, despite the fact that our countries’ further social developments were unsuccessful.
The respect bestowed on Václav Havel as the personification of all Czechoslovak dissent, combined with his unfortunate political escapades – supporting Václav Klaus (albeit temporarily), vacating his positions during Czechoslovakia’s dissolution, establishing a mésalliance with billionaire investor, Zdeněk Bakala 10 and promoting the criminal assault on Iraq – has contaminated its legacy, but if we considered its full and more diverse nature we might bestow a great respect onto it.
We overlook that Charter 77 was a phenomenal intellectual, civic and political achievement, which directly follows the best Czechoslovak, and therefore European, humanistic democratic traditions. We overlook that a good half of the Charter´s key figures, those who exemplify its political content were leading personalities of 1968 with acclaim similar to Havel’s, such as former journalist, dissident and Minister of Foreign affairs Jiří Dienstbier Senior, 11 or dissident and political philosopher, Jaroslav Šabata. 12 We overlook that even Havel himself, as Charter 77’s central mover, came out of the progressive emancipatory traditions of Czech workers and socialist movements, when he signed the manifesto, “A hundred years of Czech socialism,” for instance. 13
All these were projected onto the practically forgotten ideas about how Czechoslovakia’s economy should be organized after the defeat of the authoritarian Soviet regime, to a large extent drawing inspiration from concepts developed by the reformer and economist, Ota Šik. 14 Havel himself authored the, The Power of the Powerless, an essay that speaks to our present situation with an infectiously inspiring language. 15
One of Charter 77’s stellar moments was the so-called Prague Appeal, 16 a letter written by Jaroslav Šabata and Jiří Dienstbier Senior addressed to 1985’s peace congress in Amsterdam. Very similar to strategies employed by Varoufakis´ enterprise today, the Prague Appeal formulated a strategy that hoped to find common ground between the Soviet Bloc’s human rights movements and the Western peace movement.
The distance between these two streams were just as wide as the current one between DiEM 25 and the established European Left led by the European Social Democrats. In Berlin it was epitomized by the speech of Gesine Schwan. It is worth noting that Václav Havel accompanied the Prague Challenge with his essay, An Anatomy of Restraint, where he described why he hesitated to unconditionally accept the Western, formerly-radical Left’s position, in quite a similar way as the German politician.
The forgotten charm of 1985’s Prague Appeal stems largely from the fact that it is the first political text that raised a concrete political vision of Germany’s reunification. The audacious attempt to formulate a radical vision of democracy in Europe, including a united Germany, had some calling the political theory “heretical geopolitics.” It seemed absurdly ambitious in 1985, but it became a reality only five years later.
Varoufakis and his companions are trying to succeed in the same discipline; and by choosing Berlin, even the former East Berlin, over Brussels as the place to announce the movement’s establishment, they identified the current principal power in Europe, thus reaffirming their indisputable political competence. However, the failure of Varoufakis´ initiative to recognize the revolutionary traditions of the civic movements that brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a serious flaw.
What could inspire DiEM 25 in the Czech Republic?
A colleague of mine, Jaroslav Fiala, probably thought something similar to these previously mentioned ideas when he wrote an open letter in January, 17 in which he urged Varoufakis to include the post-communist world in his thoughts. His letter is a sympathetic attempt to enter into dialogue with the most progressive offshoot of contemporary European politics.
But he did not (perhaps could not) get a warm Varoufakis response, one that might possibly lend itself to an invitation to the Volksbühne´s stage. It was apparently because Fiala´s sentiments regarding our botched post-communist transformation and the local political debacles that followed remained stuck in an economically reductionist and class-based interpretation, and were therefore still well within the confines of the neoliberal context. The letter specifically failed to refer to our own inspiring, although perhaps ambiguous, traditions; and unless we learn to draw inspiration and productive lessons from them, we won´t appeal to the rest of Europe.
The Varoufakis´ movement impact on European political practice could be twofold. Not only would it strengthen contemporary European democracy by weaving all the various strands of radical and critical democratic politics together, but it could also inspire other similar attempts elsewhere. Can we take it as a challenge?
The political currents that could possibly meet in one room in the Czech Republic, would not make for an uninteresting society at all. If we were to summon the environmental, social, humanistic and democratic constituencies, all those who principally reject the neoliberal orthodoxy, we would have quite a diverse full house. Included would be those who want to leave the coal in the ground and switch to carbon and nuke-free energy; those who feel the Czech trade unionists’ demands should be granted; those who think we should annually accept and integrate tens of thousands of refugees, regardless of their religion; and all those who believe that we must creatively and offensively start deepening our democratic political culture, so that the Czech Republic does not completely succumb to xenophobic populists.
The original Czech version of this article was published by the online daily Deník Referendum (11.02. 2016).
- George Monbiot, “Greece is the latest battleground in the financial elite’s war on democracy,“ The Guardian, July 7, 2015, accessed February 29, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/07/greece-financial-elite-democracy-liassez-faire-neoliberalism; Greece’s Debt Crisis Explained, New York Times, 9.11. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/business/international/greece-debt-crisis-euro.html?_r=0. ↩
- “A Manifesto for democratising Europe,“ accessed February 29, 2016, http://diem25.org/cz/. ↩
- “This Major Bank Is about to Go Bust – And It’s 3X Bigger Than Lehman Bros,“ Investorinsider.net, accessed February 29, 2016, http://www.investorinsider.net/bank-bankruptcy-three-times-bigger-lehman-bros. ↩
- Martin Konvička is Assistant Professor at South-Bohemian University in České Budějovice and an anti-Islam political activist. He is the most well-known representative of the “We do not want Islam in the Czech Republic” initiative, and the chairman of the similar “Bloc against Islam.” ↩
- ProAlt was a public initiative by the Left that focused on formulating alternatives to the Czech Republic’s right-wing government´s austerity measures in 2010-2013. The initiative consisted of people from various opinion specters, from the radical Left to the Social Democrats, the Social Christians, Greens, Social Liberals and feminists. ↩
- Ada Colau on DiEM25, accessed February 29, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lx1jhOvY5o. ↩
- She refers to a coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Left Party (Die Linke) and the Greens. See for example Christoph Dreier: “Red-Red-Green” coalition in Thuringia: Welfare cuts and heightened state powers, 25 November 2014, accessed February 29, 2016, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/11/25/left-n25.html. ↩
- Charter 77 (Charta 77 1977-1992) was an initiative by Czechoslovak citizens that criticized “political and state power,” for not following the human and civic rights Czechoslovakia had committed itself to by signing 1975’s Helsinki Accords, the final act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (OBSE). The Charter´s first signatories were Jan Patočka, Václav Havel, Pavel Kohout, Petr Uhl or Ludvík Vaculík. ↩
- Solidarity (Solidarność) was established in 1980 as an independent labor union. It eventually transformed into a movement that garnered massive support from Poles, and decisively contributed to the fall of Communism. ↩
- Zdeněk Bakala is a Czech entrepreneur and investor in coal mining, media and energy. ↩
- Jiří Dienstbier (1937-2011) was a Czech politician, journalist and dissident. He served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1989 to 1992. ↩
- Jaroslav Šabata (1927-2012) was a Czech left-wing politician, philosopher, psychologist and political scientist. He was the functionary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party until 1969, Charter 77’s spokesperson, a political prisoner and one of the key figures of the Civic Forum after 1989. ↩
- Manifesto “Hundred years of the Czech socialism (Manifest Sto let českého socialismu),“ 7.4. 1978, Listy, July 1978, N. 3-4, p. 67, accessed February 29, 2016, http://www.csds.cz/cs/g6/2997-DS.html. ↩
- Ota Šik (1919-2004) was a Czech economist and politician during 1968’s Prague Spring. He drafted economic reforms, later described as the “third way.” ↩
- The Power of the Powerless (Moc bezmocných) is a 1978 essay written by Václav Havel. It analyzed the political regime, the phenomenon of dissidence and the possibilities of Charter 77´s future orientation. ↩
- The Prague Appeal was a message to Amsterdam´s peace conference regarding European security issues, accessed February 29, 2016, http://www.listy.cz/archiv.php/images/doprovod/archiv.php?cislo=152&clanek=021534. ↩
- Jaroslav Fiala, “Vzkaz z Prahy. Otevřený dopis Janisi Varufakisovi / A message from Prague. An open letter to Janis Varoufakis,“ a2larm, 20.1. 2016, accessed February 29, 2016, http://a2larm.cz/2016/01/vzkaz-z-prahy/. ↩