What happened in Greece does not stay in Greece. The referendum has greater significance, beyond the borders of the country, beyond even the Eurozone crisis and the mere economic consequences of Greece’s choice. The decision of the people of Greece to say ‘No’ to a one-way future consisting only of austerity was an exercise in autonomy.
Not ‘autonomy’ in the narrow sense of national sovereignty, but autonomy in the more complex way that philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis meant it. Autonomous societies, he argued, make their own laws freed from eternal truths and imperatives. Autonomous societies are conscious of their capacity to shape their own future. Heteronomous societies make their future too, but ascribe it instead to super-natural forces: the will of Gods or the invisible hand and appetites of ‘the Markets’.
Independent of whether the new government of Syriza succeeds or fails in keeping its electoral promises, its legacy in reinstating the importance of ‘the political’ over ‘the economic’ in Europe will be long-lasting. Public debate will never be the same again. By insisting against the mantra that ‘there is no alternative’, and putting - against the odds - politics first, Syriza put an end to the neo-liberal myth that there is a perfect, free market out there, that you can ignore only at your own peril. No! We have a say on what economy we want and how we want to live.
Greece’s claim to autonomy should not be pitted against that of other European nations. Autonomy, the willingness and capacity to question and change our collective laws, is a universal principle and one that should be at the heart of the European project.
The economy is not like the atmosphere or a river. It does not follow ‘natural laws’. The cash stopped flowing out of the ATMs not because of a money drought, but because of a political decision by the ECB. The austerity economics of the Troika were exposed for what they are: a political project expressed in the language of economics. The confrontation that Greece provoked revealed the fragility and relativity of ‘economic truths’ and ‘musts’: there are as many economic theories as political beliefs. Some theories are more rigorous and get more Nobel prizes than others, but all theories compete, not only for explaining reality better, but also for shaping reality to their image. Economics is not physics. It does not describe a separate world out there, like the law of gravity. Actions taken on the basis of the descriptions of economists change the world that they describe.
Greece’s claim to autonomy should not be pitted against that of other European nations. Autonomy, the willingness and capacity to question and change our collective laws, is a universal principle and one that should be at the heart of the European project. Greece’s disobedience to the rule of the markets is a universalistic call for reclaiming democracy for all Europe, not a particularist protection of its own backyard. This is not a demand for the rest of Europe to obey to Greece’s will, but a plea to listen, reflect and genuinely co-decide.
All this philosophizing might be little consolation for those who suffer in Greece the consequences of harsh austerity and of a collective punishment grossly disproportional to any errors that might have been committed in the past. It may well be the case that the choice of ‘No’ brings even worse hardship, at least in the short term. The economic system and the powers that control it reward obedience with crumbles and punish dissidence with exemplary ruthlessness. I fully understand the 40% of Greeks who feared a future worse than the current nightmare and voted Yes. It is however the 60% that deserves our admiration, who aware of all the risks and dire consequences, dared to say No.
Whatever the future brings, it will also be partly the choice of the Greek people, even if within constraints that were not of their own choosing. And this may be some small consolation. But if real autonomy is to come it has to start also in the rest of Europe. Greece cannot do it alone.