The Heart of the People of Europe beat in Greece: Slavoj Zizek


(originally published Friday, 15 June 2012)

Transcribed by Tom Kazas from a video of a public lecture in held in Athens on 3/6/12. The talk was presented to a mostly bilingual audience, as evidenced from their regular applause to statements made by Slavoj Zizek in English, yet there were many regular breaks in the English delivery to allow for the live translation into Greek. See the video at                  
“I am honoured to be here but am ashamed that I don’t speak your language.                   So let me begin.

Late in his life Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, asked the famous question, “what does a woman want?” Admitting his perplexity when faced with the enigma of feminine sexuality, a similar perplexity is aroused today, “what does Europe want?”

This is the question you, the Greek people, are addressing Europe. You know what you want, you want this guy (Tsipras) for Prime minister – Europe does not know what it wants.

The way the European states and media relate to what is going on now in Greece, is the best indicator of what kind of Europe they want. Is it the neo-liberal Europe, is it the Europe of isolationist nation states, or maybe something different?

Critics accuse Syriza of being a threat to Europe, but Syriza is, on the contrary, the only chance for Europe. Far from being a threat to Europe, you are giving a chance to Europe to break out of its inertia and find a new way.

In his ‘Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative poet T. S. Elliot remarked that, ‘there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief’. That is to say, that the only way to keep a belief or religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from the main corpse.

This is what happens today with Europe. Only a new heresy, represented at this moment by Syriza, can save what is worth saving in the European legacy – democracy, trust in people and egalitarian solidarity. The Europe that will win, if Syriza is out-manoeurvred is a Europe with ‘Asian Values’. Of course these ’Asian Values’ have nothing to do with Asia, but all to do with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism to suspend democracy.

Syriza is said to lack the proper experience to govern, yes, I agree, they greatly lack the experience of how to bankrupt a country by cheating and stealing – you don’t have this experience. This brings us to the absurdity of the politics of the European establishment, they preach the doxa of paying taxes, opposing Greek clientelism, and they put all their hopes on the coalition of the two Greek parties that brought this clientelism to Greece.

Christine Largarde recently said that she has more sympathy for the poor inhabitants of Nigeria, than for the Greeks, and advised the Greeks to help themselves by paying their taxes, which as I learned a couple of days ago, she doesn’t have to pay. As all liberal humanitarians, she likes the impotent poor who behave like victims, evoke our sympathy, and bring us to give charity. But the problem with you Greeks is that you do suffer, yes, but you are not passive victims, you resist, you fight, you do not want sympathy and charity, you want active solidarity, you want and you demand a mobilization, a support for your fight.

Syriza is accused of promoting leftist fictions. But it is the austerity plan imposed by Brussels which is clearly a work of fiction. Everybody knows that this plan is fictitious, that the Greek state can never repay the debt in this way. In a strange gesture of collective make-believe, everyone ignores the obvious nonsense of the financial projection on which these European plans are based. So why does Brussels impose these measures on you? The true aim of these rescue measures is not to save Greece, but of course to save European banks. These measures are not presented as decisions grounded in political choices, but as necessities imposed by a neutral economic logic, like, “if we want to stabilize our economy we simply have to swallow the bitter pill”, or by tautological platitudes, proverbs like, “you cannot spend more than you produce.” Well, the American banks and the US as such, are a big proof that, for decades, you can spend more than you produce.

To illustrate the mistake of austerity measures, Paul Krugman often compares them to the medieval practice of blood-letting; a nice metaphor, which I think should to be radicalized further. The European financial doctors, themselves not sure about how this medicine works, are using you as test rabbits; they are letting your blood, not the blood of their own countries. There is no blood-letting for the great German and French banks. On the contrary, they are getting big transfusions.

So is Syriza really a group of dangerous extremists? No, Syriza is here to bring pragmatic commonsense, to clear the mess created by others. It is those who impose austerity measures who are dangerous dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely the way they are, just with some cosmetic changes. You are not dreamers. You are the awakening for a dream that is turning into a nightmare. You are not destroying anything. You are reacting to how the system is gradually destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons, Tom and Jerry and so on, the cat reaches the precipice but it goes on walking ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet. Then it only starts to fall when it looks down and notices that there is nothing. This is all you are doing. You are telling those in power, “hey, look down”, and then they fall down.

The political map of Greece is clear and exemplary. In the centre there is, I hope you noticed it, one big party; one party with two wings, left and right, Pasok and New Democracy. It’s like cola which is Coke and Pepsi. The true name of this party, if you bring Pasok and New Democracy together, is something like ‘New Hellenic Movement Against Democracy.’ Of course this big party claims it is for democracy, but I claim they are for decaffeinated democracy; coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without sugar. They want a democracy where, instead of really making a choice, people just confirm what wise experts tell them to do. They want democratic dialogue, yes, but like Plato’s late dialogues, where one guy talks all the time and the other only says every ten minutes, “by Zeus, so it is.” And then there is the exception, you Syriza, the true miracle – a radical left movement which stepped out of the comfortable position of marginal resistance, and courageously signaled your readiness to take power, this why you have to be punished.

Here is what Bill Frezzer, a nobody, but an ideologically important nobody, recently wrote in the Forbes magazine an article with the title, ‘Give Greece what it deserves, Communism.” Here is a short quote: “What the world needs, lest we forget, is a contemporary example of communism in action. What better candidate than Greece. Just toss them out of the European Union, cut off the flow of euros, and hand them back the printing plates for their old drachmas. Then stand back for a generation and watch.” In other words, Greece should be exemplarily punished so that, once and for all, the temptation for a radical leftist solution of the crisis will be blocked.

I know that the task of Syriza is almost impossible. Syriza is not an extreme left madness. It is the voice of pragmatic reason counteracting the market ideology madness. Syriza will need the formidable combination of principled politics and ruthless pragmatism; of democratic commitment and readiness to act fast and brutally when needed. If you, Syriza, are to be given a minimal chance to succeed you will also need an old European solidarity. This is why I think you, here in Greece, should avoid cheap nationalism – all the talk about how Germany wants reoccupy you, destroy you, and so on. Your first task is to change things here. Syriza will have to do the job which the other guys should have done; the job of building a better, modern, effective state. A job to clear the state apparatus of clientelism. It’s a hard job, there is nothing enthusiastic in it. It’s a slow, hard, boring job.

Your pseudo-radical critics are telling you that the situation is not yet ripe for a true social change. That if you take power now, you will just help the system, making it more efficient. This is, if I understand it correctly, what the party KKE, which is basically the party of the people who are still alive because they forgot to die, are telling you. True, your political elite clearly demonstrated its inability to rule, but there will never be a moment when the situation will be fully ripe for the change. If you wait for the right moment, the right moment will never come. When you intervene, it is always premature. So you have a choice, either wait comfortably and look at how your society is disintegrating, as some other parties of the left suggest, or heroically intervene, fully aware of how difficult the situation is – and Syriza made the right choice.

Now I want to say something very serious. Your critics hate you, because I think, secretly they know that you have the courage to be free and to act as free people. When you are in the eyes of the public, those who observe you understand, at least for the flash of an instant, that you are offering them freedom. That you dare to do what they also dream about. For that instant they are free, they are one with you, but it is only for a moment. Fear returns and they hate you again because they are afraid of their own freedom.

So what is the choice you, the Greek people, are facing n June 17th? You should bear in mind the paradox which sustains the free vote in our democratic societies. You are free to choose on the condition that you make the right choice. Which is why, when the choice is the wrong one, for example, when Ireland voted against the European constitution, the wrong choice is treated as a mistake. Then, they want to repeat the vote to enlighten the people to make the right choice. And this is why the European establishment is in a panic. They see that maybe you don’t deserve your freedom because there is a danger that you will make the wrong choice. There is a wonderful joke in Ernst Lubitsch’s classical comedy ‘Ninotchka.’ The hero visits a cafeteria and orders a coffee without cream. The waiter replies “sorry, but we have run out of cream, we only have milk, so can I bring you coffee without milk.” In both cases you get coffee alone, but I think the joke is a correct one – negation also matters. The coffee without cream is not the same as coffee without milk. You are in the same predicament today. The situation is difficult. You will get some kind of austerity, but will you get the coffee of austerity without cream or without milk? It is here that the European establishment is cheating. It is acting as if you will get the coffee of austerity without cream, that is to say, the fruits of your hardship will not profit only European banks, but they are effectively offering you coffee without milk. It is you who will not profit from your own sacrifice and hardship.

In the very south of the Peloponnese, around Mani, I was there, I know it, they still have so-called ‘weepers,’ women who you hire to cry at funerals; they can do the spectacle for the relatives of the deceased. Now, there is nothing primitive about this. We, in our developed societies, are doing exactly the same. Think about this wonderful invention, I think maybe the greatest contribution of America to world culture, the so-called ‘canned laughter,’ laughter which is part of the soundtrack on TV. You know, you come home in the evening tired, you put on the TV, some stupid show like Cheers or Friends, and you just sit, as the TV laughs for you. Unfortunately it works. That’s how those in power, the European establishment, want to see, not only the Greek people, but all of us. Just staring at the screen, observing how the others are doing the dreaming, crying and laughing.

There is an apocryphal but wonderful anecdote about the exchange of telegrams between the German and Austrian army headquarters in the middle of WW1. The Germans send a message to the Austrians, “here on our part of the front, the situation is serious but not catastrophic.” The Austrians reply, “here the situation is catastrophic but not serious.” This is the difference between Syriza and others. For the others, the situation is catastrophic but not serious, things can go on as usual. While for Syriza, the situation is serious but not catastrophic, since courage and hope should replace fear.

What is ahead of you is, to quote the title of an old song of the Beatles, “the long and winding road.” When decades ago, the cold war threatened to explode into a hot one, John Lennon wrote a song, you’ll remember it if you are old enough, ‘all we are saying is give peace a chance.” Today, I want to hear a new song all around Europe, ‘all we are saying is give Greece a chance.”

Allow me to conclude with a reference to one of your greatest, maybe the greatest classical tragedy, ‘Antigone’ – ‘don’t fight battles which are not your battles.’ You know what would be my ideal Antigone? We have Antigone and Creon, if you ask me, they are just two sects of the ruling class. This is a little bit like Pasok and New Democracy. In my version of Antigone, while the two members of the royal family are fighting each other and threatening to ruin the state, I would like to see the Chorus, the voice of the people, stepping out of this stupid role of just wise comment, take over, constitute a kind of public committee of peoples power, arrest both Creon and Antigone, and establish the peoples power.

Just allow me now, really to finish with a personal note. I hate the traditional intellectual left which likes revolution, but a revolution which takes place somewhere far away, so that while your heart is beating for it, you can pursue your career in peace. This is why, when I was young, the further away it was all the better – Vietnam, Cuba, even today, Venezuela. But you are here, and that’s what I admire. You are not afraid to engage in a desperate situation, knowing how the odds are against, and this is what I admire.

You know, there is also a ‘principled opportunism;’ opportunism of principles. When you say that, ‘the situation is lost, we can’t do anything because we would betray our principles.’ This appears as a principled position, but it is really an extreme form of opportunism. Syriza is a unique event of how precisely that Left, you know, the usual extra-parliamentary Left, where they care more if some criminal’s human rights are violated than if thousands are dying, that that kind of Left does not have the courage to do something.

So I conclude now with the great honour of giving the word to your future Prime Minister.”


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