Imagine a scene from a dystopian movie that depicts our society in the near future. Uniformed guards patrol half-empty downtown streets at night, on the prowl for immigrants, criminals and vagrants. Those they find are brutalised. What seems like a fanciful Hollywood image is a reality in today’s Greece. At night, black-shirted vigilantes from the Holocaust-denying neo-fascist Golden Dawn movement – which won 7 per cent of the vote in the last round of elections, and had the support, it’s said, of 50 per cent of the Athenian police – have been patrolling the street and beating up all the immigrants they can find: Afghans, Pakistanis, Algerians. So this is how Europe is defended in the spring of 2012.
The trouble with defending European civilisation against the immigrant threat is that the ferocity of the defence is more of a threat to ‘civilisation’ than any number of Muslims. With friendly defenders like this, Europe needs no enemies. A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton articulated the deadlock in which critics of religion find themselves: ‘Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church … The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.’ Many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they end up dispensing with freedom and democracy if only they may fight terror. If the ‘terrorists’ are ready to wreck this world for love of another, our warriors against terror are ready to wreck democracy out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalise torture to defend it. It’s an inversion of the process by which fanatical defenders of religion start out by attacking contemporary secular culture and end up sacrificing their own religious credentials in their eagerness to eradicate the aspects of secularism they hate.
But Greece’s anti-immigrant defenders aren’t the principal danger: they are just a by-product of the true threat, the politics of austerity that have caused Greece’s predicament. The next round of Greek elections will be held on 17 June. The European establishment warns us that these elections are crucial: not only the fate of Greece, but maybe the fate of the whole of Europe is in the balance. One outcome – the right one, they argue – would allow the painful but necessary process of recovery through austerity to continue. The alternative – if the ‘extreme leftist’ Syriza party wins – would be a vote for chaos, the end of the (European) world as we know it.
The prophets of doom are right, but not in the way they intend. Critics of our current democratic arrangements complain that elections don’t offer a true choice: what we get instead is the choice between a centre-right and a centre-left party whose programmes are almost indistinguishable. On 17 June, there will be a real choice: the establishment (New Democracy and Pasok) on one side, Syriza on the other. And, as is usually the case when a real choice is on offer, the establishment is in a panic: chaos, poverty and violence will follow, they say, if the wrong choice is made. The mere possibility of a Syriza victory is said to have sent ripples of fear through global markets. Ideological prosopopoeia has its day: markets talk as if they were persons, expressing their ‘worry’ at what will happen if the elections fail to produce a government with a mandate to persist with the EU-IMF programme of fiscal austerity and structural reform. The citizens of Greece have no time to worry about these prospects: they have enough to worry about in their everyday lives, which are becoming miserable to a degree unseen in Europe for decades.
Such predictions are self-fulfilling, causing panic and thus bringing about the very eventualities they warn against. If Syriza wins, the European establishment will hope that we learn the hard way what happens when an attempt is made to interrupt the vicious cycle of mutual complicity between Brussels’s technocracy and anti-immigrant populism. This is why Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, made clear in a recent interview that his first priority, should Syriza win, will be to counteract panic: ‘People will conquer fear. They will not succumb; they will not be blackmailed.’ Syriza have an almost impossible task. Theirs is not the voice of extreme left ‘madness’, but of reason speaking out against the madness of market ideology. In their readiness to take over, they have banished the left’s fear of taking power; they have the courage to clear up the mess created by others. They will need to exercise a formidable combination of principle and pragmatism, of democratic commitment and a readiness to act quickly and decisively where needed. If they are to have even a minimal chance of success, they will need an all-European display of solidarity: not only decent treatment on the part of every other European country, but also more creative ideas, like the promotion of solidarity tourism this summer.
In his Notes towards the Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is between heresy and non-belief – i.e., when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split. This is the position in Europe today. Only a new ‘heresy’ – represented at this moment by Syriza – can save what is worth saving of the European legacy: democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity etc. The Europe we will end up with if Syriza is outmanoeuvred is a ‘Europe with Asian values’ – which, of course, has nothing to do with Asia, but everything to do with the tendency of contemporary capitalism to suspend democracy.
Here is the paradox that sustains the ‘free vote’ in democratic societies: one is free to choose on condition that one makes the right choice. This is why, when the wrong choice is made (as it was when Ireland rejected the EU constitution), the choice is treated as a mistake, and the establishment immediately demands that the ‘democratic’ process be repeated in order that the mistake may be corrected. When George Papandreou, then Greek prime minister, proposed a referendum on the eurozone bailout deal at the end of last year, the referendum itself was rejected as a false choice.