Will Horner, Why Syriza Won: Laclau, Populism and Hegemony

Syriza’s transformation from a peripheral parliamentary coalition to the majority coalition partner of the current government of Greece is nothing short of miraculous. Their success has been dependent on the initial emergence in Greece of broad and diverse anti-austerity social movements, as well as their ability to subsequently represent and channel these social movements into a popular front. We must ask ourselves how we might theoretically understand the relationship between Syriza and the movements and the reasons behind Syriza’s success in representing them where others might have failed. These questions might be most fruitfully investigated through the writings of Ernesto Laclau on populism and hegemony.1 For Laclau, populism is the emergence of a broad chain of political and social demands which are represented by one actor that champions and, to an extent, unifies these demands. Laclau’s analysis of populism is shaped by his parallel understanding of politics as the attempt to traverse the relationship between the universal and the particular.2 The particular(s) refers to the various social groups that make up the milieu of a pluralistic society, and the universal is the perception that these particulars can constitute more than the mere sum of their parts, such as a society, a nation, or culture.

Political philosophy conceives of different ways of articulating this relationship: for Hobbes, the Leviathan overrides the particular by subsuming it via force into the universal. In contrast, neo-liberals often assert a purely particular approach to which is Margret Thatcher’s dictum is testament: ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women’. The ways that this relationship play out in populist movements are termed hegemony by Laclau, occurring when ‘a particularity assumes the representation of an (impossible) universality entirely incommensurable with it’.3 Yannis Stavrakakis and Giorgos Katsambekis have already attempted to apply Laclau’s theory of populism to Syriza and have argued convincingly through an analysis of Syriza’s discourse that the party exhibits a populist tendency via its antagonistic rhetoric and appeals to ‘the people.’4 What is required, though, is a clearer understanding of the hegemonic relation between Syriza and the social movements. We may proceed in this by outlining Laclau’s theory of populism and applying it to what might be identified as the three key events of Syriza’s rise to power: the aganaktismenoi (the Greek indignados) protests of 2011, the attempted referendum of George Papandreou and the May and June 2012 parliamentary elections.

A Theory of Popular Movements

For Laclau, any popular movement is at the lowest level comprised of ‘demands’. By defining a movement by that which it demands – the call to be heard, the call for change – Laclau separates the act of popular struggle from a pre-given social agent. As Laclau points out, the term ‘demand’ has an ambiguous dual meaning: ‘request’ and ‘claim’.5 It is this ambiguity which enables him to distinguish between isolated demands and broad popular movements. We might liken this to the distinction between making a request and making an ultimatum, or making a demand of someone and issuing a demand to someone. Laclau calls a demand which is isolated a democratic demand, it is one that takes the form of a request.6 It cannot be resolved by those that make it but must be made to a higher authority with the power to satisfy that demand. The making of this request does not place the form of power to which the appeal is being made into question. It also does not reflect a broader chain of demands but stands alone – it is not the ‘tip-of-an-iceberg’ of other demands.7 Because of this, it reflects what Laclau calls the logic of difference. Social agents operating according to this logic accept the process of demand satisfaction and the legitimacy of the position of the ruler. An assumption is made that there are no social divisions and that issues can be solved without antagonistic politics, in an administrative way.8

If a demand is satisfied it ceases to be. However, if it remains unsatisfied it may become a popular demand. If multiple demands exist that have not been resolved they can become linked to one another by the fact that they share the condition of being unfulfilled. Laclau calls this the logic of equivalence. This creates a chain of equivalences between the previously isolated demands.9 In this instance, individual demands do reflect the ‘tip-of-an-iceberg’. Each demand is split between its own particularity and the universality of the equivalential chain. This marks the creation of popular subjectivity, what forms a popular movement.10 Whereas a democratic demand accepts the legitimacy of the existing process of demand satisfaction, popular demands raise the question of this legitimacy and therefore challenge existing structures. The chain of equivalences is dependent on a two-step process of representation. The first stage is the representation of that which the chain opposes. Laclau refers to this in many ways, ‘the power’, the ‘enemy’, ‘the Ancien Régime, the oligarchy, the Establishment’.11 Here the ‘the regime’ will be used to refer to the existing hegemonic power relations which control and govern society. The identity of the regime is not inherent to it, but becomes constituted through the emergences of the chain of equivalences. This first act of representation splits the social along an internal frontier dividing it between the regime and the equivalential chain:

[There] is no emergence of a popular subjectivity without the creation of an internal frontier. The equivalences are only such in terms of a lack pervading them all, and this requires the identification of the source of social negativity. Equivalential popular discourses divide, in this way, the social into two camps: power and the underdog.12

If the first act of representation is the representation of the regime by the emergence of the chain of equivalences; the second comes when the chain looks to represent itself, as, up until now, it has only had its negative aspect as a method of representation. Its representation occurs when one particular demand, without entirely abandoning its particularity, functions as a universal demand representing the chain itself as a totality. This occurs through the use of an empty signifier, which is a ‘signifier without a signified’, a signifier without an agreed meaning, whose meaning is ambiguous and hasn’t yet been discursively fixed.13 In the case of the construction of the people, one demand assumes the role of empty signifier and provides a neutral space for the inscription of other demands. From here we have a working concept of a popular movement. We might finally add the description of the relation of the universal and the particular, the empty signifier and the chain: hegemony. This is ‘the type of political relation by which a particularity assumes the representation of an (impossible) universality entirely incommensurable with it’.14 On the question of which demand will become the empty signifier, Laclau says that it is dependent entirely on the contingency of a given situation and is therefore impossible to predict in advance.15

Syriza as an Empty Signifier

In their discourse analysis of Syriza, Stavrakakis and Katsambekis isolate two key criteria from Laclau’s approach to populism: the need for a chain of equivalences articulated around the nodal point of ‘the people’ and the creation of an internal frontier dividing society ‘into two main blocs: the establishment […] versus the underdog’.16 They argue convincingly that Syriza fulfills both these criteria and therefore reflects a Laclauian populist force. Firstly they determine that ‘the people’ is a signifier that occupies a privileged place in Syriza’s discourse, occurring regularly in the headline of the party’s newspaper Avgi, and in the speeches of Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras. What is more, they note that its presence in the party’s discourse is relatively new. The party initially chose to focus its attention on young voters, with references to the signifier ‘the youth’ rather than ‘the people’, in an attempt to capture the force of youth mobilizations against university reforms in 2007 and the youth riots resulting from the police killing of Alexandros Grigoropoulos in December 2008. ‘The people’ only becomes active in the parties discourse after the economic, social and political crisis initiated by the economic crash and austerity measure imposed as a result which ‘led to large sections of voters to disidentify with previous party preferences’ and called for a broader semiotic reference which ‘could establish a relation of representation’ covering the large heterogeneous mass of demands.17

Stavrakakis and Katsambekis also argue for the presence in Syriza’s discourse of a dichotomy between ‘Syriza as an almost neutral multiplier of popular power: the people’s vote for Syriza is a vote that strengthens the people itself leading to a mirroring dialectic between the two’18 and the ‘regime’, identified on two levels. These are the political elites imposing austerity measures that are impoverishing the country and are represented by the parties of the government: New Democracy (ND), PASOK, DIMAR and LAOS. The second level refers to the international financial institutions dictating the terms of the austerity measures and the Greek bailout. To provide a single example, Stavrakakis and Katsambekis mention Tsipras’ pun about the ‘“troika exoterikou – troika esoterikou” (external troika – internal troika)’ which equates the ruling coalition of ND, PASOK and DIMAR with the financial troika – the IMF, EU, and ECB.19

What needs to be added to this analysis, however, is an understanding of how Syriza’s populist discourse succeeded in winning this argument. We must thus recognize that the discursive ground was set by the aganaktismenoi and the events of the Eurozone Crisis prior to Syriza rise. It is these events which play a crucial role in Syriza’s emergence as an empty signifier. Laclau suggests that three elements are needed for a movement to be considered populist (not the two set by Stavrakakis and Katsambekis). The first and second are the chain of equivalences and the internal frontier. The third is the presence of an empty signifier that symbolically solidifies the chain of equivalences into ‘something qualitatively more than the simple summation of the equivalential links’.20 The creation of a chain of equivalences does not necessarily causes the emergences of an empty signifier. The first act of representation – the signification of an enemy and therefore the emergence of an internal frontier – is also not enough for the empty signifier to emerge. The second act of representation is the moment at which the empty signifier becomes hegemonic as a result of contingent discursive articulations. We could have a loose chain of equivalences, and a clear idea of ‘the enemy’ within society, but contingency could mean that the hegemonization of the movement does not occur, that there is no demand which comes to represent the absent fullness of society. With this in mind we can proceed to identify three moments in Greek politics which have enabled the emergence of ‘the people’ as a semantic category in Greece.

The May 2011 Aganaktismenoi Occupations

The first important moment is the aganaktismenoi occupations in May 2011, which began the creation of a chain of equivalences. The protests were inspired by the Tahir Square occupations in Cairo and by the indignados protest which occupied Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid (aganaktismenoi is the Greek rendering of the Spanish indignados). The most prominent occupation was in Syntagma Square, Athens – outside the parliament building. However, another large occupation occurred in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city and in sixty other cities in Greece.21 The occupation lasted in Athens for at least a month, at which point the protesters were violently evicted by the police.22 Most commentators agree that the occupations, much like those that inspired them – Cairo, Madrid – and those that came after – New York, London, Istanbul – were significant due to the fact that traditional political parties had no part in their organisation and that (perhaps as a result of this) the demographics of the occupations were diverse, representing a heterogeneous mix of the population.

The diverse and heterogeneous nature of the protesters gathering together in occupation was the cause of the emergence of the chain of equivalences. It marked a situation of particular democratic demands which, out of a mutual opposition to a government they all conceived as the cause of their ills, began to develop a feeling of solidarity between themselves, and therefore a logic of equivalence. The presentation of all these demands together in one place was the moment in which the logic of difference was transgressed and the logic of equivalence came into play. As Costas Douzinas points out, the choice of an emotion – ‘indignation’ – rather than a class position, as a signifier was significant.23 The condition of solidarity, the ‘negative dimension beyond their positive differential nature’, is exactly what was expressed.24 As Laclau argues, an ‘experience of a lack, a gap which has emerged in the harmonious continuity of the social’ is necessary for the emergence of equivalence. The name aganaktismenoi represents the claim to be united by ‘a situation lived as deficient being’.25

Syriza were present in the occupation, not as an organiser, but as a participant. Paul Mason noted that ‘the far-left parliamentary alliance Syriza has people here’and spoke with Rena Dourou at the occupation, a Syriza activist, who would later be elected as an MP for the party.26 Manolis Glezos, a prominent figure of the Greek Resistance during the Second World War, a Syriza supporter and a Syriza MP after the June 2012 election, also gave a speech to the occupation.27 During the occupation Syriza was ‘the only party to engage from the beginning with the protestors’ demands and meet them out in the streets.’28 Syriza’s involvement in the occupation, as a particular with its own demands, means it constituted a part of this emerging chain of equivalences.

Papandreou’s Failed Referendum

After the dispersal of the occupations by July, unrest continued across the country. Student occupations occurred throughout August, protests turn violent at the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair, and trade unions were almost constantly calling strikes. At the end of October, in light of the continuing discontent about the austerity policies being imposed by the troika, the Prime Minister George Papandreou, from the ruling social-democratic PASOK party, called for a referendum on the austerity measures and bailout agreement. Papandreou said that ‘citizens will be called on to say “yes” or “no” to the agreement. It is not for others to decide but the Greek people to decide […] We believe in democratic participation. We are not afraid of it’.29 The reaction of other EU leaders to the democratically elected leader of Greece’s decision, in true ancient Athenian democratic fashion, to hold a plebiscite on the agreement was one of complete outrage. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, IMF leader Christine Lagarde and Eurogroup chair Jean-Claude Junker summoned Papandreou to the G20 summit in Cannes and made it clear that Greece could not hold a referendum on the austerity measures; to do so would mean instant expulsion from the Eurozone. As a result, Papandreou left the meeting and immediately cancelled the referendum, just three days after initially announcing it. Barroso spoke with Greek opposition leaders and other members of PASOK to discuss the possibility of establishing a national unity government in Greece and immediately named his choice of successor to Papandreou in the technocratic economist Lucas Papademos.30 Within a week, Papandreou resigned after narrowly winning a vote of confidence and was immediately replaced by Papademos as the head of a national unity government.31

This event was inarguably significant in the creation of ‘the people’. The aganaktisemoi protestors had clear grievances, but it is Papandreou’s aborted referendum which most obviously marks the creation of the internal frontier. As above, the representation of the ‘regime’ is necessary for the successful articulation of demands into a hegemonic and equivalential chain. This is dependent upon the ‘plebs’ viewing themselves as the ‘populous’ and the complete exclusion of the ‘regime’ from their conception of society. In other words, any identification of the regime with those they claim to represent must be completely broken:

we begin to see why the plebs sees itself as the populous, the part as the whole: since the fullness of the community is merely the imaginary reverse of a situation lived as deficient being, those who are responsible for this cannot be a legitimate part of the community; the chasm between them is irretrievable.32

PASOK had, until the crisis, been the solid bedrock of social-democratic politics in Greece and the natural home of working-class voters. PASOK was, essentially, the metapolitefsi (regime change) – the term which signifies the end of the military junta in 1974 and the restoration of democracy. But it also ‘signifies not only the moment of transition in 1974, but also the era that this moment initiated’.33 PASOK emerged from the restoration of democracy and led the movement of transition. Championing the ‘mipronomiouxoi’ (non-privileged), it led a project termed ‘National Popular Unity’ and dominated Greek politics through identification of the signifier the ‘people’ with the ‘nation’.34

The discourse of the aganaktisemoi and of Syriza was always one that identified the ‘regime’ as being both internal and external. But this discourse only ultimately gained traction amongst the Greek people after Papandreou’s proposed referendum. The complete subservience of PASOK to European elites in the eyes of the populace blurred the lines between ‘internal-troika’ and ‘external-troika’; the division was completely eradicated once PASOK could no longer claim to be accountable to the Greek people, when events showed it to be instead accountable to the EU, IMF and ECB. Any link between PASOK and the Greek people is broken – the chasm is now ‘irretrievable’. In Laclau’s terms this is the moment when the ‘plebs’, the chain of equivalences formed during the occupations, understood as the underdogs or the excluded, become the ‘populous’. In other words they identify themselves as the totality of society, and the regime no longer occupies a legitimate part of that society.

The 2012 Parliamentary Elections

The rejection of PASOK by Greek voters became most evident in the May and June elections of 2012, when the party’s voter base was eradicated, to the benefit of Syriza. This also marked the ‘third moment’ in the emergence of the people: the creation of Syriza as the empty signifier of the chain of equivalences, its symbolic unification into a rigid counter-hegemonic movement. The technocratic government of Lucas Papademos governed Greece from November 2011 until May 2012 when elections were first held. In the first round no party won sufficient seats to form a government. However, the results made abundantly clear what was happening in Greece: the hegemonization of the popular movement under the banner of Syriza. New Democracy gained 18.85 percent of the popular vote, Syriza came a close second with 16.78 percent; PASOK obtained an embarrassing 13.18 percent.35 Whilst not enough for any party to form a government, these elections were a forecast for undecided voters and those still voting for the traditional left (PASOK and KKE). After coalition talks failed, the second election offered New Democracy a slim victory, with 29.66 percent to Syriza’s 26.89 percent. PASOK received 12.28 percent. The KKE’s vote halved from 8.48 percent in May to 4.5 percent in June, suffering voter flight to Syriza.36 The exodus from parties of the traditional left towards Syriza is particularly clear in the vote breakdown by prefecture: both PASOK and the KKE lost all their prefectures in the month between the two elections, as voters realised the hegemony of Syriza. These events mark the moment at which Syriza became the empty signifier of the equivalential chain which initially formed around the aganaktismenoi protests. Polling after the elections confirmed the rejection of PASOK and Syriza’s newfound hegemonic position: PASOK dropped to approximately 7 points in most opinion polls, polling lower even than the KKE, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn and To Potami (a newly formed centrist party).37 In the May 2014European Elections, Syriza finally overtook New Democracy, holding an almost 4 percent lead. PASOK came in fourth on 8 percent.38

What is necessary for the formation of a popular movement is the unification of the equivalential chain, ‘whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity’, into a stable system of signification’.39 This occurs through the production of tendentially empty signifiers which adopt the representation of the universality of the demands whilst maintaining their own particularity and the particularity of the equivalential demands.40 Syriza, which began as a particular demand in the equivalential chain formed in Syntagma square, became the empty signifier of the social demands presented in that chain. As Laclau argues, it is the contingency of power relations that determine which demand becomes the hegemonic one, and this is impossible to predict. With hindsight, we can see that Syriza’s position as a far-left parliamentary coalition allowed it to assume the representative function required of the empty signifier – a representative on the mainstream political stage with the attention of the media. At the same time, being a non-mainstream party enabled it to maintain a position of outsider in regards to the ‘regime’ – it could not be characterised as part of the political elite. By calling for the complete annulment of the memorandum signed with the troika, Syriza identified itself as completely on the ‘peoples’ side of the internal frontier. Thus

the more extended the chain of equivalences that a particular hegemonic sector comes to represent and the more its aims become a name for global emancipation, the looser will be the links of that name with its original particular meaning and the more it will approach the status of an empty signifier.41

In other words, the more a particular approaches the position of empty signifier, the more it loses its own particularity; as this happens it becomes easier for this particular to represent other particulars, which of course then expands the chain of equivalences even further. Assuming the status of empty signifier of the aganaktismenoi movement (an already broad and heterogeneous movement) in the May 2012 elections enabled Syriza to begin to represent more particulars that would otherwise have not identified with it. Syriza began to attain the name of universal, rather than local, emancipation. This explains the movement of KKE and PASOK supporters towards Syriza. It also enabled Syriza to represent all dispossessed groups in Greece who have no necessary connection to radical-left politics, such as LGBT groups, migrants, and ethnically non-Greek citizens.

The January 2015 election which brought Syriza into government was an unprecedented moment for both Greece and Europe. For Greece it marked not only a break with the dichotomic choice of PASOK/New Democracy, but also the fulfilment of a true popular movement against austerity and the election of a radical left government in a country still marked by a history of anti-communist activities. For Europe it brought to the fore a debate concerning the control of European identity. However, the election itself was only possible as the culmination of several years of popular mobilisation against austerity: focusing too much attention to it would be to obscure the conditions which allowed it to occur. Syriza is just the tip of the iceberg of a chain of equivalential demands which extend deep into Greek society and operate on a discursive level far below the mere structural level of the party itself.

Will Horner is a writer based in Athens and has recently completed an MA in European Politics from University College London.

1 The primary sources for the current publication on Ernesto Laclau’s ideas on these topics are On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005) and ‘Populism: What’s in a Name’ in Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, ed. Francisco Panizza (London: Verso, 2005). Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent references are to Laclau’s works.

2 See ‘Populism: What’s in a Name’, pp. 34-35.

3 ‘Democracy and the Question of Power’, Constellations, 8.1 (2001), 3-14, p. 5.

4 See Yannis Stavrakakis and Giorgos Katsambekis, ‘Left-wing Populism in the European Periphery: the Case of Syriza’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 19.2 (2014), 119-142.

5 On Populist Reason, p. 73.

6 Ibid., p. 74.

7 ‘Populism: What’s in a Name’, p. 36.

8 Ibid.

9 On Populist Reason, p. 74-78.

10 ‘Populism: What’s in a Name’, p. 38.

11 Ibid., p. 39.

12 Ibid., p. 38.

13 Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 1996), p. 36.

14 ‘Democracy and the Question of Power’, p. 5.

15 Emancipation(s), p. 41.

16 Stavrakakis and Katsambekis, p. 123.

17 Ibid., p. 127.

18 Ibid., p. 128.

19 Ibid., p. 131.

20 On Populist Reason, p. 77.

21 Costas Douzinas, Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), p. 147.

22 Paul Mason, Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, (London: Verso, 2012), p. 99.

23 Douzinas, p. 160.

24 ‘Populism: What’s in a Name’, p. 4.

25 On Populist Reason, p. 86.

26 Mason, pp. 88-9.

27 See Roarmag.org, Utopia on the Horizon (2012) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAnGxynPxL4&gt; [accessed 13 August 2014].

28 Stavrakakis and Katsambekis, p. 126.

29 Phillip Inman and Helena Smith, ‘Greece throws euro bailout into fresh crisis’, The Guardian, 31 October 2011 <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/31/greece-euro-bailout-fresh-crisis&gt; [accessed 13 August 2014].

30 ‘Barroso urged Samaras and Venizelos to block Papandreou’s referendum, reports FT’, Ekatimerini, 12 May 2014 <http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite1_1_12/05/2014_539632&gt; [accessed 13 August 2014].

31 Smith, Helena, ‘How Greece pulled back from the brink of plunging Europe into chaos’, The Guardian, 22 May 2014 <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/22/greece-europe-elections-crisis-eurozone&gt; [accessed 13 August 2014].

32 On Populist Reason, p. 86; emphasis added.

33 Giorgos Katsambekis, ‘Populism in Post-Democratic Times: Greek Politics and the Limits of Consensus’, paper presented at the 61st Political Studies Association Annual Conference, London, 19-21 April 2011 <www.gpsg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/2011-P2-Katsambekis.pdf> [accessed 25 May 2015].

34 Ibid., pp. 7-9.

35 Greek Ministry of the Interior, Parliamentary Elections May 2012 <http://ekloges-prev.singularlogic.eu/v2012a/public/index.html?lang=en#&gt; [accessed 14 August 2014].

36 Greek Ministry of the Interior, Parliamentary Elections June 2012 < http://ekloges-prev.singularlogic.eu/v2012b/public/index.html?lang=en#&gt; [accessed 14 August 2014].

37 Palmos Analysis, Poll of Palmos Analysis on behalf of the website tvxs.gr (2014) <http://www.3comma14.gr/pi/view_survey.php?id=21619&gt; [accessed 14 August 2014].

38 Greek Ministry of the Interior, Euro-elections May 2014 < http://ekloges-prev.singularlogic.eu/may2014/e/public/index.html?lang=en#&gt; [accessed 14 August 2014].

39 On Populist Reason, p. 74.

40 ‘Democracy and the Question of Power’, p. 11.

41 Ibid.

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