Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe by Costas Douzinas

Pavlos Eleftheriadis on an angry book charting a volatile situation

July 4, 2013

The eurozone crisis has sparked a vibrant debate among the European Union’s supporters and critics. Costas Douzinas, professor of law and director of Birkbeck, University of London’s Institute of the Humanities, is a prominent critic of the EU; here, he examines the effects of the crisis in his native Greece.

Douzinas cites and discusses authors such as Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and others whose work is often called “radical philosophy” and is mostly obscure, allusive and mystical. In contrast, his own prose is for the most part lucid and direct. The book is often moving and captures well the current Greek mood of anger and despair. At the core of Douzinas’ argument lies a moral requirement for “resistance”: “Always act according to a maxim which, universally applied, attacks and cancels the causes that exclude and condemn to symbolic and physical death large numbers of people.” This “universal moral command” neatly divides the world between oppressors and victims.

Capitalism is the villain and ordinary people are its targets. But Douzinas accepts this without any evidence. He often relies on a simplified history of ideas to present an argument. There is no discussion of what amounts to “symbolic death”, nor why we need large numbers of such “deaths” to have a duty of resistance according to the “universal moral command”. Strangely, he does not deal with widely available research showing that European societies are among the most prosperous, equal and happy in the world.

For Douzinas, European democracy is an abject failure. Late capitalism, for him, comes with the exercise of “biopolitics”, the direct or indirect “control” of thought and action by impersonal forces aimed at domination. It used to be that Left and Right had different policies, says Douzinas, but this is no longer true. Europe’s “two major socio-political models”, namely classical liberalism and social democracy, have now converged into “neoliberalism”, which “extends the market mechanism to the social state, privatizing public utilities and social amenities”, where the strong social state of social democracy disappears and becomes a “state of behavioural controls, extensive surveillance and emergency powers deemed necessary to uphold order and keep resistance in check”.

What are the victims to do? Douzinas is under no doubt: insurrection. He believes that the “will to change the world brings together radical equality and democracy”, which in today’s world finds its best expression in the “idea of communism”. For Douzinas, “democratic disobedience combats the atrophy of democracy and the decay of ‘post-democracy’…Following republican theory [democratic disobedience] prioritizes the democratic will of the people ahead of fundamental rights.” Democracy, for Douzinas, must be extended “into all aspects of the social fabric, from home to work to social and cultural life”. He argues that in Greece the political vehicle of resistance is the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza. The task of the Greek Left, he says, is: “to develop the idea of communism for an age of capitalist crisis and violent social rearrangement”.

It is unclear what the aim is. Douzinas has no proposals for social, economic or institutional reform. Perhaps more surprisingly, he ignores the economy. He offers no discussion of how to maintain a functioning economy and a stable banking system in circumstances of sovereign insolvency, the position that Greece, the Republic of Ireland and Portugal found themselves in in 2010-12. One assumes he would have preferred a break with international markets and the EU but, surprisingly, he never discusses these possibilities. His only proposal is pure majoritarianism.

It is a very meagre harvest. Political philosophy has dealt with Douzinas’ arguments ever since they were made by Marx and Lenin. The Jacobin plan for total control of social life has been shown to lead to a totalitarian nightmare. Philosophers around the world are close to unanimous in considering rights and the rule of law as necessary protections of the private sphere against humiliations deriving from private and public sources. Most if not all of them believe that democracy is to ensure that we do not live our lives for the convenience of others. The book simply ignores this literature.

One is inclined to paraphrase the other Marx, Groucho. “Radical philosophy” is to philosophy what military music is to music. It cultivates confrontation. It does not seek understanding.

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