You might not know this, but there are surprising connections between Syriza – the radical left-wing party which has just swept to power in Greece – and the University of Essex, where I work as a professor.
The new Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who studied Economics, and the new Syriza MP for Corfu, Fotini Vaki, are both Essex alumni. So is Rena Dourou, the prefect (or governor) of Athens.
Rena Dourou completed an MA in Ideology and Discourse Analysis in 2001, a course that I teach. First encounters with new students at university can often be misleading. But this was not the case with Rena. From the beginning, I found that she was intellectually curious, forthright in her political views, and utterly committed to succeeding (which she did).
The ideas that Dourou was exposed to while studying at Essex have had a clear influence on herself and Syriza. Her MA course was inspired by the late Professor Ernesto Laclau, a political exile from Argentina. A key aspect of his approach focusses on the emergence of populist movements and their ideas.
The connections between Syriza and Laclau’s theory are easy to see. For one thing, Laclau rejected the view that populist leaders are always right-wing demagogues and that populist parties are inherently anti-democratic. On the contrary, he argues that populism is an essential ingredient of modern democratic societies: it functions to represent the marginalised voice of the underdog in society.
Populism also exhibits a distinctive mode of building political coalitions: connecting together demands expressed by those who are marginalised. Syriza built its political coalition in this way, binding together different demands by focussing on their opposition to a common enemy. In the case of Greece (and also Spain) the common enemy is austerity, and the political agents and forces that have foisted this policy on reluctant populations.
Of course, populism can be expressed in various forms. It can easily be cast in a right-wing politics that blames immigrants and other scapegoats for unemployment and declining public services. But there is another link between Laclau and Syriza: their commitment to democracy, albeit in a more radical sense than our current neo-liberal settlements.
While Laclau emanates from a Marxist background, his post-Marxist political theory affirms the values of democracy and political liberalism. What he (and his co-author Chantal Mouffe) have termed “radical democracy” demands that equality and freedom are extended beyond the formal institutions of parliament and the state, but run throughout society.
The biggest challenge for a populist movement such as Syriza is to transform itself from a vibrant politics of protest into an efficient and democratic instrument of governance. The world will watch with interest if Syriza, and its Essex alumni leaders, can negotiate these difficult challenges in the months to come.
Professor David Howarth teaches in the Department of Government at the University of Essex
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