Athens, Greece—For weeks now, a high-stakes drama with global implications has been playing out before our eyes, calling forth emotional highs and lows that might qualify those of us following along for a collective diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The “Greek crisis” compresses so many head-spinning realities: the contradictions of (late?) neoliberal capitalism, the challenges of left government, the exposure of the European Union’s coercive and oligarchic underbelly, the fraught relations of parliamentary and participatory democracy, the political stakes and social consequences of monetary and fiscal policies.
From July 16 to 19, the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) brought together a lively assortment of left academics, public intellectuals, and activists in Athens to ponder and debate these realities at a conference called Democracy Rising—a title chosen before it became obvious that a question mark might be needed. Less than two weeks earlier, the Greek people had voted overwhelmingly to reject the latest austerity plan on offer from the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). But before the celebrations had petered out, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras brought back an even more draconian austerity plan for the Greek Parliament to sign. At the conference, the sense of shock slowly settled into lines of debate based on necessarily limited information about rapidly changing events.
GCAS is an open-education project, providing online and in-person classes offered by prominent and emerging progressive and left scholars at minimal cost. The conference was free and open to the public. It had no budget, paid no honoraria, and collected no registration fees—so planning was necessarily ad hoc. People joined and dropped off panels; some panels were canceled, and some moved. But despite the confusion, the conversations brought the issues into focus. This was not just another conference. This was a meeting of European leftists and allies confronting current conditions at a moment of dramatic uncertainty. Will global financial capitalism continue its slide into illegitimacy? Or will it reassert itself in its most brutal incarnation, as a neoliberal vampire on steroids? And is there anything any of us can do to shape a more democratic and economically just future?
Two very different plenaries at Democracy Rising illuminated the broader landscape for discussion and debate in Europe right now. The July 17 plenary, “The End of the World as We Know It,” featured four male professors explaining it all to the packed auditorium. Despite the over-long presentations and the very short period for discussion that turned into shouting matches and near-fisticuffs, the reigning testeria did not prevent a very focused engagement with the core questions of the moment: What is to be done by the Greek government now? Two of the speakers, Leon Panitch and Costas Lapavitsas, offered the most pointed engagement with the strategic and tactical stakes that I have heard to date: to sign the draconian memorandum on offer from the troika or not to sign? To stay in the eurozone and keep the euro, or leave and convert to the drachma? To honor the referendum’s resounding OXI vote, or to honor the desire of most Greeks polled to stay in the eurozone?—now that it seems increasingly clear that the Syriza government cannot do both.