Alternative futures emerging from the debt crisis: the sociological imagination of the Greek ‘OXI’

By Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou

Rapid Response: Greece, Debt and Europe in Crisis

In the recent referendum of the 5 July 2015, Greek citizens voted to accept or reject proposals from the ‘troika’ of institutions responsible for managing Greek debt (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund). The OXI (‘no’) vote cast by the overwhelming majority undeniably challenges the dominant neoliberal narrative of austerity and the future that was ‘imagined’ for Greece by its creditors. At the same time Syriza’s own proposed ‘alterative future’ for Greece and Europe is seen as failing to represent the citizen desires contained in the ‘OXI’ vote, converging instead with the creditors’ imagined future.

In this short essay I focus on the imaginary struggle underpinning the production of such ‘alternative futures’ within Greek society, in the face of the debt crisis. I discuss the generative and mediating role of imagination in the production of the crisis and in the alternative futures it throws up. Such a perspective invites questioning of rudimentary interpretations of the OXI vote by commentators both on the neoliberal European apparatus and within some of the Left’s anti-Euro camp.

Looking at the imagination of the OXI vote resonates with a surge of calls for rehabilitating ‘sociological imagination’ for understanding the causes of the global debt crisis (e.g. Dinerstein et al’s editorial for the recent Sociology special issue ‘Sociological Imagination as Social Critique: Interrogating the ‘Global Economic Crisis’ ). However, my focus here is on the different types of ‘enacted’ sociological imagination, that is the collective imaginaries underpinning social practice and generating reality. It is possible to trace expression of at least two types of imagination at play in the events of the dramatic days leading to, and following the Greek referendum: the ‘regulatory imagination‘ of the Troika, and the host of (European and Greek) political parties and institutions that championed the YES vote, and the sociological imagination embodied in the acts of ‘regulated’ citizens in Greece.

On the one hand regulatory imagination is engendered by abidance to EU rules and discursively sustained by mainstream media supporting the ‘YES’ position in the referendum. The imaginary dimension of of this process is reflected in the dogma of ‘extend and pretend’a utopia of rules seeking ‘recovery though austerity’ in Europe. It is emboldened by an atomistic understanding of the world considering indebtedness to be the ‘fault’ of the individual. The work of regulatory imagination is the ongoing legitimation of its representing institutions, through producing enclosures of the future – zones where sociological imagination is neutralized and delegitimised. This is achieved through drawing on finance’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic

On the other hand there is the sociological imagination embodied in the acts of ‘regulated citizens’ of debtor states. The psychosocial conceptualising of ‘imagination’ offered in the works of Cornelius Castoriadis can be a valuable tool for illuminating the democratic and economic struggles of the Greek crisis. Following Castoriadis, imagination is not a reflection of/on reality, but rather, a socially-generative force involving the co-constitution of affects, images and meanings that together produce reality. Seen under this lens, the sociological imagination of the Greek OXI was the very enactment of such emotions, meanings and images.

Crucially, there is no set of ‘new determinations’ born out of the crisis but rather a series of acts indicating the ‘taking of ownership’ of indeterminations produced in the burdened political/economic system. In this sense the imaginary of ‘OXI’ does not reflect the positing of a clear new meaning; against ‘demands’ for articulating a viable or realistic alternative, citizens enact their own visions of the future, which include emotional articulations such as ‘indignity’, ‘anger’, but also ‘hope’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘elation’. These latter emotions are far from individually experienced; they are in fact mediating structures enacted in/through the participation in social sites including rallies, demonstrations, but also everyday spaces such as cafes, and the ‘interactional queuing’ in front of cash-points. Such emotional articulations are the nodes of sociological imagination at work, and the collective expression of OXI is both the process and the outcome of this work.

In this sense, the potential of the collective expression of OXI, through voting but also and in social participating must be understood as not only as a rejection of neoliberal agendas, nor as an affirmation of a specific alternative to them; rather it should be seen as the actual and lucid re-articulationThis re-articulation has an even deeper importance. For although not an affirmation of alternative vision, it is the affirmation of collective autonomy qua collective in-determination.

The image of a future that was conjured by Greeks in response to the crossroads posed by the recent referendum was answered by no utopian category. In other words the NO vote should not be seen as merely the rejection of austerity and the neoliberal model that carries it; it should be read as profound awareness of the crisis. This problematic challenges the recent rudimentary positioning of the NO vote in the realm of support for ‘immediate rupture’ (associated with the position of returning to a national currency as expressed chiefly by the Left Platform within Syriza, as well as by the neoliberals of the German finance ministry). In other words the scope of the Greek OXI should not be reduced to a No to austerity. 

The European Union’s ‘reasoning’ for supporting a Yes vote to the Greek referendum is a sore reminder of its continuing insistence on a ‘dogmatic dream’, to which Syriza is accused of having conceded. But a dogmatic dream, remains a dream – that is a powerful positing of the ‘regulatory imagination’, which as I have sought to argue needs to be understood and engaged with as such, if it is to be resisted. For it is in the intensified struggle between sociological and regulatory imaginations that the mechanics of the crisis is unraveled.

In spite of the hopeless outcome (i.e. the shift towards a third memorandum of austerity) it is through foregrounding this imaginary struggle that we can access the potentiality of OXI; to trace and reinforce the alternative meaningful articulations enacted by citizens rather than posited on them by neoliberal and leftist ‘liberators’ alike. To paraphrase Zizek, the true courage shown by NO voters was not, strictly speaking, to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative. The sociological imagination of OXI is what renders such acceptance a non-passive act, but a necessary foundation for charting the horizon of the possible in these hopeless times.

Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou is post-doctoral research fellow at King’s College London. He writes and teaches on the sociology of organisations, financial crises and citizen engagement. He tweets at @aris_komporozos.

Originally posted 25th July 2015

Photo Credit:  Kotsolis at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons   

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