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French Philosopher Bernard-Henri LéVy: Greece’s “No” is No Victory for Democracy

Bernard-Henri Lévy at Tel Aviv University. Photo by Itzik Edri.Despite what many are saying – especially those who do not have to bear the consequences of their words – Greek voters’ rejection on Sunday of the latest bailout offer from their country’s creditors did not represent a “victory for democracy.” For democracy, as the Greeks know better than anyone, is a matter of mediation, representation, and orderly delegation of power. It is not ordinarily a matter of referendum.

Democracy becomes a matter of referendum only in exceptional circumstances: when elected leaders run out of ideas, when they have lost the confidence of their electorate, or when the usual approaches have ceased to work. Was that the case in Greece? Was the position of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras so weak that he had no better choice than to pass the buck to his people by resorting to the extraordinary form of democracy that is democracy by referendum? What would happen if Greece’s partners, each time they confronted a decision that they lacked the courage to make, broke off discussions and demanded a week to allow the people to decide?

It is often said – and rightly so – that Europe is too bureaucratic, too unwieldy, too slow to make decisions. The least that can be said is that Tsipras’s approach does not make up for these defects. (Much more could be said, if it inspires Spanish citizens to take the risky decision of electing a government led by their own anti-austerity party, Podemos.)

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Putting this aside, let us suppose that the decision before Tsipras was so crucial and complex that it merited the exceptional step of referendum. In that case, the event should have reflected that complexity. It should have been a careful and deliberate sounding out of the will of the people. It should have been organized and carried out with due respect for the stakes involved, with the government ensuring that adequate information was relayed to the Greek people.

Instead, Greece got a hastily arranged referendum. It got an opaque – indeed, a downright incomprehensible – referendum question. It got no public-information campaign worthy of the name. It got an appeal for a “No” vote that no one understood; the details of the proposals that Greek voters were supposed to reject were not even disclosed to them.

Ancient Greek had two words for the people: the “demos” of democracy and the “laos” of the mob. With his puerile call to shift the burden of his own errors and his reluctance to reform onto the shoulders of Greece’s fellow Europeans, Tsipras is leaning toward the latter manifestation – and promoting the worst version of Greek politics.

Tsipras might defend his approach to the referendum by asserting that his goal was not so much to sound out the people as to reinforce his position in the confrontation with Greece’s creditors. But what is the justification for that confrontation? That they had the audacity to demand progress toward the rule of law and social justice, as well as efforts to tame Greece’s shipping magnates and its tax-avoiding clergy?

The European Union has achieved peace precisely by learning, gradually, to replace the old logic of confrontation and conflict with that of negotiation and compromise. Despite its defects, the EU has become a laboratory of democratic innovation, in which, for the first time in centuries, an attempt is being made to settle differences not by political war and blackmail but by listening, dialogue, and a synthesis of different points of view.

In this sense, the Greek referendum delivered an insult to 18 countries, including some that are in situations no less difficult than Greece’s, and yet have made considerable sacrifices to grant the country, in 2012 alone, €105 billion ($116 billion) in debt relief while remaining accountable to their own populations. What twist of the mind enables one to call that an “act of resistance” or the “defense of democracy?”
Yet many have. Indeed, since the referendum, many have acted as if Tsipras were the last eurozone democrat, as if he had faced a “totalitarian” clique (as described by the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen) against which he valiantly “stood firm” (in the words of far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon).

I will not dwell on Tsipras’s parliamentary alliance with the conspiracy-minded, right-wing Independent Greeks, whose leaders do not shy away from diatribes against homosexuals, Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims. Nor will I dwell on the fact that Tsipras did not refrain, when assembling parliamentary support for his referendum, from soliciting the support of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, whose help any other European leader would have rejected.

Instead, I will emphasize the fact that Tsipras’s fellow European leaders are no less democratic or legitimate than he. The countries of Central Europe that endured Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism do not need lessons in legitimacy from anyone – especially not the Greek prime minister. The brave Baltic countries – the “legality” of whose independence is reportedly being reviewed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, another unsavory pal of Tsipras – have not yielded to panic or succumbed to the temptation to burden others with their misfortune. They are not using their struggles as a pretext to default on their duty of solidarity with Greece.

None of this means that we should write off Greece’s EU membership. In other times, the Greeks paid dearly for their “No” to Nazism and their “No” to military dictatorship. Nothing would be sadder than to see them also have to pay for last Sunday’s “No” – a farcical simulation of those earlier noble acts of defiance.

May eurozone leaders have the forbearance to recognize the flawed “No” that has been delivered, and to be more Greek than the Greeks. May they act in a way that prevents Greece from ever having to face the true, tragic meaning of Sunday’s vote.


Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of the founders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement. His works include Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.





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