Theodoros Rakopoulos: Of direct and default democracy: The debt referendum in Greece

Thessaloniki, 4–5 July 2015

Default has a twofold meaning: it means both “taken for granted,” or the known path, and an economic halt on someone’s debts. Greece has recently oscillated between these two meanings. On the one hand, the Left government’s choice to go to the ballot for a referendum should have been a default choice of any democratic polity. It has faced fierce opposition, but eventually its advice to the electorate (“vote a decisive NO”) had huge influence among many—and triumphed, with an unprecedented landslide victory, at 61.5 percent. On the other, this choice has coincided with a default on the country’s debt to the IMF. There are threats it might lead, given Greece’s lenders’ pressure, to a generalized default situation and indeed an ousting out of the euro due to the lenders’ self-righteous policies. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced the referendum on 26 June, at 1:50 a.m. EET, to be held nine days after, on 5 July. The question would be whether the Greek citizens would accept the conditions for a bailout proposed by the troika (the EU Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF). The negotiations between the Eurogroup and the Greek government had ended up in a cul-de-sac.

We now know that the Greeks have spoken: an outstanding OXI stood at a 22 percent difference from the NAI (the YES vote) and leaves no room for debating that the Greek populace overwhelmingly rejects austerity. In this piece I shall discuss not this achievement itself (seen as a Syriza victory) but rather what preceded it and what might follow. I then treat the building up to the referendum and the voting process itself as an enduring ethnographic instance, a condensed historical time the aftermath of which we are currently experiencing. The piece is inspired by my engaged presence among people partaking in the events of the buildup and the actual event of the referendum itself, in the city of Thessaloniki. I also attempt a critique to the idea of a referendum, having in mind the conditions in which this unprecedented referendum was held. This historical event, whose consequences are still unfolding, might help us problematize indebted democracy’s limits in the aforementioned twofold sense: democracy as the default choice of the indebted people and democracy in times of default and indebtedness.

The Syriza negotiations as a cognitive process
These are occasions of great paradoxes and contradictions. Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, was voted in power on 25 January and had put the Gramscian question of hegemony on its feet, while the global, at least the “Western,” Left had been standing on its head for a while. In Syriza, the Left saw an incarnation of the possible. In that way, the party was heading international aspirations to belittle what seemed a naval-gazing, if not outright imperialistic, policy of the troika.

The period between calling for and setting up the referendum, as well as the process itself, has been one of tremendous cognitive potential. This is also true for the whole six months of the experiment of having a radical Left administration in an EU country (arguably, the first far left government in postwar Europe), a period of intense negotiations between Syriza and the troika. A lot of interesting subprocesses unfolded during the Syriza administration, and we surely have learned a lot watching the bras de fer between the troika and the Greek government, especially regarding the nature of the obscure lending institutions. Let me note a few examples.

First, and arguably for the first time in EU history, the Eurogroup was rendered a central, if informal, body in the negotiating table, all throughout the final phase of the Greek crisis. In fact, the group operated as the very embodiment of financialized imperialism of the North over the South, even though “by a committee.” Second, the universally controversial IMF has been the only institution promoting a debt relief agenda—a surprise to those who believed that “Europe” would be more reasonable and tolerant to the indebted sovereigns, among whom Greece is the most troubled. Third, the democratic deficit of the Commission, an issue on which much has been written (e.g., by Cris Shore; for a recent contribution, see Shore 2011), has deepened. This is despite the Commission’s being the most consistent defender of a “political Europe,” and indeed a sympathetic player, given its influence on the Eurogroup. Fourth, the very idea of inter-Southern solidarity (on which many Syriza hopes and claims were based) was slashed, as the finance ministers of countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy, and even Cyprus repeatedly claimed they could not abide by the Greek “radical” claims. There were also surprising allies: France, and especially its finance minister, stood recurrently on Greece’s side.

Finally, Syriza itself has shown rapid abilities to transmogrify, once voted in power. As noted in a couple of pieces in FocaalBlog, including mine (see Rakopoulos 2015), the party endowed a logic of pluralistic patriotism resembling the Latin American left, possibly heading to a slippery direction. Syriza had abandoned a class-based analysis and praxis and eventually turned to a broad-church rhetoric. The party redressed its lack of power with some spectacular moves, for instance, renaming the troika as “institutions.” However, this semiotics of counterpower curved some of Syriza’s own dynamism. Maybe this strategy led to the incredible 61.5 percent of the NO vote. Maybe, also, some of this change-of-gear stance was reflected on some problems of the 5 July ballot itself—for instance, the nominal, yet central, theme of the referendum, which basically brought two documents (the lenders’ proposals) riddled in technocratic language to the people to judge. It follows that some understanding of these documents is required in order to partake in the referendum. This was an outsourcing of an onerous, complicated choice. The people voted in spite of this.

On the referendum’s people: The NO and the YES groups
The stuff one heard or read in Greece during the contentious week between Tsipras’s announcement and the actual fact of the referendum were really telling. Conversations in tavernas, workspaces, cafes, and social media were heated and polarized. The accusations of “treason” and “paranoia,” in which many otherwise calm people engaged, affected both camps in the argument. The people I have followed closely this week, my informants, reported that they had to face uncomfortable conversations with friends and even family members. The idea of the referendum being divisive was rampant, and rose especially from the side of the YES camp. Interestingly, the YES camp pressed for dropping the referendum altogether, before they embarked defending what they saw was the “European prospect of Greece” or indeed “Europe.”

Some of this frustration with the referendum per se was voiced in the YES camp’s gatherings. Open demonstrations were called every evening at 7 p.m., throughout the week; I visited, for participant observation, all of them. Rotating between supporting a YES and a NO, the crowd in each was radically different from the other, not only in terms of the obvious political sympathies but also of class and other backgrounds. The YES camp was accused of being bourgeois, out of touch, and spoiled. In the Thessaloniki YES central demos that I attended, I did not exactly come across the “Gucci Greece” (as leftist activists called these demos), but class was in the air. The participants were visibly and palpably from the middle classes of the city’s center. I recognized many lawyers, academics, and arts’ managers in the crowd. What is more, many in the crowd were happy that, with almost no exception, all of the TV stations were trumpeting the YES, at least in one occasion on a near 24/7 basis.

The NO camp, mainly drawing from the Left but also from the populist Right, was more engaged in the cause of the referendum. Indeed its marches, followed in one case by a huge concert, were probably bigger. The camp had several meetings and, importantly, secured for them a gathering and a popular feast at the White Tower, by far the most recognizable landmark of Thessaloniki. Heavy rain left the thousands of left-wing people disappointed just a day and a half before the ballots opened, canceling the concert. At the same time, however, in Athens, the march gathered close to 100,000 people at Syntagma Square. On Sunday evening, after the win, people gathered at Syntagma Square as well as the White Tower by the many thousands. Interestingly, these gatherings consisted of those meeting around Greek flags, those standing by ANTARSYA (a group at the left of Syriza), and Syriza followers. Little conversation was held between the groups.

This is an indication of how the NO camp was—oddly—more internally divided than those backing the YES. Vibrant leftist movements, the party, and the prime minister personally pushed toward the NO direction, but the NO camp failed to enlist the trade union confederation. However, it seems to have acquired those generally more affected by the crisis, especially the lower middle classes, as well as the vote of the disaffected youth. The NO camp, despite having a clear leadership, comprised uncomfortable cases: the fascists of Golden Dawn and the far right of the Independent Greeks party also backed the NO. Moreover, many small groups of the extra-parliamentary left as well as anarchist and autonomist groups, although supporters of the NO, would carry signs against Syriza in small demonstrations throughout the week.

There was at least one more choice to the bifurcated argument of the YES/NO, presented by the Communist Party (KKE). It argued for an active rejection of the dilemma altogether. KKE, an organization often accused for being monolithic and indeed Stalinist, had, interestingly, what was probably the most nuanced stance in the referendum. Specifically, on the referendum day, KKE activists handed a ballot the party had printed for the occasion that read “no to the lenders’ austerity, no to the government’s lies.” The paper, which was obviously not counted as valid, was the only official stance of any political organization that rejected what many Greeks thought of as a faux and divisive, if not indeed futile, dilemma.

On the referendum’s aftermath: Pondering on the Grexit
One could actually argue that no voting process can ever be perfect, as what is at stake in an election is, often by definition, elusive. But the dangers, due to the troika’s undemocratic stance, are obvious. If the troika and the Eurogroup choose to not blink and go steady in the face of the referendum’s result, then Greece might be pushed into opting a devaluation policy in order to acquire liquidity. There is no two ways about how to think of a lapse toward the drachma or any other national currency in an import-oriented economy like Greece: the prospect would be dire. It might indeed prove to be the worst choice possible for a left-wing government, as it would immensely maximize the class stratifications within society.

All the rhetorical radicalism in the world will not suffice to save the classed aggressiveness that would follow a Grexit. The upper classes have been wise enough to transfer their money abroad (most avoiding the taxman), secure them in Swiss bank accounts, or invest in London real estate. In this way, the preceding half year was a period of intensified economic class struggle by the rich, who left the poor and lower middle classes locked in a sinking national political economy. The upper middle classes have followed suit, securing their liquid assets in euro accounts abroad. This class struggle by the rich started through a bank run in 2010 but has recently peaked, when the middle classes and the poor took control over the government (but not necessarily the bureaucracy).

The secured euros could return in a deflationary market as “investment,” resulting in a massive movement of wealth and resources from labor to a rapacious and opportunistic capital. This could also mean bondage of the unemployed to a predatory capital, in the quickest possible way. This speculation is a possibility, and the danger has not been ousted. That noted, the possible internal deflation might lead to new depressed wages for the poor, but it may also turn them from unemployed or state employed into privately employed and on wages rather than benefits, which may in itself strengthen the state. It is precisely why the Keynesians are sometimes in favor of reintroducing the drachma, in particular in combination with default and then debt reduction.

The referendum gave NO a clear win. Can the government use a landslide victory as a strong card on the negotiating table? Would that even be enough for Brussels, the Frankfurt technocracy, and the political minds in European capitals (especially Berlin)? Hard to tell. The vote left no ambiguities as to what Greeks feel about austerity. However, a clear new plan is yet to be expressed, and indeed heard and taken into account by the lenders. The ball is in Syriza’s (and the troika’s) court. The story goes on, the adventure continues.

Theo Rakopoulos is a postdoctoral researcher at the ERC Egalitarianism program (University of Bergen). He has published on mafia, cooperativism, food politics, crisis, and solidarity, and he is currently completing a monograph titled “Divided by land: Labour and moral economies in Sicilian antimafia cooperatives.” In Focaal, he recently published the article “Which community for cooperatives? Peasant mobilizations, mafia, and the problem of community participation in Sicilian co-ops (Focaal 71: 57–80).


Rakopoulos, Theodoros. 2015. “The future lasts a long time…or is it here already? The Left in power in Greece,” FocaalBlog, 2 February,

Shore, Cris. 2011. “European governance” or governmentality? The European Commission and the future of democratic government. European Law Journal 17(3): 287–303.

Cite as: Rakopoulos, Theodoros. 2015. “Of direct and default democracy: The debt referendum in Greece,” FocaalBlog, 6 July,