Costas Douzinas talks to Nick Holdstock about citizenship and public space.

This interview was first published by CITSEE in 2013.

Nick Holdstock: Why did you start ‘Philosophy and Resistance’ with a reference to Queen Elizabeth?

Costas Douzinas: The Queen’s question is like the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. The little kid goes against what everyone says about the beautiful robe of the emperor and cries out that the emperor is naked. In the particular instance I mention in the book the Queen would be playing the role of the little kid who tells the truth by precisely sticking to what she sees. And what the Queen did in October 2008 after the major banking collapse, Lehman Brothers and so on, she was visiting the London School of Economics, and she asked a very famous economist, ‘How come all of you brilliant, knowledgeable and wise people did not predict what happened last month?’

The economist did not answer the question but a year later the British Academy organised a workshop and asked the same question. And what we learned later from participants was that a number of these top economists agreed that perhaps their ideological presuppositions had blinded them and made it impossible to predict or understand what happened in the Lehman Brothers catastrophe.

So the Queen’s question is in a sense a question about all of us, when we adopt that naïve position, accepting that the world cannot be understood except through the prism of a particular ideology, in our case neoliberalism. Of course there’s no way that somehow we can deconstruct the dominant ideology and go to a pristine reality that can give us a clear entry into the truth. Ideology is always there, it is the way we make sense of the world. What we can do is to unravel certain ideological premises and perhaps create new boundaries, new stories, new ways of looking at reality. So that is the Queen’s question.

Nick Holdstock: What was the inspiration for the book?

Costas Douzinas: I wrote this book in twelve weeks when I was angry about what was happening to Greece, What struck me was the fact that neither standard political science nor radical political philosophy had either predicted or fully understood what was happening in that huge series of protests, riots, insurrections that we saw all over the world that started in perhaps 2007/2008, culminating in the Arab Spring, the movement in Europe, the Occupy movement, this year in Turkey and Brazil and back to the Balkans. I argue that we live in a new era of protests or insurrections, a pre-revolutionary moment in the widest possible meaning of the term.

Nick Holdstock: Do you think that the last few years in Greece have made people reassess their rights and duties as citizens?

Costas Douzinas:

“It’s a difficult one because citizenship is such a contested term. In the last few years we had this idea of a European citizenship developing, something which has come to grief at the minute. The idea of citizenship, in Greek ‘polites’, is that we acquire recognition, rights and public existence in the polis, the state. Life politike or ethike means meaningful life, life given public resonance and importance. But what happened with the crisis and austerity, is the sense of a public space of debate, political activity and recognition of the minimum entitlement of citizenship had disappeared.”

Costas Douzinas (Photo by Robert Crc)

Costas Douzinas (Photo by Robert Crc)

“In a sense with the protests, the occupations, the squares and streets, the resistances I was talking about earlier, this idea of active citizenship returned. But it still needs much greater public participation and intervention and eventually an element of institutionalisation. In other words the question is what happens after the square’s empty. And the squares do empty because people cannot stay in encampments for ever, particularly when winter comes. Although the occupation in St Paul’s in London tried a permanent presence, it didn’t work as you know.”

What has happened to a degree, and what could happen more often, is precisely the use of these new types of experiences and memories. We need to spread the principles of the squares, the Occupied squares, into the suburbs and local places. The two main characteristics of the squares, physical proximity in public and direct democracy should be spread more widely. It can be done through collaborative work, cooperation, networking, solidarity campaigns with the poor and the immigrants, new social forms of economic activity, being together and passing the aptitutdes we learn for our work to public and political activity. The second is the non-hierarchical horizontal organisation of these political activities.

In other words, take those innovations that came up, many of them quite spontaneously, and generalise them. If the principles of the squares were to become parts of all kinds of activities, from trade unions and factory work to office work to university work, if that idea of a political renaissance through the initiatives of people and so on would take hold, of course we would be talking about a kind of return or strengthening of the situation. It would be a re-arrangement of the idea of citizenship in the age of late capitalism and post-political governance.

Nick Holdstock: How much of this is dependent on the state of the economy? In some fantasy world where the economy is fine and everybody gets jobs and everybody gets paid again, does everyone just go back to the way they were? Is the social contract renewed then?

Costas Douzinas: A particular type of social contract, yes. That is the hope of the right-wing government and indeed the dominant European forces, the idea that if growth takes off again then people will go back to the old way of borrowing to spend, consuming goods, gadgets and so on, so that idea of growth by means of consumption and debt will return. I’m not sure this is likely to happen- first of all there’s a big question of what’s going to happen to the economy and how long this will take. I believe that growth through borrowing and consumption is unlikely to return. Similarly, we cannot anticipate the return of the traditional social state. So this is the time for imagination and experimentation, something that mainstream economists do not understand. They are stuck to their ideology and will not let go. Look at the case of Greece. The IMF has admitted that the austerity was a mistake, partly through a wrong calculation of the ‘fiscal multiplier’. But the EU authorities insist that the programme should be continued in exactly the same way giving a brilliant definition of cynical ideology: I know what I am doing is wrong but still I go on doing it. It is against this, that a new, if timely moment, the Aristotelian ‘kairos’ will act as a catalyst and give the opportunity for radical change and insitutionalisation of the new ways of being citizen. We will have an opportunity, if we lose it, we lose it, that’s it. In this prospect to save Europe, the idea of Europe and of citizenship there are no good losers, there’s just losers.

So the question as far as I’m concerned is that lots of people have now in a sense rejected that older type of social organisation, the social contract that you were talking about based on debt and consumption. And the reason I think a widespread demand for different ways of relating to others, relating to the community and dealing with power. So I’m optimistic about that. It seems to me you’d expect that whether or not the left in other parts of the world win elections, I think we’ve moved perhaps away from the model of the 1990s and the 2000s and a greater sense of community, of going back to certain common values and virtues and idea of the good, the public good, of the Commons, has returned. This is extremely hopeful.

Of course it may be lost so these are not things that survive if they’re not nourished, if there’s no conscious effort on the part of the social movements or the left parties to adopt them, to leave behind old ways. But I think it is a much wider sense of disenchantment about the way we lived and therefore greater expectation, hope and perhaps even experimentation of new ways of life.

Nick Holdstock: These are positive signs but with the rise of the Golden Dawn and neo-Nazis it seems they have now got an exclusionary definition of what it means to belong and be a citizen. What are the risks of that being institutionalised and becoming permanent?

Costas Douzinas: That is a great worry and of course recent events with the murder of the anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas and then the two members of Chryssi Avgi (a strange hit, no organisation has owned up to it) have made it worse. It is true that the Greek government pushed by people domestically and European politicians has finally moved against this gang. But my worry is slightly different from what we hear generally. Golden Dawn gives good news reports and has dominated media cover of Greece. What these people did daily was criminal, attacking and killing immigrants, giving food parcels and blood only to Greeks, denying the Holocaust and attacking gays, Roma, anyone who looks different. What they do is so totally beyond any liberal or social democratic sense, or indeed right wing sense, of what it means to be European that it eventually became impossible for the government to tolerate them.

On the other hand my main concern really is not so much that the ideas of Golden Dawn will take root beyond a small extreme right wing group that of course exists in Greece as in any other country. My main concern is that what’s happening is destroying the sense of community that is a main foundation of the ethics of the place. Destroying it first of all through the huge atomisation that happens in a society with 30% unemployment. We have to go back to family to be supported when we are ill or unemployed. That in a sense destroys a pretty important ethos, a social ethos that still exists. On the one hand it destroys it, and on the other hand allows the neo-Nazis to give it an extreme right wing interpretation.

For me the first worry is in a sense as important as the second. It is not just that Greekhood or community taking an extreme nationalistic or xenophobic character, it is also that we may lose the major resource of all Balkan, southern European countries, which is that sense of friendship, of hospitality, of being together, of supporting each other in times of need. And it was precisely this type of ethical decay that the squares and the other protests interrupted and hopefully will resurrect.


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Costas Douzinas is Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. He is well known for his work in Human Rights, Aesthetics, Postmodern Legal Theory and Political Philosophy. His books include The End of Human Rights (2000) and Human Rights and Empire (2007). Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe (2013) is published by Polity. He spoke to Nick Holdstock at the Subversive Festival in Zagreb in May 2013.

Updated on: 15 November 2013