By Theodoros Rakopoulos
I am sipping salepi (salep), a popular hot beverage, in Thessaloniki’s Aristotle square, at the evening of the 25th of January, after the exit polls for what is hailed as a historical election are out. Lefties are gathered around me, chatting, chanting and even dancing: SYRIZA has won by a landslide. The salepi seller is a Greek from the Xanthi area, ethnically Turk, and stemming from what is conventionally, if unproblematically, called ‘a Muslim background’. He belongs to one of the most marginalized and oppressed groups in Greece; his job is extremely precarious. He explains to me that he got a bus early that morning to visit Xanthi and ‘vote for that kid’; that kid being Alexis Tsipras, the 40-year old maverick leader of SYRIZA. Then he adds a phrase that elucidates the profound class immobility of the country: “I don’t care; whoever wins, I shall still be on the streets, selling salepi; but I do care about the country, and the kid is the only moral person out there”.
Can elections produce embodied knowledge and collective sentiment? And most importantly, can they produce breach? The classic mantra ‘if elections were to change anything, they would be illegal’, falsely attributed to Emma Goldman, comes to mind. Part of the radical suspicion towards elections might be rooted in that the idea of individualist egalitarianism is intrinsic in contemporary election systems, rituals and processes. The adult citizen walks into a voting booth, to cast a personal opinion-cum-decision, which collectively produces, in the sum of its equal siblings across a sovereign territory, a governing administration for the coming years. This collective individualism as the normative method of voting, however, is coupled by the ritualized collective gatherings to celebrate a welcoming event, most often a shift in public decision and a breach in an administrative continuum.
The significance of the event lies presumably is this transgressive nature. An event is that breach in time that resonates: people cannot anticipate it before it takes place and nothing after it would or could be the same. So argues Ẑiẑek, whose book on the Event, repeatedly –and through evoking numerous films, ad nauseam- points to the exceptionality of the evental, to its element of wonder, if not shock. The event, for Ẑiẑek, is non-anticipated; unexpected, it takes us by surprise. It has a transformative and transcendental capacity, bringing it to a split from reality, the social universe of established customs and opinions (2014: 19). It is a rupture in the normal run of things (2014: 38); indeed, the political event is not only change, but a change in the very parameter by which we measure the facts of change (2014: 179-180).
In the case of Greece, the enduring paradox pertaining to modern political history, that of collective individualism in voting, and individualist collectivity in celebrating a victory vote, seems to be in tension. But most importantly, theories of the event, or readings of SYRIZA’s triumphant rise to power as an evental breach, might need reviewing in the light of the actual electoral rituals at play that frame the conditions for that event to happen. In Greece, the January 2015 elections, and their radical outcome (first position to, arguably, the most left-wing party in the last decades in Europe), have produced a reality that is evental in that nothing will be the same since them; but that outcome came as no surprise, and was thoroughly introduced in ritualised settings.
At the streets of Thessaloniki, the flash ethnography conducted on and around Election Day has followed acts tightly knit around well-known and established processes, despite its radical outcome. First came the much anticipated ballot experience –foreclosed in the anonymity of the moment behind the curtain, at the voting booth. And yet, there are pores in the anonymity, cracks on the surface through which the personalized body politic can be observed: a young woman almost tearful when going out of the ballot box to cast her envelope, middle-aged men with communist party stickers on their jumpers smoking at close distance in silent commotion, and a couple of razor-shaved muscly young men that resembled Golden Dawn sympathisers not far from the spot.
The voting experience’s affect already destabilized the individualizing prospect of the voting process, Sunday the 25th, a day marked in the international press as a shift, a change, a transgression and a danger, was experienced as a collective day. There is continuity in this: the ritual demands that people rush to their homes, sit in front of the TVs, drink and chat, while waiting for the exit polls at 7pm, when the ballots close. The empty streets in central Salonika around that time can attest to this. This time, for the first time ever, the exit polls gave a party that amassed around 4% of the national vote before 2012, a clear victory at a 39%. In the house where I found myself in, full with 30 year old progressives un-or under-employed as precariat in the aggressive Greek labour market, the result was met with joy, although it was seen as expected.
After the phone calls, the jokes and a few hours of TV-gazing and chatting, came the streets. The real ‘event’ was to unfold there- surely. We expect horns and rushing cars, pickets even; nothing of the sort was anywhere to be found in downtown Salonika, so we headed to SYRIZA’s central offices. Not much was going on by way of celebration: 200-300 people at best, movingly chanting EAM songs at the central square underneath the party’s headquarters. We stay a few hours and then, to defy the cold, hit a bar owned by SYRIZA members. There were moments of reflection and critique, amidst the enthusiasm, in this hangout for the radical Left: the TV played Tsipras’ speech loud: when a couple of phrases resonated with the audience in ways they did not approve (resembling the social-democratic PASOK late leader), there was sarcastic laughter and commotion among the young communists.
In Greece, all the discussion of an enduring event that transgresses politics and the polity, that mobilises affect and appeals to the many in emotive ways, should be seen in the light of the normalisation of the radical left prospect that was solidified in the last 2,5 years. The ascendance of SYRIZA to power might have taken us by surprise in May 2012, but by January 2015 it was already well anticipated. It would be fair to assume that hardly anyone, including the then PM Samaras, the far-right scion of a nationalist bourgeoisie from the Peloponnese, believed that New Democracy would or could win these elections. SYRIZA’s rise was part and parcel of the expectations, projections and hopes of the progressive, Left, communist, and even –especially after the party’s toning down of left voices- liberal press and academy across the globe, from extensive articles in The Guardian or The Jacobin, to endorsements by Tariq Ali, Wallerstein, Butler, Balibar and many others.
Placing SYRIZA at the vanguard of a new wave of left parties, of which Podemos in Spain is the most obvious example, as well as at the lead of the historical process to end or at least alleviate the disastrous effects of fiscal austerity, has been the bread and butter of left-wing throughout 2014, culminating especially in the last month. We might also need to be reminded of the processes in which the party echoes and mirrors grassroots solidarity pursuits in urban Greece (Rakopoulos 2014). For a party that size (the Communist Party, at 5% of the vote or the social-democrats of PASOK, at 4%, have a hugely larger membership than SYRIZA) in a country that small, this surely is atypical coverage. Whether that constitutes an event in the sense of Ẑiẑek (a huge supporter of SYRIZA, but on different and volatile grounds), is another matter.
The radical Left’s build-up to power between 2012-15 shows that an event can, despite itself, be anticipated – and inserted calmly in the banality of the ritualized processes at place. It thus enters the trope of the electoral process and becomes domesticated, even banalised. The element of surprise is then not constitutive of the event. Moreover, the rituality of the quasi-revolutionary moment to place ‘communists in government’ as a smiling older person told me on the evening of the 25th, did not differ in any sense from the rudimentary processional events during and after the ballot that I have personally experienced for a decade and a half (and indeed since being a toddler, as part of a politicized household). The triptych ballot-TV-street, in which three levels of political participation (the isolated individual, the small group of family or friends and the larger community of sympathisers of a similar political ideology) was repeated, only with the forceful activity of radical change at the end of it this time around.
However, interestingly, the forceful content, the radical offspring of change through the ballot, has not constituted the process as a radical chain of events that ‘change the way we think about change’ (Ẑiẑek 2014: 179-180). Rather, it has left the institutional ritual of democracy (the ballot and representative electoral processes) not only intact and unchallenged, but indeed reinforced. It could even be argued that it has even ossified some of its potency within its ritualization in that it formulated a totalising system that knows no outside. We might benefit, in our analyses of events and radical shifts by looking at those ritualized, even monotonous, micro-routes of political participation even when the results are deemed to provide a radical breach.
The eventual effect retroactively determines its causes and reasons; the effect being the effect that seems to exceed its causes Ẑiẑek tells us (2014: 2-3). Does it, though? Or is the repetitiveness, almost banality of the ritual that enfolds the event, retuning and framing it into the sense of continuity shared by the many? In the streets of Salonika on Election Day and that same evening, it was imminence rather than transcendence that set the tone: imminence to the everyday sense of the electoral and democratic process, the domestication, as it were, of what can be read, from a distance, as an intrinsically revolutionary event: the Left in power.
Damon, Frederick, 2002. What Good are Elections? An Anthropological Analysis of American Elections. Taiwan Journal of Anthropology. 1(2):38-82.
Rakopoulos, Theodoros, 2014. 2014. Resonance of Solidarity: Anti-Middleman Food Distribution in Anti-Austerity Greece. Journal of Modern Greek Studies 32(2): 95-119. DOI: 10.1353/mgs.2014.0040.
Ẑiẑek, Slavoj, 2014. Event: Philosophy in Transit. Penguin: London.
 Greek citizens can, oddly, only vote in the place of their origin rather than the place of their residence, unless they ask for their electoral rights to be transferred – an often arduous process.
 There is a vast array of the Left in Greece beyond Syriza, that often goes unacknowledged. KKE, the Communist Party is the oldest democratic institution in the country (older than unions) and reaps routinely around a 5% at the national elections, while ANTARSYA are also to the Left of SYRIZA; a few other parties also exist, with some modest following.