Of course a common thread runs through these three stories. What we ought to have learned over the last eight years, and certainly over the last three, is that the so-called West is linked less by a commitment to liberal democracy than to an idealized fiction of it.
Syriza capitulated to the institutions despite the 61.31% mandate to reject austerity. In Britain, the Vote Leave campaign has been fined by the Electoral Commission for having broken electoral law with overspending. It seems impossible to know just where the majority of the British public stands today on the question of following through with an exit next March. Theresa May’s office has nevertheless insisted that a second referendum (the aim of the “People’s Vote” campaign) will not be held “in any circumstances.”
Democracy is looking even paler in the United States. Donald Trump received nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary did in the 2016 election. He is the second president this millennium to have won the election but lost the popular vote. The three world leaders Trump admires most are rumored to be Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In both word and deed, Trump is striving to live up to their authoritarian examples.
It is important to recognize, but certainly no secret, that the stories of democratic fiction and failure over the last three years in Greece, Britain, and the U.S. are interlaced. The more puzzling lesson is that, despite these countries’ connected failings, the international Left still seems to lack the kind of genuine solidarity that would unite its members in common cause against power’s drift away from the people.
“We Are All Greeks” might have been the fashionable slogan in the summer of 2015, but over the last eight years the popular sentiment in Britain and the U.S. has been that Greece, in a manner, only got what it deserved. I have heard this view privately aired countless times, in both the U.S. and Britain, by people who would otherwise identify with the Left, and who are passionately committed to social justice at home.
Likewise in Greece, Trump’s recent policies, most lately the separation of immigrant families apprehended at the U.S. border, have been taken as proof that, with Trump at the helm, the vulgar and dissolute Americans are getting what they deserve. This summer, I have seen versions of this position—that Trump is a fitting leader for a society in decline—voiced more times than I would like on Greek social media. But who, exactly, is getting what they deserve? The children separated from their families? The victims of the hate crimes and gun violence urged on by Trump’s administration? The people whose very personhood continues to be radically denied?
During the 2016 elections, many members of the Greek Left supported a Trump victory, even if only because it would mean a Clinton defeat. Yet Trump today is exactly the same man that he was back then. His horrific policy initiatives (on the climate, immigration, healthcare, and so on) mark nothing else than his genuine attempts to fulfill his campaign promises.
A few years ago, the events unfolding in Greece began to show us not that Western democratic institutions are crumbling, but that they are fundamentally illusory. That is a lesson that has since been painfully reinforced by the chaos of Brexit and the debacle of Trump. What these events have also demonstrated is that we still stand in need of transnational networks strong enough to stand up to oppressive global structures—from the financial system to the increasingly united far right. There still remains a wide gap to close between the ideology of the Left and what its members privately believe and say about the struggles of others far from home.
In her 2006 book Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship, postcolonial theorist Leela Gandhi showed how, in the late nineteenth century, a “politics of friendship” transcended the distinction of colonizer and colonized in Britain and India. Affective bonds between members of marginalized groups, from socialists to “sexual misfits” to mystics to vegetarians, collapsed simplistic distinctions between East and West and proved critical for anti-imperial and anti-colonial struggles. In a review of Gandhi’s book, historian Maya Jasanoff wrote “How wonderful it would be if this ‘politics of friendship’ could transcend the oppositions of the current imperial world.”
Greece’s dismal bailout era is, on many levels, a sobering reminder that a nation’s government is not the same as its people and that, even in democratic states, the wrongs committed by the government are never “deserved” by the people that it governs. Yet even as governments fail, it remains in the people’s hands to work to fortify true transnational bonds—the kinds of bonds that have, in the past, had the power to dismantle empires.
Johanna Hanink is Associate Professor of Classics at Brown University.