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Greece: Crisis and Unrest
by Panagiotis Sotiris
The only way to describe recent developments in Greece is to refer to a peaceful popular insurrection that has led to an open political crisis. The mass gatherings at city squares at the centres of all major Greek cities continue to gather momentum. Since the 25th of May, Athens and most Greek cities have experienced some of the biggest mass rallies in recent history. It is a unique experience of social mobilization. It is also a highly original form of protest, which combines mass rallies with a democratic process of discussion through mass people’s assemblies.
From social crisis to political crisis
The national day of strike on the 15 June, when the Greek parliament was almost literally besieged by protesters, marked a turning point in the movement that began on the 25 May. For a few hours Prime Minister G. Papandreou had resigned and was negotiating a new coalition government with the centre-right New Democracy Party. In the end, he opted instead for a major government overhaul and a demand for a new vote of parliamentary confidence. However, the fact remains that for the first time in recent Greek history a government collapsed under the pressure of mass protests. Were it not for the pressure of the EU and the IMF, and the demand to pass the new austerity plan (the ‘Mid-term Program’) by any means possible, the Greek government would have resigned.
The social crisis, which the austerity program has produced, is now becoming a political crisis. We have had successive waves of austerity measures that totally undermine decent living standards. These measures included wage and pension reductions, extended cuts in public funding of education and health, increases in indirect taxation, rises in pension limits, lay-offs of public employees on limited term contracts. Unemployment has risen, reaching 16.2% in March, with the youth unemployment rate at 42%. A complete pillage of state assets is underway through a massive privatization program. All these, along with a general apprehension that there is no way out of the vicious circle of debt, austerity and deep recession, have alienated the vast majority of the population from PASOK (the Greek Socialist Party) and the political system in general. The mass rallies, with their openness and the fact that they look different from traditional union or party meetings, have functioned as an outlet for this anger and frustration. The people refuse to be governed in the same manner as before and the government is unable to govern them. This textbook definition of political crisis is now plainly manifest in Greece.
Currently, the Greek government is hoping that the cabinet overhaul and the new division of power between PASOK barons, exemplified by Venizelos – Papandreou’s rival for PASOK leadership – taking over the Ministry of Finance, will quell protests and thus buy some time. In this direction, it has the support of the other EU governments, which act as if the popular movement and authorities’ obvious loss of legitimacy do not exist. It is another expression of the highly authoritarian, even Bonapartist, character of current neoliberal governance.
EU governments fear that any reversal or delay in implementing the austerity measures will have destabilizing results all over the EU. That is why their main aim is to pass the Mid-term Program through Parliament in return for a new loan package. They know that in the long run the PASOK government will not be able to withstand the pressure of social anger and unrest, but they hope that if they pass the austerity program through parliament, it will bind any future government. That is why they also pressed the conservative New Democracy party to offer its support to the measures and to help create a climate of consensus. For its part, New Democracy has avoided openly supporting the government for fear of the ‘squares’ turning against it. But at the same time it has tried to calm the representatives of capital by presenting its own extremely pro-business neoliberal program.
European political elites: a strategic crisis
The Greek political crisis is also over-determined by the broader crisis of the process of European integration. The debates and divisions regarding the handling of the potential restructuring of the Greek sovereign debt exemplify this. It is obvious that the debate is not simply technical, but highly political. The Eurozone is now coming to terms with its own structural contradictions. The attempt to keep the euro as a common currency at any cost, along with the monetary and financial straitjacket of the EMU and the compliance with all the demands of Banks and financial institutions, has produced a vicious circle of economic depression, austerity and indebtedness. The global capitalist crisis has also brought forward the contradictions of the euro. As a common currency in an economic space marked by important differences in productivity and competitiveness, offering Germany and other core countries something close to a competitive devaluation, the euro has led to trade and current account deficits, has contributed to the Greek debt crisis and demands a constant ‘race to the bottom’ regarding salaries and working conditions.
To make matters worse European political elites are acting in complete ignorance of the fact that politics cannot be some form of ‘auto-pilot’ of dictating measures out of neoliberal textbooks and of simply attempting to impose ‘consensus’ regardless of the actual balance of forces This tactic can only exacerbate the current legitimacy crisis. Politics, even current capitalist parliamentary politics, cannot be reduced to simple ‘cosmetic’ changes without any space for actual political choices. This indifference to the preconditions of hegemony, this ‘post-democratic’ and ‘post-hegemonic’ form of capitalist domination that attempts to do away with questions of legitimacy and consent, might seem the best conduit for neoliberal ‘social engineering’, but in reality it opens the way for social explosions and open political crisis. This is exactly what is happening in Greece today.
A movement without precedent
The mass rallies and assemblies at city squares have acted as a point of convergence not only for people who had taken part in the initial wave of social protest that followed the austerity program, but also for those who had up to now refrained from mass action.
This movement is based on recent collective experiences of struggle, such as the December 2008 youth explosion, the massive general strikes in the Spring of 2010, the big strikes in public transport in the Winter 2010-2011, the heroic struggle of the people of Keratea, a small town in the greater Attica region that for months fought with riot police, successfully opposing plans for an environmentally disastrous landfill in their vicinity. But at same time, people with no prior experience of struggle come forward in these protests, which are not simple imitations of the 15-M protests in Spain, but a much more widespread form of protest with deeper roots in Greek society.
This composition of the movement represents an important change from past struggles because it makes even more evident the open crisis of representation and legitimacy that not only the PASOK government but also the whole political scene is facing.
These protests are deeply democratic, radical and profoundly anti-systemic. They represent a strong desire for political change, the demand for safe employment, dignity for labour, authentic democracy, and popular sovereignty against the attempt to implement measures dictated by the EU, the IMF and the ECB. They reject the program of neoliberal social engineering that the Greek government and the EU-IMF-ECB ‘Troika’ are trying to implement, which amounts to perhaps the most aggressive attack on social rights that a European country has experienced since the ‘shock therapies’ inflicted on Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.
The mass use of Greek flags in the rallies, a practice that some segments of the Left misread as ‘nationalism’, is an expression of the need for popular sovereignty, social cohesion and collective social dignity. People experience the austerity programs and the way these are dictated by the EU and IMF in total disrespect of their protests, as an attack on Greek society and consequently as a form of national humiliation.
Moreover, these protests have brought forward a new wave of politicization and radicalization of Greek society. People begin to question dominant policies, especially those concerning the debt and Greece’s participation in the Eurozone.
The main demand of the movement is the rejection of the Mid-term Program (the aggressive updated version of the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with the EU-IMF-ECB ‘Troika’). Other demands are to immediately put an end to policies dictated by the EU and the IMF, and to get rid of the government and any government that would attempt to implement similar policies. This is accompanied by the refusal of people to pay for a debt that they did not create. “We do not owe – we shall not sell – we shall not pay” has been a very popular slogan in posters or stickers. Contrary to the constant ideological blackmail by the government and the mass media that “we all ate it together”, people realise that the reasons for the Greek sovereign debt crisis are not public servants’ salaries or social expenditure but tax breaks for big business, overpriced and useless public works (such as the ones for the 2004 Olympic Games), high military spending and last but not least the participation in the monetary and financial straitjacket of the Eurozone. That is why the demand for an immediate stoppage of debt payments and the annulment of debt is one of the unitary points of reference of people, along with the rejection of austerity and privatizations.
A very important aspect of the movement has been the growing popular disillusion with the European Union. Public opinion has traditionally been strongly pro-EU, but more and more people are beginning to question Greece’s participation. Withdrawal from the euro is being openly discussed, instead of rejected in advance, as was the norm until recently. People are beginning to realise that the euro not only had a huge social cost, but also aggravated the Greek debt crisis. They reject the ideological blackmail that any exit from the Eurozone will inevitably lead to inflation and a catastrophic loss of value of savings, and increasingly see the return to a national currency as a welcome solution.
Politically this movement is united in the demand that ‘they must all leave now’, a rejection not only of PASOK but the political establishment in toto. That is why there is a strong appeal in the movement’s ‘collective imaginary’ of the images from Tunisia, Egypt or Argentina and the humiliating departure of prime ministers.
It is worth noting that if we look at what is happening in Greece, along with the ‘Arab Spring’ of victorious popular insurrections and the new qualities of social contestation exemplified in the British movement against cuts and high tuition fees, or the occupation of the Capitol building in Wisconsin, then we can see the first signs of a new historical phase, marked by the possibility of insurrectionary events.
It is true that this movement has been extremely suspicious of traditional party politics, a suspicion also directed against the parties of the radical Left. But to pass judgment on this anti-political stance, we must consider that for the majority of Greek people party politics is associated with unjust neoliberal policies, media manipulation, corruption and close links to big business and lately an almost servile stance towards international organizations. In light of the above, one can say that this ‘anti-political’ stance is exactly the foundation of an authentic process of radical politicization, the beginning for an alternative politics of collective action, direct democracy and radical social change.
That is why on the squares of Greek cities we are witnessing a unique experiment in democracy. The mass assemblies, with their strict rules of equal voicing and collective decisionmaking that leave no room for traditional demagogy, offer an alternative paradigm for the collective processing of political demands and strategies. We are already beginning to see these assemblies produce demands and political positions that go beyond a simple rejection of existing policies. Huge assemblies have discussed the government’s austerity program, the debt crisis, the question of real democracy. At the same time, they are also a new paradigm of collective self-organisation and solidarity. If the forms of a potential ‘dual power’ must always be the result of a process of collective inventiveness, then we are experiencing the beginning of such a process.
The escalation of protests
In light of the above, the most urgent and immediate aim of the movement is to escalate protest to a scale that will make it impossible for the government to vote through the ‘Mid-Term Program’, probably forcing it to resign in the face of social protest. The fall of a government under the pressure of social unrest would open the way for greater social and political change. The decision by the Trade Union Confederations for a two-day general strike when the new austerity plan is discussed at Parliament, along with the decision of the general assemblies on the squares to attempt another siege and blockade the Parliament, offer the possibility of such an escalation of struggle. This will be one of the biggest social and political battles in Greece. It is worth noting that on 15 June it was exactly the combination of a general strike with the mass protests at squares, especially Syntagma Square in Athens, that marked the escalation of the protest and consequently of the pressure upon the government.
The challenges for the Greek radical Left
The attitude of the Greek Left has been contradictory. In the beginning there was widespread scepticism, the result of a long tradition of treating social movements as the result of political or party initiative and design. In particular, the Communist Party (KKE), which despite its strongly anticapitalist rhetoric is always suspicious of movements it does not control and has adopted an increasingly sectarian posture, has insisted that the movement is not ‘political’ enough. Other tendencies of the Left, such as SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) or ANTARSYA (Front of the Anticapitalist Left), have expressed support for the movement, but have treated with unease this combination of a mass movement with the rejection of traditional left-wing verbalism.
Tthe Greek radical Left is facing an enormous challenge. For the first time the combination of economic, social and political crisis, with the opening of an insurrectionary cycle of escalating social and political contention, opens up again the possibility of radical social and political change. The open possibility of a government falling under the pressure of the movement, the current inability of the political system to come up with viable alternatives other than compulsive neoliberalism, the radicalisation and politicisation of the subaltern classes, imply that the Left must rethink strategy beyond a simple rhetoric of struggle or emancipation. KKE’s sectarianism and refusal of unity in action, SYRIZA’s inability to overcome the limits of Left ‘Europeanism’ and adopt radical measures such the exit of the Eurozone, and the fact the ANTARSYA although an ascending force in the Greek Left still cannot yet change the balance of forces in the Left, mean that the we are still far from standing up to these challenges and forming the necessary radical and anticapitalist Front of the Left. This must change.
Today, the Left does not have the luxury of simply articulating the demand for resistance. The very development of the movement creates conditions for a potential social alliance of the forces of labour with youth and other segments of the subaltern classes, and opens the way for the emergence of a new ‘historic bloc’. At the same time the open political crisis and the possibility of a government falling under the pressure of the movement marks a whole different conjuncture in what concerns the relation of the Left to political power. The radical Left has an opportunity to re-emerge as a counter-hegemonic force, provided that it abandons both the reformist illusion of a potential ‘progressive government’ and the sectarianism of traditional leftist verbalism, and that it combines mass participation in the movement with a concrete set of transitory demands. These can include: the immediate stoppage of debt payments; the annulment of the debt; Greece’s exit from the Eurozone and potentially from the EU; the nationalisation of banks and strategic infrastructure; and the radical redistribution of income in favour of the forces of the labour. These are demands that offer the possibility of an anticapitalist alternative.
The radical Left must intervene decisively both in helping the movement win its immediate objectives and the necessary ‘translation’ of social dynamics into political strategy. Otherwise, either the movement will be defeated leading to the full implementation of an authoritarian ultra-neoliberal regime of social destruction, or some new form of alternative bourgeois strategy will emerge in order to restore capitalist hegemony. The second option would surely mean an amelioration of the position of the subaltern classes compared to the current situation, but at the same time it would represent another missed opportunity for the Greek radical Left to engage in a process of social transformation. We can no longer afford to miss opportunities.
Although destined to be an experiment in neoliberal social engineering, Greece is becoming a laboratory of struggle. The transition from social crisis to open political crisis, the radicalisation and politicisation of struggles, and the fact that a huge movement of protest has become a determining factor in the political balance of forces mark a profound change in the conjuncture and the biggest challenge the Greek radical Left has faced in the past decades. What we are experiencing is history in the making. The reversal of the policies of neoliberal social destruction can open up the possibility of radical social and political alternatives.
Panagiotis Sotiris is an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of the Aegean, firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: this is an updated and expanded version of an article originally published on Greek Left Review
About this article
Published on 22 June, 2011
By Panagiotis Sotiris
By Panagiotis Sotiris