Notes from the Greek socio-political laboratory

28 Jun

Popular Assembly in Syntagma Square - photo by Poulopoulos Ioannis

 

History is a strange thing. For a long time it works fragmentarily and underground with very few paying attention to it. Then, suddenly, it rushes forth to seize great parts of the everyday workings of a society and to reconfigure what we understand as reality. This happens when most people least expect it. You cannot determine in advance where it will happen. And you cannot be certain which path it will take. But you can feel and understand that it happens. You can also participate in it. Quite often, you are forced to.

This is the second time in the past decade that History has thus rushed forth in the Western world since the 2008 systemic crisis. Once again, nothing can be the same again. Yet, our political and economic elites pretend that things can go back to normal again, where “normal” means what they were doing before the collapse. But an ever growing number of people understand that this is not possible anymore. The postmodern extremist neo-liberalism that dominated our societies for so long is crumbling under the weight of its own unimpeded functioning.

Greece is a strange case too. No wonder: it has had a long and turbulent history. For the last 18 months it has become one of History’s favourite sites. In fact, it has been transformed into a socio-political laboratory, in which European futures are shaped and tested in vivo. The Greek default, euphemized as bailout, has been discussed extensively (and exploited speculatively) by all kinds of experts, activists, politicians, think tanks and business elites. For a long year and a half, dominant wisdom has insisted on the need for a socio-economic purgatory that will correct and purify the corrupt and untrustworthy Greeks.

A whole society abruptly found itself being accused of recklessness and corrupt habits that were endangering the common European currency, and told that the only way to make amends was to sink into misery. The indictment was ponderous and the prosecutors were well-respected and powerful, so for some time the accusation was accepted. Some also argued that what appeared as a penalty was in fact a remedy that would cure past and present pathologies and secure a healthy future. Those who dared to question this “therapeutic penalty” were dismissed as either symptoms or causes of the disease that must be defeated. A full year of such treatment later, the patients discovered that in fact their condition had dramatically worsened, while the doctors, uneasy in their failure, prescribed another round of the same remedies, only this time at higher doses.

The patients also discovered that the high cost of the failed treatment has now increased enormously, thus jeopardizing their very survival, whilst it made the doctors even richer. In the end, many of the patients understood that there was no treatment at all in the first place. Rather, there was a method of exhaustion designed to conceal the treatment’s unsuitability and the doctor’s inadequacy, while at the same time increasing the latter’s profits from the treatment and warning other possible European patients of the consequences of asking for medical assistance from the same doctors. They also understood that this method would prove fatal for them and extremely dangerous for all the others that would be subjected to it in the future.

For they realized that what was in fact tested on them it was not intended to cure anything, but only to invent and impose a comatose “sublife”, disguised as a responsible and solvent way of life for all those not feeling very well after the eruption of the pandemic that swept western liberal capitalism from 2008 onwards. This is precisely the reason why every single day of the last month Greek citizens have been occupying the main streets and squares in their cities to declare their elites, as well as their international “doctors”, unwanted and treasonous. And their voices were so loud that the Greek political elites trembled and panicked.

The movement of the “Indignants” (aka the “Syntagma Square movement”) contaminated the “average” Greek citizen like a virus,  got them out of their living rooms and took them into the streets and squares to reject publicly their subjection to collective guilt and to defend their country, their dignity, their families and their very lives that they saw as being attacked for the previous year and a half under the futile and callous austerity of the first bailout. Imported a month previously (May 25) from Spain, the virus of indignation spread quickly within Greek society and generated a new major player in the political arena; one that declared something extraordinary, that is, the revocation of all political authorization from the political class and the recovery of the (constitutionally guaranteed, but now seen as surrendered to other states, multinational organizations and enterprises) people’s authority and national sovereignty.

Indeed, one of the central slogans that the movement has produced is “We won’t leave until they leave”, where “they” stands for the government, the so-called troika (the IMF-EU-ECB supranational directorate) as well as the whole of the political class, as the latter is exemplified by the current Parliament and the political oligopoly that it represents. This message is symbolically conveyed by the characteristic Greek gesture of insult and anathema (the moutza), a gesture that is repeatedly directed, by hundreds of thousands of protesters, towards the Greek Parliament, accompanied by the crowd’s rhythmic shouts of accusation against their MPs: “thieves” and “traitors”. These are relatively well-known snapshots from the protesters’ reactions towards what they understand to be:

a) a tragic failure of their representatives to protect society and the Constitution from what they see as an international, brutal and usurious attack coming from those who, for more than 30 years now, have been (and are still) benefitting from the dismantling of the country’s productive structure as well as from the society’s public and private over-indebtedness, and;

b) a corrupt political class, the members of which shamelessly profited both from their collaboration with multinationals and banks and from squandering public money, thus spreading corruption throughout society and paralyzing all its institutions.

The elite and media wisdom initially ignored this movement and imposed an uneasy silence as regards its activities. Yet, as social support increased, some media showed a hesitant interest while others focused on the movement’s ideological ambiguities and criticized its impressive as well as provocative emphasis on the rejection of the entire political system.

Thus, the “indignants” were systematically presented as irresponsible “lotus-eaters” who pretend that they have nothing to do with the country’s current dramatic situation, which, however, had been developing for the past three decades and went hand-in-hand with the voting majority’s political consensus towards the same political class (and its agenda) that the same people now curse and intimidate by gibbering outside the Greek Parliament. Quite often, the protesters’ anger was attributed to the results of a nasty consumption hangover caused by the country’s irresponsible and excessive spending based on corruption and debt. In the end, the movement was dismissed as mass psychotherapy against an endogenous and/or externally inflicted feeling of guilt that was now scapegoating the democratically elected Greek government and the MPs.

It is well understood that powerful systemic forces felt threatened by the protesters’ anger and absolute denial of their authority and adopted and propagated psychological explanations and interpretations in order to discredit and dismiss oppositional socio-political arguments and perspectives. It is also true that, during the first two or so weeks of its existence, the movement had been focused mainly on the absolute rejection of the political system as a whole, without having a concrete ideological stigma or a realistic political agenda.

It banned any political party from signaling and signification within its actions, while its initial ideological character was unstable and obscure, allowing for the incorporation of virtually all different and/or mutually exclusive ideological persuasions spanning from the extreme right and covering all political spectrums to the extreme left and the anarchists. This meant practically everyone, even the apolitical ones, thus allowing for the divided citizenry to put into parenthesis their ideological and political leanings and preferences and to discover a minimum unity that would allow them to gather in numbers in front of the Parliament, in Syntagma Square at the urban and political centre of Athens.

However, the protesters quickly set certain basic limits to such an ideological openness and rejected publicly and actively fascism, racism and violence. This choice contributed strongly to the social acceptance of the movement, which extended considerably its influence not only in Athens but also in other Greek cities. The movement’s influence and strength increased also by the international character of the Pan European Indignation Days (or Pan European Sunday Mobilizations) that were (and still are) organized every Sunday in cooperation with protesting citizens in other European countries. As the mobilization mechanisms of the existing parties were rejected, it was the internet and the social media that were used extensively to raise social support for the movement, while school and university students, a part of the left and thousands of disillusioned voters from the ruling party and the opposition joined in and spread further its influence.

The organization, coordination and development of the movement had from the beginning been assigned to a daily People’s Assembly that assumed all power and authority and became the movement’s only decision making body. The People’s Assembly was set up from its very beginning on direct democratic principles and procedures that guaranteed everyone’s right to actively participate and co-decide the movement’s mode of existence and actions. A full direct participatory democracy was and remains the objective and the everyday reality of the People’s Assembly that reached a larger audience when it started to broadcast its everyday workings through internet, live streaming several Public Consultations, in which invited experts and activists participated in a series of organized and free public debates on debt crisis, direct democracy, alternative economics and migration, racism and xenophobia.

The Public Consultations and the particular thematic People’s Assemblies that followed them were also broadcast through the internet; they strengthened the movement’s social recognition and, at the same time, refuted its alleged apolitical nihilism and ideological confusion. They also helped the movement to reinforce its cohesion and to coil around a commonly agreed aim, that is to actively reject and cancel the forthcoming second so-called bailout and the wave of austerity measures and public property clearance that it entailed.

This was a key decision, since it placed a concrete objective, around which an even greater part of the population could be mobilized, and in fact it did so during the 24 hour general strike that the public and private sector trade unions had announced for June 15. Hundreds of thousands of strikers and ‘indignants’ surrounded and blocked the Parliament, panicking the government that was forced into a reshuffle after it had almost resigned. The strikers and the protesters were attacked by heavy riot police but they succeeded in keeping Syntagma Square under their control. It was an undisputable victory for the movement, which transformed it into an important force within the current crisis, since it brought on stage popular masses that were excluded from all political decisions and so challenged the parliamentary majority of the ruling party. Following that victory, the subsequent People’s Assemblies decided to prepare and organize for the next battle at the end of June (28th and 29th) when a parliamentary vote for the second bailout will take place. This time the movement plans for a 48 hour mobilization and general strike that is estimated to reach one million protesters and it is hoped to avert the second “bailout”.

The indignants’ movement is a sign of change. A whole era, the “Third Greek Democracy” (that begun in 1974) ends; along with it goes the general socio-political configuration and balance that created contemporary Greek society. The public and absolute refutation of the existing political regime signals such an exhaustion. At the same time new political forces, demands, processes and institutions are on the making within the movement’s ideological universe. Once again the rejection of the past walks hand in hand with the construction of the future. Today, the globalised Greek socio-political laboratory works in turmoil fully understanding that its products cannot remain confined within Greek borders.

That is why it urgently needs progressive international support and solidarity.

– by Vangelis Lagos

Sociologist-researcher

Athens


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