Greece: seeds of hope in the despair of austerity
Greek historian and activist, Eugene Michail, discusses the country’s social decay and looks for hope in alternatives
Greece is featuring less and less frequently in the international headlines. Even in the Eurogroup meetings, the Greek finance minister has happily noted that Greece is hardly discussed any more. In the recent Davos summit the Greek crisis was overshadowed by the issue of the British referendum as the mainstay of the euro-discussions. This change in perceptions began around November 2012, after the latest last-minute euro-deal on the ‘restructuring’ of the Greek debt. In December the coalition government rushed through parliament all the necessary new austerity measures for the Troika money to start coming in. The new laws covered the whole range of state-citizen relations, implementing the most comprehensive change of the Greek socio-economic landscape in modern Greek history. At the same time as it was pushing through with these highly unpopular measures, the government rushed into an offensive combining the politics of Law & Order and the language of Hope.
The offensive unfortunately seems to be succeeding. For the time being the balance of power has changed. The establishment, seen until very recently as crumbling, now projects itself as assertive, effective, stable and all-dominant. The constantly-repeated narrative is that the country is gradually leaving the crisis behind it. This deceptive narrative saturates the domestic and international media and ensures that the worsening conditions of life in Greece under imposed terms of severe austerity remain off the radar.
The veneer of progress
As always, there is a great gulf between the official headlines and social experiences. For the people – even for those who want to believe the official projections – the crisis is just starting. The winter of 2012-13 is the first time that the crisis has touched the majority of the population in real terms.
In the first years of the crisis the most affected groups were the low-income sections of society, the long-term and the newly unemployed, the migrants and the refugees. For them – already existing within the precarious fringes – their lives changed dramatically. But the wider mood in the country until last year was a combination of fear for what was to come and anger at the failures of the establishment. It was this volatile combination of emotions that fuelled the large demonstrations that shook the country and captured the international headlines. Now it is different.
For the first time the middle classes feel the bite. Repeat property taxes, substantial cuts on all pensions and salaries, changes in contracts and working conditions are mutating from threats into laws and they all combine to make life hard for almost everyone in Greece. This common experience is best summed up by this winter’s big discussion topic: how are people going to heat their houses? Following the abolition of a low tax scale for heating petrol, and in anticipation of a hike in electricity bills, all households are adjusting to the new, cold reality of the crisis. Everyone discusses about bills, alternative heating sources, and energy-saving solutions.
It comes as little surprise then that reactions are different. For most observers the public mood is seen either as subdued, or as very different to what we were used to over the past few years. Greece has not seen a big demonstration with impact-potential for exactly a year – since February 2012. Beyond the fact of the widely-felt sheer physical and psychological exhaustion, this stagnation is due to two reasons.
Far right ascendancy and radical left inertia
The first one is the spreading of authoritarian reaction through a wide network of agents: the media, the police, the government, and a range of institutions, groups and individuals that have too much to lose. This situation is commonly described as a ‘junta’, but this is possibly a misrepresentation, as any comparison with the 1967-1974 dictatorship is an unequal one. Even more, such references seem to ignore the lessons in crisis-management that the capitalist establishment has learned in the last four decades. The public body of democracy is still there in Greece. But it is hollow.
Democracy is functioning now only at the level of appearances: the parliament has become an irrelevant side-show, the need for accountability has been superseded by the ’emergency’ needs of the country, while freedom of movement and expression is heavily curtailed under a widespread cloud of violence – or the threat of it. Journalists are threatened by thugs, lawsuits and lay-offs, demonstrators are constantly attacked by the riot police, far-right vigilantes are appearing everywhere but are prosecuted by no-one, while reports and images of police brutality – in and out of police stations – are multiplying without ever being persuasively denied. The establishment’s message is clear and people are quickly learning it: stay indoors and be silent.
But such reactions are – to an extent – to be expected. Few are surprised that a system under mortal threat has brought out all its weapons. But what is surprising is how little challenge it has met. This is because the second aspect of the current conditions in Greece is the lack of any popular credible alternative that will motivate people to fight back. The grass-root movement that produced the Aganaktismenoi of Syntagma Square two years ago has fizzled out, partly due to the movement’s failure to have any mid-term impact, and partly due to the fissures in Greek society that it exposed. A year ago all the buzz was for the radical leftists of SYRIZA, that captured the international attention by its meteoric rise. But electoral heights have proved, once more, rather difficult to handle for a party of the radical left. Since May 2012 SYRIZA has been rushing to safe and familiar ground, in the middle road of compromise, where light reformism meets angry, knee-jerk, and populist opposition, and where accommodation with the establishment cancels even the idea of the articulation of any systemic alternative.
But the fact that not many signs of hope are forthcoming either from inside or outside the parliament does not mean that resistance and political alternatives are not to be found anywhere. They are just not found in central Athens or in any country-wide movements.
Workers’ strike back
An important front is the one led now by the trade unions, which until recently were seen as too out of touch and too compromised, or even as part of the problem. At the start of the crisis, the main unions organised a number of those demonstrations that let the public express their frustration. But in real terms they were constantly outpaced by society and the public mood. As a result, leaders of the main unions were often attacked in the streets of Athens – even during the very demonstrations they had organised. While the main unions were increasingly becoming irrelevant, organised resistance in the workplace and in specific sectors of the economy was going on throughout the crisis. The case of the long strike of the Chalivourgiki metal-workers is possibly the most well-known one, but definitely not the only one.
Now, as the government is rushing to implement the measures it has just voted for, there is a new peak in industrial action. At the end of January it was workers in the Athens transport system that had organised a series of strikes that paralysed the capital and reminded the establishment how vulnerable it is. In early February it was the time for dock-workers, protesting against lay-offs, reductions in salaries and having to work unpaid for months on. Farmers will be the next body most likely to capture the headlines. However, two key factors are curtailing the potential of this story.
One is the keen interest of KKE (Greek Communist Party) to claim control of the trade union movement. The party, which this year lost its primacy within the parliamentary Left to SYRIZA, is keen to affirm its image as the only force of the organised Left true to some sort of radical principles. Ahead of its forthcoming 19th congress KKE thus puts a show of strength in the last section of society where it still has some substantial power. But KKE’s modern history has showed that the party has a very limited radical capacity. Greece still has to experience a truly radical syndicalist movement of substance.
The second factor that paralyses the worker’s movement is the government’s resolve to destroy it. In a time that the government can claim little real progress in any front, the Law and Order agenda makes it look efficient. The language and methods used are reminiscent of a military operation; the country is at war (With whom? With itself? With Capitalism?). Seen from this viewpoint, the strikes are acts that jeopardise the national project, and hence they are treated accordingly. Both in the case of the Athens transport workers’ strike and that of the dock-workers, the government moved in an unprecedented, quick manner to declare a military mobilisation against the strikers – a measure that has been rarely used in the last decades. The idea is that if they refuse to return to their ‘duties’ the workers will be treated according to military law. The message is once more clear: a government that can effectively put down the strikes it can also effectively deal with the crisis. It is worth noting that according to recent polls the Greek public likes the message and the prime minister is getting increasingly popular, especially among the shivering middle-classes – that light at the end of the tunnel, it must be the crisis’ happy end!
The government is trying to follow the same method with the other main centre of opposition and counter-narratives: the social collectives. From the start of the crisis, and especially during and after the Aganaktismenoi movement, there has been a blossoming of collectives, emerging around neighbourhoods, professions and the catering of specific social needs. By nature difficult to streamline and politically harness, these collectives cover a wide range of agendas and ideologies. Most of them have rather limited aims and explicitly denounce any particular ideological agendas. Some are clearly reformist and possibly the majority still identify themselves with different aspects of the system. However, where all this mass of disparate movements unite it is in the challenge they pose to the authority of the system. Even more, among them there is a substantial element of radical activists, enough to make today’s collectives potential future affinity groups that will work out of, or against, the system.
Because of their flexible structures and elusive identities the government cannot turn its suppression tools against them. But it still wants to send them a message. It did so in the last couple of months by attacking a number of long-standing squats across Athens. The move shocked the Left, as these were spaces that had been used for decades, by all different leftist strands, for a wide number of functions, including many that are now emulated by the more recent collective associations (seminars, soup-kitchens etc). Even more, these squats had been left rather untouched by all previous governments and it was only far-right thugs that seemed to be constantly on their back. Now, finally the government has joined them. This is one more sign that the government wants to send to the far-right corner of the increasingly polarised political spectrum, that they see eye to eye. They will protect each other against their traditional common enemies: unionists, anarchists, inter-nationalists, communists and all those who dare to challenge the status quo.
What happens next in Greece is hard to tell. Leftist physics says that the people can only take a certain amount of austerity and suppression before they explode. What is for sure is that government knows that and it is preparing itself. The big challenge for the Greek Left now is to disentangle itself from the long defensive position it has fallen back into and capture the initiative.