Greece protests: Days of unrest and hope

June 18, 2011
Protesters demonstrating in front of the Greek Parliament
Protesters demonstrate in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens on June 5.

Tens of thousands of striking trade unionists and their allies flooded Syntagma Square outside parliament on June 15 to try to stop MPs from approving the latest bill imposing more cuts and privatisations, the said the next day.

Prime Minister George Papandreou, seeking to defy the rising tide of protests, said he had initiated power-sharing talks in a bid to shore up his position. But the article said the talks quickly collapsed and two prominent MPs from Papandreou's PASOK party resigned.

The new round of austerity is being pushed by the “troika” of the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank in return for their “bail-out” of Greece, amid market panic about a possible default on Greece's debt.

Below, Panagiotis Sotiris, from the sociology department at the University of the Aegean, looks at the powerful movement that has arisen in opposition to the austerity being enforced on Greek people. It is abridged from the Greek Left Review.

* * *

The only way to describe recent developments in Greece is to refer to a peaceful popular insurrection.

The mass gatherings at city squares at the centres of all major Greek cities continue to gather momentum. On June 5, most Greek cities experienced some of the biggest mass rallies in recent history.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Constitution square in Athens, tens of thousands in Thessaloniki and thousands more across Greece. It is an original form of popular protest that combines the mass rally with a democratic process of discussion through mass popular assemblies.

These mass rallies and assemblies act as a point of convergence not only for people who have taken part in mass rallies and against the government's austerity program, but also for those who have until now refrained from mass action.

This movement is based on the collective experiences of recent struggles, such as the December 2008 youth explosion, the huge general strikes in the spring of 2010, the big strikes in public transport in the winter 2010-2011, and the heroic struggle of the people of Keratea ― a small town that for months fought with riot police to successfully oppose plans for an environmentally disastrous landfill in their area.

At same time, people with no prior experience of struggle have come forward in these protests, which are not simple imitations of the M-15 protests in Spain, but a more widespread form of protest with deeper roots in Greek society.

This composition of the movement makes it even more evident that there is an open crisis of representation and legitimacy for not just the PASOK government, but the whole political scene.

The social crisis caused by the austerity is turning into a political crisis.

The waves of austerity measures that have undermined living standards, increased unemployment, and threatened a huge privatisation program have alienated the vast majority of the population from PASOK and the political system in general.

These mass rallies, with their openness and the fact that they look different than traditional union or party meetings, have functioned as an outlet for this anger and frustration.

The people refuse to be governed in such a manner and the government is unable to govern them.

This textbook definition of political crisis is fully manifest in Greece.

Youth have played an important role in the development of this movement, but it is not a youth movement. Youth have been instrumental in organising the assemblies, in using social media and in rally organisation, but the rallies and the assemblies are a meeting point of all generations.

Although not very articulate in terms of traditional political programs, these protests are deeply democratic, radical and profoundly anti-systemic.

They represent a strong desire for political change, for safe employment, dignity for labour, authentic democracy, and popular sovereignty against the attempt to implement measures dictated by the EU/IMF/ECB “troika”.

They reject the latest push for an extreme neoliberalism from the Greek government and the troika ― perhaps the most aggressive attack on social rights in any European country since the “shock therapies” in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.

Even the mass use of Greek flags in the rallies, a practice some of the left misread as “nationalism”, is an expression of the need for popular sovereignty and collective social dignity.

The movement has at least one central demand ― that the Medium Term Economic Program pushed by the troika is not passed, along with the demand to immediately end all policies dictated by the EU and the IMF.

This is accompanied by an insistence that the people will not 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.

Contrary to the ideological blackmail by the government and the mass media that “we all ate it together”, people have realised that the reasons for the Greek sovereign debt crisis are not public servants’ salaries or social expenditure.

Rather the causes are tax breaks for big business, overpriced useless public works (such as the one for the 2004 Olympic Games), high military spending and Greece's acceptance of 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 unites so many people.

More and more people are beginning to question Greece's participation in the Eurozone. Withdrawal from the euro is being openly discussed.

Politically, the movement is united around the demand that “they must all leave now”. This is a rejection not just of PASOK but of what is perceived as the political establishment.

That is why there is a strong appeal to this movement of the images from Tunisia and Egypt, with the humiliating departure of leaders.

It is worth noting that if we look at what is happening in Greece, along with the “Arab Spring” and new social struggles such as the British movement against cuts and high tuition fees and the occupation of the Capitol building in Wisconsin, then we can see the first signs of a new historical phase.

This movement has been extremely suspicious of traditional party politics, including the parties of the left.

But we must also take into consideration that for most 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 organisations.

The “anti-political” stance is the foundation of an authentic process of radical politicisation, 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 very strict rules of equal voice and collective decision-making that leave no room for traditional demagogy, offer an alternative paradigm of the collective processing of political demands and strategies.

At the same time, they are also a new paradigm of collective self-organisation and solidarity.

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.

Especially the Communist Party (KKE), which despite anti-capitalist rhetoric is always suspicious of movements it does not control and is increasingly sectarian. It 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 Anti-capitalist Left) have voiced their support to the movement, but have shown unease with the combination of a mass movement with the rejection of traditional left-wing verbalism.

The Greek government is trying to push through the austerity measures, despite its loss of any legitimacy. At the same time, other European governments acts as if this is not happening.

But they cannot hide their anxiety. It is obvious that any attempt to implement these policies will only make the situation even more explosive.

At the same time, they fear that any reversal or delay in implementing the austerity measures can have destabilizing results all over the EU. Their main aim is to pass the Medium Term Program through parliament in return for a new loan package.

They know that the PASOK government will not be able to stand the anger and unrest, but they hope they can bind any future government.

That is why they press the conservative New Democracy party to offer its support to the measures and to help create a climate of consensus.

So far, New Democracy has avoided openly supporting the government, but has tried to calm the representatives of capital by presenting its own extremely pro-business program.

The most urgent aim of the movement is to escalate protest to such a scale that it would be impossible for the government to vote the Medium Term Program, probably by resigning 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.

In such circumstances, the left does not have the luxury of simply articulating demands for resistance. The very development of the movement creates conditions for a potential social alliance of the labour with youth and other sectors ― it opens the way for the emergence of a new “historic block”.

At the same time, the political crisis and the possibility of a government falling under the pressure of the movement means the left has the possibility to emerge again as a force.

What we are experiencing is history in the making. Let’s hope that the outcome will be the reversal of the policies of neoliberal social destruction and the opening up of the possibility of radical social and political alternatives.

Video: Footage of camp established by protesters outside Greek parliament. almondgr.

Video: Footage of the June 15 general strike in Greece. informationlibre.

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