Debate on the Greek Insurrection

Legitimation Crisis and the Greek Explosion


The political ‘explosion’ that took place in Greece was a symptom of a systemic and deep-rooted legitimation crisis of the Greek state. This essay examines some of the causes of this crisis, how the political space in which this explosion occurred was produced, and possibilities for continued political antagonisms and struggles. Events belie forecasts; to the extent that events are historic, they upset calculations. They may even overturn strategies that provided for their possible occurrence. Because of their conjunctural nature, events upset the structures which made them possible (Lefebvre, 1969: 7).
The dramatic upheavals in Greece, sparked by the December 2008 murder of a fifteen-year-old student by the police, have been the focus of much interest and speculation. This ‘explosion’ has been one of the most acute challenges to the Greek political
establishment since the end of the Greek Civil War. By the end of December, roughly 800 buildings (mainly in Athens but also in almost every other major urban centre within Greece) had been torched, including many banks and government buildings such as police stations and the main courthouse in Athens. Daily clashes with police became thenorm.1 Despite government efforts to paint the uprising as the work of a few small groups and criminals, 60% of Greeks categorized the events as a ‘popular uprising’, according to a mid-December poll (Agence France-Presse, 2008). Almost every international news service featured dramatic images and storylines regarding the scope and intensity of the conflicts between the police and their antagonists. In Spain, Germany, France, Turkey, Russia, Italy and elsewhere, those sympathetic to the Greek uprising and those with similar concerns and goals staged their own demonstrations. Nicolas Sarkozy, fearing that the intensity of the Greek explosion could easily spread to France, postponed his controversial education reforms, stating: ‘We do not want a European May ’68 in the middle of Christmas’ (Campbell, 2008).
In the face of this unexpected and shocking uprising, two key factors were stressed by the vast majority of commentators and media ‘experts’ trying to make sense of the events.2
1 The assault continues, with attacks on banks particularly common, a situation that Andreas Kalyvas (forthcoming) has termed a ‘low intensity civil war’, akin to Italy in the 1970s.
2 Unsurprisingly, analyses by commentators and academics have followed the Lacanian dictum that ‘the letter always reaches its destination’. Such commentators have largely received the message from these events that reflects their own political and ideological viewpoints (indeed, the naming of the ‘events’ itself is a significant sign of this, whether the term that ought to be used be ‘riot’ or

First, that Greeks have a propensity for and ingrained history of direct political action, especially among students, and that the 1973 student protest against the Junta was a sort of precursor or model for the current uprising. Second, that the current economic situation in Greece and the plight of the many university-educated but unemployed or underemployed youth — the now famous ‘700 euros generation’ — was a key factor behind the upheavals. Both of these arguments are extremely tenuous and do little to shed light on the situation. To begin with, the current upheavals have been much more widespread and radical in their character than the anti-Junta uprising of November 1973. It is important to remember that the anti-Junta student movement was very liberal in character, largely in defence of civil liberties and electoral politics. There is no doubt that the left, including both Communist parties at that time (the ‘external’ pro-Soviet version and the ‘internal’ Eurocommunist version), were very involved in the anti-Junta movement, but the substance of the resistance was very much in line with liberal values. Moreover, as much as the November 1973 efforts served as a transformative moment for those who participated in them as well as for subsequent leftist generations, it is simply false to assume that, given this history, by virtue of being young or a university student one is automatically aligned with the left or has a propensity for direct action against the state. In fact, in university elections from the 1980s through to today, students were far more likely to support the youth versions of the mainstream centre-right or centre-left parties of New Democracy and PASOK than any left-wing party.3 Similarly, the idea that
unemployment or underemployment is the key factor behind the uprisings is simply a vulgar reduction that does not take into account the political mediations and particularities of the situation. After all, levels of unemployment in Greece are not very
different from those in Italy, Portugal and Spain, and if low wages and lack of employment opportunities were sufficient causes of political upheaval then cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Baltimore should be in flames at this very moment. Given the foregoing, how can we begin to make sense of the current political situation in Greece? What factors have made the Greek explosion possible? In the remainder of this necessarily brief and tenuous attempt to understand the conditions of possibility behind this explosion, I will highlight two interrelated sets of factors: how the political space that this explosion occurred within was produced and how the legitimacy of the Greek state was eroded to the point that such a direct and forceful attack was made

The ‘void’ in Greek politics

The Greek state has always been prone to periodic crises of legitimacy and has often resorted to heavy-handed attempts to coerce consent, as was manifest in the Metaxas dictatorship of 1936–41, the Civil War of 1946–49, the Junta of 1967–74, and many other ‘movement’ or ‘protest’, and so on.) For some, Stathis Kalyvas for example, ‘the riots’ have little political content, they are the product of permissiveness on the part of the Greek state, which has not sufficiently cracked down and suppressed a propensity among some Greeks for disruptive and violent demonstrations (Kalyvas, 2008). The recent collection published by the LSE Hellenic Observatory, The Return of Street Politics? Essays on the December Riots in Greece (Economides
and Monastiriotis, 2009), reflects the overall neoliberal and technocratic character of those who fund and staff the Observatory. Reading this publication gives the impression that the key sources of the ‘riots’ stem from the lack of a labour market, education and administrative reforms in the last two decades. Not enough liberalism seems to have been the key to the crisis. How else to explain unemployment or corruption in Greece? I suspect that those in the streets would be surprised to know that what their actions were really saying was that Greece was in need of more authoritarian liberalism.
3 For example, in the student elections of 2008 New Democracy (DAP) received 39% of the votes in the senior universities and 48% in the technical and vocational schools while PASOK (PASP) received 26% and 28% respectively (Metaxas, 2008).
public sector employment stagnate, it began to decrease substantially. Under the pressure of the EU, as well as the mantra of market liberalization, many public enterprises were privatized (as with the recent sale of Olympic Airways, and the previous privatization of the national phone company and other utilities). Moreover, some formerly well-paying non-skilled public jobs, such as custodians for public buildings, vanished as these were privatized and sourced out to large agencies that rely on low-waged immigrant labour. The clientelist system collapsed for the simple reason that political parties had fewer and
fewer spoils to dole out. This not only weakened party loyalties but, more importantly, made the remaining clientelist relationships appear more and more like blatant political corruption, as is manifest in the near constant stream of political scandals and cover-ups of the last few years. It is not that such high-level clientelism was absent in the past, it was simply that many in the dominated classes also benefited from these relationships and this tempered any tendency to perceive clientelism as illegitimate on any level. Rather than shoring up political legitimacy, clientelism now served as a source of its erosion. This dual development of an attack on the integrity of the educational apparatus and the demise of clientelist networks that were able to incorporate large segments of the dominated classes has resulted in a pronounced structural crisis in the Greek state. If
anything has kept the Greek political order safe up to now (beyond some well-timed stock-market and housing bubbles as well as huge public works projects in preparation for the 2004 Olympics) it was the deep-seated cynicism that prevailed in Greece, and
which also plagues most other political orders around the world. The December events broke with that cynicism. The idea that nothing can change, that the political game is fixed and well beyond our capacities to transform, has now been brought into
doubt. The ‘void’, the political space that was created by the erosion of the linkages between common citizens and the centralized institutions of state power, made possible this great explosion that we witnessed and which is still playing out. Without recourse to political representation, without the voluntary servitude of public employment, without any reasonable alternative to the boredom and humiliation of daily life, with the great legitimizing idea of educational meritocracy under attack, it is little wonder that one spark was enough to set off a political maelstrom throughout Greece. The cities throughout Greece, not only Athens, bore witness to the depth and breadth of the legitimation crisis of the Greek state.

From protest and resistance to organization and social transformation

The foregoing section is an obviously schematic attempt to begin to understand the political conditions that made the Greek explosion possible. There is necessarily much more to the story. For one thing, the role of immigrants in Greek society has reached a new moment. Even more than native Greek students, the children of immigrants have many reasons to strike out against the state, and the police in particular. Although many were born in Greece and may feel themselves to be Greek, they are often without official papers, endure much more extreme versions of humiliation at the hands of state bureaucracies, and have little hope or chance of social mobility. The children of immigrants are the paradigmatic example of the failure of the Greek state to incorporate the dominated classes into its traditional techniques of political legitimation. In fact, one of the greatest achievements of the December events are the linkages that have been formed between the current, largely immigrant and very urban, proletariat in Greece and the student, anarchist and other autonomous leftist movements. In spite of the general crisis of the state and the emergence of the proletariat and leftist extra-parliamentary movements as potential political subjects, the current situation seems unlikely to progress to anything approaching an overturning of the Greek political establishment. For sure, many of the tactics used in the December events were not only learned in the wake of the student movement of last year which opposed the education reforms but were also very tied to the recent experiences of the anti-globalization movements. Thousands of Greek anarchists, the Black Bloc in particular, have trained and been educated through their participation in anti-globalization protests throughout Europe. The tactics of protest and resistance were utilized with extraordinary effectiveness in Greece, typically outmanoeuvring the police and demonstrating a capacity to cause much mayhem and disruption, once again illustrating the impotence of the state in the face of popular movements from below. However, tactical acumen and the use of mobile phones and the internet are no substitute for political strategy. Without a cohesive political organization in the substantive sense, there is no chance for social transformation that is purposeful. The fundamental ideas of Antonio Gramsci are still insightful today: the war of manoeuvre needs to be complemented by a war of position. Unfortunately, the dominant tendency today, and not only in Greece, is for protest and resistance (at best) in the absence of political organization or strategy. Where are the organic intellectuals of the extra-parliamentary left? Where are the movements for popular education? What are the preconditions for the political autonomy, the self-rule, of the disenfranchised masses? Given the explosion, one would think that the bookstores in Athens would have long ago sold out (or been dispossessed) of titles from authors such as Castoriadis, Poulantzas, Machiavelli, Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Korsh and Lefebvre, or, at least, Lenin, Kropotkin,
Bakunin and Marx. One would think that in backrooms and smoke-filled coffee houses throughout Greece, study groups and attempts at popular education would be flourishing; lecture halls packed with students engaged in spirited debates and serious contemplation of core questions; new strategies of political organization and self-rule emerging; a new generation of political subjects ready to embrace political autonomy emerging. None of that seems to be the case. Of course, it also seems very unlikely that the Greek state will be able to overcome its structural dilemmas anytime soon. The agents of the Greek explosion have yet to rise to the level of political subjects. Although they are very clear in their rejection of the ’73 generation and its complete abandonment of any progressive ideals through its subjection and servitude to the state, it should also be obvious to them that they have yet to reach a point where the mistakes of the past can be undone. The spontaneous political action made possible by the void in Greek politics will also become a nostalgic memory rather than a decisive political break unless its participants can transform themselves into political subjects. Greek politics finds itself at this crossroads: either we can expect the Greek state to suffer through a more or less constant legitimation crisis and protests from below for the foreseeable future, with little chance for any actual social transformation, or a deepening of the movement will occur and the subject of a new political order will emerge. As bleak as the chances for the latter may be, the December events have now brought this possibility into existence. In opposition to the cynicism and political malaise that existed before the events, a new possibility now exists. In this sense, the shock and educational value of the events have already transformed the structures that made them possible. They have shown the fundamental antinomies between Europeanization qua liberalization and the political stability of the Greek state. There is no longer any doubt as to the limitations of the authoritarian neoliberal agenda of the EU (although, in Greece and elsewhere, the multiple bank bailouts and similar interventions also very clearly demonstrated this point). It is clear to all now that change is possible and maybe probable. What remains to be seen is if a new political project will emerge from this energy and discontent, with the strategies and thought necessary to realize the revolutionary possibilities of the moment.
Peter Bratsis (, School of English, Sociology, Politics and
Contemporary History, University of Salford, Salford M5 4WT, UK.

Volume 34.1 March 2010 190–6 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
© 2010 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2010 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published by Blackwell Publishing. 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main St, Malden, MA 02148, USA


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Tsoukalas, K. (1996) Modernization and its discontents. Journal of Modern Hellenism 12/13, 185–217. Résumé L’‘irruption’ politique qui a eu lieu en Grèce était un symptôme d’une crise de légitimité systémique et profonde de l’État grec. Ce texte s’intéresse à certaines causes de cette crise, aux modalités de production de l’espace politique dans lequel s’est produite cette
irruption, ainsi qu’aux possibilités de voir perdurer conflits et antagonismes politiques.


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