The Greek Tragedy

Author: Costas Douzinas*

Few events in recent European political history have baffled analysts and commentators more than the widespread insurrection or ‘riots’ (according to right-wing commentators) that took place in Greece in December 2008. The catalyst was the unprovoked police killing of the 15-year old Alexis Grigoropoulos on December 6 in the Exarcheia district downtown Athens next to the Polytechnic and the Law School, two Universities associated with student militancy for some 60 years. Within hours of Grigoris’s killing, massive protests, occupations and demonstrations broke out all over Greece. Daily marches to police stations, Parliament and Ministries were accompanied by sit-ins, street happenings, interruption of theatres, the raising of a banner calling for resistance on Acropolis and the burning of the Christmas tree in Syntagma Square.  Some early violence against banks and luxury shops was minimised and no casualties. In an unprecedented move, large numbers of secondary school pupils occupied some 800 schools and took to the streets. Half the population supported the protest. Solidarity protests throughout Europe created fears of the protests spreading.

The insurrection led to a plethora of anxious interpretations. Many, often contradictory, causes were put forward: economic (unemployment and neo-liberal economic measures), political (persistent corruption and failure of education), cultural or ideological. But the most prominent reaction of commentators has been incomprehension mixed with incredulity.


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No political organisation directed the insurrection, no single ideology motivated it, no overwhelming demand was put forward. The persistent question ‘what do the kids want?’ often led to the conclusion that the events were not political because they could not be integrated into existing analytical frameworks.  What united the protestors was a refusal, a ‘No more’, an ‘enough is enough’. Is this a new type of politics after the slow decay of democracy?

The urban space has always been a site of conflict. From the riots of early modernity to the Bastille, the Paris Commune, the reform, suffragettes and civil rights movements, to May 1968, the Athens Polytechnic 1973 and the Prague and Bucharest uprisings, the ‘street’ has changed political systems, laws and institutions. In this sense, the December insurrection was a recognisable form of ‘street’ resistance. But this was no ordinary protest. Imagine Westminster and Whitehall under siege everyday for two weeks.

But this insurrection was not just another street protest. A condensation of causes, strategies, and actions turned December into the Greek May. As events developed, the insurrection took on an impetus of its own, drawing in ever-larger numbers in a snowballing effect that kept unsettling every attempt at explanation or pacification. The listing of possible causes could not help understand the effects. The before and the after became indistinguishable, causes, effects and actions were intertwined into a knot that could not be unravelled. In the same way that the coming of the insurrection could not have been predicted, its happening could not be controlled and its long terms effects are only now becoming clearer. This was a type of political action that could not be simply explained from what predated it or reduced to the sum of factors that made it possible.

It was precisely the rejection of routine politics that turned the insurrection into an event, in the technical sense of philosopher Alain Badiou. Every social and political situation has an infinite series of elements, classes, groups and people with different interests and ideologies, customs and habits. But in the midst of this infinity of differences there is an empty place, a void which, while invisible for the dominant forces, supports the stability of the totality. This void lies close to the most anonymous and vulnerable. An event is precisely a type of political action, which does not belong to the standard matrix of the situation from which it emerges. The December insurrection disrupted this settled state of recognised differences: what was invisible, unspoken and unspeakable (under the pre-existing rules) came to the fore.  This made the insurrection difficult to comprehend.  It turned these events from a usual protest by students or workers into something new, which both retained the characteristics of urban resistance and politics, and overtook them radically changing the situation.

The antagonism that became visible in Athens resulted from the tension between the structured social body with its political representatives and, on the other side, groups, causes and interests radically excluded from the political order. Huge numbers of people cannot formulate their most essential demands in the language of a political problem. In this sense, the insurrection was an expression of political agency at its degree zero. The protesters do not say ‘I want this or that’ but simply, ‘here we are, we stand against’. Not we claim this or that right, but we claim the ‘right to have rights’. They seem to be saying that ‘We, the nobodies, the schoolkids, the suffering students, the unemployed, the generation that must survive on a salary of 600 euros, are everything.’

Before the event, political change is a matter of policing and consensus.  After the rift, politics returns to a certain normality; its terrain will have changed, however, through the appearance of new politicised subjects and the re-arrangement of the rules of political participation. For Badiou, the event is evanescent, its very purpose is to disappear. In February 2009, I was writing in the Guardian and in Greece that the insurrection only respectively can be recognized as an event, if people, some people remain true to that ‘next to nothing’ that came temporarily visibility and voice. ‘This is a wager on all of us. Whether the insurrection becomes an event or remains just that (important as that is) depends on those who after its disappearance will give it a name and will remain loyal to the idea of re-writing the rules of political visibility.’

It looks as if the prediction is in the process of being confirmed. A name was given: the ‘new December’. It evokes the legendary battle in December 1944 between British led troops and the left-wing guerrillas who had liberated some 80% of Greece by 1943.  And over the last two months, political visibility and the meaning of politics is being re-defined.

Things moved fast after December. Thoroughly discredited, the neo-liberal right wing government disintegrated two years into its term. Early elections were called in October 2009 and the social-democratic PASOK party was easily re-elected after a 5-year absence (it has dominated Greek politics since the election of Papandreou pere in 1981). PASOK run its election campaign promising to reverse neo-liberal privatisation and de-regulation and to strengthen social justice through extensive re-distributive measures. ‘There is money, Papandreou kept saying, ‘we will make Greece the Denmark of the Mediterranean’.

Four months later every single promise lies in tatters. Under instructions from the EU, the IMF and the ECB, the public sector has been decimated, civil servants  and pensioners have had 30% pay cuts and VAT has been raised by 4%. The economic causes of the Greek debt and deficit have been widely discussed.  They are of two types: the neo-liberal economic model of the last 20 years with its excessive reliance on growth based on financial markets, real estate values and debt has brought the whole of Europe to its knees and is the main contributor to the Greek tragedy. Secondly, the two ruling parties have used the Greek state to strengthen their political hegemony. Clientellism, nepotism and corruption, tax evasion and even more importantly lawful tax avoidance offered by the ruling political to the economic elites have added to the woes (ship-owners based on Pireas receive some 58 tax breaks which makes the British non-dom furore look like small change).

Political scientists bemoaning the apathy, lack of interest and increasing voter abstention claim that the repeated breaking of manifesto promises is a major reason why citizens turn away from politics. On this basis, the Greek case will become a textbook example of political rather than statistical dissembling. It is morally unimaginable how professional politicians can live with such a violent reversal of promises or hope to go to be taken seriously again. But what does losing the trust of citizens mean when the country has lost the trust of the ‘markets’.

Ralph Miliband, one of the greatest radical thinkers of the last century, describes in his State in Capitalist Society how Labour governments soon turn into ‘pillars of the established order’ making a more valuable contribution to ‘the strengthening of the capitalist state’ than their opponents (this is a book the younger Milibands seem intent to prove right). Unfortunately it is a thesis universally applied. In Greece, it fell upon a ‘socialist’ party to decimate the post-war welfare state it had helped build. But the radical re-structuring of the social bond goes further.  Neo-liberalism is not just a pernicious economic model. It is a global ideology and world-view making people understand their lives and relate to others as infinite appropriators and desiring machines and turning politics into the administration of economics. While the economic catastrophe is now clear to all, its political repercussions have been largely ignored.

The politics of neo-liberalism takes economic and moralistic forms. In the former, politics becomes an activity resembling the market-place. Individuals, interests and classes accept the overall socio-economic balance and use politics to pursue marginal improvements of interest and profit. In the second, politics is presented as a process of argumentation where rational consensus about public goods can be reached.   Approached as a neo-liberal market-place or as a town-hall debate, neo-liberal politics pronounces conflict finished, passé, impossible, and, at the same time, tries to foreclose its appearance. Its replacement by a collaboration of ‘truth-telling’ economists, modernising bureaucrats and patriotic media turns the state into the muscleman for the market internally (exemplified by police coercion and brutality) and a superficially tolerant enforcer of humanitarianism externally (as seen in the recent ‘humanitarian wars’).  But conflict does not disappear – the neo-liberal recipes increase inequality, fuels antagonism and turns the anger against immigrants and the ‘undeserving’ poor.

It is precisely this attitude to politics that the political elites introduced to Greece. None of the unprecedented measures was discussed or approved beyond a small number of government insiders. Their imposition was presented as the inescapable result of greedy market action and perfidious European inaction (which lies behind the markets greed). They are presented like a humanitarian campaign to save the victims of a natural catastrophe. Neo-liberal economists, experts and the mainstream media pronounced that there is no alternative and then launched one of the most sustained campaigns to persuade the public.

Austerity and honesty, salary cuts and moral righteousness is the universal neo-liberal recipe.  It takes a harsher form in Greece than Ireland or Iceland because the (economic) punishment must match moral laxity. While billions were given to the banks socialising their debts, the Greeks on 800 euros a month, who never saw a penny of state largesse, are now condemned to collective punishment for the misdeeds of their rulers. The moral infamy of collective responsibility which was rightly not applied to the German nation is now visited on the Greeks. To paraphrase Berthold Brecht, you go to prison if your fiddle your benefits but you get huge bonuses if you bankrupt a bank.

Two strategies were used to present this most conflictual matter into a question of scientific objectivity. The first was to present the neo-liberal diagnosis and recipe as the only available ‘truth’.  Understanding the problem (its history, causes and context) and discussing alternatives was peremptorily dismissed as ignorant or naïve. But even in Britain, the cradle of neo-liberal idolatry, a large number of senior economists insisted recently that the worst thing to do in a recession is to cut public spending. Greece is predicted to have -4% growth this year before the new measures have kicked in and 33% of the 18-24 age group unemployed.

This is a virulent type of postmodern cynicism. For real politics, on the other hand, the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ does not exist. Democracy is precisely the expression of disagreement and conflict, a form of life through which the most imponderable problems can be put to debate and testing, solutions can be found and then acted upon. This is precisely the reason why the experts and commentators had to pre-empt public opinion by announcing that the most controversial problem of our times belongs not to political judgement and normative evaluation but to the truth-telling discourse of experts.

The attempt to cow people before the mystical knowledge of experts and disqualify alternatives was followed by a strategy of the normalisation of the extreme. It was the poor man’s version of the politics of fear developed in the Anglo-American ‘war on terror’. ‘Greece is at war’ said Papandreou at the height of the crisis. But whom do they fight? The only conclusion is that the Greek government under foreign mandate is fighting the Greeks. Fear is accompanied by a paroxysmal nationalism, which rhetorically attacks the foreign ‘agents’ of Greek travails while adopting all their commands.  Greece, we heard, has lost its sovereignty, it is like the Titanic, a guinea pig, a proud country resisting the Germans etc. This was crowned by the ‘tragic kitsch’ of the anonymous wage earner who accosted the Prime Minister to offer his salary and the OAP Nana Mouscouri who gave her MEP’s pension for the salvation of the homeland.

The IMF and the European Commission now insist that improvement in competitiveness must follow. Deep salary cuts, the undermining of social rights and further labour market flexibilisation will be imposed on the private sector after the decimation of the public. These measures are part only of a wholesale radical restructuring of life. Its effects will be more radical and long lasting than any economic measures. And this was something that those who had participated or welcomed ‘December’ cannot accept.

The term ‘legitimation crisis’ describes the mass loss of trust in the (always fragile) social contract, which can no longer mobilise popular assent to a balance of power so palpably and unfairly stacked against the interests of the majority. Such crises arise when the omnipresent gap between rulers and ruled becomes an unbridgeable chasm and the claim of political elites to represent the public interest no longer convince. This is happening right now. The general strike and the huge demonstration in Athens on May 5 marked the beginning of the fight-back. Large sections of the population, traditionally voting for the two ruling parties, are increasingly detached from the political system. Some PASOK MPs and many trade-unionists have broken away from the government and participate in the escalating campaigns. Social disgust at the political elites is changing from passive disengagement into active force.

The established media have been worrying that the Greek economic ‘disease’ will spread to the rest of the Eurozone starting with the ‘piigs’ (the debate in the Western media has been laced in an unprecedented way with racism and orientalism). Economists suddenly realised that the euro may be at risk and perhaps even the Union itself. What they had not predicted was that what is at risk is the anodyne post-politics that has dominated Europe. Greeks will not accept becoming a permanent IMF protectorate or the absurdly unfair terms it demands. Perhaps the closest parallel to the current crisis is not the 30s crash but the collapse of the Italian political system in the 90s. Greece is entering a prolonged legitimation crisis, which could rebound on the rest of Europe. It could be that neo-liberal Europe has picked the wrong link to test its muscle.

The end (purpose) of politics is social justice; when they lose that end politics comes to an end. This is where we stand today: the Greeks fight for the survival of politics. In turning from guinea pigs into the vanguard of the counter attack, they will be offering a service to the world as important as that of the invention of democracy.

* Professor of Law and Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London

This was written by Costas Douzinas. Posted on Wednesday, November 17, 2010, at 5:55 pm. Filed under Radical Politics. Bookmark thepermalink. Follow comments here with the RSS feed. Post a comment or leave a trackback.
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