The public debates of the outraged in Athens are the closest we have come to democratic practice in recent European history
by Costas Douzinas
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 15 June 2011 11.00 BST
Syntagma square: ‘The parallels with the classical Athenian agora, which met a few hundred metres away, are striking’.
When Stéphane Hessel wrote in Time for Outrage! that indignation with injustice should turn to “a peaceful insurrection” perhaps he did not expect that the movement of indignados in Spain and aganaktismenoi(outraged) in Greece would take his advice to heart so soon and so spectacularly.
The Greek resistance to the catastrophic economic measures was expected. Throughout modern history the Greeks have resisted foreign occupation and domestic dictatorship with determination and sacrifice. The measures imposed by the IMF, EU and European Central Bank with the full accord, if not invitation, of the Greek government, have led to 11 one-day general strikes, numerous regional strikes and imaginative acts of resistance. Domestic and foreign media avidly reported the confrontations between youths and the riot police that followed major demonstrations and left a thick cloud of teargas hanging over Athens. Led by the parties of the left and some unions, these protests outshone the anti-austerity demonstrations in the rest of Europe. But the relentless scare campaign by establishment media, experts and elite intellectuals spread fear and guilt to the majority of the population and soon succeeded in limiting resistance.
Three weeks ago, things changed. A motley multitude of indignant men and women of all ideologies, ages, occupations, including the many unemployed, began occupying Syntagma – the central square of Athens opposite parliament; the area around White Tower in Thessaloniki; and public spaces in other major cities. The daily occupations and rallies, sometimes involving more than 100,000 people, have been peaceful, with the police observing from a distance. Calling themselves the “outraged”, the people have attacked the unjust pauperising of working Greeks, the loss of sovereignty that has turned the country into a neocolonial fiefdom of bankers, and the destruction of democracy. Their common demand is that the corrupt political elites who have ruled the country for some 30 years and brought it to the edge of collapse should go. Political parties and banners are discouraged.
Thousands of people come together daily in Syntagma to discuss the next steps. The parallels with the classical Athenian agora, which met a few hundred metres away, are striking. Aspiring speakers are given a number and called to the platform if that number is drawn, a reminder that many office-holders in classical Athens were selected by lots. The speakers stick to strict two-minute slots to allow as many as possible to contribute. The assembly is efficiently run without the usual heckling of public speaking. The topics range from organisational matters to new types of resistance and international solidarity, to alternatives to the catastrophically unjust measures. No issue is beyond proposal and disputation. In well-organised weekly debates, invited economists, lawyers and political philosophers present alternatives for tackling the crisis.
This is democracy in action. The views of the unemployed and the university professor are given equal time, discussed with equal vigour and put to the vote for adoption. The outraged have reclaimed the square from commercial activities and transformed it into a real space of public interaction. The usual late-evening TV viewing time has instead become a time for being with others and discussing the common good. If democracy is the power of the “demos”, in other words the rule of those who have no particular qualification for ruling, whether of wealth, power or knowledge, this is the closest we have come to democratic practice in recent European history.
Syntagma’s highly articulate debates have discredited the banal mantra that most issues of public policy are too technical for ordinary people and must be left to experts. The realisation that the demos has more collective nous than any leader, a constitutive belief of the classical agora, is now returning to Athens. The outraged have shown that parliamentary democracy must be supplemented with its more direct version. It is a timely reminder as the belief in political representation is coming under pressure throughout Europe.
The Pasok government’s response has been embarrassingly muted so far. Establishment propagandists blame the protests and the limited violence that followed on the divided left. This tactic cannot work with the outraged, who come from all parties and none. A determined campaign has been agreed to stop parliament voting in the new measures that President George Papandreou agreed with the bankers and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, which would extend and expand the current recession and rising unemployment until at least 2015 – a cure much worse than the disease. The reaction to these measures will be the high point of the confrontation between “insiders” and outraged, now entering its endgame. Today, the Syntagma multitude is joining forces with the unions in a general strike and the encircling of parliament.
Syntagma is now closer to Cairo’s Tahrir Square than to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. The experience of standing daily and confronting the parliament opposite has changed the politics of Greece for good and made the elites worried for the first time. In Greek, the word stasis means an upright posture as well as revolt or insurrection. The square was named after 19th-century demonstrations, which demanded a constitution (syntagma) from the king. This is what the outraged repeat today: they are standing upright, demanding a new political arrangement to free them from neoliberal domination and political corruption.