Indignant Politics in Athens – Democracy Out of Rage

by Stathis Gourgouris

The historical fact that Athens was the birthplace of democracy has been haunting the crowds assembled for nearly two months in the city’s Syntagma (Constitution) Square, right across from the House of Parliament, protesting undaunted against the government’s incapacity to represent and protect the interests of its own society. The consistent invocation of Athenian democracy by the crowds is hardly the result of patriotic longing for glorious ancestry. The people are haunted by a historical fact that, though imprisoned in its own myth, has emerged with radical contemporary significance as the last line of defense against the violation of people’s basic dignity.

Thus, the question of Athenian democracy is suddenly no longer confined to academic discussions but put to the test in real living conditions. Over several weeks, thousands of people emerging from the anonymity of sprawling urban life have come together to inhabit a public space, day and night, and to organize it around a collective political interrogation. They have been named the indignants, after a similar initiative in Spain and the best seller pamphlet by French Resistance elder Stéphane Hessel Indignez Vous! (2010), but for many of them indignation has been focused, in unprecedented fashion, on exemplary self-organization and self-education in the ways and troubles of radical democracy.

In just a matter of days, a whole other city was organized on the footsteps of the old Royal Palace that houses the Parliament, particularly in Syntagma Square proper, what came to be known as the “lower square.” In the “upper square” directly in the face of Parliament now guarded by several rows of Praetorian guards in full riot police gear, the assembly of people is like a wave formation and varies in numbers from day to day, depending on specific Parliament activity. Here, crowds from all walks of life, often without previous activist experience, show up to hurl their anathema on their elected representatives en masse. The chant structure – most common cries are the ubiquitous “Thieves!” or “Burn this brothel of a Parliament” – is not unlike what one hears in football stadiums. The tenet is animated primarily by the desperation of economic weakness which permeates the whole society: the number of suicides of bankrupt middle-aged men, fathers of families, has skyrocketed. Yet, the politics of this totalizing ritualistic renunciation remains thoughtless and, although it may accurately express the breadth of indignation all around, it is equally accurate to say that it can never lead to any sort of alternative constituent power.

In the “lower square,” however, a whole other scene of collective self-organization has been established: a first-aid station under a tent and then a proper hospital in the entrance of Syntagma metro station; a media center operating the website http://www.real-democracy.gr, in addition to voluminous other press work; a radio station, also streaming on the web; a neighborhood organization center that coordinates similar activity in various parts of the city; a translation center for non-Greek visitors, activists, and foreign correspondents; full functioning stations of daily needs (kitchen, bathrooms); a performing arts center; a central organization table that handles the day-to-day requests by individual people for the agenda to be discussed publicly; and a number of designated areas in the square where people sharing a specific concern can gather separately. All such groupings remain rigorously unaffiliated with any identified political agency or party. All organized party or official group insignia is banned – a measure that raised objections from various radical leftist groups. A general assembly takes place every evening, where people’s turns to speak is governed by lot and only allowed a minute and a half for positions to be developed, while direct public argument between two individuals in exclusive dialogue form is disallowed. These measures, inspired obviously from Athenian tactics (though by no means mere copies of such ancient modes), serve to guard against demagoguery and monopoly of discussion.

The order, vigor, and freedom with which positions are stated and negotiated publicly is indeed a sight to behold. All proceedings and decisions made in the assembly are posted every morning after the night session on the square’s website. Even a cursory look at the history of the discussions – although nothing can match the actual experience of being part of this process day to day – registers the profound commitment of people to question and think together, even while extensive argument is essential.

It’s not surprising that the key focus of discussion in the square’s general assembly has been the demand for immediate democracy. The term deliberately carries the double reference: the demand for democracy now and the demand for democracy in unmediated fashion. The people’s realization as to the incapacity of the entire political system – party structure, institutions of parliamentary representation, autonomy of law and justice, etc. – has been spreading across the societal spectrum since the events of December 2008. The very electoral process, once a rather festive occasion for public contention dear to every Greek, no longer inspires anyone but the last holdouts of clientelism hoping to get their due reward by some sort of reversal in the governing party in power. Hence, great discussions have been conducted about the problem of representation vs. delegation relative to the assembly itself and the general self-organization of life in the square, including the difficult prospect of more generalized action in the near future.

I repeat, this is not an academic discussion, though there is no doubt that it engages everyone in a process of self-education in the most distilled political sense of paideia. This process is entirely self-cognizant and articulated explicitly: a new generation of citizens is being formed and the political demand is not the short term protest against the social and economic strangulation of the Memorandum brokered with IMF and EU banks allegedly in order to stall the inevitable bankruptcy of the country. The demand at Syntagma is ultimately not economic but political: the radical alteration of Greek political culture. You hear it repeatedly articulated in the assembly: even if in the unlikely chance that the Greek government were to stand up to the totally debilitating terms of the Memorandum – the world’s major economists, who are otherwise not in the service of specific institutions, all agree that the Memorandum casts a death sentence on Greek economic life and all but seals the inevitability of the bankruptcy it claims to stall – the people will not vacate their position in Syntagma Square; the goal is to emancipate ourselves from the order of current political institutions.

In issuing and pursuing this demand, the Syntagma movement is exposing the blatant hypocrisy of Europe’s political and economic elites, who have relentlessly maligned Greece as the primary culprit for the current economic collapse (though no one needs to be an economist to know that the crisis is systemic in global capitalism as such). No doubt, the last twenty years stand witness to uncontrolled behavior of abusive self-interest and disregard for any sort of public responsibility across the spectrum of Greek society. Politicians, doctors, lawyers, judges, entrepreneurs, real estate developers, and, of course, the ever increasing army of civil service bureaucrats and professional syndicalists seeking and gaining the benefits of a clientelist state, have all been implicated together in a web of lucrative but utterly careless para-economy, supported since the 1990s by an ever more entrenched undocumented immigrant labor force.

However, to acknowledge this historical fact does not absolve Greece’s detractors in European and American media and policy centers of irrepressible opportunism in their often inaccurate and indeed vulgar (unabashedly Orientalist) pronouncements. Nor does this hide the fact that all such derisory perspectives are propelled by societies and economies that suffer similar phenomena of political corruption and fiscal irresponsibility, societies and economies that could not themselves withstand such austerity measures without totally collapsing. It is now plain to see that the Memorandum produces fire sale conditions of Greek public assets (not just businesses but most unacceptably land), the execution of which signifies de facto the transfer of Greek sovereignty to the very same ruthless speculation machinery that celebrates the heyday of finance capitalism while driving whole societies to ruin. In this respect, there is nothing unique about the Greek crisis specifically. All such crises in finance capitalism, starting arguably with the Asian crisis of 1997, were engineered as great profiteering opportunities.

From this standpoint, although Greece is a small economy in global terms, the stakes are high because it pertains to the Eurozone itself. Perhaps this full cognizance of such stakes can explain the unprecedented violence with which the state apparatus responded to the citizenry’s democratically conducted defiance. On three occasions, June 15 and June 28-29, we stood witness to an all-out assault by riot police on unarmed citizens assembled outside Parliament in peaceful protest. Fortunately, the very advances in technology that states utilize as policing and surveillance mechanisms against their own people can be used just as well in a counter mode, providing exhaustive documentation of unprovoked police brutality and instantly disseminating it worldwide through the ubiquitous capacity of new social media. Photographs and videos of vicious beatings of people unarmed, in advanced age, or wearing doctors insignia or the thrashing of people immobilized on the ground wounded or running down the metro steps for cover from being assaulted with tear gas or stun and flash grenades or the tear-gassing of the makeshift hospital underground in the Syntagma metro station in closed quarters, were circulated almost simultaneously upon taking place, as were also scenes of police throwing stones or taunting protesters with vulgar insults, and not least the scandalous scene of police safeguarding hooded hooligan provocateurs in what was a widely broadcast confirmation of the known fact of police collaboration with fascist youth groups.1

When so called liberal states resort to massive police violence, they testify to their own social and political weakness. (Greek government weakness specifically was confirmed in the ease with which it was manipulated by Israeli interests to prevent the new Gaza flotilla from departing Greek shores; the two events took place concurrently.) In tear-gassing its own citizens, the Greek government made evident two things at once: its desperation at having lost its own citizens’ consent to power and its servility to those external forces (the demands of global capital) that increasingly seem to determine its course of action. Subsequent responses by government officials in the face of all this evidence showed an embarrassing incapacity to understand the basic implications of their position. Worse yet, they made explicit their directives against the Syntagma movement as such. However, by all accounts so far, the attempt to dismantle the activist organization in the square has failed. In the current conditions, overt police repression, even if brutal, does not seem to mobilize the sentiment of fear that usually drives away the non-activist masses that occasionally resort to peaceful demonstrations. In this case, the widespread and indiscriminate rage of people out in the streets overcomes their fear, even in potentially life-threatening conditions.

Having said that, the continuing function of democratic life in the square is ultimately threatened by physical exhaustion and spiritual fatigue. Since the last assault, numbers have decreased in the lower square. More worrisome is the laxness (motivated no doubt by the assembly’s spirit of inclusiveness) that has allowed the space to become refuge for vagrant drug addicts, availing themselves of public amenities but incapable of participating in the shaping of public space. Given the government’s explicit desire to vacate the square in the name of restoring its tourist profile, this laxness is sure to become a perfect pretext for clean-up operations.

The biggest challenge of the “immediate democracy” movement is to fill the vacuum of governmental politics within a context of severe social and political anomie. The rapidly spreading array of incapacitated institutions promotes an ever more thoughtless politics of rage, which is patently anti-democratic and drawn toward reactionary nationalist, even fascist and surely racist, indiscriminate action. Such is the tenet in the crowds occupying the “upper square” always on occasional and unorganized instances, predicated on particular sessions of Parliament – in that sense, literally reactionary. Moreover, the anomie effected by the bankruptcy of Greek political institutions favors actions of out and out provocateurs, whose project is to hasten the imposition to law and order measures by fanning fears for democracy’s instability. This comes as an added obstacle to the perennial problem of all anarchist or autonomy movements to overcome their own fear of assuming the responsibility of decision, of constituent power.

In order for the experience of the “immediate democracy” movement to bring about conditions of real change in Greek political mores, the aversion toward daring to change things even within parliamentary rules, while retaining the pulse of radical interrogation, needs to be overcome. This issue has been explicitly and self-reflexively posited in the general assembly meetings but its realization remains at the moment nebulous, if not doubtful. What is certainly beyond doubt is that a whole generation of Greek youth, the very same ones who conducted the insurrectionary events of December 2008, has been indelibly marked by the Syntagma assembly. And the conjunction of this specific double experience – from the politics of rage and indignation to immediate democracy – will inevitably become a major part of Greece’s political culture as the society traverses the perilous paths of economic and political bankruptcy.

Postscript: In response to the events at Tahrir Square in Cairo, I had written of the rare occasion of radical political change when the people, en masse, withdraw their consent to power (http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2011/02/15/withdrawing-consent/). Such a step has not been taken in the Syntagma case, although there is no doubt that the imaginary unleashed by Tahrir played a crucial role in the Syntagma formation – as did, demonstrably, the Athens events in December 2008 on the radicalization of youth in various parts of the Arab world. The recent resurgence of the people’s demands for real democracy in Egypt, after what seemed to be a setback to military bureaucratic ways, suggests that the temporality of radical events is never indeed momentary – this is ultimately a Leninist notion, even in Alain Badiou’s mind – but rather riveted by multiplicity, interruptibility, heterochronicity, reiteration, and in the end, re-institution. The most important element of the Syntagma demand for “immediate democracy” is precisely the symbolic explosion of this immediacy as it comes to be mediated by the effect of its own occurrence much like radiation permeates and displaces the explosion of the bomb. Even while brimming with rage or indignation, even when only what is immediate has retained a modicum of meaning in the precession of an otherwise meaningless life, one must learn to remain patient, persistent, and ever more inventive in one’s commitment.

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*Stathis Gourgouris is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature and Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.

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