Greece: it’s not all about the economy, stupid

Many see the riots as a simple response to the credit crunch. In truth they expose Greece’s deep and historic crisis of legitimacy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The riots in Greece, which have raged in Athens and university towns since the police killing of a 15-year-old Athenian boy on Saturday, have not only severely shaken the Greek government. They have also rattled outside observers.

Across Western Europe, both conservatives and radicals see the violence as a possible sign of things to come in ‘credit-crunched Europe’. They argue that while the rioting might have been triggered by an act of police brutality, its real driving force is anger at the government’s €28billion bailout package for failing banks. One British observer says the violence is a response to ‘the fact that the government has thrown 12 per cent of the country’s GDP at the banks’, the implication being that ‘bailout Britain’ might see similar anger soon (1). A UK-based radical left newspaper celebrates the riots as an expression of ‘rage’ at the Greek government’s ‘neoliberal economic policies’, and hopes that other uprisings will take place across Europe: ‘Things are collapsing at the top of society, while people on the ground are in a fighting mood.’ (2)

It is true, of course, that the serious political violence in Greece is about more than the killing of a teenager. And it is true that many people in Greece are deeply concerned about the country’s economic predicament. This week’s general strike, which paralysed Greek schools, the transport system and other services, was planned before the police killing and the subsequent riots, with the aim of protesting against unemployment and cuts in government spending on social needs (3). However, it is a massive oversimplification to label the violence in Greece as an automatic response to economic woes or a positive uprising against ‘neoliberalism’. Such analyses are driven by the fears and fantasies of outside observers – and they overlook Greece’s deep, historic problems of political legitimacy, alienation and thwarted aspirations, many of which are peculiar to that nation and which have made ‘street instability’ a fairly common thing.

The violence ultimately reveals that Greece’s youthful middle classes, the main protagonists in the riots, have Western European aspirations in a country that is far from being a full or legitimate member of Western Europe. Greece may be in the European Union, and a much-valued member of NATO (by the US in particular), yet it remains very much on the outskirts of modern Europe. For historical reasons, many of the values and trends that developed in Western Europe following the end of the Cold War in the 1990s – the demise of the left-right divide; the rise of various ‘Third Way’ ideas; what some described as ‘the end of ideology’ – have not taken hold in Greece, where there remains a far more conflictual form of politics and a confrontational left-wing. The riots have exposed a ruling elite that enjoys little legitimacy or authority, and a fairly cosmopolitan middle class – many of whom have travelled abroad for work and education – who feel utterly alienated from their rulers and from Greek society. And peculiarly for modern Europe, this divide tends to be expressed in an old-fashioned language of right vs left, or authoritarians vs anarchists.

The idea that the current Greek riots, the most serious in a series of violent uprisings in recent years, might be repeated verbatim elsewhere in Europe overlooks what is specific and curious about Greece’s political development. On BBC TV’s Newsnight this week, a discussion between a leading British academic and a former Greek official raised concerns that ‘exactly the same thing’ might happen in other countries where, like Greece, there are high numbers of graduates (higher education has been expanded across Europe in recent decades) but few useful or meaningful jobs for them to do (4). However, there is much that is novel, in the modern European context, about Greece’s continuing conflictual system, its high levels of distrust of the state, and the readiness of young people to take action and even riot against the police.

The intensity and the lingering nature of the political tensions in Greece – where the state tends to be viewed as a legacy of the right and where there is still a relatively thriving youth culture of anarchism and leftism – have been forged over the past 50 years. A combination of external meddling in Greek affairs and internal political ruthlessness have ensured that the modern Greek state has won little legitimacy in the eyes of great numbers of its citizens. One key element has been British and American complicity, from the Second World War through to the mid-1970s, in the isolation and exiling of the Greek left, and their support for right-wing authoritarian regimes in Athens. Much of the scene for modern Greece was set by the British Churchill government’s grotesque betrayal and destruction of the left-wing forces that liberated Greece from Nazi occupation, which led to the exiling of much of the Greek left and the intensification of the deep right-left dichotomy in modern Greek politics (5).

In September 1941, the National Liberation Front (EAM) was founded to liberate Greece from the Nazis. The most important group in the front was Ethnikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos, the National People’s Liberation Army (ELAS), a 70,000-strong military force set up and directed by the Greek Communist Party. ELAS scored some swift historic successes against the Nazis, severely denting their morale, and set up numerous ‘liberated zones’ in the Greek countryside. However, conservative Greek elements and Greece’s key ally, the British, quickly came to see ELAS as ‘a problem’. George Papandreou, a Greek centrist, nationalist politician who would serve three terms as Greek PM after the war, warned the British that, in their rush to defeat the Nazis, ‘we [have] aroused and armed the most dangerous Communist forces in Greece itself’ (6). In 1944, when the Greek Army in Cairo mutinied against the British because they wanted to return home to join the Greek resistance, the British ambassador to the Greek government-in-exile warned that: ‘What is happening here among the Greeks is nothing less than a revolution.’ (7)

Fearing that postwar Greece would be ‘claimed’ by the Communist forces, the British and the Greek right came to the conclusion that these forces, which had contributed so much to the liberation of Greece from Nazi rule, had to be isolated and even defeated. In 1944, Britain pressured the Soviet Union to rein in ELAS. The Allies recruited men from the former collaborationist forces in Greece and encouraged them to take ELAS on. At the end of 1944, a British force entered Greece, took Athens, and set about physically defeating the Greek liberation forces (the German and Italian armies had already been defeated). Churchill ordered: ‘Do not hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.’ He made clear that the ‘objective’ was ‘the defeat of the [National Liberation Front]’ (8). The British bombed working-class areas of Athens and suppressed demonstrations. There followed, between 1946 and 1949, the Greek Civil War, between Governmental Forces, which received logistical support first from Britain and later from the United States, and the Democratic Army of Greece, the military wing of the Communist Party. This nurtured a ‘civil war politics’ in postwar Greece and, as one author argues, gave rise to modern Greece’s ‘highly polarised struggle’ between leftists and rightists (9).

Following the Second World War, American intervention on the side of Greece’s right wing became key. The Truman Doctrine of 1947 offered economic and military support to authoritarian rulers in Greece, Turkey and Iran, in order to prevent these states, on the eastern fringes of Europe or in central Asia, from falling under the influence of the Soviet Union. With the benefit of massive American aid, the Governmental Forces defeated the Democratic Army of Greece in 1949, bringing the Civil War to an end. There followed a period of severe repression of left-wing parties and activists. With American backing, the new right-wing rulers of Greece outlawed the Communist Party, forcing many Communists to flee into exile or to face persecution and impoverishment at home (10). In 1952, despite its febrile political climate and undemocratic nature, Greece was made a member of NATO to bolster its position as a key American ally against Soviet influence.

American backing for Greek authoritarianism reached its nadir in 1967 with The Regime of the Colonels, or what Greeks refer to as The Seven Years: the seizing of political power by elements in the military between 1967 and 1974. Following what one author describes as ‘modest mobility’ for sections of Greek society in the early 1960s, many Greeks decided that they wanted ‘a society of opportunities, greater freedom, equality and social justice’ (11). After years of conservative rule, the centrist Papandreou was elected in 1964, but was quickly dismissed by King Constantine II, who feared talk of ‘liberal reform’, in the Royal Coup of 1965. When the King called new elections in May 1967, it was feared by the military establishment that Papandreou would win again and that he would form a government with the United Democratic Left (which militarists argued was a front for the banned Communist Party). On this basis, four weeks before the elections, a group of right-wing army officers launched a coup d’etat and seized political power.

The Seven Years was the most authoritarian period in postwar Greek politics. The aim of the colonels was to preserve, by force and suppression, the post-Civil War order that had been set in motion by British and American actions from 1944 through the 1950s and which was judged to be threatened by people’s political aspirations in the early 1960s: that is, the rule of the right over a defeated left. The military junta, as Jon Kofas says in Under the Eagle’s Claw: Exceptionalism in Postwar US-Greek Relations, ‘banned all demonstrations, ended freedom of the press, and enforced martial law in the name of national security, citing the threat of Communism’ (12). It is striking that, whereas today European states are threatened with expulsion from the EU or NATO if they elect the wrong people or ban an author’s novels, Greece was not expelled from either NATO or the Council of Europe when it was seized by colonels, because of ‘the country’s strategic value for the Western alliance’ (13). Kofas argues that ‘American support for the Greek military dictatorship’ was ‘not an aberration’, but part of a ‘longstanding pattern in US foreign policy’ towards Greece after the Second World War (14).

The polarisation of Greece from the Second World War to the Civil War of 1946-1949 to the Regime of the Colonels of 1967-1974 – a process continually encouraged and exploited by external elements – had two key impacts: first, and peculiarly in the postwar European context, it gave the clear and strong impression that the state is the exclusive property of the right; second, in turn, it alienated large numbers of Greeks, especially youthful, cosmopolitan Greeks, from the state and its institutions. Following the collapse of the military junta in 1974, and the passing of political reforms under pressure from popular disaffection and student protests, the Greek state has struggled to recover – or more accurately, discover, for the first time in the postwar era – any strong sense of legitimacy.

Richard Clogg tries to argue in his book Parties and Elections in Greece: The Search for Legitimacy, that some element of legitimacy was afforded to Greek institutions in 1981, when Greece became a member of the EU and its first left-leaning government was elected peacefully – yet he admits that, post-Second World War, legitimacy for the Greek state has remained ‘elusive’ (15). As one commentator argued in the Independent this week, even seemingly ‘positive’ or ‘normal’ events such as those that took place in 1981 ‘never refresh the political class’, and Greece remains ‘a nation of hollow institutions, lacking legitimacy and held together through habit’ (16). This means that, since 1974, instability has never been far from the surface, and those who feel alienated from Greece’s ‘habitual’ state, a state so often legitimised more by external backing than internal enthusiasm, adopt the seemingly archaic language of leftism and anarchism, which for so long were outlawed ideologies, as an expression of their distance from the powers-that-be.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the current riots is their exposé of the Greek state’s utter failure to integrate the youthful middle classes, as most other European states largely manage to do. Part of the anger being expressed on the streets is motivated by economic concerns; post-junta Greece is a country which invites young people to be aspirational by, unusually, offering them free university education, but it cannot satisfy their aspirations with decent jobs and living conditions. More fundamentally, however, the riots have exposed a state with a longstanding and severe crisis of political legitimacy, which has parallels but also striking differences with the crises being suffered in capitals across Western Europe. This is not a revival of left politics in Europe (as evidenced by the fact that the now-unbanned Greek Communist Party this week denounced ‘the blind violence of the hooded people’) or merely a protest against ‘neoliberal’ bank bailouts: it is better seen as a spontaneous outburst of petit-bourgeois dissatisfaction and alienation, in a state where, for historical reasons, the language and confrontationalism of left-wing politics survives.

Instead of condemning the riots, or fantasising that they are something that they aren’t, it might be better to build on the spirit of resistance that clearly still exists in parts of Europe, and find a positive route out of today’s various political crises.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Sabine Beppler-Spahl visited the protest camps at the G8 summit, and in 2001 Brendan O’Neill argued that focusing on the violence at Genoa in 2001 let both protesters and authorities off the hook. James Heartfield dismissed Another Russia as an anti-Putin campaign group more popular with the Westen press than the Russian people. He also asked of the 2005 Paris riots, who’s fanning the flames?. Gerard Feehily discerned a deep conservatism to the Paris strikes in 2006. And Frank Furedi reflected upon his experience of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Or read more at spiked issues: Politics and Europe.

(1) Snowmail, Channel 4 News, 10 December 2008

(2) Greek mass movement rises up against the state, Socialist Worker, 9 December 2008

(3) General strike, spreading protests rock Greek government, World Socialist Website, 11 December 2008

(4) Newsnight, BBC, 10 December 2008

(5) Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, William Blum, Common Courage Press, 1995

(6) The Second World War, Winston Churchill, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979/1985

(7) The Second World War, Winston Churchill, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979/1985

(8) Churchill: A Life, Martin Gilbert, Henry Holt & Company, 1992

(9) Greek military junta of 1967–1974, Wikipedia

(10) Under the Eagle’s Claw: Exceptionalism in Postwar US-Greek Relations, Jon Kofas, Praeger Publishers, 2003

(11) Under the Eagle’s Claw: Exceptionalism in Postwar US-Greek Relations, Jon Kofas, Praeger Publishers, 2003

(12) Under the Eagle’s Claw: Exceptionalism in Postwar US-Greek Relations, Jon Kofas, Praeger Publishers, 2003

(13) Under the Eagle’s Claw: Exceptionalism in Postwar US-Greek Relations, Jon Kofas, Praeger Publishers, 2003

(14) Under the Eagle’s Claw: Exceptionalism in Postwar US-Greek Relations, Jon Kofas, Praeger Publishers, 2003

(15) Parties and Elections in Greece: The Search for Legitimacy, Richard Clogg, Duke University Press, 1988

(16) No obvious resolution to climax of long-running crisis, Independent, 10 December 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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