No politics please, we’re trying to protest!
A Greek student reports on how ideology has been expelled from the anti-government protests in Athens and elsewhere.
In May 2010, Greece’s newly elected social-democratic government, PASOK, attempted to deal with the huge debt crisis by signing three treaties that would secure huge loans from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Union. In doing so, the government effectively handed over Greek national sovereignty to these three institutions, or ‘the Troika’ as they’re otherwise known.
In the year that followed, extreme austerity measures dragged the Greek economy into a deeper recession, demolishing much of the welfare state, with the Troika intervening every now and then and imposing new and harsher measures. People reacted in various ways, with civil disobedience, more than 10 general strikes and huge demonstrations. The state responded time and again with violence and oppression. On 23 May this year, the Greek government announced a new series of austerity measures. The feeling was that people were now too disheartened to react further. But then suddenly something changed.
On Tuesday 24 May, there was a rumour in the Greek media that the Spanish indignados protesting in Puerta del Sol had a slogan stating: ‘Keep it quiet, we might wake up the Greeks.’ The general feeling that something had to be done, which had been simmering for months, intensified. In the afternoon, a Facebook group named ‘Frustrated in Syntagma Square’, which called for a gathering the next day in the central square of Athens outside parliament, was gaining enormous publicity, and notching up more than a thousand new members every hour. Similar groups were set up for many other Greek cities. The unknown administrators were calling for a peaceful demonstration, without party banners, flags, slogans or even ideologies. Only Greek flags would be welcome and everyone would participate as an individual and not as a member of a wider group. These gatherings were successful, with some 20,000 people gathering in Syntagma Square and many others in central squares around Greece. These protests were continuing this week ahead of today’s general strike.
The first reaction to the protests by many observers was that this was just a ‘copy-and-paste’, internet-based trend from Spain, based only on clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook. The gathering in the first couple of days seemed apolitical and there was neither the demand nor the will to spread the ‘frustration’ in workplaces. Some striking workers who also had a demo on the first day were booed and declared unwelcome at Syntagma, as they were accused of demonstrating as union members and not as individuals.
This reaction signifies a trend where apolitical protest has been transformed into anti-political populism. The prevailing slogans described all politicians (including the left) as ‘thieves’ and ‘corrupt’, argued that the workers’ unions are equally to blame for the crisis by being controlled by political parties, and claimed that any ideology is unwelcome in Syntagma Square. The agreed method of protest had been a collective moaning and cursing against the walls of the parliament and pleas to the police to join the people, as they are ‘also Greeks’. A mentally handicapped person (a well-known figure who has been participating in almost every protest for years) was kicked out of the gathering for carrying a red flag and some grassroots union-activists were made to put down their banner.
This apolitical – indeed anti-political – nihilism seems dangerous and could be sowing the seeds of totalitarianism, especially when combined with the attempt by some right-wingers to make this appear as a ‘gathering only for Greeks’. The demand seemed to be for a change in the political scene and the substitution of the ‘corrupted traitors’ with new politicians who are more technocratic in nature. It was as if people demanded a total change, by making sure that nothing would really change; a ‘revolution without revolution’, as Zizek might term it. Of course, this postmodern type of individualism was always likely to be present, with many protesters viewing the event as a life-changing experience, as it ‘made us all feel happy and close to each other after so many years’. Many mentioned how the atmosphere was similar to the nights of festivity when Greece won football’s European Championship in Portugal in 2004.
The left, initially caught by surprise by this spontaneous procedure, realised it could follow two paths. The first was to keep a safe distance. This was what the Greek Communist Party, and some hardcore anarchists, did. Their approach ensured that the streets would be left to those who believed that gathering and screaming curses against all politicians was all that could be done. This may be one of the reasons why the media and politicians, who have always been hostile to any form of radical protest, rushed to congratulate the ‘frustrated’ of Syntagma and advised them to keep the protest non-violent, apolitical and to stay away from parties and unions.
The rest of the left and the radical milieu decided that social upheavals cannot arrive pre-ordered and packaged in an ideal fashion and decided to intervene. The vehicle for this was the Peoples’ Free Assembly. Taking place every night in the lower part of Syntagma Square, this was a direct-democracy procedure – initially created, no doubt, by members of the libertarian/anarchist milieu – that gradually became the soul of the movement.
Respecting the ground rules, the radicals intervened without flags or banners and as individuals, but they still managed to change the dynamics of the process. The Peoples’ Free Assembly has called for specific political claims, declared that it stands in solidarity with all the workers’ struggles, has called for the building of free assemblies in all the neighbourhoods, called on the workers’ unions to stage a general strike with indefinite end, and has made clear that fascists and those who do not respect immigrants are persona non grata in Syntagma.
In addition, there has been a free exchange of ideas and political groups are allowed to distribute their leaflets. Even the apolitical part of the protest has become more willing to take direct action, for example by blocking the exits of the parliament building that trapped MPs inside as ‘hostages’ last Tuesday. It is true that the interrelation and communication of the Peoples’ Assembly with the apolitical part of Syntagma Square is still problematic and a process open to various possible outcomes. However, some important lessons have been learned.
The first is that when traditional forms of struggle become ineffective, new initiatives need to be taken to move things forward. When other protests proved unsuccessful, for example, the idea of gathering every day in a square was attempted. The number of protesters rose as the days passed, peaking at more than 300,000 last Sunday, but what is needed is a qualitative leap forward, which would require the politicisation of the movement. There are many more steps to be taken in this direction, and any outcome seems possible.
The most important conclusion is that the radical left must not be afraid of such spontaneous uprisings. Rather, the only way for such protests to succeed is by relating to, and politicising, people with no prior activist experience. The bulk of the movement is made up of young ‘precarious’ workers and for most of them it is the first time they have participated in collective action. This political intervention yielded results. So it was that two weeks ago, on 2 June, a few days after the booing of union workers marching in Syntagma, a demonstration of the radical students’ unions was actually welcomed in the square.
All this prompted the radical academic Costas Douzinas to claim that a new, pre-revolutionary multitude, ie. the new proletariat of workers, immaterial labourers, unemployed, students and immigrants, had appeared in Syntagma. That assessment is probably premature. As it stands in Syntagma, many of the protesters seem content to reaffirm their individual identities as ‘frustrated citizens’. There is still a lot to be done before this mass of individuals can be transformed into something resembling the multitude, a development that would open up the possibility for a truly radical change.
Nikos Sotirakopoulos is a PhD student in environmental sociology at the University of Kent.