• The Peculiarities of the Greek Crisis: Democracy, Protest and Contention in Syntagma Square

  • Giorgos Tsiridis | 20 Oct 11 | Posted under: Greece , Social Movements and Trade Unions
  • This article attempts to illustrate the particularities of the Greek movement organised against the austerity measures, imposed by the government under the auspices of the EU and the IMF. Apart from its economic demands, the movement calls for a more just political system in the direction of direct democracy. In order to better situate its sources one has to focus on certain socio-economic features particular to the Greek polity in the wider comparative context of Southern Europe.

    Economy and democracy in the south – a reverse historical trajectory

    It is widely claimed that Greece, Spain and Portugal (and often Italy) followed similar historical paths, especially during the post-war years. Greece, Spain and Portugal, with their transition to democratic politics during the 1970s, placed themselves in what Samuel P. Huntington called the “third wave of democratisation”. The comparison of their historical trajectories over the past decades illustrates numerous similarities at the political, social and economic level. One striking similarity includes their consecutive transition to democratic rule taking place in the mid-1970s. Although each one of them followed a distinct path to democracy, they followed, on the other hand, a similar path to EU accession. Another common trait is the timing of their transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy (see tables below).

    Indeed, Southern European countries experienced a remarkable boost in their manufacturing sector. However, this progress has been often characterised as a case of “industrialisation without development”, since the European south lacked the infrastructure efficiently to exploit the social benefits of urbanisation and of economic modernisation.

    What really made the economic reality of the European south different was the nature as well as the timing of this dramatic change itself. Greece, Spain and Portugal wittingly linked their transition to democracy with their transition to a modern economy. The highly anticipated European integration had a double effect on the countries of the south: On the one hand, it directly connected national institutions to European ones, constituting political interdependence as a fact. On the other hand, the lagging economies of Southern Europe had rapidly to adjust their standards to those of their Northern counterparts. What is more, this had to take place during a time of permanent austerity. The oil crisis of 1973-1974 shook the foundations of the most robust economies worldwide. Consequently, whereas most of Europe combined economic development with democracy during the fading Golden era, Greece, Portugal and Spain tried to attach economic development to democracy only when the tides of the European economy were already turning.

    Greece: economic and social transitions towards the recent crisis

    In the case of Greece, the causes of the ongoing financial crisis stemmed from both endogenous and exogenous factors. We will here focus mainly on the former ones. The primary sector was gradually scorned, abandoning the country’s comparative advantage in agricultural production. The Greek state abandoned its original regulatory role in agriculture when it was most needed. That is, when previously preferential markets ceased to absorb agricultural production and new ones were increasingly emerging as strong competitors. The oldest part of the Greek populace was, therefore, left alone to face international competition and the regulations of the Common Agricultural Policy, which proved to be ruinous for the rural part of the country. As a result, the primary sector suffered a real catastrophe and was gradually economically marginalised. These events were never even subjected to public debate. However, the balance between imports and exports of agricultural goods has been showing a deficit ever since.

    The industrial sector also quickly declined, especially after the collapse of the East Bloc and the consequent opening of the borders. Hundreds of industries moved to Balkan countries and Turkey in a quest for cheap labour.

    In this respect, while the country’s production base was shrinking rapidly and everyone was wondering “what does this country produce, anyway?” governments kept watching the Greek economy lean heavily towards the tertiary sector. As an economic entity, the formerly small state now grew rapidly, and so did social expenditures. This brought about a series of loans that had to be taken out in order for the country to continue its specious developmental policy. At the same time, tax evasion was becoming the political prize of the elections that were typically decided by the so called “politics of the centre”.

    Consequently, for over thirty years, Greek administrations could not justify their controversial economic policies in the eyes of their electors. That is why they had to rely on clientelism, which in turn increased the need for public borrowing and favoured maladministration practices in the public sector. Therefore, the historical roots of nepotism and corruption in Greece should not be sought back in the pre-capitalist state, or the Ottoman past of the country alone. On the contrary, they were necessary by-products of a perverse capitalist model of development that occurred in this particular corner of the planet. That is not to argue, however, that this particular model has implicitly benefited large strata of the Greek people in any way. On the contrary, certain rather dubious businessmen and civil servants made fortunes at the expense of the great majority of Greek citizens. Nevertheless, this very majority relied for years on governments that succeeded in producing false data on the capacity of the Greek economy. The subsequent sense of overall prosperity proved to be totally illusive, but not before a dramatic increase of private borrowing had already occurred. The Athens Olympic Games in 2004 were considered by many to be the peak moment of the Greek developmental model, combining construction and tourism. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the country was left with a huge debt and an artificial sense of accomplishment.

    Nowadays Greece faces an economic and political challenge far more serious that that of its European fellow states. With a living standard which until recently ranked among the 30 highest in the world, Greeks are now experiencing its tragic decline. The country had been struggling for 50 years to achieve its social integration and finally managed to enjoy the benefits of a modern consumer society. Nonetheless, this took place only after the trente glorieuses and social democracy in Western Europe had come to an end. Greek society saw its GDP soaring by 60% since the 1990s, but this did not mean a corresponding rise of the living standard of the middle and lower social strata. It then became apparent to many Greeks that the cost of failure to act has, for quite a while now, surpassed the cost of social mobilisation. The 2010 austerity package made this crystal clear.

    In addition to the unprecedented tax raid that targets, among others, annual incomes as low as 8,000-Euro and even unemployment benefits, Greeks are witnessing the sellout of virtually every national asset including water and electric utilities as well as numerous airports, ports and coastal stretches. Despite the extreme unpopularity of the measures, most Greeks would almost certainly be ready to accept them silently, if only they were convinced that these austerity measures could put the country back on its feet. Nevertheless, nobody seems convinced of this, since the deficit is still growing as the country stumbles into deeper recession. Once more Greece is seen as the world’s guinea pig within the global financial crisis.

    Social upheaval and new forms of political protest before the crisis

    Indeed, this is not the first time that recent social turmoil in Greece has attracted the attention of European and global media. Undeniably, Greek society seems to mobilise frequently enough compared to other European societies. A new generation of political protest emerged in 2005, when massive student movements were organised against the higher education reform and the amendment of article 16 of the Constitution – an attempted reform of the Greek universities along the lines of Bologna. The student movement accentuated the enormous constraints young Greeks had to face in their employment prospects. The movement made use of increasingly efficient mobilisation structures that ensured quick reflexes and political alertness, thus wining a small victory by blocking the planned constitutional reform. These events certainly established the efficacy of non-institutional forms of protests and most importantly put the country’s youth at the forefront of all political reactions that followed.

    In 2008, in the face of the massive fires in Peloponnesus and the state’s outrageous ineffectiveness in controlling them, informal social channels flourished as the principal means of social mobilisation. Thousands of bloggers were calling in protest, testing their effectiveness for what was to come later, in December.

    It all began with the unprovoked police shooting of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos. A spontaneous and also violent massive uprising, occurring within hours of the event, became a milestone of the new generation of political protest. For many weeks, the image of the state in the eyes of ordinary citizens was utterly discredited. The government, normally the source of all legitimacy, was itself delegitimised, dragging along the police as well as the obviously controlled media that tried to cover up the truth. The organised presence of both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left lent more energy to the angry movement.

    All these events directly resulted in the formation of a tradition in social mobilisation, elements of which we recognise in the current “indignados” movement. That is to argue that the latest movement in Greece is not just a case of imitation of its Spanish counterpart, since it was more the endogenous conditions that shaped Greece’s current political reality. However, it is plausible that analogous stimuli exist in the Iberian Peninsula.

    Formal and informal political networks

    The countries of Southern Europe successfully consolidated their democratic systems more than 30 years ago. But while the available means of protest against unpopular policies correspond to those of the most developed democracies in the world, the problems confronting young people and workers are incomparably more severe. At the same time, the institutional channels through which political demands are transmitted are not functioning properly, if at all. That is why informal networks sought to substitute for them. It is all about a system being both “open” and “closed”, a condition which strongly favours the spread of social movements.

    Today, Greek civil society possesses several organisational resources. The image of the left political parties in opposition remains intact, since they were not tarnished by participation in any previous administrations. What is more, various social movements and organisations have joined forces with informal networks of civil society demonstrating a phenomenal capacity for immediate mobilisation on virtually any public issue. In addition, the fact that 40% of the total population as well as the majority of businesses and universities are found in Athens, almost assuresthe massiveness of any mobilisation.

    The ideological resources that Greek civil society has at its disposal are also rich. The arguments of both the left and that of the nationalists provide strong alternatives to the government’s rhetoric, which is expressed mainly by the increasingly discredited media.

    Society’s lack of control of critical decisions made by the government due to the bypassing of parliament, the government’s adoption of policies directly opposed to the ones it announced before the elections and the curtailment of longstanding social rights had an immediate effect: the malfunction of formal institutional channels and the spreading of informal, non-institutional ones. Indeed, Southern Europe always differed from its Northern neighbours in that its civil society followed informal paths rather than completely organised, formal ones. It is necessary to bear this distinction in mind if one wants fully to grasp the notion of civil society. Formal civil society refers to autonomous, organised groups of people acting to promote and defend their interests, including against the state, such as political parties or labour unions. On the other hand, the various scholary definitions of civil society also leave room for informal aspects of civil society and stress the need of adopting a broader definition of the concept. As Mary Kaldor puts it, “civil society refers to active citizenship, to growing self-organisation outside formal political circles, and expanded space in which individuals can influence the conditions in which they live both directly and [indirectly] through political pressure”.1

    The movement in Syntagma Square

    The Syntagma Square movement in Greece, like parallel ones in Spain, Portugal or even North Africa, can be understood as such enclaves of informal forces of civil society. However, while the Arab Spring enjoys the support of the Western media, this is not the case for the European movements in question. The factors cited above certainly facilitated the emergence and escalation of the Syntagma Square movement. But what was overwhelmingly irrational was the fact those responsible for the creation of the problem in the first place were now called upon to solve it. The word on the streets directly named a decayed political system staffed by incompetent, lying crooks. “If that’s the case, then what took the indignados so long?” is frequently the ironic criticism of the movement’s delay. However harsh this question may seem, the answer is of key importance: The majority of Greeks favoured neither standard forms of protest nor routine repertoires of action. In other words, the demonstrations traditionally organised by the left that often ended up with clashes between the police and part of the demonstrators (usually anarchists), and which have always been politically exploited by the government and the biased media, were far from attractive to the average Greek. Especially evident, after the shocking death of three citizens in a bank fire a year ago, was the search for peaceful forms of protest that would not spread to the whole of Athens, but concentrate on the Parliament district instead. Spain’s example pointed to the solution. “Quiet! You will wake up the Greeks” read a Spanish banner. And so the Greeks started meeting at Syntagma Square. The proclaimed peaceful and independent character of the demonstrations allowed the mass participation that the movement needed. For forty days and nights tens of thousands of citizens gathered at many squares of the country, while the numbers at Syntagma Square sometimes reached hundreds of thousands. Popular assemblies, debates and decision-making procedures gave life to a political reality that contrasts with that of representative democracy, that is, direct democracy. This notion became the predominant political demand. For the first time in years, supporters of the left and the right, apolitical and politicised citizens, young and old, were talking individually or collectively without any prejudice. The whole process gradually led to a minimum common political-programmatic position. The walls between supporters of various political parties were permeated while the wall between the protestors and the current political system was reinforced. In this sense, the Syntagma Square movement was already starting to produce results.

    Nonetheless, the divisions were also obvious. The first series of steps that form the boundary between the main square and the street in front of the parliament turned out to be the natural border between two different political approaches as well as lifestyles: Queen Amalia Street became the gathering point of supporters of the right, the extreme right and patriots in general. At the main square gathered leftists of various shadings, liberals and anarchists. Smaller divisions occurred, as is often the case, among the left. The Communist Party (KKE) was aloof, regarding the movement as ineffective. By contrast, SYRIZA, the second of the main left parties, along with smaller parties of the extra-parliamentary left, actively supported, without patronizing, the demonstrations.

    To sum up, Greeks are forced to work, study and live within an obsolete and authoritarian political system that increasingly fails to represent them. The Syntagma Square protestors are, in large majority, highly educated citizens – many of them graduates of European Universities – with solid democratic principles. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that today’s average Greek citizen has outclassed his parliamentary representatives both in terms of education as well as democratic values. Greek citizens daily face a hostile state machine, which recently did not hesitate to suppress a peaceful demonstration using means that resemble – some even say surpass – those used by the authoritarian regimes in the Middle-East. Dozens of videos on the internet document the collaboration between the police and individuals of dubious identity dressed as rioters. More videos clearly confirm the riot police throwing chemicals even at the makeshift Red Cross tent. At the same time, most local media outraged the public by hiding the truth that was already visble to all or by nakedly acting as the government’s official herald.

    Greeks are not just protesting the cuts in their income. A whole new generation of active citizens, very much like their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt or Spain, is struggling against an obviously corrupt state, claiming their basic freedoms.



    1. Kaldor, Mary (2003) Global Civil Society: An Answer to War. Polity Press, Cambridge, p.8.

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