On Syntagma Square, some see the dawn of a new politics
IAt’s past midnight in Syntagma Square, the epicenter of Greece’s month-long anti-austerity demonstrations, and Stathis Marinos is sitting at a corner cafe overlooking the colorful tent city under the trees. Flipping a string of worry beads while sipping a frappe, the 37-yearold software engineer muses about Greece’s financial crisis.
“The memorandum is unsustainable,” he says of the loan deal signed last year between the socialist government of George Papandreou and Greece’s foreign creditors to avert default. He thinks the debt-choked country is being stifled by a mix of brutally rigid measures and that they must be resisted.
A few yards away, a loudspeaker crackles with rhetorical din from the ongoing session at the makeshift assembly meeting. Modeled after Spain’s “Indignados,” Athens’s “aganaktismenoi” (Indignants) have camped in the capital’s main square since May 25. A month after the first call on Facebook, Syntagma, the starting point to the capital’s main commercial street, is playing host to a postmodern incarnation of the ancient Athenian agora.
Every evening, hundreds of people gather here to discuss anything and everything about the crisis. Speakers, who are chosen by lot, are given a two-minute time limit so as to allow for the greatest possible number of contributions. There is little of the typical booing and hissing, and audiences react mostly with hand gestures. Interpretations of what is happening on the square range from the groundbreaking to the delusional or just plain silly.
“This is not a movement and it will by no means evolve into a political party. It’s more like a trend,” says Marinos, who has joined in every evening after work since day one. He has often taken part in street demos, but points out that he has never belonged to a political party. “It’s great that people familiarize themselves with the political process; they learn how to engage in dialogue with each other; how to participate in civic life,” he says of the meetings.
At first, the Indignants were mostly portrayed as a non-political grouping. But the fact that they have put pressure on the government and the politicians, some argue, means that they have now become political. In fact, some analysts maintain, the movement has been political from the start. Costas Douzinas, a law professor at Birkbeck, University of London, was recently invited to speak in Syntagma. For him “this is the most political movement we have had in Greece, and perhaps in Europe for the past 20 years. It is totally political and in a way it changes our understanding of what politics means,” he says.
He is not alone. Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, has kept a close eye on the demographics of the square. All findings so far, she says, indicate that we are dealing with a “politically active” audience. “These people are deeply disaffected and disillusioned with politicians, with the political parties and with the institutions at large,” she explains. Their reaction was not a bolt out of the historical blue. Most research shows that people’s disaffection with Greece’s social and political institutions dates back to the early 1990s. A public survey published last year found that nearly nine out of 10 Greeks are “dissatisfied with how democracy works.”
The phenomenon seems to have a dreamcome-true quality for some, and Douzinas is certainly happy to connect the dots. “Without people being in a space, taking it over and declaring their refusal of whatever it is that they want to re- ject, no radical change has ever taken place in history,” he says.
Skeptics, on the other hand, maintain that the Memorandum is not at the root of the problem, but only a symptom. Writing in The Guardian last week, author Apostolos Doxiadis attacked the “charlatans” who blame the evil foreigners for our own ills and failures. “I know that the heart of our problem is a huge, parasitic and inefficient public sector, which EU funds, unwisely and often corruptly distributed by our politicians over the past two decades, made even bigger and less productive,” he writes.
What virtually everyone agrees on is that Greece is a mess. Faced with bankruptcy, the country received a 110-billion-euro rescue package from the EU and the IMF in May 2010 but now needs a second bailout of a similar size to meet its financial obligations until the end of 2014. International creditors have set the introduction of more painful belt-tightening measures including tax hikes, spending cuts and privatizations as a condition for releasing more aid. A critical vote is to be held in Parliament tomorrow and Thursday. Meanwhile, unemployment has soared to 16 percent and crime is on the rise.
The protests have truly brought together a very diverse crowd but one that is not always pulling in exactly the same direction. Browsing through the crowd massed in the square, you encounter a motley crew of leftists railing against global capitalism and neoliberalism. Posters of Che Guevara hang next to used tear gas canisters launched by police during the recent riots. The spicy fumes wafting from the assorted stands of hot-dog vendors occasionally mixes with the pungent odor of marijuana. At the assembly, people discuss the negative effects of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy on Greek farmers before talking through some organizational issues. With time, the discourse at the meetings has become more progressive and assertive. A recent resolution called for activist-style interventions like the occupation of TV stations and public buildings. For Marinos, some degree of radicalization is a “natural evolution.” “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he says.
But a decision to give the movement a more activist orientation, some analysts say, would most likely alienate the big mass of supporters. “Some people would like to see a fallback to traditional practices. But I am not sure that many people will want to follow,” Georgiadou says.
Just up the steps from the assembly, in front of the illuminated Parliament building, a different group is chanting slogans and hurling insults against the “thieving politicians who destroyed Greece,” calling them to “give the money back and get the f*** out of the country.” Demonstrators make the disparaging openpalm “moutza” gesture against the House and point green laser beams at television crews on the balconies of the Grande Bretagne. Mock gallows and banners taunting Papandreou as being “Goldman Sachs’s employee of the year” decorate this part of the square.
The rowdy behavior and nationalist overtones of the people stationed in front of the House have caused occasional spats with their left-leaning counterparts down the steps. “I don’t understand what is going on down there,” Giorgos, a young man in blue jeans and a polo t-shirt, tells me while rolling a cigarette. “I don’t have a solution to the crisis. All I know is that I am angry with all this,” he says. The blanket rejectionism and sometimes xenophobic posturing of people like Giorgos conveys a sense of uncertainty, of lost bearings perhaps, in a world swept up by rapid social change.
Elias Maglinis, a writer and journalist in his early 40s, is put off by some of the crass behavior. “The gallows, the comparisons to the 1967 military coup and the slogans that the dictatorship did not end in 1973 make me angry. These people have no memory or have no idea what a dictatorship or firing squad is,” he says.
Most analysts predict that the Indignant movement will fizzle out. “Because these movements reject any linkages to political parties, trade unions and other well-established organizations, they do not last long,” says Nicos Mouzelis, emeritus sociology professor at the LSE. But the longterm impact on Greece’s political culture must not be discounted. “Politicians will not be able to operate ’as usual’ anymore,” he says.
Back in the square, the assembly is voting on the resolutions proposed over the course of the day. Ambling over to the crowd, Marinos says that what happens during the strike may well determine the future of the movement. He ponders the Marfin bank tragedy in May last year. Three employees died when the premises were firebombed during an anti-austerity rally. “Should there be human losses like then, the whole thing will die.”