By Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton
In the last issue of the Advocate, Kristofer Petersen-Overton described the historical context and nature of the Greek economic crisis, and outlined the contours of resistance that have emerged in protest to austerity in response. This is the second installment of Petersen-Overton’s examination of Greece and the possible fallout from the country’s experience with the destructive forces of neoliberal “democratic capitalism.”
Public legitimacy was already at stake prior to Papandreou’s ouster last year when he dared to suggest a national referendum on austerity. By last May, politicians were unable to appear in public without being pelted with eggs or yoghurt and jeered by angry citizens. Greeks regularly referred to parliamentarians as “traitors,” “thieves,” or “criminals.” Thus, the outcome of May’s election was not at all surprising: turnout was lower than usual and no party received more than 19 percent of the vote, precluding the possibility of cobbling together a parliamentary majority and necessitating a second round of elections six weeks later on June 17.
This time around, the electoral outcome resembled a clear referendum on the austerity memoranda. Those in favor voted New Democracy, while those opposed coalesced around the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), a young party containing a mixed bag of leftists, from Trotskyites to moderate social democrats. Unlike the mainstream parties, SYRIZA called for a renegotiation of the Troika loan agreement, a position as attractive to those on the raw end of austerity as it was terrifying to European elites. Animated by SYRIZA’s unexpected success at the polls during the first round (at second place, it won 16.8 percent of the vote to New Democracy’s 18.9 percent), anti-austerity voters threw their full weight behind the party during the second. The outcome completely upset the mainstream electoral structure that had been in place since the Metapolitefsi period began. New Democracy came away with 29.7 percent, SYRIZA 26.9 percent, and Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) a dismal 12.3 percent. Thanks to an outrageous parliamentary rule granting an additional fifty seats to the winner, these results handed New Democracy 129 seats to SYRIZA’s seventy-one. Aligning with their old foes, New Democracy was able to scrape together an alliance comprising PASOK and another small leftist party, Democratic Left (DIMAR), which added an additional thirty-three and seventeen seats respectively for a grand total of 179. Bankers across Europe breathed a sigh of relief: the mainstream political establishment was effectively back in control—barely.
SYRIZA’s surprising electoral gains came primarily at the expense of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and other minor left-wing parties, but the party also attracted a high number of conservative voters repelled by the mainstream parties’ uncritical acceptance of economic austerity. Several people I spoke with expressed their seemingly paradoxical inability to choose between SYRIZA and the neo-fascist Golden Dawn! While shocking, this phenomenon underscores the degree to which austerity eclipsed other political issues. But if this was the case, why didn’t SYRIZA win? Yiannis Mavris recently pointed out in the New Left Review that SYRIZA’s failure to gain a plurality of votes had less to do with the party’s campaign strategy than with the high number of voter abstentions (most of whom sympathize with SYRIZA’s anti-austerity position) and, more importantly, with “the massive campaign to intimidate the population that was launched from both within and outside the country.”
Domestic and foreign media outlets propagated the idea that a victory for SYRIZA would bring about Greece’s exit or expulsion from the Eurozone, as well as confiscation or even loss of bank deposits; the country would be unable to pay salaries and pensions, and as funds dried up there would be shortages of fuel for transportation and heating.
The scare campaign on behalf of European economic elites seems to have helped stymie a SYRIZA victory for now. Though SYRIZA has equivocated on the desirability of a Greek exit from the Eurozone, the party has become synonymous with that intention for many Greeks—a prospect most refuse to consider, regardless of their position on austerity. Nevertheless, that SYRIZA succeeded in dismantling the post-war electoral system is a remarkable achievement. It remains to be seen whether or not the party will be able to hold onto its newly gained constituency, but for the first time in a while a resurgent Left has changed the terms of the debate. According to poll data, those who voted for SYRIZA did so on ideological conviction. By contrast, those who voted for New Democracy did so mainly to deny SYRIZA a victory. This is not exactly firm ground for any government. As the new coalition prepares to push through a third round of austerity, there is a strong possibility the government will collapse in the near future. What happens next is anyone’s guess.
Though SYRIZA undoubtedly scored a major victory for the Left, another party also made unexpected gains that warrant attention. The neo-fascist Golden Dawn party claimed just below 7 percent of the vote in both rounds, earning it eighteen seats in parliament. With its history of violence and clear use of fascist dress, imagery, and rhetoric, this is a deeply disturbing outcome. To place the rise of xenophobic extremism in Greece against the backdrop of the economic crisis, we must look at the other crisis Greece faces, namely undocumented immigration.
The Other Crisis
The Greek port of Patra on the country’s Western coast resembles something of a makeshift campground, teeming with young men from across North Africa. It’s a haunting place; the brilliant waters of the Ionian Sea carry hundreds of ships each day past the islands of Ithaca and Cephalonia to the northwest and on to Mediterranean ports across Southern Europe. While Western tourists come and go as they please, and international shipping freighters load and unload, these young men wait—the human flotsam of neoliberal globalization.
Patra has become a de facto holding zone for many of Greece’s undocumented migrants, most of whom hope to eventually stow away aboard a ship bound for better fortunes. Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, Egyptians, Sudanese—every one of the couple dozen men I spoke with identified Western Europe as their final destination (usually France, Germany, and the UK). With the Greek economy on life-support and xenophobic violence on the rise, this is not exactly surprising. Unfortunately for these men, current European law obliges Greece to prevent undocumented migrants from traveling to other states within the EU; and, bizarrely, if it is later discovered that an undocumented immigrant living in France originally entered the EU via Greece, France has the option to deport that person back to Greece. This situation provides Western Europe with a healthy buffer against undocumented migration at Southern Europe’s expense. The problem has been left to fester in Greek cities, which are now home to hundreds of thousands of impoverished and marginalized immigrants, most of whom have no hope of leaving. I spoke with several groups of undocumented immigrants living adjacent to the port at Patra.
“This is not Europe,” one man told me. “This is worse than Algeria. Where are human rights? They call this Europe? They treat us like animals. They beat us, humiliate us. I swear to you I will leave here and go to France. And if I ever see a Greek there—I will kill him.”
“Arabs are a very good people. But if you treat us like animals we become dangerous. I was not so angry before I came to Greece. They don’t want me here. Ok. I don’t want to be here either, but they won’t let us leave and they won’t let us live. We are trapped.”
Not all of these men are undocumented, but you wouldn’t know it. About a quarter of the people I spoke with are legally sanctioned refugees. This entitles them to a guaranteed weekly stipend paid by the EU while the government reviews their case. The process often takes years, but such money is rarely dispersed and refugee status does little to ward off xenophobic attacks from neo-fascist gangs and the police. Unfortunately, the Greek government does not keep statistics on violent crimes targeting undocumented immigrants, though it’s doubtful many would be willing to come forward in any case. Human Rights Watch recently reported a massive spike in xenophobic violence across Greece. In May 2011, following the murder of a Greek man, right-wing gangs stabbed to death a Bangladeshi immigrant and attacked dozens of other presumed immigrants. Since early August, when the government launched a new anti-immigration campaign, the police have detained more than 17,000 migrants according to criteria little more specific than their physical appearance. Those with legitimate documentation often have them confiscated and “lost” by a corrupt police force intent on deporting as many immigrants as possible. In the few incidents of violence against immigrants the government has chosen to investigate, about half involve police aggression.
Among the men I spoke with in Patra was a twenty-year old from Tunisia who wore a cast on his leg. The previous night, he told me, police had woken him and his fellow migrant workers in the early hours and attacked them. His leg was crushed in the scuffle. Fortunately, socialized healthcare in Greece does not yet discriminate on the basis of race and state medicine was able to repair what the security apparatus had inflicted. Another young man who spoke with me was not so lucky. The police broke his right arm several months ago, permanently paralyzing his hand and leaving severe scarring.
As we spoke, a police car drove slowly past us, casually observing the scene.
“When you go, they will come for us,” I was told.
Enter Golden Dawn. In their recent electoral success, one demographic in particular lined up behind the neo-fascist party: the police force. According to a poll taken by BHMA newspaper, a whopping half of Greek police officers voted for Golden Dawn in the second round of elections. This statistic further demonstrates the extent to which the Greek security apparatus remains firmly in the hands of the extreme Right. There are multiple reports of the police using Golden Dawn activists as unofficial muscle on raids against undocumented immigrants. The Greek anarchist movement has taken a strong stand against Golden Dawn and in support of undocumented immigrants. In some cases, the anarchists have deployed contingents of activists to protect immigrants from police and neo-fascist violence.
Golden Dawn has existed at the fringes of Greek politics for decades, but only recently has it made strides in the polls by tapping into popular frustration with the country’s undocumented immigration. It should be stressed, however, that neither Golden Dawn nor the police have a monopoly on racism in Greece. Like other Southern European countries, much of Greek society clings to bigoted racial stereotypes. Old-school anti-Semitism is rife, for example, and the abuse formerly reserved for Albanian domestics is now leveled against Africans, Afghans, and Pakistanis. Some attribute Golden Dawn’s electoral success to the economic crisis and a kind of populist scapegoating inspired by it, but such an analysis is too simplistic and ignores less virulent, but more widespread racism underlying Greek politics. Across the political spectrum, immigrants are blamed for bringing crime and drugs. Local shops and restaurants frequently refuse to serve anyone who doesn’t resemble a tourist or a Greek. It’s just bad for business.
Golden Dawn combines a peculiar mix of national triumphalism and xenophobia with support for policies favorable to seniors. The group recently held an event in central Athens distributing food to the poor and elderly, but there was a catch: handouts were only offered to ethnic Greeks. This kind of obscene political theater together with vigilante policing (party activists have been filmed demanding to see immigration papers from street vendors and other suspected immigrants) has earned the party a mixed reputation—especially because undocumented immigration is an issue that resonates across party lines. In addition, the party’s strong line against austerity has broadened its appeal during the crisis. Unlike other hard-right parties, Golden Dawn’s membership is comparatively young, and includes many women. They’ve been extremely effective at capturing the debate, despite their relative insignificance at the polls. When Golden Dawn’s young spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, physically assaulted the Greek Communist Party spokeswoman on live television, news anchors commented on his handsome looks!
One morning last April, a seventy-seven-year-old retired chemist named Dimitris Christoulas walked across Syntagma Square just in front of the Greek parliament. He raised a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. For decades he had paid into a public retirement plan only to have his pension channeled to billionaire bondholders in his twilight years. The appalling reality pushed him to commit an act of bitter desperation. His tragic death, executed in the shadow of parliament, became a rallying cry for the aganaktismenoi, capturing in stark human terms the devastation austerity has wreaked.
It’s difficult to predict what will happen in Greece, not least because adequate responses from Athens and Brussels have been lacking. To this observer at least, it appears inevitable that Greece will leave the Eurozone sooner or later. The only question remaining is how such an eventuality will unfold and whether it will happen next month or next year. If the country is forced out before adequate preparations can be made, chaos will ensue. If political unrest forces the current government to collapse (very likely) and a new one moves to default, the economic fallout may be more contained but still severe. Incredibly, the government recently admitted that it has not conducted a single study into what a default would look like, refusing to even consider the possibility of such an outcome! Neither option is ideal of course and both are fraught with risk, but the Greek media has largely avoided debate, advancing the European line instead: there is no alternative. Only recently have the arguments of Paul Krugman and others who advocate for a Greek default and a return to a devalued drachma broken into the mainstream.
Every day that passes without a move toward either a definitive bailout or outright expulsion from the Eurozone leaves Greece in political limbo, exacerbating the predicament. Capital flight continues apace to the tune of five billion euros each month and Greeks are fleeing the country in droves. In 2011, the United States reported a record number of visa applications placed by Greek citizens. British Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently threatened to place a temporary ban on Greek immigration altogether, prompting some to joke that Britain should “deport” the Elgin marbles as well!
By its own standards, neoliberalism has been a remarkable success in Greece. SYRIZA was not elected, Greece has not yet defaulted, and the country has been forced into selling off national resources and privatizing much of the public sector. The antiquated belief in popular accountability has been effectively overcome, though mass demonstrations do persist. But the general trend seems to be pushing in one direction. A taxi driver I met in Athens who claimed to support the conservative New Democracy government explained Greece’s predicament in a nutshell: “Everyone knows the crisis is bullshit. It’s just an excuse for foreign bankers to privatize everything and force us to work until we die. They’re trying to make Greece like America but we don’t want to be America.”
Whether or not Greece remains in the Eurozone, the state still faces a major crisis of legitimacy. Let’s not forget that Greece has a recent history of political violence. If armed militants attack parliament or conduct a similar action aimed at the political or security establishment, the authoritarian backlash will be swift. It’s not an unlikely scenario, though Europe would surely attempt to prevent such an eventuality. Some in Greece predict ever more violent skirmishes between the state security forces and militant activists. Police ties to the extreme Right make this a very real prospect. Violent street clashes have already occurred between Golden Dawn various anti-fascist groups. A group of anarchists I spoke with in Greece—while openly critical of using violence in this way—claimed to be preparing for the possibility of civil war. This is probably way off the mark, but it reflects the national state of paranoia in which such scenarios no seem farfetched. It’s not at all clear how far Europe would be willing to go in a situation of domestic militancy, but it is clear that austerity will continue for the foreseeable future, consigning an entire generation to poverty. This alone is sure to have long-term consequences.
In his suicide note, Dimitris Christoulas likened the Greek parliament to the “Tsolakoglou government,” the Quisling regime that ruled Greece during the Axis occupation.
The Tsolakoglou government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for thirty-five years with no help from the state. And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945.
This crisis was not inevitable, but the Greek experience should chasten us all. We’re heading there.