The Greek December Revolt and its Current Relevance, by Michail Theodosiadis
This essay examines one of the most important historical events of the past decade, the 2008 Greek rebellion and its possible relationship with the rise of the Coalition of Radical Left (SYRIZA) to power. My aim is to eludicate this revolutionary moment without exhausting my focus on urban violence, which I consider a second priority. I will elaborate on the anarchist elements of the revolt and the influences in the general attitude of the public. Certainly (and to avoid crucial misunderstandings) the December revolt would be unimaginable without having incarnated some of the most fundamental anarchist elements that are widely embraced by a large part of the Greek youth (and most of all we cannot ignore Exarcheia – district of central Athens – where the revolt begun, an area of particular symbolism, which for years was the main epicenter of the Greek anti-capitalist movements). However, it is certainly wrong to classify it as a purely anarchist event as it is believed by many activists across the world. This very common false assumption has led to a peculiar but also unacceptable mystification for the Greek anarchist space. Contrary to that, the vast majority of young Greek anarchists seem to be reluctant to abort sectarianism and idolatrous invocation to ideological puritanism, which isolates them from the public sphere. Thus, instead of allowing their presence to become a significant protagonist in the country’s antagonistic movement, to propose radical alternatives beyond liberalism and parliamentarism, their absence from the procedures that shape a new political consensus results for all populist initiatives to become entirely consumed by the rhetoric of party mechanisms. This, precisely, explains the rise of the SYRIZA, which although has not much to do with horizontalism and direct democracy, should not be discarded since its victory in the recent elections of January, 2015 is of utmost important (I will discuss this issue in relation to the December revolt).
The Greek uprising of 2008 (which started after the assassination of the 15 year old schoolboy, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, in Exarcheia by a police officer) could undoubtedly be considered a milestone in contemporary Greek history, as a par excellence populist event that marked not only the political course of the country but also shaped the entire European socio-political landscape. Unlike other urban revolts that took place in the European continent during the past two decades – such as the Paris uprising (2005) and the London riots (2011) – the December unrest carries a peculiar message whose significance remains largely underdiscussed. Even the majority of Left-leaning analysts who became exclusively focused on the thousands of young protesters that took to the streets those days, demonstrating their indignation against police impunity, corruption and rising unemployment, oversaw the real message: the spontaneity of public deliberate action, where happiness, joy and human fulfillment become integrally conjoined with common presence and appearance in the open shared space. Whilst strikes and large protests resulting in widespread rioting and clashes with heavily armed riot squads is not a new phenomenon (especially in the European South) most of the times such initiatives never achieve to propose a rupture with the institutionalized norms of the amoralistic consumerist ethos, and the generalized conformity that characterizes our (post)modern Western world. Such mobilizations instead of attacking the institutionalized norms of capitalism itself, express the desire for returning to the pre-crisis abundance, where the bubble of economic growth could (ostensibly) secure private affluence within a world of never ending fictitious needs.
In these aspects the December revolt appears to differ significantly; through an attentive approach, we see how for the first time after a few decades of political lethargy and individual isolation, the masses begin to despise the misery of loneliness and human privatization, investing in friendship and social solidarity through spontaneous action in non-hierarchical, self-governed and self-organized small collectivities (namely people’s assemblies in neighborhoods) of open and voluntary participation in the making of decisions that determine the running of a community, as in the case of Hungary (1956) and the Spanish communes during the anarchist revolution of 1936 (Castoriadis 2012, 20). In the words of Hannah Arendt (1998, 72; 1990, 31), this refers to the commonality of the public realm, of the autonomous space that binds human beings together through powerful words and deeds and by acknowledging their individuality and free will, exhorts them to overcome the platitude of conformity, to exit from the banality of mass society that is swamped with passiveness and sheer uniformity of tastes and manners (Arendt 1998, 78; Benhabib 1996, 27). It is the only sphere that allows human beings to become truly free (Arendt 1990, 114).
This particular aspect of Dekemvriana (The Dekemvriana (Greek: Δεκεμβριανά, “December events”) refers to a series of clashes fought in Athens from December 1944 to January 1945 between the Greek Left-wing Resistance forces (EAM–ELAS, KKE) and the British Army supported by the Greek Government, the Cities Police and the far-right Organization X of Georgios Grivas) reflects its most meaningful substance on which I will attempt to elucidate in this essay, by elaborating on the emancipatory project of collective and individual autonomy as developed by the Greek-French thinker Cornelius Castoriadis – a project that presents an equivalential conceptuality with the Arendtian notion of genuine politics – being organically and integrally connected with the openness, worldly creativeness and liberality of the public realm. Through this analysis I am not only intending to combat the dominant reactionary myths – that, for instance, this specific uprising was nothing but an outbreak of mindless thuggery, a series of “war acts”, as the Greek far-right leader Giorgos Karatzaferis said (Filippidis 2011, 63) –, neither I am planning to confine my analysis exclusively on the case of SYRIZA, which I consider one of the most significant fruits of the Greek antagonistic movements that have been directly inspired by December revolt. More importantly, I will elucidate on political action (in the proper sense of the word; that is interaction – through speech and hearing – in the common place), which our deeply depersonalized and fragmented world has exiled tout court. Before, however, approaching such issues, a brief historical review of modern Greece is essential not only in order to acquire a clear perspective regarding the background of Dekemvriana, but also to identify the emancipatory elements that emerged during periods of generalized political turmoil marked by heroic social struggles (elements that are symbolically and conceptually integrated within the project of autonomy), elements that reappear during the days of this revolutionary milestone, the December revolt.
In the second chapter, such elements will be further outlined (in relation to the Greek social reality) explaining at the same time how they led to the institutional arrangements which, although they did not fully achieve self-government, contributed to more open societies “in which active contestation from within remains possible, and individuals and groups enjoy rights and freedoms thanks to which they may, formally and to some extent effectively, think independently and challenge the establishment” (Castoriadis 2007, 127-128). In the third chapter, finally, the dismissive stance of the mainstream press will be criticized. Here the rise of SYRIZA will be further discussed in conjunction with a brief analysis concerning the international impact of the revolt. My aim is to provide a more holistic perspective regarding its political significance, as a par excellence populist challenge on the social pathologies afflicting this era of post-ideological consensus (I rely on Lasch’s [1995, 92-114] and Laclau’s  interpretation of populism as a method that uplifts the underrepresented underdogs in power), the era characterized by mass retreat to conformism whose idealization is widely reflected by the current political regression the entire continent of Europe is experiencing.
1. Background and genealogy
The socio-political meaning of the December rebellion (as well as the rise of SYRIZA) cannot be understood without addressing three milestones of Greece’s modern history that shaped (and still determine) the politicization of the Greek public and the formation of the antagonistic movement. These are a) the post-WWI climate, b) the post-civil war era and c) the era of Metapolitefsi, a term “used to describe the historical period of modern Greek history that follows the end of the colonels’ dictatorship (1974)” (Vradis & Dalakoglou 2011, 339) until the beginning of the financial crisis (2010). Let’s examine these three periods one by one:
- The end of WWI is a stepping stone for the development of the Greek labor movement. Although strikes and worker’s direct actions against exploitative employers were very common since the end of the 19th century – among the most notable are the deadly clashes in Lavrio during the April Strike (1906) and Serifos (1916), as Giannis Kordatos reports (1956, 184-205) – the struggles of Thessaloniki are of particular importance; Thessaloniki was the heart of the Greek labor movement says Agis Stinas (1985, 49), a notorious Trotskyist, and simultaneously one of the most outstanding examples of horizontal organization and direct participation. But what, nonetheless, has become the most significant element of this struggle is the spirit of togetherness and solidarity being developed within an open public arena; neighborhood streets, restaurants, pubs, and trade-union buildings, such as the town’s Labour Center, were on a daily basis flooded with workers from various political (and cultural) backgrounds (communists, socialists and anarchists; Christians, Jews and ethnic Macedonians) and passionate discussions, political lectures and assemblies were taking place in a comradely, intercultural and supportive atmosphere (Stinas 1985, 43; 44, 45). A parenthesis: this particular spirit of social solidarity and publicness is anything but a Greek particularity. It has always been the main driving force of people’s resistance during the apogee of the working class struggles where anarchists and socialists became involved, as in the moments of the Spanish revolution according to Bookchin (1994); it has always been a principle of inspiration and guidance for genuine political action says Arendt (1990, 20) by elucidating on French Revolution. It, certainly, constitutes the deepest substance of the authentic notion of democracy (as a par excellence liberatory action), deriving from the Aristotelian understanding of φιλία (friendship) – meaning harmonic co-operation rather than aggression and competition (Finley 1985, 29) – as the basic perquisite that guarantees the preservation of the life of a city-state, and the safeguarding of the body politic (id est, the public realm) from violence and inner conflicts (Arendt 1990, 34). This is what Aristotle’s (1992, 52) notable phrase – “η γαρ τοΰ συζην προαίρεσις φιλία” (“the will to live together is created by friendship”) – denotes; the strong relations of brotherhood/sisterhood make up the only viable force that binds individuals together through the encouragement of common sacrifices, implying at the same time the “expansive degree of sociality that is a civic attribute of the polis [the proper political body for the ancient Athenians] and the political life involved in its administration” (Bookchin 1992, 38). This element emerges radically during historical moments where democratic initiatives resulted to the expansion of social and political rights and freedoms and of course the Greek labor movement is not an exception; when Stinas (1985, 48) recounts how brutal persecutions against the Jewish inhabitants of Thessaloniki (organized by far-right paramilitary gangs) were successfully combated by crowds of workers, he implicitly refers to the common feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood and solidarity among the people of different cultural backgrounds united for a specific purpose; to install a fairer social model, where all human beings will be treated as equals among equals. But, in Greece, this spirit of unity will last only until the rise of the fascist dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas, a regime that, following the footsteps of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, brutally suppressed dissent and trade-unionism.
- Repression and mass executions of communists and socialists (in Greece) continues during the German occupation. In this climate of absolute terror thousands of trade-unionists will be executed (by both the Gestapo forces of their local collaborators), whilst the fighting masses will be in toto subdued to the bureaucratic leadership of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), which following the orders of Joseph Stalin will completely abandon its class strategy, embracing patriotic demands, and thus revolutionary defeatism and worker’s solidarity cease to play a dominant role in the political struggles of Greece. In September 1941, together with four minor Left-wing parties, KKE establishes the EAM-ELAS (National Liberation Front – Greek Popular Army) partisans, requiring strict and unquestionable obedience to its senior members for everyone who voluntarily (and in some cases involuntarily) decides to join these forces. Dozens of Trotskyists – such as Cornelius Castoriadis (Curtis 1988, viii), Agis Stinas et al. – were declared enemies or “nazi collaborators” only for showing unwillingness to support a nationalist struggle over class warfare. The anarcho-syndicalist Constantinos Speras, among the main organizers of Serifos’ strike was shot dead by O.P.L.A. – the civil guards and the judges of EAM guerrillas – for being disloyal to KKE’s leadership (Stinas 1985, 30). Dozens of other internationalist Communists were also persecuted by both the Gestapo forces and the EAM fighters. The spirit of friendship and democratic disobedience is nowhere to be found within this climate of terror and ruthlessness, followed by a devastating civil war (between the Stalinist Democratic Army guerrillas and the right-wing oriented authoritarian state), whose end signals the installation of an ultra-right wing state, characterized by continuous repression against the defeated Left, liquidation of communists (such as Nikos Beloyianis who was executed after a martial court decision), anarchists, Stalinists, (even social-democrats) and tough sentencing of dissidents in harsh forced labor camps in penal islands (such as Yaros and Makronisos). This state of exception officially ended with the collapse of the anti-communist dictatorship of ’67 in 1974.
- The beginning of the era of Metapolitefsi signifies the end of the post-civil war right-wing terror, the termination of institutional discrimination, stigmatization and exclusion of citizens based on their political beliefs, whilst for the first time in Greek history parliamentary stability takes place (Protagma Magazine – Political Group for Autonomy 2014, 48). A culture of secularity, liberality, spontaneity and authenticity begins to prevail in the Greek public life, whilst a series of progressive measures, such as introduction of civil marriage and withdrawl of Repetance Declarations for dissidents, such measures enhanced freedom of expression and signaled the end of state ultra-authoritarianism. In conjunction with the legitimization of Left-wing parties and the repeal of all censorship laws, a strong anti-rightist attitude in the Greek public flourishes. The more the state of terror fades away, the more the attrocities committed by fascists, monarchists and all sort of anti-communist forces become a subject of condemnation by a large portion of the Greek population. Ultra rightists, who once were enjoying significant privilleges and, in fact, could terrorize Leftists and socialists, had to either hide their extremist profile by compromising with the most conservative wing of center-right party of New Democracy (only to find immediate platform in the party of LAOS and later on in Golden Dawn after the spark of the debt-crisis). Thus, anti-authoritarianism begins to further spread among the young population within this period of social, political and cultural transformation; the spirit of anti-statism and collective solidarity (that was lost during the years of repression) re-emerges and develops simultaneously within small circles of anarchist thinkers, despite that the typical anti-imperialist Left-wing nationalist voices never ceased to dominate the Greek public sphere (this does not come as a surprise; for Greece doctrines like national sovereignty and national independence were always viewed as ipso facto issues whilst the brutal suffering and persecution of the defeated EAM-ELAS Stalinist led fighters – and their sympathizers respectively – resulted to a further mystyfication and golorication of the National Resistance movement, even by forces who have not much to do with the Communist Party, such as the anarchist space, antifascist groups and of course the extra-parliamentary forces of the left or even the composants of quasi fussy Left Coalition – the early version of SYRIZA – which is constituted by Trotskyists, anti-authoritarian Marxists, social democrats but also WWII EAM veterans, like Manolis Glezos). In fact, it was mainly the anarchists who inspired the Polytechnic School uprising of 1973 (Anarchy Press, 2009), the culmination of the anti-dictatorial struggle according to Giorgos Oikonomou (2013) an event of utmost significance for the shaping of the post-dictatorial political consensus in Greece, that (despite its harsh repression by the forces of the military junta) suceeded in challenging once and for all the entire right-wing ideological hegemony under which Greece was suffocating. Certainly, the era of Metapolitefsi and its long liberalization process (until the 1990s where schizophrenic consumerism begun to penetrate Greek society) owes a lot to the strengthening of the anarchist space, the only space that (until the end of the ’80s) was drawing inspiration from the anti-authoritarian struggles of the Spanish Revolution and the pre-Stalinist era of the Greek labor movement – as also Giannis Tamtakos describes in his biographical book Αναμνήσεις [Remembernces (2003)] an influential anarchist, anti-Stalinist and anti-fascist figure (also associated with the struggles of Thessaloniki).
This particular era sees two milestones of urban antiauthoritarian unrest with the Communists, the non-Stalinist populist Left and the anarchists ‘leading’ the struggle: in 1985 the assassination of fifteen-year-old Mixalis Kaltezas led to widespread clashes between protesters and riot police, whilst in 1991, following the murder of Nikos Temponeras “a teacher who had, together with his students, defended his school’s occupation from the right-wing vigilantes who were trying to break it” (Giovanopoulos & Dalakoglou 2011, 103), three days of generalized conflict between students and the repression forces of the state took place in Athens and other major cities. In addition, during 1970, 1980, 1987, 1988, 1990 and 1991 we see organized student protests against neoliberal school reforms whilst in 2006-07 in view of 3rd level educational reforms proposed by the conservative government of New Democracy, over 300 university faculties across the country were shut down, but protesters that took to the streets faced hard police repression. However, all these crucial populist moments are nothing but the legitimate offspring of the Polytechnic uprising resistance, where once again spontaneous political action proposed rupture with an unpopular regime. As Oikonomou stresses (2013, 30), the most notable characteristic of the days of the Polytechnic uprising is the direct involvement of citizens in the pursuit of freedom. In short, what we have here is the revival of friendship, public appearance and direct involvement in the decision-making since the beginning of Metaxas’ fascist dictatorship, precisely thanks to the anarchist involvement in the anti-dictatorial initiatives. Indeed, the occupation of the Polytechnic School by a handful of students was not controlled or guided by any party, bureaucracy or representative says Oikonomou (2013, 31). The Polytechnic uprising utilized the best substance of human beings as political animals: solidarity, selflessness, imagination and passion for creation (Oikonomou 2013, 30) – in other words friendship – (elements that we initially identify during the apogee of the Greek labor movement in Thessaloniki). Openness, self-organization and self-management – the root causes for the spark of the anti-dictatorial Student Movement according to Oikonomou (2013, 31) – carry on during the era of Metapolitefsi, and re-appear largely in the days of December where Greece sees her biggest unrest since the restoration of parliamentarism (1974).
This is the historical and political significance of the rebellion (the reappearance of fully emancipatory projects and initiatives) that became entirely ignored by the major mainstream analysts whose response was a sterile condemnation of violence, describing the event as a generalized outbreak of juvenile delinquency or the rule of the howling mob against ‘common sense’. Both in the post-WWI labor movement struggles and during the Polytechnic uprising in Athens, self-organization, togetherness and friendship replaced terror, state propaganda and mistrust. But similarly during the December revolt we could see neighborhood assemblies along with the occupations of schools, universities, municipal offices and theaters taking place (Metropolitan Sirens 2011, 146; Andreas Kalyvas 2010, 354), and a widespread rejection of apathy, cynicism, the tyranny of financial uncertainty and political indifference. As I have already mentioned, such open public assemblies, (namely political bodies operating horizontally and allowing key decisions to be taken through procedures of direct democracy), spontaneously appeared “in every genuine revolution throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (Arendt 1990, 249), and triggered or invigorated social movements that resulted to the expansion of civil rights and liberties. This profoundly denotes the importance of elucidating on the Dekemvriana, as one of the most crucial democratic populist movements in modern European history. On its emancipatory substance, therefore, (which, as I explained, is a subject to a genealogical process) I will further (and more extensively) elucidate in the next chapter.
2. The December Rebellion and the Project of Autonomy
2.1 Autonomy and Resistance
I have already spoken about the labor movement and its contribution to the further democratization of the occidental world. By using Greece as a case study the validity of this assumption is partially confirmed; a combination of historical and sociological approaches on the country’s modern political landscape reveals how the spirit of mid-war working class struggles – that is freedom, equality and friendship – constituted the main driving force for the development of democratic movements that resulted in the gradual collapse of the right-wing autocratic regime. These three elements make up the main essence of the public realm, which for Castoriadis is identical with direct democracy (as opposed to the liberal ‘democratic’ notion of parliamentary representation). For the same author (2012, 19), this form of democracy is tautological with the project of autonomy, on which I will further elucidate in this section, paying essential attention to its emancipatory content, aiming to acquire a more holistic and substantial approach on the December revolt and the role of democratic populist movements in general.
Autonomy implies freedom to despise the imaginary representation of a given social reality, proposing a new model. It initially emerges in ancient Greece, particularly in ancient Athens, (Castoriadis 1997, 17; 2007, 94; 2003, 61-77), where the demos (δήμος)– the active citizens (the politai) could at any time call into question laws and institutions in the assemblies. In fact, autonomy is the essence of genuine political action and, thus, presupposes common place and appearance – the polis, the agora, the council – where human beings can come together, in short, a public space; there is no other place for the ‘people’ to discuss political matters, (to reject systems, institutions and propose new ones) apart from the public realm, which embodies the fully human condition of consultation and communication, ruled by friendship, reason, equality and plurality (Arendt 1998) and, simultaneously, “combines both attitudes in the ability to symbolize verbally and generalize logically” (Bookchin 1992, 37). In all other commonwealths we have strict hierarchical obedience, “intrigues, group rivalries, machinations, open competitions, complicated games to obtain power” (Castoriadis 2007, 105). But with the decline of the Greek city-states the spirit of autonomy disappears and comes into being again (in different forms) in the newly founded societies of the medieval communes, later on during the American Revolution in the Town Hall meetings and the local assemblies of the Paris Commune. Again we see that the labor movement, being the genealogical offspring of the late Enlightenment era – where interest for the Greek antiquity reached its highest level (Castoriadis 2007, 49) – operated according to the traditional principles of direct democracy in workers’ councils (before becoming entirely subdued by philistine Leninism). It can, thereafter, be acknowledged as a historical milestone for the partial re-emergence of autonomy, as it successfully achieved to call into question social inequality and brutal exploitation through deliberate actions of direct participation and engagement in the struggle against the arbitrary powers of the dominant bourgeoisie.
At the same time, autonomy sees the political prattein as a form of self-institutioning that acquires ‘logical sense’; human beings are able to understand that norms, values and principles are not acknowledged as a totally rigid system, legitimized by an extrasocial source , beyond our control – which is characteristic of the heteronomous order – but instead (they) derive from our own collective action (Castoriadis 2007, 108; 1997, 18). For an autonomous community, institutioning is explicit; no metaphysical abstractions or predestined assumptions (such as laws of history, of our ancestors, of God or abstractions regarding human nature) interfere in the whole process of decision-making while all its members are aware of this fact. This is what most of the movements of the past century (those that had incarnated the autonomous traditions) achieved; to partially reject the pre-determined imaginary institution of societies: the anarchist philosophy, for instance, and (partially at least) the non-Stalinist socialists have always been critical of the – deeply rooted in the occidental political imaginary – Hobbesian essentialist paradigm, according to which man is by nature a greedy and power-thirsty animal. Since for Hobbes (2006, 95) all human beings are born with a fundamental passion for unlimited glory and domination, they are incapable of self-governance. Thus, they can find salvation only if they exchange their natural liberties with security through the strict and unquestionable obedience to an authoritarian state (Neocleous 2006), to the Sovereign, id est a common coercive Power that keeps them in awe, contracts them, transcends the dog-eat-dog world of the state of nature and directs their actions to the Common Benefit (Hobbes 2006, 95; Hargreaves Heap & Varoufakis 2004, 34).
The anarchist and socialist philosophy, having incarnated the most emancipatory elements of the occidental political thought (in fact, autonomy and anarchism are organically connected) has radically challenged this de jure naturae illogical determinism – the conflict model as called by Newman (2007) – that for centuries was penetrating our political traditions, by relying on the quasi-Rousseauian harmony model, supporting that greed and unlimited desire for exploitation are not innate characteristics but elements cultivated in the human mind by the state and religious powers (Newman 2007), or any similar hierarchical, institutionalized entity (Kropotkin 1989). Instead of unquestionable subordination to the Sovereign who supposedly guarantees protection from the state of war (that is the ultimate state of enmity and destruction caused by the inborn – in all human beings – spitefulness), anarchists brought forward ideas of social solidarity, brotherhood/sisterhood and reciprocity, values that all men should follow in order to achieve a peaceful communal life (in fact, this is a quasi-modern translation of the Aristotelian concept of friendship) emphasizing, at the same time, on the feasibility of social transformation towards a non-hierarchical model of direct democracy and self-governance – thanks to their influences from the Greek antiquity (Bakunin 1970, 43-44 and 65; Marshall 1993, 66-73 and 604). In fact, the most crucial revolutionary moments (particularly the Spanish Revolution and the Parisian Commune) that percolated generations of anti-establishment thinkers and nourished hopes for further struggles, owe a lot to the anarchist antiauthoritarian horizontalistic principles and practices (Bookchin 1994), to the encouragement for direct questioning of the, ostensibly common sensical, idea of the necessity for a strong and coercive bureaucratic central power.
It is, certainly, not a coincidence that Spain and Greece – two countries with strong antiauthoritarian, anarchist and libertarian backgrounds – are among the few that resisted fearlessly the austerity measures imposed by the ultra-centralist European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank, the only two countries where Left-wing anti-austerity parties rose to popularity; in the latter the Coalition of Radical Left – SYRIZA – won the elections of the 25th of February, 2015, sending shock waves to Brussels, while in the former, the Left-wing populist party of PODEMOS – emerged from the aftermath of the horizontal Indignados movement against inequality and corruption (2011) – tops the polls. Although such parties are bureaucratic mechanisms, and in fact, ideologically at least, have not much to do with horizontalism, they are considered part of these anti-austerity, antiauthoritarian and anti-establishment movements emerging from the matrix of the anarchist explosion in Greece during the December of 2008 (SYRIZA’s stance on the revolt is highly remarkable, being the only party reluctant to condemn anti-police violence). Moreover, many convergences can be found between the two spaces, such as internationalism, rejection of the Leviathan state, opposition to authoritarianism and right-wing caesarism (also, it is very common for Greek anarchists to vote for SYRIZA, despite that the anarchist philosophy rejects voting and representation, exactly as the project of direct democracy and autonomy). On the contrary, in the majority of northern European states authoritarian far-right parties triumphed in the recent European elections (Theodosiadis 2014). This particular resistance is a product of the December rebellion – where, again, we see autonomy emerging from the margins – with the antiauthoritarian space ‘leading’ the unrest and calling the masses to challenge capitalism and the state without hesitation.
Summarizing: I mentioned in the beginning that the December revolt should not be approached as a temporary explosion (which is what most of the mainstream media did). This very popular estimation is rather uncritical and superficial in many aspects. We cannot ignore remarkable self-organization initiatives – as we have seen in other rebellions, during the first years of the Spanish Revolution (Marshall 1993, 462; Bookchin 1994), initiatives like occupations of universities, public assemblies that allow participants through open discussions to take upon themselves the running of their society/community spreading in small villages, neighborhoods and squares that have never experienced such manifestations before (Gavriilides 2010; Kaplanis 2011, 233; Boukalas 2011, 323; Sotiris 2011). Such direct public actions on streets, markets, theaters, and media, in conjunction with occupations and self-managed green spaces constitute forms of authentic democratic actions that Greece had not seen for decades. In fact, the December revolt achieved to despise the current imaginary representations, such as excessive privitization of human life, careerism, hedonistic consumerism – according to Arendt (1998, 112-113), hedonism represents “the most radical form of non-political, totally private way of life” – significations that are constantly acknowledged as given once and for all by the vast majority of the depersonalized western societies (and this, in fact, highlights their internalized heteronomy). From this it follows that such cracks on the imaginary of idealization of private happiness – as the only form of human fulfillment, through collective engagement in the public arena – constitute the actual substance of a populist movement that calls itself autonomous or democratic, as long as they imply: a) assessing and questioning of an existing institutionalized order tout court and, b) direct and common involvement in the shaping of a new reality. On this issue I will further elucidate in the next section.
2.2 The December Revolt as a Democratic Movement
For Della Porta and Diani (2006, 23), a social movement refers to the expression of a conflict between two camps, the power-holders and their opponents (indeed this definition seems plausible). This particular discourse of antagonism between the two diametrically oppositional camps constitutes also the most concrete definition of populism. But to put into a more concrete and conceptual context (by following the Castoriadian perspective) conflict or antagonism does not necessarily denote physical confrontation or even sterile ideological collision. On the contrary, it implies rupture with the given institutionalized social imaginary representations, and additionally, proposition of new sets of ideas, values and modes of living and being. But as aforementioned, in an autonomous community, self-institution is immediate and direct, inasmuch as everyone can understand that laws are created by those who are, simultaneously, responsible for them, and at any time can ask themselves “why this law rather than another one?” (Castoriadis 1997, 18). Consequently, democratic conflict (or as I call it differently post-populist acknowledgement) exists when those who participate in the movement (usually the underrepresented, the underdogs, the excluded) pose a similar question to themselves (“why this established institutionalized order rather than another one?”) providing at the same time radical counter-proposals, as expressed by the genuine revolutionary moments (and movements) of the past centuries where the project of autonomy was reborn and allowed through direct participation – within the emerged public realm – to take place, and hence the participants to conflict with the defenders of the previous established order. Similarly during the December revolt the desperate Greek youth conflicted with the whole logic of paupera vita (characterised by rampant philistinism and sometimes glorification of reactionary anti-intellectualism), with the hypostatisation on the imaginary of personal development, with the culture of isolationism and cynical individualism, the so-called social war, that is “the elimination of any social relationships outside domination” (Boukalas 2011, 307) – or in my own stand-point, the liquidation of the public sphere and de-prioritization of every human relationship that does not aim to financial profit or spectacle – proposing openness, brotherhood/sisterhood and social solidarity. In addition, it acted as a form of self-assessment for the entire progressive Greek movement (as the famous slogan written on a wall says; “the December revolt was a question”). In fact, it achieved to call into question all the previous forms of protesting that emerged in Greece over the last ten years (Boukalas 2011, 308), signifying at the same time the beginning of a new era of social and political contestation inside fighting Greek society.
In fact, if revolution involves overthrowing traditional sources of allegiance within a group as Hargreaves Heap and Varoufakis (2004, 197) said, then this particular event primarily achieved to question such sources (the puritanical mores, the work ethic, blind careerism and consumerist hedonism), reinforcing and awakening of the fully human spirit of openness, friendship, joyfulness, companionship, consultation, communication and creativity – seen through big demonstrations ending up in street dance or outdoors theatrical performances, music concerts or film screenings and documentaries in the squares – elements that enhance the possibilities for the transformation of modern human beings from lonely and privatized individuals to political animals par excellence. As Kouki (2011, 169) points out, “by living an egalitarian moment, we changed in one night the terms of inclusion and exclusion. We were transformed from invisible solitary figures rambling around in our urban misery into political subjects who managed to challenge […] the situation itself”. For this reason the December revolt met the sympathy and support of millions of young people abroad (whose desire for a social and political change is constantly ignored by the negativism of the older generations). The image of mass protesting quickly became an objet petit a for those who see their future surrendered to the never-ending social war; it was the fully human spirit of togetherness, the desire to abandon the soul-destructive culture of social and individual alienation and the silentness of the private sphere that led the French and Spanish students to outbreak and imitate the thousands of Greek teenagers. Precisely, this international appeal of revolt is another element that highlights the magnitude of its importance. This issue I will discuss in the next (and final) chapter.
3. The final outcome
From the theoretical analysis I just conducted, it follows that autonomy stands in opposition to violence and force. Therefore I come to stress that the actual meaning of the December events is non-violence rather than blind aggression. When the public realm (that is the realm of proper democracy, the realm where autonomy finds its radical expression) emerges as a result of a purposeful and spontaneous collective action, the fundamental means of engagement for all participants is logos, the meeting point which unites action and thought, friendship and equality instead of blind obedience and subordination to an omnipotent state (as aforementioned). In the same realm, brute force and sheer violence – which are by nature mute – are marginal phenomena (Arendt 1998, 26; 1990, 19). This certain understanding of politics, as a process of public consultation that also involves common appearance and deliberate action is reflected in Rousseau’s idea of democracy, which is not confined with personal or fractional interests, but on the contrary becomes a process that combines popular sovereignty with wisdom (Gourevitch 2014, xxv); democracy changed people’s preferences; “people were socialised, if you like, and democracy helped to create a new human being, more tolerant, less selfish, better educated and capable of cherishing the new values of the era of Enlightenment” (Hargreaves Heap & Varoufakis 2004, 197). This particular ‘socialization’ – which results to the creation of a new type of being – is for Arendt the principal foundation of the Athenean democracy – “for man, to the extent that he is a political being, is endowed with the power of speech instead” (Arendt 1990, 19) – since it cultivates and fosters the possibilities and the conditions for men to become political animals, to abandon the allegiance of the private realm and join the public sphere. This process, as I have explained, is the most characteristic phenomenon of all democratic revolutions and events. Thus, all the narratives that attempt to dismiss the December revolt beforehand as a series of widespread vandalism caused by the rule of angry mobs and ‘parasite’ fringe groups (ignoring the thousands of initiatives for public assemblies in schools, theaters and other places), overshadow this message. In other words, what has been neglected (and what is stubbornly overseen) are the following two crucial parameters:
- that freedom can only exist as long as happiness becomes associated with the public sphere, which presupposes resistance to all the forces of social war that destroy commonality through the imprisonment of individuals to their private realm;
- that aggression and chaotic street fighting – which indeed does not characterize the entire event – has nothing to do with a supposedly deeply rooted in the modern Greek lifestyle attitude of social infantilism, or with the gradual development of a subculture of lawlessness that “Greece’s political, cultural, and intellectual leadership has been unwilling to act against” as the conservative author Stathis Kalyvas (2011) stressed. It neither denotes that “the Left will commit violent criminality if they feel like it”, as a commentator in Douzinas’ article (2009) on Guardian “What we can learn from the Greek riots?” supports. In fact, the barricades erected in the Greek streets, the thousands of Molotov cocktails thrown against the police by angry youths is not the result of inadequate policing that has allowed anarchists “to flourish in Exarchia, which has become a haven for drug-dealers and racketeers” as a reactionary article in the Economist (2008) claims (where, again, most of the public responses in the comment-section seem to be profoundly negative; “stop protesting and get to work” or “grow up and get mature”), and certainly has very little in common with the unrests in the Parisian suburbs with which the French press was trying to associate as Elodie, a Greek-French anarchist who resides in Paris says. All the cases of arson attacks and direct clashing with one of the most hated police forces of Europe cannot be approached according to penal terms, as it is obvious that the majority of those who embraced such actions did not invest in violence for violence’s sake. Whilst the mob “hates society from which it is excluded” (Arendt 1976, 107) striving for extra-parlimentary action (Arendt 1976, 108), during the Greek revolt, the majority of the protesters that attacked government buildings and big corporate stores (let alone the majority who instead of damaging police vans became engaged in collective political action, setting up public assemblies) were ordinary men and women, integral parts of Greek society, where they had put all their efforts, conforming with its ideals and big promises for personal success, but instead received nothing in return.
It is undeniable that during these events a number of declasses invested in looting and destruction of small shops but, as Filipidis (2011, 61) stresses, “during these days we witnessed an unprecedented operation to exclude these phenomena of urban violence from the political sphere of the metropolis”. Therefore, we see that the Greek rioters instead of proposing destruction of their society (which is what the mobs crave for) fought for ‘more society’, since they claimed more togetherness and solidarity. In fact, property destruction and clashes with the police happened outside the body politic, and this is what practically differentiates this historical moment from other uprisings, like the London (2011) and Paris (2005) unrests, where the rioters instead of pushing forward some political agenda confined their indignation to apolitical activities. But even the latter cases cannot be comprehended outside of the concept of social war; once the forces that destroy sociability and togetherness (that is, the forces of egocentric individualistic ideals of private consumerism) have eroded all forms of public life, then follows the deprivation of human contact and communication, where consultation and logos (among the most par excellence political elements of the public realm) eclipse, and instead brute force remains the sole method of resolving differences. Indeed, only words (and not force) have the capacity to create a contextual and meaningful proposition for humanity, only speech and hearing procreates a proper political project. Violence, on the other hand, lies as a sterile stamp on a specific historical moment. And here we see why the December revolt left a legacy for the future generations, in contrast with many other riots we have witnessed across Europe (as those of London, Paris and Malmo) which in comparison with the former are nothing but moments where racial tension and exclusion reached the point of temporary inflammation.
The December revolt was, indeed, a truly radical expression aimed at the regeneration of man through collective action, through friendship and common appearance, being reborn within a society that has been previously fragmented and surrendered to insignificance. It is the only message that speaks to the hearts of those who refuse to follow the banality of mass conformity, a message that echoed beyond the Greek border and quickly found listening ears to a significant amount of dissatisfied young people abroad, especially in the sensitive zone of the European South. Thus, in Vienna, approximately 1200 demonstrators gathered at the Greek embassy to show their solidarity, whilst in Copenhagen 63 people were arrested when they protested in support of the Greek rioters. Additionally, in Sweden, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, Argentina, Turkey, Britain, Denmark, Russia, Cyprus and the United States, similar solidarity protests took place. In Germany a group of demonstrators occupied the Greek consulate in Berlin (Theodosiadis 2013, 25) and finally, in France Nicolas Sarkozy postponed the law for the controversial educational reform in high schools under the fear of mass protests after a week of student demonstrations – where also one could hear protesters chanting anti-police slogans in Greek, such as “μπάτσοι, γουρούνια, δολοφόνοι, en: batsoi, gourounia, dolofonoi” (cops, pigs, assassins) in front of heavily armed riot squads, as Elodie (2014) explains. Sarkozy clearly feared that reactions could escalate into violence like those seen in Greece (Andreas Kalyvas 2010, 355; Metropolitan Sirens 2011, 145), saying that “we don’t want a European May ’68 in the middle of Christmas” (quoted by Boukalas 2011, 310). “Look what is going on in Greece,” he remarked in the French Parliament. “What we saw in Greece is not beyond what could happen here in France,” warned former socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius […] “When you have the economic depression and social despair we’re facing, all it takes is a spark.”” (Andreas Kalyvas 2010, 355).
Spain particularly is of crucial significance (a country that lately has become Greece’s main follower). Eleven demonstrators were arrested and several policemen injured in clashes in Madrid and Barcelona, while police stations and banks were attacked by Spanish youths (Andreas Kalyvas 2010, 355; Theodosiadis 2013, 25). But there is something more than that. When I spoke to Carlos, a Spanish anarchist in London, he explained that the anti-austerity horizontal political movement of 15M on May (2011), which during the spring/summer of 2011 flooded the Spanish squares, was indeed the continuance of the Greek revolt. Another person (Christina), a Greek anarchist who was living in Seville during these days, explained how activists from the 15M draw inspiration on the one hand from the Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square and on the other by the Greek protests, calling the public to occupy Spain’s main squares, proposing solutions to the economic and political problems of Europe through grassroots direct democracy of people’s assemblies and consensus decision making, following the example of self-organized initiatives in Athens. The admiration and glorification of the Spanish activists (anarchists, Leftists and trade unionists) for the Greek youth was being reflected in their political texts, speeches and private conversations, as Christina says (2014). The Syntagma Square movement in Greece (which follows a few weeks after the outbreak of 15M in Spain), the culmination of the Greek anti-austerity resistance, was indeed a copycat from the Spanish example whose traces can be found in the December revolt, that shaped a new political map in Greece, by giving platform to the Left populist rhetoric, represented officially by SYRIZA. In fact, the condemnation of the policies of the Troika (ECB, IMF and the EU) implemented by the government of PASOK (which succeeded New Democracy in the elections of 2009) in conjunction with the strong anti-fascist and Left-leaning libertarian populist rhetoric of the squares, became entirely embraced by SYRIZA’s political umbrella. This resulted in the gradual dwarfing of PASOK and the rapid increase of the latter, which during the 2012 elections came second. The continuation, nonetheless, of the same austerity program from New Democracy (which came back to power on June 2012, having also absorbed half of LAOS’s MPs) which exhausted the Greek society, sent even more voters to SYRIZA during the 2015 elections.
Therefore, it would be more accurate to stress that it was the December rebellion that was the most meaningful shock wave sent from Greece to Europe, rather than the victory of SYRIZA itself. As Nikos Karachalias explains in the documentary “Alexis Grigoropoulos: The chronicle of a pre-announced murder“ (45:00, 2010), the “Europeans at that time were afraid, and they were afraid because they saw the substratum of the crisis – unemployment, lack of sensitivity by all governments [I would also add; cynicism, isolation, and human privitization] – can function as a multiplier of this incident”. Indeed, a few months after the revolt, the pre-election speeches of many even conservative center-right leaders of Europe, such as Angela Merkel in Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy in France, was substantially accompanied by a soft Left-leaning rhetoric. In fact, it would not sound as an exaggeration to assume that Greece’s recent racist treatment from the entire conservative European Press (such as the famous and commonly accepted stereotype of the ”lazy Greek”) followed by the beginning of the Eurozone crisis is, more or less, the result of a revengeful backlash in order to stigmatize and discredit this particular revolutionary spirit, which during these days became the spark of ignition for the entire European continent and led to the success of SYRIZA (and the potential future victory of PODEMOS). But to be fair, none of the current anti-austerity and antiauthoritarian populist movements that take place in Europe – movements that either operate horizontally or criticize the so called ‘democratic deficit’ but at the same time do not reject the usage of parliamentary institutions in order bring forward positive changes – could flourish without having incarnated the actual spirit of rupture, friendship and selflessness accompanied with the unchallenged passion for creativity and reciprocity, through public gatherings and assemblies (in front of the Parliament, as well as in neighborhoods and districts), since all these elements are diametrically opposed to the philosophy of neoliberalism (currently represented by the dominant center-right European blocks), which sees consumerism and private ‘happiness’ as the ultimate goal for all human beings, and which was tout court rejected by the Greek youth. This spirit – as we have seen – was the most significant element of the December rebellion, and at the same time the most important characteristic of the greatest historical moments where the project of autonomy emerged, when human beings despised institutionalized oppression whether this is called absolutism, fascism, Stalinism or liberal pseudo-democracy.
Hitherto, three crucial events that could be considered as milestones in the history of post-2000 Greece are identified. The first is the December revolt (2008), the second the Square Movement (2011) – where we witness the reemergence of radical imagination in everyday life – and finally the historic victory of SYRIZA. But it is the former that symbolizes the real resurgence of radical political action in daily life, without the need to lay emphasis on the superfluousness of violence. Indeed, the December rebellion managed to touch a large part of Greek society (unlike the riots of London and Paris, which instead of receiving public support, became immediately a subject of condemnation); for the first time anarchist ideas found wide acceptance from desperate youngsters who rejected the imaginary of passive individualism and self-indulgence. In fact, as Gavriilides (2010) says, a large part of the Greek youth expressed its anguish not against the risk of being denied the consumerist lifestyle but, on the contrary, of becoming its blind follower, claiming that this particular mode of living should cease being acknowledged as meaningful and worthy for anyone to sacrifice his/her vital energy investing in its ideals.
Whether the revival of this spirit will be buried under the climate of social catastrophe that Greece is currently going through, or will become entirely ‘consumed’ by SYRIZA, those are indeed a very important questions, although difficult to address. In fact, the existence of SYRIZA itself – whose role and efforts, nonetheless, are indeed important for the restoration of popular sovereignty in Greece (despite that, as a political force, does not challenge parliamentarism) – poses a series of questions regarding the emergence of direct democracy as a project, which stands in opposition to representation, as Rousseau (2014, 114) explains in The Social Contract (I should not avoid mentioning that during the Square Movement many collectives questioned SYRIZA’s attitude of hijacking the assemblies, and this denotes the antithetical nature of parliamentarism with autonomy). However, as it is obvious SYRIZA enjoys significant popular support and it’s ideological orientation does not seem to be rigid or dogmatic. Thus, the concept of double power could easily apply for the case of Greece as a temporary solution. This project addresses the existence of two powers – a functional government in parliament, on one hand, acting on behalf of the people it represents, but on the other the assemblies where most of the decisions are made directly by the participants – and, in fact, no real antagonism takes place between these entities. This, in fact, could be an interesting development for Greece, provided that SYRIZA does not compromise with the neoliberal forces, neither allows itself to become another degenerated Left party. But whatever happens in the near future, whatever the outcome, we should know that there are plenty of historical and sociological researches confirming that a defeat of a spontaneous social movement, as Graeber (2012) says, may quickly turn into a victory; the return to ‘normality’, which signifies the withdrawal from the public realm, followed by the ‘mythologization’ and idealization of the movement’s cause, of its aspirations and meaningful content, gradually results in a wider transformation of attitudes and social perceptions. In fact, a “tactical defeat is almost randomly related to strategic victory” says Graeber (2012) again, by using the French Revolution as a case study; “the world revolution of 1848, which didn’t achieve tactical victory anywhere, but radically transformed the way governments operated in Europe.” Indeed, the consequences and results of such major political events can be noticed in the long run, as Auguste Blanqui, an imprisoned communard, would argue. In the words of Castoriadis (who discusses the events of May of 68) “It does not really matter if [a movement] fails; its ideas and orientations that have already been expressed will always be here to stay” (quoted by Oikonomou 2013, 62). This is, precisely, the most significant aspect of the Greek revolt, which although has failed to implement direct democracy and, instead, (hitherto at least) contributed only to a better government taking power, its spirit will remain alive, no matter what within the next few months will happen (if SYRIZA will succeed, or Golden Dawn will increase its support, etc.).
In fact, seven years after the rebellion and four years after the Spanish and Greek squares were flooded by millions, a gradual change in public consciousness is visible. Such a change affected not only Greece and Spain but also the whole periphery of Eurozone which is being strangled by the neoliberal austerity policies; the victory of Syriza, the rise of PODEMOS (which could probably be Spain’s next ruling party) and of course the Irish Sinn Fein which, during the past few years, has tripled its electorate support (with chances to become first in the next national elections), those events denote that the idea of a radical social change is currently discussed in the south and peripheral Europe, although such an idea is literally confined within a narrow area of issues (most likely on economic matters, like cancellation of sovereign debt, the welfare state and unemployment reduction). In addition, we should clearly have in mind that democratic movements must not aim for institutional reforms supporting representative bodies (like political parties). As Castoriadis (1998, 31) puts it, genuine politics, that is autonomy par excellence, “is not a struggle for power within given institutions, not is it simply a struggle for the transformation of institutions called ‘political’, or of certain institutions or even of all institutions. Henceforth politics is the struggle for the […] instauration of a state of affairs in which man (sic) as a social being is able and willing to regard the institutions that rule his life as his own collective creations, and hence is able and willing to transform them each time he has the need or desire”. Therefore, it is a spontaneous populist mobilization what achieves such a positive transformation. The world of equality, justice and freedom (the world of real democracy) can emerge through emancipatory imperatives that do not seek ephemeral solutions to such monstrous problems. This is what, precisely, the December rebellion – being an integral part of the emancipatory movements for social justice (where the project of autonomy emerges through grassroots direct action and participation), movements and initiatives that accomplished to largely extend political and social rights in the 20th century (Bottomore 1992, 56) – remind us: in this age of political regression that transforms societies into a crowd of isolated, atomized, de-personalized and de-politicized individuals, we must refuse to accept the given social institutionalized order as rigid once and for all and overcome our fear for the unknown through engaging ourselves in collective action. This is the challenge of the modern world, not to allow democracy to become a forgotten word in dictionary books.
Michail Theodosiadis was born in Greece, and is a founding editor of the online magazine ResPublica.Gr. He studied Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University of London, while completing his MSc in Social and Political Theory (Birkbeck University) in 2013. He is currently working on a PhD thesis in Politics and International Relations (Goldsmiths University of London).
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