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Stathis Gourgouris
Stathis Gourgouris
Stathis Gourgouris is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Democratic dreams rage in Athens
In an Athenian square, ordinary citizens create a democracy of their own, but face police violence and spiritual fatigue
Last Modified: 21 Jul 2011 08:14

Protesters have camped outside the Greek parliament building since May 25 to protest against austerity measures and a venal government [GALLO/GETTY]

The historical fact that Athens was the birthplace of democracy has been haunting the crowds assembled for nearly two months in the city's Syntagma (Constitution) Square, right across from the House of Parliament, protesting undaunted against the government's incapacity to represent and protect the interests of its own society.

The consistent invocation of Athenian democracy by the crowds is hardly the result of patriotic longing for glorious ancestry. The people are haunted by a historical fact that, though imprisoned in its own myth, has emerged with radical contemporary significance as the last line of defense against the violation of people's basic dignity.

Thus, the question of Athenian democracy is suddenly no longer confined to academic discussions but put to the test in real living conditions. Over several weeks, thousands of people emerging from the anonymity of sprawling urban life have come together to inhabit a public space, day and night, and to organise it around a collective political interrogation.

They have been named "the indignants", after a similar initiative in Spain and the best-selling pamphlet by French Resistance elder Stéphane Hessel, Indignez Vous! (2010), but for many of them indignation has been focused, in unprecedented fashion, on exemplary self-organisation and self-education in the tradition of radical democracy.

In just a matter of days, a whole other city was organised on the footsteps of the old Royal Palace that houses the Parliament, particularly in Syntagma Square proper, or what came to be known as the "lower square".

In the "upper square" directly in the face of Parliament, now guarded by several rows of Praetorian guards in full riot police gear, the assembly of people is like a wave formation and varies in numbers from day to day, depending on what is happening in Parliament. Here, crowds from all walks of life, often without previous activist experience, show up to hurl their anathema at their elected representatives en masse.

The chant structure - the most common cries are the ubiquitous "Thieves!" or "Burn this brothel of a Parliament!" - is not unlike what one hears in football stadiums. The tenet is animated primarily by the desperation of economic weakness which permeates the whole society: the number of suicides of bankrupt middle-aged men, fathers of families, has skyrocketed. Yet, the politics of this totalising ritualistic renunciation remains thoughtless and, although it may accurately express the breadth of indignation all around, it is equally accurate to say that it can never lead to any sort of alternative constituent power.

State within a state

In the "lower square", however, a scene of collective self-organisation has been established: a first-aid station under a tent and a proper hospital in the entrance of Syntagma metro station; a media centre operating the website http://www.real-democracy.gr/, in addition to voluminous other press work; a radio station, also streaming on the web; a neighbourhood organisation centre that coordinates similar activity in various parts of the city; a translation centre for non-Greek visitors, activists, and foreign correspondents; full-functioning stations for daily needs (kitchen, bathrooms); a performing arts centre; a central organisation table that handles the day-to-day requests of individual people for the agenda to be discussed publicly; and a number of designated areas in the square where people sharing a specific concern can gather separately.

All such groupings remain rigorously unaffiliated with any identified political agency or party. All organised parties and official group insignia is banned - a measure that raised objections from various radical leftist groups. A general assembly takes place every evening, where people's turns to speak are governed by lot and only allowed a minute and a half for positions to be developed, while direct public argument between two individuals in exclusive dialogue form is disallowed. These measures, obviously inspired by classical Athens (though by no means mere copies of such ancient modes), serve to guard against demagoguery and monopoly of discussion.

The order, vigour, and freedom with which positions are stated and negotiated publicly is indeed a sight to behold. All proceedings and decisions made in the assembly are posted every morning after the night session on the square's website. Even a cursory look at the history of the discussions (although nothing can match the actual experience of being part of this process day to day) registers the profound commitment of people to question and think together, even while extensive argument is essential.

Democracy now

It's not surprising that the key focus of discussion in the square's general assembly has been the demand for immediate democracy. The term deliberately carries the double reference: the demand for democracy now and the demand for democracy in unmediated fashion. The realisation that the entire political system is incapable - party structure, institutions of parliamentary representation, autonomy of law and justice, etc. - has been spreading across the societal spectrum since the events of December 2008.

Even the electoral process, once a rather festive occasion for public contention dear to every Greek, no longer inspires anyone but the last holdouts of clientelism hoping to get their due reward by some sort of reversal in the governing party in power. Hence, great discussions have been conducted about the problem of representation versus delegation relative to the assembly itself and the general self-organisation of life in the square, including the difficult prospect of more generalised action in the near future.

I repeat that, although this is not an academic discussion, there is no doubt that it engages everyone in a process of self-education in the most distilled political sense of paideia. This process is entirely self-cognisant and articulated explicitly: a new generation of citizens is being formed. The political demands are not a short-term protest against the social and economic strangulation of the Memorandum brokered with IMF and EU banks, allegedly made in order to stall the inevitable bankruptcy of the country.

Instead, the demand at Syntagma is ultimately not economic but political: the radical alteration of Greek political culture. You hear it repeatedly articulated in the assembly: even if in the unlikely chance that the Greek government were to stand up to the totally debilitating terms of the Memorandum (the world's major economists, who are otherwise not in the service of specific institutions, all agree that the Memorandum casts a death sentence on Greek economic life and all but seals the inevitability of the bankruptcy it claims to stall), the people would not vacate their position in Syntagma Square. The goal is to emancipate ourselves from the order of current political institutions.

In issuing and pursuing this demand, the Syntagma movement is exposing the blatant hypocrisy of Europe's political and economic elites, who have relentlessly maligned Greece as the primary culprit for the current economic collapse (though no one needs to be an economist to know that the crisis is systemic in global capitalism as such). No doubt, the last twenty years bear witness to the uncontrolled behaviour of abusive self-interest and disregard for any sort of public responsibility across the spectrum of Greek society.

Politicians, doctors, lawyers, judges, entrepreneurs, real estate developers, and, of course, the ever increasing army of civil service bureaucrats and professional syndicalists seeking and gaining the benefits of a clientelist state, have all been implicated together in a lucrative but utterly careless para-economy, supported since the 1990s by an ever more entrenched undocumented immigrant labour force.

Western media hypocritical

However, to acknowledge this historical fact does not absolve Greece's detractors in European and US media and policy centres of their inaccurate, vulgar, and unabashedly Orientalist pronouncements. Nor does this hide the fact that all such derisive perspectives are propelled by societies and economies that suffer similar phenomena of political corruption and fiscal irresponsibility, societies and economies that could not themselves withstand such austerity measures without totally collapsing.

It is now plain to see that the Memorandum would spur fire-sales of Greek public assets (not just businesses, but also, unacceptably, land), the execution of which signifies the de facto transfer of Greek sovereignty to the very same ruthless speculation apparatus that celebrates the heyday of high finance while driving whole societies to ruin. In this respect, there is nothing unique about the Greek crisis specifically. All such financial crises, arguably starting with the Asian crisis of 1997, were engineered as great profiteering opportunities.

From this standpoint, although Greece is a small economy in global terms, the stakes are high because it endangers the Eurozone itself. Perhaps these high stakes explain the unprecedented violence with which the state has responded to the citizenry's democratically conducted defiance. On three occasions, June 15 and June 28-29, we stood witness to an all-out assault by riot police on unarmed citizens assembled outside Parliament in peaceful protest.

Watching the watchmen

Fortunately, the same advances in technology that states use as policing and surveillance mechanisms against their own people can also be used by the other side, providing exhaustive documentation of unprovoked police brutality and instantly disseminating it worldwide using social media.

Photographs and videos of vicious beatings of unarmed people, the elderly, and doctors; the thrashing of people immobilised on the ground, wounded; images of people running down the metro steps to avoid being assaulted with tear gas or stun-and-flash grenades; the tear-gassing of the makeshift hospital underground in the Syntagma metro station - all were circulated on the internet very shortly after these events took place.

So were scenes of police throwing stones or taunting protesters with vulgar insults, as was a scandalous incident in which police were seen to safeguard hooded hooligan provocateurs, confirming that the Greek police collaborate with fascist youth groups.

When so-called liberal states resort to massive police violence, they testify to their own social and political weakness. (The Greek government's weakness was confirmed by the ease with which it was manipulated by Israeli interests to prevent the new Gaza flotilla from departing Greek shores; the two events took place concurrently.)

In tear-gassing its own citizens, the Greek government made clear two things at once: its desperation at having lost legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens, and its servility to those external forces (the demands of global capital) that increasingly seem to determine its course of action. Subsequent responses by government officials in the face of all this evidence showed an embarrassing incapacity to understand the basic implications of their position.

Worse yet, they issued directives explicitly against the Syntagma movement. However, by all accounts so far, the attempt to dismantle the activist organisation in the square has failed. In current conditions, overt police repression, even if brutal, does not scare away the non-activist masses that occasionally resort to peaceful demonstrations. In this case, the widespread and indiscriminate rage of people out in the streets overcomes their fear, even in potentially life-threatening conditions.

Having said that, the continuing function of democratic life in the square is ultimately threatened by physical exhaustion and spiritual fatigue. Since the last assault, numbers have decreased in the lower square. More worrisome is the laxness (motivated no doubt by the assembly's spirit of inclusiveness) that has allowed the space to become a refuge for vagrant drug addicts, availing themselves of public amenities but incapable of participating in the shaping of public space. Given the government's explicit desire to vacate the square in the name of restoring its tourist profile, this laxness is sure to become a perfect pretext for clean-up operations.

Danger of reactionary strain

The biggest challenge of the "immediate democracy" movement is to fill the vacuum of governmental politics within a context of severe social and political anomie. The rapidly spreading array of incapacitated institutions promotes an ever more thoughtless politics of rage, which is patently anti-democratic and drawn towards reactionary nationalist, even fascist and surely racist, indiscriminate action.

Such thought prevails in the crowds occupying the "upper square", which assemble there, unorganised, in response to particular parliamentary sessions. In that sense, they are literally reactionary. Moreover, the anomie caused by the bankruptcy of Greek political institutions favours the actions of out-and-out provocateurs, whose goal is to bring about law-and-order measures by fanning fears that democracy is inherently instable. This comes as an added obstacle to the perennial problem of all anarchist or autonomy movements: to overcome their own fear of assuming the responsibility of decision, of constituent power.

In order for the experience of the "immediate democracy" movement to bring about conditions of real change in Greek political life, the aversion towards daring to change things even within parliamentary rules, while retaining the pulse of radical interrogation, needs to be overcome.

This issue has been explicitly and self-reflexively posited in the general assembly meetings, but its realisation remains at the moment nebulous, if not doubtful. What is certainly beyond doubt is that a whole generation of Greek youth, the very same ones who conducted the insurrectionary events of December 2008, has been indelibly marked by the Syntagma assembly. And the conjunction of this specific double experience - from the politics of rage and indignation to immediate democracy - will inevitably become a major part of Greece's political culture as the society faces economic and political bankruptcy.

Postscript: In response to the events at Tahrir Square in Cairo, I had written of the rare occasion of radical political change when the people, en masse, withdraw their consent to power. Such a step has not been taken in the Syntagma case, although there is no doubt that the events of Tahrir played a crucial role in the Syntagma formation. So, for that matter, what happened in Athens in December 2008 helped to radicalise youth in various parts of the Arab world.

The recent resurgence of the people's demands for real democracy in Egypt, after what seemed to be a setback to military bureaucratic ways, suggests that the temporality of radical events is never indeed momentary - this is ultimately a Leninist notion, even in Alain Badiou's mind - but rather riveted by multiplicity, interruptibility, heterochronicity, reiteration, and in the end, re-institution.

The most important element of the Syntagma demand for "immediate democracy" is precisely the symbolic explosion of this immediacy as it comes to be mediated by the effect of its own occurrence, much like radiation permeates and displaces the explosion of the bomb. Even while brimming with rage or indignation, even when only what is immediate has retained a modicum of meaning in the precession of an otherwise meaningless life, one must learn to remain patient, persistent, and ever more inventive in one's commitment.

Stathis Gourgouris is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature and Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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