Greece at the global forefront

The elections in Greece are a dramatic articulation of the essential contradiction between democracy and capitalism

The Greek Parliament is seen empty prior to the beginning of the parliament plenum in Athens
Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party, will likely clear the 3 per cent of the vote it needs to gain seats in Parliament [EPA]

New York, NY – On May 6, 2012, the people of Greece are called upon to conduct the most important national elections in their recent history. The gravity of the occasion is not due to the projected outcome, because all projections are at this point no more than gambling odds. Paradoxically, the importance is due to the thorough discrediting of the established party system of the last 40 years: the alternating rule of one nominally right-liberal (New Democracy) and the other nominally socialist (PASOK), who have fully coincided in a mutually reinforcing neoliberal trajectory against the meagre and rather ceremonial opposition of small parties on the Left.

These two political parties are both guilty of partying it up while in power, presiding over the extravagant feast of reckless policies that led to the state’s bankruptcy, as well as the enslaving agreements with the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund that shifted the burden of the state’s bankruptcy onto every Greek household. As a result, the majority of the Greek electorate justifiably perceives the leaders and ranks of both so-called leading parties to consist of ruthless highway robbers who, in dutiful servitude to international robber barons, have sold out the country like the most despicable of traitors.

During the height of mass demonstrations and the assembly movement in the summer of 2011, this sense of disaffection in the general public targeted the entire ranks of Parliament regardless of party affiliation or personal record. Hence, the ubiquitous chants at the time of “Burn this Brothel of a Parliament” or “Hang All 300” – that is, all three hundred elected Members of Parliament. Subsequent developments that led to the appointment of a non-elected Prime Minister, Loukas Papademos, whose sole qualification for the job was his expert training at the highest ranks of the European Central Bank – exactly like his counterpart Mario Monti in neighbouring Italy – confirmed the population’s disaffection with basic electoral institutions, as the second contract with ECB and IMF, brokered by the Papademos government, brought down even more brutal conditions of impoverishment across the entire terrain of Greek society.

As a result, most polls show that the electorate will seek to punish the two dynastic parties at the ballot box by opting for a cornucopia of smaller parties in both Left and Right. Most certain to gain are the parties of the Left: the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), despite its anachronistic Stalinist dogmatism; the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), which is a rather heterogeneous group of a great range of leftist tendencies; and Democratic Left, which is a splinter group from SYRIZA, with decidedly moderate Left positions.

New right

There is, however, a new formation on the right. A splinter party from New Democracy, Independent Greeks, seems to have gathered enormous momentum, even though its leader, Panos Kammenos (an old New Democracy member), has never been distinguished for any particular political vision or deed. Paradoxically, the third ranking party in the current parliament, Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) – a nationalist party much to the right of New Democracy – is seeing its numbers diminishing no doubt because of the role it played in the negotiations that formed the Papademos government.

In its place, an unprecedented possibility is looming. Bolstered by renegades from LAOS, Golden Dawn, the bona fide neo-Nazi group that as recently as a year ago conducted a pogrom against immigrants in the streets of Athens, seems very likely to clear the 3 per cent that enables a party to be represented in Parliament. By the current system of proportion this means 15 seats. There are also a great number of smaller parties, mostly on the Left, that are seeking representation, though polls show them still under the 3 per cent margin.

As things stand, it is virtually certain that no party will gain the percentage of votes needed to form a majority government. In this case, the only option left is some sort of coalition government that would enable majority control of Parliament. In terms of numbers, the most feasible coalition would emerge from an aggregate of the three parties of the Left.

However, the long term political differences within the Greek Left are as of now insurmountable; antipathies among them are as strong as those against their ideological enemies to the right. There doesn’t seem to be a possibility for a coalition of New Democracy with parties on the right, because both Independent Greeks and LAOS (not to mention Golden Dawn) have explicitly charged them with treason. The ruling PASOK party is headed for a debacle, being fingered as the primary agent of corruption and capitulation. It’s equally unlikely that the shambles of the two dynastic parties will have the requisite numbers to form a coalition government between that would continue to preside over the country’s financial enslavement.

Collapse of credibility

This is a basic description of the electoral field and the projected situation. But what is especially important is the broader social and historical context of these elections. The collapse of credibility in the entire political system underlies the essential paradox of these elections: a bankrupt country, whose population is profoundly disaffected with the political system, gathers to exercise its democratic right to elect officials that are to preside over a national terrain that has effectively lost its sovereignty.

We are witnessing a dramatic articulation of the essential contradiction between democracy and capitalism. More than ever, this is the essential political problem of our times. While the nation-state still remains the requisite form of society’s self-determination, the pillar of integrity of the nation-form since the advent of modernity – namely, national economy – is now thoroughly dismantled by the dynamics of a globalised economy that could care less about national boundaries, cultural particularities, social histories, or even more, societies themselves as self-recognised collectives of real men and women whose very conditions of life are at stake.

This is not meant to be taken metaphorically. The lives of Greeks are literally perishing in order to satisfy ruthless profit margins of global capital. Suicide rates have tripled in the last year, in a country that statistically held the lowest suicide rate in the world. Suicides have now become a daily occurrence, a bona fide social phenomenon in a society that may be characterised in all kinds of ways, but it could never be known for either its violence or its depressive behaviour. Many more than those who choose to take their lives so as not to saddle their families with insurmountable debt are living in borderline hunger conditions, a level of poverty not seen since the Second World War and its aftermath.

Moreover, these conditions have been created with unprecedented speed – a kind of flash impoverishment on a mass scale, which can only happen when all terms of national economy are annihilated and external financial forces wield direct political power over a national terrain. This is why, though Greece still exists on the map of nations under a sovereign flag, it is effectively a country on hold – or under hold, a country whose sovereignty has been mortgaged.

 Despondency and disempowerment in Greece

The social effects of these conditions are devastating. It is often said that the German government has spearheaded this brutal austerity program because it is haunted by its Weimar past: hyperinflation, impoverishment, social capitulation, political malaise, and the rise of Fascism. What seems to have escaped the pundits who trade such clichés is that German policies are producing new Weimars elsewhere in Europe.

Surely, certain aspects of the Greek situation corroborate this fact. The increasing public presence of Golden Dawn is no accident. This neo-Nazi fringe group is exploiting the surge of nationalist sentiment that has emerged as a kind of defensive knee-jerk reaction of a people who suddenly have to endure not only conditions of flash impoverishment but also an onslaught of Orientalist attacks on its character and its history. This is a typical situation, hardly particular to Greeks. Coupled with the collapse of credibility in the entire political system, a resurgent defensive nationalism does render society vulnerable to fascist practices.

Role of the left

This is why the role of the Greek Left is right now more important to the future of Greece than it has been since 1944. The experience of the Greek Civil War (1946-49), the subsequent repression of democratic left tendencies in the 1950s, and the military junta years (1967-74), are still engraved in the Greek political psyche. The majority of Greeks remain passionate about democratic politics; the recent experience of assembly movement and demand for direct democracy (summer 2011) is perfectly indicative of this fact. Hence, the numbers of Golden Dawn, though increased, are not substantial enough yet to influence national politics, and there have been several occasions (especially in Crete) where Golden Dawn campaigns have been forcefully expelled from the premises.

But the nationalist and anti-immigrant discourse is broad and substantial, even if not immediately reducible to fascist tendencies. It is the grave responsibility of the Left, especially SYRIZA (whose swelling numbers may render it a real broker of government formation after the election), to articulate this sentiment of defiance away from a dead-end nationalism and toward greater democratic empowerment. This stands to benefit not just Greeks but the broader demands of European peoples, who find themselves on the brink of similar dismantling of their sovereignty by global capital, which has turned European political leaders to mere stooges.

Any assessment of this situation would have to confront the fact that Greece marks the terrain of a specific experiment: How far can the commands of globalised economy push against a specific society’s endurance or will? From the perspective of global capital, Greece is a low-risk entity if the experiment fails. It is a small economy, rather inconsequential worldwide, hence of limited liability from a strictly economic standpoint.

The political stakes, however, are of unprecedented consequence. As the institutions of the European Union are failing and national sovereignty is waning, the only option for European peoples to protect their future is to mobilise broad and defiant democratic movements that will regain control of the political terrain from global market forces. The experiment cuts both ways, and as rebelling youth all over the globe explicitly articulates, Greece is, right now, at the forefront of this battle.

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