Greece: Civil war, but not as you know it

As the economic situation in Greece worsens, so too does its political climate.

Andreas Loverdos
Loverdos is a minister for so-called Social Solidarity - hardly what one would expect from his issuing of compulsory health certificates for all migrants, says the author [AP]

London, United Kingdom – On April 1, 2012 two ministers of the Greek coalition government held a joint press conference: Michalis Chrisochoidis, minister for Citizen Protection (administering the police) and Andreas Loverdos, minister for Health and Social Solidarity, called for an immediate addressing of the issue of undocumented migration in the country. The migrants’ presence had turned, in their words, the centre of Athens into a “hygienic bomb”. The two announced a series of measures including the compulsory issuing of a health certificate for all migrants entering and residing in Greece. Days earlier Chrisochoidis had again announced, on behalf of the coalition government, an ambitious plan to create thirty so-called “closed hospitality centres”: former military bases converted in detention facilities for undocumented migrants who were to be arrested en mass before facing deportation.

The series of announcements came a few weeks ahead of the national elections of May 6, 2012 and, remarkably enough, only days after the publication of an interview by French cultural theorist and urbanist Paul Virilio – titled The Administration of Fear– in which he identified the establishment of a “dual health and security ideology” by Western states unable to any longer offer their citizens the prerogatives of the welfare state, replacing these with a claim that they can cater for their safety instead.

Is that so? Think of the Greek case for a moment. A country experiencing some of the most staggering effects of the recent global financial crisis, anticipating – on May 6 – the first elections since its outburst. You would believe this crisis and its effects on the livelihoods of the population, or the modes of political representation, would take centre stage (Greece is currently governed by a coalition government under Lucas Papademos, an economist and caretaker Prime Minister). The  effects of the crisis had indeed been central in public discourse previous to the announcement of elections, which is when the above anti-migrant shift occurred. It would be easy enough, then, to attribute this rhetorical shift to an attempt to lure an electorate body – an electorate body which, in face of a rapid deterioration of its living standards, seems to have partially taken a disquieted turn. In Virilio’s reasoning, there might be little to offer them other than a promise of security.

But mainstream discourse in Greece seems to be spiralling beyond xenophobia. Soon after the above press conference, Antonis Samaras, leader of the conservative government partner of New Democracy (Nea Demokratia) and touted as the next prime minister, was quick to chime in – and to overbid, even: “our cities have been occupied by illegal migrants”, he declared. “We will reoccupy them.” Such martial tone in leading politicians’ denunciations could appear peculiar at first sight. A country that is still a full member of the European Union, still enjoying one of the longest peacetime periods in its otherwise turbulent recent history, sees politicians use a language of war. Yet still, this language is used only when it comes to external enemies. For domestic matters, the economy, political representation, discourse has changed little, if at all – even though Greek society has seen some of the most dramatic changes ever recorded in the country’s peacetime history.

The hidden casualties of economic restructuring

Just short of two years after the Greek government signed its first memorandum of understanding with the so-called “troika” (IMF/EU/ECB), the radical restructuring programme accompanying it has had some cataclysmic effects. In April 2010, the month before the signing of the first memorandum, the official unemployment figure stood at 11.7 per cent. Less than two years later (Jan 2012) that figure had risen to 21.8 per cent. In the same month, the National Statistical Service (ELSTAT) reported that youth unemployment had for the first time tipped over half of the entire population group (age 15 to 24). At 50.8 per cent, the figure had more than doubled in three years. And these numbers fail to portray a much wider landscape of informal/part-time employment, wild precarity, a rapid decrease in wages and pension payments (the national minimum wage was decreased by approximately 20 per cent alone). This condition is complimented by a spectacular increase in state taxation (numerous new taxes along with sharp increases in existing ones) and – rather unsurprisingly, then – a major wave of emigration that has so far been largely undocumented in official statistics, in part due to the unrestricted migration allowed to citizens of Schengen countries within the entire area. Last but of course not least, Greece has seen the highest rate of year-to-year suicide increase in the EU.

Think of words like famine, mass emigration, “humanitarian crisis” (reported in Athens by the UN Regional Information Centre and several NGOs) and cities that are “occupied” – and you would be excused to believe they are used to describe a war zone of some kind. For many of those experiencing the shifting economic, social and political conditions on the ground, this already feels very much so. The death note of  Dimitris Christoulas, the 77-year old pensioner who publicly committed suicide in Athens’ Syntagma square, seeped through some immense anger: “if a fellow Greek was to grab a Kalashnikov,” wrote Christoulas, “I would be the second after him.”

 Greek unrest over pensioner suicide

Uncivil reality and an unspoken, civil war

Christoulas’ suicide was sympathetically and widely reported in national media, momentarily breaking through a veil of silence covering the wave of suicides that was to be laid again only days later when Savas Metoikidis, a 45-year old teacher, also ended his life as an act of political protest. Yet still, what largely went unreported in Christoulas’ case was that his suicide note called for an armed uprising, for “young people with no future to… take up arms and hang this country’s traitors.” The disparity between the note Christoulas left behind and national media coverage widely “condemning” the skirmishes that followed his death and funeral as violent is exemplary of an official discourse that has largely obfuscated the root causes of the crisis, soothing the description of its effects and projecting, finally, a language of war on “outsiders” instead – these “outsiders” ranging from foreign centres of power (Germany, the EU) all the way to undocumented migrants. Barely surprisingly, then, the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn has found itself being shifted from the social and political margins to the space in the centre of public discourse, by now standing a more than tangible chance of entering the next parliament.

But the case of Golden Dawn is typical of another peculiar, wider condition. For all its obvious connections to neo-Nazi ideology and activities, the group denies this label – opting for the ostensibly milder “nationalist movement” instead. The Golden Dawn are so-called nationalists. Chrisochoidis is a minister for so-called Citizen Protection (a euphemism for the administering of the Greek police, whose human rights abuse record is becoming notorious). Loverdos is a minister for so-called Social Solidarity (perhaps hardly what one would expect from his issuing of compulsory health certificates for all migrants). The unprecedented restructuring of the country’s political economic and social life is articulated through little beyond a series of so-called memorandums of agreement and the need to abide to them: in all, even if the condition of everyday life in Greece is ever-increasingly akin to that of wartime this war still resembles little of the armed conflicts in the country’s recent past. If this is a war, it is a civil, not a Civil one: a war in which the ferocious condition that an ever-increasing proportion of the population is faced with is articulated in a remarkably subdued, civil tone.

With an ever-increasing disparity between events on the ground and their articulation it was only a matter of time before the plexus of power would have to declare a war in some direction, as a tried and tested means to keep hold of its legitimisation. In this sense, it is barely surprising to see this is war now being waged against the weakest, with xenophobic discourse running rife and Nazi followers gaining a foothold in mainstream political representation. And yet for many, the introduction of martial undertones in this official discourse finally reveals – even if skewed – a previously undeclared war that has been raging domestically and on the ground. This had so far been a war of no words; in recent days and weeks, it has become a war of false words. What becomes a pivotal question then is if and when Greece’s combatant condition will be articulated coherently; whether and when this veil of civility over a society largely at war will finally be lifted.

Antonis Vradis is a doctoral candidate at LSE, co-editor of the book Revolt and Crisis in Greece [AK Press, 2011], member of the Occupied London collective and Alternatives Editor of CITY.