Today saw the start of a two day general strike in Greece. Marches from both Omonia (PAME – the Communist Section of the trade union movement) and from the Archological Museaum (GSEE and ADEDY -the private and pubic sector unions respectively joined by the anarchist blocs and blocs affilitated with Syriza) converged on Sytagma Square. You never quite know what to expect when you join a demonstration in Athens, one moment, people are walking along and chattering in the sunshine, the next coughing and spluttering as they run to escape a sudden volley of teargas, but today was one of the most peaceful and good natured demonstrations that I have seen in my time in Athens.
Between the two assemblies up to 35, 000 people gathered to protest the new austerity measures that are going through the Greek Parliament. The billion worth of cutbacks for 2013-14 include
- a two-year increase in the retirement age, from the current average of 65 to 67,
- salary cuts totalling €1.17 billion
- pension cuts totalling €4.6 billion,
- Healthcare spending cuts of €455 million.
If the measures are approved, the EU will give €31 billion in bailout money to be spent on debt repayment. Should this money not be forthcoming, the Greek government has indicated that it will run out of money on 16th November – in ten days time. At which point they will not have the money to pay state wages. Greece is being held to ransom. These bailouts have no actual benefit for the people of Greece who see their standard of living eroded beyond a point where they can sustain themselves, nor do they ultimately cut the government debt as the effects of austerity cause a contraction which erodes their tax base. Over a quarter of people are unemployed, a figure which rises to over half among 16-25 year olds. These are cuts on top of cuts on top of cuts and people are angry, very angry. They see the high profile tax evaders escape without any consequences, while they are squeezed.
The demo today was largely good natured, it should not be underestimated the strength of feeling against the goverment who many feel is completely illegitimate. There are hopes that MPs belonging to the PASOK party (equivalent of the Labour Party) which is in government coalition with the right-wing New Democracy party may be persuaded to vote against the bailout given the strength of feeling. Already sixteen members of the small Democratic Left party have stated that they will vote against the measures, and five members of PASOK have indicated that they are considering voting against. That leaves only 154 committed to voting in favour, with a 151 majority needed to pass the measures. The vote tomorrow will be close, but is likely to go through.
In recent weeks, a great deal of the news coming out of Greece has been of the rise of Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) and of its collusion with the police. There is no doubt that is indeed the case. Eyewitness reports of the police allowing fascists through their cordons to attack residents, watching as shops are destroyed and local attacked and arresting those who the fascists point out, as well as open boasting from Chysi Avgi MPs of the support they have within the police, and testimony of the anti-fascist protesters beaten in police cells all testify to that, the question is how complicit the mainstream is in the rise of fascism and of the police collusion.
The government here are afraid of the people. They do not govern in their interests, but use them to squeeze revinue from in greater and greater numbers, the social support system of Greece is crumbling as schools and hospitals are unable to function effectively on the meagre resources that they are being given; wage and pension cuts see less and less money in people’s pockets and all the while more and more extreme measures are taken to quell protest. When Merkel arrived in Athens, the police quickly cleared the area with massive amounts of teargas dispensed directly on the crowd, freedom of assembly is a gift of the state these days, not a right.
The fascist threat cannot be considered without a level of acquiescence of the state to this state of affairs. The simplistic narrative, that it is the undesirables like “them” that are ruining Greek society for the likes of “us” is a seductive one. The anger that people hold needs an outlet, and the state seems unchallengable to many people – they have batons and teargas and they are not afraid to use them. If the government can deflect attention away from their own battering of the Greek people and get people talking about the batterings that the fascists are dishing out – if they can distract people from challenging the conditions which are giving rise to the support that the fascists are reportedly receiving.
They are playing with fire, for although the government may regard the fascists as useful idiots who can provide a distraction and give people an alternative target which will allow them to pass unacceptable measures behind their back, they may well find that they have let a genie out of the bottle and there is shoving it back in and at the same time their own efforts to distract the population are wearing thin as more and more people see through the collusion of the fascists and the police, and lay the blame firmly with the government for allowing the police to operate in such a manner.
Tomorrow the vote on the fifth round of austerity measures will be held, Samaras has assured the population – again – that this will be the last time this is necessary. No one believes him, all trust in the governing parties is disappearing, what emerges from this vacuum of trust remains to be seen.