Greece has now endured over five years of ongoing austerity. At the same time, it has dealt with a massive influx of refugees fleeing war and climate change in the Global South. Unemployment is hitting 30% and among youth it is over 60%. An entire generation faces a very uncertain future. Mass protests have been dealt with by brutal crackdowns, and press freedom is limited. The detention centres originally built to house sans papiers awaiting deportation have turned into mass holding camps where both migrants and Greek undesirables are interred in inhumane conditions. At the same time, an openly neo-nazi party, the Golden Dawn is growing, and is now the third most popular political party in Greece. What can Scotland learn from Greece?
The Rise of SYRIZA
The rise of SYRIZA, the coalition of the Radical Left, is unprecedented. In less than ten years, it has gone from a small fringe electoral coalition, to now becoming the official opposition, and now - consolidated into a formal political party – running neck and neck with New Democracy, the main party of the coalition currently governing Greece. While there are tensions within SYRIZA, and it is recognised that compromises have been made, which has drawn criticism from radical elements within the coalition and from the wider left, most notably the anarchist movement, there is a recognition that it does at least provide a unified anti-Troika option from a left perspective. The participation of its members in the social solidarity movements have also drawn them together with autonomist and anarchist elements, who grace it with a level of critical support. It has completely supplanted PASOK – the Greek equivalent of Labour as the left-wing party; mainstream,but with a radical agenda, while PASOK itself has collapsed – now registering approximately 8% of the popular vote.
One of the most tangible developments to emerge in Greece in the past year is the take over and self-management of the Vio. Me factory in Thessaloniki. After two years of not being paid, and faced with the closure of the factory, the workers decided to take over the production and run the enterprise themselves, producing building materials under workers control. Inspired by the workers take over of factories in Argentina during the crisis of the early 2000s, where several hundred factories became worker run co-operatives, they seek to not only safeguard their own livelihoods, but also provide an example for others who may wish to do similar. There is currently no provision in Greek law for worker co-operatives and consequently Vio. Me currently runs outwith the legal framework. The government has shown no appetite for a confrontation as yet, and Vio, Me is lobbying for changes in legislation to allow others to similarly take over abandoned factories and run them as self-managed co-operatives.
When the occupation of Syntagma Square in 2011 was dispersed by riot police, unlike many of the American influenced “Occupy” encampments, it didnt simply disappear. Instead it moved to develop local assemblies. These assemblies have been critical in muting some of the worst effects of the crisis, with social support and solidarity being offered including free shops, where people can bring unwanted items and collect items that are needed; collective kitchens which have fed people struggling to eat, and electricity and water reconnection services, where the assembly will (illegally) reconnect people who have had their utilities cut off through an inability to pay. This practical solidarity, utilising the skills of people in the districts, has contributed to lessening the effects of the crisis on vulnerable families and individuals.
Threat of Fascism
In addition to Syriza, the Golden Dawn – an openly neo-nazi party has also risen in the wake of the crisis. The austerity measures which have brought pain and suffering to the Greek people have left them searching for a scapegoat, and with the waves of immigration, such a scapegoat is close at hand. From violent attacks on the streets, to holaucaust denial and Hitler idealisation in the Hellenic Parliament, not only migrants, but gay and transgender people, Jews and Muslims have also been targetted by the Golden Dawn’s hate speech, giving those exhausted by the austerity and dismayed at their own powerlessness in confronting the Troika an easier target. The fascists have become more open in their rhetoric, openly denying the holocaust and pronouncing their admiration for Hitler. Fascism has gone mainstream.
The Refugee Crisis
In addition to the crisis caused by austerity, Greece is also facing a refugee crisis. People fleeing war, climate change and economic devastation in the Global South caused or contributed to by Western policies, have tried to enter Fortress Europe, and Greece with its long border with Turkey, and surrounded by sea is one of the easiest ports of entry. Under the terms of the Dublin Convention, refugees must remain in the country of first entry, but with a crumbling state apparatus due to the austerity measures, asylum are low priority for the Greek government and many remain undocumented, vulnerable to being picked up in the “sweeps” of Operation Zeus, which comb the streets for “illegals”.
What Lessons Can Be Drawn
The emergence of SYRIZA, follows many years of radical left fragmentation. In the wake of the crisis, a viable challenge with a level of centrifugal force was able to harness the disparate elements, including sections of the autonomist and anarchist communities, which – although still not believing in a parliamentary route to renewal, saw a radical left takeover of the government as a first step to creating the conditions for real change. This rise, and its takeover from PASOK as a left alternative demonstrates that when the left can put forward a platform with a with a realistic chance of taking power, people will support that.
There are, however, ongoing criticisms that as the official opposition it has softened its radical stance. When Villa Amalias, a well established and much loved squat in Central Athens was evicted at the end of last year, the response from SYRIZA was relatively tame, as it feared being associated with the political violence that Dendias, the Minister for Law and Order, was attempting to smear the squat with. As an official and established political party, SYRIZA has drawn back from public support of some of the more radical elements of the fightback. At the same time however, SYRIZA members continue to be involved at a grassroots level with many local initiatives, maintaining a level of connection between the streets and the parliament.
The social solidarity initiatives and Vio.Me factory take over, as well as a number of other smaller initiatives including the attempt to self-govern a hospital in Thessoliniki; the self-managed bar and social space K*Vox and its subsequent establishment of a small health clinic in its premises show a route to ameliorating the worst effects of the crisis. In addition to opposing the actions of the government, building genuine and viable alternatives which can provide for people’s needs and build an alternative economy. In doing so, a level of confidence is required, not only that the project can succeed, but the confidence to reject the artificial rules of the game, which are written to benefit the rich.
The rise of fascism in Greece is terrifying, and notably there is reputed to be a substantial cross-over vote between SYRIZA and the Golden Dawn, as people look to support whatever movement is likely to be most effective in challenging the pro-bailout hegemony of the traditional parties. The racism, sexism and homophobia inherent in fascism should be abhorrent to us all, particularly those of us who identify with the radical left, however such attitudes bubble under the surface. The recent rise of UKIP and the EDL in England, is a similar phenomenon. Substantial sections of their support come from working class communities who see them as a “radical” alternative to the hegemony of the big three parties. Regressive attitudes are capitalised upon as scapegoats are found to blame for the misery caused by the benefit cuts and rising unemployment.
These parties have not managed to attract a similar level of support within Scotland, where Independence provides an alternative vision. The embracing of a British identity by the right wing, means that the Independence cause has mainly been championed by social democratic and radical left elements, while any attempts at “ethnic nationalism” have been kept at bay. This should not make us complacent. Such attitudes are here in Scotland, and can be tapped into in a time of crisis. We must be vigilant of oppressive narratives creeping into any austerity fightback. The temptation to blame “the other”, to turn on our neighbour rather fight our common enemy when that enemy appears to0 all-powerful or too distant to be defeated, is ever present. While Scotland, and indeed the UK as a whole does not face the same level of immigration as Greece does, immigration to Europe will only increase so long as the Western powers pursue foreign, military and economic policies which wreck the economies of the Global South and exacerbate the effects of climate change.
Greece is not the romantic revolutionary ideal that has been portrayed, there are substantial problems both within the movement and in wider society which has led to the rise of fascism. At the same time, there is a determination from the people there to actively challenge the measures opposed and build realistic alternatives, both politically and practically.
First published in the Scottish Left Review, Issue 77