By Bostjan Videmsek (Athens)
Photos Jure Erzen
On November 7th, Athens was burning again. In front of the parliament, where another monstruous bargain had been struck, the special police units were hitting children and old women. The most brutal austerity package yet had just been rammed through. In the streets, molotov cocktails were crashing down, slogans were chanted, the teargas was making people weep openly. In this respect, Athens is now officially the weeping capital of Europe.
Again, all of it was probably to no avail. The vote behind the thick parliamentary walls had been fixed in advance. The public infrastructure is being dismantled back into the stone age, and these latest belt-tightening measures are only guaranteed to make things worse. The poor people in the giant laboratory called Greece have not been offered the luxury of choice. Their only option is to rant and protest. And that is so obviously not enough.
A country without sovereignity is hardly a country. Greece is now a grotesque puppet of the global financial markets. The Greek political elite is the sub-contractor hired by foreign interests, principally by the corporation called EU. These interests’ most immediate goal is to turn the land into a pocket of Asia right here in the middle of Europe – to bring East and West a little closer, one could sardonically say. In the name of the holy grail called competiteveness, the people of Greece are being stripped of their way of life.
This, incidentally, is what the future holds in store for the rest of us. How long before the »free-enterprise zones« start sprouting around all of us as well? The »free-enterprise zone« is the production unit favoured by the disaster capitalism set loose upon the world. 400 Euros of monthly pay with no benefits and lots of unpaid overtime: this is what the European worker of tomorrow can reasonably hope to expect. If in this more modern, more competitive Europe someone revolts, fifty other eager slaves will leap up to take his place. At this moment, we might as well put a giant sticker Made In China over the entire continent. Health and education are already the privilege of the rich.
Nazism rears its ugly head
At this stage, is there anything that can stop the neo-liberal rampage? The old, impotent, arrogant, totalitarian and justly beaten ‘left’ no longer has the right to try. The new left seems bashful and without clear ideas of its own. Whom can an angry young man turn to when he wants to enter the political arena? Is there even such a thing as a political solution to this mess? Can the protesters ever transcend the level of street theatre and stand their ground for as long as it takes? Is there really no alternative to widescale bloodshed? 2012 = 1937?
These questions are now equally relevant in Greece as they are in the rest of Europe.
Who will come to Greece and stand with its people against both the financial occupiers and the heaving tide of neo-Nazism? The popular support for The Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party which has now sort of merged with the police to smash everything in its path, is rapidly growing. Syriza, the nexus of what some people like to call the new left, is strong at the polls, but politically running out of breath. To fight the neo-Nazis, it would need the clear unequivocal support of the European democratic institutions, but exactly the opposite is the case. In Brussels, the new left leader Alexis Tsipras is seen as an arch-enemy. Europe’s xenophobic policies may have done everything to facilitate the Greek immigration crisis, but that doesn’t mean the Eurocrats feel compelled to take much notice of the Greek neo-Nazis. But anyone who takes in the sheer speed of the dismantlement of the continent’s oldest democracy can grasp it is only a matter of time. The Greek neo-Nazis, after all, are the first children of the new Europe.
In the June election, The Golden Dawn won 18 parliament seats. According to the polls, it now has the support of 12 percent of the voters. The number is steadily rising. It is small wonder that the neo-Nazis are becoming ever bolder when it comes to dealing with the immigrants and all those who disagree with the party’s positions.
During my visit in the spring, one could already observe violent clashes between the more bellicose of the neo-Nazis and the hapless Asian and African immigrants. The fighting mostly took place at night. Racism is an integral part of Greek politics. Between 2006 and 2011, the authorities received 89 575 applications for an asylum. Only 929 were granted. The system for granting these requests is, and always was, controlled by the police.
Even as far back as this spring, the neo-Nazis were allowed to brutalize the immigrants without much hindrance. The police mostly just looked on and grinned. Today brutalisation is the official Greek policy. In the last four months, the authorities in Athens carried out a huge crackdown and cleansed the streets of about 50 000 immigrants. Most of them were taken to the so called detention centres, which are a publicly acceptable term for prisons. The police were targeting both legal and illegal immigrants. The members of The Golden Dawn were at the forefront of this giant undertaking, cleansing a number of neighbourhoods by themselves, smashing up immigrant shops and often being lauded by the local population.
»They used to badmouth and insult us, but it was just words. Now we’re about to get to the point when they start killing people,« says Javed Aslam, the head of the Pakistani community in Athens. Aslam feels that Greece is now a country of two sets of laws. One set is applied to the neo-Nazis who are being coddled and abetted by the police. The other is applied to the immigrants, who’ve been stripped of any legal protection. Aslam blames the Greek authorities helmed by New Democracy, a party that won much support by toughening its anti-immigrant rhetoric. What the members of The Golden Dawn are doing in the streets is just a real-life actualisation of that rhetoric.
Dimitris Psaras, the author of The Black Bible, a book about The Golden Dawn, is convinced that the neo-Nazis’ influence is bound to grow. In his book, he documented the strong ties between The Golden Dawn, the Greek police and the Greek private security firms. »It is usual that a person is the member of all three organisations at the same time,« Psaras wrote: »They socialize in fitness clubs and certain caffés known to be owned by The Golden Dawn members or their sympathisers.« Psaras’ observations are backed up by those of Teodora Oikonomides, who works for the alternative radio station Radio Bubble. She believes that the xenophobic and chauvinistic discourse perfected by The Golden Dawn is now the official parlance of the reigning puppets. »By refusing to take action against The Golden Dawn,« Oikonomides feels: »the Greek politicians and their European backers have opened a Pandora’s box that will take forever to close again.«
The Shadows of Dictatorship
Kristos Manouras, the Greek police’s public relations man, denied any links between The Golden Dawn and the police. Without any apparent irony, he explained that the police raids in the immigrant neighbourhoods have made the Greek capital into »a more humane place«.
Ilias Panagiotaros, a Golden Dawn MP, also cathegorically denies illegal immigrants are being targeted. Panagiotaros is the owner of a shop selling sports goods and nationalist paraphernalia in downtown Athens. Among other things, the shop merrily displays the portrait of the Serbian war criminal Želko Ražnatović Arkan. Like this exalted icon of butchery, Panagiotaros likes to blame the attacks on the victims.
»The only racist violence taking place in Greece is the attacks the immigrants are making on the local population!« he claims: »The methods adopted by our party are nothing else than legitimate political struggle – through the parliament and through the streets!« Talking to the press, Panagiotaros was hapy to confirm that about 60 percent of all policemen were supporters of The Golden Dawn. »And that number grows higher every day!« In this man’s opinion, a civil war is already taking place in Greece. »The Greek society is ready to fight. On one side, there is us – the Greek patriots who are prepared to take action to regain the country we once had. On the other side, there are the illegal immigrants and the anarchists who’ve tried to set Athens on fire several times already. We are fighting against the current political system, against both foreign and domestic bankers, and against the foreign invaders, the immigrants.«
Panagitaros is obviously someone who takes his role in this war very seriously. One month ago, he led the raid on the Chyterio theatre, where Terence Mc Nally’s Corpus Christi was being performed. Again, the police merely looked on as the raging neo-Nazis took took their anger out on the audience. The theatre’s managing director, Laertis Vasiliu, later said that this had been Greece’s own Kristalnacht.
Vasiliu told the journalists that his theatre’s employees and their families are being constantly threatened over the phone. These threats are of course not something the police feels at all obliged to investigate. »If the European commisionar fro the human rights, the European parliament and the Greek parliament fail to take decisive action – well, then I shudder to think what might happen,« Vasiliu said. »Europe must act straight away if it feels that The Third Reich isn’t something worth repeating.« The MPs of The Golden Dawn have already proposed the removal of all immigrant children from the Greek kindergardens.They also requested an official list of those kindergardens with an above-average ratio of immigrant children. The minister of education granted their request.
Dismantling the commons
On November 9, the Athens streets saw another strike – this one by the employees of various civil services.
They were right to strike, for they’re set to lose at least 7000 jobs. A few hundred people with visibly tired faces were dignifiedly marching down the avenues. They were cheered on by the warm autumn sun, but they were in a lousy mood. Riddled with anxiety, they were much too tired to shout and smash windows. Their lives have been too shattered for them to retain many illusions. The ranks were formed by both dustmen and high-placed civil servants. All of them were victims of wave after wave of austerity measures – the succession of packages which proved that for the international financial institutions help is just an empty lie. Greece is the site of a monumental experiment in modern-day slavery. In the words of Gianis Dragasakis of Syriza: »The first memorandum gave us Balkan-level wages. The second memorandum gave us the social services of Eastern Europe. The third memorandum will turn us into a third-world country.«
Makis Giamallis, an employee of the local communal service in Glyfada on the Athens seafront, readily agrees: »In the last two years, our lives have been transformed beyond repair. Everything has been stolen from us, not only money! The great privatisation of everything public is well underway. Even the most basic services like collecting the garbage are being privatised. They’re taking everything from us – everything! Every two months they lower our wages. Many of my friends have already lost their jobs. Many of them have spent their last reserves and are now unable to pay off their mortgages. Some of them have already ended up in the street. Hunger is now a resident of Athens – even in some of the swankier parts of town! Yesterday we were told that ten people from our department are sure to lose their job next year. One of them is a 28-year-old single mother. But no one cares about the workers’ situation. We’ve become numbers, nothing more. We are seen as dead weight, garbage. A long while ago, Greece stopped being a country: now it is merely a training ground for an all-out capitalist rampage. What we’re seeing here is only the beginning.«
Mr. Giamallis has 25 years of service to the public good. Yet he told me he’s getting prepared to be chucked out in the street with the rest. »My only option is to protest and to keep supporting my colleagues. Very soon, I’ll be in the same position, and then I’ll be desperate for solidarity myself.«
The Youth of a Defeated Nation
On November 14, twenty-three European countries held protests against the new austerity measures. In most of those countries, surprisingly few people showed up. Katarina Kanilopulu, a 29-year-old lawyer and activist from Athens, was someone who took it as a both personal and collective failure. As I talked to her, she sat down on the stairs leading from Syntagma square to the parliament. She looked harrowed and disenchanted, so there was no stopping the following monologue.
»Greece is defeated and humiliated. Both my nation and my entire generation have been completely defiled. And I define my generation broadly, somewhere between twenty and thirty-five. You want to know our greatest defeat? It is that, in spite of the complete and utter defilement of our way of life, we are still choosing to function as individuals, not as a collective. Actually, I believe there is no longer such a thing as Greek society. We are just a few million egoistic angry people who are pissed off about their own material problems! The sad lesson is that most of us don’t give a fuck about ‘society’! There are a few very motivated and well-organised groups of young people seeking alternatives, but how do you even get your point across to the selfish consumer majority? Around here, our entire community has been falling apart for at least twenty years. And we, the people, were blind to it. Which makes us guilty.«
The sun was shining again as we sat on those stairs, but no one cared. The young lawyer told me she used to be quite idealistic, but she sees nothing faintly resembling grounds for optimism. »The only kind of heartfelt optimism you hear around here is the kind built around ignorance or larceny.« Katarina was convinced politics as we know it has been defeated for quite some time. At this stage, she felt, it was criminally dumb to hope change could be brought about through the ballot box alone. I felt like quoting Noam Chomsky, so I said: »If you can vote and they don’t shoot on you, you shouldn’t think that you live in a democracy.«
Katarina readily agreed. »We need an entire new platform for our class warfare,« she frowned: »Parliamentary democracy has long been bought by Big Bussiness – this happened all over Europe, there are very few exceptions. Okay, so this brand new platform I’m talking about, it certainly can’t be ideological. But to get to the platform, we need to discard the entire lot of our current social, economic and political concepts. As they come into contact with power, all of them are likely to get corrupted. Perhaps we need to discard politics as such. Syriza may be fronted by a few fresh young faces, but overall it’s still a clear-cut representative of old politics. You just need to look at their backers. Tsipras is already being turned into a cult, right? If he grabs power and gives everyone two slices of bread more than his predecessors, the people are ready to kneel before him. But what about critical thinking? What about democracy?! Even as a student, I realised there was something horribly wrong with our country. Now we can see the consequences. Today, Greece is a half-totalitarian state. And the ideological vacuum is quickly being filled by the vital young neo-nazis banging home their own radical interpretation of our economic disaster.«
The Death of Democracy
These days the Greek journalist D. speaks very quietly. In this country, the right to free speech has been heavily corroded. The infamous arrest of the journalist who published the list of the two thousand Greek citizens who transferred two billion Euros to the Geneva branch of the HSBC bank is just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless other examples, like the arrest of the two journalists who, on their social networks, published the image of the Greek policemen and the neo-Nazis merrily socialising. During the trial, the judge adopted the position that the two journalists’ action was tantamount to ‘inciting to riots’.
The vast majority of the Greek media is financially dependent on the authorities or on private capital with close ties to the reigning New Democracy. The ramifications of the austerity policies are therefore mostly being ignored or at least sugar-coated. In place of rational analysis, the Greek viewers get talk-shows and an endless parade of complacent flunkies who are all of the opinion things are not so bad. The bravest among the journalists can count on very little public protection. The independent media are under savage pressure. The very air here reeks with the mounting totalitarianism – a stench much too powerful to be chased away with protests or anarchist sloganising. »Every month, the people of Greece get to live a little worse than the month before,« he told me: »First, many people had to move from nice apartments to much smaller ones. But these, too, are becoming much too dear even for our rapidly dwindling middle class. I know for a fact that some people have already moved into the cellars where the immigrants used to live before the authorities and the neo-Nazis chased them out and imprisoned them in the so-called detention centres.«
Petros Papakonstantinou, a columnist with the most influential Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini, agrees without reservations. Papakonstantinou is a respected writer, a reporter from trouble-spots all over the globe, a lucid analyst of Greek society and a physicist who at times reminded me of Albert Einstein and at times of Kurt Vonnegut. In this man’s opinion, the old political system is dead, and Greece is the first major battlefield in a global financial assault led by the international institutions and the Germans.
»The German financial elites never had much good sense for politics.« he feels: »They always underestimated the political factors. They started two world wars because they overestimated their military might and underestimated the political realities. Now they have started another global financial war, but they’re again overestimating their economic prowess. At the end of the day, they’ll have to pay a terrible price. But not before large parts of Europe are absolutely devastated.«
Papakonstantinou is convinced that we are poised on the cusp of a new political era certain to be dominated by new political forces. »In these last few months, the Greek left did much to consolidate its position. But I’m not talking about the traditional left like our communists, who are little more but threadbare stalinists. In their place, a new extreme left is rising. At the moment, it enjoys the support of about a third of the electorate. This could never have happened if the majority of the Greek people didn’t suffer under the disasterous consequences of the austerity measures. Greece is radically moving to the left, which means there’s a very real chance of it getting the first truly leftist government in Europe after World War II. If that happens, it will certainly be a big deal. One could even use the phrase ‘historical juncture’. Whatever happens here will greatly affect the future of the continent.«
Regardless of his basic optimism, Papakonstantinou warned that was not not at all certain Syriza was fit to lead the country. »It is a young party whose mentality hasn’t been able to keep up with its success, so it has retained much of its minority mindset. In the streets, Syriza still doesn’t have much real power or even credibility. The protests are still being helmed by the communists and syndicate-leaders. But I think that is about to change, too. To fully understand our country, we might employ the words of the famous Italian leftist thinker Antonio Gramsci who said the old world is already dead while the new world has not yet been born.«
One day before the great anti-Nazi demonstrations in Athens, I asked the writer and columnist Dimitris Konstandakopoulos about the real state of Greek democracy. »Democracy?!« he erupted: »What democracy? Our democracy has been murdered by the international financial elites, by the European institutions and by Angela Merkel. Our country has been chosen to become a laboratory of disaster capitalism. Until now, such experiments have only been conducted in third-world countries. Chile. Argentina. Iraq. Afghanistan. Today Greece. Tomorrow Spain and many others. If the capitalist manipulators succeed in Greece, they will also succeed in other parts of Europe.«
Konstandakopoulos is convinced we are witnessing the rise of an unopposed superpower called international capital. »Right now, it is attacking Europe – the continent is beseiged from all sides. We here in Greece are just the first victims. Right now, we are turning into Spain during its civil war. If the rest of Europe leaves us in the lurch, it is sure to crumble as well. What we are talking about here is a holistic, carefully coordinated process that has already pretty much destroyed the modern European middle class. At the moment, the continent is being ruled by semi-literate idiots. But these political faces we see each night on television – their power is but an illusion. They are the sub-contractors for the new king, the big bussiness which is creating its dominion with colonial methods. Occupation, enslavement, the rise of loyal local governors, massive theft of natural resources, the appropriation of young talent, the devaluation of everything local in the name of imperial growth. The main method is wholesale manipulation in every field. The aim is to create an atmosphere of fear and humiliation. One of the empire’s chief objectives is to unleash an epidemic of manic depression among the populace – with a heavy sideline in guilt and impotence. The occupiers are already training their own loyal local troops to help them dismantle everything public and social in our society. The middle class is now but a phantom, but some of its more non-comformistic members will still serve nicely as convenient targets for the nation’s pent-up rage. The truth is being castrated as we speak.«