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“Even words lose their meanings,” says the disembodied voice. It’s speaking to fill the space before the silence, to be present. “Are these your orders? Yes, those are my things….Somewhere here we close, dear listeners. The voice of Greek radio falls silent. Good luck to everyone. We’ll find each other, we’ll meet again. These microphones are shutting down. Deep soul.”
Early this morning riot police broke into the Athens headquarters of ERT, Greek Radio and Television, which was officially closed by ministerial decree on June 11 but whose journalists and technicians have continued to broadcast over the Internet. After dispersing protesters outside with teargas, armoured police cleared the building room by room. Union representative Nikos Tsimpidas was last at the microphone, calling for a “magnificent demonstration, not just for ERT, not for our jobs, but for democracy itself, against…this virulent repression, this rewind through decades, for all the things we should have stood up for but couldn’t…”
Even words lose their meanings. Increasingly, a mark of the Greek crisis (not so much a crisis now as a condition) is the fragmenting of perceived reality, along with a desperate struggle to control the story of what’s happening. I imagine it’s always like this with authoritarian regimes—for Greece is clearly now an authoritarian regime masquerading as a democracy—but I’ve never seen it from close up before. We’re living (as well as everything else) a war of words, a propaganda campaign designed to drown out dissenting voices—even moderate ones. Questions about whether ERT was wasteful, or padded with cronies, or captured by special interests—questions that might have been addressed in a functioning democracy—became irrelevant the day the broadcaster was shut down by fiat. This morning the other shoe dropped. The image is the message: platoons of armoured representatives of the state evicting a few dozen journalists and locking the doors with handcuffs.
As always in Greece, the message is two-faced, one visage for foreign consumption, the other for domestic. What it’s supposed to say to representatives of the Troika who are, once again, in Athens (if they’re stupid enough to buy it, or diplomats enough to pretend they have) is that everything’s under control: we’re meeting our obligations, turning around the economy, cracking down on lawlessness, breaking the unions. (The original shutdown of ERT was ostensibly designed to meet the Troika’s demand for public sector lay-offs.) The message to Greeks is this: You may see a government that’s scrambling to appease its creditors without upsetting its cronies, that’s lost control of the streets and its own half-tamed heavies, that has no idea how to get out of the maze; you may be jobless, hungry, disoriented and lost, looking ahead at a winter without heat or hope; you may think some kind of resistance is still possible. But the evidence of your senses is false, or at least irrelevant. Look! We’re installling free WiFi all across the country! Greece is a success story! And if you won’t line up behind our version of reality, we have the power to persuade you. Against the voice of a man in a room with a microphone, we play helmeted troops with teargas and batons.
Of course, people won’t be silenced, especially not now. (A few days ago, a bunch of Dogberries from the Greek police turned up at Radiobubble, a citizen radio station run out of a café in Athens, and threatened to prosecute because people were “talking too loudly” in the street outside. Perhaps they had read about it in The New York Times.) But (let them eat WiFi notwithstanding) most Greeks get their news from private television stations owned by politically well-connected oligarchs—which were given control of the digital airwaves by a vote in parliament hours before this morning’s raid on ERT. And the cacophony of unsourced hysteria and conspiracy theories that has long filled much of the Greek media, across the political spectrum, doesn’t help the quest for a coherent, usable description of what’s happening.
The moment when stories fragment and words lose their meanings is also one of possibility, when different futures and arrangements might emerge. The nexus of oligarchs, financial interests and politicians ruling Greece (in symbiotic struggle with its creditors) now seems determined at all costs to close that down. The sense of repression is palpable; the scary thing is how quickly you get used to it. Two weeks ago I went out to dinner with friends in Athens. As we left the taverna—almost empty on a Friday night—a heavily armoured Delta police patrol roared by, eight or ten men in black, on motorbikes, two abreast. No one even turned to look.
On the other hand, as I write, the left party, Syriza—some of whose MPs were violently prevented from entering ERT’s headquarters this morning—is tabling a motion of no confidence in the government, to be debated tomorrow. The ruling coalition has a majority of only five MPs, some of whom blocked a motion to impose a new property tax a few days ago; of course, the pressure on them to conform will be immense. The private channels will broadcast this—with dire predictions of catastrophe—as another “thriller.” Meanwhile, protesters have gathered outside ERT’s headquarters in Athens and Salonika; one banner reads, “Deep Soul.” And ERT journalists and musicians are still broadcasting on the internet, from the street.
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All this weekend Greeks were glued to images of Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, the little führer of Golden Dawn, being led in handcuffs from the Athens police headquarters with four of his deputies, each one flanked by members of the anti-terrorist squad, armed and with faces covered. Greek TV channels played the perp walk over and over again. Stills of Mihaloliakos, face set hard, clutching a battered leather bag in front of him like a shield, and of the party spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, mouth gaping wide to roar, are all over the Internet, raw or Photoshopped or embellished with jokey captions. Like children gripped by pictures of monsters in a book, we stare at them and scrawl on them, crayons held tight in our fists, wanting and not wanting to turn over the page.
The five Golden Dawn MPs were arrested on Saturday, along with two policemen and a few party members; the deputy leader, Christos Pappas, went AWOL for twenty-four hours (no doubt to take care of business) and turned himself in on Monday with a fascist salute. Pushed into action by the public outcry both in and outside Greece at the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas—the first Greek, but not the first person, to be killed by the neo-Nazis—the government pressed Greece’s Supreme Court to declare Golden Dawn a criminal organization. The charge sheet includes murder and grievous bodily harm, money-laundering and blackmail. The MPs will keep their seats until (or unless—a frightening thought) they are convicted, but the party appears set to lose its public funding.
It’s a moment to celebrate; it’s also fraught with dangers. Golden Dawn’s tentacles reach deep into Greek public life. Its neo-Nazi ideology is particular, in its open contempt for democracy, its use of paramilitary structures, its roots in anti-Semitism, racism and blood lust, its glorification of violence, its opposition to capitalism as well as communism. But Golden Dawn is also the most dangerous beneficiary of a far-right nationalist tradition that goes back at least to the 1930s and has the prime minister’s ear, if not a piece of his heart. As welcome as this purge is, there’s a risk that it will be used to legitimize a more “respectable” far right as well as the policies of Greece’s old mainstream parties, New Democracy and Pasok, that have formed a dark penumbra round the black spot of fascism: the random street round-ups and brutal detention centres for migrants and dark-skinned people, the outrageous law that allows forcible testing for HIV, the violent repression and criminalizing of protest, the selective application of the judicial system.
In their not-so-long march through Greece’s institutions, the neo-Nazis have found fertile ground. In the last few days mainstream Greek media have rushed to denounce the evil fascist gang and publish lurid confessions by its former members, but until recently reports about Golden Dawn had to be published abroad before they were deemed fit for Greek ears, even in paraphrase. Private TV channels gave plenty of air time to neo-Nazi shrieking heads and newspapers ran puff pieces extolling the new street-tough, body-building lifestyle. Less than a year ago, the Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias threatened to sue The Guardian for reporting on allegations of torture by the Greek police; less then three months ago he insisted to the BBC that Golden Dawn had no real foothold in the Greek police.
Yet in the days before the Golden Dawn arrests two senior policemen resigned and seven others were transferred; at the very last moment the head of the Greek Intelligence Agency was suddenly replaced. One Golden Dawn MP crowed, “They had to take apart the police and the GIA so that they could arrest us.” Was Mr. Dendias asleep at the switch? Was he perhaps keeping schtum to put bent coppers off the scent? Or has Golden Dawn, with the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, at last become more threatening than useful to the government—threatening enough that he’s prepared to risk alienating his own police?
Recent polls show a drop in support for the fascist party since the murder of Fyssas, back down to the 7 percent or so it got in last summer’s elections from a high of around 15 percent; most of those voters seem to be heading back to New Democracy, which has been tempting them for some time with red meat. In what, then, did the usefulness of Golden Dawn consist? The left’s somewhat epigrammatic answer has been that Golden Dawn is “the long arm of the state”; some have been so convinced that Golden Dawn and the state are the same that (forgetting the 1930s) they’ve chosen to play down the party’s significance. That there is collusion is obvious. Video footage clearly shows Golden Dawn supporters throwing stones at anti-fascist protesters under the protection of the riot squad; there seems to have been a “strategy of tension” to legitimize repression. Golden Dawn has waged a useful ongoing street war against migrants, leftists and anarchists; its culture and ideology has stiffened the backbone of some front-line police. Still, the questions remain: What exactly is the relationship between Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy party and the old Greek far-right parastate? How deep will the purges go? Is this a battle for the soul of the Greek right, or the dismissal of an uncouth, over-zealous bodyguard?
And in the unlikely event that the institutional clean-out is far-reaching and thorough—if Golden Dawn’s party structure is utterly destroyed and all the Athens precincts known as hotbeds of support are broken up and staffed with squeaky-clean new recruits—the longest, hardest struggle will still have to be fought. Golden Dawn is in the villages, in the church, in schools. Its support has grown because Greece has been devastated by a misconceived and misapplied austerity programme imposed from the outside. But it has been fed by decades of corruption among Greece’s own politicians--corruption so blatant that when Ilias Kasidiaris threatened to denounce PASOK and New Democracy as criminal organizations, it was difficult not to concede that he had a kind of point. And, as the journalist Nikos Chrysoloras points out in a brave comment piece, it’s been fed by the xenophobia, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance that are still widespread in Greek society, on the left as well as the right, unchallenged in most of the media and in too much of the sclerotic education system.
So for a day or two we can scribble on the monster. At least its ugliest, most vicious head has been cut off. But we have to remember the story of Heracles and the Hydra, and we have to face the monster that’s in us.
The images play on in an interminable loop: the helmeted riot police, the young men poised to run, the burning rubbish skips and skittering Molotovs, the tear-gas smoke and glint of metal against the night. Athens in flames again. A video that’s gone viral clearly shows gangs of men throwing stones beside the police, far-right irregulars fighting under the state’s protection. There are other images too, less hot on the Internet, of the thousands who gathered to protest and mourn the murder of leftist rapper Pavlos Fyssas Tuesday night by a member of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, and to stand against the fascist poison that seeps out everywhere: on the streets and on TV, in parliament and police stations, in odd things the neighbours say.
This is not the first time Golden Dawn has killed, but it is their first known murder of a white Greek national—and their first clearly political assassination. Fyssas was a well-known anti-fascist; he was ambushed by a group of about thirty men (some in the familiar black shirts and camouflage pants) outside a cafe in the working-class suburb of Amfiali and stabbed twice in the chest, allegedly by a man who later told the police that he is a member of Golden Dawn. (As ever, the official police statement tiptoed around the issue, coyly stating that material from “a particular political tendency” was found in his apartment.)
The murder feels like part of a deliberate escalation: it comes at the end of a week of political (as opposed to merely racist) shows of force by the neo-Nazis. Last Thursday, some fifty blackshirts armed with clubs and crowbars set on thirty Communist Party supporters leafletting in Perama, one of Athens’s poorest neighbourhoods; nine communists were taken to hospital with serious injuries. Over the weekend, leftists protested a wreath-laying by a Golden Dawn MP on the memorial to victims of the Nazis in a northern village; a member of the MP’s entourage responded with a fascist salute. On Sunday Golden Dawn supporters disrupted a memorial at Meligalas for the hundreds of collaborators and their suspected supporters killed by the wartime left resistance as the Nazis withdrew; two Golden Dawn MPs seized the microphone from the mayor and lambasted the “traitor” government, while their acolytes skirmished with members of less “pure” nationalist groups.
In Greece, history is a powerful symbolic battleground. Having drawn the government onto its territory on immigration, Golden Dawn is raising the stakes and moving more explicitly against fascism’s deepest enemy, which has always been the left (or, in the neo-Nazis’ term “Judeo-Bolshevism”). Most of the 15 percent of Greeks who recently told pollsters they would vote for Golden Dawn have no interest in such ideological niceties; indeed, some are former left voters who’ve bought the populist, anti-immigrant and anti-elitist packaging in which the party has wrapped its neo-Nazi core. Without the aid and comfort of successive governments—especially Antonis Samaras’ New-Democracy led coalition—there is no way Golden Dawn would have the support it now enjoys.
New Democracy has played a dangerous game with the neo-Nazis, trying to win back votes by adopting some of its rhetoric and policies while using it as a vigilante force against immigrants and leftists—with help from Golden Dawn supporters inside the police. Samaras and some of his close advisers, have long-established links with the old Greek far right; a few days ago a well-known TV journalist floated the notion of a coalition between New Democracy and a “more serious” Golden Dawn.
But Golden Dawn’s success depends on its being seen as an anti-systemic force. There are indications of tensions within the movement: some members apparently want to clean up the party’s image and recruit more “respectable” candidates, while others want to expand the stormtroopers on the streets. With Fyssas’s murder, the radical wing has reared its head to snap at those who nurtured it—and at a critical moment for the government. The Troika’s representatives are knocking at the door to measure Greece’s progress before releasing the next loan; there’s a forty-eight hour strike on against cuts and layoffs. Some of the balance sheets may be looking a bit less bad, but more people are going hungry. The Greek “success story” promoted in the European press is now painfully thin; and in Germany Angela Merkel is up for re-election.
Prime Minister Samaras has gone on television today to condemn the neo-Nazis, for once playing down the rhetoric of “extremes of left and right” which usually accompanies these soul-searching moments. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias has vowed to defend democracy and to discuss changing the law that defines criminal organizations and armed gangs. Neither of these men are fascists by conviction (though some in Greece call them that), but they have made common cause with a dark force they can’t and never could contain. What they have to offer now is too little and too late.
What comes next is almost anybody’s guess. Pavlos Fyssas’s murder has brought Greece’s little problem to the world’s attention; there are calls inside and outside the country for Golden Dawn to be banned. I don’t foresee this happening in a hurry. The party’s more radical elements—and its leadership—would like nothing better; they have repeatedly challenged the government to do just that. And, with a paper-thin majority and more reforms to push through at the point of the Troika’s gun, I doubt the government will risk the elections that would follow, even in the eighteen seats that Golden Dawn now holds.
Unless, that is, the snake decides to slough off its rougher skin, changes its name, learns manners, worms its way still deeper into Greece’s heart.
Riot police walk in front of a woman as leftists protesters (not pictured) march to the Greek courts in support of their colleagues who were arrested in the beginning of the week, in Athens January 12, 2013. (REUTERS/John Kolesidis)
Tomorrow morning, September 3, in Athens, an Alice-in-Wonderland trial is scheduled to take place. The accused are Constantinos Moutzouris, former dean of the National Technical University, and Savvas Michael-Matsas, an internationally known intellectual and leader of the Trotskyist Greek Workers’ Revolutionary Party (EEK), who happens to be Jewish. The accusers (in Greece, individuals can bring criminal suits) are members and supporters of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. The alleged crimes are “libelous defamation,” “incitement to violence and civil discord” and “disturbing the public peace.”
The trial is in effect a prosecution of political speech—the first prosecution of anti-fascist speech in Europe. Moutzouris is charged with hosting the radical website Athens Indymedia on the university’s server, Savvas for an EEK call to an anti-fascist demonstration which ended with the slogan, “The people don’t forget, they hang fascists.” (It’s catchier in the original, and not unusual in its violence: like it or not, Greek political rhetoric on both left and right has never hesitated to go for the jugular.) The case is also a test of how far the Greek judiciary has been penetrated by the far right. Several Golden Dawn members have serious charges pending, including for assault, but their trials seem to be endlessly postponed; nor has the party ever been prosecuted for hate speech, though its publications and the speeches of its leaders can make your hair stand on end.
What’s more, the two men are the only ones so far called to trial from a long list named in the suit. Their prosecution probably has to do with the government’s campaign to shut down the alternative political space represented by Indymedia and the radical currents that find a home in EEK. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Savvas has also been singled out because he is a Jew—one of the very few Jewish public intellectuals in Greece. Anti-Semitism is at the root of Golden Dawn’s ideology. “Kill the Jew you carry inside you and is your negative self, incapable of giving your life meaning through a higher ideal,” counseled its Declaration of Ideological Principles at the end of the 1980s. “Then, fight the Jew around you.” Savvas’ selection is a sop to the neo-Nazis from the Greek judiciary—a wink to anti-Semites and racists everywhere.
Savvas is an old friend of mine; I’ve written about him and the case in more detail in today’s Guardian. Please take a look, spread the word and sign the petition for him at www.change.org. These people can’t be allowed to win.
Supporters stand outside the Greek state television ERT headquarters in Athens, on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
“We’re on air, the last little bit of air that’s left for us to breathe. We’re staying here all night, and beyond that, as long as it takes…”
I’m watching an overloaded Internet feed from ERT, the Greek state broadcaster, which has been shut down by the Greek government tonight, laying off all its 2,700 workers, on six hours’s notice, with no discussion and no vote in parliament. One by one, the transmitters around the country are being turned off. Journalists and production staff are occupying the broadcaster’s Athens headquarters; the network’s musicians are playing protest songs in the courtyard. Many thousands of protesters are gathering outside; so are busloads of riot police. @amaenad tweets, “Everyone in
#Greece has been watching #Occupygezi. And PM Samaras just gave them a spark. He was always as stupid as he was arrogant. #ERT”
A couple of hours ago I spoke to Marilena Katsimi, an ERT journalist inside the Athens building. She said that when the rumours of ERT’s impending closure first surfaced two weeks ago, nobody took them seriously: “We just couldn’t believe they would do it.” But all day today the director was shut in his office, not speaking to anyone. At six o’clock, New Democracy minister Simos Kedikoglou announced that ERT was being shut down because of “a scandalous lack of transparency” and waste and abuses by its bloated workforce. Katsimi found his statement deeply offensive: “He actually said ‘the party’s over,’ when it was their party. Since this government came to power they’ve been buying in expensive programs, bringing in their own people, hiring thirty or forty consultants at 4,000 euros a month when our salaries have been cut by some 40 percent and we’re making 1,000. How dare he tell us we’ve been having a party here!” Last year Katsimi was suspended from presenting a morning television news show because she referred, somewhat sarcastically, to a threat by the public order minister to sue the Guardian for reporting allegations that the Greek police had tortured antifascist protesters.
Of course, sucessive governments, both PASOK and New Democracy, have long given jobs at ERT (and elsewhere in the public sector) as prizes to loyal supporters. Everyone has heard stories of “journalists” drawing fat salaries and never showing up in the office. But as the blog Crisis Republic points out, the new, streamlined state broadcaster promised by Kedikoglou (at some vague point in the future) will look much like the old one—except it will be staffed entirely by this government’s supporters, at a cost in compensation and new salaries of several million euros.
So, in the name of transparency and cutting costs, the government has closed, by fiat and at great expense, the country’s only public broadcaster—the only broadcaster (for all its flaws) that isn’t pushing the agendas of the oligarchs. It has laid off some 2,700 people in one fell swoop—exceeding the Troika’s demand for 2,000 more public-sector job cuts. And it has opened the way for the distribution of lucrative franchises—for sports broadcasts, for instance—to the private TV channels that feed the Greek people the relentless diet of pap, hysteria, conspiracy theories and xenophobic propaganda that has helped sink the country into its current mess. Last week, Turkish TV notoriously showed movies about penguins instead of the police repression in Taksim Square. Greek TV has been poisoning people’s minds for decades; penguins would be an improvement.
The closure of ERT is the most dramatic in a series of attacks on free speech and public space by the Greek government. It comes as the official story of the austerity program’s success has been undermined by the IMF’s admission that serious mistakes were made, and by the Russian giant Gazprom’s failure to bid for the state-owned energy company. Greek friends are asking each other, Is this the beginning of the end? I couldn’t say; but in tragedies, killing the messenger is usually a sign that things aren’t going well.
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Margaret Thatcher leaves a Westminster polling station with her husband, Dennis, after voting in the 1983 general election. (AP Photo/Peter Kemp)
Margaret Thatcher’s dead at last, and the pictures that crowd in speak of war and confrontation: riot police on horseback bringing their batons down on the heads of striking miners; cars in flames in Trafalgar Square during the poll tax riots; riots in Brixton and Toxteth against racist policing; US cruise missiles nestled behind the fence at Greenham Common; the infamous Sun headline—GOTCHA—when the Argentine cruiser Belgrano was sunk outside the Falklands exclusion zone; the ten IRA hunger strikers for political status dead in the Maze prison; the IRA bomb that almost killed Thatcher herself in Brighton. Hard on their heels come images of polished domestic smoothness: the handkerchief disapprovingly dropped on the tail of a model plane that bore no Union flag; the helmet of bright hair; the handbag, sign of female thrift and household management, of the grocer’s shop at Grantham gone terrifyingly global.
The slide shows are two sides of the same coin: it’s partly because Margaret Thatcher was a woman that she was able to drive through her relentless war on the unions, the working class, the welfare state, the left. Her eleven years as prime minister tore Britain apart, dead-ended lives, decimated industries and starved communities, made greed a virtue and indifference a mark of maturity. Her ruthlessness came coated in a lethal emollient: the soothing voice, the honeyed firmness of the nursery. She was the first British leader built for television, a masculine fantasy of forceful femininity.
She was also, in many ways, Britain’s first American leader (the second was Tony Blair), although she would have hated to be so described. When she became prime minister in 1979, Britain was a crumbling post-imperial power, battered by globalization and the oil crisis, stalled by waves of strikes as unions fought to hold their piece of a shrinking pie. Sweeping aside the post-war consensus for a mixed economy and a universal welfare state, she used the revenues from North Sea oil to shrink the government and fund a radical restructuring, lowering taxes, privatizing public assets from water to electricity to council houses, tearing down protections (or, in her view, obstacles) against market forces. Unemployment rose to nearly 13 percent, the highest it had been since the 1930s. Deindustrialisation had already begun; she sped it up deliberately, without a care for the lives being ruined in the process, with the barely disguised intent of destroying the labor movement. “As you know,” she famously said, “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
We are all Thatcher’s children now, in Britain and in Europe, where the austerity policies she road-tested in the eighties are being applied as if there were no alternative and no tomorrow; Germany’s Angela Merkel is the lady not for turning now. In the week of Thatcher’s death, Britain has seen deep welfare cuts—deeper than hers—with tax cuts for top earners. The language of “skivers versus strivers” in which the Tory party has framed this debate would have been political poison before the 1980s, when Thatcher and Ronald Reagan whipped up resentment of “welfare moms” and welfare dependency. New Labour, Thatcher’s greatest success, firmly hammered home her counter-revolution, chiselling at the principle of universal provision in health and education, reducing class mobility, cutting child poverty but widening the gap between the lowest and the highest earners. Privatization, discipline, austerity in a recession, kill-or-cure remedies: in so many ways, Thatcherism is now the new normal.
In the months before her death, “Lady Thatcher” enjoyed a rehabilitation. There was the Meryl Streep film Iron Lady, which framed her political career with a touching portrayal of her descent into dementia; there were the Cabinet papers from the time of the Falklands war, released a few weeks ago, which described her breaking down in tears at the thought of sending British boys to their deaths. Obviously to hate Thatcher (as so many of us do) is to succumb to a reverse cult of personality. But it isn’t only that. Like her friend Ronald Reagan (who can forget the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s poster of the two of them as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara before a mushroom cloud?) she was one of those politicians who sums up and seems to embody more than a set of policies: a shift of mood, a zeitgeist, a way of thinking and feeling about social life. Her megalomania knew no bounds. (With Reagan she took credit for the fall of the Soviet Union, as if it were a consequence of her crusade against the left.) She shifted the boundaries, rolled back decades of progress, moved British politics irrevocably to the right; now that she’s dead, we have to endure the spectacle of a “ceremonial funeral with military honours” in St. Paul’s Cathedral, as if she were some sort of saviour of the nation. The dead hand of tradition will heap blessings upon her head, along with no small number of her old enemies. The millions of us who dissent will remember that hypocrisy is essential to the British elite; that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
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Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, Europe's only militarily divided city. (Flickr/Jorge Láscar)
The kaleidoscope spins again; the shards are rearranged; this time, the fragment at the centre is Cyprus. Faced with yet another country needing an urgent bailout (and with the German election looming in September), Eurozone leaders and the IMF have come up with a new wheeze: make savers pay to rescue the banks that were meant to look after their money, in exchange for a bailout of 10 billion euros.
Not unreasonable, you might say: Why should the proverbial German taxpayer cough up for Russian oligarchs and shady foreign businessmen who’ve stashed billions on the island? But the plan will take a cut from everybody’s savings—farmers, pensioners, orphans, oligarchs and oil magnates—on a roughly graded scale. (The proposed levy on accounts under 100,000 euros—which were in theory guaranteed by the Cyprus government—will probably now be reduced from 6.7 percent to 3.5 percent, which reminds me of the sage Nasrudin Hoja’s advice to the man whose house was too small.) Over the weekend Cypriots queued at cash machines; one man drove his bulldozer up to the door of the bank.
As the newly elected government of President Nicos Anastasiades postponed a vote on the plan and closed the banks until Thursday, the blame-shifting began: Was it Anastasiades who sold out the small savers to keep the Russians sweet, or the Troika heavies who showed him the brass knuckles? (Answer: it’s complicated, but there were brass knuckles.) Vladimir Putin weighed in, calling the plan unfair, unprofessional and dangerous. Russia has loaned Cyprus 2.5 billion euros; the EU is hoping it will extend the terms.
Why does all this matter? One, because this is the first time the EU and IMF have decided to take money directly from people’s pockets rather than through the messy process of cutting wages and pensions and putting taxes up. You could perhaps read this as a tacit acknowledgment that austerity has failed, economically as well as politically: it’s messy, it’s unreliable, and it makes people vote for leaders who won’t play the game, like Italy’s Beppe Grillo. You could certainly read it as a sign of how profoundly Europe’s leaders have lost the plot. Though the market meltdown predicted over the weekend hasn’t materialized, howls of derision have issued from bankers and business leaders as well as Cypriot indignados: if guarantees on bank deposits aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, if people’s savings can be siphoned off by fiat, then the world as we know it, or at least the banking system, will come to an end. (It’s worth remembering here that before the last Greek election a Syriza economist proposed tapping private deposits to fund public investment; he was pilloried as a dangerous radical who would destroy the principle of private property.)
Two, it matters because with both ends of the economic spectrum lining up against it, the latest Band-Aid offered for the ailing Eurozone looks more and more like a crowbar to help tear it apart. The European Union, a liberal project with the twin goals of preserving peace and solidarity and facilitating commerce, always had opponents on both left and right. As the crisis deepens and peace and solidarity drop out of the equation, those voices are getting louder, not only in Greece and Italy but in Scandinavia, where far-right parties are rising, and in Britain, too. The anti-immigration UK Independence Party beat the Tories to second place in a recent by-election. Cyprus, a former colony, is home to several thousand British retirees; the front page of the Daily Mail today denounces the great eu bank robbery. The financial “contagion” from the Cyprus bailout might be containable; the political fallout will be more problematic.
Three, it matters because the plundering of ordinary people’s savings to bail out the banks lays bare more starkly than before where the real power lies. What price is democracy, when the European Central Bank’s Jorge Asmussen can present an elected European leader with the choice to accept the deposit tax or we will let your banks go under, and your economy too? (And yes, I know that Cyprus has a bloated banking sector; I know its people elected the governments that chose to let this happen; I know it’s a center for money laundering. But so are Switzerland and Luxemburg and the City of London, not to mention—according to the Basel Institute of Governance—Germany.)
Last but not least, it matters because Cyprus matters. Always in the cross-hairs of Great Power rivalries, betrayed by its former colonial masters, pushed and pulled by the politics of its neighbors Greece and Turkey, the island has struggled for decades to shape its own destiny. When the crisis hit Greece a couple of years ago, a Cypriot friend wrote to me, “Don’t bring us down with you, the way you did last time.” She meant 1974, when the junta in power in Athens launched the coup in Cyprus that sparked the Turkish invasion that split the island in two. Cyprus’s fall this time is due in part to its exposure to Greek bonds, which were given a short back and sides last year by the same financial wizards who have hatched this latest plan.
You might be forgiven for thinking that those wizards want the Eurozone to fall apart. But that’s conspiratorial, and gives them too much credit. Like the British in Cyprus the 1950s, they’re trying and failing to juggle their own contradictory interests. And as in the 1950s, it’s the locals who’ll get hurt first.
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A Golden Dawn demonstration in Athens, June 27, 2012. (Flickr/Steve Jurvetson)
There’s a shadow play going on in Athens, a symbolic political war that also involves real actors and real bombs. The one that went off on Sunday in a suburban shopping mall owned by oligarch Spiros Latsis peppered the front pages of this morning’s papers with shrapnel—“Security cameras show four hooded men”; “Police speak of new terrorist generation”—and made The New York Times: “Bomb Attacks in Greece Raise Fear of Radicalism.” Over the last ten days there have been small explosions outside the homes of pro-government journalists, at banks and local party headquarters and in the building where the brother of the government spokesman lives; someone shot a Kalashnikov into the empty office of the prime minister. So far the only casualty has been people’s sense of security and sanity, the feeling that they can grasp what’s happening around them—but that’s been in intensive care now for some time.
Who’s doing this, and why? The attacks outside journalists’ homes were claimed by an obscure group calling itself the Lovers of Lawlessness/Militant Minority, but that doesn’t tell us much. They could be, as the government says, “far-left anarchists”; they could be, as some on the left say, provocateurs linked to a murky parastate intent on more repression; they could be both at once. But whoever they are, their actions are part of a tightening, an escalation of tension, a narrowing of possibilities, that seems to be gathering speed.
Violence has been simmering for some time in Greece, not just among the young who rioted in Athens in December 2008 but among older people, too. Austerity wears the gentleness out of people’s hearts. At first it was mostly rhetoric. “There are plenty of guns in Athens, plenty of guns, you wait,” an elderly man shouted at me back in 2011. Words became weapons: “They should all be hanged”; “Burn the brothel parliament”; “There’s going to be blood”; “I want Golden Dawn in parliament to beat the others up.” But from the beginning, there was physical violence too: in the attacks on migrants by Golden Dawn supporters with the connivance of the state; in the beating of peaceful protesters and the wild spraying of tear gas by the riot police; in the rain of stones and Molotovs at every demonstration; in the surge of suicides. You could say that hunger and homelessness in the midst of plenty are a kind of violence, too.
That’s not to say that these things are equivalent, or that one form of violence justifies another, only that violence in itself is nothing new. What is new, perhaps, is violence as spectacle, part of a coded dialogue: security theater against the propaganda of the deed. I’m not sure which of the two I dislike more.
The rash of bombings began after riot police raided two anarchist squats in Athens and arrested the occupants; Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias described the squats as “centres of lawlessness.” The older one, Villa Amalia, had been going for twenty-three years in an old neoclassical building, a crumbling former boys’ school in the center of the city with flaking stucco and a grassy, gap-toothed balustrade. The squatters had put up scaffolding to protect passers-by from falling masonry, and carefully restored one side elevation. A blue sign on the corner, printed to look official, listed the contractor as “The Solidarity Company,” the funding as “Self-Organized,” and the sponsor as “The Organization of Living Buildings.”
Villa Amalia had long been part of the local scene, viewed slightly askance by some but mostly tolerated. The squatters kept the place from becoming a shooting gallery, ran a café and free concerts and a radical printing press. Lately they had taken a more active role: local people told me that “the kids” were their best defense against Golden Dawn vigilantes who were moving into the neighbourhood, terrorizing immigrants and extorting protection money. (Last week two Golden Dawn supporters stabbed to death a young Pakistani man, Shehzad Luqman, in an Athens suburb; his coffin was carried past City Hall as part of an anti-fascist protest on January 19.) When blackshirts came with clubs to “clear” the nearby square, it was anarchists and other supporters of Villa Amalia who stood their ground against them.
During the raid on Villa Amalia police said they found 1,247 empty beer bottles, sixty-two ball bearings, fourteen flares, one plastic container with flammable liquid in it, one knife, one firework, one folding metal club, one gram of cannabis, twenty staves and four catapults—materiel for mayhem maybe, but not quite a cache for the coming insurrection. In photos, the squat’s interior looked like a teenager’s bedroom on a very bad day, strewn with coffee cups and computer parts. But watching Greek television, one might be forgiven for thinking it hid the pulsing heart of violent revolution.
The show was a good distraction from a vote to enable the new round of austerity measures, and from parliament’s farcical discussions about whom to prosecute over the government’s handling of the “Lagarde List” of 2,000 Greek depositors in a Swiss bank. It was also a trap for Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, which is pretty much neck and neck with New Democracy in the polls and has repeatedly been accused of supporting street violence (and even blamed, by some, for the rise of Golden Dawn). A Syriza MP put his foot right in it by declaring his anarchist sympathies while sporting a red keffiyah; party leader Alexis Tsipras made the requisite distancing noises. New Democracy’s spokesman, though, did not hesitate to blame “the hoodlums of Syriza” when the first firebombs went off outside journalists’ homes. A slanging match ensued, further denting what little is left of the Greek people’s faith in any of their politicians.
Nor has Public Order minister Dendias felt it necessary to address the most powerful “center of lawlessness,” the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which has infiltrated the police and part of the judiciary, recruits in schools, trains militias, openly advocates civil war and beats people up under the nose of the police, and whose supporters post pictures of their treasured weaponry on Facebook. For the state has two ways to deal with challenges to its monopoly on violence: repression and cooptation. For the left, the Greek state has chosen repression; for the extreme right, tolerance and cooptation. That is its historical pattern and its comfort zone; it’s also what best suits the neoliberal model being imposed in Europe.
The suppression of left-wing protest isn't always violent. Read Allison Kilkenny's take on the curbside protests of Obama's inauguration.
There’s a chant that used to irritate me when I heard it on Greek protests against austerity last year: “Bread, Education, Freedom, the Junta didn’t end in 1973.” (It’s a bit better in Greek; it rhymes, at least.) If you call an elected government a junta, I thought, however catastrophic its policies, what will you call a real junta when you see one? And if you conflate disparate historical moments—the military dictatorship that ruled Greece for seven years from 1967, say, with the collapse that began in 2010, when the socialist government declared the coffers empty and signed up to the EU and IMF’s disastrous austerity program—how will you make sense of what’s actually happening?
I still don’t like that chant. But it is also true that Greece can no longer be called a functioning democracy. (Some might say it never could; but that’s another story.) Here, very briefly, are three reasons why:
One: A significant part of the police, elements of the judiciary and some sections of the coastguard have been infiltrated by supporters of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which won eighteen seats in parliament in June and has been soaring ever since. Police not only turn a blind eye to increasing far-right violence against immigrants and leftists: they sometimes participate in it. (For more about the rise of Golden Dawn and its penetration of the police, see my long report for The Guardian, Paul Mason’s for the BBC and this from Borderline Reports.)
Having allowed a fascist organization to hijack law enforcement through a lethal cocktail of intention, incompetence and inertia, the state is still failing to address the problem. A scheme has just been announced to set up a central police database that will record all racist incidents, but there is no plan to purge and reform the police force itself. Instead, the government will create a new unit to combat racist violence—which suggests the surreal image of opposed police squads fighting each other on the street.
Two: Allegations of police mistreatment and torture of anti-fascist protesters, unreported by the Greek mainstream media until The Guardian published them and now partially confirmed by a medical examiners’ report, were met by Nikos Dendias, the minister of public order and citizen protection, not with a promise to investigate but with threats to sue the paper for “defaming Greek democracy.” In response to questions tabled by the left party Syriza, Dendias has now said that the allegations will be investigated as part of a “sworn administrative inquiry,” described by UNHCR in 2008 as an internal and confidential police procedure designed to protect the rights of the officer involved rather than those of the complainant.
Three: Press freedom, always precarious in Greece where most private media are in the hands of well-connected oligarchs, is a dead letter.
On October 27, investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis of the magazine Hot Doc published the “Lagarde List”—naming 2,059 Greek citizens with deposits in a Swiss bank passed to the government two years ago by the IMF’s Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister, as an aid to investigating possible tax evasion. Tax evasion has been estimated to cost Greece 28 billion euros a year—double the 13 billion in further cuts being demanded by Greece’s lenders, which will fall mostly on pensioners, working people and the poor. The list, mysteriously mislaid by Greek officials, includes the names of a former culture minister, finance ministry employees and prominent businessmen.
Vaxevanis made it clear in his editorial that not everyone on the list is guilty of tax evasion; he was arrested the next day on misdemeanor charges relating to privacy laws. His trial begins on November 1. “Instead of arresting the tax evaders and the ministers who had the list in their hands,” he said “they’re trying to arrest the truth and freedom of the press. I’ll say something very simple: Journalism means publishing something that others are trying to hide. Everything else is public relations.”
Then, on October 29, Greek state television suspended the two presenters of a popular morning talk show, Marilena Katsimi and Kostas Arvanitis, because they discussed on air Dendias’ threat to sue The Guardian over the torture allegations and pointed out that medical reports confirm police malfeasance. Aimilios Liatsos, the broadcaster’s news director, said that the journalists had “violated the basic rules of journalistic practice” and made “unacceptable insinuations” against Dendias. ERT journalists are planning a wave of twenty-four-hour strikes until the presenters are reinstated. Meanwhile, in Corfu, a man has reportedly been arrested for posting on his Facebook page photographs of police officers in company with members of Golden Dawn at a parade commemorating Greece’s entry into World War II…
So, in the “cradle of civilization,” we now have state security services infiltrated by a violent fascist organization; a failure to independently investigate allegations of police violence; and a penchant for shooting the messenger. I won’t call it a junta, but it’s not democracy either.
To see a less-than-democratic practice in the US, check out Ross Tuttle's report on New York's stop-and-frisk law
“I’m telling you, we’ll go bankrupt inside the memorandum. Blood will be spilled in Greece, out of hunger if not anything else. But since this government’s been elected, until that happens there’ll be funds for that job—the question is, Will they be released this week or next? I hope it works out for you, because there’s money there. There are no salaries anymore, for me it’s just what I can sell in the souvlaki shop…” The heavy-set, white-haired man shouting into his mobile phone on the overground in Athens summed it up perfectly: a temporary reprieve of sorts, a postponement, followed by—what?
There’s always a sense of let-down after an election: all those promises, all those fantasies and fears giving way overnight to hard reality. The Greek vote on Sunday came with more than its share of dramatic expectations. Athens was crawling with foreign hacks waiting for “drachmageddon,” if Syriza should win and scrap the bailout memorandum. The German Financial Times published a piece in Greek telling voters to “resist the demagoguery of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza” as if they were the Luftwaffe dropping leaflets on occupied Athens; Die Bild followed suit in a more demotic vein: “If you didn’t want our billions, it would be fine with us if you voted for any leftist or rightist clown you liked.” Meanwhile, Alexis Tsipras was promising a new dawn of dignity and hope, change and renewal, liberty for Europe’s peoples, free gifts with every purchase. And New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras—who has twisted 180 degrees with the political wind on the bailout agreement, and whose party is co-responsible for the state of Greece’s finances and up to its eyes in corruption—was playing the national savior, warning of disaster if the “drachma lobby” should triumph.
Whatever else the Greeks may be, they weren’t born yesterday. Most people I spoke to on election day didn’t think much would change whichever party won: the economic and social breakdown is now so profound that it will take many years to swim up to the surface. Many still weren’t sure which way they were going to vote because “no party expresses me”—or because they were afraid they might get what they wished for. Those who have little left to lose went for Syriza in droves, unfazed by the fear-mongering, pushing up its share of the vote from 4 percent two years ago to 17 percent in May to 27 percent on Sunday. But even Syriza’s leaders, or so the rumour went, were hoping to come second. A friend involved in their campaign put it to me like this: “If we lose, I’ll be disappointed and relieved. If we win, I’ll be worried.” Until a few weeks ago Syriza was a small oppositional left coalition; it isn’t ready (yet?) to nail its various banners to a single flagpole and become the state. And if Syriza won and failed,as it was almost bound to do given the situation, its inexperience and the guns of Berlin and Brussels all lined up against it like a firing squad? Then where would the dispossessed of the memorandum turn?
A frightening number have already turned to the far right, especially to the violent neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn’s vote dropped only 0.05 percent since the May 6 election, giving it eighteen seats in parliament and confounding predictions that people would turn against it once its true face was revealed. On the contrary: the physical attack on two left women MPs by party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris on live television in June apparently helped its cause. “Serves the lesbian right,” some said; others saw it as the symbolic slap they’d like to give the system. With eighteen seats in parliament, Golden Dawn is now firmly established on the mainstream political scene, despite (or maybe because of) its sharp fascist rhetoric and street-fighting muscle boys. It’s obviously a response to humiliation and poverty and the thousands of destitute migrants trapped in Greece’s cities, but it’s also the resurgence of an extreme-right current that’s been there since the thirties, waiting for the moment to emerge again. In parts of Athens it works hand in hand with the police, who’ve been known to pass a phone number on a scrap of paper to citizens complaining about immigrant crime.
The official response to the election from Europe’s politicians is a small sigh of relief. In theory it buys them time to find some last-minute Band-Aids for the crumbling Eurozone: the rudimentary Eurobonds discussed (but not agreed on) at the G20 summit, some investment for growth, perhaps a softening of the rigid German austerity recipe. They may also offer a lollipop or two to the Greek people for voting the right way, or at least a longer timescale for the cuts to come. But with the same “clowns” (or thieves, as most Greeks call them) from New Democracy and Pasok voted back into power mainly out of fear, nobody expects anything good from the government.
That may be the best thing to come out of this election. In spite of the deepening poverty and the grim prognosis, in spite of deep anxiety about violence in the streets, there’s also a new blend of resignation and self-reliance in the way some people talk. Maybe it’s because they feel they’ve almost hit rock bottom; maybe it’s because the election didn’t lead to sudden death; maybe it’s that the rise of Syriza restored some sense of dignity for those who weren’t scared by it. As the historian Tasoula Vervenioti put it, “We’ve done all right, the Greek people. We’ve taken a lot of tear gas. And Syriza, to produce Syriza that shook them all in Europe, that was something too.” Now that the demonizing of Greece in the foreign press has eased a little bit, people seem more able to face their own complicity in the country’s trouble—the lack of a sense of citizenship and public responsibility, the widespread willingness to plunder the public purse in ways both large and small. It’s only a little thing, but when this government falls apart, as many expect it will, it might turn out to mean a lot.