The entire world is watching as the future of Greece, and with it that of the global economy, is hanging in the balance. As journalists and commentators worry over the prospect of a Greek sovereign default triggering a chain reaction with economic reverberations worse than the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008, ordinary Greeks are fighting back. Their daily gatherings in Syntagma (Constitution) square, overlooking the Greek Parliament and named in honor of the protests in the 19th century that forced Greece’s German-descended king at the time to concede Greeks a constitution limiting his powers, have escalated pressure on a Socialist government pushing through “the most extreme package of spending cuts, tax rises and privatizations ever faced by any developed country”, while also making Syntagma square the “frontline of European austerity protests.”
Fueling these protests is the same sense of indignation that triggered the protests of the Spanish Indignados back in May. Citizens in Spain, Greece, and other parts of the European periphery and beyond are taking to the streets as the economic and political elites most responsible for the current crisis brazenly use this crisis to further entrench the failing neoliberal model.
In Greece the destructive effects of the prevailing policy response to the crisis are especially clear as unemployment is becoming more and more widespread, with the official unemployment rate exceeding 16% and the youth unemployment rate exceeding 40%. Far from showing alarm over this social catastrophe, the Greek government, under the guidance of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, is doing its utmost to aggravate it, adopting spending and salary cuts that further deepen an already grave economic crisis. Justified as a necessary step to prevent bankruptcy, these policies have produced a downward spiral. As their effect is to drastically reduce aggregate demand and increase unemployment, these policies also lead to a collapse of tax revenues that negates the fiscal gains from cutting government expenditures.
Apart from inflicting great pain on ordinary Greeks, erasing long-standing labor rights, gutting a welfare state that was never generous to begin with and destroying the fabric of Greek society, these developments have also completely delegitimized the Greek political class as well as the political and economic elites in the European Union and the IMF who give Greek politicians their marching orders. This delegitimation partly stems from the incompetence and corruption by which Greek economic and political elites have distinguished themselves for decades. It also partly stems from the evident failure of the predictions made by the Greek government, the EU and the IMF regarding the effectiveness of the austerity policies adopted last year. There is no better proof of the failure of the original bailout package that provided Greece with 110 billion euros (about $150 billion) in exchange for drastic austerity measures than the fact that Greece has not been able to return to the markets but is currently in need of further loans from the EU and the IMF.
As both the destructive social impact and the economic failure of the Socialist government’s austerity policies become more evident, Greek citizens have turned against them. Because of the popular outcry, the Greek prime minister increasingly has difficulty containing opposition even within the ranks of his own party. Trade unionists affiliated with the Socialist party are bolting, while Socialist deputies are painfully aware both of the sinking support their party is registering in all the polls and of the recent electoral defeats of other governments in the European periphery (notably Ireland, Portugal and Spain) that have adopted drastic austerity measures.
Even if the Socialist government manages to prevent a rebellion from its own deputies and to push the latest wave of austerity measures through, its days are numbered. Its disconnect from the public is only a manifestation of the crisis of political representation that has brought tens of thousands of citizens (and immigrants) from all walks of life to Syntagma square as well as the public squares of cities all around Greece. The fact that most of them are not the usual suspects in the Greek protest scene but people who had never protested before does not just give a needed boost to labor unions that have not up to this point mounted an effective resistance to the austerity juggernaut. It also dramatizes the poverty of the kind of democracy possible under capitalism, thus also giving rise to a demand for ‘real democracy’, in which all citizens have a say over the decisions that affect their lives.
Thus, just as more than 150 years ago protests in today’s Syntagma square extracted from an absolute ruler imposed from outside a constitution that limited his powers, today’s protests use that same site to counterpose to the dictatorship of the EU, the IMF and a Greek political class, so evidently out of touch with ordinary Greeks’ needs and aspirations, the demand and practice of ‘direct democracy.’ As Syntagma square becomes the site where new political demands, practices and subjects are formed, one can only hope that it will become to Europe what Cairo’s Tahrir Square became for the Arab world.