Athens is no longer considered by scholars as the birthplace of democracy but all of a sudden it has become the epicentre of a powerful political earthquake rocking the foundations of every democracy in the Atlantic region.
Street fighting has turned whole sections of the city into burned-out battle zones. Some areas are controlled by associations of citizens. Other districts are now permanently under police occupation, or patrolled by xenophobes, thugs and fascists.
Most Athenians are ashamed about what is happening to their city. Many are angry or irritable, or in a mournful state of shock. More than a few are convinced that much worse things are lurking just around the corner.
Greece in the red
They are wise to think so. Greece is facing an insolvency crisis. It might yet prove to be the forerunner of disorderly debt default next month in the United States. Greece is definitely not Argentina, whose government managed ten years ago to bail out its citizens by reducing and stretching interest payments on massive debts.
On paper, things in Greece are at least three times worse than in Argentina. That country's public debt only ever reached 50 percent of GDP; Greece's is now 115 percent and rising. When measured against GDP, Greece’s current account deficit stands at 10 percent. Argentina’s only reached 2 percent.
With the country tottering on the edge of insolvency, the ranks of Greek citizens who fear pauperisation and social convulsion are understandably swelling.
Unemployment officially stands at 16 percent; the figure is expected to jump sharply in coming months. Over 40 percent of the under-25s can’t find work; little wonder that some of them have joined the ranks of the so-called “known unknowns”, street fighters prepared to take on the widely-hated police.
Even the middle classes fear their society is splitting into rich and poor.
Greeks lucky enough still to have a job have seen their salaries cut and are now facing sharp price hikes, sales tax increases and the compulsory reduction of the minimum wage. Their pension systems are collapsing. Most public services no longer function properly.
And last week, as if deliberately to add insult to injury, the Socialist government of George A Papandreou approved tax increases, a further round of wage cuts and plans to sell off even the state electricity utility, the ill-named Public Power Corporation, home base of a forceful trade union closely linked to the Socialists.
The Greek laboratory
What does all this mean for democracy? Are there lessons for the rest of the democratic world? Yes.
Greece resembles a stress-test laboratory where the present resilience and future meaning and viability of democracy are being pushed to the limit.
For a start, questions have surfaced about how much humiliation citizens can endure before they snap, or slump.
If democracy is a way of life and a type of self-government which respects and protects the dignity of people, then by that measure the Greek system of party politics and representative democracy has badly failed its citizens.
It has done something far worse than corrupt their state, bankrupt their economy and herd citizens into the frightful uncertainty that comes with unemployment, massive debt and poverty. It is robbing them of their dignity.
Spiritual intangibles sometimes play the lead role in politics, and so it is now in many streets and squares of Greece. Transformed into a self-styled “people’s assembly”, Syntagma Square in Athens, overlooked by the national parliament building, has become the prime symbol of resistance of indignant citizens (called aganaktismenoi) to the humiliating and hurtful policies of a ruling group that governed Greece for three decades, but which has now lost its legitimacy.
Dubbed the “debtocracy”, this governing circle is seen by many citizens to include most Greek politicians, bankers and media magnates. In the present crisis, this group is said to be backed by what many citizens call the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank.
Who are the protesters?
Who are all these indignant citizens? As in Tunisia, Egypt and Spain, the popular assemblies that have mushroomed throughout Greece in recent months have been spearheaded by young people, those whom the OECD calls “Generation X”: unemployed graduates, young people in crappy or precarious jobs, usually unprotected or ignored outright by the official trade unions.
There is plenty of evidence that their resistance to the language and methods of “austerity measures” enjoys widespread support across a huge cross-section of Greek society.
Reliable surveys report that more than a quarter of Greece’s population of 10 million people has taken to the streets in recent weeks. One respected poll shows that more than 80 percent of Greek citizens support the demonstrations and believe they will continue, with more than half the respondents now convinced that the resistance will “achieve something”.
The figures are significant, and they help explain why more than a few observers and participants alike are tempted by the false sirens of populism.
Those who describe the citizens’ initiatives as an expression of “the will of the people”, or of a new model of “real”, “direct”, “participatory”, “grassroots”, “deep” or “deliberative” democracy, are mistaken.
These popular assemblies are nothing of the sort. The Greek resistance on the streets is forging a sense of solidarity among people, but it is not the expression of a pre-given People.
And it is most certainly not fuelled by nostalgia for the golden age of the institutions of classical Athenian assembly democracy.
It is more accurate to say that the Syntagma Square assembly is a defence of monitory democracy. It lays claim to a future where democracy means nothing less than fair and free regular elections, but something much more: the ongoing public scrutiny and responsible control by representatives of power wherever it is exercised by governments, businesses and non-government institutions, even within cross-border settings.
Syntagma Square is a syntagma. That is not just a play on words, for it is indeed a construction, a brand new experiment, a creative remix of some old democratic tactics, a new institution of monitory democracy that combines the peace vigil, the militant sit-in, the public demonstration, the trade union rally, the teach-in and the constitutional convention.
Syntagma is the Greeks’ Tahrir Square and Puerta del Sol. It is a multiplex public space where fearful citizens gather in solidarity to vent their private angers in the reassuring company of diverse others, from all walks of life. It is a space in which the principle of political and social equality is reaffirmed; everyone who attends is entitled to listen and to be heard, through a microphone, three minutes at a time, on any subject. Syntagma Square is thus a site where the dignity of citizens is reclaimed. It is even a space where new futures are imagined and unborn generations are granted a voice, a place where speaker after speaker warns that unless something gives citizens of the future will be forced to suffer the grinding injustices of the present.
The self-styled people’s assembly is also a multi-media broadcast studio. Look at the sounds and images and stories pasted all over the internet.
Syntagma Square is a cry to the country, to the rest of Europe and, in a way, to the whole world. It is a public appeal to citizens everywhere to take note of what is happening to the people of Greece, to understand how and why their lives and livelihoods are being ruined by arbitrary power.
Syntagma Square is thus a lighthouse, an early warning station, a reminder of how easily democracy is destroyed whenever power is exercised invisibly, helped along by flat earth news, bribes in brown envelopes, backroom deals and government agreements fixed over long distances with powerful global organisations like Ferrostaal, Johnson and Johnson and Deutsche Bank.
Needless to say, for the moment bankers and politicians and mainstream journalists are heavily out of favour with Greek citizens.
Big media outlets are accused of being “part of the system”. Bankers and creditors are described as crooks; there are more than a few shouts to turn their guts into garters.
The big parties and their politicians are said to be all the same. “Thieves, thieves!”, the public assemblies chant, which is not simply an indictment of the funding difficulties and social convulsions that Greece is now facing.
The accusations of robbery are something new in the history of democracy. They are not a reiteration of the old European principle of no taxation without representation, the political precept that triggered more than a few revolutionary uprisings in modern times.
The Greek cries of “thieves” point to something original. It denies the supposed facts of insolvency. It regards talk of the “imperatives” of state debt as a political fiction, as an ugly synonym for extortion.
When seen in this way, talk of theft amounts to a declaration of independence from “odious debt”. It is an insistence that there are times when the debts accumulated by a regime prove so foul to so many people that citizens collectively have the right to declare those debts null and void.
Most people have forgotten that the United States and (indirectly) its voting citizens did exactly that when they occupied Cuba in 1899 and refused Cuban liability for debts accumulated by the Spanish colonial regime; or that the government of Ecuador managed successfully to re-negotiate and write off a massive public debt by involving citizens and their representatives directly in the whole nasty process.
So why shouldn’t we now follow suit, many Greek citizens ask? Some add: why can’t the citizens of other broke countries, such as Britain, Ireland, Spain and Portugal, exercise the same right as well?
These are path-breaking, horizon-stretching questions. The deepest significance of the present Greek uprising is its contribution to cross-border resistance to cross-border power.
Though there are moments when in various assemblies citizens seem to speak as the National Resistance once did, the uprising is not to be understood as a struggle for “national salvation”; the profusion of websites and the Tunisian, Egyptian, Spanish and Syrian flags, accompanied by Argentine-style pots and pans, speak firmly against dull-brained efforts to squeeze the Greek events mentally into some or other nineteenth-century national liberation box.
Contrary to the views of red comrades in the ranks of the demonstrators, the Greek refusal of debtocracy is also not the first stage of a working class revolution against the bourgeoisie.
Democracy spreads beyond borders
The opposition to thieves and odious debt is something unfamiliar. Outsiders should listen to its language with open minds and wax-free ears, and with a strong sense of urgency, for arguably it is a forewarning to the whole world of the global dangers of unaccountable power.
The language proves that the genie of democracy is escaping the container of once-sovereign territorial states. It affirms to those who choose to listen that large-scale organisations with wide and powerful footprints, bodies such as global banks and credit institutions, the IMF and the European Commission, now regularly have ruinous effects on democracies, and will in future continue to do so unless ways are found of subjecting them to democratic representation and public control, under the watchful eyes of citizens spread across borders.
So far, of course, cross-border democracy in this sense is just a utopia, a necessary and desirable ideal stifled by its own vagueness, and by arbitrary power. So, with insolvency and probable default just around the corner, will the Greek efforts to keep alive and spread the spirit of monitory democracy prevail? Can its citizens manage successfully in practice to refuse indignity? Or will still further rounds of odious and hurtful “austerity measures” be imposed?
A post-democratic future?
Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos warned last week that if Greece slides into insolvency and is forced into disorderly default and withdrawal from the Eurozone, then the crash of hobnail boots would once again be heard on the streets of Athens.
“Returning to the drachma would mean that on the following day banks would be surrounded by terrified people trying to withdraw their money, the army would have to protect them with tanks because there would not be enough police,” he warned. “There would be riots everywhere, shops would be empty, some people would throw themselves out the window…And it would also be a disaster for the entire European economy.”
Pangalos was speculating, in support of a bitterly-disputed parliamentary vote, but he may well prove to be right in his dark prediction.
In which case, democracy in Greece would die another sad and unnecessary death, this time leaving the wider European Union to shake hands and make peace with the first post-democratic dictatorship to appear within its borders.