For the past three years Greece has faced a social disaster. The draconian austerity packages imposed under the bailout agreements with the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank have led to unemployment levels comparable only to the Great Depression (a 26.8 per cent official unemployment rate in October 2012, with 56 per cent youth unemployment), to a recession equivalent to a prolonged war (the total contraction of the economy has been estimated at 23.5 per cent of GDP from 2008–2013), and to all kinds of social problems, including a rise in suicides and infant mortality. There is no sign of an exit from the vicious cycle of austerity unemployment and recession brought about and maintained all in the name of staying in the Eurozone.
This disaster has been accompanied by a constant erosion of popular sovereignty. Laws are dictated by the representatives of the so-called ‘Troika’ (EU–IMF–ECB) and social rights gained after decades of struggle are being attacked through legislation passed with the use of extraordinary procedures, in complete disregard of due democratic process. Greece is becoming a post-democratic parliamentary ‘state of exception’.
Social crisis has led to political crisis. Greece has gone through a remarkable sequence of protest and contention, with general strikes, mass rallies, street clashes and the anti-austerity occupation known as the Movement in the Squares. Anger and despair have become dominant feelings in Greek society. The political representations and forms of political loyalty formed in the post-1974 period are being rapidly disbanded. The electoral earthquake of May 2012, when the mainstream parties could not form even a coalition government; the rise in protest votes; the collapse of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK); the great losses of the Centre-Right New Democracy; the rise of the Left and the coalition party SYRIZA; and the emergence of the far-Right Golden Dawn as a national political force: all these attest to the extent and depth of a political crisis that is very close to becoming a hegemonic crisis, in the sense of an inability of the political system to extract some form of consent and legitimacy from larger segments of society and the consequent political instability.
These tectonic shifts can explain the growth of the Left and the subsequent rise of SYRIZA, the biggest left-wing party close to power, as well as the rise of Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn’s electoral support combines those urban areas that have been more severely hit by the austerity and recession with traditional rural strongholds of conservative voters. Its appeal to a predominantly male and relatively young constituency consisting of working-class and traditional petty-bourgeois strata, along with many unemployed, suggests analogies with other fascist movements in history.
Far-Right ideology has deep historic roots in segments of Greek society. The Left–Right divide was defined in Greece during the Civil War of 1946–49 and the subsequent authoritarian regime imposed with the support of the United States. Anti-communism, nationalism, militarism, limitations on human rights, an admiration for the police and a disregard for the democratic process have been integral aspects of right-wing ideology, along with a conservatism exemplified in the rhetoric of the 1967–74 military dictatorship – most notably, the tripartite values of ‘homeland, religion and family’. This authoritarian, nationalist and anti-democratic ideological current has always coexisted in the ideology of the Greek Right (and Centre-Right) along with more liberal and neoliberal elements, and has also been an integral part of the esprit de corps of the forces of order, both police and military.
The fall of the dictatorship led to the gradual incorporation of most far-Right militants into New Democracy, which quickly established itself as the main party of the Right. Political formations of the far-Right persisted but they were politically and electorally marginalised, since the pressure to enter mainstream politics was very strong.
The roots of Golden Dawn can be found in those groups that, in the 1970s, decided against electoral politics and opted for a more violent confrontation with the new democratic regime. Nikos Mihaloliakos, Golden Dawn’s leader, first came under the spotlight as a participant in violent far-Right actions in the mid-1970s.
The rise of Golden Dawn has also been helped by the particular kind of racism and xenophobia that has dominated mainstream political parties and corporate media in Greece. The deteriorating quality of life in some Athenian neighbourhoods has been used to present immigration as the root of all evils. The pejorative term ‘λαθρομετανάστης’ (‘illegals’), which has negative connotations relating to contraband goods, is now used even in official documents instead of the more precise ‘undocumented immigrants’. In January 2011, 300 immigrants who had been working in Crete (some of them for many years) but who, because of rising unemployment, had not been employed for sufficient days to renew their permits to stay in Greece, staged a hunger strike in Athens. Their heroic struggle was met with solidarity from the Left but also by virulent attacks by mainstream parties and cries in the press for immediate police intervention.
In the spring of 2012, the socialist health minister, Andreas Loverdos, openly blamed immigrants for the rise in HIV infections, even publicising information about HIV-infected sex workers to make his point. (In reality, most of these unfortunate women were Greek drug addicts engaged in occasional prostitution.) The rise in HIV infections had nothing to do with immigration but rather with increases in intravenous drug use as a result of unemployment and social despair and the collapse of social services due to budget cuts.
In the summer of 2012, partly in response to the electoral success of Golden Dawn, the Greek government ordered mass arrests of immigrants and opened a series of detention centres. Anti-immigration policies are common all over the European Union: the so-called ‘Fortress Europe’ strategy has meant many immigrants have died in the Mediterranean attempting to reach a better future, and is also responsible for immigrants and refugees becoming stranded in Greece because of EU regulations prohibiting them from moving to other European countries.
Traditional conservatism, sexism and homophobia have always been part of the ideology of Golden Dawn: after entering parliament, the party presented itself as a defender of traditional values and the Orthodox Church. In October 2012, Golden Dawn targeted the staging of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi in an Athenian theatre on the grounds that it attacked Christianity and promoted homosexuality.
In a society ravaged by austerity and unemployment, with rising despair in and distrust of the political establishment, Golden Dawn also uses violence as part of its appeal. When Ilias Kasidiaris, a Golden Dawn MP, violently attacked two left-wing MPs on live television, the incident did not reduce his party’s popularity. Attacks on leftists and immigrants have been common throughout its history: in June 1998, Periandros Androutsopoulos, then Golden Dawn’s second-in-command, led a group that attacked three left-wing students, nearly killing one of them. (Androutsopoulos fled arrest, but was subsequently tried and convicted for attempted murder.) In May 2011, the murder of a Greek man in downtown Athens spurred a wave of violent attacks on immigrants that were largely organised by local Golden Dawn cadres. In the summer of 2012, another bout of violence took place, with the suspected approval of local police officers.
Indeed, Golden Dawn has openly adopted ‘police’ or even ‘para-state’ practices, exemplified in the attacks by its members – including its parliamentarians – on immigrant open-fair traders, even those with proper permits. The party has invested politically and electorally in its support of state violence as part of a neo-fascist version of a ‘law and order’ strategy. In both 2012 elections, the percentage of Golden Dawn votes in polling stations where policemen voted was substantially higher than the national average, with some suggestions that as many as 50 per cent voted for the party. The Greek police force has long been associated with repressive politics, from its strong connection with institutionalised anti-communism after the Civil War to the fall of the dictatorship in 1974. A certain far-Right mentality has been tolerated, even promoted, especially in the Special Forces.
Cooperation between the police and Golden Dawn has taken many forms, from Golden Dawn members emerging from behind police ranks to attack anti-fascist protesters, to police helping Golden Dawn’s ‘spatial’ tactics, with raids against self-managed squats that blocked Golden Dawn’s control of neighbourhoods in Athens.
After its electoral success, Golden Dawn has tried to present itself as a popular social and political movement, attempting to create its own ‘counter-hegemony’ in large segments of the subaltern classes. With many Greeks facing extreme poverty and the mainstream political system offering no solution, Golden Dawn has attempted to exploit this widespread discontent by systematically copying, while adding its own ideological twist, the Left’s practices of solidarity. Golden Dawn’s interventions are not only openly racist (food handouts directed only to Greeks or Greek-only blood banks, a move chillingly reminiscent of the Nazi obsession with blood purity), they are also highly paternalistic, involving no self-organisation but simply philanthropic acts from benevolent party representatives. Other Golden Dawn initiatives include attempts to decrease unemployment by making sure that only Greeks are hired as rural workers or shop assistants (with corresponding violent attacks on immigrants).
The political establishment has not made any serious attempt to come to terms with the rise of Golden Dawn, other than via references to a widespread anomie in Greek society: a theory that says Greece is suffering the results of the ‘meeting of the two extremes’, with the ongoing social crisis fuelling both the radical Left and the far-Right. According to this narrative, this anomic reaction, displayed in the disregard for law and order and the inability to understand the rationale behind austerity, is the common denominator of the mass rioting, the rise of the Left and the growth of Golden Dawn.
Some commentators have even linked Golden Dawn to the supposedly anti-political and anti-parliamentary Movement of the Squares, as well as to other forms of mass protests, such as civil disobedience against tax hikes or increased toll costs. But not only did Golden Dawn not participate in the Movement of the Squares, it was actually highly critical of it.
In reality, Golden Dawn has no presence in mass movements. The actual practice of the Movement of the Squares and similar protests involved rebuilding solidarity and unity in struggle – a sharp contrast to the discourse of Golden Dawn. If Golden Dawn seemed attractive to some who might otherwise have sympathised with the social movements, it was more to do with the inability of the Left to turn anger into an alternative radical narrative than with Golden Dawn’s supposed organic links to the protests.
Meanwhile, pro-austerity parties have taken advantage of Golden Dawn’s rise by themselves embracing an authoritarian far-Right agenda. Government ministers – even the Prime Minister – have argued that the way to counter the far-Right is to promote exactly the policies it endorses: anti-immigrant crackdowns, the repeal of legislation enabling naturalisation for some immigrants, tougher laws against street protests and support for more aggressive police tactics (including the use of plastic bullets and water cannons against demonstrations). One of the rising stars in New Democracy is Makis Voridis, a supporter of an aggressive combination of neoliberalism and authoritarian anti-immigrant policies, who for many years was a leading figure of the Greek far-Right.
In other words, the authoritarian conservatism and racism of Golden Dawn is not an exception or a political accident – it is an aspect of a broader shift of state politics and strategies. As historical experience illustrates, the rise of fascism always accompanies an authoritarian transformation of state politics and strategies. That is why, in Greece, the growth of Golden Dawn has already mirrored changes in the state apparatuses, and there have been calls on the Right to incorporate elements of the Golden Dawn strategy (or even Golden Dawn itself) in a new political hybrid combining neoliberalism with authoritarianism, conservatism and nationalism.
The rise of Golden Dawn cannot be simply attributed to prolonged austerity; it is also the result of deeply rooted authoritarian, racist and conservative ideologies that, when combined with pseudo-solidarity and a simplistic condemnation of the political system, offer an outlet for anger from people who have mainly refrained from collective struggle and solidarity – an outlet that, despite its anti-systemic overtones, is deeply embedded in the system. Golden Dawn’s answer to the crisis is, in the long run, entirely compatible with aggressive neoliberalism, since, despite demanding a protective and paternalistic national state, the party supports the restoration of capitalist power in the workplace.
Most of all, the rise of Golden Dawn is a warning sign, especially for the Greek Left; it is proof that anger, despair and a loss of legitimacy of mainstream neoliberal politics do not lead to an automatic political radicalisation. The rise of fascist movements is often fuelled by despair and insecurity, especially if such feelings are expressed in a fragmented and individualised manner that drives people to seek the pseudo-community and pseudo-radicalism of fascism. Unless broad segments of society regain confidence in changing their lives through struggle and solidarity, we can expect fascist movements to build. If we cannot show that, collectively, we can ensure that no household will be without electricity, no person without access to basic medical care and no child without a school lunch; if we do not manage to resist aspects of the austerity measures; if we do not demonstrate that solidarity between Greek and immigrant workers can make neighbourhoods safer, then Golden Dawn, with all its over-publicised acts of ‘solidarity only for Greeks’, will continue to grow.
Golden Dawn’s mixture of nationalism and patriarchy, along with its references to a strong state that ensures all Greeks have work and that natural resources are properly exploited, has benefitted from the inability of the mainstream parties’ neoliberalism to offer a narrative other than collective guilt (‘we are all responsible for the crisis, therefore we must all pay for it’) and vague promises that prosperity will return after 2020s. But it has also benefitted from the Left’s inability to present an alternative, to articulate not only simple anti-austerity demands but a different road for the reconstruction of a country along a socialist direction. To counter Golden Dawn, we need an alternative hegemony, a new narrative for Greek society that includes exiting the Eurozone and thus breaking from the embedded neoliberalism of the European Union, getting rid of the terms of the bailout agreements, and implementing radical reforms for a Greek society based not on market forces but on solidarity, self-management and democratic planning.
Moreover, the Left cannot allow questions of corruption to be taken up solely by the far-Right. Attacking corruption, particularly the links between mainstream politicians and big capital, does not mean endorsing some reactionary discourse on ‘kleptocracy’. Nor does it mean fantasising about a more ‘moral’ capitalism. Capitalism is not only about impersonal social forms and structures, it is also based on very specific monetary ties between business and politics. When, in the Movement of the Squares, the cry of ‘Thieves!’ – one of the most repeated slogans – was directed against parliament, it was not a manifestation of a right–wing ‘anti-political’ stance, but a justified reaction to a political class that has combined full endorsement of aggressive neoliberalism with an increase in their personal wealth.
Finally, we need to articulate, through struggle and solidarity, a new collective identity in Greek society. The almost neo-colonial supervision by the Troika, the attempt to turn Greece into a ‘Special Economic Zone’ for foreign capital, the new forms of ‘European Economic Governance’: these lead to a condition of limited sovereignty that Greek capital accepts so as to take advantage of aggressive austerity. Traditional nationalist discourse about a ‘conspiracy of foreigners against the nation’ takes advantage of this. To counter it, the Left needs to rethink a form of collective identity for the people living and working in Greece, not in the sense of nationalism but as a collective effort to build a common future. We must present a renewed form of a ‘sovereign people’ that includes both Greeks and immigrants engaged in a democratic process of social transformation.
The rise of Golden Dawn, regardless of how long it lasts or whether it will be countered by a reconstruction of the Right, is already acting as a catalyst for an authoritarian political and ideological turn. The question is whether this tendency will prevail or whether the future of Greece will be instead determined by the dynamics unleashed by protest movements. This has to do with the ability of the Left and social movements to not only articulate a coherent alternative as political discourse but to also reconstruct collective resistance and self-organisation, turning Greek society into a laboratory of new social forms rather than the testing ground for experiments in aggressive social engineering. Faced with the danger of an even more reactionary turn, the challenge for the Left is not simply to rely on electoral trends, but to build an alternative hegemony. Until then, we remain at the crossroads of despair and hope.