This December marks one year since the young of Greece rose in revolt after the police murder of fifteen year old Alexis Grigoropoulos. It was a burst of energy that still thrills me twelve months later…and I wasn’t even on the same continent. We all go through formative moments in our lives, moments that shape our years to come. I am sure that those explosive days were such moments for tens of thousands of Greek youth.
I remember hanging out with comrades at the time talking about it. How exciting it was to see all of those working class kids staking claim to their lives. Near the end of the conversation a comrade said, “yeah, and I bet there is mad fucking going on behind those barricades at night.” I bet there was. Revolt, revolution, is the most life affirming act there is and the ecstasies of that ebullient winter could be felt four thousand miles away. The generation who experienced that won’t easily forget it. I am confident that those December rages will reverberate in a thousand ways in a million lives and place its stamp on the future of the Greek class struggle. Let those that pull the strings of those that pull the trigger rue the day they murdered Alexis Grigoropoulos.
In this essay(1) Savas Michael Mastas of the Greek Workers Revolutionary Party (EEK) gives his take on the revolt. The translation is by no means perfect and the analysis, in my opinion, “catastrophist” in a number of places. That said, it is a clarion defense of those workers who would determine their own fate and a just denunciation of those, especially on the left, who would seek to tie the fate of workers to the interests of capital.
The Greek Revolt and Freedom of Expression by Savas Michael-Matsas
The revolt in Greece in December 2008 did not take place, to paraphrase Jean Baudrillard’s well known (but misleading) statement 2, at least according to what the mainstream mass media were presenting to the Greek public and the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) publicly and repeatedly was declaring.
The orgy of bourgeois democratic disinformation and of Stalinist slander during the December events is a monument to the glory of freedom of information and freedom of expression under capitalism. But above all it worked as a weapon in the war of the rulers to repel and defeat the mass rebellion of the ruled, which indeed did erupted challenging the monopoly of violence of the State and bourgeois power itself. It was the most important revolt in the country after the civil war of the ’40s and the 1973 uprising in the Polytechnic University of Athens against the military dictatorship.
The killing of a 15 years old boy by a Special Guard of the Police on December 6, 2008 became the fateful act that played the role of a catalyst for a the explosion; a direct confrontation of the youth with the capitalist State and all institutions of economic, political and bureaucratic power started. Day after day, week after week, the popular revolt with the very young generation of schoolchildren, students, unemployed and precarious workers in the forefront, supported by the broadest layers of working people, was mobilized all over the country, from North to South, in cities, towns and villages, putting under siege police stations, occupying public buildings, schools, universities, offices of bureaucratized unions, burning banks, clashing with the hated riot police which exhausted all its brutality and tear gas against the youth rebels and had to buy new ones from Israel. The places under occupation became centers of action and sites of the general assemblies discussing and deciding future action. Daily demonstrations were taking place
This unprecedented social explosion and its causes were totally disfigured in the bourgeois mass media. These are few examples:
Only the police version of the actual killing of the young Alexis Grigoropoulos was broadcasted claiming that the murder in cold blood by the Special Guard Korkoneas was just an unintentional accident (The killer himself was presented in a very sympathetic light in a disgusting “literary” story in the Arts Section in the Sunday issue of the daily of the Stalinist KKE “Rizospastis”3).
The mass revolt was presented exclusively as the isolated actions of blind violence by small gangs of anarchist hooligans covering their heads with a hood. In the Stalinist version, these hood bearing persons were provocateurs implementing the orders and a plan of local and foreign secret agencies.
The immigrant workers were particularly targeted by the media and demonized as actors of vandalism and looting.
When the night of December 23, a death squad of the bosses attacked with vitriol the Bulgarian immigrant worker and class struggle trade unionist Kostandina Kuneva, there was not only a complete cover up of the crime by the police but also a complete black out of information by the media. When an unprecedented mass movement of solidarity based on the December revolt itself emerged in the country and abroad and the issue could not any more ignored, information was systematically distorted and manipulated not only to cover up the crime but above all to stop the growing workers and popular movement that made the heroic trade-unionist Kostandina the flag of every social battle.
As sectors of the “deep State” turned to a kind of Italian style “strategy of tension” to repel the upheaval generated by the December events, a grenade was thrown by fascists against a gathering of antimilitarist activists in the Club of Immigrants in Exarcheia on February 24, 2009; only by chance the life of more than 35 people was spared. But the Police and mainstream media misrepresented the case as an “armed clash between competing anarchist groups”!
Not only the dimensions and the social depth of the great revolutionary Event of December that interrupted bourgeois normality had to be hidden and/or distorted by the mass media but even its trace had to be erased. In London, it was publicly announced that in the Hellenic Center an exhibition of artistic photography by Spyros Christofis and George Kasolas would be opened on January 14 to last until the end of January 2009. But the same night of the inauguration, after the ceremonial opening, the exhibition was canceled because the pictures were showing Athens in flames with the youth in rebellion clashing with the State repression forces…4
This systematic campaign of disinformation did not remained unanswered. On the contrary, the right for information and truth, for freedom of expression became one of the main battlefields.
Cyberspace functioned as a space of freedom of expression and networking, a channel of counter-information and a powerful means for mass mobilization, sometimes instantaneous as in the night of December the 6th.
The challenge to the mass media manipulation condensed to the slogan Stop watching TV! Every body in the streets! took also the form of direct action.
On December the 16th, a most spectacular action was performed: the occupation of the ERT State TV Broadcasting. When the State TV station was broadcasting the main 15.00 pm News, and the Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was addressing his parliamentary group and the Greek people on the recent huge financial scandal involving the government and an orthodox Monastery in Mount Athos(a scandal that cynically was covered up by the government closing now any further legal investigation on the affair), suddenly the image was interrupted ; another image of a group of 100 militants was broadcasted holding banners with slogans against the murderers of the State and for the liberation of those arrested during the revolt!
Many other TV and Radio Stations all over the country were temporarily occupied and statements of the revolt broadcasted.
Early January 2009 another direct action challenged the role of bourgeois mass media and the “tolerant repression” of freedom of expression: “On Saturday, January 10”, their Declaration announces, “a group of employed, unemployed, and unpaid workers and students in the media industry took over the headquarters of ESIEA (the union of the Greek journalists, photographers and other workers in the media industry). This endeavor, which basically opposes dominant Discourse, aims at demonstrating medieval working conditions in the mass media, as well as at promoting the need for the creation of a single assembly for the expression of ALL those who work in the media industry(See http://www.katalipsiesiea.blogspot.com).
The connection of overexploitation by “flexible” labour relations under neo-liberal capitalism in crisis and the lack of freedom of expression stressed by the activists of the occupation of ESIEA demonstrates the material social base not solely of this specific group in action but of the December revolt as a whole.
Against the dominant official explanation of the events presented by sociologists and other academics mobilized by the mass media barons focusing one-sidedly to the youth as an age group and denying the deeper class character of the revolt, for all the participants in this historical experience it was clear that the driving social force of the revolt was the emergence of a new proletariat, both native and immigrant, working under “flexible”, precarious, low paid conditions of overexploitation To this factor combined was with the dead end of an educational system that condemns the students to a future of unemployment ( 50 per cent of unemployed youth in Greece has a degree) or of precarious labour that has nothing to do with their studies. The proletarianization of vast petty bourgeois strata and a growing tendency to social exclusion and pauperization has added more explosive material.
“Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear!”
In direct contrast to the false, artificial image given by the mass media, the ruling classes in Greece, in Europe and internationally, and their spokespersons did recognized its revolutionary potential. The French daily Le Monde, in the first days of the revolt, had published an editorial with the headlines “Greece without a State”5. Dominique Strauss –Kahn, the head of the IMF has admitted in a public statement the real world historical nature of the December revolt as the first political explosion produced by the current world capitalist crisis. President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke about the threat that the Greek virus” spreads in France and in Europe and he had to retreat on an anti-Education bill to avoid the threat by the youth movement6. Despite the efforts, he could not prevent two powerful General Strikes on January 29 and March 19, 2009, millions of demonstrators in the streets and a 40 days insurrectionary General Strike in Guadeloupe that was extended in Martinique and Reunion, the overseas territories of metropolitan France.
Even in the Far East, voices in the Chinese ruling elite warned for the danger to see in Beijing scenes like those seen in Athens!7 In Iceland and Latvia the governments did not even survive to receive the warning. They fell under the impact of the crisis and mass unrest
The December revolt in Greece shows the future, the emerging class war in Europe and internationally. It sent its season greetings to the world bourgeoisie with the writing in the University wall in the center of Athens: Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear!
The weakest link
Greece became the stage for the fist social political explosion of the current world economic maelstrom because it is the weakest link, economically and politically, in the chain of the Euro-zone countries.
The social economic development of Greek capitalism in the last 20 years was based on the global expansion of finance capital and the process of integration of the European Union after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the East.
In the 1990s, the PASOK governments, especially the Blairite “modernizers” of the Simitis government tried to adapt Greek economy to the demands of capitalist globalization by introducing privatizations and flexible labour relations, attacking social rights of the workers won after the fall of the dictatorship, increasing the gap of inequality between a rich minority and the increasingly impoverished large majority of the people.. The 1997 international Crash centered in South East Asia made Greece one of the emergent financial markets attracting surplus capital searching an outlet. The boom in the Athens stock market was ephemeral and finished by ruining mass of small investors and enriching a few financial sharks, particularly those connected with the government. Cheap labour by the hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers flooding in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the “socialist” Balkan countries made possible to make a successful bid to join the Eurozone in 1999.
The link with the Euro provided the necessary guaranty to attract loans as the credit expansion reached new highs in the period of the international economic upturn of 2002-2007. Greek capitalism thought that its old dream to rise as the regional economic hegemonic power in the Balkan Peninsula became finally true as the Greek industries de-localized to the Balkan countries and the Greek banks made unprecedented inroads in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
The parasitic nature of Greek capitalism was exacerbated. The Greek capitalist social formation was “born already old”, as Pantelis Pouliopoulos, the former general secretary of the KKE in the 1920s and later leader of Trotskyism in Greece, had rightly written in 19348; it was industrialized and completed the full formation of its own Nation State in the epoch of wars, revolutions and capitalist decline.
World credit expansion in 2002-2007, permitted to public and private debt to soar from $162 billion in 2003 to $360 billion or even, according to other estimations, half a trillion dollars in 2008. The European Commission estimates that the foreign debt of Greece in 2008 reached the staggering pint of 148 per cent of the national GDP. 9 From 2004 onwards the GDP grew $80 billion in current prices, an average annual increase of $16 billion, from which $6 billion was coming from the EU. The State had a $10 billion deficit and it borrowed $12 billion annually to achieve only a growth of $16 billion or, if are included the EU subsidies, just $ 10 billion, exactly the same as the deficit!10 At the same time, the current payments deficit rose to 15% of the GDP, and there was a continuous flight of capital abroad, increasing from a $100 billion in 2003 to $210 billion in 2008.
On this basis, while the country was leading to a fantastic crisis of over indebtedness and virtual bankruptcy, social inequalities, working conditions, and unemployment were severely worsened and the social tissue was disintegrating. Popular discontent against both parties that ruled the country for 35 years, the social-liberal center left PASOK and the neo-liberal center right New Democracy, was building up. Together with it, State authoritarianism and continuous, unpunished police brutality against the “enemy within”, especially the angry, unemployed or socially excluded youth and the immigrants, intensified. A non stop series of financial scandals of State and party officials exacerbated the crisis of legitimacy of the entire bourgeois democratic political system as it was formed after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974. Social struggles were sharpening. Main landmarks are the victorious 2001 General Strike that blocked the destruction of the workers’ pensions and accelerated the fall of the PASOK government and then the 2006-2007 student revolt led by the far left that prevented the attempt of the New Democracy government to amend the article 16 of the Constitution to permit the privatization of Higher Education.
The illusory upswing of Greek capitalism the last decade was based on finance capital globalization and collapsed with its implosion in 2007-2008. The dreams of the ruling class turned into nightmares. The over-indebted economy is actually bankrupt and only the fears of the impact of an official default on the Eurozone prevent its official declaration. Greece joins Ireland, Portugal and Italy in the higher positions of the list of EU countries under threat of imminent bankruptcy. The bonanza and over-exposure of the Greek banks in the Balkans have turned into an imminent danger of collapse of the entire Greek banking system as well. The government bail out of the biggest banks with 28 billion euros is unable to prevent a process of restructuring by mergers, and at the end, nationalization.
A metropolitan revolt
In meantime, capitalist globalizations has deeply transformed Greece from a country of a medium level of capitalist development in South East Europe into a State-member of the EU and of its Euro-zone, and further more into a metropolitan knot in the plexus of globalized capitalist relations.
This metropolitan transformation of the Greek social formation does not mean its ascent into the position in which they were raised in a previous period of historical development of world capitalism and in the early phase of imperialism, the countries of North America and Western Europe; it takes place when the hegemonic hierarchy of the imperialist centers is long ago established and cannot be challenged by entities like Greece; above all it coincides with a new phase of integration of world capitalist economy in an advanced stage of its historical decline, bringing Greece closer to the “hard core” of the centers of European imperialism while, at the same time, deepening the gulf separating it from them, making its fate more dependent from them than ever in the past .11
The metropolitan transformation goes beyond the dichotomy Metropolis/colonies or imperialist center/colonial and former colonial periphery, internalizing many features of these dichotomies within the urban space of contemporary mage-cities (internalizing for ex. “Third World” zones as ghettoes within the “First World” cities), and re-shaping power relations for the surveillance and control of an heterogeneous population of over-exploited workers and socially excluded.
Greece, and its capital Athens, where nearly half of the population, now increased by important numbers of immigrants, is concentrated, marked symbolically its ascent to a metropolitan status by hosting the Olympic Games in 2004. As a precondition to that symbolic enthronization, the imperialist centers, particularly the United States and Britain, put the integration of Greece in the international “war on terror” by introducing special legislation and by dismantling the remnants of urban armed groups, especially the “ November 17th ” organization and ELA( “Revolutionary People’s Struggle”). The latter, in fact, was already self-dissolved many years ago, while the November 17th group was in an advanced stage of decomposition. The arrests of a number of people on prefabricated charges for most of them, in summer 2002, the hysterical witch hunt atmosphere spread by the mass media, and the show trials that followed were just a pretext to introduce special “anti-terror” laws drafted on Anglo-Saxon patterns, and impose an artificial State of Emergency opening black holes in the constitutional bourgeois democratic order that replaced the dictatorship in 1974. The restoration of parliamentary democracy in Greece proved to be extremely vulnerable to the forces of decay building up together with the inner contradictions of the capitalist system.
State authoritarianism, police brutality, systematic surveillance of all aspects of the life of the citizens against any right to privacy, etc. were not just an adaptation to the post 9/11 international environment; the emergence of an increasingly authoritarian State based on the impunity of corrupt State officials, politicians and police forces, masked with a parliamentary facade and governed by a center left or a center right neo-liberal government, was a necessary complement of the “modernization” process in Greece linked to finance globalization, Euro-zone integration, and over-exploitation of native and immigrant workers.
The decay of bourgeois democracy internally conditioned by the driving forces of capitalist decline produced the framework of the recent rebellion.
In 1973 a dictatorial regime was challenged by a youth uprising in the Polytechnic University demanding democracy. In 2008, it was the turn of decaying bourgeois democracy to be challenged by a young generation demanding not only the end of police brutality but a reorganization of all social relations. It was not just a demand of freedom of expression but a revolutionary expression of freedom itself
The 1973 Polytechnic uprising of the youth against the naked State of the Armed Forces of the victors of the civil war was the last battle of the civil war. The 2008 December revolt was the first metropolitan rebellion in Greece of the young proletarians and of all the wretched of the earth.
The 1973 uprising was interconnected with the international wave of revolutionary struggles unleashed with the collapse of the post war boom based on the Bretton Woods 1944 settlement. The 2008 revolt is one of the first acts of the emerging new international wave of struggles coming with the collapse of the finance globalization that came as a way out to the crisis produced by the end of the post war boom.
All the world’s a stage
As a continuation of the December upheaval, in February 2009 the National House Opera Ethniki Lyriki Skini was occupied for 9 days by young artists and students of Drama, Dance and Music schools. May 1968, 40 years later was revived. Artistic events, debates on art and revolution, on Kostandina Kuneva and immigrant workers, on the struggle for the liberation of all those arrested in December and persecuted by the “anti-terror” laws( more than 200 people, most of them, 15 years old kids!) took place. As usual not a word was said or written in the press or the other media during the occupation- apart of the publication of a Joint Communiqué of the Director of Lyriki and of the bureaucratic trade union leaders condemning the occupation. Once, the occupation ended, all the venom of the ruling class was unleashed against those who have as a banner in the front door of the opera the words Our Art is the Revolt- Our stage is on the streets!
During the occupation of the National Operas House in Athens, in the other side of the world, the artists and workers of the famous Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires expressed together with their own demands their full solidarity in struggle to their Greek brothers and sisters in occupied/liberated Lyriki. Messages of support came to Lyriki not only from Argentina but as well from Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela. If “our stage is on the streets” all world is a stage, to use, in a new context, Shakespeare’s wonderful verse12!
The question of freedom of expression is an international and a class question that merges today with the question of revolt and social revolution. It cannot be limited in the straight jacket of a moribund bourgeois democracy.
Marx had pointed out that a mode of social production is a mode of expression of life.13 And the same time he brought into light the characteristic contradiction of capitalism as a social system: it is this specific mode “whose expression of life (seine Lebensäusserung) is its loss of any expression of life (seine Lebensentäusserung)”.14
There cannot be a real freedom of expression within as system where any expression of life is lost.
One of the main slogans shouted by the young people in the liberated Lyriki was “The last few days I feel to live- It is pity my friend Alexis that you are not here!”
The first revolt of the new era opened by the world systemic crisis of capitalism has put at the center the question of Life itself, of the re-appropriation of what is lost under capitalism, the freedom of expression of life in all its manifestations; a freedom which can be achieved only by the revolutionary expropriation of the expropriators of our life, by the overthrow of world capitalism and universal human emancipation.
Athens, March 25, 2009
1)Paper presented in the Critique Conference 2009 on Capitalism and Repressive Tolerance, London School of Economics, March 27, 2009
2) Baudrillard, Jean (1991) La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu, Paris: Galilée. In English, Baudrillard, Jean (1995) The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
3)Rizospastis 28 December 2008
4)Art News( Greek edition, Ta Nea Tis Texnis ), No 175, March 2009
5)Le Monde 10 December 2008
6)Le Monde 13 December 2008
7)Jamil Anderlini, “China battles unemployment to deter unrest”, Financial Times, December 21, 2008
8)P. Pouliopoulos, Democratic or Socialist Revolution in Greece? in Greek, first published in Athens 1934, reprinted in 1963, by Difros Publications.
9)Figures published in the Greek daily Avghi, on May 3, 2009.
10)Figures published in the Greek daily Kathimerini, on January 18, 2009
11)The concept of “Metropolis” acquired a new connotation lately and became an object of intense debate among Marxists and various schools of autonomists. See for ex. the article by Giorgio Agamben Metropolis in http://www.generation-onlien.org/p/fpagamben4.htm . This article is quite informative although our approach differs from Agamben’s as we link the concept of modern Metropolis with that of capitalist decline.
12)William Shakespeare, As you like it, Act 2, Scene 5
13) K. Marx-F. Engels, The German Ideology Marx-Engels Collected Works(MECW), Progress Moscow 1976, vol.5 p. 31
14)K. Marx, 1844 Manuskripts in Marx Engels Gesamt Ausgabe (MEGA) 2nd Edition, Dietz Verlag, Berlin1982, Erster Abteilung, Band 2, p.392