An absolute refusal? Notes on the 12 February demonstration in Athens
by PAVLOS HATZOPOULOS, ILIAS MARMARAS and DIMITRIS PARSANOGLOU
1. The 12th February demonstration in Athens, consolidated, what is becoming clearer in the past weeks: a growing majority of the Greek people support the refusal of the memorandum no.2 no matter what. In spite of the fear mongering spread by the pro-memorandum forces that a negative parliamentary vote would entail an immediate euro exit and the ensuing Africanisation of Greece, the popular support for the new EU-ECB-IMF loans and the correlated austerity measures is waning significantly. The formal political debate is increasingly based on a politics of fear: the government’s and mainstream media’s principal argumentation is stripped, on the one hand, to the bare threat of what a disorderly Greek bankruptcy would entail -invoking often assumed similarities with Greece’s plight during the World War II occupation by German and Italian troops- with basic food and medicine shortages and a lack of basic public amenities like gas, heating, electricity; on the other hand even mainstream media cannot but be critical vis-à-vis the most dismantling provisions of the memorandum no.2 for any sign of consensual legitimacy, such as the automatic decrease by 22% of minimum wages, the content and scope of collective bargaining and so on, insisting however ‘in the final analysis’ that the dilemma posed leaves only one choice.
In the current conditions, the growing impoverishment of the wider population and the collapse of state welfare structures makes this line of argumentation less and less effective. In the everyday lived experience of the wider population the spectre of destitution and the destruction of universal public services and amenities is embodied as a direct result of the austerity policies. The massive refusal of the memorandum no.2 tends thus to becoming absolute: it is consolidated beyond and besides any types of rationalisations of existing or future formal policies and calls for new beginnings that the government and financial interests can articulate. In the coming critical period, the site of openness in the political sphere relates to the struggles over what forms this absolute refusal might take and what type of political actions can be constructed around it.
The social composition of the massive absolute refusal of the memorandum no. 2 crosses existing societal divisions and categorisations and reflects its informal and fluid character. The demonstrations in Greece include more and more actors with different social backgrounds, different political aspirations, and different desires for mostly non-representable futures. Apart from the material outcomes that successive austerity plans produce, mainly the violent downgrading of large parts of the late middle class, a strife against injustice is drowning by numbers the whole society regardless previous political affiliations. In addition, demonstrations in Greece more and more seem to escalate, precisely when they are less organised and when they are not called by formal political organisations. Although, a 3 day call for action (February 10 to 12) was set against the parliamentary vote of the memorandum no.2, during the first two days that coincided with a 48 hour strike supported by all the trade unions, the turnout was unexpectedly low, the protests pursued the usual tactic of marching towards the parliament grouped largely in political blocs and ended relatively quickly. On Sunday, February 12, when there was no strike, no precise formal call for action and no foreseen march itinerary at all the participation in the protest became unprecedented. Everyone just knew that from afternoon onwards people should go to Syntagma square, outside the Parliament. Most of the participants just walked from different parts of the city joining the demonstrations in small groups of friends, at random with people they met on their way to Syntagma, in neighbourhood associations, in neighbourhood assemblies that have been formed the past 6 months throughout Greece. There was no starting point of the ‘demonstration’, but only destination. People were trying to reach Syntagma many hours after the demonstration was supposed to have started, most were intermittently leaving the tear-gased areas to catch their breath and returning after a while. Even some political groups that managed to form a few blocs of demonstrators near the parliament dissolved soon after the first rounds of teargas were fired by the police as early as 5pm.
The only political group that retained its cohesive character and tactics during the course of February 12 was the Greek Communist Party (KKE), whose activists remained largely outside of the geographical scope of the demonstration, on the outskirts of central Athens trying to avoid any mingling with the rest.
2. The police tactics during the 12th February demonstration, were primarily aiming to deface the mediamatic image of this consolidated mass refusal of the memorandum no. 2 by evacuating the square ‘by any means necessary’. It was as if the whole crackdown of the demonstration unfolded around interrupting a panoramic visual representation of the mass of demonstrators and of course avoid any unpredicted shortcomings that could hinder the parliamentary procedure. Therefore, the principal concern of the Greek police was to prevent the demonstrators from gathering in one unified body of people tear-gassing massively all areas around Syntagma square, even before the beginning of the protest. As a result of this tactic, a large -quite possibly the largest- number of demonstrators never managed to reach Syntagma square and wandered around side streets, engaging in street battles against the police or trying to avoid them. This prevention of the emergence of a centralised mediamatic image depicting the mass refusal of the memorandum no.2 was quasi-celebrated by mainstream media and the government precisely as it enabled them to avoid to visually represent, address, or respond to the mass character of the demonstration. At the same time, however, it expressed their apprehension: the realisation that their usual formal reaction to these types of political conditions is becoming null, that they can no longer appeal to a supposed silent majority supporting them and so on.
The widespread rioting during the night of 12th February was also a result of this police tactic. The difficulties faced by police forces in dispersing the demonstrators as far away as possible from Syntagma square, when their primary desire was to return there every time they were pushed back. The dispersion of rioting in the wider city centre of Athens in the 12th of February is also related to the radicalisation of wider groups of demonstrators and the unexpected participation of certain social groups experienced in street battles against the police. In an unprecedented action, for instance, the principal football fan clubs in Greece, along with youngsters from other clubs, joined the 12th February demonstrations in a united fashion, setting aside club differences.
3. Through the absolute refusal of the memorandum no.2, an impossible situation is emerging for formal Greek parliamentary politics, particularly for governmental politics. The formal political solution: parliamentary elections cannot be easily pursued by the government coalition, even if the conservative partner in the coalition (Nea Dimokratia) insists on asking elections ‘just after the state of emergency’ is overcome. This because the result of these elections will probably make it impossible to put in place a pro-memorandum government, regardless of what type of electoral system will be chosen. The movement of absolute refusal will tend, in this way, to push Greek formal politics to or even beyond their limit.
This movement of absolute refusal is emerging out of the exceptional material circumstances of crisis contagion and catastrophe. But the most fearful for parliamentary politics development-factor that emerges as a mute – therefore unpredictable – monster is that catastrophe can be pursued, produced and imposed by a frenzy multitude that feels it has nothing to lose apart from the joy of destruction. Although, similarities and connections to the December 2008 revolt might seem evident, there is no necessarily linear or evolutionary process that connects the two, apart from the cumulative experience that has moved everyone a step towards radicalisation in thought and in practice. It is true that this growing radicalisation of more and more larger segments of Greek society hasn’t produced in these past 3 years any permanent democratic structures for organising or for articulating political struggles. The critical political question, however, might not necessarily be how to create these structures in the Greek context, but how to immediately transpose them in their fitting European setting, to think on how will this movement spread like contagion from one country to the next, from one urban context to another. In other words, how this absolute refusal will be internationalised in a continent that already lives its future through the lenses of a fist of experimental animals.