Sunday, June 5, 2011

Direct democracy and class war in Greece and letters from Marta Soler and Carlos Robles

Staying in Athens for two days before going to give a course in Crete, I have been exposed to the center of European democracy and class war. In America, and even reading the reactionary papers here, one would have no idea that a revolutionary atmosphere is developing against the elite. It is fierce…

During the day, one can see several hundred working class demonstrators against the cutbacks at the postal service near Syntagma Square (the parliament), with the fear that the government will privatize it and sell it to a German company which will lay off large numbers of postal workers (perhaps over 50%). At 6 o’clock in Syntagma Square, a crowd starts to gather under a banner which says "no to apathy – direct democracy (amesi demokratia)." It is the ninth day of such gatherings and discussions. There is an open mike for speeches and proposals. By 8, some 50,000 people have gathered (I am with some friends near the speaker on the edge of the people seated, the crowd surges around, and up the high steps to the road that separates the Parliament and may extend over in front of it. The woman who moderates (one of several moderators) calls for a continuation of a discussion proposed the previous night (that meeting ended at 4 AM), and takes hands for 20 speakers (eventually there is a vote which approves hearing from all of them before continuing).

Most of the crowd is young, the people in their twenties. The European Union, to which the Greek government is obsequious, even though headed by a Socialist (George Papandreou, who is reputed - a rarity among leading Socialists - an honest man), has demanded that the Greek parliament vote on June 15 on a maximum salary for every young worker before she reaches the age of 25: five hundred – 500 - euros a month. This is a poverty, near starvation wage for a young Athenian (barely enough to pay rent – perhaps if 4 people share an apartment - let alone eat).

The Greek parliament has been a weak institution, limited by fascism and a military coup and tyranny (1967-74). It is a series of small desks (one has to hunch in to sit in them, as I discovered when I took my students to see it three years ago). There is no space for an audience. Parliament in Greece is confined, and behind closed doors. A generally discussed proposal in the crowd is to block the parliamentarians from entering the parliament, prevent a vote, get them to drop the proposal. That is a sort of Madison, Wisconsin-like demonstration. The spreading influence of Tunisia, Egypt, Madison, and the indignados in Spain, is visible here, though the revolutionary intensity as well as a sentiment that violence may be inevitable (government violence, but more strikingly revolutionary violence) is in the air.

A friend of mine, a government worker, spoke of how the regime has diminished already low wages for all public workers 29% (20% a year ago, 9% in the last two months). The regime has also levied steep additional taxes on ordinary people. His wife does not have a job; they have two kids. Yet he will pay an additional 2000 euros in taxes. He is hurting economically, and he is among the comparatively well-off (speaks of himself as an average middle class person during a period when for the middle class, the rug has been removed from under their feet; he knows how much worse off the workers and the poor are). The government has isolated itself with the European capitalist elite. The sympathy for revolution among the people is broad (he speaks of the events coming to a bad end, some sort of revolutionary violence, though he favors it).

A small number of Greek magnates, some 40 people, got corrupt deals from the conservative and socialist governments. The style of the deals was a la Dick Cheney and W. for contracts in Iraq – private deals with one bid to the biggest companies. The wealthy have many houses, store their money abroad, threaten to invest abroad if they are taxed. But the Socialist government protects them, serves the Europe of bankers which demands Greece pay down its debt - $500 billion euros (the net wealth of the 40 men is said, in the crowd, to be $600 billion). The direct democracy movement thinks that those who have gotten rich off corruption could be taxed to pay off the debt and still left $100 billion. But the government and Europe insist (as if they were American bankers, under the influence of AIG and Goldman Sachs), the poor and the unemployed will pay.

A socialist Defense Minister is also going to court now (for laundering money, for building houses and not declaring the income to taxes). He had mandated substantial weapons purchases from the United States for use against Turkey (stemming the rivalry over Cyprus, inter alia)...But Greece does not suffer from American militarism (the war complex: nearly a trillion dollars spent by the Pentagon and intelligence apparatus per year including huge outlays for shadow – privatized – militaries like Xe/Blackwater and others, an empire of some 1280 bases abroad…). The Greeks are not militarists and have little use for buying American weapons at the price of hunger and joblessness.

A button appears at the end of the evening: "it’s not my debt, I will not pay." Speakers talk about removing parliamentary immunity, trying the parliamentary representatives for crimes, putting them in jail. There is an air of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the air here. A reactionary paper,the Katherin, snobbily refers to the mostly young demonstrators as “bored,” detests democracy, gives no report on the intense discussions into the night…But a cartoon displays helicopters taking off the politicians from parliament (politicians are welcome says the sign on the helicopter door), the crowd with pitchforks at the gates in Syntagma...

In a well-to-do suburb of Athens, another direct democracy demonstration is taking place. This one is attacked by the police, 10 arrested. At Syntagma Square, a crowd of mortorcycles (supporters of the Panhellic Socialist Movement, apparently) rev up noisily, gassily, to distract the attention of the crowd from the speakers. Everyone looks for a police provocation or attack…There has been so far none; in this respect, the government respects the demonstrations – it would be an international incident to attack 50,000 people in Sytagma in front of the Parliament. Given the example of the suburbs and the increasingly threatening mood of the crowds (people want the parliamentarians in jail), I wonder: how long before the military is called out?

I spoke with a retired military officer two days ago, who is now working at a private corporation, even his job in doubt. He too spoke of revolution (as someone who has written a book on Marx’s Politics and long been interested in revolution, now nonviolent revolution, I was amazed to have powerful conversations with two middle class people (out of three I talked with; the third is also for fundamental change) who had straightforwardly the vision and expectation of violent revolution….

Today (Sunday, the twelfth day of the demonstrations) there is to be a huge demonstation in Syntagma; perhaps a million people are expected. There are calls out for simultaneous demonstrations in European capitals, in Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, Berlin…But the Greek one will be the biggest. A friend – a teacher – and his wife plan specially to come from Argos (and there will be a large presence from outside Athens). The sentiment for change – and against the European Union/government - is fierce, increasing in waves.

There is no obvious leadership for this revolution. The teacher along with other intellectuals, lawyers and some former government officials is proposing a constitutional change, a fourth body, a parliament of the citizens, to meet yearly (selected by lot, so as to be not under the influence of the parties). This is an old institution, described initially by Aristotle (in the Constitution of Athens). In it, the parliamentary leader would have to explain how his policies are consistent with the promises of his campaign and benefit the people, achieve a common good. If the government has become too corrupt (as is now particularly the case), the leader and other officials can be subjected to a censure, required not to seek an additional term, and even brought to trial. My guess from listening to the discussion in Syntagma is that this would be a popular suggestion.

Buried for so many years, alive, when I first came four years ago, only in the monuments on the hills of Athens high above the struggling city, a series of class explosions (last year against the police murder of a teenage demonstrator) are now becoming/inspiring democratic discussions about how to make a representative system -- a system of two or multi-parties - serve a common good rather than the rich (what I call an oligarchy with parliamentary forms in Democratic Individuality). Suddenly, Greek political thought is again at a democratic height (for it is now far more democratic in bent than Aristotle, ultimately the advisor to Alexander and an enemy of democratic protestors).

In Greece, the striving to articulate popular democracy - what the idea of the democracy of ordinary citizens, direct democracy means - is much deeper than elsewhere in Europe or the United States (in America, SNCC and SDS had ideas of participatory democracy, realized by SNCC in the organizing for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 which revolutionized the Democratic Party by 1972 –that was an integrated convention, unlike the previous meetings which had been anchored in the segregated South. But that impulse is sadly not to the fore in the United States since, even in the anti-Iraq war movement (the Obama campaign was rank and file and had some interesting conversations about what a still hierarchical campaign might do, but was not deeply democratic).

In Athens, however, people take heart from direct democracy, the inheritance of ancient Greece, and the institutions which might make it work. This is one of the most striking political developments in the new world that has blossomed from Arab spring.


Marta Soler has written a letter about the police attack on the indignados in Barcelona – also protestors for direct democracy, see here - the day after the election of the Right in Spain. No longer fearing a backlash in the election and using the excuse that those celebrating FC Barcelona against Machester United in the Champions League might ”create a mess” and somehow the indignados might add to it, the CIU (the Catalan reactionary government) sent the police to attack nonviolent demonstrators in the Placa Catalunya. But many more came to replace those expelled or injured. This was a victory – symbolic and practical – for the international democratic movement.

“Dear Alan,

First of all, thank you so much for your comments, experience and clarifications. You say: “Democracy is a long and hardwon struggle”. I also think that it certainly promises suffering, hope and change.

A few days ago, we experienced police brutality in Barcelona. The excuse was because the celebrations of FC Barcelona’s victory could “increase the mess” around the area. So, police charged against peaceful Indignados. A number of people were injured. Nevertheless, more protesters came to support the ones who were in peril and thus, Government ordered withdrawal. What a lection of unity.

On the other hand, now I see that there is a connection in terms of symbolism with Arab spring. Using globalization’s tools such as social networks and being part of this context of new social movements. Because we are geographically “close”, maybe we are living a wave of change as well. Besides, people take the streets with the same powerful determination. However, I was meaning that it is not comparable in the sense that we have a Democratic Regime even if corrupted and improvable and they are starting from zero. Moreover, I thought that here the level of violence and repression is not comparable with the one that they are living there…

“Such protests are, in fact, outside the system”. I agree because we are asking for political and economical structural changes. “Anarchists are wrong about not voting” but “it is good for the Indignados to have such discussions”, I agree as well because brainstorm ideas are essential to have brilliant plans and proposals. However, I still do not sympathize with what we call “los antisistema” (leftist punks, anarchists, squatters,…) because they tend to easily divide the movement as it happened with the fail of The Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939)”.

CIU won the elections with almost 50% of abstention, 4% of blank votes and 2% of invalid votes. Are their actions and decisions really legitimate? Catalonia was one of the Autonomous Communities with less electoral participation but the total percentage of participation in the whole Spanish State was 66.23%. Why do people do not vote? Because they do not believe in politics and from my point of view, this is a key problem.

Finally, we can see that Solidarity is being one of the effects and the causes (at the same time) of these movements. Solidarity and social ties are increasing and they can maintain and reinforce the movement. In Spain, we have an advantage: culturally, our social ties are much stronger than in other areas of Europe with a much more individualistic culture. Where is the movement going? Nobody really knows. What happens if it fails? It will certainly serve as another historical example of how strong can sound people’s claims for decency. I believe that this is the beginning of a long-term process of change

Saludos des de Barcelona,

In response to my seeing the impact of Arab spring in Spain, Marta emphasizes that in Egypt, the people are fighting for democracy against the intense murderousness of the dictatorship (some 700 people were murdered by the police), a contrast to the level of repression in Spain. That contrast is right, but it is relative. The Spanish democracy has proven itself comparatively strong in its toleration of democracy from below, despite the continuing presence of fascism. See here, heree, and here. In the United States however, the transition from a parliamentary democracy with the rule of law to the abolition of law and a quasi-police state was realized in the Bush-Cheney regime and is still pulling down Obama (that the US is a long way from the rule of law I illustrate here). Now vast nonviolent anti-war demonstrations occurred even under Bush against the war in Iraq and were not brutalized by the government (there was, however, heavy police-FBI surveillance of the followers of Martin Luther King...). Obama emphasizes the rights of citizens to assemble and not to be shot in Egypt. But though Marta’s contrast is fortunately still right, the danger of this kind of shift/regression to authoritarianism is real.

On the similarities, the use of facebook and the internet, pioneered in Tunisia and Egypt, has spread to Spain and Greece. In these countries, and in Lisbon on March 15, I learned from the French newspaper Liberatlon, there have been big working class demonstrations and one day general strikes. But these do not close the country down, disrupt sufficiently so that Europe and its politicians get the message that the poor will not pay the debts of the rich. In this context, the demonstrations of young people, the indignados and now the direct democracy movement in Syntagma, encouragingly rely on these new methods, combine the internet for the young, including young workers, and the more traditional methods of working class revolt.

Marta is, however, too skeptical of the anarchists in Barcelona in the 30s. That was a revolutionary movement, based in the artisans and the farmers, that took over the town and established an egalitarian community (with some resemblances to the Paris Commune). The Republic, dominated by the Communist Party, launched a merciless campaign of defamation of the anarchists as well as social revolution. George Orwell, who came to Spain sympathetic to the Republic and the Soviet Union but ended up fighting with an anarchist brigade, writes, in an appalled way, of the defamation of the anarchists (as well as the torture and killing of some) he saw. Orwell also traces out how the anarchists in Barcelona were careful about how sharply to press a battle against the Republic, could have been negotiated with – rather than demonized – by the Communists. It is a very important idea of Gandhi and King that one should not demonize others, even those who are currently profiting from the oppression of Spaniards and certainly not those in the movement. One should disagree with others pointedly but with respect (not belittling or categorizing them). For the oppressors, one should stop them through mass, militant non-cooperation without threatening their lives...

Marta makes the excellent point that half the people in Spain did not vote in the recent election and 6% more had blank or spoiled ballots. The reactionaries were elected by a weak vote. Part of the reign of capital is, in ordinary circumstances, to discourage the votes of poor people, especially minorities. Republican policies coordinated across the United States, requiring photo identifications (drivers’ licenses) that older people and young people often do not have, especially among blacks and Chicanoes, is a study in this kind of disenfranchisement. Perhaps serious organizing of people to vote – given them a real alterantive as, for instance, the teacher in Greece who advocates a second parliament, that of the citizens – might invite them to participate. Perhaps deep democratic movements like the indignados and the Greek direct democrats will involve some of these people who had not voted, enable them, through discussion, to see the need to cultivate and exercise (in diverse ways)their own political voices.

Both Spain and Greece have, happily, a more social culture among people than the Northern countries. But even in America, where a virtual life is increasingly absorbing teenagers, the people of Madison rose up, responding to Arab spring, against Governor Scott Walker and the attempt to destroy collective bargaining. Carlos Robles, another friend and student from Barcelona, sent a video underlining the solidarity of workers in Madison with the indignados in Spain – what I call democratic internationalism from below (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?):


Check out this great solidarity video from Wisconsin to our "Spanish Revolution" here.

Best regards from Spain!

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