From mainstream politics to social movements: Greece in between austerity and hope.

From mainstream politics to social movements: Greece in between austerity and hope.

Spyros Themelis

For ordinary Greeks, living in extreme austerity leaves little room for optimism. After six years of brutal sacrifices, hope is traded with fear and fear with indignation. At the beginning of the crisis one used to hear people on the street exclaiming: ‘it can’t get worse’. This soon made way to selective resignation and people now say: ‘I don’t want to hear any more about politics; it depresses me’.

Navigating daily life has became a triathlon of securing material survival, mental endurance and foraging for hope. For the latter, hope, people used to turn to the younger generations. But young people are too pressurised to make ends meet, hold down a job (if they still have one) and run a household at the same time – that is, those young people who have stayed behind and not emigrated abroad. For Greece has become once again a ‘champion’ in exports, not of goods but human beings, just like it was in the 1920s to Australia and the USA or in the 1950s and 1960s to Northern Europe.

Politics in Greece, though, cannot be avoided. It is the omnipresent and pervasive force in people’s lives. In fact, politics is enmeshed in daily life in a way that the one is inextricably linked with the other. This is precisely the biopolitics that Negri and Hardt (2000) talked about. It is the field where struggles over material resources come into head with struggles over symbolic ones and can offer us a glimpse to matrix of domination of the Greek people.

This is the space that created the squares movement in the summer of 2011 and brought back some hope and a glimpse into an alternative way of organising public life and common affairs. In fact, this was an anti-space. A void that was created because mainstream politics had little more to offer and the contradictions of Greek capitalism were too stark to ignore. By joining the squares movement, people were registering their disappointment with mainstream politics and their indignation with they way things were.

More importantly, they were prefiguring ways of life that were yet to come. They were experimenting with their own version of utopia, a people’s utopia. For Greece had already become a neoliberal utopia and, by the same token, a dystopia for the majority of the population. The squares movement exemplified this contradiction in the most lucid way: while it was pre-figuring its own utopia, it was working against the existing dystopia. From this conjuncture new social forces were unleashed, new grammars of resistance were created and new vocabularies of hope were produced. The collective imaginary was triggered and this allowed new social movements, alliances and solidarities to flourish.

The rise of Syriza into power in January 2015 has to be seen in this context. With Syriza ordinary people were under no illusion that the future would still be difficult, but this did not allow hope to eclipse. A new subjectivity was being moulded. The ‘rat’ in the neoliberal experiment (Douzinas, 2013) was momentarily about to occupy the lab and run its own experiment. Mainstream politics was becoming a popular topic again. Fuelled by social media and their more horizontal form of organisation than traditional media, politics was not only being consumed, but also produced en mass. But this came at some cost. As the Syriza-led coalition government was negotiating for six months the terms of a new ‘deal’ with Greece’s lenders, the class struggle shifted terrain and the enemy switched territory: from the ‘Greek political elite who failed us’, the Greek people were now blaming the ‘international lenders, the troika’ (namely the EU, IMF and the ECB) or simply Germany, the most influential country during the negotiations. Temporarily at least, the fight took an uncanny ethno-nationalistic character risking to occlude its class underpinnings.

Class struggle was at great risk of being recoded into a national fight for independence from the international lenders, especially Germany, and the draconian austerity it had dictated onto Greece. This was no more clearly depicted than in the referendum the Syriza-led government held on 5th July 2015, against the will of the lenders with whom it was still negotiating. Despite capital controls that the lenders imposed in order to influence the outcome of the referendum and against all forecasts, over 61% of the Greek people voted no (the famous ‘OXI’). But no to what?

The content of the referendum (and its aftermath) is of less significance in comparison to what was at stake. What matters the most is that a populist front had been created and a mainstream political party was able to drive it under conditions of economic occupation and widespread indignation. The social as a political subject was being reinvented. In a chain of affairs that offered Marx some vindication for his famous thesis, ordinary Greek men and women were eager to make history but they were fully aware that these conditions were not of their choosing. What they seemed to be less aware of was the fact that the field of class struggle had been transferred out of the Greek territory, into the EU’s headquarters.

Hardly before had such an important class struggle been fought on foreign territory. International elites would usually entrust their local representatives to execute their comands. Syriza turned the tables. It took the fight abroad and attracted the maximum amount of publicity it could muster. It exposed the international characteristics of Greece’s struggle to the global fora and made it look what it has always been: an international problem that has been misrepresented as a Greek failure. And this is another important element in the fight between the symbolic and the material forces. In the era of ‘realist capitalism’ (Fisher, 2009) it takes a huge dollop of pragmatism to realise the limits of one’s might before it is exhausted. Greece would never secure a good deal during the so-called negotiations any more than it was allowed to. However, what had been ignored by the country’s lenders was that Greece could win on the symbolic level. After the lengthy negotiations, Greece seemed to have turned from indebted and destitute, to a country that now was further indebted but proud.

But you can never run on symbolism alone. By the time Syriza had successfully won over international audiences, it had lost ground domestically. The importance of the referendum victory had been eroded, the populist front started to collapse and political equilibrium within the party and, more broadly the Greek Left, to crumble. The hope that Syriza had instilled was now giving way to bemusement and fresh indignation. When the details of the new deal were made public, politics returned to the land of the invidious and the ugly. It took again its familiar face that people had temporarily had hoped that it was banished abroad, despite the capital controls that were a daily reminiscent of the limits of hope in times of extreme austerity.

But this is the new kind of politics that prevails in Greece. It is marked by high passions and frequent tensions, it has short duration and moves fast. Turning thrice to the electorate in the space of nine months (two general elections, one in January and one in September 2015 and a referendum, in July of the same year) probably befits the place that gave birth to democracy. However, democracy now counts for less than it used to. The most recent general election on 20th September is a bleak reminder of the limits of democracy as a mechanism of fixing a failed system: abstention was at its highest levels in sixty years (IDEAL, 2015) years, while the neo-Nazi party of Golden Dawn became the third strongest party in the new parliament, increasing its share in the national vote in comparison to all previous general elections. Democracy in Greece is compromised by the international and local elites and it is now broad enough to include a fascist party. Some argue that this is not democracy, but an exercise is running a protectorate in Europe.

In any case, disappointment with politics, brutal austerity and a dysfunctional democracy do not mean lack of hope. By contrast the social movements that have been emerging and solidifying across Greece, the experimentation with new and old forms of politics, such as the squares movement and the rise of Syriza in national and international prominence, these are serious reasons to be optimistic. The characteristics of the class struggle will be more accentuated the longer the crisis endures and the further it deepens. There are strong class forces that will eventually seek to reconcile the material with the symbolic fields. Put simply, the more the Greek are pushed the less they will tolerate the further depreciation of their material power in the name of debt, this symbolic occupation army that reigns supreme in people’s lives. This is not to suggest that a revolution is imminent. Or at least not a revolution in the conventional sense of the term. Rather, it suggests that Greece has become a de facto hotbed of social, political and economic experimentation, where even mainstream politics can become exciting at times. And if mainstream politics does not have the solution to all the woes the people of Greece face, this might eventually become its most positive contribution to public life. For people might come to the realisation that mainstream politics should not be left alone to do all the work in the arena of class struggle as the all too familiar danger lurks that it might fail again to represent fairly the interests of the subordinate classes.

The plethora of social movements in this small part of Europe are signalling that, at least for now, a new form of politics, which is more imaginative, daring and democratic, is being created. If this politics is to lead to much-needed victories in the material and the symbolic fields, it will have to fight on the terrain of class struggle. This is where hope is to be found. But this kind of hope is part of the long process of liberation from an exploitative system that urgently needs replacing and not merely re-decorating.

Douzinas, C. (2013) Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe. Cambridge: Polity.
Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism. Is there no alternative? Winchester – Washington: Zero Books.
Hardt, M. and Negri,T. (2000) Empire. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
IDEAL (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) (2015) Voter turnout data for Greece.


Spyros Themelis is a Sociologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia. His monograph Social Change and Education in Greece: A Study in Class Struggle Dynamics (2013) was published by Palgrave Macmillan. He is currently researching contemporary student movements and education alternatives in various countries including Greece, Chile, Brazil and the UK.