The workers in a small bakery in central Athens announced this week that, while they would not close because they serve many vulnerable people, they were joining the two-day general strike by charging all products at cost. An unexpected surprise in these hard times for their customers, but an ordinary story of the life of resistance and kindness in the Greek capital. At the same time, no minister or MP can appear in public without being heckled or “yoghurted” (the Greek-style “pieing”).
Greece is split in two. On one side are politicians, bankers, tax evaders and media barons supporting the most class-driven, violent social and cultural restructuring western Europe has seen. The “other” Greece includes the overwhelming majority of the population. It was in evidence yesterday when up to 500,000 people took to the streets; the largest demonstration in living memory. The attempt to divide civil servants (ritually presented as lazy and corrupt) from private sector employees (the “tax evading” plumbers) has misfired. The only success the Papandreou government can boast is the abolition of the old right-left division – replaced by a divide between the elites and the people.
Europe will soon decide how to deal with the debt, with the Greek government a sad observer. But once the only business Europe cares for has been settled, the political endgame will start in Athens. At that point, the “other” Greece will formulate history’s indictment.
The political elites will stand accused of fostering the lawlessness – the term freely used against those who resist. Two dynastic parties have alternately ruled the country over the last 40 years, creating the inflated, ineffective public sector they now attack. They turned a blind eye to tax evasion and created a generous system of tax avoidance. They ran up debt even after the problems became clear, eventually leading to the European intervention. Yet a representative of that “troika” of lenders – the IMF, EU and European Central Bank – told a Greek newspaper that they did not demand the abolition of collective bargaining in the private sector, the one measure that has led to some opposition in the ruling party. Nor did the troika demand the wholesale change in university law. It is as if the Greek elites desired the debt to orchestrate the wholesale destruction of the welfare state and transfer of public assets to private hands.
The Papandreou government will stand accused of incompetence and moral cynicism. Every authoritarian regime dreams of radically changing society. This government’s mission was to replace care for others with indifference, hospitality with exploitation. They failed, and now only a thick blue line separates the elite from the outraged people.
Youth unemployment is soaring towards 50%; Greece will pay for decades for the destruction of a whole generation. The troika will stand accused of neocolonial arrogance. It is not necessary to know the Sisyphus myth to see that measures leading to -7% growth do not reduce the deficit. You don’t need to have read Plato to understand that halving salaries and pensions means people will not be able to pay exorbitant new taxes. You don’t need to know Greek history to understand that if you keep saying the sovereignty of a country is reduced, people will react furiously.
Thursday’s demonstration ended tragically with the death of a trade-unionist. The last vestiges of governmental legitimacy are gone and the government will follow soon. The democratic deficit from which political systems suffer everywhere is irreversible in Greece. The responsibility of the “other” Greece is to devise a constitution of social justice and democracy for the 21st century. This is what Greece can offer to the world.
By Costas Douzinas, a law professor at Birkbeck, University of London. His books include The End of Human Rights and Human Rights and Empire.