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Greece’s Struggle Against Oligarchy Has Ancient Roots

The history of anti-oligarchic struggle in Greece can serve as inspiration for today’s struggles against austerity and oligarchy.

Greeks protest austerity in the streets of Athens, May 2010. (Photo: Joanna)

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The people of Greece voted for Syriza and its leader Alexis Tsipras with the hope that Tsipras and his emissaries – like the finance minister Yanis Varoufakis – might be able to exercise some kind of veto power over the decisions of the troika (the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund). Voting for Syriza was an attempt to give some power to a political force that genuinely tries to put a spanner in the works of the European Union institutions, and does so with the aim to protect the Greek people.

Back in the time of the Republic of ancient Rome, which was controlled by the super-wealthy, the plebs – the Roman citizens who did not belong to the oligarchic circles – managed, through struggle, to obtain the creation of a special political office to keep the greed of the super-wealthy under control. This was known as the tribunate of the plebs or tribunate of the people. It was a way in which the people could try to counterbalance the enormous power held by the oligarchs, who had total control over the Roman Senate and the executive political offices.

The vote for Syriza can be seen as the Greek people’s desperate attempt to elect a tribune of the people, so as to veto the decisions of the troika and counteract the power of the EU senatorial class.

The austerity policies decided by the troika, and the constraints generated by the common currency, have led to economic and social collapse in Greece: astonishing unemployment rates, a collapse of gross domestic product, dramatic wage and pension cuts, the dismantlement of social security and basic health-care provisions, and so on.

The bailout conditions imposed on Greece in 2011 were not aimed at saving the Greek economy. Rather they were aimed at saving those banks (mainly German and French banks) that had operated irresponsibly in Greece in the pursuit of huge profits. When the then Prime Minister George Papandreou mentioned the possibility of a popular referendum for determining whether the Greek people were willing to accept the bailout conditions, the furious reaction of the troika to the idea that the Greek people should be allowed to make such a decision was enough to prevent the referendum from taking place.

Papandreou did not have the strength and resolve to oppose the European Union senatorial class. Will Syriza leaders be able to fulfill the tribunal “spanner-in-the-works” mandate that the Greek people have given them? The current situation is complex. Greece is a vulnerable country, with its GDP being less than 2 percent of the GDP of the eurozone; its negotiating power is small. Moreover, the eurozone has been designed in such a way as to minimize any kind of plebeian interference with the economic policies decided by the senatorial class. If Greece is forced out of the eurozone, the senatorial class will have to take responsibility for the unpredictable impact that a Grexit will have on the global economy and the geopolitical situation. But if Greece remains a member of the eurozone and the austerity demanded by its creditors persists, the destruction is likely to continue, and the desperation and anger of the Greek people will not subside.

In the ancient world, “democracy” did not mean free elections; it meant “rule of the many,” as opposed to “rule of the few.” The contrast, as Aristotle pointed out, was between the few super-wealthy and the many who did not belong to the super-wealthy elite. A democracy was thought to be a regime where the political decisions were, in some real sense, in the hands of what we now call the 99%, and not in the hands of the 1%.

Many of those belonging to the 99% in Greece were able to put aside differences and disagreements, and unite behind Syriza in order to fight a common enemy. They moved from occupying the squares to attempting to occupy, by means of tribunes of the people, the institutions that serve the interests of the senatorial class. In contemporary electoral democracies the real political power is in the hands of the 1%. For all intents and purposes, these democracies are oligarchies.

What can the 99% do to change this? The message sent by the Greek people is a powerful one: European democracy needs tribunes of the people, willing to represent and protect the interests of all those who are not members of the senatorial class. The battle of the Greek people is a battle against those who have transformed the European Union into an oligarchy. It is therefore a battle for the 99% in both Greece and across all of Europe.

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