It is hard to convey the experience of economic and political collapse in Greece. In Athens, the city center is full of vacant, graffiti-covered storefronts. The only businesses that seem to be thriving are the pawn shops and the huge open-air heroin market that the police are apparently tolerating in the student neighborhood of Exarchia. For the first time since WWII, many Greeks are faced with hunger, homelessness and a lack of basic health care. Schools are struggling to provide lunch to the growing number of malnourished children. The public health system has collapsed, a sacrifice to austerity. HIV infection rates have doubled, and malaria is on the rise. Suicides have increased dramatically. The legitimacy of the political system, which was long dominated by two mainstream parties – the center-left PASOK and the center-right New Democracy – is under threat because of the parties’ inability to offer either an alternative to the current austerity regime or a plausible strategy for surviving it. In the midst of this crisis, the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn has become the fastest growing political movement in Greece, with some placing support above 20 percent.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Greece entered the European Union in the early ’80s, hopes were high that it signaled a new era. Despite the common tendency toward fatalism, many Greeks hoped that the sad history of 20th century ethno-nationalism, a history of war, occupation and dictatorships, had finally closed. Now they feel that the rug has been pulled out from under them. Suddenly the beneficence of the EU, much of which was diverted into the pockets of the politicians and financiers with a nod and a wink, has become a noose around their necks. Among the Greek middle class, – which, thanks to the EU, has grown to include most farmers, small craftsmen and clerical workers – feelings of frustration and injustice are palpable. Not only has their new-found prosperity collapsed like a huge pyramid scam, but they are being pilloried in the international press as a bunch of lazy welfare cheats.
With Greece looking more and more like the Weimar Republic, Golden Dawn has found success following the Nazi playbook. Golden Dawn was founded in 1980 under the leadership of right-wing fanatic Nikolaos Michaloliakos. During the ’80s and ’90s, Golden Dawn was a tiny party on the far-right lunatic fringe. Their fetish for Nazi regalia won them few supporters in a country that had suffered horribly from the German occupation. Among other things, they claimed Christianity was a Jewish plot and advocated a return to worshiping the ancient Greek gods, positions which did not sit well with traditionally devout right-wing Greek nationalists. After several unsuccessful attempts to merge with other right-wing groups, Golden Dawn finally muted their more bizarre positions and concentrated on promoting a neo-fascist philosophy they branded as “social nationalism.” They also shifted their recruiting efforts from the old right-wing organizations to the new generation of apolitical soccer hooligans.
Unlike other Greek far-right groups, who tend to get bogged down in obscure ideological debates, Golden Dawn, from the early ’90s on, emphasized street-fighting and other forms of direct action. These tactics are attractive to many young men schooled in soccer violence. Gangs of Golden Dawn thugs in black tee shirts began appearing at Communist and anarchist protests and instigating brawls, sometimes resulting in serious injuries. Several prominent Golden Dawn members have been charged with assault or attempted murder as a result of party actions. During the Bosnian conflict, Golden Dawn supplied volunteers for a Greek unit of the Bosnian Serb army, some of whom participated in the siege and massacre at Srebrenica in 1995. There are also reports that Golden Dawn infiltrated the protests of 2008 that followed the police killing of a young anarchist and acted as provocateurs in the subsequent riots that resulted in widespread destruction and two deaths.
Still, despite the increasingly provocative actions of its thugs, Golden Dawn remained a politically marginal group. In the 2009 elections, their candidates polled only .3% of the vote for the Greek Parliament. In the vote for the European Parliament, a more reliable gauge of political sympathies, they received a mere .5%. The turning point for Golden Dawn came with the debt crisis that pushed Greece into economic depression. The economic collapse also brought down the mainstream political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, both of which had bound themselves to European neoliberal policies and were now left holding the bag. With the mainstream parties discredited and the government on the verge of bankruptcy and disintegration, a dangerous vacuum was created. The economic crisis is often attributed to endemic corruption in Greek society, but the major responsibility lies with the EU, which has failed to adequately address the structural problems of joining the economies of the poorer southern European countries to those of the richer north.
In retrospect, the spread of the euro economy was something of a pyramid scam for the peripheral economies of southern Europe. The fact is that the core economies of Europe, especially Germany, benefited from the euro more than anyone else. The opening of markets in southern Europe, and the low exchange rate of the euro relative to the old deutschmark, guaranteed huge profits for the financiers and industrial giants of northern Europe. That is why, when Greece presented its application for Eurozone membership with blatantly doctored economic statistics, the EU was willing to suspend disbelief in order to secure Greek membership. Greek companies were soon gobbled up and a significant portion of the loans and subsidies sent to Greece returned in the form of consumer purchases. Capital investments proved illusory, and instead money was pumped into a real estate bubble. As a result, many Greeks came to depend on subsidies and other forms of assistance such as state-funded jobs and loans to finance their upward mobility. The problem was that the EU saw this assistance as a temporary means of attaining hegemony. Under the logic of neoliberal market economics, productivity would eventually have to be increased through economic consolidation and a reduction in labor costs. When the debt piled up and the whole scheme began to unravel, the Europeans demanded steep reductions in wages and social benefits as well as a fire sale on whatever property the Greek state still owned.
Greeks, like other southern Europeans, were able to temporarily postpone the day of reckoning through an unforeseen development; the massive immigration of low-cost labor from Eastern Europe, and later Southwest Asia. Immigrants, now estimated to make up around 10 percent of Greece’s population, enabled Greece to survive the open markets of the EU by reducing labor costs without succumbing to the expropriation and consolidation of landholdings and small businesses required under capitalist development. Unfortunately this arrangement was predicated on keeping immigrant wages low, a brutal process that encouraged a resurgence of racism and ethnic nationalism. In effect, a new proletariat of illegal immigrants was created, whose extreme exploitation was justified by racist notions of ethnic identity. Their “illegal” status meant that, although they were a necessary part of the Greek economy, they were excluded from social and political rights, including minimum wage laws. Even before the crisis, Greece, like the rest of Europe, was moving toward a system of de facto apartheid where immigrants are economically exploited, but legally excluded from the rights of citizenship. The brutality faced by immigrants has increased as their wages have fallen. In one of the worst examples, in April of 2013, 28 Bengali migrants working on a strawberry farm were shot by foremen during a dispute over unpaid wages.
The political disintegration and economic chaos brought about by the austerity regime has provided fertile ground for Golden Dawn. For many Greeks, faith in the post-national cosmopolitanism of the EU has been replaced by conspiracy theories of German economic domination. It is not hard to see why, given the ruthlessness of austerity measures aimed at protecting European financial interests. The rise of a popular, militant nationalism is a logical, if misguided, reaction on the part of the middle and lower classes when faced with the impotence of the mainstream political parties. Golden Dawn has proven adept at seizing the attention of Greeks through their shrill anti-capitalist (and anti-Semitic) jingoism and paranoid conspiracy theories. And through a convenient sleight of hand, they offer up immigrants as convenient and vulnerable scapegoats for the growing disintegration of Greek society. This enables them to carry out a continuous stream of public actions that position them as defenders of the Greek people against foreign threats. In response to rising crime rates, Golden Dawn offers escort services for the elderly. They regularly attack immigrants in the streets, chase immigrants from public parks and kick them off buses. In response to the collapse of the health-care system, Golden Dawn has started a “Greeks-only” blood bank.
Despite the rhetoric of Golden Dawn, the expulsion of immigrants is an unlikely scenario that would alienate many farmers and small business owners. Even with the astronomical rise in unemployment, Greeks are not lining up to take jobs that pay such low wages. For this to happen, the labor of Greeks would have to be devalued much more. Instead, it is more likely that virulent racism will be used to enforce slave-like conditions for immigrants. Already, web sites associated with Golden Dawn have floated the suggestion that illegal immigrants be held in labor camps and rented out to farmers to pay for their incarceration. Their strategy is to increase the exploitation of immigrants to subsidize Greek living standards in the face of global economic pressures.
The ability of Golden Dawn to divert popular anger from the EU brand of neoliberal capitalism to immigrants seems to have encouraged the Greek bourgeoisie to hedge their bets by offering support. The finances of Golden Dawn party are shrouded in mystery. Over the last two years, the organization has expanded rapidly, opening offices in virtually every Greek town and many villages and initiating a variety of social service programs. Where is the money coming from? Many Greeks believe they are being bankrolled by wealthy business owners afraid of the leftist coalition Syriza. Golden Dawn members of parliament recently voted against a law that would tighten tax regulations for ship owners, reportedly in exchange for a hefty contribution to the cause. Historically, the Greek bourgeoisie has often used the far right to maintain social order in periods of crisis. The prospect of an electoral victory by Syriza has provoked fear among both the Greek financial and political elite, who were by far the main beneficiaries during the years of corruption after Greece entered the EU, and the traditionally authoritarian security forces that protect them. There have been numerous anecdotal reports of police complicity in Golden Dawn actions. Analysis of recent voting patterns suggests that over 50 percent of the police now support Golden Dawn.
Golden Dawn may also be receiving some assistance from Russia. One of the novelties of Golden Dawn’s brand of neo-Nazism is its antipathy toward Germany and strong links with Russian and Eastern European fascist groups. Russia has always been an important player in Greek politics due to its interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Many Greeks express admiration for the right-wing, nationalist government of Putin and his ability to stand up to European capitalists. And, as in Cyprus, there seems to be a lot of Russian money flowing into Greece. Russia is currently on a charm offensive in Greece, offering investment and aid in an obvious attempt to chip away at the EU periphery. A recent editorial in Pravda offered to make Greece a “prospering state in one year.” Golden Dawn has strong connections to the ultra-nationalist group Russky Obraz, which in turn has shadowy connections to Russian secret police and Putin’s political party, United Russia. It is entirely likely, even probable, that Russia sees Golden Dawn as an important element in its strategy to expand influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially in light of the threat to its bases in Syria.
Ironically, the best hope for the survival of the EU lies with the left opposition. After all, the social democratic parties around Europe were instrumental in the growth of the EU in the first place by enforcing various social benefits programs that cemented popular support. The chance of an electoral victory by the near-left coalition Syriza, however, grows more unlikely by the day. A Syriza victory is anathema to both the European finance capitalists, who insist on squeezing out the last drops of profit, and the Greek elite who prefer to use political repression in a short-sighted attempt to preserve their franchise. The financial mandarins of the EU have insisted that austerity is not negotiable and have threatened dire consequences in the event of a Syriza victory. The preclusion of any sort of democratic dialogue between Greece and the EU has pushed more people to the far right by exposing the neoliberal character of the EU regime. Critics have long complained of the “democratic deficit” and lack of accountability in EU governance. In particular, the power to set economic and monetary policies has been taken out of the hands of elected leaders. Greek voters, in effect, no longer have any choices. They must simply follow diktat. This situation has made the militantly anti-EU position of Golden Dawn much more attractive by discrediting the possibility of democratic, peaceful change.
It would be a mistake to think that the rise of Golden Dawn is a uniquely Greek problem. On the contrary, it is the seed that contains the destruction of the entire EU project. The responsibility for the rise of Golden Dawn reaches far outside the borders of Greece. To understand the rise of Golden Dawn we must look past the black-shirted thugs and simplistic ideology of racist nationalism to the genteel bankers and international financial speculators who are currently being allowed to brutalize entire populations in the search for profits. This story is not so different from what has happened before in other European countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal and even Germany where far-right extremists have ridden waves of popular anger to power. Golden Dawn proves that our fantasies of “post-nationalism” and “European integration” were premature. Economic and political inequality is still capable of producing violent paroxysms of ethnic nationalism. Until Europeans can learn to mitigate these effects of capitalism, they are bound to repeat its sad and painful history. Greece, which has always been the weakest of the Eurozone economies, is today the most extreme example of the effects of neoliberal austerity, but it is not unique. Unfortunately it is likely a harbinger of things to come.