Forty years after the collapse of the military junta and the return to parliamentary democracy, authoritarianism is once again in full swing in economically beleaguered Greece. The country is under the direct command of the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which in May 2010 provided the terms for the first “bailout” package of Greece for the sum of 110 billion euros as the country was shut out of the international credit markets because of its staggering level of government debt (close to 128 percent) and astronomically high deficit (more than 15 percent) and faced the prospect of a default. A sovereign default would have resulted in huge losses for German, French, Swiss and other European as well as American banks and carried contagion risk, which might have led to the dissolution of the eurozone itself. Indeed, “rescuing” Greece for the sake of the euro was so important for European policymakers that a second “bailout” was approved in March 2012 for the years 2012-14, this time for 130 billion euros. And a third “bailout” almost certainly will be introduced in 2014.
As the small Mediterranean nation and birthplace of democracy surrendered its financial sovereignty to its international creditors, the debt was being repaid exclusively by the blood and tears of the average working citizens, who have seen their incomes decline by as much as 30 percent in the past couple of years while simultaneously experiencing drastic social program cuts and sharp reductions in their pension benefits. The Greek government, especially the current one, which consists of a highly opportunistic alliance between conservatives and socialists, is increasingly resorting to authoritarian methods to enforce the commands of the troika, which has shown not the slightest concern for the economic impact and social consequences of its policies. These include the largest decline in the national output of any economy in recent history (nearly 25 percent), massive levels of unemployment (currently standing at 28 percent, and with youth unemployment more than 60 percent), widespread poverty (more than one of three Greeks now lives below the poverty level), homelessness, a surge in suicides, massive migration among the nation’s most skilled and educated segment of the population and the rise of political extremes. 1
A government’s resorting to authoritarianism is always to be expected when societies are faced with severe economic and political crises that lead to popular discontent and mobilization. It’s the nature of the beast: The state is inherently coercive, oppressive and violent. And, if one subscribes to Noam Chomsky’s view of human nature, in which the main element is the pursuit of freedom and voluntary association with others, it’s easy to understand why the state in a capitalist system is always compelled to act as an enforcement mechanism for economic exploitation and social oppression at the behest of capital. Indeed, it took a few centuries of grass-roots political activity for the capitalist state to be “tamed” and for certain basic and fundamental rights to be allowed to flourish and protected under constitutional law. Thus, in times of political normalcy, there are institutions that will act as a countervailing force to the state’s natural tendency to suppress liberty and freedom in the name of stability, law and order.
However, all bets are off when crises surface that threaten the capitalist order or when social and political forces emerge that pose a direct challenge to the status quo and to the economic interests and demands of the elite. On April 21, 1967, Greece was transformed overnight from a weak parliamentary democracy into a military dictatorship when the surge of the left and the progressive forces appeared strong enough to pull a landslide victory against the conservative and right-wing establishment in the new elections that were to be held less than a month later. Thousands of communists, leftists and democratically minded people were arrested and thrown into military prisons or sent to concentration camps to be “reformed” into “good, Greek patriots” via physical and psychological torture, fear and coercion.
On September 11, 1973, the democratically elected Marxist regime of Salvador Allende (the first time in history that a Marxist government came to power through elections) was overthrown in a coup staged by the Chilean military forces with the support of the CIA, sinking the country into the barbarism of fascism. What was at stake was nothing less than the structure and the logic of the Chilean economy, with the Allende government being thoroughly committed to economic democracy and social justice. During the years of the Augusto Pinochet military regime, which lasted ten years longer than the military junta of Greece, imprisonment, torture and executions became such widespread practices (more than 3,000 simply disappeared while the combined number of those arrested and tortured was probably in excess of 100,000) that, in comparison, the Greek junta resembled a Boy Scouts organization. As for the wealth of the country, it passed completely into the hands of the powerful domestic economic elite and their big foreign business partners.
While not necessarily of the same magnitude in terms of violence and brutality as the cases of Greece and Chile, other examples of authoritarianism drawn from the annals of modern capitalist political history abound. To be sure, a lapse into authoritarianism is anything but a rare phenomenon in advanced and less-developed contemporary capitalist societies. As the US experience demonstrates, it can be the norm rather the exception when the opportunities to move in an authoritarian direction present themselves to the governing authorities. The Patriot Act of 2001, for example, which created a neo-McCarthyist climate and is still in force, is a profoundly anti-democratic policy because its primary aim is to restrict fundamental civil liberties. Indeed, Henry Giroux made a strong argument in an article that appeared recently in Truthout that “the threat of authoritarianism to citizen-based democracy is alive and well in the United States [today], and its presence can be felt in the historical conditions leading up to the partial government shutdown and the refusal on the part of the new extremists to raise the debt ceiling.”
In today’s economically beleaguered Greece, where the repayment of foreign debt, the sale of public assets to private interests and the blocking of alternative routes to recovery define the official public policy agenda, the government has resurrected the many authoritarian practices of the past in an apparent effort to keep the game going for as long as possible. Indeed, for all purposes democracy has ceased functioning in Greece. Aside from the execution of policies in a dictatorial fashion, where the Parliament serves a largely ceremonial and symbolic fashion as, these days, members of the coalition government would sign any bill brought in front of them regardless of how harmful its content may be to the national interest and the well-being of the Greek people, the government of conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has strengthened to the fullest possible degree the repressive apparatus of the state. Among many other things, this involves the use of unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence against demonstrators; the use of torture; intimidating tactics against community activists, organizers and muckaraking journalism (typical is the case of editor Kostas Vaxevanis, who was arrested and now faces retrial for having published the infamous “Lagarde list,” which contains the names of more than 2000 rich Greeks with Swiss bank accounts unreported to the Greek tax authorities); and tapping phone calls (including, allegedly, the mobile phone of Greece’s left-wing opposition leader Alexis Tsipras). Also, a record number of anarchists are incarcerated for months in the Korydallos prison complex in Athens waiting for trial.
Among the most blatant examples showing that Greece has taken huge steps on the slippery road to a proto-fascist state is the reprehensible means the government used in protecting the interests of multinational gold mining company Eldorado Gold, which is exploiting jointly with Greek economic interests the primeval forest of Skouries in Chalkidiki, and the recent storming of the headquarters of the former ERT, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, which the government had shut down illegally a few months earlier. Both cases reveal the inexorable link between the pursuit of class struggle from above and the use of state power. They also shed considerable light on the link between neoliberal macroeconomic policies and the undermining of democracy. And they speak volumes of the urgent need for massive popular resistance in Greece in face of the growing government oppression and the loss of the nation’s sovereignty on account of the subservient terms that accompany the imperial nature of the bailout agreements 2.
In Skouries, the government of Samaras has declared an all-out war on the local community because of its opposition to the destruction of an ancient mountain forest for the expansion of a gold mining operation by Eldorado Gold 3. Protesters repeatedly have faced the wrath of police and private security guards, and the organizers of the protests have been branded “terrorists” after the offices of Hellas Gold (a local subsidiary in which Eldorado Gold has 95 percent stake) became the target of an arson attack in February 2013. Who was behind the arson attack remains a mystery, but the 40 or so people who were seen setting up the fire and destroying equipment and material were wearing hoods and carried shotguns. No suspects were arrested, but anti-terrorism squads and hundreds of police units soon moved into the area and started searching peoples’ homes in an apparent effort to cause fear by intimidation. A few days later thousands marched in the cities of Thessaloniki and Athens in solidarity with the cause of the residents in the villages near Skouries.
With the local opposition to mining in Skouries growing, the government proceeded to charge the people in the area with the formation of a “criminal organization.” The charge is based on the ludicrous claim that the locals seek to influence public opinion by talking to members of the press. In other words, while the current Greek government has so far sought in various ways to criminalize social activism, it now seeks to ban free speech as well. The seriousness of this matter prompted a Greek European Parliament Member to bring it to the attention of the European Commission.
The government acted in the same fascist-like manner when, in June 2013, it shut ERT, the equivalent of the BBC, in an alleged attempt to find new savings and because, as the government’s spokesman put it, the organization is a “haven of waste.” However, pulling the plug on ERT had nothing to do with a bid to save money, as the layoffs of more than 2,500 workers will cost the government from 300 million to 500 million euros in compensation, and the government actually has committed itself to creating a new public broadcasting entity, but with fewer workers. In reality, it was a gamble on the part of the Samaras’ neoliberal government that it could benefit politically from this move on account of the significant resentment that exists among Greek citizens toward the public sector and public employees in general. It was also a move made in the context of the troika’s increasing pressure on the Greek government to proceed with the layoff of more than 15,000 public sector employees by 2015.
The government’s decision to shut down the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation elicited huge public outcry inside and outside Greece. In addition, the Greek courts found that the decree to shut down ERT was illegal. As a sign of commitment to the importance of public broadcasting, fired ERT employees occupied the station’s main building in Athens and continued to produce programs streamed online. The government refused to back down from its decision or allow ERT to resume transmission. And in an apparent effort to show that this is truly an iron-fisted government that won’t tolerate any challenges to its authority, in the early hours of November 7, 2013, it ordered the riot police to enter the headquarters of the former ERT to remove former employees from the occupied building.
The proto-fascist nature of the political regime that Samaras is seeking to install in Greece bears strong resemblances to Putin’s Russia. Aside from the enormous looting of the national wealth, the unspeakable immiseration of the nation’s working-people and the deepening of corruption that is taking place today in economically beleaguered Greece under his government, this is a regime that relies heavily on the use of force to impose its will and carry out the commands of the troika. It methodically employs despicable tactics of fear and intimidation to keep dissent at bay. The systematic repression meted out against civil society by the Samaras government – undoubtedly with the blessings of Greece’s international creditors – is a reflection of the death of democracy in Greece and the emergence of a failed state in its place as a direct outcome of the impact of predatory neoliberal policies on contemporary Greek economy and society.
Various ideological apparatuses inside Greek society, including the mass media and certain segments of the clergy, provide implicit and explicit support for the resurgence of authoritarianism in Greece and the shaping of a proto-fascist state. The role of mass media in Greece, which is almost uniformly in the hands of powerful and extremely wealthy Greek industrialists with interests in construction and shipping, is especially critical in that it provides legitimacy to government authoritarian actions via direct support for the ruthless “fiscal adjustment” program enforced by the troika and by engaging often enough in a none-too-subtle anti-public sector propaganda that demonizes public employees, strikes and social activists. In regard, for instance, to the local resistance in Skouries, private television channels and newspapers have made repeated attempts to convey the impression that it is the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) that instigated the movement because of its alleged total opposition to all economic development undertakings spearheaded by the private sector. In fact, as the time fast approaches when Syriza will triumph in the next parliamentary elections in Greece, the private mass media venues in Greece can be expected to intensify their disinformation and propaganda campaigns.
When not engaging in incessant government propaganda, Greek private-owned television channels in particular take a highly active part in the promotion of the global capitalist media practice of “culture as anesthetic” – that is, “entertainment” shows that are simply mind-numbing and soul-sucking. Even in today’s ongoing economic and social catastrophe, the percentage of Greeks participating in political affairs of even a symbolic character pales in comparison to the percentage of apathetic citizens who prefer to experience social pain and misery by endlessly watching TV shows covering gossip stories with idiotic hosts and even more idiotic guests, stories about “who’s screwing whom” and “who wore what on the night out in town,” “cheap soap operas” and, of course, “reality shows” and degrading “talk shows” where the main criteria for who gets invited on the shows are “loud screaming” and the ability to “confuse the public.” Little wonder, then, as a young and promising Greek journalist recently, and quite astutely, highlighted in an article for the Syriza-aligned newspaper Avgi, that a significant percentage of the Greek population seems to reserve its social criticism skills on how short the dresses are of the young female students (“a bunch of Lolitas”) on the national holiday parades. 4
A popular culture in tune with the shaping of a neoliberal, proto-fascist state? Perhaps.
1. For an analysis of the impact of the policies behind the international bailouts of Greece, see C. J. Polychroniou, “A Failure by Any Other Name: The International Bailouts of Greece.” Policy Note. Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. July 2013. https://www.levyinstitute.org/publications/?docid=1840 and “The Tragedy of Greece: A Case Against Neoliberal Economics, the Domestic Political Elite, and the EU/IMD Duo.” Policy Note. Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. March 2013. https://www.levyinstitute.org/publications/?docid=1707
2. See C. J. Polychroniou, “The Tragedy of Greece as a Case Study of Neo-Imperial Pillage and the Demise of Social Europe,” Truthout, October 13, 2013.
3. For an overview and an excellent critical analysis on the topic, see Mariniki Alevizopoulou, “Gold Mining in Chalkidiki: Greek Governments in the Service of Mining Companies,” Reports from the Edge of Borderline Democracy. February 23, 2013.