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Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come

Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou, eds

A review of Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come. Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou, eds. Baltimore: AK Press & Occupied London, 2011.

Nearly one hundred years ago, John Maynard Keynes criticized the Treaty of Versailles, at the conclusion of World War I, predicting that the heavy reparations it exacted from Germany would only succeed in devastating its already bankrupt economy without generating enough financial transfers, demanded by the victor nations. As it came to pass, not only did the German people suffer through a harsh and prolonged depression, but the response to that economic devastation led directly to World War II; a heavy price indeed for the Versailles Treaty’s ‘winners’ and losers alike.

In a twist of irony, it is now Germany that thirsts for blood, insisting on harsh transfers from the weakest economies of the euro zone to the bankers and speculators behind them, forgetting that similar policies so dismally backfired one century earlier. The damage this time may not be measured in wars, but it will have a similar effect, threatening with disintegration the very structures of European integration that the Germans, in particular, have pursued over the last half century in their quest for consolidating their supremacy over the continent.

Why so much short-sightedness? In the first round, back in 1919, it could be argued that the victors were bent on revenge, while being genuinely ignorant of what subsequently became known as the Keynesian Revolution, which clearly spelled out the contradiction between trying to squeeze more out of a nation by means of imposing policies that make it produce less: Forcing wages down, generating massive unemployment, slashing public support for the destitute, and redistributing income from the working-class to the very rich is a recipe for shrinking consumption. Under-consumption kills productive investment and job creation, since capitalists are not dumb enough to start up or expand business just as their existing operations are being shuttered. It is like demanding a blood transfusion out of a ‘donor’ by means of cutting open her veins as punishment for not pumping out her blood fast enough.


It took Keynes another dozen years before he published his famous model, explaining how depressions (which typically trigger state budget deficits, as incomes and tax revenues fall while the need for government relief spending increases) feed on the policies advocated by the ‘conventional wisdom’ of (conservative) free-market economics and end up getting deeper and harder to shake off, the ‘remedy’ of balanced budgets being worse than the ‘disease’ of government deficits. By then, however, the Great Depression was in full swing, Germany’s reparation payments had been repudiated, and Hitler’s Fascist regime was busily constructing a new war machine.

In the aftermath of the Depression and World War II, Keynesian economics became the new (liberal) orthodoxy, providing the rationale for welfare-state policies in the US (on the footsteps of the New Deal) and the other advanced capitalist economies (Europe’s Social Democracy), but also rationalizing warfare-state spending (Cold War and the endless imperialist warfare in the Third World), as good ways to sustain jobs for the working class and profits for the capitalists. The result was prosperity for many in the capitalist center of an expanding world-economy, with some change toward social justice initiated but by no means consolidated (such as confronting race segregation and gender inequality), thanks to the policies of the welfare state. Meanwhile, in the periphery of the capitalist centers, where the center’s warfare state was bearing fruit, vast hungry and repressed populations were opened to business. Soon, the magic of Keynesian economics began wearing thin back home, as the capitalists moved operations from the center to the periphery, where the working class enjoys no welfare-state ‘safety net’ and its unmitigated exploitation generates higher profit rates for global investors.

We know the next part of the story, as it evolved in the decades of Thatcherism and Reaganomics: Austerity and classical ‘free market’ economics, first as a screeching halt to Social Democracy, then as deepening redistribution of wealth and power from the productive masses to the few very rich, are now the new orthodoxy. In this new era of revived conservatism, the capitalists seemed to be able to have their pie and eat it too: profits soared, wages plummeted—and yet, no depression; just mountains of corporate, personal, and government debt (incidentally, listed in the correct order of magnitude, with governments being the least profligate and corporations the worst). In quick order, the ideals advanced under the short-lived flowering of post-World War II prosperity have now become targets of vilification by academic and mass-media gurus and politicians alike. Right-wing parties clamor for wholesale dismantling of what is left from the welfare state, and so-called ‘progressive’ politicians oblige by becoming the agents of piecemeal dismantling as an alternative. After all, the neo-liberal reasoning goes, in a global economy prosperity does not require high wages at home so as to enable consumption; on the contrary, it requires lowering labor costs so as to encourage sales to consumers—abroad! It is as if capitalist accumulation had escaped the confines of national economics free at last from the Keynesian boogieman of under-consumption.


To the Germans, the logic of this escape was implemented following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and reunification. Ostensibly bridging the disparities between the booming West German economy and the shrunken East German living standards (which were lower to begin with and had plummeted in the years leading to the collapse of the Soviet bloc), Germany succeeded in lowering standards in the former West faster than raising same in the East. The result is that the German economy has remained a leaner, meaner competitor in the European market. And because the rest of Europe has in varying degrees resisted a similar diet, Germany was able to sell more and more there, flooding the continent with credit and its banks with speculative holdings of Germany’s customers’ debt.

It is precisely at this juncture that the current crisis of Europe festers, looming over the heads of the global financial system as a whole, and America’s shaky paper economy in particular. As the debt bubbles begun to burst, the demarcation line between debtors and creditors has emerged as the frontline of class warfare the likes of which had not been seen in Europe since the 1930s. At the cutting edge of this battlefield happens to be the tiny nation of Greece.

Eager to join the euro currency, the Greek Socialist Government promised to keep a tight hand over its budget (supposedly holding deficits down in pace with GDP growth) and raced in, with no regard for the consequences of opening up the country’s backward economy to competition from the North. Its newfound ability to print euros at the strike of a pen was as enticing a com’ on as the guile of cheap credit was to American home-buyers in the years before the 2008 bust. In the case of Greece, much of the deficit-funded spending went into a wasteful, inefficient and utterly corrupt build-up for the 2004 Olympics—a standard sinkhole of national debt for many a host country. By the time the games were on (a great PR success, by the way), the Socialists were out of power and the new Conservative Government, true to the neo-liberal mantra, implemented a major tax-cut that benefited chiefly the highest wealth brackets and larger business entities.

To cover up the requirements of public debt to GDP ratio, the various Greek governments, alternating between the Socialist and Conservative parties, hired Goldman Sachs, who proceeded to set up a sale of fictitious public assets, mostly consisting of pie-in-the-sky future (and often unrealizable) revenues, in order to present them as legitimate sources of public revenue. These were used as the basis of an entire construct of fabricated numbers that purported to show the Greek debt as sufficiently in line with GDP; and when, after the one-two punch of Olympic Games overruns and neo-liberal tax cuts, they brazenly generated altogether fictitious fiscal statistics and fed them to the European Central Bank (ECB). Interestingly enough, the sharpies of the ECB accepted these lie, served to them by the Bank of Greece (whose governor at the time was none other than the country’s present prime minister, Lucas Papademos!) and refrained from sounding the alarm until the Conservatives fell out of power (2010) and the new Socialist Government spilled the beans.

At this point, a ‘national salvation’ government is charged by the ECB and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with implementing a massive implosion of the Greek economy. At the helm of this coalition is the former head of the Bank of Greece who had lied to the ECB when the country adopted the euro, flanked by the two major political parties that engineered the lies and committed the country to the self-destructive illusion of a fast track to the North-European standard of living. As Greece’s national income plummets, the very rich stand to profit from the fire-sale of public assets (for real, this time) while the vast majority of the Greek people are already mired in the chain reaction of vanishing jobs, high utility-based surtaxes, lack of bank credit, and boarded up business fronts. Last week, as the Parliament debated and voted further measures of national self-amputation, more than two hundred thousand citizens battled the riot police and the streets of Athens were ablaze with Molotov cocktails.


This is not the first time the old city is on fire: Before the debt crisis that catapulted Greece to the forefront of Europe’s financial convulsions, there was the December 2008 urban revolt. Touched off by the police murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos, a 15-year old anarchist protester, the violent riots, unprecedented in Europe since the 1968 uprisings, took by surprise the ruling classes at home and abroad, much as happened with the ‘Arab Spring’ two years later: All along the coast of the Mediterranean, long-festering states of rottenness, landlocked in social injustice and political inertia were flaring up like tinderboxes with seemingly no prior warning.

But there were prior warnings. A well-documented, movingly descriptive new book, Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come (AK Press & Occupied London, 2011, edited by Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou) serves both as a record of the ferment that anteceded the Greek December and a preface to the far deeper explosion that is yet to come as the country is being plunged into the capitalist Armageddon. Written by a loose collective of Greek activists at home and abroad, this highly informative volume comprises 19 separate pieces, ranging from first-hand testimonials to theoretical analyses, as well as a helpful chronology and glossary.

The book is aimed at a readership that would be unfamiliar with contemporary Greek social realities and politics but sympathetic to the cause of transformative change through direct popular action. Divided in three sections, it provides a mapping out of the urban terrain for the 2008 revolt and its present-day aftermath (3 chapters); a much longer and varied series (8 chapters) on the 2008 events and the history leading up to them; and a likewise extensive section (7 chapters) on the ongoing economic crisis and the challenges it poses for the anarchist left. As is to be expected from such timely-assembled compilations, some of the essays are unevenly written, with a few contributors opting for the style of graduate term-papers or resorting to poetics as a leap over gaps in political reasoning. All the same, the end result is absolutely essential reading for a good understanding of what may be in store for Greece in the years ahead. The entire collection can be read as a primer to understanding what is happening in Greece in particular, but also as a broader framing of the problematic of resistance and revolution in peripheral countries, which are semi-integrated and subordinate to the affluent centers of global capitalism.

The tragedy of peripheral countries, such as Greece, is that when revolts break out against the indigenous privileged class, its political servants, and the repressive state apparatus, they are frequently deflected into becoming nationalistic mobilizations against foreign encroachment. After all, the state and the native ruling class it represents are indeed extensions of foreign domination; but the global polarity is harder to resolve when ‘national unity’ demands the toleration, however temporary, of the internal (class) polarity. The result is a repeated ‘morphing’ of essentially the same conditions of class dominance and state repression into ostensibly anti-imperialist variations, in spite of successive revolts and renewed resistance.

This dynamic is clearly evidenced in the case of Greece, going back to the rise of a massive communist movement in the 1920’s, British-sponsored fascist dictatorship in the 1930’s, communist-led resistance against the Nazi occupation (1941-44), and civil war pitting the national liberation army (EAM) against a British- and then American-propped royalist regime (1944-51), followed by a Cold War-style one-party ‘democracy’ (1951-1963) and then a short-lived ‘spring’ promising real democratization, which was cut short by a military coup and US-sponsored dictatorship—the ‘Junta’ of 1967-74.


The fall of the Junta (1974) serves as the ‘big bang’ in the narrative presented in Revolt and Crisis in Greece. Much as is happening perhaps with the ‘Arab Spring’ today, Greece experienced a post-dictatorship interval of rising popular aspirations and political betrayals. What the authors emphasize is that the worst betrayals were committed by the political parties in which the popular masses had placed their hopes and trust: the socialists, to be sure, who evolved from an anti-imperialist movement promising genuine social transformation into a comfortably corrupt bourgeois ruling party; but more painfully, the parties in the communist left, who were splintered between neo-Stalinist dogma and Euro-communist dissonance.

Before the 1967 coup, the communist left was united, albeit heavily suppressed, under the leadership of the Communist Party (KKE); and, because KKE had played such a major role in the fifty years of struggles before that, an entire generation of post-1974 activists (especially the older ones) were blocked by lingering “fixed political subjectivities”[i] that confined them to the political space occupied by KKE and its splintered successors, precluding more effective configurations that could advance the anti-capitalist struggle. It took a lot of crushing disappointments for such a reconfiguration to take roots. For many in their forties or older the outcome is political disorientation fraught with cynicism. This has lead to a frustrated electoral scramble back and forth between the two major political parties (Conservatives and Socialists)—a Greek version of the ‘democratic pluralist’ two-party system, masking the permanence of internal class governance and external subordination.

However, beginning with the mid-1980s and, more massively in the 1990s, a younger generation of radicals was moved by the dysfunctional state of secondary and higher education and massive youth unemployment to develop the networks and tactics that define today’s Greek anarchist movement. Far from participating in electoral politics, the young activists see “space as a derivative of human relations and cities as places of coexistence that can function as fields of resistance and as sites where everyday life can be reclaimed.”[ii] In true anarchist tradition, these activists see the struggle as a social war (koinonikos polemos):

In contrast to civil war, which signifies the breakdown of the apparatus of the state, social war is the low intensity war by the state against … its own population in order to maintain its continued existence. The social war then encompasses the totality of everyday life: To be alive … is to be at war, to never sleep properly, to awaken at odd hours to work, to be constantly surrounded by surveillance and the police.[iii]

As this ‘low-intensity’ warfare devolves, ‘accidental events’ can ignite cataclysmic mobilizations. This is precisely what took place on the evening of December 6, 2008, when the Athens Indymedia website relayed the news that a 15-year old boy had just been shot by an off-duty policeman, moonlighting on private security patrol, in a street scuffle at the heart of the young anarchist hang-out district of Exarcheia. Young Alexi’s death was confirmed a little while later. In the words of one of the book’s contributors, “[w]hat seemed to be another brief confrontation between two police officers and a small group of youths in Exarcheia ended up becoming the origin of the most formidable radical force that has appeared on the Greek streets in the last thirty-five years.” [iv]

What followed was more than the month outrage that turned Greece’s towns and cities into battlefields against the riot police, as publicized in the mass media, including photos of the freshly trimmed ‘official’ 2008 Christmas tree on fire, its flames looming huge in the center of Athens. It was a lesson in mobilization, insubordination, and revolt for the population at large, administered just in time for the outbreak of the current economic crisis—to which the ending chapters of the book are devoted.

Soon, communities along the toll-road leading north from Athens organized boycotts, with motorists smashing the gate-bars, refusing to pay the steep tolls (which were just revealed to be part of the revenue pledged to foreign capital in the privatization deals engineered earlier with the help of Goldman Sachs, as mentioned above). As the crisis-driven austerity measures begin taking effect, there are tax revolts, massive occupations of public squares (these later also inspired by the Arab Spring).


How far will December 2008 carry the radicalization of Greek society? In a very real sense, the relatively small communities of urban anarchists, whose history and ideology are explained in this book, have set the tone of political discourse in the entire country. As the parliament hunkers down to enact the measures of national economic surrender to which the unelected Government has already acquiesced, the Molotov cocktail-lit streets and flash demonstrations seem to constitute the only viable response by the people.

The police and the Government appear to be tolerating and, according to widespread opinion, abetting the shop-window smashing and firebombing which had earlier been the moniker of the anarchist movement. Whether such violent acts (typically serving as triggers of far more violent responses by the riot police, meted out to all protesters, no matter how peaceful and vulnerable they are) are in fact the work of politically engaged radicals, as distinct from joy-riding thugs and right-wing agents provocateurs, is a hotly debated question in Athens and throughout the country. What is actually debated, in truth, is infinitely more significant: It is the Greek people’s response to the ‘shock doctrine’ of international capital and the domestic structure that has for so long catered to them.

View notes


[i] Chapter 5: Christos Giovanopoulos and Dimitris Dalakoglou, From Ruptures to Eruption: A genealogy of the December 2008 Revolt in Greece, p. 93.

[ii] Chapter 2: Vaso Makrygianni and Haris Tsavdaroglou, Urban Planning and Revolt: A Spatial Analysis of the December 2008 Uprising in Athens, p.30.

[iii] Chapter 18: Alex Trocchi, For the Insurrection to Succeed, We Must First Destroy Ourselves, p. 303.

[iv] Chapter 8: Yannis Kallianos, December as an Event in Greek Radical Politics, p. 153.