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Protests in Greece: the politics of ‘waaah’!

The lesson of Athens is that protesters who disavow ideology and embrace spontaneity end up sounding like they’re from another planet.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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Some seriously overblown claims are being made about the anti-government, anti-EU, anti-IMF protests in Athens. ‘Syntagma Square has become the frontline of the battle against European austerity’, said one giddy British reporter, referring to the square where for the past three weeks Greek citizens, calling themselves ‘indignados’, have been protesting against the IMF/EU demand for further austerity measures before Greece can receive more aid. In truth, the most striking thing about the protests is their incoherence, even their childishness. Far from being the frontline of any kind of solid movement, the Syntagma camp-in is a confused, depoliticised, borderline petulant response to the economic crisis.

Some European journalists and activists have become so enamoured by the physicality of the protests that they seem not to have noticed the gaping political hole at the heart of them. BBC reporters, who normally spend most of their time in stuffy, smokeless offices, have written with undisguised glee of their sweaty experiences in Athens, where the ‘teargas hits us without warning’ and ‘we crush together, shoulder to shoulder’. A Guardian reporter describes being ‘jammed up against the railings’ in a ‘raucous’ atmosphere that is like ‘an open-air concert’. Hacks more used to writing about Vince Cable’s latest pronouncement on business law have leapt upon the opportunity to get stuck into a seemingly more thrilling economic story, in the process presenting the Syntagma stand-off as way more profound than it actually is.

Likewise, many amongst the European left are busily projecting their aspirations on to Athens. This is the ‘start of the European workers’ fightback’, they claim, describing the protests as the ‘beginning’ of an uprising against austerity that they knew would come. It is a feeling of profound disarray and disconnection amongst European left groups, their sensitivity to the political stasis that has largely greeted the economic crisis, which leads them to make excitable claims about Greece. Motivated by a determination to avoid having hard debates at home about the crisis, far less try to come up with any strategies for resolving it, they content themselves instead with celebrating the rowdy ‘indignation’ of Greek protesters and imagining that it represents the first stirrings of the return of traditional class politics.

The obsession with the physicality of the protests, with report after report informing us in myopic detail of the protesters’ movements, slogan-shouting and running around, has become a substitute for any serious analysis of what these protests are all about. Because looked at in the harsh light of day, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the protests represent an almost wilful self-infantilisation on the part of the Greek opposition to the EU/IMF bailout strategy. It is, of course, entirely understandable that Greeks should be angry at both the institutions of the European Union and their own government and should want to protest as publicly and rowdily as possible. But to respond to the crisis with what we might call the politics of ‘waaah!’, in which the opposition presents itself almost as a child angry at its parents, is likely only to make matters worse.

The depoliticised nature of the protests can be seen in their use of the term ‘indignados’, which they borrowed from last month’s similar Spanish protests against austerity measures. Indignation is a curious sentiment to build a protest around. It’s an emotion one tends to associate with those rather self-righteous middle-class consumers who write outraged letters about being conned in shops to the BBC TV show Watchdog. And yet the protests in Syntagma Square are based explicitly on the excising of ideology and politics in favour of such emotionalism. Triggered by a Facebook group calling on people to protest against the government, the protest movement has described itself as ‘without political banners, without ideologies’. The end result, as one reporter described it, is an ‘odd alloy of earnestness and pantomime’; it’s like a rock concert, but one where ‘music is swapped for angry politics’. The expulsion of politics from the square, and the constant celebration of the protest’s spontaneous nature, has led to a situation where, as one Greek blogger describes it, ‘[there is] no clear-cut objective, no ideology and no well-defined strategy’.

Indeed, that is without question the most notable thing about the protest: its glaring absence of an objective. Day to day, there are various different physical initiatives – from trying to prevent MPs from entering the parliament building to chanting ‘Thieves! Thieves!’ – but absolutely nothing of substance is proposed in response to the economic crisis. One gets a sense of the protesters just waiting for something, anything, to occur. As one sympathetic account says, ‘Syntagma was a storm; we are just waiting for the thunder’. The protest’s depoliticised nature, its eschewing of ideology in favour of indignation, has given it a peculiarly passive nature that even its flashes of physicality cannot disguise: these are protesters who clearly see themselves, not as the potential drivers of the political agenda, but as observers who occasionally shout out rude things.

The absence of an objective, of anything resembling a proposal, is meant to reflect the protest’s supposedly post-ideological, open-ended and free-flowing nature. But in truth it gives the protest a powerful sense of unreality, of disconnection from the real world, of unwitting aloofness. The closest the protesters have come to a demand is their insistence on ‘No austerity!’ They call on the government to refuse Brussels’ demand that it impose further cuts before receiving its next bailout-related payout. Okay. But then what? ‘No austerity’, uttered on its own and in the absence of an ideological outlook or clear objective, is not a serious political position. Indeed, it can even come across as devoid of any sense of reality and certainly of any sense of strategy.

This is what marks out the current Greek protests from protests in earlier eras. Once, liberal or radical challengers to a government’s economic strategy would have proposed an alternative strategy in its place, whether a Keynesian one, a state-control policy, or a more radical anti-crisis stance that emphasised the overhauling of economic institutions and a refocusing on growth. In simply saying ‘no austerity’, or arguing that instead of making cuts resources should be reallocated from one part of Greek society to another, the protesters reveal their unwillingness or inability to take the economic crisis seriously as a political issue. They seem to have only one kind-of objective: to precipitate a default on the loans from the IMF and Europe. One Greek writer explicitly calls for an ‘early default’ on the basis that at least ‘the aftermath’ will cause something to happen. Of course this is not a serious objective at all, but more a tantrum-style demand for the world and its ugly realities to ‘go away!’. There is even a recklessness to it: posturing with no regard for outcomes or consequences.

This seems to be the overriding message of the indignation on display in Syntagma Square and elsewhere in Greece: ‘Stop the world, I want to get off.’ The conscious disavowal of politics and the embrace of emotional spontaneity have led to a situation where the protest comes across as a seriously disconnected enterprise. Instead of celebrating the physicality of what might look to some outsiders like a profound historic moment, it would be better to learn this lesson from Syntagma: that taking on the economic crisis and our political leaders’ haphazard response to it will require grown-up politics and that we take ourselves seriously.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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