Thousands of protesters packed Syntagma Square in Athens for a third consecutive day on Friday. Those giving up another evening to vent their anger at Greece’s plight continued to display great enthusiasm and persistence. There was something dramatic about their protest, which took place as ominous clouds rolled across the Attica sky and boneshaking thunder boomed throughout the capital. It felt like someone had splashed out on the special effects in preparation for the ultimate battle: the people vs. the political system. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
The fact that the Greek “Indignant” were piqued into action by their Mediterranean cousins from Spain perhaps undermines the claims that this is a movement born out of genuine frustration. Earlier this month, banners in Madrid’s Puerta Del Sol poked fun at the Greeks by pleading with the Spanish protesters to keep the noise down so they wouldn’t wake them up.
The Spaniards’ sarcasm was harsh. It was unfair to poke fun at the seeming apathy of the Greeks, who appeared to have swallowed everything the debt crisis and the EU-IMF loan agreement has thrown at them. It’s true that in a country where protesting is ingrained in the national psyche, the demonstrations against the measures adopted since last April has been rather anemic. But there have been good reasons for the absence of both quantity and quality from the anti-austerity protests. The first is fear. The fear of coming to physical harm has kept many people away. The death of three Marfin Bank employees in a firebombing during a march in April 2010 has had a profound effect, as have the repeated clashes with riot police. One such incident earlier this month left a protester in a coma. It’s enough to make most people think twice before attending any gatherings.
But there is another type of fear that’s keeping people away. It’s the fear of the unknown. Greece has entered a period in its history where nothing can be taken for certain. Jobs in the public sector, places at university, free healthcare, a decent standard of living and membership of the euro are just some of the givens that have become uncertainties. This lack of certainty is something Greeks have not felt for a long time. In fact, those in their 20s and 30s – people most likely to voice their grievances publicly – would not have felt it all. It’s had a disorientating effect but Greeks are now realizing that their country and the lives they had dreamed of are drifting away from them. This distress is one of the driving forces of the ‘Indignant’ protests.
People are concerned that the crisis has thrown a cloak of darkness over Greece, allowing their country to be transformed into something they don’t recognize. This isn’t about holding on to an unsustainable past; it’s about creating an acceptable future. They are concerned, for instance, that schools and hospitals are being merged to save money but no attention is being paid to improving the poor service they offer. Already sky-high taxes are being hiked without anyone discussing what impact this will have on people’s lives or the economy. The country’s long-term sustainability is being staked on a package of measures that are only designed for the short-term. Decisions, it seems, are being taken to satisfy the pressing demands of banks, markets and creditors rather than to safeguard the interests of the people. It’s enough to make even the most patient person indignant.
This exasperation is fueled by the absence of channels through which people can express their concerns. The country’s near financial collapse has brought its political system to bankruptcy. Rather than rise to the occasion, too many of Greece’s politicians have reverted to type and offer nothing but the failed recipes and parochialism of the past. People who had once allied themselves to Greece’s established parties and its unions are now looking for other outlets for their views. That’s why the ‘Indignant’ protests could turn out to be a significant moment, a manifestation of the disgust for those who have failed Greece and its people.
The absence of political parties, unions, violence and traditional slogans from the protests this week has been refreshing. It’s given people a chance to believe in their own power, to have a voice that is not filtered by a mesh of party lines. However, what’s a bold political statement today will wane into insignificance tomorrow if it’s not backed up by substance. Banging pots in front of Parliament and aiming gestures of derision at the venerable building will wear old if those involved cannot find a way of organizing their thoughts so they can be transformed into political capital. Chanting “Take the memorandum and get out of here” is fine for the moment but ultimately, Greece has grave problems that have to be tackled with more than nice thoughts. If the memorandum is banished, what will replace it?
The Spaniards inspired the Greeks to launch these protests, so maybe they can also teach the ultimate lesson. The “Indignados” took to Spanish squares to demand greater democracy and less oppressive economic measures but just days later, a high turnout in local elections saw a major shift in favor of the opposition conservatives, who would apply even tougher austerity policies than the socialist government if they come to power. While the “Indignados” seized the opportunity to put a stamp on the collective conscience, they missed the chance to make their mark on the country.
For this to happen, the progression of the Spanish and Greek protests has to be political. They have to inspire people to consider the options, to want to participate and to breathlessly pursue change. The movement has to push out the old faces that failed and make room for new ones that have a chance of succeeding. It has to create different channels for political expression, channels that lead to the seats of power and the opportunity to affect policy. The question of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object is a paradox. The immovable object cannot exist if there is an unstoppable force, and vice versa. For too long, Greece’s political system has failed to budge because there has not been anything powerful enough to shove it aside. The ‘Indignant’ have their chance to unleash such a force and be more than a momentary paradox.