The tragicomedy in Greece is over. The country’s indignados, or aganaktismeni -- well-meaning and scornful of political parties and leaders of any stamp -- were unable to unite into a viable force against their government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-and European Union-imposed austerity measures.
When covering the protests, the official Greek and foreign press zeroed in on “corrupt” and “lazy” public sector workers who “perform half the work” and earn “twice as much” as private sector workers. They suggested that “inflated labor costs” were the cause of Greece’s woes and that Reagan and Thatcher-era anti-labor measures were the way to deal with them. More, they misled most people into believing that the public sector workers made up the majority and hard core of the protesters. Nothing was further from the truth, however, as these people were largely absent from the squares.
Like all societies, Greece has its privileged and disenfranchised, its rulers and ruled. As everywhere, the rulers in Greece are a small minority and need allies to rule; they find them among those whose social position is intermediate between that of exploiter and exploited. The rulers also try psychologically to co-opt the ruled and create the impression among them that they are not really ruled (thus, for example, the self-identification of most American wage-earners not as workers but as members of the “middle class”). So in Greece: The “ruling social coalition” is a complex entity that for decades has befuddled many an astute political pundit, even those armed with Marxist tools of analysis. This trans-class phenomenon comprises about 48 percent of the active population. Besides bona-fide capitalists (300,000, or 6 percent, of the active population) and “small capitalists” of the town and country who own small productive property and often employ labor (1.5 million, or 30 percent), the “ruling social coalition” also includes the relatively privileged public sector workers (600,000, or 12 percent).
Two squares at Syntagma
Syntagma Square, the center of protest in Athens and the country at large, was really two “squares” -- the “progressive” lower square, or square proper, and the more conservative, even “reactionary,” upper square. Protesters in the former tended to engage in debates that sometimes degenerated into what may compassionately be described as group therapy sessions. By contrast, people who congregated on Amalias Street outside the Vouli, or Parliament, were more “direct”: They shouted slogans and yelled profanities and other insults at the deputies inside the building.
A sample taken in the lower square during the anti-austerity protests in October among a group calling itself the “anti-Memorandum action team” revealed this core membership: the owner of a low-end clothing franchise, two unemployed professionals who live off the rent from apartments they owned; the owner of a computer supplies shop, a university student, a worker in the public sector, a freelance television technician, a freelance musician, a freelance photographer, a librarian, the owner of a small publishing company and the director of an environmental research center. Thus, of the 12 active members of the “action team,” only the public sector worker, the librarian and the environmentalist earned a wage.
Syntagma’s upper square, where Greek flags always flew, was the domain of the more traditional urban petty bourgeoisie. When visiting Athens from the country, it was here that the traditional agrarian “small capitalists” came to mingle with angry shopkeepers, merchants, taxi-cab owners and tradesmen. Fiercely patriotic, sometimes rabidly nationalistic, these protesters were at daggers drawn with the lower square.
Despite their ideological differences, both “squares” were opposed to the Greek government, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Everyone believed they were fighting against a new “German occupation” and its “collaborators” in the government.
Where were the workers? They only made their appearance in Syntagma Square on a few occasions in columns led by the GSEE, the General Confederation of Greek Workers in the private sector (450,000 members), ADEDI, the Civil Servants Confederation (280,000), and PAME, the Communist Party-led All Worker Militant Front (420,000 members). The turnout for the first two organizations was disappointing. Yet even the Communists were nowhere to be seen whenever street fighting broke out in the square with the riot police. The absence of organized labor in the aganaktismeni movement is explained by the fact that their organizations are controlled by the employers or led politically and ideologically by members of the ruling social bloc.
Private sector workers, the underemployed and the unemployed
To be sure, among the protesters in Syntagma were individual private sector workers, the underemployed and the unemployed proper. But the majority of Greece’s indignados belonged to the ruling social coalition. And if organized workers were only sporadically active in the protests, much less so were the private sector workers -- the productive heart of Greece -- who number 1.4 million, or about 50 percent, of all wage workers. Most of these people are under the autarchic rule of their employers and do not dare form trade unions. They know that if they organize, they are fired.
Another social group that was conspicuous in its absence was foreign workers. More than half a million strong, they work in small companies where they are hyper-exploited by the lower middle class -- the very sector that was abundantly represented among the aganaktismeni. Indeed, it would have been obscene for the immigrants to remonstrate alongside their oppressors. People from former Soviet bloc Balkan countries, from Asia and Africa, “saved” the traditional petty bourgeoisie when it was squeezed by the EU’s restructuring in the 1990s. Their hyper-exploitation was -- and is -- promoted by the big Greek bourgeoisie, who, as “paragons” of “European standards,” do not employ undocumented foreign workers in their enterprises, though they are happy to receive the political benefits of such an arrangement. This important socio-economic event contributed to the “consent” of the traditional petty bourgeoisie towards the rule of big business, the multinational conglomerates and neoliberal economics. Needless to say, there were no anti-monopoly fronts among these new “radicals” before the crisis hit hard in 2011.
While the traditional small Greek capitalists hyper-exploit foreign workers, they fuel racist xenophobia and constantly call for tighter police controls on the borders. Yet they do not truly wish to rid the country of the economic immigrants. For if they were turned out, who would be left for these Greek “patriots” to wantonly exploit? Rather, the kleinburgerei -- who cry the loudest against the “new occupation” of the country by Germany -- exploit an “invisible army” of modern-day slaves, an army they want to keep “illegal” and thus insecure. The better to exploit, they want the foreigners to live under the sword of Damocles of deportation. The immigrant workers in Greece -- like the Pakistanis who till the fields in the historic plains of Marathon, or the West Africans who do the dangerous, dirty work in the Elefsina shipyards -- live and work in conditions that make Engels’ account of the lives of the English working class in 1845 seem civilized by comparison. It is no accident that but a handful of Indians yet tens of thousands of Pakistanis live in Greece. Muslims are more “suitable” for exploitation by Orthodox Christians -- just as Albanians are also “suitable” (despite their lighter skin than the swarthy “Hellenes”). Oppressed peoples, however, have long memories. Among both Pakistanis and Albanians thrives a peculiar “superiority in subordination” in their relations with their Greek despots. After all, was it not the locals in what is present-day Pakistan that caused Alexander’s armies to turn back from the Hindus River in 326 B.C.? And was it not the Arvanites, or Albanians, who acted as overlords of the Greeks from the 13th to 16th centuries A.D.?
In short, the people who “boiled over” with anger in Syntagma Square this past summer and fall were not the most oppressed. The fire they set did not burn long. Like a candle in the wind, the protests quickly died out when the Lucas Papademos “national unity” government was decided in October. It was almost as if the troika (IMF, EU, ECB), the “black front” of Greek parties (center-left PASOK, center-right New Democracy Party, ultra-right wing LAOS) and the aganaktismeni, had all agreed on the script.
The Greek rebellion had to fail because it represented those elements of the ruling coalition that were unhappy with the downward spiral the country is in. The real producers (as opposed to the appropriators) were not present. The “ruled social coalition” was absent! Not counting the public sector wage workers, that amounts to about 2,300,000 people. This segment of society outnumbers the country’s polymorphous lower middle class by at least 800,000. The productive heart of the Greek economy beats in total insecurity. No political parties represent these people. Their constitutional rights are usurped by their employers. They are completely cut off from any mechanism that expresses power. When the protests began in May 2011, they took a good look at the aganaktismeni, scratched their heads and figured it was not their fight. Yet it is precisely this sector that supplies profits to capital and pays the lion’s share of the funds needed for the state machinery to function.
No sooner had the “radicals” left the squares and gone home than the social force that can make a difference stepped forward. The parrots of the official media -- both Greek and international -- are mostly silent on this score. They see the danger and shrink from it. They see that the real tragedy has begun. But their aphony will not make it go away. Since Oct. 31, the workers at Hellenic Halyvourgia, the country’s largest steel mill located in Aspropyrgos outside Athens, have been on strike. Citing the crisis, the owner of the company, Nikolaos Manesis, urged the workers to accept a five-hour workday and a 40 percent cut in wages. When they refused to work in the fire for 500 euros a month, he sacked 34 workers and all 400 men walked out.
The strike at Hellenic Halyvourgia has become the epicenter of resistance against the anti-labor measures of the European Union, the IMF and the government of the “black front.” On Dec. 13 all workers in Thriassio Field, the biggest industrial area in Greece 25 kilometers northwest of the capital, went on a 24-hour solidarity strike. More strikes of this sort are scheduled. The steelworkers feel the connection between their struggle and that of all local and immigrant workers in the country. They have received delegations expressing solidarity from various countries; the flags of these delegations fly on the steel mill’s gates. Their struggle has become international. The strike at the steel mill is a powerful magnet -- unlike the protests in Syntagma Square this past summer -- for all people who are part of the solution. It has aroused, in itself and in the masses disappointed from Syntagma, a moment of enthusiasm in which it associates and mingles with society at large, identifies itself with it and is felt and recognized as the general representative of this society. The steelworkers have become the social head and heart of Greece. They -- and people like them, both Greek and foreign -- are the only ones capable of saving the great mass of society from economic ruin by the havoc the government has made of the public wealth through the wholesale financial swindling it fostered, by the props it lent to the artificially accelerated centralization of capital and the concomitant expropriation of many small enterprises. Characteristic in this connection is the demand voiced at the picket line to surrender all closed workshops and factories to associations of workmen, no matter whether the respective owners have absconded or preferred to stop work.
The main problem for the striking workers is that Hellenic Halyvourgia has another steel mill, in the town of Volos in central Greece, and the workers there have succumbed to the intimidation of Manesis and his agents. A sign, however, that the men at the Aspropirgos steel mill -- the first element in Greek society to do so -- are about to overcome a defensive stance vis-à-vis aggressive economic policy on wage and employment issues, is the statement made recently by Giorgos Sifonis, the head of the Steel Workers’ Union, that they will intensify the struggle and “go close Manesis’ factory in Volos.” If this happens, there is the very real possibility of serious trouble breaking out not only in Volos but across the country.
The eyes of all true radicals in Greece and the world are on the strike at Hellenic Halyvourgia. Will the steelworkers mount a crusade to shut down the scab mill in Volos? Will the rest of the “ruled social coalition” join them -- if not in person, then at least in spirit? Will the strike spread? How many among the “ruling social coalition” who participated in the Greek indignados movement will break away and consciously join the ranks of the ruled?
For one sector of society to represent the whole, another must concentrate in itself all the evils of society; it must embody and represent a general obstacle and limitation. In Greece that class is Manesis’ class -- the big businessmen, the 6 percent of the active population. Like the steelworkers who oppose it, this class has a universal, international character, and the harm it does is not a particular wrong but wrong in general.
The social icebergs that make up Greek society are melting fast, cracking, breaking free and coming into collision with each other. The 6 percent in Greece can be beaten by the 60 percent (private and public sector wage-earners, foreign workers and unemployed -- a total of about 2.85 million active population), even if the core rulers have the support of the 30 percent, the petty bourgeoisie. History teaches there is no problem capital cannot solve, provided wage-earners are ready to sacrifice for it. And in Greece -- this blessed country at the crossroads of the world between Europe, Asia and Africa -- more and more wage-earners are no longer willing to sacrifice.
*Dr. Everest Kanzas is a sociologist, a professor of social studies, based in Patras, Greece.