It’s All Greek to Them: Populist Backlash Ruptures IMF Status Quo

Michelle Chen

Police arrest demonstrators in Athens on Tuesday, June 28, as they protest Greece's new austerity measures.

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They can’t avoid political catastrophe, but at least their timing is impeccable. The Hellenic landscape provides a stunning backdrop for the 48-hour general strike, against which the lumpen proletariat, restive revolutionaries, anxious politicians, riot police, even a pro-Palestinian flotilla… all converge in a perfect storm of global and domestic disaster.

This is the final push against another round of IMF-imposed aid-for-austerity. The proposed bailout measures, now headed for a parliamentary vote, would push the country toward more agonizing unemployment and social service cuts, on top of the hundreds of thousands of jobs lost last year. Greek workers must also brace for a slew of new taxes, all in the name of averting a bankruptcy that could derail the entire European Union.

While economists debate” the academic merits of austerity, the sight of enraged protesters awash in tear gas has come to symbolize populist backlash in an age of austerity. But as Al Jazeera reports, corporate media portrayals have consistently projected an image of lazy workers and savage rabble-rousers. At the same time, reporters continue to regurgitate the International Monetary Fund’s official prescription, despite that institution’s record of mishandling, if not directly causing, the Eurozone’s malaise.

A dispatch from the Nation’s Maria Margaronis suggests something different is playing out on the ground:

On the street in front of Parliament, protesters are banging drums, chanting and waving, singing. The crowd is huge, politically diverse and overwhelmingly peaceful. There are people here from all walks of Greek society; at times the rhetoric is that of a national resistance. A neat elderly couple on their first demonstration push through the crush because their pensions have been slashed, prices are rising and they just can’t make ends meet.

Vassilis Papadopoulos, a 50-year-old unemployed truck driver living on loans from his mother, has come all the way from Corinth wrapped in a giant Greek flag, with a look of despair in his eyes and saucepans to bang together. This is a movement, he says, against the political system:

They’ve all cheated us. They destroyed the banks, our pension funds. They invested our social security money in bonds for their own benefit.”

Farther down, in the square itself, something entirely new seems to be taking shape. A tent village has sprung up, a liberated zone in which an open conversation has been going on for weeks. University professors, passers-by, unemployed laborers, all get their three minutes with the microphone. There’s a medical tent, a time bank,” a team to promote calm.”

When riot police cleared the square with clubs on the night of June 15, these protesters didn’t fight. They simply walked right back, picked up the rubbish and repaired their neighborhood.

Though the economy was largely paralyzed, in a sense, everyone kept working as they channeled a kinetic collective energy, reports Al Jazeera:

Apart from the metro, no public transport was operating in Athens and the streets were relatively empty. But in an 11th-hour U‑turn, metro drivers joined other employees on the subway system who decided not to strike so as to allow Athenians to join the planned protests in the capital”.

Protesters have been joined by doctors, ambulance drivers, journalists and even actors at a state-funded theatre.

But although the aesthetics of militant communists marching alongside potbellied unionists evoke a refreshingly old-school atmosphere, ominous clouds are gathering over Athens. Already entangled with the Euro and shackled to the roiling global markets, Greece’s poor and working-class are bound to lose no matter how Parliament votes. The government is in shambles and neither international institutions nor local leaders seem to offer the credibility, ingenuity or political will to push for comprehensive reshaping of the financial framework.

Protesters aren’t just incensed by a ruling elite that tightens its belt around the necks of the poor. When the government’s economic rescue plan involves literally selling itself off to the highest bidder” — attempting to shed debt by privatizing public assets — citizens realize that it’s not just their pensions, but their national identity and democracy itself, that are at stake. 

A fiery middle-aged surgeon-turned-activist, Dimitris Antoniou, explained his legal challenge to the Greek government in May:

Antoniou says that the terms of the loan agreement with the troika of the EU, IMF, and the ECB, are illegal. He says the three must be consulted in any changes to the Greek legislature — in order to get its emergency bailout loan, the government had to agree to change the country’s labour laws and pension system — which should be the job of the Greek parliament. …

He compares the loan agreement to the occupation of Greece by Germany during the Second World War. Nothing has changed, only the weapons. This time the weapons are the terms of the loan agreement.”

The reading of the law may be up for debate, but it starkly reveals the depth of Greece’s sense of humiliation and disenfranchisement. At the same time, Margaronis observes that such bitterness can explode into xenophobia and senseless violence. Greek society, which is struggling through an immigration crisis as well as economic woes, is at the brink of unraveling or rebirth.

The media imagery of the Greek protests contrasts ironically with that of the sister uprisings in the Arab world. While the Greek protests have been presented as self-interested backlash by beneficiaries of the bloated” welfare state, the Arab Spring rallies projected Westernized and well-educated youth seeking democracy and freedom. Though all these snapshots capture at least some of the zeitgeist, the true picture of these movements embodies both class and political revolt. Labor has helped fuel grassroots mobilization across Egypt, while Greeks demand an accountable leadership, not just economic relief.

On either side of the Mediterranean is a shared frustration that the powers that be are playing on fear of chaos” to co-opt and gut civil society. On the political and economic fronts, people are tired of being asked to trade their dignity for survival.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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