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Political disillusionment in Greece: toward a post-political state?

Following disappointment in SYRIZA's rule, passionate idealism has ended up paving a way for apathy and individualism.

Former PASOK leader Andreas Papandreou, as he appeared on Old PASOK - the Orthodox's Facebook page, with the caption: "The Movement forged in the factories and the soul of labour does not forget the leader... old PASOK - by the people - for the people - with the people". Credit: [Παλιό ΠΑΣΟΚ - Tο Ορθόδοξο / Facebook]. Fair useThe longstanding economic and political crisis in Greece has led to political disillusionment, a lack of trust in institutions, and a sense of collective powerlessness. Political antagonisms have subsided, suggesting Greece’s immersion into a post-ideological phase that is characterized by apathy, individualism, and a rise of counter-politics in the form of trolling.

It is possible to divide up the recent events in Greece into three periods. First, the rather ‘militant’ years of 2008-2012, characterized by high levels of societal conflict, protest, but also by belief in the possibility of political change. These years were followed by a period of more moderate struggle, canalized in the field of political representation, where massive protests gave their place to expectations from voting, and which resulted in the rise of SYRIZA to power in 2015. The period of intense re-negotiation with the institutions in charge of the bailout program culminated in the referendum of July 2015, where the bailout conditions were rejected by a majority of 61% of Greek citizens. This result was effectively ignored by SYRIZA, who nevertheless accepted a bailout package of further austerity measures. Thus a new, third period of Greek politics dawned: a period of disappointment and political disillusionment.

Almost half of all Greeks believe that Greece has a democracy in name only

Empirical findings support this conclusion: almost half of all Greeks believe that Greece has a democracy in name only, and the trust in democratic and societal institutions is strikingly low. The trust Greek citizens have in political parties (5% trust rate), labour unions (5%), the media (from 5 to 10%), and the banking system (7,5%) is miniscule. The level of trust for the institution of the Prime Minister fell from 71% in 2015 to 44% in 2017, as did that for the government from 62,5% to 39%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only family (75%), the military (44%), and the police (33%) seem to retain relatively high levels of acceptance, as traditional institutions apparently blameless for the current situation.

This precipitous fall in trust is, on a surface level, connected with SYRIZA’s failure to bring about the promised changes and their compromise with the politics of austerity. In addition to their post-referendum agreement with lending institutions, SYRIZA proceeded with policies that it had previously opposed. Most emblematically, SYRIZA sold the 67% of the largest Greek Port, in Piraeus, to the Chinese shipping group COSCO, when it was in government, despite running a fierce election campaign against such privatisation.

The rise of apathy

The debasement of the democratic mandate did not, however, spark the kind of reaction it would have perhaps done in the first, ‘militant’, phase of Greek crisis politics. The reason behind this lack of mobilisation is the embeddedness of a sense of powerlessness and fatalism over the field of political contestation. With no alternative plan in sight, individuals and movements that had previously been engaged in the anti-austerity struggle are scattered and appear to have internalized defeat after SYRIZA’s policy turn. Not only is there no faith in the possibility of citizens or collectives working together and having an effect on public policy, but there is also no agency willing or capable to articulate something more than sectorial demands. Political groups disassembled over disagreements regarding their stance toward SYRIZA, while the left lost the ‘moral high ground’ that it supposedly occupied.

This defeatism fits into a longer trend in Greece, tracing back to the defeat of the communist left after the post-WWII Civil War, of nostalgia and glorification of a “struggle fought, even if lost”, which has aestheticized the contemporary apathy as a form of political pessimism and melancholy.On a deeper level, there is a disappointment in Greek democratic institutions in general. The lack of economic autonomy and the continuous supervision over Greece’s internal affairs has supported the idea that internal developments of Greece are not the responsibility of SYRIZA or any specific government, but the reality of global politics. The acceptance of the TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) renders SYRIZA’s moves and inadequacies trivial in the face of the general incapacity of the Greek state to effectively steer the economy and the society autonomously.

This train of thought fatalistically accepts that sovereignty and democracy have withered away. In the legislative election of September 2015, after the signing of the new bailout package, the voter turnout (56,6%) was the lowest it has ever been since the restoration of democracy in 1974. Insofar as acquiring political power is not about effectuating changes but rather about administrating, political antagonisms wear off. Greece is becoming the example of a post-political state.

The post-political climate has disarmed radical thinking from both sides of the political spectrum.

The weakening of political antagonisms also has an effect on right-wing radicalism. Greece was in the spotlight during the first two periods of the crisis (2008-2012, 2012-2015) for the rise of right-wing radicalism in the form of the neo-Nazi party of Golden Dawn. Although most of the reasons that prompted its steep increase have all but disappeared (unemployment, economic hardships, increased immigration and cultural anxieties), the party seems to have stabilized, even if to a rather significant percentage (7%). For the time being, the post-political climate has disarmed radical thinking from both sides of the political spectrum.

However, right-wing extremism retains a dangerous potential. With the disintegration of the left after SYRIZA’s administration, a potential collectivist, grassroots movement against austerity politics could be more easily captured by the far-right. Therefore, in the event of a deepening of the crisis or of a major trauma to the social fabric, the far-right may still emerge as the political agency to articulate the corresponding demands, with the grave dangers for democracy that this entails. Post-politics maintains social peace as long as it lasts; what lurks beneath the future is yet to be discovered.

Trolling politics

Is apathy then the sole characteristic of this political period? In fact, there seems to be another phenomenon that, starting from the social media, has assumed a political, or rather “counter-political” character: trolling. By trolling I don’t mean online harassment and ad hominem attacks, but a way of ridiculing political discourse by mockery, exaggeration, and extraneous remarks.

One example that lies at the intersection of humour, nihilism, and political significance is the appearance of a Facebook group called “The old, orthodox PASOK”, mocking to an extreme degree the legacy of the Socialist Party (PASOK), while at the same time supposedly glorifying it, as the ultimate standard of welfare of the Greek society. This project is now well-established as a humorous locus (its page has more “likes” than that of the real PASOK) and it hosts occasional extravagances, such as parties with green lights (the colours of PASOK), fake Drachmas flying over the dancefloor, and self-ridiculed performances of working class songs PASOK used to play during its campaigns. The ambiguity of such a project is exemplified by the counter-intuitive workings of its nihilism: PASOK becomes the constant object of mockery and jokes, while its popularity rises as the use of hyperbole triggers nostalgia for the financially secure or even prodigal 90’s and mid 00’s.

Satire and ridicule thrive in a climate of political disillusionment, where nothing appears to be worth taking seriously.

Satire and ridicule thrive in a climate of political disillusionment, where nothing appears to be worth taking seriously. This form of counter-politics appears on one hand to be deconstructive and critical, and on the other hand, precisely because of its ultimate deconstruction, anti-emancipatory and subversive of any efforts to articulate ambitious political speech.

New politics and identities

Any political order is the expression of a specific form of power relations. Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau are correct in pointing out that political practice has to be conceived not in representing pre-constituted identities, but rather in constituting those identities. In a progressively depoliticized public sphere that fosters the spread of individualism and engenders new forms of counter-politics, collective identities will be formed in precarious terrains and around contingent centripetal forces. The example of the appearance of a saviour-like figure that claimed to possess incredible amounts of wealth, enough to bail out Greece, and his creation of a paganist, overly conservative, conspiracist political movement that seems to already have gathered some support is elucidating. There is a growing gap of political representation or, more correctly, there is a gap in the formation of collective identities around common understandings of social welfare.

A bottom-down approach would step in exactly at this point to suggest the reinvigoration of forms of political engagement on local levels, the creation of smaller movements around particular questions, and the emphasis on common goods and on the amelioration of the function of institutions. This form of identity-formation through processes of democratic decentralization could eventually reverse the current decline in political trust and lead to the formation of new political movements and parties. This seems, however, far-fetched for the current situation in Greece, where the question of economic survival seems to be hanging mid-air like Damocles’ sword.

Greece represents more than an interesting case in theory. In the globalised world, the diffusion of social trends, economic “solutions”, and political models may eventually play a role in shaping world politics. In this sense, the quest for democracy in Greece is important not just for Greek society, but for all those opposing the post-politics of supposed consensus, expertise, and exclusion from decision-making process.

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