Protesters demand closure of detention centers in Greece. Demotix/Nicolas Koutsokostas. All rights reserved.
Among the arrested members of the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party (GD) is the head of the police for the last seven years of a - now notorious - Athenian neighbourhood, St. Panteleimon.
It was in this neighbourhood populated by immigrants that GD gained its breakthrough to political recognition by masterminding a dual strategy of carrot and knife: assaults, bullying, barbarous beatings and the killings of immigrants. At the same time that GD members were directing protection rackets that were using immigrants to sell counterfeited goods in various markets, this was coupled with actions meant to ‘protect’ Greeks, by collecting rents in arrears from immigrants, and evicting tenants on behalf of Greek landowners who were charging exorbitant prices, on the threat of turning immigrants over to the police, and delivering some kind of Hezbollah-inspired ‘social services only for Greeks’.
This was a longterm campaign which succeeded in creating a quasi-grass roots local movement of ‘angered Greeks’, which after almost a decade resulted in 2009 in a 5.4% vote for GD in the municipal elections. Throughout this period and until yesterday, the chief of the police in the area was arresting victimized immigrants instead of their assaulters; openly cooperating with Nazi thugs providing them with guns; and sending anybody who was complaining about anything to them for protection.
He was arrested yesterday and a whole arsenal of weapons together with bags of counterfeited goods, lists of addresses of immigrants and much more incriminating evidence was seized from his house.
Yet, the fact is, that hundreds of depositions, formal complaints, questions in parliament and reports in the media regarding his actions have been filed throughout the last seven years. But until yesterday when not only him but many police officers from all around Greece were arrested, nothing had happened. Similar longterm campaigns were organized by GD in other working-class Athenian neighbourhoods during which, according to the polls, GD was gaining about 30,000 votes per month, 30% of which were coming from the left. It was in one of these neighbourhoods that a young, left-leaning, openly anti-fascist Greek (not immigrant) musician was stabbed to death two weeks ago, leading to the arrests of recent days.
A widely espoused myth on the reasons for the rise of GD has been based on a reading of events in St. Panteleimon and other neighbourhoods that is not only false but that also exonerates from responsibility successive governments, the police and the judiciary.
It goes like this: the increase in immigration has accumulated social tensions in working class neighbourhoods which were making everyday life almost unliveable for Greek residents who were seeing their standards of life deteriorating and had no other means to express their anger and protect themselves but turn to GD.
Yesterday we found out that this campaign of hate and violence could not have been successful without the active cooperation of those who were supposed to uphold the rule of law. Before yesterday we knew that Greek society has never had a real discussion about integrating immigrants, and has never developed a genuine respect for the Other, any Other. This combines a broad cultural intolerance towards various forms of ‘otherness’, with an inability to listen to the other and discuss without unleashing the repellent dogma and hysteria that lies at the root of the neo-nazi phenomenon in Greece. But intolerant, xenophobic attitudes could have been accommodated within traditional or new right wing parties without giving rise to a neo-nazi party that was voted in by 425,000 Greeks.
The real question is not how and why GD was born, but how and why it was radicalized further and gained such an alarming level of support. After all, both Spain and Portugal have had civil wars and even longer dictatorships than Greece, and have been hit in similar ways by the economic crisis in the last five years. But this has not given rise to neo-nazism. Of course, give them time and they might.
But a peculiarity of Greece, besides the cultural factors mentioned above, was that the police in a lot of cases were actively assisting the neo-nazis; the judiciary was unwilling to prosecute them; and successive governments were unresponsive to repeated warnings as they was using an agenda of law and order and a discourse of intolerance in order to make immigrants the scapegoats for their inability to reform a highly clientelistic and corrupt state, amidst the ruins of a productive model which was based on loans and was producing almost nothing.
The arrests of recent days, the remand in custody of some of the leaders of GD, the arrests of police accomplices and the prosecution of GD as a criminal organization, is clearly a crossing of a kind of Rubicon for the government and the judiciary.
These arrests should have taken place long ago, and the inexcusable delay is mainly of their own making. But at last they have acted, it seems partly due to the unofficial pressures of the European Union which seems to have much better democratic reflexes.
But now they have done what was long overdue, and the political as well as the legal rationale are both right and proper. This fight against fascism is not likely to be won sooner rather than later. It will be a marathon, involving political and not only judicial means. But judicial means are crucial since we are talking about a criminal organization that was allowed to take root and grow for far too long.
Now it is crucial not to let up on the pressure, but to be decisive and stay on the attack. In a pragmatic sense, the arrests and the confessions and testimonies have been very effective, according anything but a heroic status to these broken, pitiful, cowardly fascist bullies. The recent Greek experience has shown that democratic societies, since they cannot but allow space for anti-democratic and fascist views to be expressed and organized politically, need at the same time to use all judicial means earlier rather than later and in a firm way, to prosecute not ideas but violent attitudes and criminal acts, before they take hold on various forms of local and central power and gain influence. It might be that in Greece this happened very late, but better late than later.
The reactions of the Greek left
The reaction of the left of the political spectrum was perhaps strangely lukewarm. This is mainly due to the fact that today, the Greek left is still not able to conceive in an unequivocal way the imperative nature of the defense of liberal, democratic institutions.
They use the claim that these institutions are in crisis and corrupt to conclude that t defending them is wrong, because any defence will presumably ultimately strengthen the capitalist state, handing the agenda of reform over to the right.
It was mainly because of this belief that during the last two years the ‘anti-fascist’ movement has never been conceived in terms of an as-wide-as-possible mobilization in defence of democratic rights. Instead it has emerged as a sectarian leftist movement which was supposed to fight fascists on the streets, as a small branch of the ‘anti-memorandum’ political front.
But the ‘anti-memorandum’ movement, because of its rather abstract opposition to austerity and the absence of a positive political agenda was always a peculiar alliance including the left, a new right wing nationalist party called ‘Independent Greeks’ and - rather bizarrely - GD itself.
In itself this involuntary but ‘really existing’ alliance was helping GD to gain popular legitimacy along populist lines. In a similar vein, forces of the left were and still are using disgraceful practices of violence against anyone who is in disagreement with their metaphysical and populist condemnation of the Troika and the “European loan sharks”, as the only ones to hold responsible for ‘the crisis’ and everything under the sun.
These attitudes help legitimize violence, including fascist violence. The European allies and the Troika might not have dealt with the crisis in the right way, but they came to Greece after the crisis. The austerity measures were the result not only of a political and economic system which proved unable to reform itself, but also of the policies of the left which in the last fifteen years were blocking any type of reform in the public sector and elsewhere. Take as one example, when academics in favour of some kind of evaluation of academic practices were threatened openly in their offices and were in some cases kept captive for days by left activists, the left not only did not condemn but openly condoned these practices. This, however, was presumably good violence, ‘the midwife of history’.
It is only a broad anti-fascist alliance which will put at its centre the defense of liberal, democratic institutions and will reenergize democratic practices, actively condemning and opposing any and every form of violence, that can in the longer term disarm GD politically and culturally.
It is also such a broad alliance that can reactivate public debate about the real causes of the cultural and economic crisis, avoiding populist clichés and dogma, neutralizing attitudes of intolerance and xenophobia, building a genuine respect for the other and deepening an awareness of the real requirements for the difficult fight for social, political and economic reform in Greece within Europe. It is only through a combination of the legal battle and the political and cultural fight for as broad as possible a mobilization for democratic values and practices and institutional reform, that the long delayed defence against the terrible march of fascism may not be altogether lost.