Can Europe Make It?

Fomenting unnecessary alarmism (or why the scenarios of a “civil war” in Greece are unfounded)

Claims that the situation in Greece may escalate into a 'civil war' misunderstand the nature of modern Greek society.

Vassilis Petsinis
25 June 2015

A pro euro rally held in front of the Greek parliament, June 2015. Demotix/Nicolas Koutsokostas. All rights reserved.The management of the Greek crisis still dominates the attention of the international media and press. As time is running out, the main debate focuses on whether a compromise between the Greek government and the European creditors remains feasible so that a Grexit can be prevented. The last couple of weeks have also seen a series of analyses that center on the peril of social unrest in the likelihood that no deal is reached.

Nevertheless, certain commentaries in renowned informative publications (e.g. the Financial Times), as well as popular columnists (e.g. Paul Mason on the Channel Four blog), have been stretching this probability several steps further. According to these analyses, the threat of social unrest that may even escalate into a ‘civil war’ is looming in Greece.

These authors concentrate on a string of pro-EU, as well as more Eurosceptic, demonstrations that have been taking place in the major urban centres (i.e. Athens and Thessaloniki) lately. In their opinion, this pattern of mass mobilization hints at a state of ideological polarization and irreconcilable political cleavages. Furthermore, some of these external commentators have even appealed to cultural essentialism and stereotypical allegations that ‘civil war is as old as democracy in Greece’.

However, how near are these alarmist scenarios to reality? In this brief piece, I argue that the authors of such commentaries overlook two crucial catalysts: (a) the fact that Greek politics have clearly evolved into their meta-ideological phase; (b) the transition from the politics of confrontation to the politics of consensus and its long-term impact on Greek society.

Deconstructing cultural essentialism: Metapolitefsi versus meta-metapolitefsi

In order to deconstruct clichés of a ‘cultural’ continuity, a brief comparison between Greek political culture in the 1980s and nowadays would be required. The 1980s have been dubbed ‘the era of metapolitefsi in Greek political discourse. This term signifies the trajectory to democratic transition which commenced since the fall of the military junta in 1974.

During that decade, Greece’s political landscape was characterized by a state of ideological polarization and, sharply demarcated, cleavages. On the one end of the spectrum, the, considerably delegitimized, right wing was attempting to redefine its agenda on a purely republican basis through the combination of conservative and liberal standpoints.

On the other end of the spectrum, a multifaceted leftist nexus, ranging from the Communist Party/KKE all the way to Trotskyist initiatives, professed its commitment to proletarian internationalism and global class struggle. Meanwhile, Andreas Papandreou’s populist project often utilized a leftist jargon in order to lure voters from the left towards the ruling PASOK.

An additional catalyst that intensified this atmosphere of polarization was the importance attached to charismatic leadership and leader-centred parties. PASOK’s Andreas Papandreou and, to a secondary extent, New Democracy’s Constantinos Mitsotakis are representative examples of this trend. Consequently, the politics of confrontation had gained precedence over the politics of consensus and incidents of political violence were not rare. An additional observation that attests to the overriding importance of ideology in political discourse was the visible split between ‘leftist’ and ‘right-wing’ cafés (also other meeting places) throughout the countryside.

Since the advent of the economic crisis (late 2008), several political analysts reckon that Greece has entered the stage of meta-metapolitefsi (or, in other words, ‘a new transition after the democratic transition’). The main thrust of this argument revolves around the de-legitimization of the erstwhile preponderant centre-left (mainly PASOK) and centre-right parties as well as the dissolution of the old two-party system.

Nevertheless, by contrast to the ideological polarization of the 1980s, the most recent mass mobilization serves as clear indication that Greek politics have entered the meta-ideological stage. For a start, massive venues such as the Greek indignados (‘αγανακτισμένοι’) protests between 2011 and 2012 operated as public forums for the exchange of political standpoints that oscillated from the nationalist right to the radical left.

For instance, the ‘upper side’ of the Syntagma square in Athens was the meeting point of the nationalists whereas the ‘lower side’ was unofficially the broader left’s hub during the manifestations (summer 2011). This diverse mapping has been characteristic of various other social movements in contemporary Europe, as well (e.g. the Gezi Park protests in Turkey and Maidan in Ukraine).

The new dichotomy between the proponents of the austerity measures (‘μνημονιακοί) and their rivals (‘αντιμνημονιακοί’) never culminated into an externally demarcated cleavage along the axis of the traditional ‘left-right’ spectrum. Representatives of, frequently conflicting, ideological trends could be found in both sides.

Both μνημονιακοί and αντιμνημονιακοί principally concentrated on serving their particular and immediate interests via either endorsing or opposing the austerity measures instead of enhancing the ideological underpinnings behind their agenda(s). In the long run, this approach facilitated the formation of the coalition government that consists of the leftist SYRIZA and the right-wing populists of the Independent Greeks/ANEL. Moreover, even individuals with an explicitly nationalist profile and a right-wing past have been admitted into SYRIZA’s ranks lately (e.g. the current SYRIZA MP, Rachel Makri).  

In addition, class-affiliation is no longer such a decisive determinant for political loyalties as it used to be in the 1980s. As part of a well-coordinated communication strategy, Alexis Tsipras has continuously stressed that SYRIZA echoes the voice of the underprivileged strata whose very survival is threatened by the austerity measures.

However, a more detailed consideration of the recent electoral demographics may demonstrate that SYRIZA has mostly managed to capitalize on the grievances of the middle class towards the austerity measures and their detrimental impact. Small or medium-size entrepreneurs casted their vote on SYRIZA largely on the basis of its pledges to relax the heavy taxation imposed by the previous government. Meanwhile, the extremist Golden Dawn seems to have won hearts and minds among quite a few voters in the underprivileged quarters of inner Athens (e.g. Kolonos, Agios Panteleimonas) and western Thessaloniki.

Therefore, instead of ideological polarization and the fragmentation into two sharply defined blocks, it would be more accurate to speak of a critical mass in Greece’s political landscape and political culture. This critical mass is highly malleable and constantly anxious over its long-term survival. A series of public surveys that have been conducted during the last year attest to this high malleability. In the light of these circumstances, an abrupt default and Grexit may generate a political turmoil comparable to the one that occurred between 2011 and 2012. Nevertheless, rumours of an impending ‘civil war’ in the classical sense remain unsubstantiated alarmism, to say the least.

The transition to the politics of consensus and its long-term ramifications

Since the 1990s, Greece experienced a short-lived period of economic growth. This facilitated social mobility and the gradual consolidation of the country’s middle class. Consequently, consumerist and/or nouveau riche lifestyles started becoming increasingly popular. Meanwhile, the levels of politicization and active interest in political participation among the younger generation declined remarkably in comparison to the 1980s.

From a bottom-up perspective, these processes on the grass-roots level also encouraged the transition from the politics of confrontation to the politics of consensus. Although heated debates still persisted in Greek politics, the lower mobilizing potential of ideology as well as the absence of charismatic figures was clearly visible. Since the second half of the 1990s, even bitter rivals (e.g. PASOK and New Democracy) could set up their electoral kiosks next to each other’s, during their campaign, with virtually inexistent incidents of political violence.  

Instead of marking the early stage of an imminent ‘civil war’, the latest demonstrations underline the decisive impact of the transition to the politics of consensus. The coordinators of the pro-EU as well as the more Eurosceptic venues organized their gatherings in such a way as to make sure that no unnecessary tensions occur. Moreover, not a single act of a counter-demonstration with the aim to incinerate violent clashes was observed.

Meanwhile, the highly diverse composition of the demonstrations hints at the absence of ideologically consistent and sharply demarcated blocks (i.e. the basic prerequisite for any ‘civil war’). For instance, the more Eurosceptic manifestations attracted participants as diverse as Trotskyists (e.g. the ANTARSYA party), ANEL affiliates and, even, representatives of the Greek Orthodox clergy.

On the other hand, SYRIZA voters seeking a fairer arrangement inside the Eurozone have been quite reluctant to join the party’s hard Eurosceptics in their mobilization. Most importantly, the Greek electorate represents a highly sceptical and critical mass. Despite their idiosyncratic alterations from enthusiasm to anxiety, Greek voters nowadays are very far from professing firm commitment to party-leaderships while their allegiances are highly fluctuating. Far from being early signs of a ‘civil war’, the latest demonstrations are fine specimens of political engagement on the grass-roots level. This last observation is of particular significance, especially if one considers the preponderance of ‘elitist’ (or apathetic) political cultures in other parts of Europe.

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