Golden Dawn members and politicians rally outside Greek parliament. Demotix/Michael Debets. All rights reserved.Sixty nine members of Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-Nazi party, are currently on trial – a trial that has been progressing very slowly and has been adjourned three times already – charged with having committed a range of very serious offences.
Some of them were prosecuted as principal offenders in murders, attempted murders, serious assaults, firearm possession offences etc. Others, including the leader and his closest circle, are liable for having set up and/or being members of a structured, long-term organisation, which pursues the commission of a gamut of specified serious crimes.
Golden Dawn members, sympathisers and advocates vociferously protest that they are being persecuted for their ideas rather than for any crimes actually committed. I have argued elsewhere that this is certainly not the case; this is a criminal prosecution and not a political persecution.
This, however, still leaves open the question of whether there is a necessary connection between Golden Dawn as a party and everything that it stands for and the kind of violence that falls foul of the criminal law. To put it simply, is it mere coincidence that so many Golden Dawn members are implicated in such serious offences?
As one would expect, Golden Dawn has already taken the line that even if some of its members are indeed guilty of the crimes of which they are accused, this has nothing to do with the party itself. The wrongdoers, the claim goes, are bad eggs, members gone rogue or caught up in the wrong moment. If this claim is successful then the party itself is politically exonerated and ducks a blow that might irreversibly undermine its continued existence.
Some try to rebut this claim by arguing that Golden Dawn’s neo-Nazi ideological orientation motivated the defendants, and probably many others too, to commit the offences of which they are accused.
I take it that motivation here is given its everyday meaning as something that drives an individual to act in a certain way, whether that be an emotional or psychological attitude or an ulterior state of affairs that one wants to see realised. I also take it that this appeal to motivation refers mainly to the hatred that Golden Dawn members harbour against various groups and/or their desire to establish a political state of affairs where such groups will be expunged from Greece.
To get an idea of what Golden Dawn is about, read the report by Dimitris Psarras, who has dedicated decades to recording the activities and development of the far right in Greece.
I am sceptical, however, as to whether the motivation argument accurately captures the strong link between Golden Dawn and violence. Consider the following: Golden Dawn could object that the party does envision an ethnically and racially pure Greece and its members are motivated by that vision but that it does not follow that they are motivated to use violence to achieve this vision.
They might even be able to argue that a party member proven to have committed a crime against a representative of those towards whom the party is particularly hostile was motivated by something else altogether (say, that attacks on members of the LGBT community were psychologically motivated by the fact that the attacker has not come to terms with his own sexuality).
The problem with the appeal to motivation is that it allows much to fall through the cracks because it inserts an extra layer of subjectivity, which is unnecessary. To see why we have to go back to what Golden Dawn stands for.
Recall that the party’s vision is a Greece that is pure of all difference: racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, and more besides. Might this be possible to achieve through peaceful means, say through democratic deliberation and decision-making, as a neo-Nazi might claim?
No, this is unthinkable, because there are certain inalienable rights, which come prior to democracy but also go part and parcel with it. So, even if we can bear to imagine a dystopia in which Golden Dawn holds a parliamentary majority and tries to legislate its vision of Greece, it will have to do so through the violence of scrapping constitutional inalienable rights. This being illegitimate par excellence, any attempt at implementing this programme can only be accompanied by actual, physical and utterly unjustifiable violence against that part of the population that Golden Dawn primarily targets.
But one does not even have to go this far. Democratic practice involves more than simply people casting their vote on polling day. It entails the mobilisation of civil society; engaging in dialogue with the community coming together in the public sphere; candidates for office and party representatives being publicly questioned, even held to account not only by those with the right to vote but also those who will be affected by the election outcome, whether they have full citizenship status or not.
Some of these real encounters of flesh and blood people in the public sphere and in public spaces are necessary entailments of the democratic process (either philosophically or legally) and some are contingent but inescapable. But Golden Dawn is based on the rejection of whole parts of the population as bearers of rights, at times even as members of humanity. How else can this neo-Nazi intolerance be expressed other than by excluding certain people from the real encounters that democracy entails or even requires and how can such exclusion not be inescapably violent?
To become a full-blown member of Golden Dawn is to commit to its manifesto and to commit to its manifesto of hatred and exclusion amounts to already forming a conditional intent to commit the violence that the realisation of the party programme necessarily entails. There is, therefore, no need to resort to motivation or any other subjective state.
Golden Dawn is an organisation of people with an express, if conditional, intent to inflict harm, to violate the rights of others, to engage in violence. What it may be that drives them internally is a separate and, with the exception of mental health related and other such defences as well as aggravating circumstances, largely irrelevant matter.
What bearing might this have in the criminal law treatment of Golden Dawn? In some cases (especially in relation to the criminal organisation offence), the formation of this intent is already a substantial element of the crime committed. In others, the commitment to violence provides an important evidentiary indication of the intent to commit the crime.
The most important point is that, although these people are not held criminally liable for their ideas, they are held liable because they acted on both their commitment and intention to engage in violence. This violent disposition is required, encouraged, and organised by Golden Dawn as a political party and, indeed, constitutes and sustains it as such.