Greek protest in Syntagma Square: in between post-politics and real democracy

Syntagma Square is a political response to a highly polarised political establishment that has repeatedly failed in recent years to meet the demands of the body politic.

Paulina Tambakaki
28 June 2011

Within the past few days much debate has been stirred about the protests in Syntagma Square in Athens. Partly out of fear for their impact on the Eurozone, and partly out of interest in the peculiar figure of ‘the indignant’, who both challenges and practices politics, the Greek protests capturing the attention of the European public sphere, have been greeted as much with scepticism as with enthusiasm.

This is not surprising. These protests bring into focus the culture of counter-politics, direct democracy and solidarity-building across the Mediterranean (given the affinities between the Greek and Spanish protesters). They also touch on pre-existing anxieties about representative democracy, the European project, and neoliberal policies. These are protests, therefore, which propel enough dislocations in all directions to split our intellectual passions –  excite and agonise, enthuse and worry.

This split is nowhere more evident than amongst intellectuals who identify themselves with the radical left. Not only because the Greek protests serve as fertile ground for reigniting disagreements (within the left) about the causes and means of grassroots activism – a pet subject indeed – but also, importantly, because the Greek protesters by identifying themselves as indignants, explicitly eschew all reference to ideology, including left radicalism. To this provocation, radical intellectuals respond in one of two ways: either they immediately dismiss the protests as post- or anti-political, or they read into them the rise of a multitude en route to realising ‘real democracy’. Both responses are equally limiting.

In particular, it is empty tautology to argue that the protests in Syntagma square are depoliticising because of their post-ideological character, substituting indignation for ideology. The refusal to engage in left-right politics is exactly what the protesters in Syntagma Square are championing.  Here, there is no transfer of contestatory politics to another terrain, as is so often the case with what more sophisticated accounts label as ‘post-politics’. Rather, the protesters use the post-ideological banner as their response, indeed a political response, to a highly polarised political establishment that has repeatedly failed in recent years to meet the demands of the body politic.

More to the point, by dismissing the protests as anti-political, so called radical commentators fail to identify the ‘aspect-changing’ facet of the protests. Rather than rushing to mourn the death of politics, it would be more creative, perhaps, to begin building a vocabulary that captures the return of citizen engagement with state politics – a return that currently slips out of sight. For example, indignation, usually a negative type of emotion, in this case triggers not just political action but more specifically, citizen action – it is worth remembering here that the protests in Syntagma are protests by citizens against (or in defiance of) the politics of their state.

Yet if some fail to grasp the aspect-changing facet of the protests, the alternative position which celebrates their novelty and potential for channelling real democracy is equally problematic. Enthused by the open airing of opinions taking place in Syntagma square, their all-inclusivity, peacefulness and, notably, directness, proponents of the second position see in the Greek protests the rebirth of a collective, counter-movement set on challenging not only parliamentary politics but a whole range of established hegemonies. This position has its strengths. For example, it draws out the ventilating potential of the movement of the square, the political subjectification its participants undergo and the direct participation this encourages, and carefully distinguishes between the trigger for the protests (indignation) and their by-product, the creation of an assembly where all the protesters gather to discuss and contest the politics of their state.

However, by resorting to the familiar vocabulary of social movement politics to capture the novelty of the protests, it ends up cancelling this novelty out. Because if the ultimate imaginary to which the rise of the Greek multitude is tied with is that of (challenging) neoliberal hegemony, then what exactly is its difference from, say, the anti-globalisation movement? By extolling assembly politics, and identifying real democracy with direct participation, this position not only crudely oversimplifies democracy but also naively overlooks the risks and challenges confronting direct democracy. For example, do all participants have the same ability/confidence to voice their opinions? And can initiatives of direct participation escape institutionalisation – which presupposes proceduralism and rule-following? Or is institutionalisation (so understood) the necessary and unavoidable component of such initiatives? At the European level, for instance, there is a plethora of initiatives of direct participation (especially regarding proposed policies), yet such initiatives are rarely seen as democracy en route to realisation.

Indeed, perhaps the very idea of realising some real direct democracy somewhere in Greece (or Spain) is a misnomer and perhaps even dangerous - as it diverts attention from the task at hand. Namely, to engage with and challenge the politics of the state, rather than pretending that by simply bypassing its structures, institutions, and parties, the state will gradually cease to influence, if not simply go away.

In challenging, therefore, the politics of their state as citizens the Greek protesters do call for alternative readings of the emerging political landscape. However these readings do not become ‘alternative and new’ by virtue of the ‘ends’ they proclaim (of ideology, trade unionism etc), nor by virtue of the ‘new’ beginnings they instantiate (a real democracy somewhere). Rather, they are alternative and new in a more settled sense, as the recovery or reactivation of something latent. That is, a citizenry which prioritises its identity as citizenry of a given state – rather than as a global activist, a human being, or a local protester. Entrapped in old vocabularies, we have been too one-dimensional to notice that the citizenry rebounds to make claims on their state, at precisely the moment that the state abdicates all responsibility to its citizens. What we are witnessing is a reactivation, rather than an institution, of a responsible state.

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