What’s rocking the cradle of democracy? by Costas Douzinas

Few events in recent European political history have baffled the commentariat more than the widespread Greek insurrection, or “riots’“(according to rightwing analysts), of December 2008, and those last month, when a quarter of a million people took to the streets and the Greek parliament was stormed by trade unionists and other demonstrators. The catalyst for the 2008 events was the unprovoked police killing of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos on December 6 in a bohemian district in downtown Athens next to the polytechnic and the law school, both associated with student militancy for some 60 years. The catalyst for the 2010 events was the imposition on the Greek people of the harshest austerity measures ever seen in post-war Europe.

The Greek government accepted a loan from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union that could tide it over repayment of its debt (but would not resolve the underlying problem), and in return it adopted measures that will lead to a deep economic depression and destroy the post-war social contract.

The reaction of the Greek people was expected, but would not have been as immediate and powerful had the 2008 events not happened. Within hours of Grigoris’s killing, huge protests, occupations and demonstrations broke out all over. In an unprecedented move, large numbers of secondary pupils occupied some 800 schools. Daily marches to police stations, parliament and ministries were accompanied by sit-ins, street demos, disruption at theatres, the raising of a banner calling for resistance and the burning of the Christmas tree in Syntagma Square. However, violence against banks and luxury shops was limited and no casualties were reported.  According to opinion polls, half the population supported the protests.

Solidarity demonstrations throughout Europe created fears that they would spread and in France President Sarkozy had to pull back a school reform bill. There were many anxious interpretations. Many, often contradictory, causes were suggested: economic (unemployment and neo-liberal economic measures); political (persistent corruption and failure of education); cultural or ideological. But the most prominent reaction has been incomprehension mixed with incredulity. No political organisation directed the insurrection, no single ideology motivated it, no overwhelming demand was put forward.  The persistent question “what do the kids want?” often led to the conclusion that the events were not political because they could not be integrated into existing analytical frameworks.

What united the protestors was a refusal: “No more”, “enough is enough”. Is this a new type of politics after the slow decay of democracy? The urban space has always been a site of conflict. From the riots of early modernity to the Bastille, the Paris Commune, the reform, suffragette and civil rights movements, to May 1968, the Athens Polytechnic 1973 and the Prague and Bucharest uprisings, the “street” has changed political systems, laws and institutions. In this sense, the December insurrection was a recognisable form of “street” resistance. But this was no ordinary protest. Imagine Westminster and Whitehall under siege everyday for two weeks. A condensation of causes, strategies, and actions turned December into the Greek May 1968….

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