Greece’s Fascist Threat

The fascist Golden Dawn party has drawn Greece's ruling party further right — and opened space for deeper austerity measures.

The increasingly bold Golden Dawn party has precipitated a political crisis in Athens whose resolution is far from certain. Golden Dawn, the largest fascist party in Europe and the third largest party in Greece, has grown rapidly during the economic crisis both by scapegoating immigrants, ethnic minorities and queer people, and offering basic necessities like food to Greek citizens impoverished by the country’s austerity program.

Until this month, it has operated with the implicit consent of the center-right New Democracy-led coalition government, despite extensive evidence that party activists have used violence to terrorize people living at the margins of Greek society.

But the party apparently crossed a red line this month. In mid September, fifty or so Golden Dawn thugs assaulted Communist Party (KKE) members putting up political posters in a working-class suburb of Athens. The following week, Pavlos Fyssas, an anti-fascist hip-hop artist, was murdered by a self-proclaimed Golden Dawn member in the working-class district of Keratsini.

The killing of Fyssas, a Greek citizen, coming on the heels of the beatings of Greek KKE members, accomplished what the beatings and murders of immigrants by Golden Dawn members in the past had not: widespread public outrage and mass mobilizations against the party. Initial protests were organized and held within twenty-four hours, culminating in a 50,000 person march on Golden Dawn’s headquarters the following week. Today, central Athens is covered in antifascist political posters and graffiti.

By last weekend, the party’s leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, other Golden Dawn members of parliament, and key party members had been arrested and charged with belonging to a criminal organization. Depending on the trials’ outcomes, Golden Dawn could ultimately be declared an illegal party.

However, while the turnaround in Golden Dawn’s political fortunes after an impressive mass mobilization might be expected to elate the Greek left, the mood on the ground in Athens last week was one of uncertainty. Most immediately, radicals are concerned that the government’s crackdown on the party could later be used as a pretext to crack down on parties of the Left, a concern founded in the center-right’s rhetorical equivalence of the violence of the fascist ultra-right with left-wing mobilizations.

And the threat of fascism is hardly vanquished. A political cartoon circulating online captured the general sentiment on the Left, showing New Democracy Prime Minister Antonis Samaras uprooting a small plant in the shape of Golden Dawn’s symbol while a giant root system in the shape of a swastika remained underground.

The current economic and political crisis in Greece has its roots in the global economic crisis of 2008. Like most of the rest of Mediterranean Europe — in particular, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus — Greece’s economy suffered a severe shock from the global crisis. This has provided an opening for global capital and especially European capital to renegotiate the conditions of accumulation in Southern Europe on more favorable terms by agreeing to bail out the Southern economies in exchange for a package of severe economic restructuring measures. The political shakedown and the economic shake-out have not so much restructured capitalism in the continent as they have revealed a truth clouded over by a long period of debt-driven prosperity: despite two decades of European integration in the Eurozone, Europe remains divided into a wealthy north and an underdeveloped south. As a Greek friend put it, how is it possible that Sweden and Greece are part of the same economic and political union?

The three international bodies responsible for negotiating the bailout, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are known collectively in Greece (and elsewhere in Southern Europe) as the “troika,” a phrase intentionally meant to evoke memories of dictatorship. The troika in fact largely acts as one, operating through the Greek government which has become a sort of puppet state, signing away much of the country’s political and economic sovereignty in the memorandum outlining the conditions of the $110 billion euro bailout and attempting to manage the social chaos in its wake.

Under the memorandum, Greece agreed to sell off profitable state-owned companies and severely curtail social spending to pay off its debt and balance the budget (a requirement that northern European governments, including Germany, have not imposed on themselves). A major container terminal at the Port of Piraeus, for example, has been sold off to the Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO without the social regulations that have accompanied port privatizations in other European countries. Unionization is now nearly impossible, and workers are employed on a day-to-day basis with poor wages and benefits and health and safety conditions that would be otherwise unthinkable in the country.

This process is often described by the term “austerity,” an ideologically mystifying term meant to veil the Greek reality of 30 percent general unemployment, 60–70 percent unemployment for young people, and public sector wage cuts between 35–50 percent — in addition to rising infant mortality, food insecurity, sex work, drug addiction, HIV/AIDS infection rates, crime, and other signals of economic desperation and social misery. Additional aspects of ideological mystification commonly employed in Northern Europe to justify the accumulation by dispossession in the South include a series of racially-tinged understandings of Greeks and Southern Europeans generally as lazy, irresponsible, and incapable of self-governance.

The initial wave of sustained anti-austerity protests, beginning in May 2010, followed the signing of the first memorandum. A massive demonstration of half a million people in central Athens and a series of ongoing protests and general strikes ensued. The second wave began in 2011, during the global occupation protest wave stretching from Tahrir Square in Egypt to the Plaza del Sol in Madrid to Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland, when protesters in Greece followed suit with massive occupations of public squares, including Syntagma Square in central Athens. This wave lasted into 2012, but thereafter there was a relative lull in the movement until this summer, prompting a period of soul-searching on the part of the Greek left about how to advance the struggle. But beginning this spring with the thwarting of an attempt to privatize the Greek public television station, the movement is awakening again, precipitated by the murder of Fyssas and growth of the anti-fascist movement.

Theories are abound on the Greek left about the type and extent of the connection between Golden Dawn, New Democracy and the police, but what’s clear is that the party has until this month been able to operate with near impunity. Police officials are under investigation for alleged ties to Golden Dawn thugs, and officers are said to have joined the party in alarmingly large numbers. Yet the more trenchant left critique of Golden Dawn concerns the reasons for the government’s tolerance of the party. I spoke with leftists from a wide range of organizations in Athens last week and though different aspects of the situation were emphasized, there is a strong consensus that a single line runs through the economic crisis to the troika to the austerity government to the fascists.

They noted, for example, that ramped-up attacks on immigrants have not been solely the prerogative of the fascists, but have been carried out openly and legally by the New Democracy government through a widespread campaign of racial profiling and incarceration of undocumented immigrants, all in service of a stated goal of mass deportations. Not only are these attacks legally sanctioned by the Greek government, they are implicitly sanctioned by EU countries in the North happy to allow the Greek state to clamp down on Europe’s undocumented immigrants, 95 percent of whom are believed to enter Europe through Greece.

Along similar lines, the New Democracy government has carried out deeply misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic policies targeting sex workers and people living with HIV/AIDS, including deporting HIV-positive immigrants back to countries where they will not be able to receive adequate treatment and posting photos of HIV-positive sex workers online.

Golden Dawn, which has deep organizational roots in many poor and working-class neighborhoods around Athens, has been able to take advantage of the space opened up by the hateful policies adopted by New Democracy. The two political organizations have developed symbiotically, with New Democracy representing the legal face of racist violence and oppression and Golden Dawn representing the hidden, criminal face. Many argue that Golden Dawn has been tolerated because it has been effective in organizing and moving the country to the right at the base level, simply pursuing the logic of New Democracy’s policies to their extreme conclusion.

A second argument concerning the connection between Golden Dawn and the New Democracy government emphasizes how the rise of fascist violence provides a kind of convenient distraction, shielding the government from facing mobilizations against its continued hardline austerity policies which have resulted in widespread poverty and misery. When immigrants, queer people and leftists are literally being beaten and stabbed in the streets, focusing on fighting the fascists becomes a question of survival. While the Troika has largely avoided discussion of the social chaos generated by its hardline requirements, the murder of Fyssas drew public criticism by officials outside of Greece, who perceive that neo-Nazis murdering leftists with impunity on the streets of Athens will undermine the ideological hegemony of northern states and capital forged during the crisis. Even as it continues to strip away social protections, neoliberal Europe must at least maintain an ostensible commitment to basic human rights norms to legitimate further austerity measures.

The next weeks and months will be critical for the Greek left, which, though reenergized from the mobilization against Golden Dawn, remains divided by long-standing differences over questions like the feasibility of a parliamentary road to socialism and the compatibility of socialism in one country with an integrated market economy in Europe. Within the parliamentary left, the most immediate question concerns when to call for elections, with some arguing that elections before the end of the year will allow the Left to capitalize on the public outrage directed toward Golden Dawn, while others argue that more time is needed to build support. While leftists from across the spectrum are united in the fight against fascism, then, the question of socialist strategy remains a vexing one.

In particular, leftists working outside of the radical left coalition Syriza (as well as some its own members) have questioned whether it will be possible to reverse austerity under a Syriza government without exiting the Eurozone, given the Greek state’s economic and political dependency with the Troika. This issue has become a central point of contention within the Left, drawing criticism of Syriza’s leadership from some sectors. At the same time, Syriza heads have emphasized the need to build a broader base beyond the far-left by appealing to middle-class sectors who remain attached to the European project in order to effectively challenge the center-right government in the next elections.

Questions of socialist strategy notwithstanding, at a practical level, there is an urgent need to ramp up efforts to organize means to support and mobilize urban workers and the unemployed to counteract the success of Golden Dawn, which has developed deep roots in some of Athens’ districts through, among other things, programs of “Greeks-only” food distribution. In a country where food security has become a real concern, it’s easy to understand why such a tactic has been successful. At the same time, more work must be done to make explicit the connections between the rise of fascism and the austerity program so the anti-fascist mobilizations can be deepened and broadened into a revitalized anti-capitalist movement.

Socialism or barbarism is the order of the day.