Do the Greek Indignados lack a true politics of awakening?

A critique of the lack of institutional awareness of the Greek indignado movement.

Excerpted from Dimitris Vardoulakis:

“The unfolding of this class consciousness takes two forms. First, it is marked by a popular awareness of the dramatic moment in which Greece has found itself. The situation, according to the “indignants”, has reached an impasse. This has certain implications: the reduced influence of the political parties; the influx in Syntagma Square of people who have always been apolitical or had not participated in politics for years; the insistence by some of the demonstrators on the TV program that their protest is social, not political. For the protesters, the entire social spectrum is under unprecedented danger, therefore indignation is inevitable.

Second, class consciousness is audible in the demand for direct democracy. This demand springs from the claim that the – “shameless” – MPs have, in effect, undermined parliamentary democracy. This claim turns upon a perception that after they are voted into office, MPs fail to respond to the views and wishes of citizens and voters. By contrast, direct democracy, as it is practiced by the “indignants” in Syntagma Square just outside the “corrupt” Parliament is posited as providing everyone with the chance to express their opinions. In this way, Syntagma Square is transformed into the contemporary Agora of the ancient Athenian democracy.

This dual expression of class consciousness resonated with some of my own feelings, having arrived in Athens a few weeks earlier after an absence of 3 years. Thirsty for a “revolution” I went to Syntagma Square and consorted with the demonstrators. Living in Australia, a highly capitalist country where protests are almost nonexistent, I wanted to believe that I would experience along with the “indignants” a new May ’68 with “demands for the impossible”.

However, even if these thoughts crossed my mind, the rest of Varnalis’ poem reminded me that the birth of class consciousness can also have unconscious repercussions. It continues: “Upper village, Lower village/ uphill, downhill/ under the scorching sun and under the rain/ until I was exhausted. // A twenty year old lad/ I lifted the whole pit/ and I built the church in the village entrance”. One master is easily replaced by another, an invisible and voiceless one but equally ruthless – a master for whom you become a slave without even realizing it. These last verses made me reconsider my initial conception and see the indignation of the protesters as a religious expression par excellence.

If we take religiousness as a structure of logic and not merely as the directive of a formal ecclesiastical authority, then we can easily discern the religious dimensions of the two forms of the seeming birth of the class consciousness of the “indignants”. First, the feeling of crisis is expressed in the rhetoric of revelation, which we encounter not only in the last book of the New Testament, but also in a multitude of historical records. There is no need to reiterate in detail the rhetoric according to which “sick” Greece needed the immediate “surgical” intervention of certain military colonels in order to survive from the “sickness” of communism – a “medical intervention” that used Christian Orthodox nationalism as its medicine.[2] And there are plenty of other historical examples from the rhetoric of Christian believers.

Moreover, as Naomi Klein argues in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, the rhetoric of an apocalyptic crisis characterizes the neo-liberal exploitation of political and economic problems. In other words, the rhetoric referring to the “end of our world,” not only derives from religious texts, but it is also used by powers that propagate both the Church and neoliberalism. The expression of crisis is as important as the particular interests that is serves – voluntarily or involuntarily.

Second, the idea of direct democracy that emerges from Syntagma Square is markedly different from the workings of ancient Athenian democracy. While the indignants give everyone a voice in order to highlight the abasement of state institutions, the direct democracy of the Athenians was, on the contrary, a form of protection and reform of state institutions. For example, Aristotle, in the eighth paragraph of the Athenian Constitution tells of the renowned law of Solon, according to which whoever abstained from political debates was disenfranchised. In other words, ancient Greek direct democracy is the opposite of the devaluation of institutions.

The denial of institutions that the “indignants” promote, in combination with the ostensible freedom for everyone to express their opinions, leads to the second dimension of religiousness. When Ludwig Wittgenstein writes that “whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent”, it is a call for the citizen to express views with the support of arguments that can be logically judged as true or false. By contrast, when all opinions share the same weight and are expressed outside any institutional framework, then logic becomes irrelevant. When everyone is able to say whatever one wants and it is not even necessary that these words have any public effect – when these words are strictly private views – then we have but a semblance of freedom. Silence, contrary to Wittgentstein, is now inscribed not to the human in general, but to he who in his silence makes speech possible – that is, to “god”. Impetuous speech is theocratic speech, which also means: the limitless freedom of speech binds the speakers with invisible chains.

The conclusion of the ballad – the chorus that Xylouris sings – acquires from this angle a peculiar dimension: “Go on victim, go on sucker/ Go on Eternal Symbol!/ If you suddenly wake up/ the world will turn upside down”. Unlike the rhetoric of apocalypse that the “indignants” invoke and which leads to religiousness, Varnalis invokes the rhetoric of awakening. Whoever is bound to an invisible and therefore enhanced logic of power is asleep. Awakening – the figure par excellence of the revolution – turns everything upside down.

Can such an awakening take place at the Square? Is it possible that a real revolution takes place at Syntagma Square? This will remain impossible so long as the narcissist denial of the institutions prevails, since then “only a God can save us” – and certainly sooner or later such a god will do us the favour to rule over us. On the contrary, a revolutionary awakening is possible only if the kitchen utensils turn “backwards”, towards the private voices of the alleged direct democracy.[3] Namely, only when the revolutionaries cast off privatism in order to defend public speech. For revolution presupposes the desire, not of the abolition, but of the restructure of institutions.”

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