The illegitimacy of demands

With demands over the wage and welfare in austerity Greece deemed illegitimate because unaffordable, what shape can struggle take? Demetra Kotouza sees the all-out attack on living standards as producing a de facto opposition that can’t be cohered by ideologies of class.

With austerity escalating in Greece this year, there has been a parallel effort to resist it. Several strikes in key industries such as transport and electricity have taken place, mostly in the public sector, and six general strikes, accompanied by demonstrations of growing size and intensity. The “indignants” direct democracy movement dominated attention in the summer, expressing parliamentary politics’ legitimation crisis. In September, autoreduction practices became more frequent in response to new taxation, while universities and schools were occupied, the former against the new higher education bill and the latter triggered by delays in handing out books.1 In October, a 48-hour general strike, with increased participation from the private sector, and accompanied by the occupation of most of the country’s public services and infrastructure, brought everything to a standstill. Despite what was called by many “the mother of all strikes” and the largest demonstrations in decades, which many thought might topple the government, the parliament passed a bill that essentially invalidates collective bargaining agreements and opens the way for wages to fall below the minimum. This sent the message that a large 48-hour strike is not enough to win a battle, and that worse is still to come.

This comes at a time when the struggle around the wage is becoming a matter of survival. Within a year, wages, even for those previously considered quite well off, have fallen below subsistence levels, to the point that paying bills, making rent payments and buying basics has become a widespread problem. This, combined with payment stoppages by employers, high unemployment and the decline of the petit bourgeoisie, as small businesses go bust one after another, is making survival the central question today, and the existence of the wage itself the most critical demand. However, it is not only this ruthless and abrupt attack on wages and labour rights, compounded by intensifying police repression, that makes these struggles particularly tough. Current struggles are facing a grim horizon, as the demands they voice are presented as impossible; even if small battles are won, it is unclear how winning the war would be possible when it is no longer fought at the level of a national economy, but rather in the midst of a global crisis with Greece as one of its epicentres. These battles are confronted with the risk of a default that could send shockwaves through the global financial system and bring about a wider recession and deeper impoverishment. To the extent that a default can indeed be triggered by the government’s inability to implement austerity, these struggles appear to be self-destructive. But even if a default is inevitable, its prospect thwarts any hopes for a long-term victory that would make space for workers to go on the offensive. Facing this situation, it has become difficult to pose even defensive wage demands in a way that is effective and proportionate to capital’s attack. The intense struggles that continue to take place have a feeling of despair, of hitting a wall.

This is not a condition that only characterises the class struggle in Greece, or even one that suddenly emerged in the current crisis. The global capitalist restructuring, which dismantles the social democratic institutions that guarantee survival for unemployed populations, began long ago. In so many ways it represents a return of the working class to its “proper” condition, to its “proper” entirely dependent relation to capital. Unemployment, both as a constant risk and a potentially long-term condition, as a constant underlying state of precarity integral to the condition of the working class, is becoming ever more prominent today. However, the current stage of crisis and restructuring is not a return to the situation existing prior to the birth of social democracy. The capitalist restructuring that began in the late ’70s – characterised by the drive to reduce the cost of labour power through the development of advanced technology, the global zoning of production, and financialisation, with credit supplementing falling wages (up until 2007) to aid the reproduction of labour power in the western world – was a response to an earlier crisis of overaccumulation. The prospect of a renewed Keynesian “deal”, of a realignment of consumption with the wage, to “productive” industrial capitalism, and the separation of national economies, is no longer possible because it is precisely what had to be done away with to overcome that crisis. Most importantly, the real subsumption of labour under capital has advanced to a level where there is no longer any possibility of a flight from capital for surplus populations as was the case with, for example, the creation of alternative, non-capitalist communes in the 19th century and Great Depression-era America. Class struggle is forced to address the capital relation itself, at the same time as capital denies the proletariat’s role as the productive class which, as Theorie Communiste rightly argues, seriously undermines its ability to affirm itself within this antagonism.

This is confounded by the fact that there is no longer a singular, unifying working class experience that would generate a common identity on one side of the class struggle. The global and local zoning of production, and increasing precarisation, has fractured working class communities pushing, in the West, a large section into chronic unemployment and to survival through informal and illegal economies. In the global South, significant populations have been forced to emigrate to the West despite brutal repression.

In this moment of global crisis, this tendency manifests itself with great intensity in the “second” zone of capitalist development and particularly in Greece. When even the demand for work cannot be satisfied at a broader, systemic level, let alone for the capacity of the wage to cover subsistence, even defensive wage demands appear structurally illegitimate whilst also being a matter of survival. The working class is having a hard time affirming itself as life – as labour power that needs to be reproduced – let alone as a productive force, in its relation to both capital and the state that used to guarantee its survival. The question of “lost unity” also emerges as a central one, as conflicts within struggles intensify.

The contradiction between the necessity of the wage demand, and its lost legitimacy reappeared in the indignants’ direct democracy movement. The call for “direct democracy now” rejected, in principle, the address of demands to a denounced political establishment and parliamentary system. It rejected dominant avenues of representation – the political parties and major unions – and put forward a call for self-organisation: “taking our lives into our own hands”. But, despite this language of autonomy, the movement was also driven by a single demand, namely that the Mid-Term Programme be voted down in parliament.2 This suggests that building a defence within this face-off still takes precedence over any claim that it’s time to self-organise and take over.

“Burn the parliament”, the crowd shouted, but that did not amount to a rejection of politics. The direct democracy movement was clearly a political one, attempting to create a new politics from below, and even a political programme. Operating primarily at the level of political discourse, the “direct democratic” imaginary envisioned a system of inclusive, bottom-up decision making, self-organised resistance and mutual support in neighbourhoods and workplaces. Similar to the indignants’ campaigns in Spain and now the US, it was captivated by the notion that a more “decent” life would be possible, if only the citizens had the political power. In the Greek case, the dominant conviction was that direct democracy alone, as a form of decision making, would be able to make capitalist production commensurate with meeting human needs, or, in its rather more militant version, that the democratic self-management of production would ensure those needs were met. The discourse of self-management, coming mostly from an alternativist anarchist tendency, and the broader conception of “alternatives” – involving much speculation around alternative currencies and the autonomous circulation of agricultural products – sought to provide ideas for surviving the crisis or, less modestly, ways out of capitalism. However, all those ideas, beyond their historical limitations as practices, remain mostly just ideas, with the exception of creating a temporary self-organised enclave in public space. The attempt to develop immediate social relations within it (the rejection of money, a free collective kitchen, free lessons for homeless children) quickly reached the limit of an all encompassing capital relation (the return of money, closure of the kitchen because junkies and homeless “took advantage”).

Public political debate, which the direct democracy movement saw as its major strength, was also its limitation. The movement’s dominant citizenist, democratic discourse was intrinsic to its inter-class character, explainable by the austerity measures’ devastating effect on the petit bourgeois. Militants’ attempts to push the discourse of class conflict came up against the principle of the “people’s” unity. In the midst of a relentless attack on the wage, debates around “what is to be done” were muddled, unable to refer to a common class subject, whilst sporadic calls for a long-term general strike and other direct actions remained at the level of discourse. The assembly in Syntagma as well as those in neighbourhoods and towns around the country, mostly resorted to symbolic protests, public statements and expressions of solidarity, boosting or linking up existing struggles. They laboured to initiate actions other than the occupations themselves, which soon reached their own limits.

The imagined unity of national citizens against a failed system of government and decision-making also meant that immigrants were excluded by definition, except in the token action of inviting them to speak and organise events for a single day. Despite the active expulsion of extreme fascists from the Syntagma square occupation, the movement’s citizenism was aligned with a growing nationalist anti-imperialist tendency, a response to the erosion of Greece’s national sovereignty under the control of the Troika.3This provided the natural environment for a nationalist campaign against the Memorandum, the “300 Greeks”, to set up shop, and for autonomous nationalists – who were in many respects unidentifiable so long as they kept quiet – to take part in the movement.4

Ridden with contradictions, the direct democracy movement experienced a fleeting moment of victory during the general strike of 15 June. That was a high point of struggle for the wider oppositional movement, with the PM almost resigning. The police repression and extensive anti-police clashes and rioting that took place during the strike, however, brought up renewed conflict within the Syntagma assembly, when the majority of its constituents rejected a motion that condemned “violence in all its forms”. This moment was a major turning point that brought to a head the ongoing debate around proletarian violence. The direct democracy movement’s relative tolerance of intense clashes with the police is not so much indicative of an anarchist influence, as of a wider tendency towards the use of such practices. Although these practices have been associated with anarchists, a growing number of their participants are lower-class, precariously employed or unemployed youths – though the age range is broadening – who are more or less unrelated to the anarchist milieu. They accounted for a significant subsection within the direct democracy movement, to the extent that much of the assembly audience responded to conspiracy theories about “violent agent provocateurs” by saying that “the rioters are us”. After the defeat of 29 June, when the Mid-Term Austerity Programme was finally passed in parliament, rioting, as well as police repression of the demonstration, became exceptionally fierce, driving even more of those who had previously favoured “peaceful protest” to change their minds. However this shift could not translate into practice at that stage. With the direct democracy movement weakened by its defeat, its internal contradictions combined with zero tolerance policing, a new round of struggles was anticipated.

The voting through of the Mid-Term Austerity Programme was followed by August’s fast tracked vote on the new higher education bill that limits degrees to three years, flexibilises work contracts and rationalises university management, making further steps towards a business model for higher education. Importantly, it also abolishes “university asylum” – the law that designates university grounds as off-limits to police – which has played an important practical role in social struggles since its institution after the fall of the junta in 1974. When students responded with occupations around the country after the start of the academic year, it already seemed too late. The peak of their engagement was in September, suggesting that the long occupations of 2006-7 may not be repeated this time.

Autumn also brought the rapid and ruthless slashing of indirect and direct wages in both the public and private sectors via cuts and emergency taxes. In response, auto-reduction practices spread more widely, having started a year ago in a more limited scale with the “I Don’t Pay” movement under the auspices of the leftist ANTARSYA party. The Public Electricity Company union refused to implement new taxation via electricity bills, bills were collectively burned outside tax offices, and there was a widespread tacit agreement that certain taxes would simply not be paid. The discussion around these actions again had, by its nature, an interclass, citizenist and legalistic character. Nevertheless, the fact that these were less symbolic political acts forming a response to governmental policy, but primarily acts of survival, as a large section of the population is unable to pay these taxes, links these campaigns directly to the crisis of the wage relation. With little room left for workers’ struggles to develop around wage demands, these practices have temporarily claimed back a tiny fraction of the indirect wage, displacing the conflict outside the workplace.

The sense of despair in relation to winning demands, however, does not signal the end of wage struggles. When the government announced the impending abolition of the minimum wage and of collective contracts, as well as mass layoffs in the public sector, two general strikes were announced by the major unions in October. That provided a basis for rank and file organising in workplaces to push for participation in the strike and for occupations in the public sector, especially in cases where they were met with resistance by management or by sectoral unions. Interestingly, although the entire public sector ceased to function for over a week due to mass occupations, these actions received public support, expressed in episodes such as residents blocking the way of strike-breaking private refuse collection vehicles – so much so that their drivers eventually went on strike themselves. The massive scale of the general strike of 19-20 October, and the emergence of rank and file organising at this juncture, does suggest that the struggle around the wage is what is driving social mobilisation in Greece right now. The staying power of rank and file organising, in spite of the general strike’s inability to achieve its aims, is something to pay attention to. If their struggle escalates to the point that it challenges the official unions, but strikes and occupations are still not enough to win the fight to keep wages at a livable level, what type of practices might workers resort to?

The impasse of demands, the lack of prospects for even basic subsistence in a future of poverty level wages and high unemployment, combined with extreme police repression, does seem to coincide with increasingly forceful clashes at demonstrations, both against the police and between demonstrators. The multiplication of direct attacks on the police, private and public property, as well as attacks on exchange and the obstacles to reproduction through looting – the latter fairly limited compared to recent riots in the UK and to those in Greece of December 2008 – signal that for many there are now zero stakes in social relations. Sustained attacks on the police are not “missing the target”. They are in essence attacks on the enforced reproduction of social relations as they are imposed today. The fact that riots take place during national strikes suggests that they are a direct reaction to the contradiction faced by struggles around the wage. They occur at the level of reproduction because this is exactly where the tendency of the wage to disappear is experienced.

The serious clashes during the general strike of 20 October in front of the parliament, between the Communist Party union cadre (PAME) and demonstrators who had clashed with police the day before, are indicative of this tendency. On the second day of the most dynamic national strike and the most intense and populous demonstration in decades, the Communist Party played its traditional role of striving to lead workers’ struggles while keeping them under control by encircling and protecting the parliament and its MPs, effectively replacing the role of the police. Other demonstrators attacked them as if they were the police, sparking a fierce street battle. This was not just a conflict about political tactics, however. As the Agents of Chaos have pointed out in a recent text, this was not a conflict between anarchism and Stalinist communism, as is often claimed.5 It is a fundamental conflict between proletarian practices produced by the current cycle of struggles: on one side, the persistent attempt to affirm productive labour, to win demands within the capital relation, even the dream of “taking over the means of production”; on the other, destructive practices without demands by living labour that can no longer affirm itself within the capital relation – a relation that no longer provides for its reproduction as labour power.

The current struggles in Greece contain within them the central contradiction continually produced in our time: the working class experiencing the limits of its struggle, which are its own intrinsic condition as living labour and the relations that constitute it as such. These struggles continue, despite the risk of a self-destructive outcome, namely a (disorderly) default. The threat of the destruction of capital, and with that the unavailability of work, does not stop struggles. This suggests that they could escalate in ways that break with the “reasonable options” presented to them. Meanwhile, attacks on structures of social control, property and exchange, riots without demands and the inevitable conflicts they generate inside the struggles themselves, seem likely to intensify. It is the multiplication of these sorts of conflict, and not the triumph of productive labour and working class unity, that will shape the struggles to come.

This text was written at a geographical distance from events. Many thanks to friends involved in the journal Blaumachen for providing invaluable information, ideas and feedback.

"Autoreduction" is the act by which consumers, in the area of consumption, and workers, in the area of production, take it upon themselves to reduce the price of public services, housing, electricity, taxation; or in the factory, the rate of productivity.

The Mid-Term Programme outlined cuts to services, wages, pensions and (what little remained of) benefits, and public sector layoffs, along with a long list of privatisations - the first step towards the total sell-off demanded by the "Troika". An interesting 'innovation' was that workers and pensioners were to be charged an extra "solidarity tax' to pay for the one-year benefit given to the increasing numbers of the unemployed. Furthermore, it forecast that even after all these measures had been taken, by 2015 Greece's external debt would only have been reduced by a tiny fraction.

"The Troika" is a slang term for the three institutions which have the most power over Greece's financial future -- or at least that future as it is defined within the European Union: the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB).

The emergence of autonomous nationalism and of frequent violent attacks on migrants by mostly working class far-right groups again occurs in the context of the fragmentation of the working class. Migrants are seen as the reason for the failure of wage demands, and in an attempt to regain bargaining power, a section of the working class that has lost hope in the demand for "jobs for Greek workers", takes direct action to terrorise them out of the country, disregarding the laws of a sold-out government that is perceived as "betraying" its citizens. However, the inability to unify as "Greek workers" means that this tendency is very marginal despite its growth.

Agents of Chaos, "Without You, Not a Single Cogwheel Spins", October 2011,

Published 7 March 2012
Original in English
First published by Mute 18 (2012)

Contributed by Mute © Demetra Kotouza / Mute / Eurozine


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