The rise of the Greek Multitude (and why we need to move a step beyond)
Nikos Sotirakopoulos (20 June 2011)
The recent uprising of Greek society against the PASOK government, seen as complicit with the International Monetrary Fund (IMF) in imposing austerity measures upon the country, cannot be understood as an isolated event. It has to be understood as an episode in the revival of an international wave of protest, the likes of which the world has not witnessed since 1968.
It all started with the “Arab Spring”: the rise of the people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, that to date has succeeded in overthrowing presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak in the first two countries, with the battle still undecided in the other cases. At the same time, in Spain “los Indignados” occupied Puerta del Sol in Madrid and other major squares across the country, demanding “real democracy”. Faced by a similar combination of circumstances, it was only a matter of time until Greece would join this wave of unrest. Ideas of revolt and revolution are deeply rooted in the Greek popular imaginary, which, assisted by a historically strong Left, make revolting part of a national narrative. After the unprecedented recent financial crisis this has created a particularly explosive situation in Greece. The situation and the challenges in these countries are of course very different, but nonetheless this cannot prevent us from considering the uprisings as part of a common phenomenon. In the 1960s the struggle of the Vietcong in the jungles of South Asia had little in common with the struggle in the streets of Paris or in the Mirafiori factories in Italy. However, these struggles of the past shared a feeling of solidarity, inspiration and radical cultural resources, as is happening today.
In May 2010, the newly elected social-democratic government of PASOK dealt with the huge debt crisis of Greece by signing three treaties that would ensure a huge loan from the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Union (the Troika, as they are collectively called), practically relinquishing national sovereignty in the process. The Loan Treaty between Greece and the Troika stated that '...the debtor irrevocably and unconditionally waives all immunity to both his current assets and future earnings and relinquishes all rights as a debtor against his creditors...'. This unprecedented neo-colonial agreement is arguably legally void; it was never even discussed in the Greek Parliament. Additionally, Greek people felt that the huge sacrifices demanded of them would have no substantial outcome, as the money that Greece receives through the loans automatically goes to servicing the extra high interest rates of existing loans.
During the next 12 months, extreme neoliberal austerity measures sunk the Greek economy further into recession, therewith demolishing the social state, with the Troika intervening every now and then and proposing newer and harsher measures. People reacted in various ways, with more than 11 general strikes, civil disobedience and huge demonstrations. A first peak of the reaction was reached on the 5th of May 2010, when in the aftermath of the agreement with Troika, there was a general strike and one of the biggest demonstrations experienced in modern Greek history. However, the burning of a bank during riots (an act possibly attributed to agent provocateurs) cost the life of three workers and halted the momentum of resistance for more than six months. In the early months of 2011, the “I won’t pay” movement of civil disobedience, the local grassroots struggle of Keratea village against an illegal waste disposal centre, and more strikes and demos tested the strength of the government. The government replied with repression and fear mongering about the supposed looming bankruptcy of the country. On 23rd May 2011, the Greek government announced a new series of austerity measures. The general feeling was that people were too disheartened to react to these shock doctrines. But then suddenly something changed.
The aim of what follows is two-fold: In the first part, there will be a presentation of the spontaneous uprising of the Greek people, known as the Greek Spring, taking place for the last month. I will at the same time examine its internal dynamics and its progress towards a considerable degree of radicalization. In the second part, I will attempt an evaluation to the argument made by the radical academic, Costas Douzinas, that what we are experiencing now in Greece is an appearance of the notion of the Multitude.
The “Frustrated”: From a-political moaning to radicalization
On Tuesday May 24th 2011, there was a rumor in Greek media that the Spanish indignados protesting in Puerta del Sol had a slogan stating “keep it quiet, we might wake up the Greeks”. The general feeling going on for months, i.e. that something had to be done, escalated. The same afternoon, a Facebook group named “Frustrated in Syntagma Square” calling for a gathering, ala Tahrir square, on Wednesday the 25th in the central square of Athens outside parliament, was gaining enormous publicity, with more than a thousand new members every hour. Similar groups were created for many Greek cities. The unknown administrators were calling for peaceful demonstrations, without party-banners, flags, slogans or even ideologies. Only Greek flags would be welcome and everyone would participate as an individual and not as a member of a wider group. Indeed, Wednesday’s gatherings were successful, with some 25.000 people gathering in Syntagma square and many other central squares around Greece. The movement is alive and strong until today (June 18th), peaking at more than 300,000 in some days, such as Sunday June 5th and in the general strike of the 15th of June.
The movement spread throughout the country and included many forms of action, like the disruption of visits by members of the government in places throughout Greece and the occupation of public buildings and various PASOK local headquarters and offices. According to a survey by an opinion polling company, more than 2 million Greeks participated in some form of social protest throughout Greece during June of 2011.
The first reaction by many observers was that the occupation of Syntagma square was just a “copy-paste” internet trend from Spain, based mainly on people clicking “like” on Facebook, rather than committing themselves to any serious political action. The gathering in the first couple of days seemed apolitical and there were no claims or any will to spread the “frustration” in universities, workplaces and so on. Some striking workers that also had a demo in the first day were booed and declared unwelcome at Syntagma. They were accused for demonstrating as union members and not as individuals.
All this signified a trend that could transform such an a-political procedure into anti-political populism. The prevailing attitude was that all the politicians (including the Left) are thieves and corrupted, that the workers’ unions are equally blameful for being controlled by parties, and that all ideology is unwelcome in Syntagma square. The agreed form of protest was to issue a collective moan and curse against the walls of the parliament and pleas to the police to join the people, as they are “also Greeks”. A mentally handicapped person (a well-known mascot figure that has been participating in almost every protest for years) was kicked out of the gathering for carrying a red flag and some grassroots union-activists were made to put down their banner. In reality, this was a form of politics serving the elites’ best interests, and this is why the media and politicians who are usually hostile to any form of radical protest rushed to congratulate the “frustrated” of Syntagma and advised them to keep it non-violent, apolitical and to stay away from parties and unions.
This a-political/anti-political nihilism seems hazardous and could be hiding a more reactionary politics beneath the nationalist populism, especially combined with the attempt of some right-wingers to present the situation as a “gathering only for Greeks”. The principal demand was to change the political scene by the substitution of “corrupted traitors” for new politicians and technocrats. It was as if people demanded a total change by making sure that nothing would really change; a “revolution without revolution”, as Zizek would put it. Predictably, postmodern individualism is partly to blame, with many protesters describing the protest as a life-changing experience, as it “made us all feel happy and close to each other after so many years”, thus lacking any need for escalation beyond the limits of individual gratification with the experience. Many mentioned how the atmosphere was similar with the nights of festivity when Greece won the European Championship in Portugal in 2004. The above can be easily understood by considering the absence of the radical Left and of radical politics in the movement.
The Left, initially caught by surprise by these spontaneous events, could follow two paths. The first was to stay at a safe distance and mock this “petite-bourgeois frenzy”. This was what the Greek Communist Party and some hardcore anarchists did. Such an elitist approach makes sure that the streets would be left to those who considered that gathering and screaming curses against all politicians is the final horizon of political imagination.
The second path was followed by the rest of the Left and radical milieu. They understood that social upheavals do not arrive pre-ordered and packaged in the way we fantasize, and therefore decided to intervene. The vehicle was the Peoples’ Assembly, taking place every night in the lower part of the Syntagma Square; a direct-democracy procedure probably initially set up by members of the libertarian/anarchist milieu, which gradually became the soul of the movement. Respecting the ground rules, the radicals intervene without flags or banners and as individuals, but have still managed to change the dynamics. Free Peoples’ Assembly has called for specific political claims, declared that it stands in solidarity with all workers’ struggles, has called for the building of free assemblies in all neighborhoods, puts pressure on the workers’ unions for an open ended general strike and has made clear that those who do not respect immigrants are personae non gratae in Syntagma. Furthermore, the exchange of ideas has become free and political groups are allowed to distribute their leaflets. In time, even the less political part of the protesters has become more willing to take direct action.
There was a lot of debate concerning the distinction between the “political” part of the “Frustrated”, gathered around the Free Assembly in lower Syntagma Square and those who are more a-political and gather on the upper top of Syntagma, outside Parliament. However, there seems to be a qualitative leap forward after the general strike of the 15th of June. It was the day when the workers’ unions, including those of the Communist Party, have met the “Frustrated” in Syntagma, besieging the Parliament that would start discussing the biggest package of austerity measures a Western country has experienced in the last 50 years. The demonstrators damaged the 2-meter steal-fences that the police had put around Parliament and succeeded in letting no more than 30 MPs enter the building. When anarchists (and probably agent provocateurs) engaged in fights with the police, everyone thought that this could be the end of the protest, as the police attacked the masses indiscriminately with sticks and tonnes of tear-gas and chemical aerials, trying to kick people out of the square.
However, what followed was a huge surprise to everyone. The supposedly a-political and “fluffy” non-violent “Frustrated” defended Syntagma square, resisted the numerous attacks by the police, showing impressive solidarity with various other groups, saving protestors from the hand of police and via mobile medical units giving first-aid to injured people. In the course of three hours and in a cloud of tear-gas, the square was re-occupied by the people.
This was the day that the PASOK government went on its knees and Prime Minister Papandreou came close to resigning. Commentators such as Frantzis were right to point out that the “battle of Athens” in the 15th of June gave to the people of Athens a new-born “common identity”.
Inevitably, these events have led to attempts to understand their political character within theoretical paradigms. However, danger lays in certain over optimistic evaluations of the events. The way events are conceptualized and fed back to the movement can either help escalate or prohibit the development of more radical politics to achieve actual change. So to these interpretations I now turn, by examining perhaps one of the most interesting, linking the Greek uprising with the Negrian idea of the Multitude.
The rise of the Multitude?
The radical intellectual Costas Douzinas argued in an interview that what we are experiencing in Syntagma square is the rise of the Multitude. The Multitude for him is not a coherent totality as the people or the masses; it is more an amalgamation of autonomous individuals, who are unified through their action and by politics of desire that is expressed by their presence in a sociopolitical event such as the protests in Athens.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri developed the idea of Multitude first and foremost a class notion and it can be considered as a widened notion of the proletariat in the modern capitalist societies that includes not only the old style material wage labor, but also those who engage in biopolitical production (creating material and immaterial “commodities” such as ideas, codes, emotions and social relations). In short, “the multitude gives the concept of the proletariat its fullest definition as all those who labor and produce under the rule of capital”. Ergo, the unemployed, the “precarious” workers, the students, the housewives, the immigrants and both the blue and white-collar workers who gather in Syntagma square correspond to this description.
At the same time, the Multitude is a network that “designates an active social subject, which acts on the basis of what the singularities share in common. The multitude is an internally different, multiple social subject whose constitution and action is based not on identity or unity (…) but on what it has in common”. At the same time, by the social relations inherent in the Multitude and social production based on the idea of the commons and of sharing common knowledge, the Multitude creates in its shell the democratic institutions that are the model for the free society of tomorrow. Again, these characteristics correspond to what is happening in Syntagma square and the other squares around Greece. People are united by the way the capital (in the form of the government’s/Troika’s imposed austerity measures) intrudes every aspect of their life, and thus their ideological or identity differences are set aside by their common will to overturn this reality. Syntagma square is therefore indeed a class struggle in its purest, even if many who participate in the struggle do not realize it.
For Douzinas, the rise of the Multitude is δυν?μει (potentially) revolutionary and poses the possibility for a radical change in Greece. This change will be initiated by a major Negation that the Multitude is expressing: “No more”, “Enough”, “We won’t take it any more” and so on. For Douzinas, the progressive realization of the Multitude and the potentiality of the inventive social production of its subjects is the way forward that has to be followed.
Douzinas observes that there is another progressive alternative, which is the more traditional idea of the political front. A political front is a hegemonic block constructed by a subject representing the masses, which finds a crack in the contradictions of the sociopolitical structure and thus organizes a central political confrontation. However, for Douzinas this idea should not be favored, as it involves the notion of political representation; and representation replaces the people by the organization/party and will lead to a repetition of the vagaries of previous radical attempts of the 20th century. I claim that Douzinas’ reliance in the spontaneous potentials of the Multitude is possibly excessive. My thesis is that the idea of the Multitude is optimistic but ultimately ineffective, unless it is somehow linked with the idea of the political Front that Douzinas rejects.
Beyond the Multitude and towards the idea of a Front
There are two points that have to be made clear. First of all, as Hardt and Negri emphasize in every possible way, the rise of the Multitude is a potentiality and not a static event. The Multitude can be a transformative social force only by realizing itself as such and therefore with its parts being evolving from individualities into a social subject. However, nowadays in Syntagma, many protesters seem to just want to affirm their individual identity as “frustrated citizens”, without aspiring to engage in a wider sociopolitical attempt at transformation. There is still a lot to be done until the mass of individuals is transformed into the social-Multitude thereby opening the potentiality for a true radical change. But even if the Multitude tends to be gradually realized in Syntagma, this still might not be enough for a progressive change, as recent history has shown.
Could we not equally claim that the Multitude has appeared in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt and the other countries of the Arab Spring? After a heroic struggle, costing thousands of deaths, the Multitude has managed to kick away the governments of Ben Ali and Mubarak. Yet the biopolitical production and the spontaneity of the Multitude was not proven enough for preventing another government equally hostile to peoples’ interests from rising to power. The Multitude at the moment seems too weak to establish its victories, not to mention to bring the much needed socio-political change beyond capitalism. This makes clear the need for a political subject that will materialize and establish in a political level the victories that the Multitude achieves in the streets.
This is why we need to return to an idea of a political front which has to be somehow formed from below and strike a fatal blow to the cracks in the system; cracks which will also become the factor relating the Multitude with the Front. The capitalist contradictions that may become the crack which the Greek δυν?μει (potential) Multitude will strike at, are already there. The overthrowing of the government and of the austerity measures, a “default” in the Greek debt, the breaking of the bonds with the European Union and the Common Currency, seem to be a minimum basis shared by most people who are on the streets for the setting of such a wide sociopolitical alliance. Needless to say, the Left can and should play a hegemonic role in this procedure.
However, the political institution which will come out of such a procedure will be in constant and dialectical relationship with the democratic politics produced directly in the squares and in the innumerous peoples’ assemblies that have sprung up in the whole country. This poses an answer to the issue of the representation/substitution that Douzinas has rightly alerted us to. I claim that the production of direct democracy in the peoples’ assemblies has gained such a dynamic that can prevent its possible overshadowing by the hegemonic political front. If the Multitude expresses a negation with its presence in the streets of Athens, as Douzinas claims, then a proper political expression will be the negation of such a negation, overcoming its limits and dialectically producing unprecedented potential for radical social change.
The need for the building of such a block is urgent. The Greek State and international capitalist elites have shown a progressive lack of tolerance for the popular unrest. Among many opinion-makers in Greece and also in the international press, there have appeared voices calling for an extra-constitutional solution in Greece, advocating a police state of emergency should be declared for crushing the protests, or even a government-inspired military coup. Even in the current context of “properly operating democracy”, police violence has reached unprecedented levels, alerting even the Amnesty International in condemning the Greek government. The above facts, combined with the will of international elites to guarantee the repayment of the Greek debt at any cost, make the necessary the increased political empowerment of the “Greek Spring”.
Such an attempt of political empowerment is not going to be easy, nor can we tell whether it will succeed in advance. The mere idea of political power is repulsive for many participants in the movement. However, with the current state of urgency, it is the only possible outcome for a victory and the further realization of the Multitude. The radical philosophers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have in recent years emphasized how the old Maoist notion “Dare to struggle, dare to win” needs to be re-appropriated by today’s radicals. People of Greece have shown an impressive willingness to struggle. It is now time they also dare to win…
 Kouvelakis, S., ?ξιΘ?σειςγιατηνΕξ?γερση (Six Points on the Revolt), 11 June 2011, Δρ?μοςτηςΑριστερ?ς (Dromostis Aristeras) newspaper,
For such circle of protests, see Horn, G. R. (2007), The Spirit of ’68: Rebellion in Western Europe and North America, 1956-1976, Oxford University Press; and Klimke, M. & Scharloth, J. (eds.) (2008), 1968 in Europe: a History of Protest and Activism, 1956-1977, Palgrave Macmillan
The whole treaty can be found here: http://www.skouzekaifilonos.gr/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=251:-qq&catid=55:2010-04-28-12-55-47&Itemid=55
 Research undertaken by Public Issue and presented on Kathimerini newspaper, 11 June 2011, http://www.kathimerini.gr/4dcgi/_w_articles_kathremote_1_11/06/2011_394414
See for example the article by the prominent elite opinion-maker John Pretenteris on Friday 27th of May in Nea Newspaper, titled “The Squares were full…”, http://www.tanea.gr/default.asp?pid=2&ct=136&artid=4632861
Frantzis, P. , Εμε?ςοΛα?ς(We the People), 16/6/2011, Αριστερ?Β?μα (AristeroVima), , http://aristerovima.gr/blog.php?id=2447
The Material Presence of the Multitude can Change the World, interview in Εποχ? (Epohi) newspaper, 29 May 2011, http://www.epohi.gr/portal/politiki/9630
Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2005), p. 107
Ibid, p. 100
Ibid, p. xvi
See for example:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2004962/Greece-bailout-IMF-chief-warns-Greek-crisis-threatens-global-economy.html
Zizek, S. (2010), Living in the End Times, London, New York: Verso, p. 181
Nikos Sotirakopoulos is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent.