In an unassuming Athens office, just a couple of streets from the ancient Agora where democracy first announced itself to the world, sits Nasos Iliopoulos, Secretary of Neolaia Synaspismou, the youth wing of the Greek political party Synaspismos.
Synaspismos is the biggest party in the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA, which has seen its popularity jump since the austerity crisis gripped Greece. If opinion polls are to be believed SYRIZA stands on the verge of an electoral breakthrough, provided that in the home of democracy the people are allowed the chance to vote – far from certain in these times of technocratic government.
Nasos is in his late 20s, casually dressed, eloquent and friendly. He has physically felt what it means to be on the receiving end of the State’s repression – just over a year ago he was brutally beaten by police, leaving him in hospital with concussion and multiple bruising. He has risen to his position as a youth leader in the most extraordinary of times, especially for young people in Greece, as Nasos explains.
What is the impact on the young generation of the crisis?
There are two aspects of the attack on the youth. One is work, and the second is education.
Among the youth there is a general feeling of having no future. There are a lot of people who find it very difficult to find a job, even if they are highly educated. Among 18 to 25 year olds there is 50 per cent unemployment and rising. For those who can find employment, there are now very flexible working relations and people will work for low wages. I personally know qualified graduates who are doing jobs that are ten or more hours a day for 300 Euros a week. It is very difficult for them to have a home.
In August last year a new law was passed to reform higher education. The new policy is supposed to prepare students for the “new realities” of work. Even the elite institutions like the civil engineering and architecture polytechnics or law schools are being turned into universities for the new regime of precarity. They are saying “these will be the conditions for the rest of your life”.
Less people will be educated at university. They can now restrict the numbers and they are splitting the equivalent of the bachelors and masters elements of higher education to be able to charge fees for the masters. And because of the crisis many people are dropping out of school early, because they have to earn money for their family or because they see that university is no longer a possible option.
But this education law has been resisted and has not been fully implemented. They haven’t been able to vote in the new boards that are needed. When the law was passed in August it was during the holiday time but there was a big student movement with occupations. Since then there has been a lot of resistance from students and people who work in universities who are against the law and have blocked its implementation.
How close are relations between the left parties and the other movements associated with the youth, like the Indignados who occupied Syntagma Square in Athens until they were violently evicted last summer?
Indignados is a term borrowed from the Spanish, but in Greek the word has negative connotations associated with the right-wing after the civil war. People prefer to call it the Squares Movement.
In the crisis we find a lot of new movements and struggles that would have been impossible to predict before, involving new people, like the Squares Movement. So you have to learn from them, and also teach them and transform them, and in that process you are transformed yourself, through the shared struggle. In the Squares Movement there were very good connections between the People of the Squares and other political forces which amounted to a very powerful opposition to the government. Many people in the Square were also in a political party, but many were not and many were new to politics. The relationships were sometimes difficult, but in the end they all benefited.
Take the June 28 – 29 vote in parliament last year, which started the second phase of the austerity regime. There were huge demonstrations outside involving different parties, unions, and movements, and there was tremendous repression from the police. 10 members of the youth of Synaspismos were injured. Where our bloc was standing in Syntagma Square we happened to be one of the first blocs to be hit very violently. The police used 2,000 rounds of tear gas in two days. And the excuse they gave for this was to protect tourism – that the protests and occupation were bad for tourism, because there are some hotels around the Square! But the repression did have a positive side-effect, because lots of people were educated by this terror.
After the new austerity package was voted through it was very difficult to keep the movement united. People felt like a very great struggle had come to nothing. So after Syntagma Square was cleared you cannot speak about the same movement. But it has evolved in different forms. We now have over 50 popular assemblies in Athens that are the places of struggle in the local arena. The Squares Movement has transformed into something more unique.
In the popular assemblies everyone represents themselves – not on a party basis, although people from parties are involved – and it works by consensus. This tradition came after Syntagma. There are conflicts but we work together in ways we could not have understood two years ago.
We organise not just in opposition to the government but about local issues, everyday life. It’s another level of fighting austerity. For example there is a new tax on all residential property and the government has connected the payment of it to the electricity bill. It’s blackmail, saying if you don’t pay the tax your electric will be cut off. All the popular assemblies have taken up the struggle. Many people refuse to pay. There are many little victories in this process. The government has not managed to cut off people’s electricity because people have the solidarity to stop them. Even the trade union workers in the energy company have resisted by occupying the building where the bills are processed.
So they can’t actually achieve austerity because of two reasons: the resistance which is slowing down the measures; and because even on their own terms the policy is impossible because the recession is so big it becomes a downward spiral.
Do the demonstrations still have momentum?
The Squares Movement was so broad you could find everyone from every different background involved. The thing that was so great about it was that you could find people in Syntagma who had never been involved in struggles before. And this happens more and more as the crisis deepens. With each demonstration it gets bigger and bigger. 12 February 2012 was the biggest so far. There were maybe half a million demonstrating just in Athens. The streets of a huge area of the city were full of people. They were holding their ground against the tear gas and the repression for three to five hours. And it was dangerous. I was very scared leaving the demo, because the police were standing on street corners and would just attack individuals with no reason. I walked several blocks away from the protests with my hands above my head hoping that they wouldn’t pick me.
It isn’t that this tension continues all the time, but every few months there is an event that is more than a demonstration but less than a revolt. And every time it gets bigger.
Will it be demonstrations or elections that defeat austerity?
We shouldn’t make a conflict between demonstrations and elections as a way to defeat austerity policies. Each tactic must have a popular majority of people who are not just supportive, but are actively struggling. Fighting for elections and fighting on the streets are complementary strategies.
The elections were supposed to have happened already, but no one knows when they will be. Whenever they come it will be in an atmosphere of blackmail. They will tell the voters that if they vote for parties that oppose austerity then all hell will break lose. But their arguments have changed; the whole situation has shifted. Before they said that austerity was the way to recovery; now they only claim that there is a hope that austerity will work. They don’t even believe it anymore. It’s not a convincing position.
Is the Greek left too divided to form a government?
SYRIZA [the Coalition of the Radical Left that includes Synaspismos], the Democratic Left [a split from Synaspismos that is less radical] and the Communist Party are all on around 10% in opinion polls. But the Democratic Left seems to want to work within the Memorandum [with the EU, requiring austerity], and the Communist Party are always separate – they have their own separate demonstrations. So I don’t think there will be any alliance before the next election.
If after the election you have a combined left percentage that could have formed a government (if it had been united) there will be great pressure for a left unity coalition. And there could be two elections in quick succession if no party has enough support. So if there is a second election, it could potentially be possible to have an agreement of the left.
Should Greece leave the Euro?
I reject the dilemma that Greece has to choose between the Euro and a national currency. The real choice is posed by the crisis: either you support the social forces of the movements and the youth, or you defend the interests of the corporations and the banks. You have to have a strategy that confronts the real problem – who is going to pay for the crisis? First, we have paid billions for the banks and so they must be nationalised. Second, we cannot pay the debt, except for those debts owed to pension funds. Third, we must cancel the neo-liberal reforms of the labour market – the deregulation of labour relations shows that this is not just about the debt but about turning a crisis into an opportunity. This alternative strategy isn’t just a Greek strategy but one that can be followed by the Spanish workers movement, right through to the Germans.
So you see it as an international struggle?
Our first opponent is the Greek government and Greek capitalism, not Angela Merkel. That doesn’t mean we support today’s structure of the EU. It is certain we will have a lot of struggles against the EU but you have to frame these struggles in terms of the working class against capital, not people in one country against those in another.
How do you see the situation developing in the future?
Anything can happen. We could have a post-modern coup, a Mad Max society, or a new kind of society. It is certain that the austerity policies require the suppression of society. It might not be tanks on the street, but it could be a post-modern form of coup that brings in censorship and less rights to protest or to strike. You already hear talk of how the “left danger” means the constitution must be changed.
What is happening is they are trying to defend the banks. Not just European banks, but Greek banks who have a big role in lending to the Balkans – this is the long arm of Europe in the Balkans. Maybe people don’t know about this, but Greek capitalism is a strong capitalism that is defending its own interests. And it is trying to defeat the labour movement and if we don’t resist, it will. It is dangerous.
And this is not just the plan of the Troika [the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF], but of the Greek government, including PASOK and New Democracy [the two main parties at the last election]. They try to make it look like they don’t want austerity and are being forced to go along with it, but they are part of it. Even now there are Greek companies that are doing very well due to their new freedom to cut salaries and jobs; some profits are up. It’s not bad for everyone. It is not like Greece is transforming into a third world country; it’s that within Greece they are creating layers of society that are being forced to live as if they are in a third world country.