By Augustine Zenakos
Among the many narratives that seek to regulate public discourse on the Greek crisis, a particularly persistent one is that which posits that there are two “extremes”, one on either side of the political spectrum, a “Far-Right” and a “Far-Left” one, both equally detrimental to democracy, which can only therefore be safeguarded by those currently in power. This narrative is not only false, but it conceals a sinister operation…
Among the many narratives that seek to regulate public discourse on the Greek crisis, one is particularly persistent, tirelessly propagated by the Greek mainstream Media: this narrative posits that there are two “extremes”, one on either side of the political spectrum, a “Far-Right” and a “Far-Left” one. What is implied, but also quite often spelt out, is that these two “extremes” are alike, meaning that their tactics –which are after all what “really matters”– are identical, even though they profess to employ them with differing aims. Furthermore, the narrative goes, these tactics involve the use of violence for the achievement of political ends, a fact that not only makes them both equally detrimental to democracy, but also betrays a fundamental kinship: since both these “extremes” use violence for political ends, they cannot be as different as they proclaim.
Of course, this narrative was by no means discovered in Greece in the last three crisis-ridden years. On the contrary, it has a history within liberal-democratic discourse. Not to stretch too far back, the two “extremes” were equally condemned in the European Parliament resolution of 2 April 2009 on “European conscience and totalitarianism”. Reading the resolution, it is not too hard to discern that communism is a little more of a target than nazism –the European Parliament obviously considering nazism to have been sufficiently condemned in the past. Here, however, one should take account of the specificities: these are particular geopolitical circumstances, in which the current political and historical expression of Europe identifies itself –as a “united” political entity– with the winning side of World War 2 and draws on the outcome of the Cold War, thus incorporating in its European Union identity-building the countries of the former Soviet sphere of influence. Further support for this reading is provided by the fact that the precursor of the resolution on European conscience and totalitarianism is the Prague Declaration for European Conscience and Communism of June 2008.
The resolution’s rationale presents complex and ambivalent issues. First among them is the aforementioned geopolitical expediency, which stands opposite the –no longer communist, but no matter- Russian Federation. Secondly, the resolution obscures the role of Western democracies in the build-up to WW2 by making them appear an ahistorical, timeless foe of totalitarianisms. This is plainly not so. Munich was signed before the Non-Aggression Pact, and Czechoslovakia –a democratic Republic- was cynically dismembered, while the Allies praised Hitler’s restraint. Another issue is that the resolution obscures important qualitative differences between the Stalinist rampage of political murders and the racist conceptual system that led to the Holocaust, acknowledging only that the latter has “uniqueness”. And yet another issue is that although both the nazi and the communist regimes committed unthinkable atrocities, the communist regime can be conceived as revolutionary in that it transformed the relations of production, whereas the nazi regime was wholeheartedly supported by the formerly “democratic” capital. Last but not least, one could talk a lot about how such a resolution obscures historical geopolitical antagonisms between Russia, Poland, the Baltic countries etc.
Going further than the resolution itself, there is also something else at play in the rationale of equal condemnation of nazi and communist totalitarianisms, which becomes evident as soon as one stops focusing exclusively either on the “positive” space, where modern Western imperialist sovereignty resided (Western Europe or the US), or on the “negative” space, which was perceived as the revolutionary alternative (the Soviet Union, the Eastern Block or the communist Far-East), but rather looks at the “non-spaces”, where both the imperialist sovereignty of Western democracies and the revolutionary alternativism of Eastern communism extended their power beyond their physical borders (South America, the Middle-East, or Indonesia). What sort of totalitarianisms did some of these “non-spaces” experience? What were, in terms of the “two extremes” narrative, the regimes of Pinochet, or Reza-Pahlavi, or Suharto? Here’s the thing: according to the “two extremes” rationale, they were “accidental totalitarianisms”! This is because what the equal condemnation of nazism and communism achieves, among rather a lot else, is to imply that just as nazism so communism too, and by extension marxism and socialist thinking in general, is inherently totalitarian. What this in turn does is to associate any attempt to discredit or subvert the liberal economic orthodoxy –which of course was only attempted by one of the “two extremes”, communism- with this inherent predisposition for totalitarianism, conveniently leaving the totalitarian expressions of capitalism such as Pinochet’s Argentina, Pahlavi’s Iran or Suharto’s Indonesia outside the scheme, simple accidents of history. The obvious beneficiary is Western liberal democracy, which remains, to paraphrase Hardt and Negri’s charming formulation, always dedicated to peace, although continually bathed in blood.
THE “ONE EXTREME”
Despite these and other rather obvious sticking points, it stands to reason that the equal condemnation of the “two extremes” in the form of the “totalitarianisms of the 20th century” has become something of a commonplace in liberal democracies. And, one would say, why not? Does such historical nitpicking as the one above negate the basic fact that, as conventional wisdom would have it, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all mass-murderers? No, it does not. They were. But when some of us were protesting in previous years that this “totalitarianisms of the 20th century” idea is a very bad one, we had something else in mind. And nowhere do we see it more clearly at the moment than in what is happening in Greece.
The last three years of national debt crisis and deepening recession have seen a surge of popular protests around the country. These have at times turned violent on the part of the protesters, but not that often. What is more, not only the degree but also the nature of the violence varies: there are instances –though, again, limited- of rioting, there are others where the police are faced with targeted actions by militant anarchists, still others where citizens have attacked politicians and manhandled them or threw yogurt on their heads, and so on. On the whole, though, as protests go, they have been energetic, but non-violent.
At the same time, a wave of intolerance has swept Greece – particularly towards immigrants. The worst manifestation of this explosion of bigotry is the increasing influence of the neonazi political party Golden Dawn, which got 7% of the vote in the last national elections. This translates to roughly 425.000 people voting for a neonazi party. And recent opinion polls have seen its popularity rising by the day. Racial attacks, beatings, knifings, are a daily occurrence in many cities, while neonazi thugs –Golden Dawn’s “stormtroopers”- patrol the streets in motorbikes and attack people at will.
One can see here exactly how the “two extremes” narrative becomes extremely useful for the established political order. All it has to do is to “condemn” both “extremes”. And it can legitimize any suppression of the protests – excessive, even gratuitous, police violence, arbitrary “preemptive” arrests, public disclosure of the personal data of unconvicted detainees, even torture of handcuffed demonstrators under arrest.
Of course, the Far-Right “extreme” is never actually suppressed. Quite the contrary, it enjoys almost total immunity both from the police and the justice system, while its useful agenda of a State that is permitted –indeed, should strive- to be intolerant, oppressive and violent for the sake of preserving “order” is incorporated into democratic institutions. (You can read more about that process here.)
The Far-Left “extreme” is, on the other hand, a different matter. In fact, there is no such thing. Even if, which is an arguable proposition, one could say that left-inspired terrorism is such an “extreme”, there is no such activity in Greece at the moment. (Even militant anarchists, who are only a part of many multi-faceted anarchist groups, which mostly focus on self-organization and alternative economies, cannot be properly called “left”.) In fact there is nothing even remotely comparable to the neonazi fear. The dominant narrative, however, propagated as it is by almost all mainstream Media, groups any and every left-of-center political proposition into this bloated category. And quite easily, too: instilled as the “totalitarianisms of the 20th century” idea has been into the collective consciousness of contemporary liberal democracies, it is not a far cry from Soviet communism to SYRIZA, the main opposition party in Greece at the moment, which got 27% of the vote in the last elections. Now, its name translates as “Coalition of the Radical Left”, but although it is undoubtedly on the left, it is not really all that radical. Its program does not advocate the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, but rather the establishment of a left-leaning social-democratic government through parliamentary means, with fairer taxation, increased welfare, some nationalizations of public goods, such as water and transport, etc. – things that would seem almost prosaic were they seen in equivalence with, say, post-war European social-democracies, and not, as is inevitably the case now, in destructive opposition to the policies of austerity and total privatization of every single national asset, imposed by the troika and our governments of the last three years. Which is why SYRIZA is portrayed in the Media as something of a rightful heir to the Khmer Rouge…
THE POLITICS OF VIOLENCE
But, again, the “two extremes” narrative is doing something much more dangerous than denying SYRIZA its democratic credentials, or even –which is more serious- provide a public rationale for the brutal suppression of vocal political dissent and active protest.
Nazis and Soviet communists, among many others, might have used political violence in order to establish their regimes, but political violence is not a characteristic of totalitarianisms, where in fact the State monopoly on violence is at its most effective. Political violence is a characteristic of dissent, many kinds of dissent, democratic dissent among them. We can observe its traces in many of the fundamental conquests of our democracies, such as our “communist-inspired” workers’ rights, the “liberal” rights of persons, in the fact that things such as the right to assemble or to protest publicly are protected by our constitutions and seem self-evident to us. We died and killed for these things.
What is crucial to remember is that the narrative of the “two extremes” is an element of an ideology that masks a sinister function: it cancels out the “political” in political violence so as to make it appear inconsequential what its politics actually are. The tumbling of our borderline democracy into the nazification we are observing at the moment would be impossible without this ideological operation.
But the politics are not inconsequential. Democracies were radical once. They may yet be, again.