I am interested in the utility of protest, and in its potential to redress the failure of electoral politics. It is absolutely clear that democracy as currently practiced in most Western countries is a failure. The electoral process does not work. Representative democracy no longer represents the majority.
The recent images of 100,000 Greeks demonstrating in the streets of Athens raises an intriguing question about the utility of protest. And, as it relates to the ever-widening Occupy movement, its worth asking: "how many people will it finally take"? How many people must take to the streets before a government will respond to the will of its citizens?
In the case of the Greek protests, what is clear is that 100,000 was not nearly enough, because the country's parliamentarians enacted tough new austerity measures despite the vigorous opposition of those who elected them. The government clearly understood the pain it was inflicting on its own people, even as it refused to consider their wishes, and it chose instead to meet the demands of the international banking class. In a democracy, then, how many people must take their dissent to the streets?
The Greek example demonstrates yet again that the almost universal disapproval of a people, and massive displays of public protest, are generally insufficient to sway the course of government. In Greece, a higher authority was at work. Economists tell us that the world-wide catastrophe arising from a Greek default is too terrible to contemplate. They tell us that crushing the lives of ordinary Greeks is a necessary price for the greater good. A fact central to this unfolding drama that receives almost no commentary is that working- and middle-class Greeks played no part in creating the explosion of debt that now puts us all in such jeopardy. Adding insult to injury, those actually culpable for this mess have quietly and safely moved on with their lives.
This action by Papandreau certainly represents real desperation on his part. His ruling Socialist party has fallen dramatically in opinion polls and, well ahead of new elections in 2013, his government could face a non-confidence vote. This announcement is widely being characterized as an attempt to get out in front of events related to the debt issue in order to save his party.
At the same time, there is no certainty that the Greek people will ever get to vote on the issue -- in fact, there is every likelihood they won't. Already there are reports of major defections by lawmakers, and the government could fall by week's end. But that's not really important; the larger lesson is that ordinary Greeks took their dissent to the streets, outside the normal political process, and achieved a stunning result -- a critical mass of popular participation succeeded in bending the government to the people's will -- even if only for a few days.
I'm not so naive to believe that the Greek people will actually win the day on the referendum because aligned against them are some very powerful entities -- the international banking class and the full weight of the EU, for example. However, it's great to see a glimmer of success resulting from mass dissent and public protest -- better still to see it first in the birthplace of democracy. Very cool.
Lets pause for a moment, though. The specifics of the Greek protests are not necessarily analogous to the Occupy movement. Certainly the broad issue of social justice is present in both cases. But the people of Greece were railing against the imposition of unjust and draconian austerity measures demanded by the international banking class. In this rather unique set of circumstances, the Greek protesters were confronting not only their own government, but also the full weight and enormous power of the European Union. They managed to shake the resolve of Georgis Papandreau (an amazing result), but not that of the faceless EU bureaucrats that now control him.
Despite the inevitable setbacks and reversals that will soon unfold, the mass protests in Greece have had a profound affect. We have affirmed the utility of protest. Public protest and mass participation can indeed cause a government to bend to the popular will.
And not all observers are blind to the righteousness of the protests. The NY Times editorial for November 2nd said this,
"Europe's leaders should have paid more attention to the distress of ordinary Greeks and less to the distress of well-heeled European bankers."We need next to imagine how this might inform the growing Occupy movement in the US and around the world.
Update. This morning there were reports that Greek Prime Minister Papandreau would resign after his cabinet broke with his plan to hold a referendum on the bailout plan and the accompanying austerity measures. Now the Post is reporting that he has scrapped plans for the referendum. Another defeat for the people and democracy. The scoreboard continues to read like a rout.
The central question in my previous post was: how many people must take to the streets before a government will bend to the will of its citizens? In that post I pointed to 100,000 in Greece, 500,000 in the Israeli protests, and millions in the streets of Egypt. The excitement over the Greek referendum seemed to suggest that it was possible to bend a government's will. But the cold glare of reality has returned.
In the end, this bit of theater in the Aegean again proves (at least for the moment) my point -- that to bring about any meaningful change will require that millions take to the streets. Under no circumstances will the state ever alter its course without a massive display of public dissent by the people.
And what does this mean for the Occupy movement? I'll not make many friends by saying that the campers on the commons have no hope -- I mean, zero -- of affecting any meaningful change unless their movement takes to the streets in numbers that dwarf anything ever seen in the protests against the Vietnam war. That was the last true example of a government bending to the will of its people.
Update Two. It is now Sunday November 6, and the sad end to the political career of Georgis Papandreau is finally upon us.
First, the Greek Premier plunged the EU, and by extension the world, into a tailspin with his promise to return to the citizens of Greece their franchise through a referendum on the debt issue. Next he was taken to the woodshed by Sarkozy and Merkel, and obediently backed down, rescinding the vote and calling for a national unity government that would toe the line on EU membership. He survived a non-confidence vote, brokered a new ruling coalition, and has now been shown the door, as reported by every credible source.
So the Greek state will remain in the EU, and it will get the next tranche of needed cash. And the people who created this disaster will remain happily and profitably at large, and the ordinary Greek citizen will endure enormous hardship and brutal austerity, as more and more of the Greek commonwealth is purchased by wealthy speculators at bargain basement prices.
And the scoreboard continues to read like a rout, and governments continue to disregard the will and best interests of its citizens -- all because they can.
Your musical accompaniment for the day: La Cathedrale Engloutie, Claude Debussy, Livres de preludes 1. Enjoy.