When the lords of austerity look down on the world from their parliaments and glass-fronted offices, they often look on the bright side. Poverty, food kitchens, unemployment, the destruction of jobs and pensions, cuts in health and education, ‘social unrest’ – none of these things bother them too much as long as the stats and figures look good and the economy appears to be jumping through its hoops.
So there was nothing particularly surprising about the optimism and good cheer emanated by the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and the Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras during a joint press conference on the Greek bailout program in Brussels last Tuesday.
Barroso praised Samaras – and ‘the determination of the Greek people’ for implementing the brutalist policies that have all but brought the country to its knees, declaring that there is now ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ because the Greek economy is showing tentative signs of growth for the first time in six years.
Such pronouncements are typical of a certain kind of technocratic mentality that now dominates the European Union and so many European governments, which regards human society – or at least that section of it that is not rich – as an essentially subservient and expendable mass, whose task is to accept whatever the powerful decide, at whatever social cost, and then collectively applaud at the first sign of economic recovery.
While Barroso and Samaras were beaming at the macroeconomic indicators, one of the most violent and dangerous fascist movements in Europe provided grim and tragic evidence that Greek society may be returning to some of the darkest days of its not-so-distant past. The day after Barroso made his rosy pronouncements, a Golden Dawn member stabbed to death the anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas, in what appears to have been a planned ambush.
When I was last in Athens two years ago Golden Dawn was a violent streetlevel militia, whose members were regularly beating up migrants and leftists in the streets of central Athens. At that time Golden Dawn had no MPs and little national political clout. Since then it has become, according to most polls, the third largest party in the country, with eighteen seats in parliament.
Its leaders appear on chatshows – even shows in which they physically attack their fellow guests. They preach violence and hatred, and joke about turning immigrants into soap. They publish anti-immigrant electoral posters which talk of ‘taking the dirt out of the country’ and mining the Greek borders to keep undocumented migrants from crossing them.
They present themselves as warrior-defenders of Hellenism, weaving Greek history and mythology, Christianity and anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim messages into a toxic and disgusting brew that increasing numbers of Greeks appear willing to drink. They hold Nazi-kitsch torchlit rallies at the monument to the Spartan victory over the Persians at Thermopylae and describe third world migrants as the descendants of Xerxes who are ‘invisibly’ invading Greece.
Such messages have resonance partly because mainstream politicians often echo them in their depiction of migrants as potential terrorists, Islamic invaders, or a threat to the health and security of the nation. But like the Nazis, Golden Dawn is both the product of a society in an advanced state of crisis and also feeds off the crisis, channeling bitterness, rage and despair into a loathing and persecution of immigrants and aggressive hyper-nationalism.
All this is coupled with a crude anti-austerity message drenched in nationalist rhetoric, and boosted by social measures such as soup kitchens for Greeks only and ‘security patrols’ which protect Greeks from the immigrant hordes.
The murder of Fyssos follows a mass attack by more than fifty masked men armed with crowbars and baseball bats on nine Communist Party members distributing posters in Athens the previous week. Emboldened by its popularity, Golden Dawn is clearly dreaming of a new civil war with the left which it believes it can win, and appears to be implementing a new version of the ‘strategy of tension’ that once paved way for the advent of dictatorship in the early 70s.
Europe cannot be absolved of responsibility for these developments. In the first place, European governments and the institutional machinery of the EU transformed Greece through the Schengen system into a bulwark and a dumping ground for its unwanted migrants, and tolerated one of the most grossly incompetent and inhuman asylum systems on the continent in an unacknowledged policy of deterrence that has left tens of thousands of migrants trapped in a country they do not want to be in.
Secondly, the ECB/EU/IMF ‘troika’ pushed through socially traumatic policies that were almost guaranteed to produce or exacerbate extremist formations. Strange as it obviously seems to Eurocrats like Barroso, human societies are not like ants, and the policies imposed on Greece were never likely to make its population enamoured of democracy, Europe – or immigrants.
Nearly two decades ago, the restructuring of the Yugoslav economy helped pave the way for a resurgence of ethnic fascism and nationalist delirium and dreams of territorially ‘pure’ communities purged of their extraneous elements. Then, as now, the institutions and governments that oversaw this process were oblivious or indifferent to its consequences.
This is something that mustn’t be allowed to happen again, and it may be that Golden Dawn has overplayed its hand this time. Even the ruling New Democracy party, from which many of Golden Dawn’s members come, is now talking about banning it. If anything good can come from last week’s atrocious crime, it will be a huge and irresistible wave of revulsion from Greek society – and also from Europe – accompanied by measures that can shut Golden Dawn down and dilute the poison on which it feeds.
If not, Golden Dawn may get the civil war that it wants, and the only light at the end of the tunnel will be its burning torches, and Europeans will contemplate the horrendous prospect of the cradle of democracy in thrall to a new generation of Nazis and nationalist gangsters of the type that Europe once believed were gone forever.