The Greek Laboratory: Shock Doctrine and Popular Resistance

5 May 2010

“There is a shadow of something colossal and menacing that even now is beginning to fall across the land.  Call it the shadow of an oligarchy, if you will; it is the nearest I dare approximate it.  What its nature may be I refuse to imagine.  But what I wanted to say was this: You are in a perilous position.” — Jack London, The Iron Heel

‘Shock and Awe’ on Greece

One of the ways to understand what is happening in Greece is to use the notion recently developed by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine.  Seen from that perspective, the meaning of the Greek situation is simply that it’s the first time this so-called ‘shock doctrine’, a constitutive element of any neoliberal purge, is put into practice in a Western European country, after having been tested, of course, many times in the past in other parts of the world, including the eastern part of the European continent, with results that are now very familiar to us.  The idea of the shock doctrine is, to put it as briefly as possible, the following: it’s impossible to implement a neoliberal purge, or, rather this kind of qualitative leap in the speed and depth of the neoliberal purge, and furthermore to get it to be, if not accepted, at least tolerated by society, without creating and staging an ‘exceptional’ situation, a situation of emergency, in the wake of which, somehow, ‘normal’ life is disrupted and what seemed until quite recently unimaginable just happens.

‘Shock and Awe’ is exactly what it is about: shock and awe targeting the social body itself, the popular classes and the subaltern groups of each social formation being the core target.  This is how the ‘normal’ time, the ‘normal’ course of events, is interrupted.  I’ve been to Greece many times over the last several months, and each time I was amazed by a constant acceleration of the pace of events.  The acceleration was certainly dramatized by the media and the political system, but it was essentially due to the unfolding of the objective contradictions of the situation.  It has therefore to be understood as the unleashing of violent elementary systemic forces, comparable, to quote some examples underlined by Klein in her book, to wars, occupations, military coups, or the management of certain natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.  A major economic crisis, such as the one that is happening, is precisely an event of this type.  The crisis is major because it is not a case of usual cyclical recessions, but rather something close to a collapse affecting the foundations of the economy of the state, of the social and political system in its entirety.  It is an organic crisis, to use the term of Antonio Gramsci.

From this follows that the social and political forces in Greece have to face a new, unprecedented situation.  A situation for which no one is prepared, neither at the top layers of society, nor at the bottom, on the side of the popular forces and of all those who will suffer the consequences of this economic and social hurricane.  Everyone is destabilized, and that is why the outcome of the Greek situation is absolutely crucial.  What I’ve said so far about the shock therapy is of general validity.  But what is specific to Greece is that, as has been suggested in very powerful terms by the previous speakers, this shock therapy, this neoliberal purge, is even more necessary in this country because here we have to deal with the weakness of the political structures, especially of the Greek state.

Why Is the Greek State So Inept?

Costas Lapavitsas very aptly spoke of the failure of the Greek ruling class.  This failure can be understood in two ways.  The first is the short term.  There has been an immediate failure to deal properly with the contradictions of the Greek capitalist system.  The whole recent cycle of economic growth relied on a very fragile and even unsustainable basis.  The analysis of these contradictions has already been outlined by Lapavitsas and his collaborators of the Research on Money and Finance group, so I will not say more on this.  But there is also a more long-term failure, which I want to emphasize now.

I come from, and I situate myself, within the Marxist tradition.  One of the key ways within this tradition of dealing with the state is to talk about its “relative autonomy.”  Nicos Poulantzas famously elaborated a lot on this notion.  The relative autonomy means that the state has the capacity to be at a distance from the different factions of the ruling class and of the balance of class forces in society.  The state intervenes to constitute the overall outcome of those class forces and it is constituted itself as the condensation of that balance between class forces and class relations, as Poulantzas famously said.

The characteristic of the Greek state is precisely that this relative autonomy, for reasons that go very deep in Greek history, has been much weaker, much more limited, than in other cases.  The Greek state, indeed, has been at constant war with the popular classes, with its own people, for many decades.  What is at the very root of the weakness of the Greek state, paradoxical as it may sound to some, is the very failure of the popular classes in Greece to reach a permanent form of representation and regulation of their interests within the state itself.  All the phenomena we’ve been talking about so far in this discussion, such as the diffusion of corruption “from below”, clientelism etc, are just ways to compensate, from above and below if you prefer, for this sort of weakness.  This affects an essential part of the popular classes, who are deprived of a more institutionalized, stabilized form of social compromise that has been reached by the popular classes in other parts of the European continent in the context of the so-called welfare state.  These classes have therefore to bypass this lack in order to reach some particularistic or fragmentary form of fulfilling certain immediate interests via practices such as those mentioned before.  But this is, of course, much more the case of the ruling classes and the dominant groups.  What we call corruption in Greece just means how obscene and incestuous the relations between fractional capitalist interests and the Greek capitalist state as such are.

Perspectives of the Popular Resistance

How are we to understand now the new possibilities opened up by the structural weakness of the Greek state as they develop in the current crisis?  I would point to two of them.  The first has to do with the relative position of the Greek national formation within the international division of labour.  I think that one of the main interests of this very important piece of research produced by Costas Lapavitsas and the group of economists working with him is the way it updates and renews the analysis of the polarizing effects of the core/periphery division in Europe.  I think we have to distinguish two levels of periphery within Europe.  The first includes Greece, the Mediterranean South, the so-called ‘PIGS’; and the second is even more peripheral — the ‘periphery of the periphery’ — and corresponds of course to Eastern Europe, the new ‘Mezzogiorno’-type cheap labour reserve of the continent as whole.  The weakness of the Greek state, in the context of the shock therapy, just means the loss of the remnants of what can be a form of “national sovereignty”.  I’m not mentioning this because I want to defend any form of national sovereignty or out of a principled hostility to any superseding of national sovereignty as such but because, in this case, it amounts, for the popular classes, to the loss of elementary forms of democratic control of the state and the disorganization of representation, of the relation of representation between the state and the fractions of the dominant class.  This downgrading of the position of the Greek state within the international system will have far-reaching consequences.  It is within this context that the popular forces have to situate their own struggle, elaborate their own strategy, and build their own system of alliances on European and international levels.

The second consequence of that weakness of the Greek state, to put it very simply and a bit more optimistically, is that it opens up the possibility of direct intervention of the popular forces.  Indeed, as we all know, Greek history, including recent events in Greece, has been characterized by exactly this direct intervention of the popular forces, of the popular struggles, in the political scene.  What happened today gives us a taste of what will follow in the forthcoming weeks and months.  Let me mention here some examples taken from the last decade.  In 2001, an uprising of the Greek trade union movement succeeded in preventing the brutal and savage reform of the pension system initiated by the so-called ‘modernizing PASOK’1 government of Costas Simitis.  In 2006 and 2007, Greece was the only country in Europe where the student movement succeeded in blocking many of the elements of the Bologna process and preventing the partial privatization of higher education.  In 2008, as the result of the murder of the Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the police, the very legitimacy of the state was put into question in the most significant street riots and mass confrontations with the police that have happened in Europe since the 1970s.

What we have seen today happening in the streets of Athens and of other Greek cities is a combination of all those events.  The two-day-long national strike organized by the unions, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating, public-sector workers entering into violent clashes with the police, and other insurrectionary practices.  Such social practice developing from below tends to break the existing framework of political representation, of political confrontation and of public debate.  Beyond any doubt, it will be one of the major characteristics of the period to come.  It will also be one of the major challenges the Left and the popular forces in Greece will have to face in the near future.  This challenge may destroy them.  This is not rhetoric but a very real eventuality: if the Left and the organized social forces are unable to meet the challenge, if they appear powerless and fragmented, they will be swept away by the dislocation of social relations and the rise of despair and, probably, of the most reactionary and regressive tendencies within society.  But if they find ways to intervene and offer a genuine perspective that articulates the people’s anger, then this perilous situation can also open up an unprecedented prospect for the future of the country, of the popular movement, and moreover, of the progressive forces in Europe and elsewhere.


1  A Greek version of the Blairite transformation of the Labour Party into ‘New Labour’.  PASOK is the Greek Socialist Party founded in 1974 by Andreas Papandreou, the father of the current prime minister and PASOK leader George Papandreou.  Simitis took over as prime minister and party leader after Andreas Papandreou’s death in 1996, staying in power until 2004.

Stathis Kouvelakis, Reader in Political Theory, King’s College London.  This article is an edited version of a talk given at the Birkbeck Institute on 5 May 2010.  On that day, Greece experienced a general strike and massive demonstrations in all major cities, during which three people died as the result of a fire at a bank branch in central Athens.

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