Thessaloniki is balmy and sunny, and my partner and I are enjoying our gyros and Mythos beer in the leafy shade of a sidewalk restaurant — an inexpensive and tasty way of surviving in this history-rich Mediterranean country. From where we sit, we can see the colossal statue of Alexander the Great on his steed, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, a mere stone’s throw from where history is in the making, again.
A short while ago, walking along the esplanade, we had to duck and run, not to be caught downwind from where riot police were tossing teargas canisters at balaclava-clad and helmeted protesters, chanting and carrying banners and placards with slogans, some of which were in English. One of them read: “Democracy and capitalism are incompatible”; another said “Default on debt; suffer now and laugh later”. Yet another proclaimed that “Capitalism is plutocracy”.
It is clear where the protesters’ sentiments lie. When I managed to corner one of them earlier to inquire what was going on, she told us in broken English that she was one of many unemployed young Greeks, all of whom were fed up with a situation where the Greek government was widely seen as being in cahoots with the banks. The latter, in turn, were believed to be deeply implicated in the debt crisis, and for whose bailout by the EU and the IMF ordinary people were expected to pay through increased taxes and other austerity measures.
She told us that she had been a student at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki until the end of 2010, but had to interrupt her studies in an effort to help her family make ends meet, and that she had been unable to find work. “Neoliberalism has failed in Greece,” she says with passion. “It has made a few people very rich and ordinary people poorer, because employers can get away with paying lower wages.”
Later on, in our hotel, I scour the internet for news about the Greek protests. In one report, it is pointed out that the number of people involved in the protests has been vastly underplayed by the mainstream media — a kind of disinformation to make the protests appear less serious and significant than they actually are. For instance, most mainstream news media refer to “hundreds of protesters” gathering in Athens and Thessaloniki, but the truth is that on Syntagma Square in Athens alone, in front of the Greek Parliament building, about 250 000 people have been assembled since early June. These include people across the political spectrum, from anarchists and socialists on the far left to neo-Nazis on the far right.
What they all have in common, is a sense of outrage at the fact that, as so often before in history, ordinary people are being forced to pay for the excesses of the rich and powerful. In another report, a leader of the workers is quoted as saying that the Greek government should tax the rich, instead of squeezing money out of the workers and the middle classes. It is estimated that the super-wealthy among the Greeks have about 600 billion euros stashed away in Swiss banks — an amount that would probably more than redeem Greek debt.
There seems to be virtual unanimity among the protesters that, instead of Greece indebting itself further by accepting another bailout “rescue” package from the IMF and the EU, it should rather default on its debt. When questioned on the likelihood and desirability of the probably dire consequences of such defaulting for thousands of Greek civil servants and other employees (apart from a negative ripple effect throughout the global economy), one of the protest organisers shrugged and replied that, of course, it would cause hardship for the foreseeable future, but that such harsh medicine would have to be endured for a lasting cure to emerge in the shape of a new, or different, economic system.
The Syntagma Square protests in Athens and those around the White Tower in Thessaloniki seem to have a lot in common with the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. Judging by reports, there is the same spontaneous democratic action, together with a shared resistance to hierarchical thinking. Who knows? Perhaps in this country, which bequeathed to us the idea of democracy, democracy may just be reborn or re-invented. It makes me think of Michael Moore’s comment at the end of his documentary Capitalism — A Love Affair, that there is an alternative to capitalism, it’s called “democracy”.