“Plateia”: a new meaning in civil society?
July 12, 2011 Leave a comment
Ever since Greece more or less collapsed in 2008, the country as a whole as become a major thorn in the European Union’s side. Perhaps the most glaring example of the devastating collateral damage caused by the financial crisis and the subsequent recession, the complete sell and dismantlement of a nation sees the citizens as its first victims. Erupting into riots and rarely ever emerging to catch a breath, Greek people are struggling to find solutions and alternatives to a very bleak future. Three years later, as the European Union is staring at Greece in horror, witnessing what could well be the last days of the EuroZone, a civil movement emerges, reaches far back into its democratic roots to redefine what democracy means, and what its identity could mean to a nation fighting for its right to live. Tasos Karakatsanis explains the concept of Plateia.
“The movement is an ongoing consultation in the pattern of the Athenian democracy, hereby giving a strong legitimacy to the movement”
I was very skeptical when I heard about the first protest opposing the memoradum in the square of “Syntagma” opposite the Parliament. The media first reported it as an answer to the Spanish “indignados”. I thought it would turn out to be a weightless, quick and meaningless demonstration imitating the “indignados”. However its endurance and gradual self-organization convinced me of two things: – First that the Greek movement of “Plateia” (1) represents a very strong leverage to the Greek ruling parties as an opposing force to the policies dictated by the memorandum that Greece was forced to sign in order not to bankrupt; -Second and most importantly the movement raises questions about the quality of today’s system of representative democracy. It calls for direct democracy. The movement is an ongoing consultation in the pattern of the Athenian democracy, hereby giving a strong legitimacy to the movement.
An ongoing consultation is held every evening, during which anyone can speak up and express their idea or point of view. Anyone can make a proposition that will be put to a vote. Minutes are kept and a website (www.real-democracy.gr) is updated regularly. The whole process goes back to the very essence of direct democracy. “Plateia” is pushing for a new meaning in civil society.
“Plateia” vows for justice and democracy. Greek citizens refuse to pay the debt caused by the corruption and the waste of public wealth – nothing less than taxpayer’s money. The “PASOK” (PASOK “Pan-Hellenic socialist movement) and “Nea Democratia” (Traditional right wing party) administrations have been holding onto power for thirty-seven years after the fall of the Junta in 1974. During these years both parties have been cultivating customer-like relations with their voters. Party voters would be offered a state job or funding through state-run or programs sponsored by the European Union. Furthermore both parties have been building networks between state organizations, party people and businessmen who would undertake state or EU-sponsored projects without clear and transparent procedures – just by nurturing special relationships with particular ministers and state officials. The lack of competition in the business sector and the lack of transparency have created a blurred and complex interdependency between state officials, who would get commission for their services, businessmen who would have “friendly” relationships with government and state officials, judges and barristers which would stay provocatively inactive over a long time to chase these scandals – and finally, the media which would spread false information as a distraction from the public opinion. In some cases even monasteries and members of the clergy would be involved in such scandals ( like the Vatopedigate). Greek citizens face the same situation in state owned universities where academic nominations, in vast majority, are made on the basis on who you know and what contacts you have with members from the ruling party.
The misuse of the Greek public sector is even worse and would take pages to give a detailed analysis. Plateia’s argument in the matter is not to trust the politicians negotiating and bargaining, if bargaining at all, with the IMF and the EU on the terms of the loans. Plateia stresses that Greek politicians have been unreliable. The heavy taxation implemented by the Greek government in order to pay for the loan is targeting low-income workers and pensioners. The rapid privatization of Greek state organizations and property results in increasing unemployment rates, officially reaching 15%.
Greece has a long history in political rioting. The days before voting on the memorandum in the Greek parliament for the second loan by IMF and the EU, the rioting reached its climax on the 14th and the 15th of June when unions went into the streets
for a pan-Hellenic strike. “Plateia” joined in the protest with lots of singing and dancing. Although “Plateia” proclaimed they would circle the parliament so elected officials couldn’t come in and vote, the full scale mobilization made it impossible for any such plans. Riots erupted pretty soon first from the “Bachalakides” (2) and later by political activists who believe that violence is the only way to overthrow the corrupted government. However , although the “Plateea” people remained peaceful and tried to stay within the “Syntagma” square, an unprecedented fire of chemicals from the police attacked non-hostile protesters with extreme violence in an attempt to destroy the very core of “Plateia”. Yet protestors keep coming back when police retreated and never quit until the protestors themselves took over the square.
“Allegations came from different parties that extreme right wing members acted as provocateurs and had strong ties with Greek police”
The Greek media chronicled the first days of the movement with really positive commentary of “Plateia” across the country. However as the movement became “permanent” and seemed to causing problems to the government on passing the memorandum, a strange silence hit the media. When “Plateia” joined forces with the syndicates for a pan-Hellenic strike and protest, the media turned around and against the movement blaming it for the violence. The public opinion would have been turned against the movement, but an amateur video which first was circulated in the web and finally went in air by a private channel showed two of the troublemakers which carried bats and have taken part in the violence to be smuggled by the police. Allegation came by different parties about extreme right wingers acted as provocateurs and having strong ties with Greek police. Although the government and the police leadership promised publicly that they would hold an investigation, the issue was buried quickly.
“It is a fact that the European Union paid little attention to dealing with democratic deficiencies caused by the regional state integration and chose to focus more on economic and technocratic issues”
If one must decipher the meaning of civil society to give Plateia its full importance, the official definition is as follows:
Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organizations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organizations, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups. (3)
If the above quote is the definition of civil society then the scholar, expert in the building of social society, should focus on the phenomenon of “Plateia”: It is something new that brings the seed of direct democracy. Regardless of whether we agree with the advocacy of the “Plateia”, one must keep the power of self-organization as a genuine, open and interactive consultation which has ceased to exist a long time ago in Western democracies. It is obvious the thirst of people for involvement and implication in political decision-making is a major concern. It is also a fact that the European Union paid little attention to dealing with democratic deficiencies caused by the regional state integration and chose to focus more on economic and technocratic issues. However the call of “Plateia” is loud and clear: “We want real democracy and we won’t go until we get it”!
(1) Plateia Greek word for square, plaza
(2) Bachalakides ar apolitical groups aiming for violence, mostly organized in football clubs and aiming clashing among them or against the police
(3) as defined in Wikipedia, itself from “What is civil society?”. Centre for Civil Society, Philippine Normal University. 2004-03-01. Retrieved 2006-10-30.
Tasos Karakatsanis, PhD in International Relations, MA in Peace and Conflict.
Independent researcher focusing on political decision making within domestic and international institutions and democratic theories. Living in Athens, currently working in Plouto SA.