By Antonis Pagratis
Recent developments concerning Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn suggest that the rise of the party – followed by the ensuing crackdown against it – cannot be assessed through a straightforward political analysis. Can this phenomenon be understood simply as an offshoot of the economic crisis or do we need to drill deeper below the surface? A discussion with philosopher Stelios Ramfos provides interesting food for thought on the issue.
Why would a Greek be attracted to an extremist political grouping like Golden Dawn?
We are experiencing a crisis that has serious social and political consequences. Greeks feel betrayed and, to a large extent, reject the formerly dominant political system. Golden Dawn capitalized on their anger and disappointment, quickly increasing its popularity to double-digit figures. The rise of leftist SYRIZA on the other hand can be explained by the defection of the populist element from PASOK. Golden Dawn is really the new player here.
What are the deeper characteristics of this phenomenon?
When society has been hit by a political and moral crisis of this magnitude, the way people perceive themselves also shapes their reactions. What they believed in and what they have supported for decades as a solution has been refuted; this is a huge test for their identity, which results in [what Freud would describe as] the splitting of the Ego. When we are undergoing an identity crisis and internal rupture, we must by all means assume a new identity in order to reunite the Ego and find our lost self again. This is where Golden Dawn succeeded, in my opinion: The party offered a stable point of reference for people who were in a state of flux, ordinary folk who had lost their sense of direction. More precisely, the party gave them old-style ideology, the stuff that goes back to honorable, eternal values such as the nation and the fight against corruption. When this sort of thing is strengthened by uniforms, organizations, parades and military training then this internal welding, as it were, is facilitated and membership acquires a therapeutic quality.
Is patriotism an outdated concept?
It is in the sense that fear of and hate for all that is foreign leave no room for loving others. It is an “old” concept in the sense that you have a value staple that is guaranteed by the past. One issue, of course, is that whoever puts full trust in the past is condemned to repeat it. But, going back to what we were saying: It is of course important to know the practices of such an organization, but it is even more important to understand the psychological boost provided by the sense of identity. Historical events interact with psychologies in the sense that interests interact with desires. In this case, the process of rediscovering yourself includes feelings of hatred that are expressed in violent terms. Democracy is the political system of peaceful coexistence. Violence is a natural, anti-social condition that is based on the total exclusion of the other. It presupposes people who are chaotic inside and who also want chaos out there. There is no single value to unite them internally, hence the only type of order they recognize is violence. We should not be surprised by the recent outbursts of violence given that the “metapolitefsi” era (the years following the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1974) held high all that was cheap, transient and convenient. It was to be expected that working-class groups with a narrow range of experience and an under-developed sense of self would be charmed by the nationalist delirium and aggressive ideas of Golden Dawn since they do not feel the need for their own truth and are instead looking elsewhere for the causes of the existing crisis.
Is the “cheap and transient” necessarily related to social class?
No. I mean that the idea they have about their expectations is one of very cheap, transient and easy pleasures. It is limited to a level where the particular becomes universal and then gets blown into absolutism. When this is expressed in ideological terms, it cannot be backed with arguments, creating the need for violence. Only by using violence can you convince me that your subjectivity is the absolute truth. All this is to a large extent the result of the populist drive of the metapolitefsi period. The crisis did not produce Golden Dawn in the same way that the memorandum did not produce the crisis. What the crisis did was elevate the party into a mechanism that legitimizes the aggressive instincts of a minority given that a wounded Ego prevents the subject/citizen from assuming his own responsibilities.
Is there a cure for these people? Can they make peace with their fellow citizens?
It would be best if they could first come to terms with themselves and find peace inside. It would help if politicians would realize that, at a deeper level, the problem lies in the fact that all these years of partisan wrangling gave rise to a political system based on discord and confrontation without having anything positive to offer – only tension. People are disgusted at seeing that politicians are not changing tune. Tension, as we all know, is a key component of insecurity, while it is insecurity that is pushing people toward Golden Dawn and other similar groups. In order to release the tension and temper passions there must finally be a policy of national unity that can grapple with the big problems of society. Only then will the illness begin to subside. To the extent that social tension will continue to breed insecurity, and even if Golden Dawn is dismantled as a criminal organization, the problem will remain and the extremist party will simply be substituted by something else.
The role of the opposition
We have been focusing on the psychological parameters. Is there a social foundation as well, something broader than the psychological explanation?
In our case, there is a cultural parameter behind the psychological one. This is because we live in a culture that maintains and cultivates infantilism in its members. And we know all too well that a weak Ego alternatively seeks an authority figure that can be internalized and therefore can be strengthened on an imaginary level. This is what various aspiring saviors have tried to offer this every so often. Right now Golden Dawn is the party that offers an authority figure as well as a new identity. The new identity is followed by the rejection of “corrupt” parliamentary democracy; the authority figure provides security and confidence in blind obedience – this is its strength. We must not forget that with a large number of voters, with a paramilitary organization that is 3,000-strong and with connections to the state, everything is possible. It is very easy for social turmoil to lead to deadly destabilization.
Therefore, we need to cure the insecurity that arises from the collapse of the self.
And the cynicism of politicians who strive not to understand each other. The dissolution of the political system is guaranteed when it comprises people who refuse to get along. I believe that in this respect the role being played by the opposition is very negative. The other day, for example, I saw a lawmaker on television saying that Golden Dawn’s nets have been cast far and wide, but there is no political will for anything to be done about it. He was saying this at the same time that high-ranking police officials were resigning or being transferred and inspections were being carried out at precincts [to root out Golden Dawn supporters]. No progress can be made in this country.
Why, in your opinion, does the opposition maintain this stance?
Because it too is deeply insecure. When you are insecure – and torn – the first thing you do is disagree; the opposition is insecure because it does not believe in itself. When you believe in yourself, you know how to agree and how to disagree.
Do you believe that an economic recovery could help avert serious turmoil?
I am not at all sure. Why did that neo-Nazi [Anders Behring Breivik] who killed all those people emerge in Norway, which is an immensely wealthy country? Why did Austria, long before the crisis, have a far-right government for a spell? And why is there no Golden Dawn in Spain, which has similar problems to us? Or Portugal? What are the historical criteria? Obviously it is not the memorandums or the theory of “two extremes.” In this age, the rise of far-right extremism is connected to the fear of change brought by the explosion of technology through globalization and it is expressed on the basis of the particular characteristics of each country.
The theory of the 'two extremes'
What do you think about the theory of the “two extremes,” which effectively equates far-right with far-left violence?
It is natural for extremes to exist because without them we wouldn’t have a middle space. The discussion we are currently having is about acknowledging that leftist opposition SYRIZA is not extreme. That is the entire issue. It’s ridiculous!
The truth is that extremes and middles are never objectively defined once and for all. The extremes are defined by occasion and context. When [late statesman] Eleftherios Venizelos led the coup in 1935 it was extreme. When he engaged in parliamentary politics he was in the middle.
The Greek Communist Party (KKE) is not extreme from the moment that it abides by the law and the Constitution even though its charter states its aim as being the imposition of a proletarian dictatorship.
It becomes extreme, however, when one of its distinguished members of parliament repeatedly says “this is your Constitution, not ours, because we didn’t vote for it.” It is also acting extreme when it refuses to allow the Financial Crimes Squad (SDOE) to inspect its finances and as a result has no right to demand that SDOE checks Golden Dawn’s books.
The issue is very specific: no one is permanently at the extreme or in the middle. Just knowing that there are extremes means that everyone considers his or herself as non-extreme.
We can be at the extremes only when we do not recognize their existence.