COMMENT

Dictatorship of the proletariat

Protest marches in Athens are an experiment in how meaningful mechanisms of political expression can - when abused over a long time - degenerate into meaningless ritual. When taken to an extreme, they reveal the absurdity of political or labor activism gone wild: Protest marches are held to demand an improvement in a situation, but when abused they can actually make it worse. For example, labor unions constantly hold marches in central Athens to demand higher wages, better pensions, and so on. This would be fine if the marches were held at wide intervals on important occasions or if they were organized in such a way that they did not choke traffic and commerce in central Athens. But the stifling regularity of marches, day after day, for any number of reasons, has had a numbing effect on the broader public (which barely pays any attention to the demands being made) and a devastating effect on the economy of central Athens, with businesses reporting a 6-million-euro drop in revenues for every day that a demonstration takes place. This leads to shopkeepers not being able to keep up with rent and loan payments, which, in turn, causes them to reduce the number of their employees or go out of business altogether. The result is fewer jobs and more people receiving unemployment benefits, which come from taxes that have been reduced because companies that were paying taxes have smaller turnover or have gone out of business. Now, with the great global financial crisis hitting Greece, there are going to be more layoffs and more hardship right across the economy and the labor force, which will lead to an increasing number of protests, which will, in turn, lead to greater problems for businesses - either because their employees will be on strike or because customers will shun the city center. Organizers of protest marches do not care about the hardship they cause drivers and shopkeepers because the very point of their demonstration is to make their presence felt. That's fine when there is a political force in power that can be made uncomfortable by the very visible and vocal display of popular dissent. That is why the dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 was rocked into even madder authoritarianism by the protests at the Athens and Thessaloniki polytechnics in November 1973: It had no arguments against the popular uprising other than to resort to guns and to a coup against itself. This led to its downfall less than a year later. Since the restoration of democracy, however, the protests against defunct authoritarianism have become so prevalent, so much a routine that they have developed an authoritarianism of their own. Their organizers - and the rampaging anarchists who stage their own marches or tag onto those of others - tolerate no effort to limit the discomfort or damage that these protests may cause to others. They have taken a popular measure and now use it mainly against a public that is held hostage by the interests of others. With the economic crisis set to worsen, protests will once again take on a greater significance. But with a government that does not have any room to maneuver, with police that does not care about maintaining much order and with unions whose greatest concern is the maintenance of the status quo and not the protection of those who are outside unions or cannot find a job, the tired ritual of protest marches is set to gain a new momentum. But this street theater will also have to find a way to be relevant, to project the claims of those who need protection without harming the broader public interest.

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