On the causes and the significance of the December 2008 social explosion in Greece

On the causes and the significance of the December 2008 social explosion  in Greece


By Spyros Sakellaropoulos[1]


The social explosion of December 2008 in Greece represented a postscript from the future. In a country where the consequences of the global economic crisis had already begun to make themselves felt – in conjunction with the collapse of a specific model for integration into the global division of labour, it had become evident that the younger generations were destined to experience a much worse future than preceding generations. The realization that unemployment, flexible working hours and hyper-exploitation would be the norm for the popular layers, in combination with other conjunctural questions (an exacerbation of repression, political scandals, sharpening of the migration question) resulted in the situation whereby the county with the richest Leftist traditions in Western Europe witnessed an explosion of the greatest youth revolt of the last 30 years. It would mark a turning point for the development of new outbreaks of social upheaval that would bring to the fore the contradictions in management of the global capitalist crisis. 


  1. Introduction

            Although the Greek youth movement of December 2008 was triggered by the murder of a school student, it was the prelude to the social ferment of the future. This is because the subterranean currents that found expression in the events of December cannot be confined to the territory of Greece. In that sense the Greek youth explosion is not just a static event which for a variety of endogenous reasons occurred in Greece, with its dynamic beginning and ending here.  On the contrary, it is a development which has inherent within it a dialectic between the consequences of the global economic crisis and a number of specific internal factors. To put it somewhat differently, what will be highlighted in this article will be that Greece represented a foreshadowing of broader processes in the popular movement that were to a significant extent linked to the global crisis, so that corresponding popular upheavals can be expected in numerous other countries in the near future, characteristic examples now being the developments in the Middle East/Tunisia/Egypt.

            There are three specific reasons why Greece is the first country to have experienced mobilizations on such a scale: a) more rapid arrival of the crisis because of the collapse of a specific model of economic development,  b) the presence of certain exceptional conjunctural elements,   c)  the existence of a distinctive political tradition. This article will begin with a presentation of the movement of December as such, followed by a description of the way in which the economic crisis has had very serious consequences for the Greek economy, after which there will be a presentation of certain parameters linked to the particular conjuncture (scandals, repression, the migration issue). Then the specific gravity of the leftist tradition will be analyzed and finally there will be an explanation of the dynamic of the movement at the international level. 


  1. Introducing the movement

The murder of the fifteen-year-old school pupil Alexandros Grigoropoulos by an armed special guard in the Exarcheia district in Athens triggered a series of events with such widespread repercussions that, at least for the capitalist West, they had no precedent since the world-wide revolt of 1968. Specifically, immediately after the murder and for a period of around two weeks, clashes between demonstrators and the police took place virtually on a daily basis. Police stations were besieged by school pupils for approximately a  week, public buildings and the premises of official institutions (regional government, technical and commercial chambers, town halls, the offices of trade union federations) were occupied in many Greek cities, with many of the clashes culminating in acts of arson and looting of shops, mostly of monopoly chains. It is interesting to note that above and beyond all this there were cultural interventions, with “happenings” in the streets, events staged in shopping malls, at artistic presentations, etc. 


            Τhe first point to be mentioned is that the December movement presents a number of original features. 

For a start, it involves broader sections of youth and not only those enrolled in educational institutions. It is significant that apart from student youth, participants included plebeian layers of young workers and some sections of the foreign workforce that had entered the labour market on very unfavourable terms. 

Moreover the movement had clearly political characteristics. It was not centred just on one specific demand (such as the annulment of a law) but expressed an overall questioning of the status quo. Many of the practices employed, above all the blockading of police stations by school pupils, though patently antisystemic in character, were by no means marginal in the degree of acceptance they won, but gained the consent of a significant section of the Greek population. This was a by-product of the mass character of the movement in question. 

Closely associated with the previous element is the generalized, unprecedented employment of confrontationist practices: In total there were mobilizations at more than 1,200 schools. Approximately seven hundred of them were occupied for around two weeks. Dozens of police stations were placed under siege and stoned by school pupils. Every day for two weeks there were demonstrations in all of the country, even in the remotest areas that had no historical experience of mobilizations of this kind. Most university-level educational institutions were under occupation until the Christmas holiday break. Dozens of local radio stations were occupied briefly so that they could be got to broadcast messages of solidarity with the demonstrators, and the same occurred at the State Television studios. Town halls and municipal services were occupied for days on end, becoming meeting places for youth. Theatrical performances, including a premiere at the National Theatre, were interrupted by protesting drama school students. Finally over 180 branch offices of banks and hundreds of shops, ATMs and traffic lights  were destroyed.

What is interesting, beyond the fact of mass participation in all the above, is how the movement unfolded in a context of broad delegitimation of the machinery of repression and the dynamic it had as a result of the support it succeeded in generating abroad. There were dozens of solidarity demonstrations throughout the world, but mention could also be made of the unease that was triggered among the international elites, culminating in the suspension of the educational reforms in France from the publicly expressed fear of President Sarkozy that similarly large-scale reaction might be provoked in France.  

Additionally the movement embodied an unprecedented encounter between Greek school pupils and school pupils of foreign origin, unemployed and semi-employed youth (whether Greek or migrant)  and sections of the leftist and radically politicized university and other tertiary student populations. . Of course it was student youth that overdetermined the characteristics of this movement, but through them it became possible for young workers to express themselves also. These are people who are do not have the luxury of trade union representation, either  because of the low level of trade union organization in their  workplaces owing to the predominance of new-style labour relations or because of their inability to influence the practices of the trade union bureaucracy. In other words this explosion had the effect of bringing together different sections of Greek youth (and of young people living in Greece). Even at the level of the school pupils there was the encounter between those on the threshold of entering university with those experiencing social exclusion. By extension it is important to note that the movement won support not only from the Left milieu but also from workers, above all those working on short-term contacts in positions demanding intellectual achievement, who now found a means of expressing their discontent at the exploitation to which they were being subjected. As we shall see below, the common denominator for such different social categories of young people was that their working future would be so much worse than they imagined.    This amounted to transcendence of the boundaries of simple social protest, exposing a latent crisis in political representation and a concomitant inability of the hegemonic power bloc to retain that hegemony.

On the basis of all the above, a difference is discernible when one makes the comparison with other youth revolts that have occurred in recent years in the capitalist West. The Greek December was something more than the incidents in the French suburbs or the mobilizations against the Contrat Premier Emploi- CPE, and this, indeed, was why the government was not able to isolate it (Sotiris 2009) In contrast to the situation in France, the December movement did not involve only certain specific segments of youth, and not only the socially excluded, but virtually all young people. Engaging in a little theoretical abstraction, one might venture to suggest that it resembles a simultaneous eruption of the movement against the CPE together with the disturbances in the suburbs.  The comprehensiveness of the movement made it objectively difficult to create a “sanitary zone” through mobilization of the reflexes of the broader popular strata.  The conflict was one that impacted every household, every family, every region, every neighbourhood. What predominated was a united front of young people on the basis of their low expectations for their working future, in contrast to the case of France, where there was a deep rift between the immigrant and the “indigenous” youth.  In this situation the greek government was not able to adopt a crisis-management profile à la Sarkozy, who targeted the “scum” that were disturbing the serenity of the French people. Such was the social depth and geographical extent of the social explosion that it was impossible for those “on top” to isolate the rebellious element. .   

            This social eruption was evidently not under the control of a specific social and/or political subject with the power to guide it at will (notwithstanding the organized participation in the movement of Leftist currents and elements from the anarchist milieu) and identifying with it.  In reality the December events were  the spontaneous reaction to the regime of authoritarianism and exploitation experienced by young people in Greece in recent years, a distillation of the delegitimized bourgeois political system and its representatives. But at the same time the absence of coherent political expression reflected not only the spontaneous character of the movement and the fact that a significant proportion of the young people had no history of previous involvement in organized political struggle but also a variety of other elements – testifying to an unfavourable balance of class forces. Bureaucratization of the workers’ movement hindered  the development of simultaneous practices of movement solidarity within the productive process itself. But what was clearly missing was a leftist-radical organizational framework which would not just support the youth revolt but also successfully represent it  in the central political arena, transmuting its dynamic into the type of demands and practices that would win the allegiance of the broader popular and working masses, secure their active participation and inject the class dynamic into capitalist production  (through adoption of practices such as strikes, work stoppages, sabotage). 

Last but not least,  the movement displayed a peculiarity vis à vis  the movements of the 60s insofar as the links between the youth movement and the workers’ movement are concerned:  this time the  youth movement was an inseparable part of the social forces targeted for the capitalist attack being experienced by the workers’ movement.  In other words, it was not a revolt against the bourgeois education system,  or  against capitalism and/or actually-existing socialism in general,  which at a certain point  became allied to a workers’ movement with its own separate priorities.   The movement generalized a reaction against existing neo-liberal class policies, so linking itself more closely to the workers’ movement  on the basis of common demands.      



3. The stance of the political parties


The New Democracy government was under great pressure throughout the period of social upheaval. The events unfolded on the one hand in the context of the global economic crisis and on the other at the peak of discontent with their policies. Their stance was therefore irresolute. They realized that if they implemented policies of sharpened repression (e.g. suspension of academic asylum, a ban on mobilizations, a hardening of the reactions of the forces of repression to the demonstrators), this was very likely to lead to worse destabilization. On the other hand the unfolding of the explosion made the government vulnerable to criticism for passivity and retreat in the face of “street mobs”. If, again, they tried, like De Gaulle in May 1968, to bring out on to the street the people of the “silent majority”, they risked triggering even more uncontrollable social conflicts. Within this maelstrom of contradictions  what they attempted to do was to secure cross-party consensus for adopting a larger-scale repression. From the moment that this became impossible, given that the movement could not be curbed from “above”, and PASOK, also, was not inclined to abrogate its oppositional role, the government found itself alone, vainly endeavouring to overcome its internal contradictions, suffering attrition on the one hand from continuance of the demonstrations, on the other from “right wing” accusations that its handling of the crisis had been ill-judged. .    

            As for the stance of PASOK, it should be noted that it had two aspects to it. It abstained from supporting the government, which it saw as being responsible for what was happening. On the other it never became actively involved in the movement, thus making it clear to the bourgeois power centres that in the event of its coming to government it would not implement policies essentially different from those of New Democracy. It adopted a public relations stance “emotionally” on the side of the struggling young people but at the same time studiously avoiding any commitment to abolishing the laws that had been passed by the Karamanlis government or overturning any of the key elements of its policy.

            In this specific conjuncture the Greek Communist Party (KKE) displayed the fear-ridden and conservative characteristics that distinguish it as a party, as a political current incapable of tolerating the emergence of spontaneous demonstrations and mobilizations. All this was made amply clear during the mobilizations of December when the clashes were condemned as the work of provocateurs and the KKE was conspicuous both for its absence from the mobilizations and its preference for marches of party members headed in directions entirely different from the other demonstrators and keeping well away from governmental buildings. Equally shameful was its denunciation of SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), the other large party of the parliamentary left, for being complicit in the looting and arson. There is nothing at all coincidental about the plaudits heaped on the KKE by parliamentarians of New Democracy and the far-right LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally) for its “responsible” stance during the mobilizations.

            SYRIZA was the only parliamentary party that chose to become active on the basis of the conception that the events represented forms of a social  explosion by young people and so sided with the mobilizations.  The vehement attack to which it was subjected by the mass media and the bourgeois political establishment testifies to the fear that was prevalent in the power bloc of the unrest spreading to such an extent that it would become dangerous for the everyday functioning of the system. Something like that would however have required the involvement of broader popular strata in the mobilizations and the calling of strikes.  It was at this point that the contradictions became evident in the stance of SYRIZA. It was not able to distance itself from the corrosive practices of the trade union bureaucracy and it did not come out in favour of initiating mobilizations of workers. What became evident in SYRIZA was in essence the contradiction between the attempt to acquire a radical movement character and notions of securing participation in governmental administration  whether through establishment of a government of the Left.

The Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) attempted to play the role of the party of “Law and Order”, criticizing the Karamanlis government from the right, accusing it of being unable to put the troublemakers in their place, hoping  in this way it to co-opt the discontent of right-wing voters. It certainly derived an advantage from this policy but not enough to be able to constitute itself as the alternative right-wing pole to the government of New Democracy. It did however contribute, in a conjuncture where a wide spectrum of state functions were being drawn into question, to shifting the debate to the opposite pole and into the realm of epiphenomena: concentrating on damage and destruction  and not on the factors that were leading thousands of young people into adopting such practices. 

            Despite its fragmentation and fratricidal infighting, the extra-parliamentary Left was an active participant in the movement of December, particularly in the sectors where traditionally it has more influence (e.g. student associations). It did not however succeed in politicizing the movement and/or linking it with the trade union milieu and in this way contributing to the creation of a common anti-governmental front. .

            The anarchist groups gained new members, primarily owing to the underlying suspicion of every form of political organization. Their practice nevertheless remained within the narrow limits of confrontation with the machinery of repression and destruction of symbols of capitalist production (.e.g. setting fire to branch offices of banks). They were, as in the past, incapable of achieving a political opening to broader popular layers..              



4) The context within which the social explosion took shape


What was it that linked together people of such different origins and led them either to active participation in the social revolt or to solidarity with what was taking place? There are undoubtedly a plethora of socio-political factors that could be cited and we will refer to them below. But what should be noted first and foremost is that the political atmosphere during the period immediately prior to the December events was characterized by a generalized discontent against the government and against the political system as a whole. It is characteristic that up until the summer of 2008 all the opinion polls indicated that governing New Democracy party was ahead, but there followed two events that were catalytic in enabling PASOK to take the lead. The first concerned the emergence of the Vatopedi monastery scandal (see below) and the other the speech of the Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis at the International Exhibition of Thessaloniki where he failed to announce any measure to improve the position of lower-income earners, arousing widespread discontent among the economically weaker sections of the population. 

The change in the climate was also registered in the Eurobarometer study carried out in the autumn of 2008. It indicated a figure of  77% of Greek citizens not trusting the Greek government. The corresponding European average is 61%. Comparison with the previous Eurobarometer study (spring 2008) reveals an increase in the level of distrust from 66% to 77% and so a fall in the level of trust from 34% to 23% (Eurobarometer 2008: 19). .

At the same time on a series of subjects to do with political life the discredit into which politicians had fallen was plain to see, along with the emergence of elements of a crisis of representation.  68% of those asked tended not to trust the Parliament of the their country  (ΕU27: 58%), with confidence being expressed by  32% of the Greek and 34% of the European sample.  Comparing the results with those of previous Eurobarometer studies one perceives a steady increase in the figure for distrust. 









Similarly high was the proportion of Greek citizens appearing not to trust the country’s political parties (86%) and there was also distrust of the institution of regional or local government in Greece. The Greek figure for distrust is the second highest in the study (66%). Moreover 56% of Greek citizens tend not to trust the country’s legal system  (EU27: 47%).

  That said, it is interesting to see the views of Greeks on a number of specific everyday issues. In the autumn of 2008 only 53% of Greeks declared themselves satisfied with their daily life as against the 65% registered in the spring of the same year. The average for European Union citizens had been 76% in the autumn  and 77% in the spring. We therefore see on the one hand a significant change within the space of six months and on the other a large deviation from how other Europeans see their lives (Eurobarometer 2008:5).

As far as the immediate future is concerned, most Greeks predict that both the economic situation and the employment situation will worsen in Greece in the coming 12 months (66% and 64% respectively). In relation to interviewee’s purchasing power,  the majority of Greek citizens (64%) find that their situation has deteriorated by comparison with what it was five years previously. Europeans in general come to the same conclusion, but to a lesser extent  (51% of respondents).  At the same time a high proportion of the Greek sample (63%) confess that their household has difficulty paying all the bills that fall due each month (EU27: 46%).

General discontent with the economic situation helps to explain the profound pessimism expressed by eight out of ten Greeks interviewed (83%) in relation to the younger generation, as they believe that the lives of those who are children now will be more difficult than their own lives have been.  It is worth noting that the percentage of negative responses for Greece is the highest in the entire sample population for the present study. .


5) The “encounter” of the factors that were to lead to revolt                                               

But is it enough just to cite the abovementioned factors, which are essentially nothing more than a record of rather extensive dissatisfaction, which could be found in other  countries facing the onslaught of neoliberalism? Why was it in Greece and not somewhere else that there was such a large-scale social eruption?

            To be able to answer this question one must first understand  the historical period in which we find ourselves: it is a period of full-scale assault by the forces supporting neo-liberalism, with a simultaneous absence of a credible alternative on the Left, in any of its variants.  What happened in Greece is that it proved to be the “weak link” in this global movement of capital. This means that a country of the capitalist West belonging to the European Union and the euro zone is characterized by a number of specific contradictions that make it more susceptible to having  reactions against neoliberal policies developing within it.  The reasons for this happening in Greece and not in some other country have to do with a number of separate factors  pertaining  a) with the advent of the crisis in a national formation with exceptional features in its economic development rendering it particularly vulnerable, where the full force of the crisis strikes first and foremost at the youth, the weakest layer of society, drawing into question the very foundations of the post-civil-war  social consensus, which were the opportunities for social mobility and the certainty on the part of parents that their children would experience a better tomorrow b) with the emergence of certain significant conjunctural parameters (scandals, repression, the migration issue) c) with the peculiar, more “left-oriented” evolution undergone by the Greek social formation since the time of the Civil War.

            We shall attempt to show on the basis of this rubric why it was specifically in Greece and not in other European countries with relatively similar characteristics that there should have emerged at this particular point in time a movement with such a social dynamic.


 a) Overturn of the historically developed means of constructing social consensus and intensification of social inequalities

i)  The means of constructing social consensus

            Τhe first element has to do with evolution of the manner in which, historically, social consensus was constructed in Greece in the post-war period.  The defeat of the Left in the Civil War was accompanied by an intensification of repression against the Communist Party, its members and its supporters (prohibition of the legal functioning of the Party, executions and banishment of Communists, adoption of an institutional framework of curtailment of the rights of leftist citizens). But repression is not enough, in the long term, to secure hegemony for the ideas of the bourgeois class. A whole host of material concessions  are required to forge this hegemony. Thus in the context of the very high growth rates experienced by the Greek economy after the Civil War it became possible for the family income of Greeks to rise, along with changes in consumption models, and also for processes of upward social mobility to come into operation. In general terms it became evident that the younger generations would live more comfortably, and with higher living standards, than previous generations. A significant role in this was played by the institution of free university education, with examinations employing meritocratic criteria making it possible for children from less privileged families to study and claim a better position in the division of labour than had been available to their parents.

            This model for organizing social consensus began to display elements of dysfunctionality from the beginning of the 90s, with the emergence of the neoliberal project. In the context of intensified economic internationalization and the sharpening of intra-capitalist competition, the Greek bourgeoisie adopted a strategy centred on increasing the rate of exploitation of working people and not on seeking out an orientation that could prioritize technological re-organization of the Greek economy.  As a result of this orientation all the elements were adopted that could contribute to reducing the income of the economically weaker strata and increasing the rate of profit for capitalists, leading to a rapid deterioration in living standards for the great majority of Greeks. There was a very large transfer of wealth from working people to the bourgeoisie.


  1. Collapse of the ideology of upward social mobility        


Τhe question emerging is how it was possible to secure acceptance for this huge transfer of wealth from the common people to the ruling class. Answering it takes us to the ability of the Greek bourgeoisie to construct a coherent ideological schema capable of justifying these policies. Specifically it has adopted the ideology that Greece is an economically backward country and must for this reason be able to deal with the sharpening of international competition and the obligations that derive from participation in the European Union. Greek working people must, for a brief period, make a number of sacrifices so that it can become feasible for the country to enter the Euro zone.  When this has been accomplished, things will begin to move in the direction of essential improvement. The fact that the life of wage earners in Greece has not improved at all since 2002 when the Euro replaced the drachma as the national currency was obscured by expectation of the great benefits the country would enjoy from hosting the Olympic Games in 2004.  The Games took place. Nobody knows officially how much they cost but there was no subsequent improvement in the living standards of ordinary people.  Then it began to be understood that for the first time since the end of the Second World War the younger generation, irrespective of educational level and mode of insertion into the division of labour, would have a much worse life than older people have had. The climate this generated was greatly intensified when the consequences of the global economic crisis began to be felt in Greece also.


  1.  The consequences in Greece of the global economic crisis


The negative developments that have afflicted the Greek economy in the recent period are the result on the one hand of the coming of the global recession to Greece, on the other to the Greek economy’s chronic inadequacies (limited use of high technology, concentration on profit through low labour costs, limitation of entrepreneurial activity to the construction sector, tourism, etc.)

In 2008 all this began to be felt, and shortly after the emergence of the December movement the crisis would intensify, resulting in skyrocketing public deficits and the country’s acceptance of the guardianship of the “troika” (IMF, EU, European Central Bank). In other words the December movement was one of social protest both at the arrival of the first consequences of the crisis and at the collapse of a model for integration into the international division of labour which in recent years had been intensifying social inequalities.

More specifically as far as the basic figures for the Greek economy are concerned, gross domestic product followed an upward trend given fixed prices in the period between 1996 and 2004, with a downturn in 2005 and a subsequent steep fall. The rate of growth of private consumption gradually tapered off through 2008 and for the year as a whole fell to 2.2% (from 4.8% in 2006). Exports of goods and services went from a 20.1% rise in 2006 to a 1.1% fall in 2008. Industrial production fell by 4.0% in 2008, whereas it rose by 2.7% in 2007.

In the last months of 2008 management of the consequences of the financial crisis in Greece aggravated the public deficit, which for a second successive year exceeded the contractual limit of the Treaty of Maastricht (3% of GNP).  The public deficit in 2007 and 2008 amounted to  -5.0% and -5.3% of GNP respectively. In 2008 overall government debt rose to stabilize at 95.4% of GNP, as against 94.8% in 2007. 

            Viewing the situation as a whole we are led to the conclusion that chronic weakness of the Greek economy interacted with the consequences of the global crisis in such a way as to render even more obvious the futility of popular aspirations for betterment of their lives.

The popular layers thus lost on both fronts. On the one hand they lived for a number of years under a regime of austerity  and on the other hand the inability of that regime[2] to reproduce itself owing to the advent of the economic crisis accelerated the process of immiseration and social impoverishment. The layers that were first to be hit were the youth, who were also suffering the worst exploitation, and these factors thus contributed to the explosion of December.  

The first results of the crisis took the form of an intensification of social inequalities and the establishment of a framework for increasing unemployment and hyper-exploitation of youth.  


iv)  The intensification of social inequalities

            The deterioration in living standards for Greeks can be seen from the fact that the proportion of household savings as a percentage of income fell from 14.1% in 1996 to 8.9% in 2004. In 2006 21% of the population was living below the threshold of poverty. Specifically one in every four pensioners and one in every three unemployed people had an income below the poverty threshold.  The highest poverty levels were to be found in the 16-24 age group (25%) and among those over 65 years of age (26%), with 23% of children aged 17 living in poor households  (ΙΝΕ [Institute of Labour] – GSEE [General Confederation of Greek Trade Unions] 2008: 220).  14% of those in employment were  also living below the poverty threshold, the highest figure for all the countries in the EU and double the average for the EU27[3]. It is noteworthy that half of those in the poor category have an income of less than 44.4% of the median income and so are very far from being able to emerge from poverty. Here too Greece is significantly different from other EU countries, with only Latvia showing higher rates of poverty (INE – GSEE 2008: 210-211).       

As far as incomes are concerned for the 2000 - 2007 period, in Greece there was a 1.2% cumulative reduction in the real cost of labour per unit of product. At the same time, the increase in average real private sector income at a rate slower than the rise in the average productivity of labour resulted, at the end of the period, in a situation where although real salaries in the private sector had risen by 27%, productivity had risen by 36.5%.  Companies therefore secured an advantage of around 9,5% of labour costs per unit of product. Finaly in 2004 wage-earners and pensioners contributed 44% of income tax payments and in 2006 50.1%. By contrast, while in 2004 companies accounted for 43% of income tax payments, in 2006  this figure had fallen to 36.3% of income tax payments (INE-GSEE 2008: 22-23). .  

In some cases, in order for Greek households to be able to cope with both the tax burden and the necessity to cover basic needs they are obliged to take out some kind of bank loan. This creates a vicious circle because to meet the payments the household has either to restrict its needs even further or take out new loans. According to a relevant study conducted by the Bank of Greece in 2007, within a space of six years Greek households doubled the average balance of their indebtedness to the banks.

The conclusion from all the above is that Greece is conspicuous for its economic inequalities, the earnings of the most affluent 20% of Greeks who procure  40.4% of the total national income being a steady six times higher, approximately, than those of the least affluent 20% of Greeks, who must make do with 7% of the national income. By contrast, in the countries of EU-15 the difference in the last decade has not been higher than a factor of 4.8.  (INE-GSEE 2008: 213). .  


v)) Hyper-exploitation of youth

The general context of the social reality experienced by young people living in Greece at this time has the following characteristics: high levels of unemployment, low salaries, an increase in social inequality, further activation of the machinery of repression. It is no exaggeration to say that capitalism has the younger generation in its sights.  What has been called the “700 euro generation” (1,000 euros for the other countries of capitalist West) is a younger generation with better qualifications, for capital, than preceding generations: a higher level of education, unfavorable working conditions, uncertain career prospects.  And if this is true for university graduates, things are still worse for those enrolled in technical training or just completing their general secondary education. This segment of the younger generation is faced with even worse working conditions, employer despotism, long-term unemployment and the erosion of wage levels. That said, the problem of unemployment is particularly acute for young people in Greece. According to Eurostat at the end of 2008 22.4% of people aged 15-24  were unemployed, compared to an average of 17.0% in the 27 member countries of the European Union (Eurostat 2009). Karamesini for her part calculates that in 2005 unemployment among people aged 15 to 29 stood at 18.8% whereas for the 15-18 age group it rocketed to 31.8%. The situation becomes even more difficult when one considers that many of these young unemployed are obliged to wait a number of years to find a steady job: six years after graduation one in three university graduate, two out of three high school graduates and one in three of those who have completed their primary education have not found any kind of stable employment (Karamesini undated: 5). This explains the results of another study organized by the World Labor Office, according to which non-voluntary part-time work as a proportion of total part-time work in Greece has reached the figure of 44.24%, by far the highest among the countries of EU15, where the average is only 14.1%. (Karakioulafi 2005: 202). 

 And of course unemployment and part-time employment prevent young people from becoming independent of their families. Half of the women of 27 and half of the men of 30 are still living with their parents, so that “youth” in Greece lasts not only beyond the statistical limit of 24 but for very many, particularly men, even beyond the age of 30. Greece, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Rumania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania are the countries in the EU27 with the greatest delay in young people’s attainment of independence from their parents (Karamesini 2009) 

Another important fact about unemployment is that for the ages 20-29 the proportion of unemployed is higher among those with a higher level of education (Karamesini 2009: 21). 32.6% of university graduates aged between 20 and 24 were unemployed and 20.9% of those aged between 25 and 29 (Karamesini undated: 37). This reality obviously has important social implications.  That unemployment in Greece is higher among university graduates than among unskilled labourers who have only basic schooling is something idiosyncratic. It is greatly to be doubted that such a phenomenon would be seen in any other country of the capitalist West.  In any case what is beyond all doubt is that this development plays a role in the way social subjects perceive representations of social mobility. And it is not only holders of university degrees that think it was wasted effort seeking to complete their studies. The pressure is also  communicated to the less educated who, seeing the situation facing those with better qualifications, become even more anxious about their own prospects.  

  Beyond the phenomenon of unemployment or part-time employment there is also that of employment in occupations for which one is not qualified. A recent study on professional prospects for graduates of Greek universities indicated that many find themselves faced with flexible types of employment and are obliged to accept positions different from those for which they hold formal qualifications (Karamesini 2008).


B)  The specific parameters of the conjuncture 


            Everything mentioned above has come to be linked with a host of governmental scandals that badly tarnished the image of the government of Costas Karamanlis. At this point we would like to venture an observation:  One of the reasons that New Democracy won the elections of 2004 and 2007 was on account of the idea that, whatever policies it pursued, there could not possibly be a repetition of what happened in the final four years of PASOK government in Greece (2000-2004), where one of the basic questions that emerged was the series of scandals involving people in the government at that time. So widespread was the condemnation that the president of PASOK George Papandreou was induced to exclude some of the individuals involved from the electoral lists of the party.  

            But the elevation of New Democracy to government not only did not reduce the prevalence of scandals: it led to a proliferation of them. Very summarily, we might mention the following: 

1) Abductions of immigrants of Pakistani nationality: In the summer of 2005 in interviews they gave to the media Pakistani immigrants condemned their abduction in Ioannina for a week by Greek and foreign secret services who interrogated them in relation to their alleged participation in bomb attacks in London. In a public statement by the Minister of Public Order the government maintained that it was an internal matter of Pakistanis because Pakistanis are in the habit of abducting their co-nationals  over affairs of honour.  The charges were confirmed by a  court ruling of May 2006. .

2) Bonds: The state-appointed boards of management of a number of insurance funds (in the summer of 2007) decided more or less at the same time to invest capital from the funds in unsafe structured bonds. These bonds, which were issued abroad at the end of a complex chain of buying and selling that provided commission for all parties concerned, were marketed to the funds by a specific stockbroking company that maintained political links with New Democracy, generating suspicions that these were transactions involving political payoffs.   The result was that there were prosecutions and the money was returned to the funds at the order of the government.

3) Vatopedi: The Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos, with its retinue of Cypriot monks, acquired renown after a certain point in time for its political connections and the amount of influence it exerted on the two bourgeois parties. It embarked on a frenzy of entrepreneurial activity, spearheaded by real estate. Overturning previous state directives, a number of ministers under the tutelage, as is broadly rumoured, indeed charged, of the Minister of State, who had the abbot of the monastery as his spiritual advisor, recognized the Monastery as proprietor of an expanse of land in Thrace of exceptional natural beauty. This land was exchanged  for allotments  throughout Greece, which were then employed for commercial exploitation by the Monastery. The Monastery’s notary was the wife of the Minister of Culture who, upon exposure of his having deposited his substantial wealth in off-shore companies to avoid taxation, replied that this action was both legal and ethical. 

 4) Siemens: In the context of the investigations initiated by the American Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on the Siemens parent company in Germany,  triggering a judicial inquiry in Germany, it was revealed that for more than a decade Siemens-Hellas, the most important of the key co-contractors for the major projects carried out in Greece, provided many millions of dollars in finances from secret funds to the two bourgeois parties. It also made gifts of household appliances to very many people. It should be noted that two of the Siemens executives most directly implicated managed to escape abroad owing to the alleged negligence of the Greek judicial system and Greek diplomacy in their handling of the matter.

This rash of scandals undoubtedly played an important role in shaping the perception, particularly in the Siemens case,  that both the main parties are in receipt of payoffs and certainly that New Democracy is not a political entity with any independence from business interests, despite the profile that it attempted to acquire for itself at the beginning of its most recent period in government. At the same time, the implication of such a great number of officials of the ruling party in so much illegal activity reinforced the conviction that politicians enter public life in order to enrich themselves though it.  In any case what was established with great certainty among the popular strata, quite apart from the lack of transparency and at times criminality (the case of the Pakistanis is typical) of politics at the level of state, is that there is a great distance between reality as experienced by the subject social classes and that experienced by the ruling elite. All this heightened the climate of disillusion and revulsion that had begun to develop.


ii) Repression


In the decade that preceded the death of Alexandros Grigoropoulos it is estimated that more than fifteen unarmed people, the majority of them immigrants, lost their lives either through shooting by police or through violence in the detention centres.  The issue  is unfortunately not just one of human casualties. The point is that police violence and criminality is perpetrated within a regime of indulgence and impunity. A UN report covering the period between 2003 and 2007 notes that only one of the 238 policemen charged with ill-treating persons in his charge was dismissed on this account and nobody has been conclusively condemned. Moreover of the 99 policemen who have used their guns and have been indicted for the death of a total of 12 people and the wounding of another 27, only one has been dismissed from the force and sentenced by the Court of Appeals. 

The Ombudsman[4] too has for his part repeatedly touched on the question of disciplinary regulation of police officers. In his reports to the Interior Ministry he characterizes the investigations carried out within the police force as mechanisms for concealment of police responsibilities in incidents involving wrongdoing, resulting in total impunity for offenders. It is characteristic that during the entire period between 1999 and 2006 only 32 police officers were punished, either through a simple reprimand (!) of through a fine ranging from between 15 to 60 euros!  For cases of illegal violence against citizens in the two years between 2004 and 2006, 63 investigations were carried out and disciplinary action was taken against eleven police officers, six of whom were punished through imposition of fines, with no further penalty (Zervas 2009)


iii) Migration

There could well be more than 1,500,000 immigrants living in Greece today because nobody knows the extent of “illegal” immigration.  This could even be a conservative figure and the number be closer to 2,000,000, approaching 20% of the Greek population.  Greece is a country which up to the end of the 60s exported labour power, as people were not able easily to find work, either because of their political views or because of the low rates of economic development. The improvement in the Greek economy that got under way in the early sixties resulted in the cessation of Greek emigration and from the mid 70s there began a small but real influx of immigrant labour, mainly from Arabic countries. This would continue until the beginning of the 90s, when the fall of the Eastern regimes and the needs of the Greek economy would lead to a large-scale influx of immigrants into Greece. The truth is that the Greek state was not prepared for the arrival of such a large number of foreigners. But now, around twenty years later, this is no longer adequate as an excuse.  For the Greek state during all this period the immigrants were welcome as a source of cheap labour, that is to say as a significant factor in economic development, but at the same time they were unwelcome as claimants to rights or would-be occupants of recognized work positions. .

The Greek ruling class has used the immigrants as a lever for forcing down labour costs, making Greek products more competitive and increasing profitability. What they “forgot” to do, however, was to try to come up with solutions for orderly social integration of migrants into the Greek polity. Immigrants with work permits are treated as second class citizens. There is no effective regulation of enforcement of any labour legislation, of organizing transference of pension rights to the host country,  of establishing teaching facilities for immigrants to learn the Greek language, of promoting policies for creating multicultural schools, while a series of other questions such as the granting of citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Greece are consigned to the Greek calends.  For the “illegal” immigrants the usual situation is a life filled with fear of expulsion and so inability to demand recognition of elementary rights as an individual.

The upshot of all this is that the great majority of migrants nurture feelings of rage and disappointment over the situation in which they find themselves. If to this we add the emergence of unemployment, involving a high proportion of the workforce[5], including immigrants, it becomes comprehensible how a section of immigrant workers could have participated in the December  movement, and in a number of cases participated in the destruction of shops and banks.              


6)  The significance of the Greek left movement’s tradition 

            All the factors we have so far mentioned came together in an unprecedented  encounter, creating the December movement. One final question remains to be answered, however.  A detailed presentation was given of the reasons why Greece is so distinctive when compared to  the other developed countries of the capitalist West, tracing  the condensation of factors  and influences that have made it different and created a terrain conducive to the youth revolt. On the other hand a question that might well arise is why In Greece phenomena of this kind foreshadowed the subsequent insurrections in the countries of North Africa (Tunisia, Egypt)

            The answer is to be found in what has already been said about the political inheritance that has been left in the country by the Communist and Left tradition.  The defeat in the Civil War sent tens of thousands of Communists into political exile in the Eastern countries and led to the banning of the Communist Party. The entire period up to 1974 was marked by political persecution, exile, imprisonment and executions for Leftist cadres. Despite this unfavourable context the Leftist culture and ideology was continuously present. The emergence of EDA, the Union of the Democratic Left, the legal expression of the KKE, as official opposition in 1958  cannot otherwise be explained. Nor can the strength of the workers’. farmers’ and students’ movements in the 60s. And the same applies for the period of the dictatorship, where the key event of the resistance that would set in train the moves leading to the fall of the regime. i.e. the Polytechnic uprising, was to be marked by the presence of the Left.  

The ensuing institutional changes  (abolition of the monarchy, legalization of the political parties of the Communist left, downgrading of the role of the army, increases in salaries, nationalizations of enterprises) indicated that the transition to parliamentary democracy was bearing the strong imprint of popular struggles.  In the first phase of the democratic restoration after the fall of the Junta, at the level both of politics and of trade-union organization, but also in the domain of culture and ideas, the activity of the Left had a decisive input into what was called post-dictatorship radicalism and of course the electoral victory of a socialist party with characteristics as radical as those possessed by the PASOK of 1981. Through the subsequent 1980s the governments of PASOK were clearly the most left-leaning of the social-democratic governments of Europe. Admittedly in the subsequent two decades in Greece also, as in the rest of the capitalist world, neo-liberal policies and conceptions became predominant. But the implementation of the neoliberal agenda encountered significant resistance, delaying its adoption. The forces of the Left (the pro-Soviet KKE, the radical Left [SYRIZA] and the organizations of the far Left) also managed to open a few cracks in the hegemonic neoliberal project, articulating a more radical discourse than the corresponding parties of the capitalist West.     

All the above is meant not as a historical retrospective but first and foremost as elements of a political, ideological and cultural heritage that influences the political life of the country to the present day.  This does not mean that the young people who took to the streets in December 2008 were well-versed in all these facts of modern Greek political history, still less that they had actually adopted these positions and views of the post-Civil War and post-junta Left. What exists in reality is a climate that has been shaped in such a way as to be  in principle  favourable for the gestation of such practices.  For example in Greece occupations of university schools or public buildings, or even the closure of the national roads, are practices that have been carried out many times in the past. Marches in city centres occur quite frequently. In the case of young people specifically, over the last decades the dynamic student movement has on many occasions made its presence felt, one significant turning point in recent history having been the movement of 2006-2007 against the establishment of private universities, as well as against the collusion of public universities with private enterprises.

 Accordingly,  when interwoven with the unfavourable social conditions, the leftist political patrimony generates the explosive mixture that was to emerge as the movement of last December. It is not just a question of worsening social conditions and professional prospects for young people, or of the stamp of Leftist political struggles as such. It is the dialectic between these two factors that led to the December events.


7) The dynamic of December at the international level

None of this means, of course, that this movement is likely to remain something peculiarly Greek. The specifically Greek element may help to explain why it was  first in Greece that events of this order emerged. But there is clearly a more global dimension to the factors that brought it about. In other words in Greece the social explosion is inseparably linked to the advent of the economic crisis and in consequence the annulment of expectations in the popular layers for improvement in their  standard of living and upward social mobility for their children. However this disappointment is linked to change in the social balance of forces not only in Greece but also globally. The impossibility of formulating an alternative solution to capitalism, in conjunction with the consequences of the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 were to result in the emergence of neoliberalism  and the hardening, for ordinary people, of the terms on which capital accumulation is carried out.  The fall of the regimes of so-called “really-existing socialism” made the situation worse, abolishing the – even if merely proclamatory – alternative prospect presaged by these countries. In this setting the forces of capital would attempt to reappropriate the concessions made to labour in the course of the 20th century. Social inequalities would increase, as would unemployment. Social welfare programmes would be cut back;  education would be delinked from the prospect of securing a position on the labour market; flexible forms of employment would proliferate. The so-called “30 golden years” (1945-1975) of capitalist development would recede into the past and with them people’s hopes for improvement in their lives. 

The December movement displays a dynamic which it would be wrong to see as the outcome of the peculiarities of a particular country. To put it somewhat differently, we consider it very likely that in the coming years we will witness analogous, though not identical, revolts in other countries of the West also (already, as mentioned, a partial correlation can be seen between the events in France, both in the suburbs and the Contrat Premier Emploi, and those in Athens) and the popular insurrections in Tunisia and Egypt, which have succeeded in overthrowing regimes in power for decades, are on a similar wavelength.. 

In other words the continuing presence of crisis conditions in the economy, will increasingly sharpen the contradictions in a number of national formations all over the world. The strategy that is evidently being pursued by the ruling classes is a flight forward, with a view to imposing even greater flexibility on labour, increased austerity, more privatizations and harsher deployment of the machinery of repression. What is required by  dominated classes throughout the world is transformation of social discontent into forms of conscious and politicized class antagonism. This is something that goes beyond  implementation of a few basic changes, absolutely indispensable as they too may be. It extends to a whole spectrum of objectives and values and would comprise a real break from the logic of today’s capitalist offensive.  The aim would have to be the exodus of the world of labour from today’s regime of capitalist domination, meaning growing poverty, the despotism of employers, insecurity of employment, over-indebtedness. What is involved is not, of course, a socialist programme of collectivization of the means of production, but a political programme of struggle  targeting the conquests made by neo-liberalism in recent years: re-establishment of the public character of social goods, defiance of economic regulations stemming from supranational authorities and international economic organizations, rejection of participation in all the aggressive schemes of imperialism. Of course none of this amounts to a means for effecting transition to a socialist society but it does comprise a necessary vehicle for the implementation of a real, as opposed to declaratory, challenge to existing neo-liberal hegemony.

One prerequisite for accomplishment of such an ambitious goal is that the forces of radicalism themselves undergo changes, moving beyond the ineffectual dichotomy of revolutionary verbalism and left governmentalism. But this means formulating a series of  demands that will be in direct contradiction with today’s neoliberalism, new modes of organization, experimentation with new forms of trade union representation in private sector workplaces and temporary work situations, extension of alternative information media, establishment of new methods of  movement co-ordination, and all this under the general rubric of existing capitalism not being the only possible prospect (Sotiris, 2009a)[6].

  The article thus puts forward the view that in Greece, as in other countries, there will be similar eruptions in the following years which again will highlight the consequences of neoliberalism for the weaker strata of the population.  The point then will be on the one hand for  those employed part-time to find a way of  integrating themselves in the structures of a radical trade union movement and on the other for the political organizations of the left to be able to represent movements of this kind and not, at best, to be mere supporters. In any case the coming years are going to be years of great challenge for the social movements and the radical left.    



Eurostat, 2008, Europe in figures. Eurostat Yearbook 2008.

Eurostat (2009), Harmonised unemployment rate by gender - age class 15-24 - % (SA), http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/tgm/table.do?tab=table&init=1&plugin=1&language=en&pcode=teilm021 retrieved 15 September 2009.

Eurobarometer,  2008, Autumn,  no. 70 (in Greek). 

Karakioulafi Christina, 2005, “Labour Flexibility Versus Security and Labour Quality: In search of Security and Quality in Flexible Forms of Labour”, in Giorgos Argeitis (ed) Economic Change & Social Conflicts in Greece. The challenges at the beginning of the 21st century, Athens: Typothito, pp. 181-212 (in Greek)

Karamesini Maria, undated,  Youth Unemployment, Athens: Nikos Poulantzas Foundation (in Greek)

Karamesini Maria, 2008, Labour market absorption of university graduates, Αthens: Dionikos (in Greek)

Karamesini Maria, 2009, “Difficulties in occupational placement of young people in Greece,”  Εpochi,  18/1/2009 (in Greek)

Kyriakidou Betty,  2009, “Loans. Nooses around the necks of households”,  Μacedonia  23/9/2009 (in Greek)

Labour Institute (ΙΝΕ) General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) - Supreme Administration of Greek Civil Servants’ Trade Unions (ADEDY), 2008, The Greek economy and employment. Annual Report 2008,  Athens (in Greek)

Lapavitsas Costas et alii, 2010, Eurozone Crisis: Begar Thyself and Thy neighbor, RMF,  http://www.researchonmoneyandfinance.org/media/reports/eurocrisis/fullreport.pdf

Sakellaropoulos Spyros, 2010, The recent Economic crisis in Greece and the strategy of Capital, Journal of Greek Modern Studies 28, 2: 321- 348.

Milios Giannis, The greek social formation, Athens: Exantas.

Sotiris Panagiotis, 2009, “On the rebellion of the Greek youth”, Radical Philosophy 154.

Sotiris Panagiotis, 2010, “Rebels with a cause. The December 2008 Greek youth movement” as the condensation of deeper social and political contradictions”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34, 1: 203- 209

Zervas, Christos 2009, “Impunity the rule for the police”,  Εleftherotypia 6/4/2009 (in Greek).









[1] A special thanks to Stathis Kouvelakis, Panagiotis Sotiris and three anonymous reviewers for their very constructive remarks on the previous version of this article.

[2]For a detailed presentation of the particular factors that led Greece to economic collapse see   Lapavitsas 2010,, Sakellaropoulos 2010.

[3] Τhe fact that the comparisons in this paragraph are being drawn between Greece and the other countries of the European Union and not, for example, with countries of Africa or Asia, represents a clear methodological choice. This choice is linked to the fact that Greece not only belongs to Europe geographically but has for several decades been  a country of the developed capitalist West. The fact of the  imminent economic crisis  in no way belies this reality. For a well-documented presentation of the degree of capitalist development in Greece, see Milios 1988.


[4]An independent judicial authority concerned with the problems citizens face in their dealings with state officials.

[5] It is characteristic that in recent years unemployment among migrants has been tending to approximate the levels prevailing among Greek citizens (8.0% 2007).

[6] The critique that is made in previous paragraph  of the weaknesses of the Greek Left during the December events should be seen in the same context. It was not possible for all Left formations to move beyond the verbalism/administrative governmentalism dichotomy..