Across southern Europe resistance is taking on a new urgency. In Spain people are speaking of the start of ‘the real struggle’, while in Greece the term ‘civil war’ permeates the political climate. In both countries a frightening re-emergence of a dictatorship past seems to characterize the current historical moment as fascist ideologies become more acceptable and police tactics become more pre-emptive and militarized. These two trends emerging together, the rise of far right ideologies and pre-emptive militarized policing, indicate a shift in the discourses of legitimacy used by the state.
The tone has changed on the streets of southern Europe. People are growing increasingly impatient with the failure of their governments in the face of an ongoing economic crisis. For more than a month people have been organizing massive street protests outside the National Congress in Madrid. The “rodeo el congresso” actions began on 25th September 2012 and were quickly met with police brutality and a police force that clearly felt entitled to act some ways which were shocking even the veterans of the struggle against Franco’s dictatorship (for example, entering a public train station in full riot gear and beating random passengers – see video). The images of police violence went viral with millions of hits in just a few days. Instantly, plans were hatched for a strong response and the following day tens of thousands of people flooded the streets in front of congress and across Spain. A call went out for a national day of action on 29th September. The national day of action quickly turned into an international day of action as people all across Europe took to the streets.
In the days of planning that followed the protests of 25th September, the discussion seemed to have shifted. It had been a couple months since I was last in Madrid but it struck me as a palpable change: There was anger in the air. As the meeting progressed it became clear that I was witnessing a new intensity of struggle — a sentiment which was best captured in the interventions at the meeting that argued that “la lucha real” (the real struggle) had begun. They discussed the need to offer a serious response to the attacks they received from the police and the Spanish state. The sense that a new stage of struggle had commenced was not just in the meetings — the tens of thousands on the street seemed to have a new found urgency to their complaints, and most of all, there was a strong desire to show the government that the classic strategy of ruling through repression and fear was not going to work.
While in Spain people have begun the ‘real’ struggle, in Greece both the far right and the antagonist movements on the left side of the spectrum describe the situation in Greece today as “civil war”. While the far right party, Golden Dawn, wants to violently evict all “invaders” (which is what they call immigrants) from their country with the enthusiastic help of the New Democracy prime minister Antonis Samaras, those who are shocked by the idea of beating people to death on the basis of their national origin are rapidly organizing a resistance. But in the last elections, the Golden Dawn won 7% of the vote and they now hold 18 seats in parliament and the latest polls show that support has grown to nearly 14%. But perhaps even more worrying than the official incorporation of a Nazi-party into parliament, is that in the past months, the suspicions people have had for years, that Golden Dawn has the support of and works closely with the police in Greece, have been confirmed – by the police themselves. In a recent report released by the Guardian, a senior police officer admitted that the police force had been deeply infiltrated by the Golden Dawn and the anti-fascist activists recently arrested and tortured for protesting against the Golden Dawn heard first-hand from the police that they supported the Golden Dawn and the police even threatened the activists that they would give names and addresses to the Golden Dawn for retribution. These police are more than willing to admit to holding these extreme beliefs now that they operate in a political climate where it is no longer necessary to be shy about openly admitting that you believe in the eradication of people based on race, nationality, sexuality or political beliefs.
For those who are not in Spain or Greece, it may seem an exaggeration to refer to the current situation in Europe as one characterized by the rise of fascism, and although this rise is certainly still limited and other political movements are arguably stronger and growing even more rapidly, fascism warrants our attention in part because it is growing not outside of, but through, the existing mechanisms of democratic rule. History certainly indicates that there has never been a very strong contradiction between democracy and repression, so perhaps this is nothing new, but it looks new to me. In the past month, I have watched two simultaneous dynamics unfold on the streets of Europe: first, I have seen a growing willingness for people (both within and outside of the state apparatus) to openly admit that they support authoritarian rule. In Spain, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest police repression, the Franco flag appeared on a building nearby, raised high in the air above the mass of protestors. “Look”, person after person told me, “we’re heading back to fascism, see there, someone is flying the Franco-era flag.” In Greece, fascism has already become much more than a flag. In Greece, the growing fascism has gone from attacks on migrants by gangs of thugs to directing policy in parliament and open collaboration with the police.
The second trend I have witnessed, one in the making for at least ten years, is the growing repression of protest through pre-emptive policing that aims to make it impossible for people to protest in the first place and through the militarization of the police force that places the state increasingly in the role of repressor. When images of police brutality went viral in Spain, the response on the part of the government was to suggest changing to the law to ban photographing, filming or reproducing images of police and state security forces on duty. At the same time, the Spanish state demanded that Facebook hand over its records so that they could prosecute the ‘organizers’ of the protests – protests which government officials had started referring to as a ‘coup attempt’. And to add insult to injury (literally) Spain gave the Police Merit Medal to the head of the riot police for his “excellent” policing during 25th September. These two trends emerging together, the rise of fascist ideologies and pre-emptive militarized policing, indicate a shift in the discourses of legitimacy used by the state. Rather than mobilizing discourses that invoke the need to control citizens (who have some rights), they now openly frame the debate in terms of defeating enemies (who have no rights) – this shift should ring alarm bells not only in Spain and Greece but across the world.
But there is good news too. There is resistance, a lot of resistance. In Spain, after facing police brutality, many more people took to the streets and a new energy of refusal has now engulfed the country under the slogan “without fear.” In Greece, anti-fascists are organizing everyday to challenge Golden Dawn on the streets and to protect migrants from prosecution – sometimes at great personal risk. In the past few months there have been 120 anti-fascist actions, including anti-fascist motorcycle actions in neighbourhoods where Golden Dawn are attempting to solidify their stronghold in the community. In Greece too, the resolute conclusion is that “fear is not an option.” Those I spoke to are taking the threat of fascism seriously, but they also reassure me that the forces on the left are strong, and even if the fascists manage to come to power, it will not last. I, for one, hope it never comes to the point where we have to ask ourselves how long the fascist rule will last.
Two years ago I was part of a collective conversation at a social centre that debated the question of whether the economic crisis was an opportunity for real social change or whether it would lead to fascism. At the time I didn’t see the threat of fascism. Today I not only see the threat but the reality of a frightening fascism taking roots, and like the big bad wolf, it is dressed in the clothes of democracy.
Marianne Maeckelbergh is lecturer in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University, Netherlands. She has 15 years experience as an activist, organising and facilitating exactly the decision-making processes that lie at the heart of her study. Her book The Will of Many is available from Pluto Press.