Pericles, the godfather of democracy, would have savoured the Arab uprisings these past few months. They echoed his own story of establishing the world’s first democratic society in Athens following the overthrow of Hippias, a dictator famed for his wealth and brutality. But 2,500 years after Pericles’s death, as the Arab Spring turns to summer and social unrest spreads north, he is once again helping to redefine what it means to take to the streets and demonstrate.
Since 15th May, thousands of young protesters—dubbed Los Indignados—have been camped in Madrid’s Puerta Del Sol square, and tens of thousands continue to gather daily in Syntagma Square in Athens. It is fitting, then, that they have rejected the modern template of protest—”print the placards, rally the troops and march in unison”—in favour of a Periclean, street-based direct democracy.
The goal of the Arab uprisings was and remains relatively clear: the overthrow of autocratic and antiquated dictators. Yet a few hundred miles north that clarity of purpose disappears. Here, people face a more diffuse foe; a combination of crippling debt obligations, cuts in services, high unemployment, shrinking pensions, corrupt politicians and the undue influence of the big brother troika: the European Central Bank, the EU and the IMF.
There are no quick fixes or easy answers. But however complex the solution, the demonstrators want to be a part of it; they do not want it thrust on them from above. As with the Arab uprisings they are fighting against their current political impotence and for their right to influence the decisions that affect their lives.
Many see both party politics and the ossified protest march as bottlenecks to political expression. The top-down solutions to Greece’s debt crisis are seen by many to only reinforce the problems. Just as the IMF bailouts that followed the Asian crisis did more to save western investors’ money—locked up in countries like Thailand and South Korea—than they did to bolster the real economy, so this time round many in Greece are complaining that the rescue money is servicing debts rather than creating jobs or protecting services. It only serves to maintain the faulty financial architecture.
Today’s protesters are pursuing real change. The internet, with its democratising potential, is allowing people to participate in the debate. In Syntagma Square everyone has a chance to speak. Party representation is not allowed…