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Friday, 27 May 2011

INDIGNASHUN NASHUN

If you have been watching Greece over the last couple of days, you will know that Parliament is being peacefully besieged by large numbers of protesters trying their best to emulate the Spanish Indignados. Nor are the protesters in Athens the only ones. Check this map out for a hint at what's happening. Braving the elements, these folks have decided that by telling the Greek Government that they are upset they will somehow make history. I wouldn't be so certain, unless the bar is set abysmally low. Plus I kind of think the Government already knows.

It is perhaps not surprising that the key rallying cry involved in these developments was an internet meme - destined for viral status almost from the start - to the effect that the Spanish Indignados were taunting our complacent compatriots with the chant "Shhh, quiet, we'll wake up the Greeks". Although this was merely a fabrication based loosely on Spanish football taunts, it nonetheless struck a chord. Over Twitter, one user made it abundantly clear to me that in their view the truth of the matter was irrelevant. What mattered was the need to rally the people. This echoes the reactions I got from people forwarding the newly-resurfaced Weisbrot hoax, and makes me wonder whether that whole nasty episode wasn't just a dry-run for this sort of thing. I think we'll be hearing a lot of this sort of noble lie going forward as the great friendly hand of populism reaches for the nation's collective buttocks.

Now to give the protesters their fair dues, the protests appear to me to be genuinely non-factional and peaceful. Union troops from the National Electricity Company were even briefly booed by the assembled crowd. Despite many years of allegations that our murderous anarchist splinter groups (such as these and these) were agents provocateurs planted by governments in order to discredit all legitimate protests, these gatherings have not been disrupted, give or take the odd minor incident.

More to the point, the protestors do not appear to have any recognisable agenda beyond registering a) their numbers and b) their indignation. The only output I've seen so far is a loose collection of rants from the assembled throng charitably christened the minutes of the first assembly (standby for more; there's also been this call for Direct Democracy Now.) At any rate, manifesto items include things like "We have Beauty on our side, against the devious Banker and the evil Politician". In fact the whole thing reads like the kind of thing HR people put on flipcharts while one tries to stay awake during "workshops." Some way to go then, and people will probably have to stop using crayons first.

It amuses me to watch as media commentators visibly try to calculate the chances of this nascent movement ever amounting to anything, and to then watch as half of them slowly -ponderously- align themselves to the protesters, while trying not to be called out as fakers in the process. I wish them well. Me, I'm not too keen on this movement (read on though, I think they can come in handy!) and I won't be even if they take over the entire country.



Question no. 1: Who are they?

Simply put, they are the sum of the non-violent among these guys, these guys and these guys (both latter groups are nonviolent anyway). It's not a naturally cohesive mix; in Spain, maybe this sort of grouping got along well, but in Greece mistrust runs deeper and spirits run higher. It will take a sustained effort to make a movement out of this. I've no way of knowing how many they are, but I would say about 200,000 active so far is a reasonable estimate. Their numbers will grow substantially over the next week, barring any particularly stupid mistakes, as the three groups (non-violent nationalists, defaultniks and disillusioned voters-for-sale) together number much more than this. Frankly, they number in the many hundreds of thousands, so it's only a matter of mobilisation.

Question no. 2: How many are they? I mean really?

I think it's best to be realistic here and consider how many potential supporters this group has. I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt with regard to this number because these are turbulent times and people tend to jump on bandwagons. Luckily I can run an approximation, using data from the European Values Survey of 2008 (data can be found here). I am only going to assume three things about these people: first, that they would at least consider joining a lawful demonstration. Second, that they believe that Greek society needs to change radically, not by incremental reform. And third, they they had little or no faith in Parliament as of 2008 (I'm allowing the 'little' response as faith in Parliament has slipped substantially since). That's all. I doubt any of the protesters would argue with any of the above. I really believe I'm throwing many more non-Indignados into this calculation than I'm keeping out of it, so I think my estimate is at the very least not conservative. They are, to illustrate, the group highlighted below:



The grand total? 8.4% of the Greek adult population or 625,000 people (calculations here). Where would that put them in parliament, if they were to all turn up and vote for one new party? Just ahead of the Greek Communist Party. They would command roughly 23-24 seats (I'm extrapolating from here).

Question no. 3. How did they use to vote?

According to the model I built above, the Values Survey can give me an answer of sorts to this question, but I must warn you the sample is really tiny, so take it with a massive pinch of salt. The sample is so small that answering this question is like asking a focus group or a room full of people, so don't read these results as statistically robust findings. THEY ARE NOT.

For the most part, these possible Indignados were pretty active voters. Nine out of ten said they would turn up to vote if an election were to be held the following day - which is way better than the average. The breakdown of votes would be as follows: 


Now I'm not surprised by these results, although I should caveat them further by saying that the conservative share of the pie is probably under-estimated as the Conservatives were in power in 2008 and thus their voters were more likely to trust Parliament. Similarly the Socialist share of the pie is probably over-estimated, though less so than the conservative slice is overestimated, as many socialist voters will have had a drastic change of heart in the last year.

Question no. 4: What do they want?

It's very hard to hear the triumphalism with which people report on these protests and assume that they are not getting drunk on illusions of power. I believe it is only a matter of time before some charismatic populist stage-dives into this crowd and into mainstream politics. It's going to be almost precisely like this:



Until then, it's important to note that the core of the protesters would probably agree on the following things:
  • Greece should default on its external debt immediately.
  • Greece should reverse the fiscal measures taken so far under the Memorandum
  • Greece should review its constitution in order to ensure further accountability for those in power
  • Greece should investigate most of the people who have served as Ministers in the last 30 years
  • Greece should investigate most Greeks with substantial assets abroad
  • Greece should engage in rapid tax reform aiming to shift a substantial amount of the tax burden to the richest.
  • Greece should  henceforth rely more on plebiscites and less on politicians or technocrats for the purposes of policymaking  
  • Greece should ally itself more explicitly with other peripheral European and developing countries 

Question 5: What will they do next? 

In short, they will both organise and splinter. As slightly less cohesive and slightly more paranoid versions of the Spanish protests, the Greek ones will organise around issues of security (including the thwarting of agents provocateurs), food delivery, daycare and political speech, in that order. The first three are not contentious, but the latter is, and will become more so the longer the initial wave of protests continues. People will want influence proportionate to what they see as their investment as a matter of the distributive justice that we Greeks are so fond of. The more nights one camps in Syntagma, the more say they will come to expect. Besides, splinter groups of the Greek Left (a major constituent of this moevement) have such a long tradition of choosing fragmentation over effectiveness (more here) and such a deep-seated (and requited) hatred of the nationalists that make up another large segment of the protester population (illustrated perfectly here) that it's only a matter of time before someone mentions policy and the fireworks start.


Question 6: How will they evolve?

I do believe that, as long as they remain civil, these people can be useful as leverage in negotiating better loan terms and a Greek default; Although the Troikans will hardly be crapping themselves at the unrealistic prospect of having a Greek Hugo Chavez across the table from them, this group could swing a closely-fought election.

UPDATE:

One quick way of thinking about the dynamics of the movement is to borrow an analogy from social media monetisation.Social media networks invest in growing their membership at significant cost, against the promise of turning members into paying customers one day. Except not having to pay is critical to sticking with the network. While the service is free, what matters is they way it is delivered, not what the content is. Users make up the content and literally come up with uses for the medium as they go along. All the owners of the network have to do is keep their fingers crossed that eventually the network will become so integral to users' lives that they will be unable to get around paying for it, like a utility. Otherwise, they either hope that they can skim a tiny bit of money out of a very large volume of interactions that inevitably happen through the network, or sell very inobtrusive access to their membership.Either way, investors generally fall for the hype and put massive amounts of resources into the networks regardless of their real prospects.

Now similarly, the Greek Indignados are growing in number. Clearly, they want influence but the more intelligent among them have cleverly made a point of refusing to sign up to a charter of beliefs or policy demands precisely because they realise that this will halt the growth of the movement; which will in turn interfere with the pursuit of power. Sooner or later, they will have to confront this dilemma, although they should have enough committed followers to put off the decision for some time. As they decide, there are three possible dimensions in which the 'movement' can grow (and it can grow in all three simultaneously):
  • The Movement as Fixture: Campsites become permanent (I'm thinking Parliament Square in London but feel free to insert your own image). Supporters are encouraged to contribute goods, services and their presence when convenient, around a hard core of die-hard campers who are present at almost all times. More importantly, a 'virtual campsite' is set up, with an aggressive social media presence courtesy of sympathetic online and offiline journalists, which provides supporters with an immersive experience of political news and discussion. Just like social media entrepreneurs, protesters probably view this as a preferred scenario.

  • The Movement as Crowdsourced Think Tank: The movement becomes expert at crowdsourcing political statements via social media or physical assemblies. This produces a steady stream of initially generic political speech, asymptotically converging to the maximum level of seriousness and precision that doesn't constitute an actual political commitment. Crowdsourcing does rely on very careful and skilled moderation, so it will be interesting to see how this will be handled. 
  • The Movement as Recruiting Ground: Essentially this means that relevance is achieved by becoming a recruiting ground for other political agents. As the movement is currently hostile to people with an overt political affiliation, this is a less likely direction of travel and this is unlikely to change. Still, although the Movement cannot allow political parties access to its members in the pursuit of greater relevance, it could do so for other stakeholders that are seen as 'kosher'. Bear with me while I try to visualise this.  

2 comments:

  1. Dear Manos,

    I feel kind of strange that I am writing to a Greek in English; however I didn’t find any Greek version of this text on the web. I would like to mention that writing in English, as you know better than me has a greater effect in reaching more people worldwide. I guess this is also good for the Klout score, though it is a pity even joking using crap like at such serious times for our country.

    I think that many points in your text are not exactly correct, which probably has to do with the fact that you didn’t visit the protest yourself or you didn’t collect information from objective media. I would like, if you allow me to do so, to disagree with the following statements:

    1) “…protesters trying their best to emulate the Spanish Indignados.” This is not about trying to emulate Indigados! The truth is that all these people (really MANY people) are protesting a few hours after the announcements of prime the minister mr. Papandreou for the need to apply new strict measures that would directly harm the economy of the average Greek family. He declared a lot of privatizations that would resul in future firing of personnel and dramatic increase in unemployment. In addition, this was very annoying since suddenly much of what was considered to be state and thus Greek-owned will turn private including Water, Electricity, even sea ports! Many considered this a form of selling out Greece whereas many others, including myself, are afraid of a future privatization of the Health System in a country where a great proportion of citizens in future will be unemployed without insurance!
    2)“…they will somehow make history. I wouldn't be so certain…” Well we/they have already made history! Within a few hours after this peaceful riot the President of the country called an urgent meeting with the leaders of all political parties. In addition, this is the biggest protest ever in Greece that was against all political parties, in which representatives from political unions were NOT ALLOWED.
    3)“…The only output I've seen so far is a loose collection of rants from the assembled throng charitably christened the minutes of the first assembly. They include things like "We have Beauty on our side, against the devious Banker and the evil Politician". Please be fair! Any reader can follow your link and see many of the principles of this movement. The poetic “Beauty on our side” is just 1 out of more than 50 proposals, still under construction and change. These proposals focus on the identification of economic corrupt that led to debt, punishment of corrupt politicians, radical change in the political scene, retain of social rights, and prosperity. They are based up to a point to the Spanish declaration.
    4)“…Simply put, they are the sum of the least violent among these guys, these guys and these guys…” No they are not! Or to put it better no we are not since I, myself protested as well. Most are young, highly educated, and unemployed. With “capitalistic” look!
    5)“…leverage…” Are you calling me leverage? Do I sound like a leverage to you? Isn’t it a shame?

    I tried to be polite, I hope my English were also polite. Have a nice evening.

    Cyril Bohemian

    Θυμήσου, μιλάς για την πατρίδα μας και τους ανθρώπους μας στα Αγγλικά, αλλά ακόμα σκέφτεσαι στα Ελληνικά.

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  2. Excluding all political parties is dangerous ground. It is an infringement on free speech and is unenforceable. It will be ignored by the far right who will see an "apolitical" gathering as a ripe recruiting ground. All ideology is political. Refusal to admit ideology that is critical of the present system means the crowd will be dominated by the ideology of the powerful class under the status quo.

    Booing union members is a danger sign that this movement could quickly in part slide extreme right, if the counterarguments are excluded by "antipolitical" stances.

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