Contesting Histories of Greek Student Protest, or the Debate on “Open” and “Closed” Universities

The recent higher-education reform has triggered protest in a number of universities throughout the country, which came to a head this September. Many students (and faculty) were opposed to adoption of the reform bill, which was voted by the Parliament just a few weeks earlier (in August), and produced different types and degrees of criticism in Greek public fora and in the academy. What makes this situation even tenser is that the backdrop against which this conflict began to take place is one of social turmoil resulting from the economic crisis and pending recession—as well as the enormous uncertainty about the future.  Hence the rushed move to pass the bill in the middle of the summer holiday.  What the government has pushed as a modernizing reform is in effect a “liberalization” of higher education (minimized regulation from the state, financial “competitiveness,” etc.), already underway from the mid-2000s, with legislation introduced by the former government –currently, the opposition—as forerunner. This reform can safely be said to reproduce the U.S. model of higher education without providing crucial adjustments for accommodating it in the local context.  This renders it an uncertain and fragile modus operandi, which is unlikely to be functional in the Greek (public) university system. 

While the content of the reform deserves an entire discussion of its own, what I find timely and crucial to reflect upon here are the student protests, seen here as a means for understanding the tensions between dominant and newly emerging forms of resistance and politicization in Greek society. 

At the present moment there are two distinct kinds of student movements cohabitating Greek university campuses in an unprecedented manner. The first impression one gets is of two mutually exclusive mottos: i.e., “closed schools” and “open schools.”  The one movement, and more massive of the two, involves student sit-ins (katalipseis); this is more prominent (in Greece) as a form of protest, which seeks to keep universities closed as a means to exert pressure on the government towards withdrawing the reform.  The reform is denounced as a market-oriented project which works against knowledge as a public good, and introduces undemocratic methods for electing university leadership. 

The other is the so-called “open-universities movement,” also described as the movement of “aganaktismenoi foitites (indignant students)”, which only just emerged through Facebook (here,here and here) during the sit-ins, and is pushing to keep universities open.  As such it has no precedent in Greece, both in form and content.  The main claim that universities should always stay open, stems from very different “philosophies." Other students are against the new law yet believe that the reform ought to be tested in practice. Others engage in a furious condemnation of party politics as undermining the student movement, and of parties as the actual architects of the sit-ins (whereby the sit-ins are a means to cause tension). And others refuse to engage in discussing “politics” but prefer to get “back to work” and not miss another semester. (To quote a student outside my office the other day:  This is delaying my exams. I don’t care about the law. Can I just pass and go home…?) 

The sit-ins, on the one hand, have been organized by a collectivity consisting of  student groups affiliated with particular political parties, and a host of independent student parties located on the Left, or the/a radical Left, some of which choose the self-ascription of “anti-eksousiastikes omades”(groups opposed to authority).  (It is this student population which is more affected, and offended, by the reform, since the new law drastically reduces the power of the student vote, hence also of the affiliated political parties).  On the other hand, there is the virtual collectivity of Facebook students demanding that schools open, which also includes a host of different categories, but with one essential feature in common, i.e., the absence of any official or overt affiliations with the official political spectrum.  Hence the relative “kinship” with the movement of the “aganaktismenoi (indignant)” Athenians which flooded Syntagma Square this summer protesting against the new economic measures.  (Or, maybe, a desired or imagined kinship. This is, apparently, a strategic re-appropriation of the term—and of the resonance of the above popular movement—by the students). 

This is about “recognizable” and “established” political collectivities versus virtual communities of the social media, non-categorizable in the known terms of resistance and protest.  What has been so far a familiar political agenda, rhetoric, and escalation of sentiment, is now pitted against unfamiliar and prosaic priorities, non-identifiable with conventional political activism.  The student movement is used to having a “concrete,” spatially-identified, physical presence (through voting, assembling, rallying, etc.).  What has just emerged as a “diffuse,” non-“palpable,” and “erratic” student collectivity, comes to redefine membership, community, militancy, and political participation.  But in what direction?

For the “aganaktismenoi foitites (indignant students),” sit-ins are about political-party clientelism.  For the sit-in advocates, appeals for “open schools” are only voiced by right-wing conservatives.

Where can one locate the political?  Through what kind of practices is politicization constituted?  And what circumstances produce this unusual cohabitation of forces in the Greek case?

Greek youth is heir to a historical legacy of resistance, shaped in the postwar period by the civil war (1944-49) and, later, the military junta (1967-74) resistance movements.  These very powerful repositories of a counter-establishment spirit in Greece defined themselves as anti-Right and anti-government, at a time period when the Right and the government (or, otherwise, the state) were two things which coincided ideologically. 

This legacy has continued to shape a large section of youth movements in Greece in an inspiring, yet also awkward manner, as these generations have no experience of the Right and the Left (or, resistance, for that matter) in the particular social/cultural context in which these two distinct political histories emerged.  As a result, a large segment of this youth transmits the post-civil-war trauma in the present historical conjuncture, supporting an idea of resistance to power (anti-statist, anti-“Right,” etc.) which was produced in a historical era with no pertinence to these generations’ lived experience.  In this process, what is embraced by many students today is a notion of protest and resistance which reproduces perceptions of the state (and state apparatus) as the locus of power par excellence, thus going against the grain of widely (by now) accepted and basic understandings of power (or, of power and the state)—e.g., Foucault and Poulantzas.  This entails a moralization which renders the state as a set of interests conflicting with the welfare of “the people,” and calls for dissent or radical break: something that made sense in an era when conservative and progressive (or, liberal –if in the U.S.) had different significations.  I should note here that distrust vis-à-vis the state also has another origin and a long history in Greece, which can be traced back to the very establishment of the state.

On the other hand, the newly emerging “digital communitas” protest movements starkly state that they do not want “politics” in the university. “Anoichto panepistimio, anoichta myala” (Open schools, open minds) goes another one of their mottos.  The issue to grapple with really is not where the Right or the Left is located, or whether a contrast of this sort can/should be discerned. Rather, the issues here are that this is the first time a youth protest movement does not desire to undermine, or overthrow, or upset, the status quo (whatever this may mean in the present moment) – hence, does not desire to be political in any recognizable sense of the word.  This is declared with no feelings of guilt or hesitation vis-à-vis the symbolically-loaded past. 

A world is coming out of its silence.  This is a significant moment in that it contains both relief and terror.  While there is no heavy baggage to be carried from the past, it may be that we’ll come out empty-handed.  From the “hyper”-politicization of the collective subject to the conformism of the individual.

Therefore the Greek legacy in question has a contradictory affective nature: either “love” or “aversion” for the political.  In Greece we have known the “love” part well.

Is this moment, then, one in which “the old world is dying and the new world struggles to come forth”?—as Gramsci is known to have said in reference to “crisis.”  Is it that we have already entered the “meta-metapolitefsi” (the post-postdictatorship) as cultural era on Greek university campuses?  Is this, therefore, the Greek moment of “resisting Left melancholy?” (Brown 1999)

It remains to be seen in the next few years. Or even sooner…

Vassiliki Yiakoumaki (PhD in Anthropology, The New School) teaches at the University of Thessaly, Greece (yiakoumaki@uth.gr). She has worked on contemporary ethnic minorities and issues of multiculturalist politics in European contexts, and is currently conducting research on religion in the public sphere and new forms of religiosity.