Interview to Eirini Gaitanou: “Social Movements and Feminism in Greece – its transformations and impacts.”

It is well known that the current international crisis has affected – and continues to do so – Greece in a very particular way. The crisis that started in 2008 is not only related to economic issues, but encompasses a political dimension that has produced a deep social crisis. The Troika intervention in 2010 and the acceleration of a neo-liberal political and economic agenda have resulted in a perpetuation of austerity measures, which have deepened the economic and political crisis in Greece. In Greece the endurance of austerity measures have affected with almost sadistic precision the most vulnerable segments of society: elderly, women and youth.

As a response, combative social movements have been a constant feature in Greece over the last years. Taking this into consideration, and because women in Greece were particularly affected by the crisis, a strong feminist reaction would be expected. It is on these topics that this interview explores the position of feminism in the wider Greek social movements. In addition, how feminism has shaped and been shaped by social movements and the Greek crisis as a whole. Eirini Gaitanou has completed a PhD in London, UK and conducted further research drawing on these topics. I talked with Eirini in September 2016 at a time when social movements in Greece are at their lowest, and when yet more austerity measures have recently been implemented by the party in power – SYRIZA. 

Pedro Mendonca: How do you situate yourself and your trajectory as an academic in the broader economic and political contexts of Greece? What were your main interests and what drove you to start researching on social movements in Greece?

Eirini Gaitanou: My background is a bit weird because my first diploma is in engineering. I was then an electric engineer for three years, and then I've realised that I was interested in more theoretical research, and actually more in political and social sciences. So I've decided to follow a master in Paris, France in political studies, and then my PHD followed in London.

The actual motivation was very personal: firstly, it was not initially based on the planned and structured prospect of an academic career; secondly, it was directly related to the political and social situation in Greece. So my broader interest was to take the Greek situation and bring it into a more scientifically focused and a more structured framework. I started studying these issues during my Master degree in Paris, where I focused on the December 28th revolt, which was a revolt of the youth - it was very big event here in Athens after the assassination of a student [on the 6th of December 2008]. I think this event marked a whole generation of the people around my age, which are now 25-35 years old. This was a very important event for the Greek society as a whole, but in particular for the Greek youth. After that, I realise that this subject was very close to my interests, so I decided to continue with a PhD studying the social movement in Greece in the period of the crisis, which was actually the period right before the period I started my PhD. Moreover, there are not many studies in social movement in general and more specifically during the crisis. I also had the sense that this period meant very important things for the Greek society, both for that period and for the years to come.

P. Mendonca: Your PhD research focuses on social movements in Greece. Could you explain generally the uniqueness of these movements?

E. Gaitanou: Well the first thing is that Greece was the hardest example of the consequences of the memorandum [implemented by the European Union, Central European Bank and International Monetary Fund, termed as Troika], and these were evident from the first moment when those policies were voted and starting to be applied. So the first thing is that we have had massive demonstration with hundreds of thousands of people participating, and taking the streets. Secondly these demonstrations were very combative with means of struggle that were unique, grounded on grassroots movement coupled with more traditional trade union involvement. Another thing is that all of this is based on political and social struggles in which the presence of the Left is very unique to Greece.  In Greece we have quite a strong Left, and this was evident in the years to come.

I think also that the economic crisis was also accompanied by a severe political crisis which was very evident even from the first years of the crisis, since 2010. And this had a specific outcome on the political representation, the elections, and the partisanships. So we had a bi-partisanship during 30 years, with the two major parties taking 80% of the overall vote, which collapsed during the crisis - PASOK almost seized to exist, the New Democracy also had an  accentuated decrease in votes. At the same time we had a rise of the Left, but with unique characteristics, which had resulted with the election of the SYRIZA first, but also afterwards to its insertion into the memorandum strategy as well. This led to a collapse of people's hope, as it was named, after the fact that SYRIZA actually also implemented austerity measures.

I think all of these were included in the social movements that I studied - all these tendencies were evident and there were several possibilities for the people to intervene in the situation, as they have, but what was interesting in a research point of view was the result of this political participation to people's consciousness. I think this is one of the most interesting points for the future, because of course political protest had specific results but their effects are yet to come.

P. Mendonca: And that consciousness that people perhaps gained become more prevalent or these were already there? Also, how the development of the social movements was made throughout the years?

E. Gaitanou: This was one of the most important points in my research actually, both theoretically and empirically. Because I also tried to study from a theoretical point of view how consciousness is formed and transformed. So my initial assumption was that there is not a truth which is to be revealed to the people, but people through their participation and praxis transform the reality and the objective conditions. So in short, it resulted in an outcome saying that the fact that people participated in many different forms of social movements had very important transformations in the people's consciousness.

I tried to study this doing qualitative research through interviews with individuals that participated in the movements, and who had no prior engagement with politics. I wanted to approach the average participator in protests, so it was more young adults, but not exclusively. There participated people that previously voted for New Democracy or PASOK who had no engagement with a concrete Left tradition. I wanted to assure that people were not participating because of their political or ideological view but because they wanted to fight from an initially “superficial” level. I tried to make people during their interview think on how their own consciousness has been transformed. So, I wanted to study the crisis of political representation, and evaluate its depth, and the result actually is that it was deeper. I was astonished about people talking about the state mechanisms, the role of the media, the trade unions... and they tried to described through specific examples how their participation in the movements have transformed their views. I think the most striking thing was the way they viewed the collapse of the political system and the crash of what we call the bourgeois democracy today. And I think it was even more astonishing the way that they experienced in their first participation in the movements, the realisation and acknowledgement of several political components, and their view of politics and participation in general. So, one part was their view on the crisis and political representation, and the other was their experience of participating in movements and in specific structures, their view of the trade union structures and other structures such as the movements of the squares. I did the interviews in 2013 so it was a strange period for Greece, because movements were not in a peak, and it was after the first failure of SYRIZA to come into power, where they lost the elections of 2012. So there was a pessimistic feeling among the people, but I was astonished to see that they had a more positive view of the movements - more positive than that I expected. They didn’t think of them as vein, but they often described their participation in an idealized way. The interviewees had a problem of materialising the results of movements - people estimated participation to be an overall positive experience  related to moral and ethical values and reasons, but they couldn’t easily see how it actually helps them in their everyday life, and they couldn’t describe a more organised and permanent relationship of them with such structures.

P. Mendonca: So after this evolution and after the referendum how do you see people have coped with the lack of materialisation of their struggles into something?

E. Gaitanou: I think this is one of my main interests after the PhD. Because I think actually that the referendum is an outcome of the period that I studied. The fact that more than 60% of the people voted Oxi [No] and during a period where several blackmails were forced to them, both from the media, part of the political discourse, from employers - we've had many examples of people being terrified in their workplaces about the way they voted - but also from the government itself which was in power [SYRIZA] because it didn’t project a specific and coherent plan about what would have happen if people would vote for “No”. I think that this was evident in the months to come with the capitulation of SYRIZA and the adoption of the austerity measures. So under this blackmailing and very difficult situation but also with concrete and real problems for all of us as citizens, the fact that they voted for “No”, I think that it is an almost direct outcome of their participation in the movements in the previous years.

Also, the referendum had one of the most evident class dimensions. If we study the data of how people voted depending on their social status, region etc. it is clear that it had a more clear class dimension than the social movements previous to the referendum. I did a research based on polls and depending on regions of Greece and Athens that are poorer or not, ages, employment status, and this outcome is far more evident than the same research made for the movement of the squares, which was more inter-class than the referendum. So the referendum is a concrete outcome of this entire situation, but of course what followed the referendum has also had consequences on people's minds. Particularly regarding the capitulation of the SYRIZA, one of the interesting things during my interviews - which were before the election of SYRIZA - was that most people had hesitation about what would follow the election of a Left party, and specially SYRIZA which was the one to be elected. Interviewees basically showed an overall lack of trust of its strength, will and ability to implement very different politics. I think that after the evolution of the SYRIZA and the adoption of the memorandum strategy, one of the main negative results would be that the Left would be thought as part of the problem now, while before the election this was not the case. So what we've experienced this year [2016] was a kind of "There Is No Alternative" again, which it may have produced a sense of not having the power to change things. It is logical for people now to experience a period when they freeze in front of the situation.

P. Mendonca: What role trade unions had on the social movements during this period?

E. Gaitanou: This was one of the unique characteristics of the social movements in Greece; we had a concrete combination of grassroots movements and movements based on more traditional trade union engagement and participation. It was in specific moments that both movements combined that we could see the peaks of social movements in Greece. For example, during the movements of the squares the initial peak was mainly on Sundays, but when trade unions started to get involved, the participation eventually peaked during the two strikes - the one day strike in 15 June, and two day strike in 28 and 29 of June. During the movement of the squares the trade unions announced the strike; as a result, hundred thousands of people took the streets with very intense means of struggle. Thus, the interesting point was that we had both more traditional repertoires of action, combined with newer and more grassroots movements.

We also had a trade union movement that initially did not want to escalate the situation - for example one of the problems that almost all my interviewees highlighted was that the official trade unions organizations chose one-day strikes every 3 or 4 even 6 months as a means of struggle, so there wasn’t a real effort to escalate the movements. The interviewees in my research perceived official trade unions to be delegitimised to some degree. Most people said that they were in direct relationship with the government politics and didn’t want to escalate the movement. However, at the same time the trade union involvement in movements was also seen as a form of legitimising people's participation. So I think it's not easy to say that the trade unions action in the movements is completely delegitimised, because it also had specific repertoires of action which would motivate people's participation.

What was very important and interesting was that we had new trade unions which could be called grassroots unions, and were not linked to the confederations but they were union in specific workplaces and sectors, which were more combative than the confederation ones. These smaller unions escalated massively their action in the December revolt of 2008 where more than 100 unions coordinated aside the confederations – and in a sense against them – in order to participate more drastically in the movements. So there were certain sectors that these unions played a pivotal role. However, one of the important features of these unions is that they were not massively strategically important to the country's economy. There were certain important unions, such as the union of the metro workers, who helped the demonstrations by keeping the metro stations open during the demonstrations so people could come and participate. But this is one case – we don’t have many examples of movements in the productive sectors which were pivotal in closing the production, or employing more traditional repertoires which could create a more intense chaos.

So this was not the case, and I think this was one of the most important problems. Thus, we cannot speak of a more traditional “working-class consciousness”, which moved against the employers, with more traditional class dimension components. It was vaguer – not populist, rather a vaguer frustration against the government and the policies of the EU in general, but it could not materialise in more specific protests in workplaces which could escalate aside thousands of people going to the streets in certain days. So I think we cannot speak of the emergence of a traditional class consciousness. We had political radicalism, for sure.

P. Mendonca: Could you explain how your work shows the feminist perspective? And in particularly how Feminism in Greece has shaped and has been shaped by the general social movement in Greece?

E. Gaitanou: Feminist tradition in Greece is kind of weird. We've had two waves of important feminist struggles in the past. One in the early 20th century and the other around the 70s – when throughout Europe there were feminist demonstrations. So after the dictatorship in Greece (year of 1974) women demonstrated for many civil rights, such as the right for abortion and more – and they won. So after the election of PASOK in the 80s the party tried to integrate a part of these demands of the social movements. The Left, which had an important tradition in the society as a whole, did not have a concrete feminist component in its tradition.

Of course during the civil war the liberation forces had an intense feminist component. For example, the first elections, when women participated, were the elections of the “government of the mountain” which was initiated by the communist forces, which also had women participating in the liberation in a quite unique and equal way [Greek People’s Liberation Army – ELAS]. However, after that, because on the one hand of certain traditions of the Left with more traditional views of the dominant relations between capital and labour, leading to an underestimation of other issues such as gender relations; and on the other hand the election of PASOK in the 80s and their effort to integrate some of the demands of the movements has led to a sense that these are reformist demands which the Left does not engage with, thus to an underestimation of feminist issues of the Left. Consequently, this has also led to an underestimation of feminist movements as well. Of course, this doesn’t mean that feminist actions do not exist. However, both the movement and the Left have been historically constituted around a masculine model, leading to an underestimation of gender issues, although the women struggles for emancipation and the woman syndicalism are not to be missed.

Thus we do have important feminist gains or currents, but the above explains in a way why we didn’t have concrete feminist struggles during the crisis as well. For example, during the interviews I asked about gender roles and how they thought of gender distinction inside the movements' processes, and most interviewees did not actually understand the sense of the question. At the same time, there is an intense sexist reality in the Greek society. Greek society has a very strong right-wing tradition as well; there are many examples of sexist representations and actions. So there is a sexist reality of course, but movements did not actually preoccupy with that in very concrete way. However, most interviewees said that they could not detect sexist distinctions inside the movements, and many said that movements were far less sexist in comparison to the average of the society. But we didn’t have a mass and organised current that would struggle for feminist demands during the crisis.

P. Mendonca: Apart from the contextual and historical background that you just mentioned, was there anything beyond that? Also, what has been the impact of the crisis on women?

E. Gaitanou: Well the most important one - and I think this goes both for the Left and for the interviewees - is that people thought that feminist demands would produce a distinction and division between and within the movements. My personal opinion is that in all these movements the point is to be able to unite different demands and social groups, so I think it would be important to mobilise for women, migrants and other issues and being able to integrate them into the context of the broader movements.

Further, women were very much affected by the crisis, and this is evident through various data, such as unemployment records. For example, most social protection structures collapsed during the crisis, and most relevant policies coming from the state were blocked claiming that in the crisis we don’t have the luxury to have social policies against gender distinction. Many institutions, including kindergartens, nurseries, day schools, home care assistance, mental health institutions, rehab centres and hospitals were closed. This passed the responsibility for the provision of these needs especially to the women. The burden goes to women through family to be able to cope with things that otherwise the state would be taking care of. Further, the crisis itself, the difficulty of finding work and the deregulation of working conditions – with a sharp increase in flexible and precarious employment – affected women very much. Basic rights started being questioned. For example, we have had too many examples of women being fired because they were pregnant or not being hired because they were planning to have children. But also we had a very regressive discourse from the part of the Golden Dawn, which turned against women and in favour of more traditional gender roles as well.

P. Mendonca: How do you comment of the role of women and feminist in Greek society?

E. Gaitanou: In the last years there have been very important steps regarding the participation of women in the social movements and thus their role in the society. This also goes to the Left which is an important component of movements. So in the last years I think that we have had an important improvement in terms of including the anti-sexist component as a demand in movements, political organisations etc. This is linked to several feminist demonstrations, which have accomplished certain gains. For example, in workplaces, where women have to confront aggressive policies against them, unions or grassroots movements were mobilised and had certain gains. We had several examples of pregnant women being hired back into jobs. We also now have more movements than in the past, and several address feminist issues. But we still don’t have a strong feminist component in movements acknowledged as such, which would produce more concrete results. The traditional view that gender is not an important component of movements is probably maintained.  Of course, Feminism has entered the public and political debates, and feminist organisations have an important role for this, as they have worked thoroughly to achieve it. Further, political participation in social movements has a progressive component, which helps to re-insert those debates and discussions. The fact that political participation has peaked in previous years has helped into developing a more progressive attitude in many issues, but also towards gender issues. So I would claim that the rise of social movements strengthens the potential of a more concrete development of feminism in the years to come.

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