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Golden Dawn, Media Representation and the Neoliberal Restructuring of Social Welfare: On the Greek Crisis and the Mobilization of Disidentifications

by Ioannis Prinos
Sheffield Hallam University

Sociological Research Online, 19 (3), 5
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3431

Received: 28 Apr 2014 | Accepted: 19 Jun 2014 | Published: 31 Aug 2014


Due to the economic crisis in 2008, processes of restructuring and dissolution of the social welfare state have been accelerated in the European Union, especially in the context of severe austerity measures imposed in countries with sovereign debt problems such as Greece. These neoliberal policies have increasingly sought their 'legitimizing basis' in discourses concerning a corrupt, ineffective and oversized public realm, while simultaneously promoting the notion of 'welfare dependency', insinuating an absence of moral values and proper 'work ethic' for the poor and disadvantaged, who are the most affected by the social state's withdrawal. Additionally, such narratives seem to have benefitted from the creation of 'moral panic' and the associated cultural representations of underprivileged social groups through mainstream mass media. The current article focuses on the nuances of this phenomenon in Greece, arguing that the catalyst has been the popularity of the extremist, nationalistic and anti-immigrant party of 'Golden Dawn'. It contends that the representation of Golden Dawn's rhetoric and activism by the media, triggered processes of disidentification with poverty and the underprivileged in the mind of the average Greek; processes rooted in highly emotive sentiments of patriotism, religion and national identity, while linking such groups with the supposed deviant behaviour and 'inferior' traits of immigrants. Furthermore, it argues that this discourse enabled the government to 'assault' the ideological stance and arguments of the advocates of robust public social interventions from an advantageous position, enhancing the acceptance of its neoliberal agenda regarding public social policy in the Greek populace.

Keywords: Social Welfare State, Mainstream Mass Media, Cultural Representations of Poverty and Disadvantage, Neoliberalism, Disidentification, Greek Crisis and Golden Dawn


1.1 The politics of austerity in the European Union (EU) in the wake of the economic crisis since 2007-2008, produced deep cuts to public social services and accelerated the neoliberal restructuring of European social welfare states, just as the need for state support was magnified (Bieling 2012). Huge social and economic deficits were created by the recession and subsequent state retrenchment. Today, poverty, social security, labour market precarity, unemployment, social inequality, the decline of social cohesion, and marginalized social groups' integration, are occupying a central place in the public political and media discourse across the EU.

1.2 Still, this debate is not new and for the last two decades, neoliberal policies have resulted in socioeconomic polarization, increased employment insecurity, and reduced income for those reliant on state benefits. In neoliberalism, competition, power, survival by one's own forces, the ability to adapt to new challenges and personal responsibility are stimulated and individual freedom or ability to adapt and flourish have always been not only supposed, but expected (Harvey 2005; 2007). During the crisis, morality discourses have featured prominently in relation to the poor, the unemployed and generally disadvantaged social groups, blaming them for their condition, and welfare beneficiaries for their 'dependence' on the state (Slater 2012). These attributes aren't simply coincidental: the governments pursuing public services' privatization and welfare retraction across the EU, such as the right-wing Coalition government in the UK, are also increasingly employing the rhetoric of 'welfare dependency' (Hancock & Mooney 2013). As such, the links between moral discourse, mainstream media representations of the 'inferiority' and 'deviance' of the poor and marginalized on the one hand, and the applied policies on the other, are increasingly clear.

1.3 This paper examines a particular shift in the cultural representation and public perception of poverty and disadvantaged groups within Greece. It argues that this shift has been driven by the domination of the political scene and public dialogue by 'Golden Dawn' (GD), an extremist, anti-immigrant, nationalistic political party. In a nutshell, GD managed to divert people's attention from austerity measures and the neoliberal agenda of state retrenchment, by directly linking the causes and outcomes of these policies to its propaganda about illegal immigrants within the country. In this context, it called on and mobilized disidentification processes of the Greek populace. By shifting the blame for the condition of social welfare from specific past and present policies to the socioeconomic load and 'cultural danger' immigrants pose, it managed to obscure the neoliberal ideological source of these policies, as well as their classed and targeted nature.

1.4 As a result, unprecedented processes of disidentification on the part of the average Greek from the poor and disadvantaged, who became strongly related to immigrants, arose with the latter perceived similarly to the 'new underclass' described in Lo?c Wacquant's Urban Outcasts (2008). With the help of mainstream media owned by the national oligarchs (Kouvelakis 2011), GD's tactics aligned neatly with the government's rhetoric concerning welfare beneficiaries, the unemployed and the people advocating increased state intervention for those 'hit hardest by the crisis'. Effectively, they were represented as individuals unwilling to adapt and adopt a competitive mentality and perceived as clinging to an antiquated protective system. They were increasingly viewed as victims of their beliefs, seeking social entitlements which in a free market are not for free, not for all and in the current state of Greece's economy - for which they were portrayed as being responsible - are unacceptable. An exploratory discourse analysis of the media coverage (TV channels, newspaper articles and radio shows) of GD's and the government's activities and rhetoric was undertaken, in order to explicate the issues under investigation.

Golden Dawn's discourse associating poverty and disadvantage with immigrants and deviant behaviour

The socioeconomic consequences of the crisis in Greece

2.1 In Greece, from 2002 until 2009 and especially after the Olympics of 2004, the country had enjoyed a period of steady economic growth with a GDP annual growth rate of 2.5% to 5.5% (Zahariadis 2013). Unemployment was relatively high in comparison to the Eurozone average, but that has always been the case with the economies of the South (i.e., Spain), and the 8% to 10% was considered a manageable, 'normal' rate for the Greek society and the political establishment. Furthermore, as a member of the Eurozone, the very low interest rates provided by the Central European Bank to the Greek banks, allowed consumption rates to be high, public spending to increase and businesses to expand through cheap loans (Meghir et al. 2013). But, the fiscal crisis starting to be felt from 2008-2009 altered the landscape abruptly. The austerity measures imposed since 2010 in the sovereign debt-bailout deal with the Eurozone and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), included: the further liberalization and 'flexibility' of the labour market; severe cuts in public spending, government employment and wages; tax increases (property, income, products, services, energy, etc.) and pension cuts (Vasilopoulou et al. 2013). These developments caused a deep economic recession, a huge rise in unemployment, shrank national GDP and multiplied instances of poverty and deprivation in the country as a whole (Zahariadis 2013). Now in its sixth year, the recession has led to a cumulative shrinkage of the Greek economy by 18.6 per cent, making it the most protracted and severe recession for any European democracy since WWII and the unemployment rate is currently the highest in the EU sitting at 28% with 59% for under-25s (Eurostat 2012; Eurostat 2014). As a result, the discourse on poverty and marginalized groups unable to access core social goods or services is prominent in political debates and media coverage (Spourdalakis 2012).

2.2 In accordance with the neoliberal ideology of the European Commission, the IMF and EU governments in recent years (i.e., the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Germany), the rhetoric supporting the aforementioned policies is rife with neoliberal ideas of unleashing the creative power of the individual, deregulating the labour market, increasing transparency and accountability, as well as eradicating corruption from an overgrown public sector through state budget cuts, and extensive privatization programmes. This discourse, generated through the national mainstream media owned by an economic elite with traditionally strong ties to the banking system and the highest echelons of political power in Greece (Kouvelakis 2011), performed its role flawlessly. It promised that these changes will, in the long-term, provide higher quality healthcare services and a more flexible, robust and more importantly, cheaper social security and welfare system, which will be more effective in combating poverty, unemployment and marginalization.

2.3 Nevertheless, the Greek government did not 'attack' poverty, unemployment and the lower classes by directly attaching negative moral values, behavioural traits and a 'lack of work ethic' per se to them. Or, by sketching a 'culture of deviance' (Slater 2012) associated to welfare beneficiaries and the less privileged in society, in the manner and intensity of the UK case. This difference in governmental discourse is linked to Greece not having a robust social state similar in structure and scope to those developed in Western Europe. The Greek social welfare state can be tentatively classified as a variation of the corporatist - state model (Esping-Andersen 2013). It has always been 'leagues away' in its scale and effectiveness from its counterparts in the EU, due to various historical reasons (see Katrougalos 1996). The modern Greek state, from its formation in 1831, has been almost constantly engrossed in local or international conflicts, a devastating civil war in 1945-1949 and a military dictatorship in 1967-1973. The civil war in particular, was responsible for a sharp division of the Greek society which lasted until the 1980s, preventing the establishment of a welfare state similar to the post-war golden era of social welfare in Europe, which 'presupposed a working compromise built upon a social contract between the social actors, guaranteed by the state' (Katrougalos 1996: 48). The related political turmoil resulted in the socioeconomic marginalization of parts of the population, a significant delay in the introduction of capitalist reforms and the formation of corresponding state institutions, economic underdevelopment, weak state-protected market forces and the overall scarcity of resources in a poor state. Thus, the already traditional place of familialism patterns, kinship networks and political clientelism as the primary (and often the only) means of social support and protection was significantly reinforced (Katrougalos 1996; Venieris 2003).

2.4 In that regard, four main factors are important to remember for our discussion here. Firstly - as is the case (but to a lesser degree) with Italy, Spain and Portugal - in Greece, social cohesion and support have always been preserved primarily through especially strong family and kinship ties (Hadjiyanni 2012). Secondly, the chief income and wealth distribution tool in post-war Greece has been education, as a means of upwards social mobility. Thirdly, Greece has high government employment (public employment as a welfare substitute) and the highest percentage of home-ownership in the EU (Castles & Ferrera 1996). Finally, an archaic (in terms of resources and infrastructure) but still 'free for all' public education and healthcare system instituted by the socialist governments of PASOK from 1981 to 1990 (Maloutas 2007). These factors contributed in Greeks learning how to live without a modern social state. Thus, with the exception of limited, direct monetary benefits or tax reductions for specific groups (i.e., widows, couples with more than three children, people with disabilities, etc.), most Greeks have always sought support from their families, relatives and friends first, and the clientelist networks of patronage used by major political parties, second. As a result, poverty and deprivation have rarely, if ever, been associated with derogatory notions of a 'lack of moral values' or 'work-ethic' at either end of the political spectrum; much less with ideas of 'welfare dependency' or 'freeloading'.

2.5 Rather, in Greece there's been a shift in the social construction and cultural representation of the poor and disadvantaged during the crisis. This shift has enabled the legitimization of policies further dismantling public social programs, and is closely related to the meteoric rise, public rhetoric and street-activism of the extremist, right-wing populist party of 'Golden Dawn' (GD). The economic crisis created widespread sentiments of anger against all mainstream political parties to the Greek people, revolving around anti-establishment and anti-immigrant themes. GD's violent campaigns against immigrants, coupled with its especially aggressive criticism and outbursts against prominent politicians in the parliament and in media debates, allowed the party to ascertain an anti-establishment profile. As a result, GD was quick to seize this opportunity, capitalizing on the pervasive anger against all those with power and authority, considered responsible by many for having brought the country to the brink of total collapse (Ellinas 2013).

Media, construction and representation of social reality

2.6 These developments could not have been accomplished without the influence of Greek mainstream mass media. The media have long been embedded in society's fabric and social reality is experienced through the cultural dynamics of language, communication and imagery (Gamson et al. 1992). Social meanings are inextricably interconnected with representation and thus 'accounts of reality' are already representations of meaning-construction processes, which people activate in order to form perceptions of what the 'real issues' are (McRobbie & Thornton 1995). In modern societies, these reality versions and their associated perceptions can never be 'untainted'. Rather, they are saturated with the direct influence of mass media (i.e., imagery, language, presentation style, sounds, etc.). In the past, studies on the creation of 'moral panic' and the role of the media in the construction of mainstream social perceptions, have shown that they often act on behalf of the orchestrating, dominant social order (Cohen 1972; Cohen & Young 1973; Pearson 1980).

2.7 Such processes have also been detailed by Gramsci (1971) as preserving the cultural and ideological 'hegemony' of elite groups in society, which in turn will ensure the stability of the capitalist system and impede socioeconomic change. As such, mass media can be perceived as tools used by the upper classes and by extension the state, to forge social consent over polarizing issues by actively intervening in public space and shaping public opinion. Social perceptions are then 'steered' appropriately and a certain social consciousness is formed through exaggerated journalistic accounts (i.e., facial expressions, body dramatic music and a highly emotive rhetorical language), supposedly venting the already present - but actually just then created - public demand requiring those in power to 'do something about this' (McRobbie & Thornton 1995). If such strategies are followed by government legislative action, then the public's 'rational, well-founded fears or outrage' can be alleviated. The media can promote images of strong government and leadership which acted decisively, enhancing the political system's ability to presumably maintain a free, democratic, but 'civilized' and 'orderly' society, and should be supported to ensure society's present and future. Thus, media legitimize their own truth representations as indisputable reality, affirming the power of constructed discourse conferring 'ideological legitimation' and imposing 'discipline' to applied policies (Bourdieu 1991; Foucault et al. 1991; Foucault 1980).

Golden Dawn's ingratiation with mainstream society through the media

3.1 From 2010 to 2013, despite its clearly aggressive, nationalistic and anti-immigrant ideology with strong ties to Nazism, GD's rhetoric and activities received unprecedented media coverage for a party that until 2012 had 0.26% as its highest vote share in a general election and never had an elected representative, even in local councils. Speeches and interventions exclusively for Greeks (i.e., blood, clothing and food donation campaigns, employment information community stands, etc.), were a daily feature on the media (Kandylis & Kavoulakos 2012). Since the beginning of the crisis in 2008 and especially in the months before the 2012 general elections, several GD videos were uploaded in great numbers on YouTube (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMmGzwP4lTI). Many of them concerned GD's activism in underdeveloped and congested neighbourhoods of Athens, characterised by high unemployment and populated by the lower working classes with relatively large concentrations of mostly Muslim immigrants, principally with Albanian, Pakistani and African origins (Kandylis & Kavoulakos 2012). Among these videos there were those which depicted older Greek nationals asking GD members for protection from immigrants. Mainstream media, ignoring the already mounting reports and strong indication of GD members' participation in racist, violent attacks against immigrants (even murders), leftist union members or activists, and the open circulation of neo-nazi beliefs, picked up the story. 'Skinhead', well-built, GD activists begun to be represented as altruistic, kind 'knights in shining armour' helping old ladies in the streets (i.e., doing their chores), deterring potential immigrant robbers, drug addicts, and rapists with their presence, and thereby maintaining order in the state's absence (Psarras 2012). Other footage, showed infuriated landlords not receiving the rent from immigrant tenants, or families disturbed by the supposed lawless, rowdy and deviant behaviour of immigrants overcrowding blocks of apartments. Subsequent reports indicated how immediately after contacting GD the immigrants had left, the apartments were restored to a good condition and money owed was paid while 'normality' and 'order' were re-established (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rvmaNJQpG8).

3.2 In this manner, GD's representation, vigorously reproduced by most media, enabled the organization to build its 'myth', assembling massive social capital and communicating to the general Greek populous a positive image: of patriots putting themselves at risk and stepping up for the nation against the 'others'; of supporting the poor and disadvantaged with 'grounded interventions' unlike a corrupted state or economic elites; of preserving the country, its culture, religion, as well as the livelihood of the 'ordinary Greek citizen' from illegal immigrants. Of course, this homogenized notion of an 'ordinary, average Greek' is largely an ever-changing (depending on who is using it) political and media construction, commonly used by politicians of all spectrums in their efforts to appear as representatives of all the Greek people (Mouzelis & Pagoulatos 2002). A prime example is when a high circulation newspaper published an article referring to GD members as 'good boy-scouts' shortly before the 2012 elections, picturing a man with a GD t-shirt standing protectively near two 'everyday ladies' outside a bank ATM (Psarras 2012). However, this incident was later proved to be an orchestrated hoax, as the GD 'volunteer and activist' was actually an old party member, a candidate in the elections, and the son of one of the supposedly anonymous women.

The subtle impact of Golden Dawn's media representation on perceptions concerning neoliberal austerity policies and social welfare reforms: playing into the government's hands

4.1 The consequences of GD's media representation to the public were multilevel. On the one hand, through this constructed discourse, the public opinion was 'lured away' from specific politics and politicians 'with names and addresses'. Also, it was diverted from the systemic, structural problems of a capitalist system where politics, democracy and social control are shoved aside in favour of deregulated labour and free markets. Thus, poverty, unemployment and the collapse of social protection and cohesion through the government's neoliberal agenda were concealed. It should be noted that the left-wing opposition and some smaller media outlets (usually affiliated with the left) in the country had been highly critical of GD and the 'stance of tolerance' depicted by the government, which aimed to bring back disillusioned conservative, right-wing voters who had turned to GD (Spourdalakis 2012). However the resources, influence and reach of such alternative media, could not be compared to those of the systemic, mainstream outlets and therefore they could not effectively dismantle the dominant discourse created at the time. In fact, the left opposition presented at some point the theory of an intentional strategy (silently backed or directed by the government) of GD, which is a fascist party and like all fascist movements historically, it's the 'long hand of the system' and thus used by it to preserve the dominant social order and economic structure (Spourdalakis 2012). Even so, this argumentation was confined to the level of political analysis and cannot be proven.

4.2 Nevertheless, the current article's primary interest, is related to the creation of an 'underclass' discourse in the perceptions of wide parts of the Greek populace as the main 'legitimizing vessel' for the shrinking of social benefits and public services. This was conveniently traced in the 'deviant', 'inferior' and 'threatening' immigrant identity constructed through GD's activism and rhetoric and promoted by the mainstream mass media. Simultaneously, this process developed a direct association of poverty and deprivation with images and traits linked to illegal immigrants and the consequences of their presence for the social system, while reinforcing the belief that public social services are inherently corrupt and costly. A situation confounded by the 'burden' of immigrants threatening a largely imagined national identity. As a result, strong emotional sentiments central to the feeling of belonging to a group/community (de Swaan 1995) were evoked for the middle and lower classes of the Greek people, triggering processes of disidentification with those perceived as outsiders and 'distant strangers' (de Swaan 1997) to the 'Greek national group'. Consequently, the anger against the government for dismantling or significantly downsizing public social services mainly in welfare, benefits and healthcare was directed against immigrants placing excess pressure on a collapsing social security system while, as GD kept repeating, 'Greeks suffered' (Psarras 2012). Eventually, with the media's help, this discourse evolved into passive acceptance, if not support, of the neoliberal agenda as necessary and mistrust of any alternatives.

4.3 Therefore, governmental discourse (see Georgakis 2013) referring to social benefits wasted 'on fraudulent people' found fertile ground in individuals who associate poverty and deprivation, with 'undeserving others' (namely immigrants), or perceive the social state as synonymous with corruption. Similarly, the current Prime Minister's statements about the 'reoccupation of our cities by immigrants', or Greek couples being unable to send their children to public day nurseries (forgetting the fact that more than half are set to shut down by 2015 and the rest to impose fees), due to a shortage of places driven by the many immigrant children, made sense. This was no longer GD's extremist, anti-immigrant rhetoric; it was now the government's political agenda, reproduced by all mainstream networks and the press, feeding the fears and redirecting the rage of those most affected by the crisis, paradoxically now strongly disidentifying from others in need. Their own minimized access to core social goods and services didn't matter. An ineffective, costly and corrupt welfare state immensely burdened by 'non-Greeks' offering cheap labour did matter; a perception that was now firmly associated with the government's neoliberal discourse concerning the public sector overall.

Concluding remarks and future research

5.1 Gradually, through such processes, the blame shifted from those responsible and the legitimizing basis for the state's withdrawal from welfare and social services was established. What's more, the arguments of those seeking the preservation of a 'safety net' and public social programs for the most underprivileged social groups started sounding hollow. Due to the economic crisis, disidentification processes and the media-promoted discourse of GD, such positions were set against notions of patriotism and the primordial elements of national identity, as well as the preservation of culture, religion and country running high in many Greeks regardless of class, economic status, gender, age or political orientation (Kandylis & Kavoulakos 2012). This is better understood, if we remember that the church, army and the courts have been consistently the three most popular institutions in Greece (the two first being primary Greek national symbols do the country's turbulent history of conflicts) in several Eurobarometer surveys, with the political establishment, the media / press and private corporations being the three least by a huge margin and also considered to be the most corrupted (Jones et al. 2008). Thus, disidentification led to a lack of empathy for the disadvantaged, grounded not so much on neoliberal 'accusations' regarding the absence of productivity and accomplishment in a free market; these were just appearing in Greek political discourse for the first time. No, this apathy was rooted on emotional components of an imagined patriotism, the need for social order and the appeal of GD's community solidarity activities to the 'simple Greeks', allowing the party to successfully 'infiltrate' the psyche of middle and lower classes. Overall, this narrative and essentially GD's discourse seem to have highly complemented government strategies concerning social welfare. The complicit role of mainstream mass media in the creation of this 'distraction narrative' (Jamieson 1993) and the construction of perceptions more 'in line' with these policies through the belittling cultural representation of immigrants and people advocating for, or seeking the support of a robust social state, is clearly discernible.

5.2 Still, the elucidation of the relationship between the rising popularity of GD's rhetoric, its media promotion through the 'targeting' of immigrants or other recently formed vulnerable social groups (i.e., former civil servants being laid off) and the subsequent legitimization of the government's neoliberal agenda, is a multifaceted issue which demands further empirical research. The current paper does not presume to have covered all its nuances in depth. More importantly, the cataclysmic changes in the sociopolitical landscape in Greece since the advent of the crisis are still ongoing and examined processes are still developing. Thus, future research is needed in order to acquire a better grasp of the ways the interplay of GD's nationalistic narrative and its media representation helped legitimize the government's agenda for sweeping cutbacks in health, education and social welfare and also sparked extreme processes of 'othering'. A future research project would highly benefit from a more diversified approach, featuring extensive discourse and content analysis of mainstream media, GD's and the government's rhetoric in recent years. It could yield valuable insights on how the 'cultural construction' of certain social groups by the media can initiate processes of stigmatization and disidentification, which in turn can be used by governments for the social legitimization of applied policies. The Established and the Outsiders (1994) by N. Elias and J.L. Scotson, would be a great starting point in understanding how these new social dynamics of power and marginalization of 'intruders' in Greek society sparked by GD's activism, have been joined with neoliberal welfare reforms, austerity policies and a discourse of 'law and order' utilized by the current government.


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