On October 7th, 2020, in Athens, in front of the supreme court of Greece, thousands of anti-fascists celebrated the landmark guilty verdict against the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn. Two of the most discussed fascist criminal activities concern the assault against ship repair workers and unionists at Perama (wider Piraeus) in September 2013, and the murder of the anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssas few days later (in wider Piraeus as well).

The victorious story of the shipbuilding workers’ community of Piraeus against the fascist tide is worth telling for three main reasons: it goes against the global current of the (real or alleged) far-right penetration within the working classes; it shows why and how class identity matters; and it highlights the role of agency in contexts of multiple crises (economic crisis, legitimation crisis, local labour market crisis).

Against the tide: Global trends of far-right appeal and local working-class responses

According to a dominant narrative on the causes of the global far-right upsurge, the remaining production workers in advanced capitalist countries are not only unwilling to identify themselves with a class whose mission is social emancipation, but also constitute the most privileged audience for exclusionary politics.

Despite exaggerations and normative biases, it is difficult to ignore that the language of class conflict and the collective identity that it seeks to produce has less and less traction among industrial workers. Meanwhile, nationalism stands out as the major source of certainty and predictability.

The few thousands ship repair and shipbuilding workers of the Perama Zone in Greece do not differ much from industrial workers of the UK hinterland, or the American Rust Belt, except perhaps from the endemic contingency that characterizes the dominant subcontracting regime in the ship repair industry.

I have met many of them in several capacities: observing their work, supporting their strikes, offering counselling sessions, conducting research interviews, etc.

Before the outburst of the 2009 crisis, they were earning good money in exchange for hazardous work; their vote was predominantly centre-left; they participated in their militant trade unions; they were still able to provide for the family and consume like the middle classes. They also used to envisage their kids’ upward social mobility.

Crisis, fragmentation and the nationalist promise  

After the economic downturn of 2010 the salaries in the Perama Zone declined sharply, while employers exploited labour market deregulation and tried to get rid of the union’s annoying presence. The unemployment in greater Piraeus (where most of the Zone’s workers lived) reached unprecedented levels, as did material dispossession. The window of opportunity for the far-right Golden Dawn Party (GD) was wide open.

GD is a neo-Nazi party with an explicitly racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-communist ideology. Until 2009, it was a marginal political force, with less than a 0,5% vote share. The party’s impressive electoral performance in 2012 (almost 7% of the total vote share) and its strategic positioning within institutions of law and order (police and army, but also the Church) have been associated with the wider social unrest resulting from the economic crisis, austerity politics, and the hollowing out of state institutions.

This spectacular neo-fascist rise would have been impossible if GD hadn’t successfully exploited a) the traumas of those going down the social ladder, b) the survival threat posed by unemployment, c) the fears, guilts and anxieties of the middle strata, and d) the readiness of many employers to take advantage of the situation through wage cuts and anti-unionism (business in ship repair stood out in this respect). The country’s weakened sovereignty as a condition for the European Union bailout provided fertile ground as well.

Class identity, classed identities, and the mediation of progressive politics

In many sociological accounts of class, class identity seems to be one “thing”, and its appropriation quite another. This is a bit misleading, for two reasons: class identities, as social identities in general, are not things that they have their own existence out there. They are rather boundaries that can never be fully reached. This is the reason why people are making claims for identities all the time. The act of identification, the act of claiming one or more identities, our need to identify ourselves with one or more objects, emanates from our inability to assume totality as human beings. We can never fully attain an identity and hence the field for appropriating an identity is always open to political antagonism.

Second, class identities are established both through similarity (things we have in common with other members of the same class) and difference (things that differentiate us from other classes); they are both internal (pertaining to the question of who we are) and external (pertaining to the question of what the others think of us, or how they treat us), individual and collective, positive and negative. In sum, they are interwoven in the dialectics of identifications.

One key function of GD’s nationalist embrace of the Zone’s workers was to render the affirmation of class identity bearable and its negation undesired. The first part of the equation means that the workers should comply with the limitations imposed by their class position: to feel comfortable with a lower wage, to adjust the consumption practices according to a sensible working-class life, to show respect to the power hierarchies avoiding conflicts with the bosses.

The second part of the equation suggests that to negate your class by demanding a different allocation of resources means to destabilize the class hierarchies, adding more degrees of uncertainty to an already uncertain and volatile labour market. As said by a GD’s leading activist in the Perama Zone:

‘The wages that we were taking 2 or 3 years before were just too high, if you consider the crisis. We could reduce them by ourselves and assure Greek ship owners that if they bring their ships here, we will stop the strikes that happen all the time for all those years.’

This positive identification with the working-class as a structural position that sets limitations to action is often accompanied by the feeling of guilt. The Zone workers feel guilty for having lost the days of prosperity and decent jobs. They feel guilty for being insubordinate to their bosses (the strike activity in the Perama Zone was the highest in Greece from the 1990s onwards). And at the same time, the same workers acknowledge the serious occupational hazards, the volatile market conditions, and the unfair treatment that they experience.

These two different ways of feeling class that pertain to two different sets of identifications with class are interacting with each other, but not in void. GD on the one hand, has invested in the guilt of workers for not being good enough: don’t worry, the fascist says, the nation will heal the old wounds, will cease the old fight between the workers and the bosses, will purge the country from the foreign invasion of the global plutocrats, the migrant proletarians, the corrupted elites and the traitorous Left.

The communist-led Trade Union of Metal Workers on the other hand, has invested in the feelings of social justice of the workforce, pointing to the necessity (and hence the legitimacy) of resisting unfair arrangements: let’s challenge the taken for granted role assignments, the unionist says, through industrial action (which is the instant refusal to be subordinated to capital) and anti-fascism (the instant refusal of an archetypical arrangement of the wage relation which in fascism entails organic, and hence fixed bonds).

At the end of the day, GD’s attempt to hegemonize the working class of the Perama Zone by drawing exclusively on a positive class identity failed. The near-fatal attack against the leadership of the union and the murder of Fyssas right after, was a response to this failure that contributed further to the party’s decay.

On the opposite side, the victorious hegemonic struggle of the union was possible thanks to the use of a language of class conflict. This vocabulary of class was accessed successfully both by the working-class self who is hardworking, down-to-earth, disciplined and caring (and thus not criminal, or racist) and the working-class self who wants to stop being disciplined and obedient, a given position of a given class structure.

This might suggest that progressive politics at the workplace level and beyond can still provide meaningful responses to capitalism and its crises, provided that the dialectics of class identities are taken seriously into account. It might also suggest that our understanding of class as individualized hierarchy should not be disentangled from the more traditional understandings of class as collectivity.

There is also a lesson learnt with regard to possibilities for the rise of emancipatory politics and the rise of fascism within the working classes. The Zone workers’ insecure and deteriorated economic position in the broader context of de-industrialization, their hazardous work conditions and exploitation, the enactment of their masculinity inside and outside the workplace, their age and gender composition, all these factors suggest that they can be identified as a group of people that share certain life chances.

To assume that this leads to progressive politics is wrong as much as the opposite (that working-class positions are inherently associated with far-right politics). This dichotomy ignores the constitutive split of the class: the same workers that demand recognition of their specificity as an existing ‘class’ of people (affirming their class position) may also call for the undermining of class divides through the redistribution of resources. This paradox of class identity is not to be resolved by those dedicated to class analysis as a pathway to a more equal society. But a deeper understanding of how it works, could make this way shorter.

Giorgos Bithymitris is a Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research (EKKE).

This article is based on Giorgos Bithymitris, “The (Im)possibility of Class Identity: Reflections on a Case of Failed Right-Wing Hegemony.” Critical Sociology OnlineFirst September 22, 2020.

Image of The Statue of the Metal Worker at the Perama ports provided by the author.