“The past,” wrote Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Asking Greeks (as Greece’s government has done) to vote “no” (“Όχι”) to the euro zone bailout may or may not be misguided, but it comes with a certain historical resonance.
The no camp wraps itself in the rhetoric of nationalism, with its romantic narrative of heroic rebellion against a more powerful foe. When the referendum was announced on Saturday, minster after minister spoke of dignity, humiliation, heroism and pride. Asked by a journalist what a no vote would mean, the speaker of the house, Zoe Konstantopoulou, answered tautologically that it would mean “the historic no of the Greek people”. Symbolically, that’s the no of the dictator Metaxas [actually he said something no less blunt, but rather less laconic] when Mussolini asked permission to send his troops through Greece, the no of the left resistance to the Axis occupation. Panos Kammenos, defence minister and leader of Syriza’s rightwing coalition partner, Anel, took up the tune with relish: nationalism is the ground where left and right can meet.
If nothing else, the euro has proved a remarkably effective device for exhuming the old hatreds that the EU’s ‘ever closer union’ was meant to have buried for good.
And this passage conjures up faint memories of a slightly more recent past, of civil wars and colonels:
A fortnight ago rival protests began to demarcate the camps. The first, against austerity, was called by Syriza, though many people there were also critical of the party. The second – “We’re staying in Europe” – quickly took on the guise of an anti-government rally, attended and partly organised by opposition politicians, though many of those present loathe all of them equally. Greek social media are awash in sarcasm and vitriol; old friendships are stretched to breaking point. Under the pressure to align with one camp or the other, thinking becomes more difficult. For some the choice is obvious. Others feel torn apart, as if the faultline ran right through their own identity as Greeks and Europeans.
The split isn’t simple to map. It partly runs between classes: on the no side you’re likely to find the urban and rural poor, the unemployed, those from the middle class who have fallen furthest and have the least to lose. The yes side includes the wealthy, people with business or professional links abroad, young graduates and entrepreneurs. To some extent it cuts across political convictions, dividing those who believe Greece can survive outside the euro from those who think an exit would only spell disaster. And it also runs along mysterious lines of culture and family history, identity, local allegiance.
Also writing in the Guardian, Paul Mason offers a somewhat romanticized view of what’s going on within Greece’s Left:
Greece under austerity has become frenetic. Athens right now is slick with perspiration; every public space is charged with hormonal tension and political disagreement – even the bakery where you buy your morning bread. The politics are brutal. Last week, stick-wielding anarchist youths attacked the HQ of the Antarsya – a far-left anti-capitalist party – because the latter had tried to make them pay to go into a music festival when the anarchists thought it should be free.
I’ve seen, in the bohemian Exarchia district, a troupe of black-clad 15-year-olds distrupt a whole street full of similarly bohemian cafe-goers on a Saturday night, using petrol bombs and flaming rubbish bins, simply because “creating mayhem” is their doctrine.
Athens has become, in short, the stage for flamboyant acts of self-dramatisation: sporadic riots, public kissing, street theatre and ill-advised scooter techniques. It is, to use a phrase Huxley once used about Shanghai, “life with the lid off”, and for the same reasons: “so much life, so carefully canalised, so rapidly and strongly flowing”.
Antonis Vradis, a geographer at Durham University who has studied the impact of repeated waves of unrest here since 2008, describes how the youth networks have been preparing for this week’s “rupture” with the ECB: “They are creating structures you can’t default on. Self-organised clinics, the social centres you see all around you. Structures that will help them survive.”
I meet Vradis in Floral cafe on the corner of Exarchia Square. He points out that the building – shabby as it is now – is a Bauhaus masterpiece. More importantly, during the 1944 uprising against the British, “the communists were snipers on the roof”.
A touch patronizingly Mason notes that:
Syriza in office has been a work in progress, impossible to read for people ignorant of Greece, let alone people who don’t know there are subcategories to moderate Marxism.
The first part of the sentence is (obviously) true, but the second half made me laugh. “Subcategories to moderate Marxism,” well, sure. Superstition is a many-headed beast.
But this is nonsense:
How this generation of Greek leftwingers broke out of isolation is of more than academic interest. They have managed – for the first time in modern history – to form a government that defied the global finance system, and to do so with flair.
Ever heard of Néstor Kirchner’s Argentina? Did well . . . for a while. With a certain flair too . . .
And anyone claiming that the Syriza-led government has “defied the global finance system.” would do well to remember that the euro zone was a central planner’s dream, an attempt to change economic reality by political diktat and, in the process, muffle the market signals that separate currencies would have supplied. Its current crisis is a failure not of “global finance.” but of central planning, just the latest in a long series of fiascoes, of which there will, sadly, be many more to come.