Too much for sale?
The myth of Europe is a Greek invention and so is tragedy and drama. What follows, amounts to no more than dramaturgical field-notes from the country’s trials, tribulations as well as its responsibilities and duties, not so much in the writing of the European myth but in the staging of its own role, its costume and political choreography. “Woe betide she who chooses to dwell on this issue”, I hear the chorus scream, yet I’m happy to do so as a curious insider/outsider hybrid with respect to Greek socio-political affairs; insider because I am of Greek descent and outsider because I live abroad, a curious position that could be likened to a schizophrenic telescope lens that zooms in and out depending on circumstances, events and moods even. This form of ‘double-consciousness’, to paraphrase W.E.B Du Bois, was exemplified by Greek sociologist Constantine Tsoucalas, back in 1969 in the writing of his seminal book The Greek Tragedy, where he identified Greece as European but not Western, Balkan but not Slavic and Oriental but not Muslim, a complex cultural mosaic of identity sculpted by centuries of occupation, civil wars and military coups d’état, leaving its sense of self-orientation fundamentally divided and erratically arranged throughout the course of its (national) history. The cultural dowry of this traumatic process of constant decimation either by external threats or internal divisions, still survives today in the voting culture, ideology, party formation, political participation and national identity of 21st century Greece. In fact a deep sense of injustice has inculcated early on in the collective psyche of the country and this is reflected in many of today’s cultural patterns; convulsed by the aftermath of such tragic historical events and scourged by the current climate of recession, contemporary Greece exhibits certain peculiarities that I have isolated into four main categories, in order to render them intelligible and useful/pertinent to the discussion here, followed by a few modest suggestions of possible ways out from the country’s socio-cultural and political labyrinth. These four areas of Greek political default revolve around (a) voting culture, (b) party formation, (c) civic comportment/political behaviour and (d) ideology, while the proposed ways-out are inspired by a personal interpretation of a televised interview of Cornelius Castoriadis to the Greek National Broadcasting Corporation filmed in 1984.
Hailed as ‘the most important elections since the return to democracy’, May 6th and June 17th have proven to be ‘hot’ dates on the global journalistic calendar so much that The Guardian has devoted a whole section of its online edition to them. The reasons for such media attention however have very little to do with Greece itself or its political standstill but rather with the witch-hunt of scenaria predicting ‘disorderly default’, ‘exit from the Euro’ and ‘fear of contagion’ in European and global markets. Leaving such fear-mongering aside, it is important to bring to the surface the hidden text of voting and electoral processes in Greece in the hope that the paradoxical re-run of the May elections in June may start making some sense to the uninitiated in Greek political affairs.
Voting culture in Greece is an act of fandom as a big part of political behaviour (t)here is. The reason for that is not mere infantilism of the Greek public, but rather the very fragmented history of the country’s politics which has not known and therefore does not recognise a smooth-running electoral process, but rather resembles a smouldering volcano of impassioned political choices made in critical times resulting in the complete and utter disaster of embittered factionalism. To understand voting in Greece it might be useful to allude to the morale of José Saramago’s novel, ‘Seeing’, where he describes a fictional occasion of voting in a political culture that has rendered the very process of voting meaningless. In Saramago’s book the ultimate evil is the plague of blank ballots, also a common pastime in Greek elections, but in the Greek case the whole edifice of voting amounts to a problematic process given that elections resemble, more often than not, veritable battlefields of emotion with the ballot boxes playing the role of animated repositories of discontent. This may be applicable to other countries too of course, yet in the very last elections abstinence featured as the preferred choice of the electorate climbing up to 40% when the first party won just a 29,66% of total votes. I am making no recriminatory argument against abstinence however, nor am I condemning voting choices, instead the emphasis here is on an alarming statistical result, not on finger-wagging a choice that often makes sense if one considers the second fault-line of Greek politics; party formation.
Political parties in Greece often occupy the position that football clubs hold in other national cultures though overt hooliganism is not absent from the country’s stadia either. Because of its fragmented political culture, a direct result of multiple historical traumas which have enforced deep divisions in the political imaginary of the nation, Greece’s political parties fish for votes by playing cheap vaudeville with a populist orientation and gusto marshalled by party leaders as a way of securing public approval and appeal. This is understandable but often borders on the tragicomic in the Greek case as the rhetoric, the public orchestration and display of the party leaders themselves often reminds one of a Tsarist image of holy men and healers who by means of triumphalist and apocalyptic verbiage alone will soothe all social ills offering Messianic pronouncements and promises to a helpless crowd, provided that they are endowed with peoples’ votes of course. Greek cinema abounds with satirical representations of this venerable tradition, but so does current political reality too (here’s just a sample of Greece’s PM on a recent pilgrimage to a church in a troubled neighbourhood of Athens, the body language and the staging of the scene is, I believe, telling).
This type of fanciful political gesturing speaks volumes about patterns of political behaviour and civic comportment in Greece relying heavily on cronyism, clientelistic politics and populism, sustaining and maintaining a political enterprise that does not listen to itself but only to its narrow self-interests and motives. This is also witnessed in the support that the electorate has vouchsafed for two rivalling political families; the Papandreou on the democratic-socialist front and the Karamanlis representing the centre-right, who have been succeeding one another in power from 1944 until Papandreou the third’s downfall in November 2011. This continued support is emblematic of a peculiar faithfulness not to an evolving political force which renews itself but to an uncritical auto-da-fé support which allows the country’s political ghosts to loom around the parliament and make key decisions on matters that they and their predecessors have consistently failed to resolve during their respective political careers. Peoples’ wants are very much linked to party promises, making politics seem like a mediator between these two impulses rather than a process of negotiation and agreement on how to run a country. This clustered view of political participation transforms voting into tokenism where each vote matches a personal favour made by a politician of the old guard thus creating a climate where voters depend at large on favours and expect these to be delivered by the state, when they aren’t revenge is taken in the next elections as if the whole process of democratic voting is not the common agreement on some key social needs to be catered for by elected representatives of the public but rather a regime of favouritism that replicates itself ad aeternum. A veritable crucible of activity in the preparation of such political alignment is the University where political groups have immense influence not only in attracting prospective party supporters but even in the running of the institution itself not to mention their function as the prime site of catechism to each party’s political doctrine. This political ethic of alignment-for-benefit and the choice of politics with desirability of the favourable outcome as its sole purpose may seem exaggerated and far-fetched and it is, but it also explains why people expect and demand so much of the state and its appointed functionaries.
Ideology constitutes the prime ingredient that sugar-coats political belief, given that the political parties’ programme and ethos is of course represented not by announcements that publicly declare favouritism, but by reference to sensitive ideas that have inspired hateful clashes in Greece feeding on the traumas of the Civil War from 1946 to 1949 and the military junta of 1967-1974. Memories from such incidents are tattooed to the country’s conscience and are often evoked to provoke reaction which erupts in a furtive terrain of battling political sentiments, living off rage and fostering a cultural climate of bitter misrecognition and incomprehension. This highly polarised struggle between left and right still targets the current political vacuum in Greece with slogans that often remain virtually unchanged and sometimes still remind both sides of their mutual disparagement in times of war. This never-ending rivalry provides political parties with a rich emotional reserve with which to mould their politics and excite their audience reflecting the narrowness, immaturity and carelessness of the political mainstream in Greece. Such an ideological divide could have been smoothed out during the transitional period of metapolitefsi (regime change) from the fall of the dictatorship to the legislative elections of 1974, ushering in the democratic period in the history of modern Greece, in an effort to consolidate rather than further segment the existential map of the country.
Instead, heretics on the left continue to hurl abuse to schismatics on the right in a herostratic political exchange that does not envision consensus as the embattled hybrid of political dissent and consent brought together, but prefer outright clash, destruction and the legitimisation of violence towards ‘the other’ and towards democratic institutions too, be it listed buildings, statues, public thoroughfares and pedestrian pavements. Ideology is the fuel of such enmity amounting to little more than a wilful suspension of scepticism based on selectivity of perspectives, Manichean moralism and absolutism. Politics done this way inevitably degenerates into flat-footed verbalisations of campaign slogans where there is urgent need for negotiating differences to resolve them, always with passion but never with violence. This hotbed of ideological warfare facilitates the lamentable and quite unpardonable 7% that Greek voters secured for Golden Dawn, a volatile neo-Nazi garrison formed by knife-wielding vigilantes, now democratically elected in parliament promising to ‘clear’ the streets of Athens from the Untermenschen. A most sober reader could attribute this to the mushrooming of ‘angry, white men’ in times of crisis but my analysis is less sympathetic primarily because Golden Dawn is closer to EDL than it is to BNP (to use two British examples), with militias that patrol its political strongholds and unleash anti-immigrant pogroms as I write, but also because it is hard for me to imagine the rise of such a phenomenon as unrelated to a failing political mainstream and an incompetent opposition movement which opposes everything and suggests very little with extremists occupying the gap in-between.
This heritage of selfish voting, nepotism, civil disassociation and ideological chasm has bequeathed the social scientist to the role of a light-house keeper who battles the elements in solitude to shed some light on the rocky edges of the sea for the adventurous explorers out there. Luckily, I can rely on Cornelius Castoriadis’ long exploration of the crossroads in the labyrinth for a guided tour to some distinct features of the Greek polity and what can be done to creatively engage with them. Departing radically from a simplistic ‘blame-game’ or a logic of ‘excuse-all’ in relation to the political turbulence of his time, Castoriadis emphasised on a psychosocial by-product of the country’s fractured political culture, that being the deferral of responsibility for the country’s malaise to a fictional ‘other’, be it the state, an ideological opponent or the spurious intervention of a great power from abroad looking to impose its expansionist politics on Greek soil. He therefore identified how, we are our society, our institutions and our politics, echoing Bertolt Brecht’s (1972: 17) familiar urge to ‘make clear how the net of fate is knotted and cast, cast and knotted by men’. Castoriadis is known for his ideas on the self-constitution of society, resulting in his world-famous The Imaginary Institution of Society on which he draws to describe how institutions are born and made in society by society and do not land from an unidentifiable mysterious nowhere; rather we are the very makers of our institutions.
A paradox follows however, this being his observation that although self-made, our institutions need to be treated as if they were created elsewhere by others or we would not conform to them, were we to recognise them as the products of our own imagination. In the course of his televised interview Castoriadis expands this thought by adding that rules ought to be seen as modes of self-regulation that facilitate and do not obstruct our participation in society; rather they provide agreed-upon codes that enhance our co-existence and offer a mutual understanding of each other by means of established cultural habits and social reflexes. Armed with this view of society as the imaginative product of humankind exercised every time we make a choice over how to participate in this realm we have designed and built for ourselves, it is tempting to offer a few thoughts on what can be done to circumvent the current political habits and experiment with a more open-ended articulation of our polity. This would require an experiment both in terms of thinking and in terms of social participation as politics would need to locate a different power source from which to draw its resources; not from a party to which one is aligned for personal gain, not from an ideology used as a rulebook for everything, and certainly not reliant on the state to provide for social practices that we can institute ourselves.
What is profoundly lacking is civic capital, this abstract notion that brings together values and attitudes, institutions and rules, leadership and decision-making. Appropriating the Annales School approach to the study of history, which gives priority to long-term historical structures over events, we can arrange the ingredients of civic capital chronologically with values and attitudes occupying the longue durée, institutions and rules the intermediate durée and leadership and decisions acting in the short durée of political action and decision-making processes. To enhance a society’s civic capital means to boost civic engagement, secure political equality, foster solidarity, inspire trust and work towards building a strong associational life as the basis of the writing of a new social contract where the personal shouldering of responsibility plays a pivotal role, not in the notably cruel form of ‘you are responsible for what is happening to you’ but rather in its more humanistic version; ‘I alone will save the world, if it vanishes, I am to blame’. The difference between these two slogans may at first appear minimal but on closer look it isn’t; the first inspires guilt at the outset while the second puts forward one’s willingness to lend oneself in the (re)making of his/her social world. Apart from a difference of tone and priorities, these two slogans differ in terms of origins too, the first expresses a neo-liberal sentiment, and the latter comes from the grand humanistic poetry of Nikos Kazantzakis; in a strong civil society however the ideological provenance of both propositions should matter very little. What ought to be at stake is the message that each phrase articulates and our willingness or not to act upon it or reject it; for what it says and not for where it comes from.
A political culture that wilfully hands over its fate to consistently and repeatedly failing political groups, shows unwillingness to assume commonly shared civic responsibilities and duties, and a deferral of these to the closest political relative who will then be blamed for making a mess. This observation paradoxically guards us from the realisation that we base our interests and motives on these chosen political groups to generate favourable outcomes for us, be it favours or what have you, and when they fail we feel doubly cheated; first of all by ourselves and second by our elected representatives. Old habits die hard however and despite the brief stint of the indigants’ protests in Syntagma Square in Athens which inspired romantic paeans of self-rule, the 2012 elections saw the country’s voters marching on what Bertolt Brecht ,again, would call ‘the parade of the old new’. There were no indignados to decry the elections’ outcome, instead the majority of votes went to the two traditional political families of left (12.28%) and right (29,66%) with a surprising rise of SYRIZA (26.89%), a coalition of the radical left which rejected its participation in government and subsided instead to the role of the opposition allowing for the more moderate DIMAR (6.26%) to form government with PASOK and New Democracy (the traditional poles of leftists and rightists in Greece), with the remainder of parliamentary seats distributed to the right wing Independent Greeks (7.51%), the neo-nazi Golden Dawn (6.92%) and the Greek Communist Party (4.50%). This is hardly a revolutionary outcome of elections held (twice!) in times of crisis but a rather conformist and backwardly mirroring of traditional voting practices and trends making Brecht’s aforementioned poem sound chillingly appropriate;
I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching,
but it came as the New.
It hobbled up on new crutches which no one had ever seen before
and stank of new smells of decay which no one had ever smelt before.
(Bertolt Brecht, 1939)
If the result of the 2012 elections was an accident, then this whole article loses its currency, if however it can be explained through the lens of the four political ills that I identified earlier (voting culture, party formation, civic comportment/political behaviour and ideology), then we might fear their transformation into the five giant evils in society identified by William Beveridge as squalour, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Squalour because the country is in financial trouble and those who are poorer cannot afford to seek medical attention, and thus cannot work, which furthermore creates less income, and leads to lack of labourers available. Ignorance which feeds on the political mainstream and the electorate’s ignorance to their role in a community that is not run in terms of factionalism and the granting of favours, Disease linked to financial trouble because sickness forces people to discontinue working, Want because it is ill-represented in individual and not in collective terms despite the very and many efforts towards this direction, and Idleness enforced or chosen starving the country from its creative potential.
What this catalogue of evils makes clear is not that such an analysis is correct and that it contains the seed of change but that the existential anxiety and the insecurity felt by crisis-ridden Greeks amounts to a daily climate of political fear bred externally by laughable memoranda and internally by the emotionally charged political void that Greece finds itself unhappily married to. The solution lies neither in the tutelage from the ECB and the IMF nor in the demagoguery and the sophistry of our native imposters, but in a concerted effort to strive for our polity ourselves by means of our imaginative powers and a careful management and mobilisation of (a) our voting as an exercise of reason, (b) the transformation of our political parties into representatives of our collective decrees, (c) the end of ideology as dogmatic confines and (d) the emergence of a civic and political behaviour that draws not on the fossilised embittered divisions of the past but on the common struggles of the present addressed with faith in civic capital and collective, associational social life.
If there’s one ambition to this article that is to show how the EU and Greece alike are seeking stability on shifting sands by enforcing a politics of counterfeit where the aspiration ought to be in the imagining of a new credible fiction, narrative, story text, to bind itself together in unitary terms and not by sustaining a climate of divisive betrayal of its ideal.
Brecht, B. (1972) The Great Art of Living Together. Yorkshire: Granville Press
Brecht, B. (1997) Poems 1913-1956. London: Routledge
Delanty, G. (1995) Inventing Europe. Houndmills: Macmillan
Orwell, G. (1941) The Lion and the Unicorn. London: Searchlight Books
Lambros Fatsis is a final year DPhil student at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis concentrates on discussions of public sociology, the role of the University and intellectuals, while other research interests include black music, urban culture and the history and sociology of the Jamaican soundsystem. He also performs as a reggae selector/radio presenter under the name Boulevard Soundsystem and is a contributor of Billboard magazine on reggae music.