No Exit? Greece's Ongoing Crisis
Never mind the balance of payments, some may say, what about the endless personal catastrophes in Greece: the soaring suicide rate, the rising human toll of stress and despair brought on by humiliation, unemployment, sheer helplessness? The individual suffering caused by these mistaken policies can easily be overlooked by academic economists, but it is also grist for the literary mill—in fact, it is hard for Greek writers today not to reflect, in one way or another, on the despair and malaise.
A mordant account of the spreading unemployment and unrelenting weariness of living through the crisis at a daily level is provided by journalist Christoforos Kasdaglis in his Anonymoi chreokopimenoi (Anonymous Bankrupts), a collection of sketches published in 2012 that charts his response to the news and to his own lack of paid work. “Powered by” is a piece that enumerates the commodities he consumed during the production of the book: one Japanese laptop, seventy-seven Italian espresso capsules, 184 packets of English tobacco, Dutch rolling paper, an American-made jeep, a German TV, a Swedish radio, American clothes and a pair of Spanish-made shoes, plus pharmaceuticals from Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere. It’s as pithy an encapsulation of the Greek consumption problem as one could find (consumption soared between 2000 and 2008, in line with the rise in incomes fueled by capital inflows), and an instantaneous refutation to those observers—fewer now than a year ago—who are still calling for Greece to quit the euro and go it alone.
In an interview with himself, Kasdaglis stresses one of the key differences between the present circumstances and World War II. At least then, he reflects, there was enormous hope and pride to set alongside the suffering. Now all one can do is write in the hope of finding some way out of hopelessness—but looking at his country’s leaders, this is not easy. George Papandreou is “the boy with the PlayStation”—the toy in his case being Pasok, the party he inherited, and perhaps Greece itself. Kasdaglis asserts that Antonis Samaras of New Democracy—the opposition leader at the time he was writing—is a demagogue who, the author predicts, will backtrack on all his criticisms of the government the minute he is in power. (Since becoming prime minister in June, Samaras has done Kasdaglis the favor of confirming his predictions.) The interim prime minister, economist Lucas Papademos, is a decent technocrat who, on account of his former role shepherding Greece into the eurozone, must be considered one of the architects of the mess. At the same time, the author, in his mid-50s, is just old enough to remember the junta and wants to remind younger readers of what a genuine dictatorship is. The current political climate, for all its absurdities and problems, is not a dictatorship, and Greeks should not confuse it with the junta, even as the smell of tear gas wafting across central Athens takes Kasdaglis back to the days of the Polytechnic uprising at the end of 1973 and causes him to wonder whether the police have changed at all.
In one of his concluding sketches, Kasdaglis outlines what he calls a series of “bankruptcy scenarios.” He is unpersuaded by the inquiring minds of the commentariat urging Greece to go the Argentina route into default: they ignore the many differences between the two countries and eras. Nor is he much enamored of Syriza, and although he says little about it, his criticisms of the new kinds of populism seem directed at its youthful leader, Alexis Tsipras, who has soared in the polls on the basis of a campaign that promised the best of both worlds: staying in the euro and repudiating the foreign-imposed austerity program. Instead, he goes on:
There is one version of bankruptcy that I find attractive. We rethink our lives together, our priorities and our models of consumption. We reorganize our production on the basis of our needs and not profit. We return to the land with greater concern for, and orientation towards organic cultivation…. Poorer materially, richer in emotions and outlook, with less rivalry and more love and mutual understanding.
It is a dream many share. But they also share Kasdaglis’s hesitation: Where is the necessary leadership, the political will? The old is discredited; new forces, perhaps new generations, are needed but have not yet made their mark. Meanwhile, the idiocy seems boundless—in Greece and across Europe.
Kasdaglis can hardly be accused of indulging in pessimism: in the current climate, pessimism seems perfectly reasonable. But perhaps the pessimism has a generational tinge. The crisis varies sharply in its impact on young and old, and when one turns to the attitudes of those who came of age not during the junta and the early years after it, the metapolitefsi, but amid the collapse of the Berlin Wall, one finds a very different and in some ways startlingly energized outlook. This sounds paradoxical, given that it is often those now entering the job market who are suffering the worst, but young people seem more enthusiastic and less tormented by the collapse of old categories, and the evidence for this is everywhere. A relatively elevated example would be the film boom that has brought Greek cinema international attention through the works of youthful directors like Athina Rachel Tsangari, Yorgos Lanthimos and Syllas Tzoumerkas. But one might want to point to the revival of anarchism and the so-called antiexousiastikoi (anti-state) as well. There is also, it must be said, a strong generational tinge to the emergence of neofascism.
Then there is fiction. Kati tha ginei, tha deis (Something Will Happen, You’ll See) is a gripping collection of short stories published in 2010 that was awarded the State Prize for Literature and has become a bestseller. Its author, Christos Ikonomou, has already been hailed in the Italian press as a “Greek Faulkner,” a description that conveys the emotional power but not the restraint or precision of his prose. Roaming restlessly through the impoverished working-class quarters located off the tourist routes in the urban sprawl between Athens and Piraeus, the large port southwest of the capital, Ikonomou’s stories convey the plight of those worst affected by the crisis—laid-off workers, hungry children. Everyone is dreaming of escape: to the mountains, to an island or a palatial estate, into a Hans Christian Andersen story world. What are they fleeing? The old woes—gossip, watchful neighbors, the oppression and indifference of the rich—now made infinitely worse. In Ikonomou’s concrete streets, the rain is always looming, the politicians’ slogans are ignored, and the police remain a violent, threatening presence offstage. Yet even at the edge of destitution, his men and women act for themselves, trying to preserve what little solidarity remains in a deeply atomized society, and in one way or another finding their own voice. There is faith here, deep faith—though little or none in those who habitually ask for it.
The voice of this new generation— realistic, searching for a source of enthusiasm—can be found elsewhere, too. In the pages of a new journal, Levga (League), named in homage to Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, one comes across sharp questioning of what “reform” has meant in Greece these past forty years. Launched in March 2011, Levga has published nine issues filled with criticism of yesterday’s “modernisers” and their continued attempts to present themselves as the nation’s saviors. But one finds in its pages little time for the modernizers’ radical critics either: the Slavoj Zizeks, Alain Badious and their Greek epigones. The members of a Green generation, Levga’s writers and editors question whether the latest back-to-the-land impulse can be an adequate answer to the problems of capitalism in an era when advanced democracies cannot sustain more than 5 percent of their workforce in the countryside without massive subsidies. They see the indispensability of political mobilization and are rightly contemptuous of TED-style “debates” that reduce the country’s problems to ones of branding and connectivity; they sympathize with organized labor but dissect the historical roots of its malfunction in Greece. There are no answers here, but neither can they be found anywhere else. Levga is a source of fresh, very clear thought—and with it, some reasons to hope against hope.
Last year, Ari Paul wrote about the rise of the radical left in Greece.