A Modern Greek tragedy with an Indignants Chorus of tens of thousands

No 316 Posted by fw, October 28, 2011

Ersi Sotiropoulos

“Autumn this year in Greece is darker than in other years — a season of insecurity and distress. The signs of recession are everywhere. In the centre of Athens shops are closing one after another. Immigrants collect in dilapidated buildings. The trash piles up in the streets. The decline has been swift. Meanwhile, waves of immigrants continue to arrive in a country where there is no work, no social security. What will happen to all these people who are coming here already angry, exhausted? Anger brings violence. We know that. The party’s over I said to myself, and Greece will be the first to fall.” Ersi Sotiropoulos

In a BBC Radio 4 “Book of the Week” broadcast, Greek novelist Ersi Sotiropoulos contemplates the idea of Europe in autumn 2011. She is the fifth and final prominent thinker from five EU countries to offer personal reflections on their country’s place in Europe at this pivotal moment in its history. The other four presenters represent Ireland, France, Germany, and Italy.

In a raspy, accented voice, Sotiropoulos sketches the history of Greece’s relationship with Europe dating from the late 19th century but focusing primarily on contemporary Greece, teetering “on the edge of an abyss.” “The workers,” she says, “feel doubly betrayed both by the successive administrations that, through waste, abuse and mismanagement brought them to this point, and by their European partners who borrow at rates of 1.5 or 3% interest and then lend to Greece at 5 or 6%, making money from Greek misfortune.”

What stuck in my mind as I listened to Ersi Sotiropoulos’ was her deeply troubling observation that Greek people’s loss of trust in their government has eroded any sense of a unifying “Greek identity”. “Greeks are individuals first and then citizens,” she reports. And I worry that Harper’s government is shaping our institutions in such a way that they can no longer serve all of Canadian society, just core supporters of Conservative principles and ideas. If so, are we witnessing the same kind of erosion of social equality and fairness, of a sense of pride of citizenship here in Canada that the Greeks are now experiencing? Are we, too, on the path to becoming individuals first and then citizens with little unifying sense of pride in our shared identity as Canadians?

Ersi Sotiropoulos, who was born in Patra and now lives in Athens, is the author of ten works of fiction and a book of poetry. Her novel Zigzag through the Bitter Orange Trees (Peter Green’s English translation of which was published in 2005 by Interlink Books) was the first novel ever to win both the Greek national prize for literature and Greece’s preeminent book critics’ award.

Sotiropoulos’ BBC broadcast was first aired today and will continue to be accessible for seven days, after which it will be available on the Book of the Week Archive.

Here is my transcript of author Ersi Sotiropoulos’ contemplation of the dark view from Greece. (Subheadings and links are mine).

TRANSCRIPT

Europeans have forgotten their Greek inheritance

In 1906, the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, wrote a poem called the Poseidonians about an ancient Greek colony captured by the Romans. It is translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language
after so many centuries of mingling
with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners.
The only thing surviving from their ancestors
was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,
with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths.
And it was their habit toward the festival’s end
to tell each other about their ancient customs
and once again to speak Greek names
that only a few of them still recognized.
And so their festival always had a melancholy ending
because they remembered that they too were Greeks,
they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia;
and how low they’d fallen now, what they’d become,
living and speaking like barbarians,
cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.

Like the Poseidonians in Cavafy’s poem, Europeans today appear to have forgotten their Greek inheritance. You can hardly find any filaments of those noble souls of the 19th century who supported the Greek uprising against the Ottoman occupation, and some of whom, including Lord Byron, the most celebrated of all, lost their lives for the cause.

“‘Greeks are lazy,’ they tell us.”

Now the media and public opinion both point to Greece as the primary culprit. “Greeks are lazy,” they tell us. “You’re to blame, and you will have to pay.”

“The decline has been swift.”

Autumn this year in Greece is darker than in other years — a season of insecurity and distress. The signs of recession are everywhere. In the centre of Athens shops are closing one after another. Immigrants collect in dilapidated buildings. The trash piles up in the streets. The decline has been swift. Meanwhile, waves of immigrants continue to arrive in a country where there is no work, no social security. What will happen to all these people who are coming here already angry, exhausted? Anger brings violence. We know that. The party’s over I said to myself, and Greece will be the first to fall.

“I wonder, is this place really a part of Europe?”

I walk through a collapsing city. A city paralyzed by the strikes where rubbish from the past several weeks still sits uncollected in the streets. And I wonder, is this place really a part of Europe? When I was a child in the early sixties in a country still devastated by World War 2 and the Civil War [1946-1949], only a slight few, very few, were able to travel to Europe. ‘Europe’ meant abroad – wide streets, bright lights, expensive boutiques. Paris was Europe.

And what were we? A bit of the Balkans, a bit of the east. But above all Greeks still — though Europeans in a certain sense. After all, Europa was Greek, the beautiful young princess whom Zeus had abducted disguised as a bull. So, we were Europeans then, though somewhat remote because of our geographic location, and poorer than the rest of them.

Greece was accepted into the EU for cultural reasons

Later we entered a period of relative prosperity. Children had shoes and the schools stopped serving free meals. In 1981 Greece was accepted into the European community, primarily for cultural reasons – certainly not on the strength of its economy or its manufacturing sector. The inclusion of Greece was necessary for symbolic reasons. Europe could not conceive of itself without the Parthenon and its spiritual radiance. But the Greek government proved unable or unwilling to live up to that symbolic heritage.

The image of Greece that was projected during those years was primarily of a touristy, folkloric place. We became a vacation destination, the people of moussaka and Retsina.

Even as early as 2004 there were ominous signs of economic collapse

With Greece’s entrance into the European community, money began to flow into the country. For a few years we seemed to be approaching the European model with the required wide streets, bright lights, expensive boutiques. But even before the Athens Olympics of 2004 I had the sense that things were headed towards collapse. Mediocrity, the cowardice, and the arrogance of the powerful were plain to see. Then suddenly, two years ago, the countdown began. Stricken with <unintelligible> dismal headlines, but the government, fearing the political cost, avoided describing things precisely as they were. The news we got from the state-run TV channels was different, softer than what international channels were saying. Meanwhile our European partners were slow to make decisions or take action.

Impossible IMF demands drove Greeks in their countless thousands into the streets

It’s now perfectly clear that by wasting time they gave a big boost to markets and speculators. To avoid national bankruptcy and default, the Greek government found itself obliged in the course of a few months to enact a series of harsh austerity measures demanded by the IMF and the European Central Bank. Steep cuts in Greek social programs, wage cuts across the public sector, tax increases requiring even minimum-wage workers to pay much higher taxes, cutbacks in pensions — so-called reforms.

Greece’s state assets were to be privatized and sold to private banks and investors at heavily discounted prices. Greece, it seemed, was for sale and it was the sale of the century — the telephone company, the country’s two main ports, the national lottery, etc. But we have to keep in mind that these decisions were made without any kind of consensus. And what the government was being asked to achieve was close to impossible. People weren’t prepared to accept the measures, and took to the streets.

People’s loss of trust in the government has eroded any sense of identity with the state

In Greece there is no identification between the citizen and the state. Unfortunately such bonding has never taken place. Greeks are individuals first then citizens. This is the result of years of political corruption. No one trusted the state. The clientelism system, a patronage system based on exchange of votes for favours, and the party-affiliated unions have undermined the social fabric.

Workers feel doubly betrayed

The workers who are protesting in the streets, the Indignants of Syntagma square, feel doubly betrayed both by the successive administrations that, through waste, abuse and mismanagement brought them to this point, and by their European partners who borrow at rates of 1.5 or 3% interest and then lend to Greece at 5 or 6%, making money from Greek misfortune.

Greek bitterness towards Germans for current and past betrayals

Then there is the German question. Of all the eurozone nations, Germany is the most strident in insisting that the Greeks be punished for their fiscal irresponsibility. Yet Germany was the world’s largest debtor after both world wars and in both instances owed its economic recovery to debt relief on a massive scale. The Greeks have reopened the matter of the Germans’ unpaid debts to them, which date back to World War 2. When it occupied Greece, Germany confiscated all the gold in the state treasury as a war loan to cover the costs of occupation. Today this loan, which was never repaid, would be worth $95 billion US. The only reason Germany refuses to pay this money back is that it would create a precedent. In other words, other countries might seek a similar restitution. But that is hardly a moral justification for a failure to pay.

But the deepest cut of all comes from successive administrations’ incompetence and corruption

Amidst all of this turmoil Greeks feel abandoned, confused. The country is on the brink of disaster. In their panic, some people are stockpiling canned food and milk in their homes. Others have withdrawn all their savings from the bank.

In this dark atmosphere, the only trace of vitality, the only sign of hope is the unexpected flowering of artistic activity. New galleries are springing up in depressed neighbourhoods. Films are being shot on shoestring budgets and without state funding. Young artists and writers seem to be energized by the crisis, finding ways to create new work.

If years of corrupt government, clientelism and favouritism prevented Greeks from developing a sense of citizenship, that doesn’t mean that all Greeks are corrupt or thieves. It is a fact, though, that the fundamental source of this crisis is the inability of successive administrations to deal with Greece’s economic problems with its failed investment policies, with the corruption that has penetrated all levels of the state apparatus, and with the clientelist system that has brought the country to the edge of an abyss.

Today the lofty ideals of the “Fathers of Europe” seem like empty words

Though we know that other countries on the periphery of the eurozone will soon follow in Greece’s wake, that doesn’t make us feel any more European. Europe failed to develop a European spirit. The ideals that inspired Altiero Spinelli and Jean Monnet, the Fathers of Europe, and formed the basis of the Treaty of Rome, which was intended to create a peaceful Europe, independent from the US, founded on common development and mutual support , seem today like empty words.

There is no solidarity between member states. The union turned out to be a monetary union of technocrats incapable of developing a common foreign policy or a common economic strategy. ‘Europe’, ‘euro’, eurozone’, ‘Eurobonds’ – the more we talk, the less meaning the word seems to seem to have.

Nothing is left of the myth of the young beautiful Europa who dreamed that two continents were fighting over her, and who was seen next morning by Zeus who fell in love with her and transformed himself into a bull and abducted her.

I have my own story about Europe, one I have told other times too because to my mind it provides a fitting symbol for this fragile union, a union that seems to have been created only to be betrayed. Years ago in my public elementary school in the small city of Patras a new student showed up in the class in the middle of the year, a thin dark-haired girl. All the other kids made fun of her name – ‘Europa’. Her family had crossed the border twice, so they had lived doubly-stigmatized lives: first as exiles in Bulgaria after the Civil War and then a second time as refugees in their own country. Who knows what dreams their parents had when they gave her that name? I still wonder.

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