Since the Greek catastrophe began four years ago*, its cause has changed in the public discourse every few months. Each of these supposed causes has seemed credible, at least for a time, as each has become known to us in the pages of distinguished media or from the mouths of political leaders. Yet the fundamental reason for the wrecking of Greece remains largely unspoken.
First, you might remember, it was a genetic “profligacy” — unfettered public spending — that did the Greeks in. To many ordinary Greeks, the real enemy at that time was Germany, which was intent on reoccupying the country, if not physically, then at least economically, some 65 years after the Nazis left. Then it was the Greek government — first George Papandreou’s PASOK party, then the caretaker government of Loukas Papademos, and then the current coalition government — that became the enemy, as it acted as the agent of austerity for its European masters. Protesters amassed outside the Greek parliament and seemed determined to torch it, were it not for the riot police that held the crowds back. The enemy of Greece conveniently changed first to the Greek left — the supporters of the ascending center-left SYRIZA party — who threatened to take power from the two parties on the right, PASOK and New Democracy, which had traded power since 1974. SYRIZA supporters, too, found a worthy enemy, not only in Germany, austerity, and the bail-out agreement, but also in the neo-fascist supporters of Golden Dawn. (Ironically, both SYRIZA and Golden Dawn opposed austerity, but preferred to wage a civil war of sorts in the streets of Athens.) These anything-but-Golden Dawn geniuses, by the way, have set up foreign immigrants — the country’s weakest class — as the true enemy, committing an untold number of criminal attacks against them. More recently, anarchists, whose political alignment is at times in dispute, too, have claimed some of the limelight reserved for the true enemy. And they, in turn, take aim at the police, with whom they do hand-to-hand battle in the streets. (The police, by the way, are easy to dislike, being the most visibly corrupt public organization in the country.)
Vanquishing any and all of these enemies promised, at one time or another, some fantastic return to a pre-catastrophe idyll — to the summer sun, bouzoukia, nepotism, materialism, class and racial inequality, and environmental destruction.
All of which would be just fine for those who receive little attention as ordinary people do battle with themselves and with their impotent government. These are the oligarchs — a mix of old but mostly new money — whose fortunes ballooned as compliant politicians helped them transfer public wealth into offshore accounts. These are the same people who control the country’s news media, soccer clubs, oil refining, construction, real estate, and of course banking. For them, any enemy will do.
*In reality, the catastrophe began much earlier, as I suggested in a book I published back in 2004.
The Shock Wave in Greece
It was startling and sickening when Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-Nazi gang, took nearly seven percent of the vote in May’s national elections. Immediately afterwards, Golden Dawn flashed its violent and authoritarian ways by setting an appalling rule for its press conferences: journalists had to stand as the gang leader entered the room, or they would be kicked out. Excuses and wishful thinking followed, as Greeks sought to come to terms with the thugs who now commanded 21 seats in parliament: people had voted out of anger, without really understanding what Golden Dawn was; or voters were just looking to shake things up; or Golden Dawn’s vote count would drop in the next election as people would come to their senses.
Days before the elections on June 17, Golden Dawn grabbed the headlines again. During a televised political discussion, one of the gang’s lieutenants, a skinhead, turned on two female parliamentary candidates of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). The skinhead tossed water from his glass on the first and slapped the second several times.
That was surely the end. People saw Golden Dawn for what it really was. Political leaders condemned the incident. (Yet the leader of the center-right party, who ultimately became prime minister, included an anti-immigrant plank in his platform that was little different from Golden Dawn’s position.) As it turned out, the incident had no effect. There has even been speculation that the violence reversed the decline in support for Golden Dawn.
Ultimately, the neo-Nazis garnered just 15,000 fewer votes in the June elections, a decrease of 0.05% of the vote. Some eighteen of their gangsters entered parliament earlier this week. No incidents of violence have been reported in the chamber yet.
Here’s what a friend told the New York Times on election night
“‘It took us 2,500 years after Plato and Socrates to get to this point, where we have a society with laws and a democracy where we use dialogue to communicate and resolve our issues,’ he said. ‘Now it seems some people want to go back to chaos with a society in which whoever is strongest wins.’”
Greece, a good friend in Athens recently declared, doesn’t have an economic problem, but a cultural one (politismiko provlima). Indeed, the abuses of power, corruption, and materialism that bankrupted the country were primarily social failures, not fiscal blunders. In my first blog entry two years ago, I wrote optimistically about the possibility of crisis leading to renewal, of Greeks embracing not only a new economic model, but a new social order that cultivated civil society. Since then, there have been some encouraging signs: the creation of a barter system; a modest back to the land movement; and the wide participation of people in protests against austerity. The recent elections, too, held some promise of a new start. The electoral gains of the neonazis, of course, are a big exception. Still, the proliferation of smaller parties on the left and the right, and the electoral collapse of the two parties — PASOK and New Democracy — that had exchanged power for nearly four decades suggested a reordering of Greek politics.
But as Greece prepares to return to the polls on June 17 — the previous elections did not yield a clear winner — the political discourse has regressed by some thirty years. The two leading candidates, a conservative and a leftist, are using extreme language and innuendo to attack one another. For Antonis Samaras of the conservative New Democracy party, his rival, Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA is “dangerous” and “naive,” someone intent on “wrecking” the country. I’m reminded of Andreas Papandreou, the legendary socialist leader, who in the 1980s would suggest that a vote for the right was tantamount to supporting dictatorship. Greek media have played along, reverting to their habits of covering elections as if they were a rowdy soccer match. Rather than an opportunity to debate the fundamental issues facing the country, the election is reduced to a battle of two personalities, whose supporters endow them with all of their hopes and aspirations. As if this social crisis will be solved by a single politician, or a single political party. It’s this kind of paternalistic thinking that had created and protected a corrupt political class and that made cronyism a way of life in Greece.
Orwellian bonus for readers of Greek: On his final days on the job, Andreas Loverdos, the Minister of Health and Social Solidarity, a PASOK deputy, called on doctors to refuse medical care to immigrants: http://www.avgi.gr/ArticleActionshow.action?articleID=688585
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” ― Plato
It’s been a difficult few days. I’ve spent them in rural New England, but my thoughts have rarely strayed away from Athens, from my friends and relatives there, the suffering that has gripped the city. As far away as I have been, I have been anxious — at times in physical pain — as I’ve watched Greek skinheads celebrate their party’s electoral gains, or as I’ve received hate mail from their sympathizers. Flashes of childhood memories mix with these new scenes: the deep bullet scar from the war in my uncle’s calf; a tank smashing through a university’s gate; posters with the names of dead students.
I’ve been thinking about fear, my own and theirs, the ones who voted last Sunday. One out of five is out of a job. Those who are still working have seen their salaries cut by as much as half. Hope, it seems, now comes only in the form of irregular bail-out payments. It’s all miserable and humiliating and easy to see that it could make one feel violated, powerless, and frightened.
Athenians are afraid, and I am afraid, and perhaps those who voted for Golden Dawn are the Greeks who are most afraid. The Greek working class, from which the group draws its support, has long suffered in a society of deep class divisions and social inequity. In the crisis, these, too, are the people who are the least capable of weathering hardship. Which might explain why Golden Dawn’s supporters scapegoat immigrants — the only social group weaker and more vulnerable than them. (How fatefully ironic that Germany would be the driver of Greek austerity and the inspiration for Greece’s worst social pathology.)
A social entrepreneur, who tries to rehabilitate violent offenders among Germany’s right-wing extremists, says she first tries to reawaken feelings of empathy in them. It got me thinking about fear and how it can destroy empathy, making ordinary people act like monsters.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.” ― Elie Wiesel
Greeks are suffering as their country lies in the European margin, ravaged by the global financial system. For this predicament, a sizable portion of the Greek electorate is about to blame not bankers or politicians, but a class of people who are suffering even more than ordinary Greeks. For voters of the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi gang, the problem is other, even poorer people — the undocumented migrants and refugees who live in Greece. And the solution is waving flags redolent of Nazi Germany, violence, and a place in parliament from which to legitimize their barbarism.
UPDATE: Greeks will awake to a vile dawn on May 7, 2012, as some 350,000 of them cast their vote for the neo-Nazis. With nearly 7% of the vote, they are projected to hold 21 seats in parliament. In its first official act of intimidation, these goons forced journalists to stand as the chief goon entered the room for his post-election press conference. Any journalist that refused to stand would have to leave. And so they all stood.