Tight Belts, Lazy Greeks and The Echoes of OXI

/ by Clemens Berger

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The 25th of January 2015 was a remarkable day for someone born in 1979. For the first time in my life I had the feeling I could be on the winners’ side in an election, or, more precisely, that my side, a truly leftist party, could actually win a national European election.  It was an unknown feeling. The café where I went to watch the evening’s events was crammed with people and humming with anticipation. There was an air of hope and expectancy and contagious euphoria amongst people all but used to winning. Leftists from all currents had come together, I saw people I hadn’t seen since leaving university. Everyone was glowing. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was waiting for something to happen. There was a big screen on which the Greek national TV was broadcast. Students translated simultaneously; Viennese activists reported via webcam from Athens; people from Podemos had shown up. The first projections came in. Cheering, clapping, laughter - and most of all: utter disbelief. There was only one question left: Will we win an absolute majority?

 

We were laughing, we had to repeat what we had just asked ourselves, it was breathtaking, if not outright unbelievable - almost forty percent of the people who voted (out of the people allowed to vote) had cast their vote for a leftist and progressive agenda that wanted to put an end to the vicious circle of debt and austerity that had hit ordinary Greeks over the last decade. Laughter arose when Andonis Samaras from Nea Dimokratia finally managed to step in front of the cameras to say he left a healthy and intact country, on a sound path to economic recovery. There was only one person whose words were met with even more derisive laughter, and that was Dimitris Koutsoumbas from the KKE who maintained that his party would never support Syriza and the traitors of the working class in forming a government. Even the worst sectarians shook their heads. It had been almost three years since the retired pharmacist Dimitri Christoulas had shot himself on Athen’s central Syntagma Square, leaving behind a note in which he wrote, ‘And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.’

 

It was a close call. A few percent were missing for an absolute majority, one single seat out of three hundred, the forming of a government would not be easy, but then, in the late hours of that Sunday, there was something new, something hitherto unimaginable: There was hope, there was a feeling that finally something could change in Europe, for the better, in our lifetime, that nothing would be the same again. That this could and would be a stepping stone for a new confident Left showing the people of Europe an alternative to the state of the Union. The state of capitalism. The state of austerity. The state of letting the poor pay and giving rise to the extreme right that knows well enough how to thrive on people’s deprivations, and how to nourish their fears only to pretend to be their cure. Above all, those were our people. Men and women who had been leading the same debates, fought the same and similar fights, met at the same occasions, spoke the same language - and that is not a national one. After all, it was Alexis Tspiras who had said in a debate with Slavoj Žižek in Zagreb that if Syriza won, nothing in Europe would be the same anymore.  

 

And yet we knew from the outset how limited Syriza’s powers to bring about a profound change really were. Everything had to be done within the framework of the European Union, within capitalism, within liberal representative democracy, and, most of all, within and against the unimaginable debt former Greek governments had amassed in alliance with European economic elites. Still the outcome was open. And Syriza fought to ease the lives of millions and to pave a way to more equality. The debts should, at least substantially, be cancelled to allow for an alternative path and a better future for all, no new debts should be made. The rich who hid their money in safe havens should be taxed, the underprivileged given back their dignity. But when the new government wanted to pass a ‘humanitarian crisis bill’ to provide free electricity for the poorest households and tackle poverty among pensioners and families that had lost their homes during the crisis, the European Commission’s director for economical and financial affairs vetoed it. And when Syriza’s budget proposal was leaked after it had been sent back by the creditors, it looked like the homework of a lousy pupil, full of red cancellations and inserts. Everything that would have made a difference for the ones hit hardest by the crisis was crossed out while the inserts spoke a crystal clear language - more austerity, quicker implementation, harsher cuts than ever. Needless to say that the probably most radical proposal, a one time taxation of twelve percent on corporate profits over half a million euro, was crossed out.

 

Maurizio Cattelan's L.O.V.E.
It was a struggle to turn back the tide. It was, for the time being, reformism at its best. There was a new style in politics, even somewhat of an emerging leftist glamour. It was not only prime minister and ministers flying economy class, selling their automobile fleet or riding on a motorbike to the office. It was amazing to see a pale Jeroen Dijsselbloem whisper to Yanis Varoufakis, whose hand he wouldn't shake, that the latter had just killed the Troika. It became highly visible how all of those who had been good careerists all their lives hated Syriza’s guts. Because, most important - all of a sudden there was another discourse about Europe, the economy and austerity, about the banks and debts and the lazy Greeks (and people of the South), about being human. Suddenly there was an alternative. There was a counter-story. That there was enough for everyone; that everyone deserved a good and decent life; that it had to start with a radically different form of distribution and reason for production. This alternative was heard. It was seen. It was discussed. People started to dream again, to imagine other forms of living and working and producing the world together. I overheard many sympathize with the new Greek government that I would never have thought capable of sympathizing with someone labeled as leftist extremists. It was a European Ya Basta; it was a loud and proud Enough is enough! It seemed to echo Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture in front of Milano’s stock exchange, the giant stretched out middle-finger carved out of marble.  

 

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At the same time we witnessed the recklessness of the European Union’s leaders fighting a government that was all but revolutionary. Syriza had adopted a more or less social democratic agenda; at least it would have been one in the 70s - these days it appears radical. The other side did not move, did not waver. Even if it was clear that Greece would never be able to repay its debt and needed a serious cut to grow its economy again and get people out of misery, the apostles of austerity rejected any plan that would interfere with the status quo.  

 

It was an assault on citizens of the European Union in plain sight. It was not only an ideological fight about what was just and what was not. It was about the living conditions in a country within the European Union that had hit bottom in an unprecedented and unfathomable manner. In the midst of all the Union’s wealth, people had no medicine, couldn’t pay their rents and had to rely on soup kitchens. Child mortality rose to an unexpected height. Suicides went through the roof. Pensioners had to live from hand to mouth. Unemployment skyrocketed, especially amongst the young. And still, propaganda maintained that the Greeks were living off our money - and a frightening number of Europeans believed that to be true. They wanted to believe it to be true, since there had to be someone responsible for all the hardships they encountered every day. Rage against the existing order was transferred into resentment towards the most vulnerable citizens of the Union. While almost nothing of the money pumped into Greece had benefited them, the Greek people were told to tighten their belts. For they had, as we heard time and again, lived over their means. Who had lived over whose means? Thus the picture of the lazy Greek living off ordinary European tax payer’s money was painted. The lazy Greek did not work around the clock, took a nap instead, opened her small shop whenever she wanted, lay under a tree, drank wine or watched the sea while the rest of the hard working Europeans had to pay for their idleness. On the other hand that was precisely the image the hard working European tax payer glorified on holidays. Wasn’t that how life was supposed to be? Simple and cheerful, unimpressed by the constant rush for more? Not living to work, but working to live? And not restricting life to holidays of consumption?

 

As the drama unfolded from day to day and the media reported on it in so called real time (suddenly we had live tickers not only for soccer games), we watched and learned what we would have to accept on July 12th, when Tsipras finally signed the third memorandum, signed what they had fought and campaigned against and even got a second mandate to reject - that there is no possibility of real social change within the actual European Union, within the framework of capitalism and representative democracy.  

 

The Greek Left was shattered, the government had lost its credibility - one could and should see throughout Europe that there was nothing to be done. That things were as they were, the economy, the debt, the obligations, the measures of austerity, and rightly so. That everyone who promises an alternative ultimately has to betray it. In most parts of Europe the extreme right grew stronger again, the media circus moved on, Greece disappeared from the spotlight. Now the refugees ceaselessly occupied all media attention. Suddenly the German government, which had been toughest on Greece, showed a humane face, while also being aware it needed a new young and cheap workforce. When finally the government of the United Kingdom pushed for a new deal for themselves, against the very essence of that which is good about the European Union (freedom of movement for workers, freedom of settlement for individuals, equal access to social benefits), the European Union was only too eager to have it their way. No threats, no blackmail, no vilifying - the city of London with its businesses and stock exchange had to stay. Still a majority of those wo went to the polls (out of those allowed to vote) voted for leaving the European Union. The day after, Google reported for the United Kingdom a tremendous increase in search entries for ‘European Union’. When recently reports came in that the Greek government was about to privatize gas, water and electricity, just as it had to lay down in the third memorandum, a circle seemed to have closed.

 

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Still we must not forget the days of hope and uprising, the days of joy and solidarity. In the middle of the harshest corporate media attacks, threatening the Greeks with having to leave the European Union as well as the Eurozone and to pay a terrible price for their extremist government’s foolishness, after banks had been closed and restrictions upon withdrawals imposed, a majority of the people allowed to vote nevertheless said Oxi to a third memorandum, to more austerity and more of the same old traps. The day after Syriza had called the referendum the cover of a big German newspapers showed Alexis Tsipras putting a gun to his temple. It read ‘Give me your money, or I shoot’. Yet the picture really betrayed that it was suicide to ask the people what should be done. Naturally they rejected austerity. They had suffered it, while the ten biggest European banks made a 29-billion-euro-profit in 2015. The Oxi spread throughout Europe. It said: We want our lives back; there is enough for everyone; we can’t afford the rich anymore. It has not disappeared. It is still here.

 

This is the situation we are living in. The situation in which I am writing. Writing, for me, is playing with the undersurface of language, with all that does not amount to simple communication. It’s about listening to language, words, their intricate connections and histories.

 

Today’s broadcast language is out of joint. Words, uttered in public, spread through corporate media, do not mean much anymore. Printed words should generate profit, acquire or at least not interfere with advertisements. The borders between language, promotion and propaganda are constantly getting blurred. The predominant language is the language of business economy and capitalist management. It’s promoting the existing order, while at the same time taken to a perverse extreme by right wing propaganda and challenged by leftist solidarity. Yet the mass media focus on scandals, and that is the breaching of the predominant etiquette. The far right is strong at that. They say that they say what must not be said. But they never say what really must not be said - that it’s not words that have to be changed in the first place, but control of the economy and the distribution of wealth. Over the years the far right have attacked what they call Lügenpresse only to establish their own proper Lügenpresse. They learned quickly how to abuse social networks and how to turn into a farce what they, too, call alternative media. That’s how their followers, who have been told time and again that they are being fed lies each and every day, now are being fed their lies each and every day.  

 

On the path to elections, established politics pursue but one goal: What needs to be said and promised to reach this and that target audience? How to present an offer for as many segments of society as possible? Everyone contends to be at the center of society. Yet who has ever seen that center? What could it possibly mean? The self-appointed center longs for a smooth running of business as usual and labels everything that does not agree with the existing order as populist. It’s the old conservative story of the extremes just being two sides of one coin. Yet the center’s perspective really is the global market’s. It knows no parties; it knows only capitalism’s reason and location competition. The center feels threatened by anti-austerity parties that would slow down profits and disquiet the markets. Who is against austerity is extremist or populist. No matter what arguments, no matter what visions of a different society are put forward. Facts, statistics, arguments, even evidence don’t mean much anymore.  

 

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We find, roughly speaking, three prominent answers to the current situation. One is the liberal that advocates equality and respect and tolerance, dismisses all forms of discrimination, speaks out against sexism, homophobia, racism, the rise of the right wing, welcomes refugees, protects minorities, bemoans climate change, tries to live ecologically, etc. It’s a liberal stance when it comes down to questions of how a society should be - freedom of the individual, everyone as they please as long as they don’t try to impose their lifestyles on others. Sometimes it’s for a stronger welfare state, sometimes not. Its terrain is morality. It views itself as progressive. It can still partake of some of the amenities of the global order - traveling, the last remnants of a thorough education, arts and letters and the feeling of being at the pulse of time, without prejudices. The main point, however, is this: It does not question capitalism per se. It wants to improve it morally. It does not confront the roots of inequalities. It is, in the strict sense of the word, a conservative stance. More women, homosexuals or people of color in leading positions will not turn capitalism into a machine for social justice. The correct usage of non-abusive language will not benefit the economically exploited.

 

Then there is a right wing, so called populist, sometimes fascist answer to the crisis that calls for law and order and invokes the nation. Everyone and everything should have their fixed places in society, identities should be steady and traditional. It wants tight borders, a monoculture that is nothing but a fiction, good old times that never existed, and, most important, it wants to restrict economic exploitation to its own nationals. It stands, at least publicly, for national capitalism. It hates unions. It abhors workers’ rights. It wants to keep people compliant - work, consume, obey. It wants to keep the underprivileged despising those who are socially below them - for they must never question their bosses, and if so, only along racial terms. It is a reactionary stance. It’s war and hatred in the long run.

 

Unfortunately, ordinary people who cast their vote for the far right view the adherents of the liberal position as the Left. That’s what they see and hear in big media, that’s what their leaders tell them, those are the people that stand (alongside the others: refugees, migrants, muslims, jews, etc.) as scapegoats for everything that doesn’t or isn’t supposed to work. (If only a small percentage of the people that the right wing and the tabloids call communists were actually communists!) Social democrats, liberals, Greens, liberal conservatives - for them they represent the Left. And that Left offers them nothing. It doesn’t speak for them. It doesn’t fight for them. It doesn’t know about their lives. It has, in the name of progress, abandoned everything it once stood for. Leftness here is suspected first and foremost in language. More precisely: in the way to speak correctly about women, homosexuals, foreigners and immigrants, about sex, other cultures and religions. The left, they think, wants to strip them of their language, views itself as morally aloft, lives in an ivory tower that has nothing to do with reality and despises them for being not sophisticated enough. In short, they mistrust the right people for the wrong reasons.  

 

While respect and equal treatment should be the lowest common denominator of civilized behavior, there is a grain of truth to the discomfort with language politics. Although conservatives and reactionaries talk about how Political Correctness (a specter of its own) was the failed Leftists’ revenge on society, we should not overlook that its origins are linked to theorists and activists that once had dreamed of a revolution. The revolution failed, or didn’t last, but in language it should take place. In language it should be redeemed. At least in language, oppression and hierarchies, exploitation and abuse were to be abolished and democracy installed. That way, maybe, language as a productive force would change society. That’s the liberals’ dilemma: While they purged political language of everything related to classes, struggles, let alone revolution, of almost everything that has to do with the very fabric of capitalist society, the distinctions between the world’s owners and those who have nothing but their lives and time to sell if they want to survive, they look down on everyone who does not speak the proper language and seems incapable of overcoming their prejudices. It might be crucial to remember Marx’s theoretical figure of the proletariat - it needed a revolution to do away with itself, with its living conditions, its restrictions, its limitations, to realize its full human potential.  

 

The third answer, however, questions private ownership of the means of production and focuses on cooperation. It sees how material and immaterial goods are collectively produced and privately appropriated, while knowledge and skills are with those who produce. Why should we produce goods and information for the profit of others? This is a genuinely leftist stance. It is about solidarity. It asks what should be produced and how. How commonly produced wealth should be distributed differently. It wants to change the mode of production and thereby the way how human beings relate to each other. What they tell each other, what and how they negotiate, and what they want to change. It has seen - especially over the last years - that capitalism is the crisis, and that the so called financial crisis is not an exception to the rule but its inner truth. That all forms of government within its national framework are merely different modes of managing today’s capitalism. Some might be more pleasant than others. Some politicians might speak a more civilized language than others. Yet on a different level of societal cooperation, in another time with similar fears, we hear the echo of Bertolt Brecht addressing writers and intellectuals in the June of 1935 when he closed his speech at the First International Conference of Writers for the Defense of Culture in Paris with the infamous line: “Comrades, let us talk about the conditions of property ownership!“

 

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The Oxi is still here. In former times the total cancellation of all debts was the starting point for a new social order, the beginning of a new reign. Only if the tables were turned, something new was able to emerge. Only without debt one could be free. The debtor is always at the creditor’s mercy, even if their relationship might appear as a contract between free individuals. Only after the debt is settled, the debtor is free again. That’s exactly what the Bible meant with ‘And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors’. Over the course of time debt took on the meaning of sin. In the original text the term used is ὀφείλημα (opheilema): that which is owed.

 

Debts are numbers on screens. They are both fictional and real. There is enough for a good life for everyone, if balance sheets didn’t control productivity. We should paraphrase an old conservative calendar motto: While capitalism might be a good idea, human beings are not made for it. Let us be lazy Greeks - if lazy means to work to live, and not the other way round.

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Clemens Berger

born 1979 in southern Burgenland, Austria, studied philosophy at the University of Vienna. He’s a writer, essayist and playwright. Recent publications: „Und hieb ihm das rechte Ohr ab“ (2009), „Das Streichelinstitut“ (2010), „Ein Versprechen von Gegenwart“ (2013), „Im Jahr des Panda“ (2016), www.clemensberger.at


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