published in openDemocracy on 1 July 2015
The announcement of the decision of the prime minister of Greece in the early hours of last Saturday, to hold a referendum on whether Greece should accept the draft agreement of a new debt relief programme or not, took me by surprise.
Having been active in the Eurocommunist Left of the 1980s I was aware that the claims that SYRIZA saw itself as an upholder of that pro-European Left tradition were largely exaggerated, but despite my private doubts on this issue, I did not expect the agenda of the party to include the possibility of an exit from the Eurozone and, more importantly, a profound clash with Greece’s European partners.
So, last Saturday morning, as I was frantically going through news stories about the Greek debt crisis and what appeared to be the collapse of the negotiations between Greece and its creditors I came across various explanations about what had transpired.
Tsipras, some reports said, had been humiliated when his partners/creditors started annotating the document he had submitted with red ink as if he were a student in front of his irate and cruel teachers. As the Greek Prime Minister himself stared into the camera in his post-midnight address, he said that the 5 July referendum was to record the response of the Greek people to the “strict and humiliating austerity” proposed by the institutions. He urged the electorate to “respond to authoritarianism and harsh austerity with democracy”. He then resorted to familiar clichés about Greece being the birthplace of democracy, and that the popular choice would honour the country’s history and send a message of dignity worldwide.
Leaving the clichés aside – my generation grew up suspicious of such patriotic hype – I could very much agree with the fact that the negotiations with the European partners had degenerated into attempts to cajole the Greek government into signing up to a blueprint that blatantly ignored the opinion of the not-negligible portion of the electorate that voted for SYRIZA, and its right-wing Eurosceptic government partner, the Independent Greeks. I would not at all dispute furthermore that SYRIZA’s argument that the obsession of Greece’s creditors with a punishing regime of austerity was counterproductive – indeed five years of punitive spending cuts and taxation regime had brought economic dislocation and chaos to the economy, precluding any possibility of development in the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, the creditors were also shocked at the Greek unilateral decision to leave the negotiation table and announce a referendum. For them, this was proof that the government was in bad faith and intending to reject what they saw as a reasonable and constructive offer, the manifestation of their solidarity with the Greek people at such a difficult moment. They took every opportunity to point out that the Greek side had squandered any opportunity they were given to come up with concrete and constructive proposals, and to complain that Greek ministers were in the habit of lecturing their counterparts.
The opinions of experts were equally divided. For example economics Nobel laureates such as Krugman and Stiglitz who recommend a no vote in contrast to their fellow laureate Pissarides who urges a yes vote were the most notable instances of a unbridgeable divide among financial analysts, politicians and policy makers. The arguments were split. On the one hand, there were those that decoupled a no vote from the possibility of Grexit or stressed the potency of a no vote as a negotiating tool or, finally, saw in grexit the possibility of Greece regaining its lost economic sovereignty and being able to plan towards a recovery. On the other, there were other scenarios that saw in Grexit the potential of impoverishment, rationing of essential goods, destruction of health and educational infrastructures; some even went as far as to argue that exit from the Eurozone would mean exit from the EU, international isolation and the undermining of national sovereignty.
What was – and still is - even more confusing, disconcerting and troubling for me are the fundamental disagreements among advocates of the yes and no vote with regards to what is ‘true’ and what constitutes a lie, propaganda or conspiracy.
Among some of my friends and acquaintances statements issued by Eurozone, or European Commission officials or representatives of other governments are offhandedly and unequivocally dismissed as blatant lies, whereas Greek government statements are greeted as honest and truthful, and vice versa.
The way the IMF and our European creditors and partners on the one hand, and successive Greek governments including the current one have been approaching the fiscal crisis has divided Greek society to the extent that trust –interpersonal, social , one can name it in different ways – has become a rare commodity. In this peculiar universe situated in the shadow of the endless back and forth of proposals and counter-proposals and the exchange of recriminations by the parties to the debt crisis negotiations, there are two truths, or rather ‘only one’ but held as such by roughly half of the population whereas the other half upholds an alternative truth.
In such a polarized context the ‘other’ is seen as an a priori liar, disseminating deceit and propaganda. I recently witnessed a discussion by yes supporters about a well known musician arguing for exiting the Eurozone; the exchange could be described at best as hatefilled, his moral integrity, social standing and exemplary artistic qualities were doubted and discounted uncritically because of his particular opinion on this matter. Similarly, supporters of the yes vote are invariably described as stooges of foreign centres, or traitors or fascists (despite the irony of the national socialist Golden Dawn calling for a no vote).
The polarization and the language used to demarcate boundaries, separate people, undermine friendships, evokes memories of the post-civil-war period when Greek society was rigidly divided along a Left/Right axis that penetrated and split neighbourhoods, villages, families and tore apart the social fabric of a war ravaged society. We are clearly living through a traumatic period where simplistic binary divisions dissimulate the complexity of our social and political life, where respect, or at least tolerance towards difference and diversity of opinion gives way to intolerance and mistrust, where disagreement mutates into intense antagonism.
In her essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’, Gayatri Spivak draws upon the debates surrounding the 1929 British abolition of the sati, the Hindu custom of widow sacrifice in the funeral pyre of her dead husband, in order to stress the ambiguity inherent in the relationship between the imperialist subject and the subject of imperialism. In a nutshell, Spivak points out that the British colonial intervention could be understood as ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’, while the Hindu nativist reaction to it took the form of an assertion by brown men that ‘the brown women actually wanted to die’. While white and brown men fought to represent the interests and voice of Indian women, the latter were nowhere to be found in the debate, their voice remained unheard and their fate decided by others who assumed the role of the colonist and the colonized.
Indeed, public debate in Greece, but also in the lobbies of Brussels, is conducted in very much the same way. The Greek side has been using tropes premised on binaries such as colonist versus colonized (incidentally the current Greek Foreign minister has written a book entitled Debt Colony), them and us to support perceptions of injustice and implacable conflict. The decision to pursue the argument of the German war reparations that cast Greece in the role of the victim and Germany in that of the war criminal is one of the most notable examples of this.
But also, the Greek prime Minister’s tweets are increasingly adopting patriotic or nationalist tones with the creditors/partners described vaguely as ‘they’ and ‘them’, part of an ethereal conspiracy to humiliate the Greeks.
On the other hand, media on the ‘other’ side of the divide such as Der Spiegel and Bild have repeatedly juxtaposed the lazy, credit-dependent Greeks to the hardworking Germans who are taken for a ride. Eurogroup ministers of finance have talked often about the irresponsibility of the Greek side, implying that they themselves were acting responsibly and were beyond reproach.
What happens in this war of attrition between the European creditors and the Greek government is that particular definitions of the situation, opinions and interests are prioritized at the expense of others. In the case of Greek society, the subaltern – to use the terminology proposed by Spivak – become invisible and inaudible. Divides that need to be acknowledged and addressed such as that between the public and private sector workers are barely visible. The government’s red lines in its clash with its creditors include the protection of salaries and pensions in the public sector but hardly acknowledge the need to create the conditions for job security and decent standards of living among private sector employees. Only two days ago a senior SYRIZA cadre dismissed fears that a possible Grexit might decimate private sector jobs by blatantly pointing out that most private sector employees have not been paid for several months, and that the possibility therefore would not represent a notable loss.
Alongside these underprivileged employees stand the unemployed, voiceless, mainly young people who have never had a chance to become economically active as the crisis and its mismanagement by successive Greek governments and their European Union creditors and partners devastated the job market. These are the voiceless current day subalterns who have been underrepresented and ‘on behalf of whom’ the Greek governments and their lenders have been negotiating.
Although the referendum that has been called has been hailed by many a triumph of democracy, it is, in my opinion, yet another mechanism that can render a large part of the electorate voiceless. Because the straightjacket of the choice of one of two options does not allow for the full spectrum of possible opinions to be expressed. The polarization inherent in the invitation to make such a simple yes or no choice leaves us all in a state of aporia as the either/or logic makes it almost impossible to address the variety and diversity of fears, aspirations and opinions we, the electorate may have. And, what is more, how will a no or yes vote be construed? Will no be a vote for grexit? Will it open the way for further negotiation? Will it preclude staying in the Eurozone?
#bettertogether but …
Or, conversely, to demonstrate my own personal aporia; would my yes vote indicate that I accept capitulation to the wishes of the creditors and partners, and that I opt for a regime of austerity that punishes ordinary people but rewards banks for recklessly funding the bottomless pit of the Greek state with capital they never had. Would it support a Eurozone that works primarily to ensure bank solvency - that is where most of the bailout funds have gone after all?
Or does it express a wish to remain at the centre of the European unification process (including the Eurozone) as the #bettertogether hashtag suggests? My yes for example is not a yes to the underhand tactics of our partners, tactics that can be construed to be tantamount to attempts to effect regime change. My yes is not a rejection of the argument that SYRIZA articulated that austerity has failed, that austerity constitutes a selective punitive mechanism that ignores the co-responsibility of creditor and borrower and that affects the life chances of real people. It is not an endorsement of the transformation of the core institutions of the European Union into collection agents that demand conformity and compliance or else.
I would vote yes as I do not want my objections to the way the crisis has been managed at home and in Brussels to be usurped by politicians that dream that they can give the Union a bloody nose by destroying the Eurozone or that want to use the woes of my country as an example to be avoided by my fellow Europeans who will be going to the polls later this year to elect a government in Spain and elsewhere – as I said before, trust is at an all-time low and I am not immune to the paranoia this creates.
I would like my yes to serve as the start of the process of regaining my voice as a Greek and a European citizen. As a starting point for reconnecting with other fellow Europeans, for hearing them and for being heard, for meeting relative strangers in our common home and seeking to understand their standpoint and, why not, joining our voices.