Greece: ‘At a Slight Angle to the Universe’
Preface: The following column was written before Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras offered Greece’s proposals and concessions, including acquiescing to continued severe austerity measures without promise of debt relief to the Troika. As the conflict is still in flux, with possible votes on Sunday, I offer my column as originally conceived. Today I continue to stand in solidarity with the Greek people and recognize the power of OXI!
In 1968, while traveling to Beirut from Naples aboard a Greek freighter, I took advantage of a stopover in Alexandria, Egypt, to make a small pilgrimage to honor a poet.
While I knew Alexandria from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and as the location of one of the fabled seven wonders of the ancient world, the Lighthouse at Pharos, my objective that day was to have lunch with my girlfriend at the rundown Cecil Hotel, legendary as the hangout of Constantine P. Cavafy, whom I had discovered as a teen.
Cavafy, described by E.M. Forster as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe,” was civil servant by day, poet by night and, like other savants, revered more posthumously than in life.
In Che fece … il gran rifiuto [He who made … the Great Refusal] Cavafy writes:
“To certain people there comes a day
when they must say the great Yes or the great No.
He who has the Yes ready within him
immediately reveals himself, and saying it he goes
against his honor and his own conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Should he be asked again,
he would say no again. And yet that no —
the right no — crushes him for the rest of his life.”
Last Sunday, Greeks, in support of the ruling Syriza party, voted OXI, no, to the imperial demands of oligarchs and elites, no to Germany. The Greeks refused to be humiliated; to submit to more non-democratically imposed radical austerity.
Sunday I, too, would have voted OXI. Personally, while I’m agnostic as to whether Greece should stay in the EU I believe, in this interconnected world, we need to deconstruct the conflict to understand it.
We cannot ignore the history between Germany and Greece, between Greece and the rest of the West, which may be affecting expectations and passions. The West, quick to credit ancient Greece with developing democracy, is less quick to acknowledge the price modern Greece paid during World War II — consequences of which still plague Greece.
We cannot ignore that after centuries of foreign domination and royalist rule parts of Greece were occupied by Germany during World War II, during which Greeks were subject to atrocities, ethnic cleansing and antiquities looting, including the murder of more than 60,000 Greek Jews — at least 81 percent of Greece’s Jewish population.
We cannot ignore that following World War II, Greece was plagued by civil war and internecine strife. Only 16 years after the civil war ended Greece was split by a military coup and a “Regime of the Colonels” that lasted until 1974. During the following 34 years Greece was engaged in transitioning to democracy — not much time to unite factions separated by decades of conflict — a process short-circuited in 2008 by a global recession for which Greece was institutionally unprepared.
“Austerity,” 26 economists recently wrote in the Financial Times, “drastically reduces revenue from tax reform and restricts the space for change to make administration accountable and socially efficient.” Further, “The constant concessions required by the government mean that Syriza is in danger of losing political support and thus its ability to create a program that will bring Greece out of the crisis.”
“The right no.”
The Greeks said no not knowing whether it would crush them for the rest of their lives but knowing intuitively that OXI said through strength and dignity — the right no — had redemptive power — more power than in acquiescing to humiliating German-led Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF) demands that promised no future, no growth, no honor.
As the Greek Orthodox Church wrote to the Troika in 2011, “acknowledging that, to the extent to which it falls upon us, we too bear responsibility for the current crisis. Lack of transparency, easy profit, disregard for institutions, hubris and disrespect for the state and for the law, inconsiderate revendications, have now sadly become part of today’s society,” there is blame on all sides.
Has Greece been profligate in its ways? Yes! Does it need to change its pension structure, tax collection and retirement age policies, and its patriarchal, political and professional monopolies? Yes, but none of that can happen without also eliminating unfufillable expectations, restructuring and debt relief — debt relief not unlike that given to Germany after World War II.
Previous to today’s crisis Greece had been granted two bailout programs totaling 240 billion Euros ($266 billion) in loans – of which approximately 90 percent was spent paying banks and investors, with less than 10 percent being available in Greece for social services, pensions, medicines, foodstuffs and infrastructure.
Because of the conditions set by the Troika there’s been no growth, sending Greece deeper into recession and raising unemployment to 25 percent (60 percent among young workers).
While it’s true that Greece failed to meet most of the targets set in previous bailouts it’s equally true that the present proposed austerity terms are so onerous that even a recent IMF report (which the Europeans tried to suppress) said that there would be no easing of Greece’s debt even by 2030.
Certainly, Greeks have much to answer for: they’ve been careless stewards of the public trust. Newly-elected Syriza, inheritors of the incompetence of its predecessors, today caught between Greece’s excesses and the Troika, has chosen to resist the oligarchs, the elites and the capitalist monopolies and constraints directly; a confrontation rooted in pride and dignity which so many others, blinded by profit-driven perspectives, sadly cannot see.
The battle to subjugate Greece on the plains of Marathon is not just about sustaining the Troika’s hegemony. It’s about trying to delegitimize Syriza and the aspirations of the citizens for social justice — and must be resisted.
“When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage,” wrote Nikos Kazantzakis in Zorba the Greek. “An invisible and all-powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seem to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.”
OXI: The right no.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.