To the Crucible II: A Further Irish Engagement with the Greek Crisis and the Greek Left

The Dominant Narrative

“Things have gone very quiet in Greece, haven’t they?” So many people said that to me in the past six months or so. I responded that there was a lot going on, even if international media weren’t covering it. There were civil mobilisations of teachers and transport workers, as well as rising unemployment, emigration and impoverishment, being met with continuing protest, strikes, occupations. Even so, I sensed a lull in the rhythm of resistance, since the big demonstrations opposing the passage of the third memorandum last autumn. Obviously people couldn’t keep going at that pitch all the time, but how many were succumbing to exhaustion, despair, defeat? How many were quietly going about their work in solidarity networks, policy development, political education?

The story circulating in May, promoted by its government, was that Greece had stabilised and protest had subsided. Grexit had given way to Grecovery. Antonis Samaras, who was most actively articulating this, touring the world with the good news, even heralded a Greek ‘renaissance’. The feeblest of economic indicators were offered as evidence, although international commentators, even ones who wanted to believe this story, found it hard to get past the fact that most indicators still pointed in the opposite direction. In other statements, Samaras conceded that they hadn’t really changed the numbers yet, but insisted that they had eliminated the ‘negative psychology’.

Many Greeks were scathing, pointing out that tiny shifts from rating agencies and bond yields paled into insignificance aside the continuing freefall of the economy and the still deteriorating conditions of life for non-oligarchic Greeks. Among indicators being trumpeted were lower wages, which might be good news for investors, but hardly for workers. Yanis Varoufakis labelled the Greek success story as the ‘latest Orwellian turn of the Greek crisis’ and laid the economic facts on the line’

At this point Ireland came into the story. Enda Kenny arrived in Athens on 23 May 2013. On the basis of a few hours in Athens and conversations with Samaras, he endorsed the Greek ‘success story’ and praised Samaras for changing international sentiment toward Greece. Samaras declared that Greece was following Ireland’s example to exit the crisis and to return to the markets next year. This ‘return to the markets’ is presented as the great utopian aspiration of our time. In Ireland we are told that we are set to enter that promised land soon. So all that evolutionary striving was for this.

At the press conference of the two prime ministers, Samaras said ‘Ireland has shown us the way back to growth and to the markets’. For the Greek elite, Ireland was a model during the boom and it remains so in the bust. Kenny soaked up the flattery and smugly advised Samaras that the secret of our ‘success’ was to establish ‘trust’ with the troika. RTE news opened the item with images of the Acropolis and the ceremonial changing of the guards at the Greek parliament. It was all reported without a hint of scepticism, regarding both Irish and  Greek ‘success’ as somehow self-evident. They did not see fit to mention statements by Syriza or KKE calling attention to Ireland’s debt, emigration, cuts, all on the road of advancing oligarchic interests at great social cost to the rest of the population. It was not considered newsworthy to note that the Greek left did not see Ireland as a model for Greece. Even beyond the left, there would be many voices in both Ireland and Greece who would query whether either Ireland or Greece is a success story. Tony Connelly, RTE correspondent in Athens during the Kenny-Samaras visit, nevertheless parroted the preferred narrative of the plutocracy.

Return to Athens

A counter-narrative was in order. I had been following events, but had some questions to answer to clarify my sense of where the story was now. Could it be that the time of possibility for the left had passed? Despite the reality that all problems persisted, even intensified, were the powers-that-be prevailing after all? Could this be one more chapter in the tragic history of the Greek left, who have been so strong, who have fought so fiercely, but always been bitterly defeated?

While I kept up as best I could from afar, there is nothing like walking the streets and talking face-to-face to take the pulse of the scene. I returned to Greece in June and spent 15 days, primarily in Athens, to find out what was happening. I met people I had met previously to hear how their lives and thoughts had moved on and I met new people too.

I was with my son Cathal this time, who was discovering Athens for the first time.  We walked the streets, ancient and modern. In the ancient ruins with wifi hotspots, I tweeted my fascination with the ways classical culture resonates in the present conjuncture. Not that you can say much in a tweet, but my brain was buzzing with the philosophical discourses that had captured my imagination so long ago. Cathal was better on the historical detail, but I was again reflecting on the relationship of the big philosophical ideas to the socio-historical forces of the times.

I was also struck by the strength of ancient myth in the contemporary detective novels I was reading. The Alex Mavros novels trace missing persons through the layers of Greek society, from the oligarchs to the communists, in the last decade with storylines reaching back into the political history of the previous decades and even further back to myths of Demeter and Persephene, Hercules and Cerberus. Near the agora, I noted the street in Monastiraki where the detective lived and the street where his communist sidekick ran a café. The author, Paul Johnston, now a facebook friend, suggested that I might drop down to the Peloponnese while I was in Greece. Another time I’ll do that. Meanwhile, I’m hoping that he will get on with writing the next one and that someone will translate the crisis trilogy of Petros Markaris, because I’ve now read all the Alex Mavros and Costas Haritos novels currently available. I learn a lot about Greece from such fiction too.

Walking from Metaxourgio to Monastiraki on the first day, we stopped near Omonia to look at a poster for the Alter Summit, which we would be attending. A man stopped to look at us looking and drew us into conversation.  He said that politics is hopeless, that it is all about power and money, that it would never change. He was active in left politics when he was young, he disclosed, but he was now 63 and no longer a student and could see no point in it. I told him that I was older than 63 and still active in left politics. He looked at me quizzically. Afterwards, I thought that I should have pointed to Manolis Glezos, Syriza MP, who is still full of fire and hope at 91.

We proceeded down Athinas and took in all the sights and smells of meat and fish, both raw and cooked, and noted all the goods on display hanging in the fronts of shops. Many were the sort of clothes and accessories you might find anywhere, but what was distinctive here was all the different sorts of gas masks on display. Should we buy them? The last time I was in Athens, people asked me if I had a gas mask when I showed up for protests and lent me one when needed. On balance, though, I didn’t expect to need one this time. I didn’t think that the European left march into Syntagama would be gassed.

We walked many streets, particularly around Metaxourgio, Psiri, Omonia and Exarchia.  Cathal went for shortcuts and back streets, often at night, which didn’t always look as dangerous as they actually were. These was normal life continuing somehow in shops, apartments and offices, but also degrees of desperation apparent in the begging, scavenging, shooting up, wandering homelessly, even crying and crawling. Some things were puzzling, for example, coming across a pile of abandoned clothes that looked like a person had undressed there and walked away. So many sights on the streets made me wonder what story was behind what I was seeing.

Even those who looked prosperous had their problems and were not so prosperous as they seemed. I spoke to a number of people in employment, in several cases people with PhDs working as lecturers or journalists, who had not been paid in many months. How did they live? From the pay of others in their families who were being paid. In most cases, those being paid had their pay drastically reduced. I met one woman, a well groomed middle aged woman, who broke into floods of tears, because no one in her family was working now and they had nothing. Another young woman, articulate and attractive, told me that her life was over and she was only fighting now for a better society for her son. She had been a physiotherapist and then a waitress and was now unemployed. So many people serving in hotels and restaurants were once physiotherapists or journalists or teachers or graphic designers. I met one young man, who did a master’s thesis on the EU, who told me that he wished that he could have it back and write the exact opposite now.

An essential port of call was the Syriza head office. We chatted to Costas Isychos, Dimitra Tsami and Yiannis Bournous on many topics, from expectations of the Alter Summit to protests in Turkey to the breakup of the ULA to preparations for the Syriza congress.

Alter Summit

We met again over the next days at the Alter Summit. It took place at the Olympic village on 7-8 June. Most sessions were in or around the velodrome. Outside were stalls where various parties, projects and groups displayed their wares – books, bags, pamphlets, posters, pens, t-shirts . For meals, there were pop-up kitchens offering various ethnic cuisines on paper plates. The system for paying for food and drink reminded me of the USSR. Queuing for chits and queuing again for products was not one of the most attractive aspects of these experiments in socialism (a controversial conceptualisation, I know).  There was an attractive atmosphere for milling around and chatting in the sun, until the second day, when it rained.

People from various parties, movements, trade unions came together to explore grounds for shared analysis and activity. It was a convergence of forces from the European Social Forum, the parties within the Party of the European Left (Die Linke, Syriza, Izquierda  Unida, Front de Gauche, etc) and major European trade unions. The six Irish people attending it were from diverse sections of the left: Paul Murphy MEP of the Socialist Party, Mark Malone of the Workers Solidarity Movement, John Bissett of Spectacle of Defiance, Cathal Ó Murchú of Sinn Fein, Sarah Brennan of Debt Action Coalition (and a former student of mine) and myself of Left Forum. A trotskyist, an anarchist, a shinner, a eurocommunist and hard to label – all interacted harmoniously – although Paul Murphy came and went quickly, so as to join in the action on Taksim Square. Not that we always agreed. At one point, John said to me “Žižek is very good on Greece, isn’t he?” and I launched into a tirade about how incoherent and irresponsible he is. Another night, Cathal and Mark talked long into the night over many beers in Exarchia Square exploring the differences in their political philosophies.

At the Alter Summit, proceedings began with a feminist assembly, which concentrated on the effects of the crisis on women. There followed 15 thematic assemblies over two days on education, debt, health, migration, housing, employment, welfare, environment, commons, fascism, economic policy, international relations. The emphasis was on proposals for common international initiatives.

In the evening of the first day, there was a plenary. As a thousand people assembled, there was rousing Greek political music creating an energetic and expectant atmosphere. Then the manifesto was launched. It had been drafted over many months by activists in many countries. It began:

Europe stands on the edge of a precipice, looking into the abyss. Austerity policies drive the people of Europe into poverty, undercut democracy and dismantle social policies. Rising inequalities endanger social cohesion. Ecological destruction is worsening while acute humanitarian crises devastate the most affected countries. Women and young people are hardest hit.”