I started writing this piece almost ten days ago, but couldn’t finish it. It changed constantly. Initially, I made a conscious decision not to react to the news of the snap election in Greece instantly. People were stunned, felt hurt; felt betrayed by Alexis Tsipras for signing an agreement for a third bail-out. They saw him as transforming into “the establishment”. Others kept faith, hoped still. Wounds felt raw, moods volatile. Friends and family members fell out. And, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to make of it all.
So, I waited. I listened carefully to all sides. I listened to my instinct. I spoke to friends, family and colleagues back in Greece. And of course I listened to the party leaders. I was none the wiser. The only effect was I have utterly fed up of nautical similes. They’re all captains. It’s all ships and storms and safe ports, compasses and fog and wind, Cyclops and prophets and witches and many, many suitors. I know the poet says it is the journey that matters, but I just want to arrive. I need Ithaca.
Then I started writing long, complicated arguments that spoke to the mind. About how it is terribly strange how fascist party Golden Dawn were jailed when New Democracy, the dominant right-wing party needed votes and released when they would take votes from disillusioned SYRIZA voters. About how breakaway faction Popular Unity’s Plan B seemed to have the depth and detail of a primary school essay: “What did you do on your summer holidays, Panayiotis?” – “I took Greece out of the Euro and it all went very well.”
About how eight months of opposition seem to have wholly cleansed public memory of four decades worth of sins. Well, this Odyssey couldn’t be without its Lotus-Eaters.
I drafted and redrafted. I typed and deleted what I wrote. None of it mattered. It seemed ludicrous to be responding to the petty mud-flinging of the Kings of Mud; those that rolled in mud for forty years, that used that mud it to build their Villas in Mykonos.
Above all, they shouted in unison, like frogs in an Aristophanic chorus: “He’s just the same. Tsipras is the same as all the others.” From the left, they say it to demean him, as if our “friends and partners” in Europe didn’t do enough of that. “He signed a memorandum. He turned neoliberal. A traitor.”
From the right, they say to boost their own credentials. “He is a liar. His party is unstable. He has no experience at free market solutions. We will put a smile on your face again.” Sure. Come Monday, the old women searching the bins for food will all be smiling.
I became numb. I drifted. I got lost. And, to be honest, I think Tsipras and Syriza got lost in playing this cheap “points” game. Trying to answer each petty accusation one by one. Trying to explain an agreement that is inexplicable, because it was imposed.
But one sentence kept buzzing around in my head. Two weeks ago, the far right populist New Democracy MP, Thanos Plevris, appeared on a political panel. “They are exactly the same,” he mocked. “We had Amygdaleza, the Left has Eleonas. That’s the only difference.” Amygdaleza is a refugee detention camp, a giant jail, opened at great cost by previous governments and closed down amid allegations of cruelty. Eleonas is the refugee village put together by Syriza, to accommodate refugees. I kept coming back to this statement, but couldn’t explain why it had made such a profound impression. Yesterday it came into focus.
Plevris is right. That is the difference. But far from being insignificant, it is vital. Amygdaleza cost more money to build and much more to run. It was born of distrust, xenophobia and, of course, lucrative private contracts. It was a factory that converted fear into political capital. On the contrary, Eleonas was cheap to build, air conditioned and comfortable; people could come and go as they pleased. Its focus was taking care of a basic human need. A place of trust and solidarity. It was unpopular, but it was the right thing to do.
Somewhere in the detail of the debate about the detail of this horrific agreement that Europe viciously imposed on Greece, about whether something is a cut or a reform, about the VAT on beef or pork, I had lost the essence of the difference between a progressive and a regressive government: Policies with a focus on people as opposed to policies with a focus on money. Budgetary corsets always exist. Yes, this one is draconian, stifling, piercing, an Iron Maiden. But the less money there is, the more vital priorities are.
Those who say SYRIZA cannot make a difference should ask the thousands of families that now qualify for free electricity. The thousands of mothers who now have a solidarity credit card to buy food. The children of migrants, born in Greece, who are now recognised as Greek citizens. To them it makes a difference.
Investing leaders with omnipotence is merely an extension of our own weakness. Thinking of them as Saviours is just a reflection of our need to be saved. A romantic view can only disappoint. We think Socialism already exists as a fully formed, perfect place, to which we only need be led. It does not. We forge it with a daily, dirty struggle to make the right choices, given our reality. There is nothing socialist about denying reality. The ostrich is not considered a particularly radical bird.
If the EU – or any monolithic establishment structure – is to change, it is imperative to understand that each push will shift the status quo only by the tiniest degree. We must not punish the inch, based on our unrealistic expectation of a mile. It is an international war of attrition with a tipping point. This does not mean making unprincipled choices. It means making principled choices, knowing that they may only be partial successes and keep making them. All one can ask is that an elected representative made decisions with the right aims. That he pushes it in the right direction. Whatever the micro-criticisms, Tsipras has done that consistently. Will we push with him, or against?
Our leaders cannot save us. We can save our leaders.
What is the alternative? We said one glorious OXI and now we go back to our inglorious YES? Yes to loans, to credit cards, to Armani shirts, yes to corruption, to bribes, to nepotism, yes to lawlessness, to the destruction of our environment, to inequality? We remember our OXIs with sentimentalism, but it is our YESes that brought Greece where it is.
I find myself thinking, if Greece weren’t bankrupt… If the same regressive neoliberal old parties, now vying for our vote, were governing the country in perfect circumstances, where money was abundant… What would they be doing?
Would they not be cutting taxes for large businesses and raising them on ordinary people by stealth? Would they not be slashing social security and selling every state asset they could get their hands on? Would they not be prioritising their dirty little backhanders over the common good? Would they not be victimising the refugees for votes? Would they not be fostering corruption? It is what they have done for the last four decades. It is what they do all over the world.
To them the memorandum is convenient cover. To Tsipras it is a – perhaps insurmountable – obstacle. They are not the same. They couldn’t be more different.
They have Amygdaleza, we have Eleonas. Fear versus hope. That is the only, the giant difference.