I received the following message from a Greek colleague, currently living in Zurich. He writes passionately about the Greek referendum and the impossible position that it has created among the Greek people. Not only has the referendum divided the Greeks, it has divided the Western community between those who see the current European Union leaders as some sort of post-modern incarnation of the Nazis, torturing the victimized Greeks (the Huffington Post has taken this position for the most part) or the European leaders as responsible citizens and the Greeks as irresponsible scoundrels. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground in the commentary about what is happening in Greece and between the protagonists in the conflict. Of course, what has happened in Greece over the past several decades is far more complicated than that. The austerity measures have turned out to be punitive and pushed the country into further recession/depression; and Greece ended up in this situation because it was totally irresponsible for a long time in the way it spent billions of borrowed Euros on unsustainable government expenses including pensions without any significant tax revenues. The resulting split in contemporary Greece between the Greeks themselves and also between the Greeks and much of the rest of Europe is a confusing nightmare in which all proposed "solutions" seem impossible. Evangelos Tsempelis describes the unfolding Greek crisis with a psychological attitude, an attitude that more often than not in such crises falls on deaf ears.
- Thomas Singer, M.D.
Ill-Fatetdly Divided Between a "Yes" and a "No"
This is a terrible moment for us Greeks. The referendum that was preemptively announced by the government of Alexis Tsipras just a few day ago, pitted us into a virtual fratricide that seems to have reactivated old, one would hope, long-foregone cleavages reminiscent of the civil war. An entire society has been divided between those who voted "No" and those who cast their "Yes" ballots today. Even though there was admittedly little clarity as to what the question, as phrased on that ballot, actually meant, the "No" won a resounding victory. For some, the stake was democracy. Namely, the ability of an elected government to choose its own mix of policy measures after five years of what is widely perceived as a failed reform effort as orchestrated by the Troika and implemented by the governments of George Papandreou (PASOK), Loukas Papadimos (PASOK, New Democracy, LAOS) and Antonis Samaras (New Democracy and PASOK) respectively. These reform efforts have had dramatic effects. Despite a significant haircut of its sovereign debt and the receipt of loans that exceed any other precedent in world history, Greece is today a country in shambles. Having lost 25% of its GDP, and having seen millions of its citizens join the class of the unemployed, the country is today at the brink of a total collapse. A financial collapse of such proportions could not have left the political status quo unscathed. Indeed, the two main political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, which have ruled the country since the restitution of democracy in 1974, have seen their political power diminish as the newly elected government of SYRIZA, under the charismatic Alexis Tsipras, has been catapulted from a meagre 3% just a few years ago to power in recent elections. After 5 months of a stalemate in negotiations with Greece's creditors and after failing to secure a compromise that would have allowed Tsipras to return to Greece with an agreement that could come even close to meeting pre-election promises to end austerity, Tsipras proclaimed a referendum in Greece. He rallied a campaign aiming to mobilize citizens to say "No" to austerity, to oppose the tyranny of the markets and to assist the government to build a stronger negotiation position against a "German-ruled Eurozone", which seems to wish to impose the same ill-fated medicine to a dying country.
Ever since the referendum was announced last week, a growing number of leaders in Europe echoed what the opposition in Greece was also proclaiming. Namely, that regardless of whether Greeks were summoned to approve or reject an agreement, what their vote was really about amounted to no less than the position of Greece in the eurozone and potentially in Europe altogether. A "No" vote has been suggested, would in essence initiate a process that will eventually lead to the diplomatic isolation of the government, the deepening of the financial crisis of a country now in a state of suspended animation after capital controls were imposed to prevent the collapse of the banking system, and ultimately nothing less than the expulsion, willful or not, from the eurozone, if not the European Union itself.
This morning as we were trying to make sense of this nauseating moment in our lives, my wife and I begun to ask what is a divisive dilemma. Eleni suggested that it is one that pits one against the other. "This is self-descriptive", I retorted. "What is really the divisive aspect of this", I persisted. We soon realized what parents intuitively know, namely that there are certain dilemmas, which cannot be put without causing traumatic splits. One for instance, should never bring children into an argument that concerns their parents, "whom do you love most", is a forbidden question. In this case, we are certainly not children, but adult citizens who are called to exercise a democratic right. Yet, upon closer inspection, it is clear and evident that Greek citizens cannot, at large, possibly have the requisite information, nor the actual knowledge and ability to process the question that has been posed to them by their government. We were neither parties to a negotiation that took place behind closed doors in Brussels, nor can we appraise whether the document that the referendum addresses amounts to a fair deal according to the wider dynamics of a eurozone of 19 member countries. Furthermore, most of us do not have the technocratic knowledge in public finance to make an educated decision about the particular mix of a policy measures and macroeconomic reforms needed to bring the country forward. Is not this, in fact, the point of having a representative democracy? Namely, that we elect leaders to make such decisions based on their knowledge and ability and according to a contract that we the citizens renew with political parties at national elections? If our representatives, whom we have vested with trust and all the privileges that national executive power provides, defer their decisions back to us, while we do not possess neither full access to information, nor time or knowledge to make an educated decision, does not democracy at the end stand to suffer a significant qualitative loss?
Eleni and I soon realized that this was still half the story. No matter how critical we have felt towards a government that has brought die-hard Marxists in a curious alliance with die-hard right-wing nationalists we still feel dismay at the realization that nobody, nobody, actually seized the moment to say what now appears as evident to us. Namely, that there are certain questions that can not be answered with either a "Yes" or a "No". If our government was gravely mistaken in placing before us a false dilemma, which now potentially sets the country on a collision course with its partners and creditors, the Greek opposition leaders and our good European allies, who tied a "Yes" with our country's position in the Eurozone, have also betrayed us.
It was in fact a German, Friedrich Schiller, who in his Aesthetic Letters Upon the Education of Man in 1795 posited that it is the role of culture, in the form of an aesthetic education, to secure an equality of both of two opposing impulses in man's life. So long as his feelings rule one-sidededly, man is a savage. If his rational principles destroy his feelings, he is a barbarian. As a creature of two worlds, man has to satisfy at the same time two opposing demands exerted on him and to bring them in harmony with one another. It is the aesthetic that unites sensuousness and reason, matter and form delivering him to freedom, Schiller posited. In some ways, it appears that the stakes of the current moment not merely for Greece, but for Europe at large can be conceived in terms of this old framework too. One the one side, stands a country at the geographical periphery of Europe which has gone amuck. Its economy is bankrupt, it's society in turmoil, it's sensual forgetful way of life proclaimed ill-adapted, corrupt and defunct. On the other, stands the eurozone of the 18 European nations insisting on the importance of rules, reforms and consensus ad idem as corollaries to running the most complicated, elaborate experiment of monetary union in human history. What would Europe be without a proper admission of its own other? What an admission of fatal weakness is it to suggest that a member country, a signatory state of the EU, could be expelled from the eurozone on the grounds that this historic institution, which is the culminating edifice of a commonly forged european destiny of peoples, can only afford "yes men and women"? What a loss would it be for us all as Europeans, if we only saw dangerous nihilism and regressive resistance to reform in the faces of those who, whether misled or not, have seized the ill-fated opportunity of a mis-conceived and populist-driven referendum to express opposition to a phobic and conservative Europe, a Europe which has trouble seeing or feeling beyond its very own rules of conditionality. As the late Professor of Constitutional Law, MEP, Dimitris Tsatsos once said in a trembling voice at the committee of institutional affairs of the European Parliament at another moment, long forgotten, when European leaders where standing below par as they were negotiating a treaty: "Gentlemen we are not running a shop, we are leading the peoples of Europe"!
As we prepare for the worse at the late hours of the night, there is a strange numbing sense of anxiety for what the next day will bring. In Europe, we share a long and eery history of cheering crowds marching unaware into catastrophes. More than ever, we now need solidarity in Greece, solidarity in Europe. Despite the divisions of this dismal moment, a critical mass of Greeks who have not been cheering, nor screaming feel and know that our place is in Europe. Some of us have already left Greece, others are starting to make such plans as they feel distraught at the prospect of our country slipping further into darkness. Whether abroad or in Greece we trust and hope that no one will attempt to evict us from our home in the eurozone and the EU. No matter what follows, we will now need to draw from the example of our forefathers and foremothers who have faced and persevered through the fateful experiences of war, exile, poverty and immigration to deliver to us a long and prosperous season of stability which has now irrevocably ended. The words of one of Theo Angelopoulos' heroes echo in my mind: "We have fallen sweetly asleep in one world to violently awake in another". It is now our turn to put our hearts and minds to the hard work of rebuilding what has been lost, of mending what has been damaged, of healing what has been split.
BA, Tufts University, USA
MALD , Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, USA
PhD, cand. University of Freiburg, Germany