The Language of Occupation: The Greek Collapse

I take to the streets and go to rallies but maybe I should go to parliament to blow my brains out.

– Dimitris Christoulas to a friend, Business Insider, Apr 5, 2012

The cornered tend to be desperate. The insecure can lose their bearings. The Greek financial crisis is producing an assortment of warring metaphors, some more plausible than others. The common target in this whole business is Germany, implying that more than just the eurozone may be under threat. It suggests, in fact, that financial instability will, in time, lead to a nationalist critique of the European idea.

As with broader conflicts, the national is explained through the local. Global events can be seen through individual lenses, the stories of citizens who have suffered, even if those stories can unduly simplify the complex. In Greece, Dimitris Christoulas has offered the premise for the Greek protest movement. The 77-year-old retired pharmacist shot himself on Syntagma Square in Athens early last month leaving behind a poignant and powerful note. In that note, he claimed that he would ‘rather die than scavenge in rubbish bins for his food’ (Guardian, Apr 5).

Christoulas’s suicide has been labelled as the first ‘act of resistance’ akin to the revolutionary actions of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit and veg vendor whose act of self-conflagration in December 2010 set the Arab Spring in motion. But what was he resisting against? Unemployment levels in Greece stand at 21 percent and GDP has shrunk. The country is now in its fifth straight year of economic contraction. Soup kitchens in Athens are full with one in every eleven residents making regular trips. A bartering economy is starting to thrive.

The country’s suicide rate has climbed dramatically. From being one of Europe’s lowest, it has officially doubled. An elderly woman, wanting to alleviate the burden on her children, set herself on fire. Such cases make the political ground rich for disaffection, an all too prominent feature in the electoral rhetoric prior to last week’s ballot. Alexis Tsipras of the Syriza party has made gains on the platform of attacking those ‘loan sharks’ who have appropriated Greek sovereignty, promising an annulment of the bailout package. Those loan sharks are, of course, German, giving outsiders the sense that Teutonic bank managers will don their jackboots and march through Athens. The German role behind the bailout has even been deemed to be an imposition of an ‘economic Fourth Reich’ by the nationalist party, the Independent Greeks.

The suicide note by Christoulas also drew on history as a weapon. The government of Lucas Papademos, he suggested, was effectively collaborating with external forces the way Georgios Tsolakoglou did with Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Even if Christoulas was drawing a very long bow, the problem of sovereignty is certainly critical. The leaders of the New Resistance movement led by Mikos Theodorakis have been enthusiastic and exaggerating in their praise of the Syriza leader. ‘I support with all my strength Alexis Tsipras in his efforts to form a government that will terminate the memorandum and will seek to recover the sovereignty of our country.’

Many would prefer a state of unchanged, moneyed comforts – pensions that are unreduced in perpetuity; a retirement age in the late 40s that enables a good deal of the rest of life to be enjoyed. But the tragedy of the money economy is that the hard means of supporting such lifestyles requires a base, preferably not on quicksand. When that base is crumbling, the rest will follow suit. Bad governance produces discontented, even revolutionary citizens. Internal disaffection encourages an often fruitless search for external excuses.

In a sense, there is a true ‘occupation’ – an economic one ruled by a cadre of technocrats. The banksters are in indirect command, dictating the programs of several countries in Europe where the finances have been shown to be poor. Sovereignty has become subservient to repayment, conditional on financial assistance. A vicious cycle has come into play: the banks have been responsible for lending to those who cannot pay. The books have been cooked; the credentials of those receiving borrowing exaggerated. The result is pure, inconsolable misery. The blame, as ever, is easily levelled against states whose better finances are seen as a means of bullying rather than an issue of praise. German Chancellor Angela Merkel becomes less a sound economic manager than a cruel stifler of independence.

As with any complex, undermining event, several factors feature. Either the political forces are deemed complicit with external forces (notably the Germans), and are accused of collaborators as a shorthand reference; or they are complicit in accepting the entire list of expectations dictated to by Brussels. The true impoverishment that has taken place in Greece is its political promise. The people, as they always have done, will survive in spite of their efforts.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.