For one who spent five years of his misspent youth toiling with (ancient) Greek, the recent limelight on Athens feels like a return to the past.
For suddenly the ancient Greeks are on the lips of politicians, economists, commentators and media pundits of all shades and colors.
There is Plato, Socrates, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, Plutarch, Alexander, Leonidas and the Thermopylae. Even the Greek soldier Pheidippides, who ran non-stop from the field of battle to Athens to announce that the Greeks defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. And who, on arrival, had barely enough strength left to say “νενικήκαμεν” (nenikèkamen, “we have wοn”), before dropping dead from exhaustion.
Given the occasion, and before dealing with the subject at hand, I cannot resist the temptation of telling an anecdote, connected with my five years of battling with Greek.
The type of high-school I attended in Europe was, and still is, called a “Lyceum”, the Latin rendering of another Greek term (Λύκειον – “Lykeion”), meaning a gymnasium of the mind dedicated to Apollo Lyceus.
At end of the Lyceum there was (is) a government examination, the passing of which ensured access to a university of choice. The examination, called “Classic Maturity”, was the fiercest form of cruel and unusual punishment inflicted on the mind of the average 17-18 year old. For the “maturand”, as he was called, was expected to be interrogated on all the subjects studied in the last three years.
Fortunately, in 1931, during Mussolini’s regime, a literature professor, by the name of Ernesto Bignami, had the idea of publishing summaries of the various subjects of interrogation at the exam of Classic Maturity, (similar to Cliff Notes). Since then, the term ‘Bignami’, in Italian, has become a synonym for summary.
However, even the content of the many Bignamis was too much to remember. So each student had to improvise on how to remember as much as he could. My trick was to use music and to fit suitable rhythmical and rhyming lyrics to ear-friendly jingles. Some of which I still remember today.
For example, not everyone may know that it wasn’t Copernicus who discovered heliocentricity. The actual discoverer was the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos. Hence the jingle (translated) went, “Aristarchus of Samos! the earth spins around the sun, come on, let’s go!” And with the same technique I still cannot forget that the Ph is the inverse of the logarithm of the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. Though I did not know then or now, why such a monstrous formula should be used to assess the vinegariness of a liquid.
Enough of this, I was carried away by the sudden onslaught of Greekness in the mainstream media. Besides, Caliban’s pronouncement aptly describes my general view on education, “You taught me language, and my profit on ‘t is, I know how to curse.”(1)
The current turmoil that triggered so much interest in Greece lends itself to some questions, especially by those, like the undersigned, who do not understand the finer points of politics or the grander points of economics.
One obvious word of caution. All that we say depends on what we hear and read, and all that seems is not what is. After all, “who could not steal a shape that means deceit?” (2)
It is quite possible that behind the visible pantomimes there may be sundry lugubrious schemes we know not of. And even if the schemes were palpable and we could guess them, they would be dismissed as conspiracy theories, the most current antibiotic of the establishment to defend and dismiss the unpalatable, the untenable and the unexplainable.
We begin, then, with the referendum, described as the historic decision by the Greek people to reject austerity. The historicness of the decision suggests an overwhelming consonance of opinion and ideals among the voters. Which the official numbers, as given, may seem to confirm, until we learn that those who abstained from voting were more than those who voted for ‘no’. Here is the tally,
Invalid votes 237.153
But then, what did the Greeks vote on? Given that the option was the choice or rejection of austerity, I was expecting that all but a few masochists would have voted NO in the referendum. Which clearly, is not the case.
In fact, the Greeks actually voted on the approval or rejection of two documents (I obtained this from a well informed journalist),
** Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis and
** Reforms for the completion of the Current Program and Beyond.
Of these two documents the first is dated Feb 15, 2012 and the question arises how is that connected with the current situation.
The second is not, as one could expect, a proposal by the three European megabanks to Greece, but rather the proposal Tsipras made to them a few weeks before.
That is, by his impassionate speeches, it seemed that the referendum had to do with impossible conditions set by the Troika banks that, if accepted, would offend the dignity of the Greek people. Instead, the document contained the same proposals already made by Syriza to the Troika. In other words, the Greek people were called by Tsipras to say no to Tsipras. We cannot but conclude that the referendum was an instrument to darken thought and perplex ratiocination.
What did the Greeks vote for then? To give an accurate answer to a question, of which the terms are not understood, is impossible. What remains is a pantomime, as I don’t know how else to call it.
Of course, few, if any, checked the documentation, and the media was expectedly silent. So that the ‘historic’ pronouncement turned out to be one more spectacular performance produced by the society of the spectacle.
For, assuming that memory is the purveyor of reason, then the Greeks, rather than voting on an essentially meaningless referendum should have voted on leaving the Euro at the speed of Hermes (the Greek god of fast communications). Instead, by retaining the Euro, it seems that, thanks to the dark powers of the financial global masters, the Greeks are entitled to the mournful privileges of irresistible misery.
But, once seduced by the theory of the European Union, most refuse to see the experiments by which the theory was confuted. And more subterfuges are sought to decline the pressure of resistless arguments. Such as “Greece belongs to Europe,” “We are an integral part of Europe,” as if, by a miracle of tectonic convulsion, Greece would detach herself from the continent upon returning to the use of the drachmas.
Still, we know that masses are prone to confound the praise of democracy with its practice, and are disposed to a seeming reverence for any declamation, however meaningless, and submission to any boast, however irrelevant – who “worship shadows and adore false shapes” (3)
The boast, or the declared objective of the referendum was to improve Greece’s “bargaining position” with the gatekeepers of her financial destiny. Another instance of how power always uses language that is vague, suggestive, emotive but never precise. For precision is dangerous as it implies accountability, while the language of emotion reaches the heart of the hearer, bypassing his reason.
Other declarations, heard in the mainstream media, are equally absurd. For example, that the Greek people lived beyond their means – implying that the public indebtedness requires a uniformity of sacrifice across the class divide. Meanwhile every other European citizen is, allegedly, a creditor towards Greece.
Only an obtuse nationalism prevents many from realizing that the owners of the world have long abandoned the nationalist philosophy, for their field of plunder is the planet.
Hence, for example, international creditors can prompt their colleagues in Athens to sell at bargain prices assets such as the Athens’ airport, the large commercial centers, lands, beaches, the casinos in Rhodes and Corfu, the national gas company, a good portion of the national oil company, of the railways, the post office etc.
Already water is being privatized, and is eyed by a French and an Israeli company. To make the venture salable, the cost of water tripled and the personnel was drastically reduced.
All this means that the public debt of Greece is an economic factor that does not transcend, but rather strengthens the class divide.
In this respect, the purpose of the servile media is not to inform but to create currents of opinion and factions on behalf of their masters, suggesting the myth of an undifferentiated Greece – of all Greeks passionately together, human cicadas who spent instead of saving, not honoring their debt, leaving the rest of Europe to pay for their extravagance.
Even more shameful, the debt is blamed on the lack of desire to work by Greek workers – who with 2,117 hours worked per year per capita, rank the highest in Europe.
Therefore, in this artificial current of opinion, the sins of the abnormal Greek debt are attributed to everyone. Unsaid, for example, is that the income of the Greek Church is tax-free. The Church represents the highest share of rentier income, as it owns land, buildings, hotels, tourist centers and other businesses.
Nor is it mentioned that, while the Greek debt is only 3% of the total European debt, the Greek mercantile fleet is the first in the world, having surpassed Japan in 2013, in the middle of the crisis.. The Greek fleet magnates have almost total fiscal exemption on their foreign profits, thanks to a constitutional provision established at the time of the military coup in 1967, and still extant.
And if the statistics are correct, in recent times, 600 billion Euros have been moved abroad from Greece. Half would be sufficient to pay off the debt.
But there are other questionable issues. For example, in percentage, Greece spends more on the military than all other European countries, but the Troika has rejected the proposal to reduce military expenses. And much questionable business involved multi-billion Euro loans for mega-projects such as the 2004 Olympics, a massive opportunity for bribes involving a wealth of international contractors and national politicians.
In summary, all of the above may explain what the world has not been told, namely why the majority of the Greek people did not vote in the referendum.
I will not list the statistics on the closure of small enterprises, the people left without work, unemployment assistance and health coverage. We read that the pensions have been reduced by 45%. If they were not the golden retirements of the usual elites, a 45% reduction is almost a death sentence.
Some older people, unwilling to look for food in garbage containers, prefer to take their own life, as the gentleman who decided to end it in the most famous square of Athens (I included his letter at the end of the article).
Between 1780 and 1783, an Italian economist, Gaetano Filangeri, wrote a monumental work titled, “The Science of Legislation”, in 3 volumes. Here is an extract that seems to have been written to describe the situation in Greece (and not only).
“Perhaps the best way to find how debt affects a nation would be to consider her people, in general, as divided into two classes, one of the industrious, and the other of the idle. And we should reflect that any increase in debt produces, by itself, an increase in the number of the idle. Everyone will agree that the idle live on the travails and at the expense of the industrious class. We should finally observe that until the ratio of these two classes is such that the load imposed on the industrious is not too heavy, perhaps the condition may even act so as to further promote industry.
But when the loads weigh beyond the proportion that the nature of things is able to tolerate, then industry will be trampled. Foreign trade will flee from us – we will soon fall into poverty and nothingness, and we will remain but a nation without industry, without strength and consideration in Europe ….
When the industrious and the class of common people who, everywhere, are the most numerous and, when they want it, the strongest, will realize that they are succumbing under a weight they no longer have the strength to endure – then they will likely refuse to pay the interests of a huge debt they did not incur but that oppresses them, exempting from oppression only the idle and the lazy who made that debt inevitable.””
There is neo-liberal capitalism for you. Filangeri’s book was translated into several languages and promptly added to the index of sinful writings. Incidentally, the Catholic Church closed down the index in 1966. A pity, as it was probably the most complete catalog of the world’s best books.
To conclude, perhaps the Greeks ought to follow the example of yet another among their ancient philosophers, Diogenes of Sinope, who was never surprised, because he was not disappointed, and who escaped disappointment because he never formed any expectations.
On the other hand, evil is uncertain in the same degree as good, and for the reason that we ought not to hope too securely, we ought not to fear with too much dejection. “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill go together…” (4)
Besides, the state of the world is continually changing, and none can tell the results of the next vicissitude.
1. The Tempest
2. King Henry VI part 2
3. Two Gentlemen from Verona
4. All’s Well That Ends Well
Here is the note left by Dimitris Christoulas, the man who committed suicide in Syntagma Square, in front of the Parliament building.
“The Tsolakoglou (a) government has removed the means for my survival, which relied on a dignified pension for which I paid for 35 years without any government help.
Given my advanced age (77), I have no way of reacting actively – but if a Greek citizen were to handle a Kalashnikov, I would be ready at his side. I do not see any other honorable end possible alternative before starting to rummage for food inside garbage bins.
I am sure that one day the future-less youth will take up arms and hang heads-down the traitors of our nation, as the Italians did with Mussolini in Milan in 1945.”
(a) Georgios Tsolakoglou was the head of the Greek collaborationist government, during the German occupation of Greece in WWII. The reference is intended to be a parallel between the recent governments and the Tsolakoglou regime, given the economic conditions of the country.
I am indebted to Roberto Casiraghi for the notes on the actual content of the Referendum and to Daniel Lepore for some other reported information.
thank you Jimmie. Now I know much more than I did about the Greece situation. However I fear my head will burst. Maybe Diogenes had the right viewpoint.
(perhaps the Greeks ought to follow the example of yet another among their ancient philosophers, Diogenes of Sinope, who was never surprised, because he was not disappointed, and who escaped disappointment because he never formed any expectations.)
Apologies, off topic: or is it?!?