The Greek scene of the European drama

When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions
Hamlet, William Shakespeare

It’s almost one and a half year since Syriza came into power and formed a government in collaboration with the ANEL’s party. However, the celebration of hope marked by those times is long gone. Now the dominant atmosphere of the Greek social landscape is heavy, unexplainably heavy. As if a cloud of desperation has covered the Greek territory. You can smell it, taste it, even grab it; the cloud is that dense.

The social impasse intensified in the post-referendum period. Syriza’s radical discourse capitulated, the party’s voluntarism met an immobile “reality”, and hope has been mitigated if not completely muted. The change in Greek political psyche was sudden. The unforgettable mass emotion of “pride” and “dignity” has turned into disillusionment. Even they, who were previously the most active, have begun to wonder if there is any meaning in the traditional ways of political participation.

Syriza’s failure marks a sudden and unexpected realization that states and political entities have lost their power to decide and parties have turned into managers who cannot articulate truly alternative plans. The structure of the economy is more fluid, labor is getting more precarious, markets are dictating decisions and flexibility of our political personnel is dramatically reduced. The very content of democracy has changed. This is the reason why one can spot banners and slogans on the walls demonstrating: “We have a vote but we do not have a voice.” The question is hovering in our minds! What is weakening our voice?

There is a theoretical schema that I like to use a lot in order to better understand political reality. It is provided by the great intellectual, Albert. O. Hirschman, and his game with the concepts of voice and exit, proposed in his homonymous book of 1970. According to Hirschman people have essentially two possible responses when in times of slack and decadence: to exit or to raise their voices and demand change. When they do not have an exit option, they choose to raise their voice and demand change. When they do not have a voice option they choose to exit. But there is a third factor: the sentimental factor, which is loyalty. The feeling of loyalty and devotion is extending the period of tolerance towards stagnation and postpones exit.

So, if we take into consideration Hirschman’s idea, one could say that we are now surrounded by an atmosphere of deadlock, economic stagnation and political powerlessness and people are getting detached from their parties that are perceived as organisms that do not deserve to be respected any more. The disillusionment towards politics is a sign of a failing democracy, which is losing power because of economic-political forces and, as in consequence, losing its legitimacy in the eyes of its people. And of course the Greek case is one small and peculiar scene of the disintegrating European drama.

Since last month we have outbursts in Iceland and we have protests in France. The involvement of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson in the Panama Scandal is just the obvious confirmation of an unexpressed certainty; politicians are phonies. Now Icelanders want justice and their demonstrations are their paybacks; a payback for the old collapse of their banking system, a payback for the political avoidance of the implementation of constitutional reformation, a payback for all those proven incapacities of their political establishment to protect the people or, even more, allow them to protect themselves.

The French feel more and more intensely that multinational corporations implement legislation and dictate political decisions taken by representors who were elected with different mandates. They feel that the center of power has changed and that there is no difference between the Right and the Left. Political identities are losing their intensity. Now labor market is changing too. People are wondering, ‘Is there anything that politicians can protect us from?’ And I do not think that the rise of far/right populism is irrelevant.

When Le Pen dominated in the first round of the December elections many of us were shocked. We were relieved when the Socialists withdrew their candidates in a generous political act in front of the danger, in order to favor their opponents against Le Pen’s candidates. We are once again afraid with what is happening in Austria with FPO.

The reasons cannot be just economic. Poland was the only country that was not harmed during these years of the crisis. It has instead progressively incremented its income per capita improving the well-being of its people. And still Poland elected Kaczyński and his PiS party, a mix of extreme catholic conservatism, social chauvinism and right wing populism. AfD, was created in Hesse, one of the richest state of Germany. Salvini thrives in the richest parts of North Italy. Austria’s living conditions may be stagnant but remain enviable. Is it because of the migratory flows? I do not think so. The wave of right wing and far-right populism was rising even before. The migratory flows are just an excuse, a justification, a necessary “other”, obvious enough to incorporate the “evil”, the source of discomfort.

I think that the problem is more relevant with the loss of people’s identities. There is the feeling that there are no limits anymore, no standard pillars, no steady environments, to let individuals understand who they are. They are losing their sociopolitical references, the mirrors that reassure them for their existence. And they are getting anxious!

In politics, ideologies look like a rhetoric schema that has nothing to do with reality. In society it’s obvious. If we name modernity as the balance between solitude and publicity – our private self of reflection and our public coexistence where we can turn our reflections into communication and praxis – now we are in counter-modern times, lost in privacy. Individuals are not in solitude. Individuals are and feel alone. And they cannot cope with the vertigo of this loneliness.

They are confused and frustrated and they seek the revelatory feeling of catharsis, without often being able to depict neither the path nor the look of this catharsis. There is unity in the will for change but not a coherent plan about the face of this change. But catharsis is taking the shape of the images that have impressed its seeker. And despite the fact that we are all united in the demand of catharsis, we split when we have to name and depict it.

For example, some seek to destroy without having any plan of reconstruction. Their frustration and discomfort are their internal leading voices. They just want their old identities back. And they want to give a good lesson to the old establishment that has deprived them of these identities. And when there is no Right and no Left, no limits and no clear identities, there is a Marine Le Pen drawing new lines between her “clean and new party” and the “old, corrupted political establishment”. In times of frustration opportunism becomes persuasive again.

But there is not only fear and opportunism. There is also hope and new possibilities. The Icelandic example is a sign of hope. Icelanders took advantage of their size and managed to involve her people in designing a new constitution, through a bottom-up, crowdsourced process, with the help of social media and IT tools.

Hope is met in another phenotype too. Those who understand that states cannot pretend they are the dominant forces in the decision making process any more, those trying to enforce post-state powers that can re-politicize politics and re-democratize democracy. And I stand among these people.

This is why the European project is so important. And this is why we should deepen its political institutions and ask for transparency and accountability. A political European Union could have both the size and quality to enforce ideologies and give people their voices back, enforcing democracy and preventing a nationalistic backlash.

Syriza’s failure was inevitable. The expectations were too high and the capabilities immensely low. But we should not rot in desperation. We must understand that power centers are inevitably moving in a beyond-the-state territory. And we must try to boost a glocal (global+local) perception of the decision making process that will engage and involve both new and traditional players in the local, national and international level. Because if we don’t, far-right populism will rise until division will bring us down to absolute collapse.


Nikos Vrantsis