Ο άνθρωπος είναι “ζώον πολιτικόν” και ” ζώον λόγον έχων”
Whenever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition,
for speech is what makes man a political being.
–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
I am back in Athens days before the massive loan package of the 130billion Euros will be voted on in the Parliament, a chance, supposedly, for Greece to dig itself out from under its overwhelming debt. The first thing I notice after a month away, teaching in New York, is that wherever I go people are constantly in conversation. It impresses me because I am still conditioned, after my time in the City, to keep to myself, avoiding eye contact or talk. “Who knows what else is coming” the young woman in the OTE Phone Company says to a man who is almost attacking her with: “You ate well all these years…!” The young woman (who is maybe in her mid-twenties), nods; yet, in her mid-twenties, she really couldn’t have been one of the many who certainly did “eat well these years.” She is unperturbed, as if used to hearing the accusation, as if, too, she accepts it even if she, personally, had little or no benefit from the inflated public sector salaries and bonuses. It stays with me as does the tone of another refrain I keep hearing. “How much more will we see?” I hear this standing in the bank line, buying groceries, walking on the streets. The tension and slivers of fear in conversations is palpable, as is the feeling that we (in the streets, in the banks, supermarkets) are in this together, whatever “this” promises to become. Perhaps this is why the young woman in the OTE office doesn’t seem particularly bothered by the man’s diatribe; the sensation is one of tragedy, beginning and threatening to become worse — the looks on people’s faces says as much, a combination of stoicism and vulnerability, while talk is full of references to the finance ministers in the Nea Dimokratia and the PASOK governments who have been blamed for inertia as much as for outright thefts, and while people tell of surreal stories like the one of a village where almost everyone documented themselves as blind to qualify for benefits, the sense is one of being connected in the midst of a now commonly shared assumption that the last people to help the people will be anyone in authority.
Anastasia (resurrection) told me she took out every penny of her savings to renovate her hairdressing shop. The owner of the shop she had been renting from wouldn’t lower the rent. “So I left and came here,” she tells me, as I walk into a place that looks like it could have been an upscale New York salon with its black & white décor and raw brick walls. “Are you wearing black for a reason” I say, when she smiles. “I always wear black, but I did put all my savings into this shop – all of it. We have to take control in this mess. Not just be in it. If you’re in it too much you can’t see anything else. Anyway”, she pauses, “Now we have to clean up the rot.” I ask her if she’s afraid that she used up all her savings. She shakes her head quickly. “Of course not, I could have kept it in the bank and worried about what’s going to happen to it, worried if it was going to lose value, if we went back to the drachma, if the stupid banks decide to close…miseria!” She threw her hand into the air impatiently. “This way I’m putting it into the present! We can’t be afraid. We have to set examples.”
I was again in Anastasia’s shop the morning after the 130 billion loan package was passed. Kerasina, a young mother who had given birth a year ago looked like she had not slept for days, been crying, or both. “My heart’s gone cold…” Her eyes started to tear. I knew what she was talking about but I hadn’t been downtown yet. It had all started very peacefully, an almost festive atmosphere, the hundreds, and then thousands, of protestors gathered in Syntagma and the streets around the square the evening of February 12, before the vote. In Thessaloniki, too, thousands were protesting this second loan package, or mnimonio. Like much else, the package had never been clearly explained beyond the rhetoric of dire scenarios if “we” don’t get it: a “messy default” in which gas would be rationed, supermarket shelves emptied, streets left unprotected and dangerous. Families already are having to do without, cutting back on preventive medical care and their heating. Shops are closing. Suicide has rise 40% from 2010. Young people are leaving the country, older ones are moving to the provinces The recession is especially visible in the city center – public parks turned into gatherings of homeless, blankets strung between the trees, plastic bags of belongings hanging from branches; now heroin is openly traded in front of the main national university building where statues of Athena and the various busts of Greek leaders look down with their staid, marble expressions on addicts shooting up as refugees barter drug prices in broken Greek. There’s a new kind of beggar, too, one holding up signs, that say “Hungry” (ΠΕΙΝΑΩ) in bizarrely similar lettering, that suggests, as a friend put it, that begging “has also become a business” as our unelected government continues to paint ever-darkening shades of the default if “we” don’t get the loan and agree to the terms of a mnimonio the first part of which, in June 2011, one minister of the then elected PASOK government admitted to never having read very carefully in the first place.
Like whomever it is organizing the beggars holding their ΠΕΙΝΑΩ signs — one holds his urine bag for all to see as he gingerly balances the printed cardboard on his knee — the business of hunger is just that, a way to reduce people to desperation, so businesses, or their managers, banks, can come in and organize it. This has been happening since September 2011 with the ongoing (always suddenly announced) taxes — from “The Solidarity Tax”, to the “Property Tax” also called “The Electricity Tax” (a near-brilliant notion of tying the tax to the electricity bill, so if left unpaid the person is in danger of having their power cut). So everyone is now talking about (or guessing at) just what this unelected government has agreed to in the second part of the mnimonio package. One journalist has described it as harsher than the loan package a post-WWII Germany signed with the U.S. and Russia to rebuild its economy. “If the Greeks are acting out their dependency traumas… the Germans are certainly acting out some of their own issues toward the Greeks,” one journalist wrote, as various ministers in Germany seem never to tire of describing the Greeks as “misbehaving”.
“They want to make it look like it’s the people’s fault,” the woman in front of the gutted ATTIKON Theatre, was saying to two French journalists. “People like me protesting yesterday, are not the ones burning our buildings and destroying our cities. It’s hooligans who are allowed to do this by the system” One of the journalists seemed puzzled, and asked why “the system” would do this to itself, particularly if it is composed of Greeks, “They don’t want us to resist these measures. It’s because they are responsible for this, they made money off of us, or stole it, and now this Troika wants to make money too.” I have just arrived and am trying not to be emotional as I look into the blackened spaces of the once beautiful theatre where I, like many, have my own memories. The last movie I saw in the ATTIKON was the Bob Dylan film biography I saw with my daughter. The pavements are streaked with dampened soot. Hoses still hang from the windows, and the air is full of the scent of ash. People are gathering for the candlelight vigil in front of the charred building. “They are trying to take attention away from the suffering and the peaceful protests,” the woman continues who says she teaches at the Greek university when the journalist asks her about her profession. He then asks how the austerity measures have affected her. “In 2010 my salary was almost 2000 Euros a month. With this second loan package my pay will be cut 70%. I’m going to live on 700 Euros and I have children.” The journalist then asks me what I think of the idea of the handful of vandals that were left to destroy some 45 buildings. I nod “Apparently they were fixing Molotovs on the premises of the law school and the Greek minister of public order knew about it. The government probably wants an excuse to use force to break up the gatherings. It also makes it easy to stereotype a whole people.” The journalist looks shocked. The woman turns to me and says in Greek, “tell them, tell them…. they think it’s just us complaining or crazy.”