— the right no —

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,

he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
drags him down all his life.

C.P.Cavafy, “Che Fece… Il Gran Rifiuto” (1901), trans. Edmund Keeley & Phillip Sherrard


“We don’t leave place for hope. We leave for the unknown.” CK

There is something consoling about being in a room that feels like it has your basic needs covered. The chaos outside (& here in Freiburg there is little that seems chaotic) is distanced by small gestures of order. I also like the fact that I can see “German laundry” hanging across the way from my window

Before I left Athens I had a bunch of things to do that took a lot longer than they would have before the capital controls were imposed. It all happened very quickly… endless all night sessions in the parliament that followed endless all night sessions in Brussels… I mean how comfortable are any of us with the idea that decisions that are affecting our lives and livelihoods are being decided under these conditions. Hundreds of pages handed over to Greek ministers to sign in a matter of hours. You can take Varoufakis’ view (shared by many) that this was a form of mental waterboarding, pushing the government to the edge of exhausted despair when all proposals (in the past 5 months) have amounted to failure, or you can take the view that the government was caught unprepared, proved itself dangerously incompetent, and had no Plan B if the euro group didn’t budge from their austerity agenda. And they didn’t budge. The two views don’t have to be mutually exclusive but there are a lot of gray shades between the primary colors. As in any dysfunctional family, a metaphor I’ve been using about what’s happened, it’s never solely the fault of one side or member. Generally a crisis means that the functioning or integrity of the whole is at stake.

The looks on the faces of bank employees certainly expressed trauma. There was a numbed concern and almost trance-like tolerance for all manner of questions from the absurd to the mundane. No crisp first world efficiencies here. “How do I activate my card?” was one repeated question, usually from an elderly pensioner who most likely had no one else to ask. Many were in line to be walked through the steps to use web banking to pay bills. I kept expecting someone to crack. I spent several hours trying to transfer euros from one bank account, where my salary was deposited, to another where my bills were paid. I could have done it in 10 minutes or less in the days when we could withdraw larger amounts than 60 euros a day, or 420 a week. I also had to pay 12 euros for the transaction. The employees were not machines. Which is the point. Machines would be less tolerant of the ongoing questions. There would be some flat, automated “I don’t understand. Could you repeat the question please” that would endlessly repeat itself if there was any confusion about the question. Inefficiency of course is one of the things the euro group is accusing “the Greeks” of, also a lack of speed when it comes to reforms and the like. They in turn, from the various summaries of what took place  were quite machine-like in their repeated refusals to consider amendments to unsustainable economic measures.

But I want to speak to this human quality of people like the bank employees, and others working with little or no pay in initiatives like EMFASIS let alone doctors and nurses in public hospitals serving the community. Their exhausted endurance reflects the cost to the human, weary, unglamorous quality of sheer life in moments of extremity, a quality or value that clearly was not on the table in the euro group negotiations. Mark Mazowar goes so far as to speak of “the soul” of Europe being bartered.

I want to say that it isn’t simply about what needs to be done fiscally but about making that possible. The catch-22 of the whole fiasco has been that the demand for repayment of the debt can’t be fulfilled under conditions where there is no economic growth. Varoufakis’ language on the morning of the referendum stunned me. Phrases like preparing for “the siege” and “stocking the war room” seemed mad. In hindsight he was right. No one expected the 61% Oxi (No) vote. And had Europe cut Greece off, as they did financially, there would have been, and was, still, a need for basic supplies.

We were “permitted” to continue in the euro in a capacity that has amounted to indentured servitude. I have a hard time accepting that Tsipras signed off 50 billion euro worth of state assets to a privatization fund. The tragedies and mistakes of austerity will continue, and it has reinforced rather than undermined the bipolarities of the euro zone and the scapegoating that goes with it. Thomas Gallant’s historical assessment is informative.

The dysfunctional European family is clinging to a single currency that maintains a banking system with particular hierarchical agendas. But for hope there really needs to be some shared principle or ideology. I started to reread Arendt’s Human Condition; it begins with a description of the activity of labor, that  “does not need the presence of others, though a being laboring in complete solitude would not be human but an animal laborans…” Her description of the “special relationship between action and being together” taken from Aristotle’s definition of the political animal “zoonplitikon” as an “animal socialis” speaks to the current schism between politics and economics. That is, “man is by nature political, that is, social” when there are shared principles at work. My friends in Germany are livid with what Merkel and particularly Schäuble have allowed. If we really are a European unity, which we really aren’t, there needed to be an acknowledgement and some nurturing of shared values. The 61% No was a plea for inclusion, for terms that would allow for growth, rather than a bowing to terms that would keep the country broken and begging, the animal laboran of the European periphery.

About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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