Dispatch from Athens #3: Fear meets a movement of hope

by · January 11, 2015

Headline of To Vima: ‘The chance for the Left’

Headline of Pasok newspaper To Vima: ‘The chance for the Left’

When fear meets a movement of hope

The Sunday papers still matter in Greece. More so, in fact, than before the crisis. A vicious circle of declining readerships, falling advertising revenue and disinvestment in journalism has left the daily papers as poorly produced and read as they are paginated.

The once world-class Eleftherotypia has bitten the dust, despite the heroic efforts of colleagues who fought for the title and their journalistic integrity against a mercenary management.

The Sundays have survived by consolidating once daily readerships and aggregating some serious reportage and analysis.

So on this sunny Sunday I did the Athenian thing and met up with friends at a café to mull the papers (much cheaper when there are six of you), catch up with each other’s news and set the world to rights.

There is an elemental collectivity in how masses of people receive the news and form their opinions in Greece, which it shares with much of the rest of the Mediterranean, from Malaga to Beirut.

Those basic bonds have been strengthened throughout the crisis. Extended families and networks of friends or of neighbours in apartment blocks have forged a parallel economy of bartered services, goods and professional expertise.

Those social ties can, of course, at times be restrictive. But over the last six years they have quite simply been the difference between surviving the crisis and being washed away in the deluge.

Many have ended up on the streets. No one knows how many have simply disappeared. I’m sure that in the much more atomised and neoliberal London the numbers would be far greater.

And, while they have had to absorb the huge emotional and mental shocks which have left their traces in the eyes and on the faces of young and old, those social networks have been a basis for a collective response and therefore of hope.

“The sun’s shining and we’re all happy. It’s all because ‘hope is on the way’,” joked my old friend Sotiris, referencing the Syriza party’s campaign slogan.

He and the rest of us have been around too long for that to be some embarrassingly naïve and strained observation. But nor was it cynical — and neither did anyone take is as such.

It captured well the feelings of many digesting the news today. For months — years, in fact — the Right has struck a single note in its campaign to prevent a Syriza victory — fear, once more fear, always fear.

A Left victory would result in all manner of disasters. Greece would be like North Korea — out of the euro and internationally isolated. As the Greek economy collapsed, despite staying in the euro, the portents became less Delphic and more incendiary.

Only the Right will keep us in Europe. And only membership of the European club will prevent us sinking to the savagery of the East — of the Arabs in the Levant and the Africans drowning in the Mediterranean.

The political tactic worked in 2012. Then a short-lived Syriza opinion poll lead was overturned by the most ferocious, red-baiting and scaremongering campaign. Every move in Athens, it should be remembered, was concerted with European big business and Brussels.

Today — and with two volatile weeks to go — one thing has become clear. Fear-mongering alone is not going to save the Right. And the social and economic interests New Democracy is meant to represent are already considering what to do when it falls from power.

Six opinion polls were published this weekend. All put Syriza ahead — by between 2.4 and 5.5 percent. Syriza’s paper Avgi published one which put the party on 38 percent — which would just give it a majority of 151 seats out of 300.

Even more telling is today’s headline of To Vima, a historic bastion of the centre-left Pasok: “The Chance For The Left”.

A paper which would once think nothing of deploying red-baiting arguments against Syriza and the radical Left goes on to make clear that by “the Left” it does not mean Pasok — whose demise it ruefully acknowledges — but the actual Left which hails from the Communist tradition in Greece.

A measured article goes on to report that the Syriza vote seems settled. People continue to say they are voting for the party despite the fear campaign of the Right. “They are making a conscious choice.”

It points out that there is little mood for a second general election — such as happened in 2012, when the first was inconclusive. So it may even be the case that voters — and it’s a sophisticated electorate — cleave even more strongly to Syriza in the coming fortnight.

Either way, the Right faces a dilemma. Antonis Samaras tried this weekend to change his campaign tune. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, Samaras tried on Friday to present the Right as the true bearers of hope.

He promised economic renaissance, no more attacks on pensions and much besides if he is re-elected.

It’s difficult to know where to begin in response. The biggest problem for Samaras with that belated gambit is that it adds incoherence to what was already a message lacking in credibility.

There is no campaign logic in accusing Syriza of being dangerously naïve in promising generalised social recovery then suddenly saying that you can do the same, having previously claimed to be the party of hard choices.

There is no political logic either. New Democracy is making zero inroads into the working class. It is holding its position only by galvanising the historic class and political bases of the Right — and from there seeking to win back voters from Golden Dawn.

That base is not primarily motivated by centrist talk of improving living standards for all, pensions and welfare. It thrives on class and anti-Leftist demagogy.

Various cultural critics had already acutely observed how the simple, bright and popular imagery and style of Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras’s rallies chimed with his optimistic message and contrasted sharply with the sepulchral yet also expensive hotel venues chosen for Samaras.

Trying to present Samaras as the bright face of hope now is as incredible and is as likely to have the same effect as choosing Count Dracula to model a new swimwear range.

Alain Delon as Tancredi in Visconti's film of The Leopard

Alain Delon as Tancredi in Visconti’s film of The Leopard

The Emperor is back!

The great Italian novel The Leopard tells the story of the battle to survive by the old aristocratic order as it is radically challenged with the birth of a new — the state of Italy itself.

“For things to stay the same,” says the character Tancredi, “Everything must change.”

That the oligarchs in Greece want things to stay the same is beyond question. At every turning point in modern Greek history they have looked backwards and to their own vested interests — from opposing democracy in the 1920s, through undermining the resistance or outright collaboration with the Nazi occupation onwards.

Only last September we witnessed the pathetic sight of the Athenian bourgeoisie desperate to be pictured at the 50th wedding anniversary of King Constantine — the “King” of Greece, which in fact has been a republic for four decades.

It’s one thing British big business going weak at the knees at an invitation to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party. But the Greek King does not live in Greece, has no palace and — above all — is not a King.

As Tancredi would warn the shipowners, media magnates, bankers and old money families: looking fondly at the past and spreading fear about the future are not enough to ensure that things remain the same.

Already the establishment in Greece and the EU has tentatively begun to consider how it will deal with a Syriza-led government. How to change it so that its election leads to as little actual change as possible.

How they go about that and whether they can be successful are wide open questions. It gives the ailing European order which was lined up on the streets of Paris today far too much credibility to imagine that they have all the arrangements in place, just so.

But the histrionics from Samaras should not blind us to the fact that the class interests which he is meant to represent are making those calculations.

One problem they face is that there is no automatic synchrony between what is good for big business and the policy pursued by the leader of its historic party. Expect to hear much more from the business class about Samaras’s recklessness and irresponsibility in coming weeks.

A second is that Syriza, unlike, say, Pasok under the late Andreas Papandreou, is a relatively unknown quantity.

Let’s return to that and to the shades of opinion and politics within Syriza. For now, reflecting on today’s coverage in Greece, I’m left with another of my friend’s witty observations.

“You remember the history of the French Revolution by Francois Mignet?” he asks.

“Vaguely,” I bluff.

“Well, the supplement has the story of Napoleon’s 100 days following his escape from Elba,” he says. “The Paris newspapers start with headlines like: ‘The Monster Escapes’.

“A few days later… ‘Tyrant Gathers Army’. Then, ‘Napoleon At Gates Of Paris’.

“Lastly… ‘The Emperor Has Returned!’ ”

With a wicked smile he adds, “Look at To Vima — we’re all Bonapartists now!”

In the coming weeks expect the most unlikely of voices to claim that they were with Syriza all along, or at least prepared to give them a chance. They mean the “moderate”, “sensible” Syriza — the one which Alexis Tsipras must prove is in charge, by deferring to and relying upon new-found friends of the centre.

The election has not happened yet. And we will see.

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