by Alexandros Papadopoulos
In late January 2012, a small furore erupted in the Greek media world when in a televised interview, Michalis Chrisochoidis – at that time Minister of Development, Competitiveness and Shipping –admitted that he had never read the memorandum, that is the terms of the bail-out package agreed between Papandreou Government and the Troika (the tripartite management committee of the Greek Debt Crisis made out of representatives from the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission). The minister’s statement caused a cascade of reactions in social media. On Twitter mockery alternated with outrage: ‘You are shameless, you should put a noose around your neck. You have destroyed all Greece with your signature’. ‘I haven’t read the memorandum but I have seen the movie’. ‘I didn’t read the memorandum because the mail attachment wouldn’t open’.
In order to understand the breadth and strength of these reactions, it is worth reminding that the passing of the memorandum set in motion a series of painful austerity measures, including horizontal reductions on wages and pensions, the dismantling of collective contracts and agreements, closures of public hospitals, schools and clinics, elimination of disability pensions and an overall dissolution of the welfare state. On the day the contract was voted by the Greek parliament, international news agencies recorded an immense crowd of demonstrators who seemed determined to break into the Parliament. At the same time, extensive protests and fights on the streets of Athens led to the burning of a bank the subsequent death of three of its employees. Beyond the dramatic events of that day, the signing of the Memorandum triggered a broad ideological and semiological warfare over the nature and the significance of the Greek crisis and the ways out of it. This discursive battlefield extended from the TV screens to direct democracy movements in Syntagma Square and from political graffiti on the walls of the city to endless debates on facebook walls. These rhetorical conflicts centred primarily on the suitability of austerity measures, the tensed relationships between Greece and Eurozone and the scenarios of default. After two and half years of manic ideological disputes, it is now time to evaluate not simply the content of these disagreements, but mainly their broader cultural and psychological ramifications within a media and intellectual climate of continuous emergency. What remains to be addressed (after tones of analysis about the ontology Greek crisis) is the newly arisen symbolic value of ignorance at a historical moment during which an unprecedented material disaster overlaps with an unprecedented explosion of knowledge.
There is reason to begin this discussion with another televisual happening. A few days after Chrysochoidis’ statement and only a few weeks before the passing of a second package of austerity measures, the Greek media focused on another controversial figure. Following his refusal to accept the first National Award for Literature (and the cash prize that came with it), the poet Dinos Christianopoulos was to invited to give an interview at Sky Channel and discuss his declared resentment towards the ethics of literary awards and its state representatives. Faced with the journalist’s persistent efforts to elicit from him some comment over the cuts on pensions and the overall political situation, the aged poet (who admitted to live on a pension of 590 euros per month) stated that in addition to literary distinctions, he also despised the tendency of journalists to pretend to know everything. His actual words made use of a Greek idiomatic expression ‘I am in black midnight (have no clue) about the situation.’ The only issue for which he felt certain about was, as he admitted, the abyss that separated his own way of thinking from the mindset of his interviewer.
Christianopoulos’ public image could not be more different from that of the politician who made an outrageous statement of ignorance about the memorandum on the same week. Distinguished member of PASOK, Chrysochoidis’ reputation reached its peak when, during his tenure as Minister of Citizen Protection, he had the most notorious group of the far-left, ‘November 17’, arrested. Adopting the profile of an unpretentious man of provincial origins, who had managed to progress thanks to his work ethics, determination and charisma, Chrisochoidis represented a modern and ambitious type of centrist politician. His declared priorities were the uprooting of the patronage system and the rapid implementation of structural reforms (reduction of bureaucracy, combating tax evasion, opening up of protected professions). In stark contrast to the profile of a fair and impartial politician, Christianopoulos’ poetic reputation was associated with the underworld, delinquency and social marginality. His poems painted in a quite bold and provocative manner the lifestyle of homosexuals in the 1950s, situating it in a mise-en-scene of sin and lawlessness. Erotic despair, moral collapse and religiosity suffused an urban iconography of brothels, criminals, porn-cinemas and cruising spaces. The only poem containing a direct political remark (‘Like the Leftist’) paralleled the stigmatization of homosexuals with that of communists.
The simultaneous emergence of the two men at the centre of public attention provoked an ironic counter position. The outcry of a politician who had previously advocated a new ethos in the public arena coincided with the moral vindication of a man who transformed the outcry of homosexuals, and generally a way of life ridden by shame, guilt and humiliation, into poetic grandeur. Seen from this perspective, the literary distinction acquired some broader connotations. Situated against the crisis, Christianopoulos’ main obsession, i.e. the self consciousness of a sexual minority, seemed to announce as a kind of metonymy, a new form collective consciousness. The transfiguration of guilt into a way of life and the rituals of atonement based on the ascetics of creativity were not anymore the exclusive features of a homo-erotic aesthetic universe. They now emerged as the dominant political, cultural and psychological challenges of an entire nation. To paraphrase the slogan embraced by some solidarity movements (which announced that ‘We are all Greeks now ’) the national awarding of Christianopoulos seemed to suggest that ‘We are all homosexual s now’ or more accurately ‘We all look like the guilt-ridden, broke-hearted and cried out homosexuals of the 1950s’. The complexity with which the social audience tends to respond to this type of messages is exemplified in the words used by the poet himself when explaining his view of the committee that honoured him: ‘I don’t give a shit about their fucking shit’.
By combining the scatological comments with the repeated use of the world black (‘black shit’, and as shown above, ‘black midnight’) – a word which alongside death and depression is associated with ignorance, blindness, mental disorientation – Christianopoulos’ words underlined that the actual scandal in this case was the inability to understand, the inability to see. Interestingly, poetic blindness is a traditional motif in classical Greek literature. Homer, Teiresias, Oedipus, despite their special relationship with truth, are all blind. Perhaps, when a poet announces himself to be blind or stupid, the main implication is that in order to see the world poetically one must keep a distance from the mainstream ways society observe reality, or otherwise, that in order to have a vision, one need to sacrifice some part of her/his intelligence. For this reason, Christianopoulos style of speaking did not really declare any guilt about his own ignorance. In contrast, his poisonous remarks highlighted his unequivocal determination to get rid of the authoritarian ignorance of the others. By questioning the ability of intellectual elites to judge him (even when they praise him), Christianopoulos publicly treated the authority of the experts as a form of ignorance disguised as knowledge in order to govern, to control and to manipulate.
This particular attitude illustrates a key dimension of Greek people’s response to the explosion of knowledge, analysis and intellectualism that has flooded the public sphere of the country after the outbreak of the crisis. Regardless of the political antagonisms inherent in the numberless economic, cultural and ethnological accounts of their situation, Greek witness the ceaseless transformation of their life into the object of an increasingly complex, controversial and unreliable knowledge. The motivations and ultimate aspirations of those specialist elites who undertake to diagnose the nature of the Greek pathology cannot be safely detected. Thus, the more the political discourse is transformed into a technocratic jargon, the more it is perceived as a pretentious cryptography of interests.
The most iconic evidence of this trend is the Marxist stylization of those same narratives that attack the Marxist readings of the crisis. In some of the most prevalent re-interpretations of the Greek problem, left-wing political theories are presented as a form of ideological cover for the specific interests of privileged groups of citizens, namely civil servants and their trade unions. According to these views, a further minimization of the welfare state would benefit the interests of the many and weak (i.e. those work at the private sector or those who are unemployed). The proponents of these ideas argue that free economy is the only way to discover and defend the true interests of the lowest social strata. Any other understanding of the meaning of ‘class struggle’ is understood as a form of populist deception. According to the same rhetoric, the distortion of the meaning of social injustice is the result of the ideological hegemony of the Left. Thereby, in addition to the concepts of class interests and social struggle, a renowned Marxian, Gramscian term, ‘hegemony’ is appropriated by the rhetorical weaponry of rightwing analysts and politicians. It is for this reason, that in contrast to the title of Terry Eagleton’s latest book ‘Why Marx was Right’ the really pressing question now is Greece is ‘Was it Possible that Marx was Right-wing’? On the antipodes of the political spectrum, left-wing commentators present their ideological antagonists (and mainly those politicians who signed or supported the Memorandum) as agents of dark interests, national traitors or collaborators of the Germans. While, in this way, left-wing voices flirt with nationalism, a far-right political parties, such as the Golden Dawn, and the newly found party of Panagiotis Kamenos increase their popularity by promoting conspiracy theories pre-occupied with the secret interests of mysterious national enemies.
Under these circumstances, the crisis provokes an unprecedented familiarization of the masses with the idea that knowledge (of the experts, the economists and the scientists) is not innocent, objective and static. In a world of continuous uncertainty, the only certainty is the popularization of the relativity of truth. In this way, the public sphere embraces a concept of knowledge which until recently evoked the bizarre and circumscribed interests of academic circles, namely the idea of knowledge as a construction, meaning a set of conventions over-determined by historically and culturally specific forces. Various versions of these ideas have now reached large audiences; they have become part of the mass culture, of the everyday thinking and ongoing experience of the lay public. In this respect, crisis heralds, not the end of history, but a stasis, a break, a trauma in the intellectual history of truth. The breach of social contract between citizens and politicians has led to a general collapse of trust between the lay audience and the impartiality of the experts.
The hundreds of comments accompanying the articles and public appearances of intellectuals (such as Yanis Varoufakis or Costas Douzinas) are quite illustrative manifestations of this trend. The responses of the audience do not solely focus on the logical coherency of the opinions espoused by the ‘crisis experts’. Readers usually attempt to contextualize the ultimate goals and motivations of the authors; cultural background, class origins, mental and psychological constitution are thoroughly interrogated. Viewed in this way, the portrait of the intellectual mixes with a series of imaginary of symbolic roles: the economist is variously described as an aspiring politician, a careerist celebrity – the ‘star’ of the crisis– or even an astrologist. It is not coincidental, that a few months ago, the astrologist of a breakfast television show of Greek channel, Litsa Patera, predicted the downfall of capitalism.
Similarly, public responses towards the highly technocratic jargon employed to explain or predict the eventualities of the crisis recall fun clubs’ engagement with popular genres of science fiction. The disputes over the meaning of bankruptcy or the machinations of troika evoke simultaneously pessimistic futuristic fantasies and medieval theological battles over the substance of Holy Trinity or the nature of the Second Coming. This ideological polarization assigns attributes of a sacred war to the debates. On account of their views people are categorized as crusaders, infidels, heretics, blasphemous or even agnostics. This last attribute is not neutral or innocent, considering that quite often it tends to connote the political attitude of the ‘opportunist’ or the intellectual naivety of a neo-romantic, i.e. one who fails to see the crude material conditions and political interests hidden beneath the battle of ideas.
This sense of agnosticism and doubt is evident both quantitatively in the large percentage of undecided citizens in the statistic counts of voting intention, and qualitatively, in the public reception of economic debates. Highly theorized and specialized disagreements, which, in different historical circumstances would have been lost within the pages of dull academic journals, are now receiving a bombardment of inquiries. There is reason to understand this agnostic attitude as the product of the tension between traditional ideological reflexes and, what I would like to describe, as historiographical shock. With this term, I refer to a gallery of apocalyptic images and experiences that infringe divert and disrupt the ways that the last generations were used to understand the history of the present. Rumours about children fainting from malnutrition at primary school, the massification of unemployment, the transformation of central Athens into a ghetto, the daily orgy of violence and the unprecedented number of homeless, now made up not only by drug addicts and refugees but also citizens of respectable class origins who carry to their streets-homes gadgets/symbols of past normality, i.e. as i-phones and laptops. All these images irreparably injure the idea of history as taught or implied in schools, meaning the understanding of historical time as an evolutionary move forward, towards a classless, technological, or perhaps, ‘european’ utopia, similar to those pictured in the 1980s and 1990s animated cartoons. This historiographical shock does not only lead to ideological polarization. It triggers a temptation to abandon all mental and ideological filters of the past, to forget all certainties, to look at the problem without any pre-determined interpretations; in short, to start reading the world from scratch.
Hence, the impulse to read the crisis as an affirmation of one’s ideological axioms is counterpoised by a tendency to demolish all axioms. It is a condition comparable with the emotional turmoil overcoming the reader of a mystery novel when the plot radically subverts all her/his expectations about the identity of the killer. In one of the most awe-inspiring novels of this who-done-it genre, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Acroyd, the murderer is revealed to be the narrator of the crime. Similarly, in many of the most widespread accounts of the Greek crisis, the author turns towards the reader, in this case the average Greek citizen, saying to her/him: In this national crime, the killer is you, your culture, your traditions and your habits, especially your lack of education and most of all your ignorance. There several texts of economists who identify ignorance as the key cause of the crisis (see for example Aristos Doxiadis ‘Greece’s Despair is the Product of Political Ignorance’ in Guardian). I would like, however, to discuss here the approach of philosopher, cultural theorist and public intellectual, Stelios Ramfos, for reasons that will be shortly explained.
In his numerous media appearances, Ramfos attributed the problem of the country to a culturally specific mentality, ‘a psychological illness’. The leftwing culture of protest (which, according to his opinion, was prevalent during most of the period following the downfall of dictatorship, the so called ‘metapolitefsi) epitomizes a tendency to replace logic with emotion and empirical observation with abstract pre-given principles. Instead of studying reality, Ramfos argues, the Greek read symbols. They do not understand society and civic culture beyond the partial interests, intellectual habits and circumscribed spaces of kinship, locality and trade unionism. This psycho-political condition is the combined product of a political, anti-statist tradition of nihilism and a messianic form spirituality which has been defining the pre-eminently oriental (i.e. non rational and sentimental) mentality of Greeks for centuries. In short, Ramfos describes the Greeks as a nation of children detached from reality and modernity. Refusing to think pragmatically, they exhibit a deep anthropological ignorance of their identity and their weaknesses. In Ramfos’ opinion, to get out of the crisis, Greek mentality needs to be reconciled with the world of experience, action and collective responsibility.
The enthusiastic acceptance of this approach by a versatile political audience (which ranges from astute proponents of neo-liberal reforms to revisionist left) exemplifies what I described above as agnostic attitude, meaning an impulse to re-discover one’s identity, or else, to unveil the identity of the murderer in the arising national drama. At the same time, this type of analysis epitomizes a form of ignorance masqueraded as public knowledge. Ramfos’ approach is full of substantiated historiographical and orientalist generalizations. His account presents a nation as homogeneous entity whose general psychological and spiritual traits have remained unchanged over time. In this way, his approach reproduces the problems that it supposedly criticizes. For example, while the philosopher concedes that the Greeks replace politics with emotion, his own political proposition – epitomized in the triptych find a vision, work hard and you will succeed – sounds like a clumsy re-statement of the 1950s American Dream. And while, this view essentially replaces one obsolescent form of utopianism for another, the thinker’s social audience is confronted with the historical certainty of a dystopia. Although Ramfos foregrounds the lack of anthropological knowledge, his own account of the Greek condition is anthropologically poor. His evaluation of the culture of protest as the hegemonic paradigm of the post-dictatorship period, can be questioned in many ways. In reality, the high growth rates of the past decades (Greece had one of the highest rate in GDP in Europe during the 1990s and 2000s) was followed by a deep westernization of lifestyles and mentalities. Like everywhere else in the Western world, the values of professional self-actualization and consumer bliss was more in vogue than any form of protest. For all those who found some form of inspiration at the political culture of the Left, it was imperative to find a convincing and modern way to present it into a generation full of contradictions. It is telling for example that a large part of their audience came from various no-Greek cultural backgrounds, quite often from ex-soviet countries of the eastern bloc. Having experienced at first hand the disillusion of a socialist version of utopianism, these new citizens had no inclination to embrace left-inspired cultures of protest. Their case attested to the anthropological complexity and historical fluidity of both Greek society and European experience in general.
This type of approach heralds a radical inversion of Ramfos ideas. Contrary to his current views, in the past, the same thinker had resorted to the Greek tradition in order to criticize the instrumental rationality of Western thought. Seen from this perspective, Ramfos’ case produces another counter position with the public attitude of Christianopoulos, the previously mentioned homo-erotic poet. While, Christianopoulos sabotages the transformation of guilt into a national symbol of self-understanding, Ramfos projects the tensions of his own intellectual trajectory upon his object of analysis. Indeed, one by one, all the characteristics that the thinker attributes to the long durée of Greek mentality evoke the turbulent transformations of his own thought. He is the one who celebrated emotional intelligence as opposed to rationality, replaced political analysis with the symbolic interpretation of mentality and showed deep ignorance of anthropological context. In this regard, an expert’s spiritual self-flagellation is introduced in the public sphere as the re-discovered self-conscience of an entire nation.
The popular reception of Ramfos’ ideas graphically illustrates Greek people’s agonizing urge to seek for new answers when faced with the riddle of a collective catastrophe. In this psychological environment, the public audience does not seem to care whether the specialist of the crisis is a proponent of Marx, Jesus, Friedman or Hayek. What the people seem to seek for is a politics of hope. As old vocabularies bear the burden of old dystopias, the necessity to discover a new language becomes more pressing than ever. The overall tension between knowledge and ignorance demonstrates that even in moments of utter emergency, truth is still experienced as a form of mass entertainment: here comes a spectacular puzzle that unpacks its secrets in the manner of a murder novel, an astrological prediction or a popular psychology. In other words, when politics return back to the centre of popular interest, the bipolar oppositions between rights and duties, desires and guilts tends to transform public knowledge into a form of creative, playful and most of all, therapeutic mediation of despair.