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Solidarity needs to be infectious: a conversation between activists in Greece and Scotland

On the eve of the 2015 Greek bailout referendum, Robin McAlpine of Scotland’s Common Weal and researcher Christina Psarra from Greece, sat down to discuss radicalized generations, alternative spaces, and the need for solidarity. From the Squares and Beyond partnership.

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No vote celebration, Greece. Demotix/Harris Savolgou. All rights reserved. No vote celebration, Greece. Demotix/Harris Savolgou. All rights reserved.Robin McAlpine (Robin): The first time that I was in Athens, I was sitting in one of the squares in a café, watching two old Greek men having a conversation. I asked my Greek friend, “what are they fighting about?” And she said, “oh no, they’re not fighting! That’s just a normal conversation!” So my question is this: given that I’ve never met anybody more like the Scots in having a conversation which looks like a fight, why did it take so long for the Greeks to kick back against structures which everyone knew were corrupt? Why did it get so far? Why didn’t Greece rise up earlier?

Christina Psarra (Christina): A simple answer would be that until that moment, the system served certain interests. So we were seeing the problems, but that didn’t really touch our everyday lives until 2008, when the situation started getting out of control. There is also a generational gap. You mention this conversation between the two old men. Maybe the two old men are still doing the same thing! I would take a generational perspective – the emergence of political discussion, tension and resistance, from the young and from middle-aged people.

Robin: My observations, from the people I know in Greece, is that the young became radicalized, and the old became radicalized. But a couple of people that I know who are middle-aged, and sole earners for their family, have become more and more scared. Indeed one of my good friends has become more conservative, although he started on the left. And now he says: “oh Syriza, it’s going to destroy us all.”

Christina: There are three groups. Young people will tell you: “we have nothing to lose, our future is a disaster, no matter what happens. Even if Syriza stays, we will not get pensions, we will not have the social benefits that our parents used to have – so we do not know what we are fighting for.” Then there is an old generation, they will say: “all the things we have been working for all our lives are lost, so what are we fighting for?” And then the middle-aged step in and say: “calm down, we have families and dependents. We are in the moment of our lives where we have many things to lose.” All of these people need to resist and take a stand, and now more and more are getting involved and radicalized. The point is, we need to see what we can save.

Robin: For a lot of people, I am very aware of this sense of ‘nothing to lose’, or ‘how much worse can it get?’. To what extent do you think that represents a fundamental change in what people in Greece want from their society?  How many people elected Syriza to save them from a horrible moment, and if they get past it, would they like to go back to what it was like in the past? Or is there a fundamental change in how Greeks see their society?

Christina: I think it’s fundamental. This is a historic moment. These experiences are so transformative, that society cannot be the same again. The system cannot be the same. After a long period of silence, and a long period of non-action, people are reclaiming their lives, and reclaiming the society they wish to live for. Yes, you will always have people that like the system, you will always have some things that will never change, but for the majority, I do not think that, no matter what happens, they will return to how it was before. That’s the case everywhere. In Egypt, Armenia, Scotland, Tunisia, it has been a transformative experience. Things will not be the same again. It will be worse for some, and better for others. I am not saying that we will build the society that we are dreaming of, and social justice will suddenly emerge. It might be worse, it might be a total failure, and in five years we will be back in this room discussing failure, and that we achieved nothing. But it will not be the same.

Robin: Well I can promise you that it’s not nothing for us. We’ve all been watching. I am very sympathetic to Syriza, but I remain slightly surprised at how conservative the proposals are and its approach are, for something that is seen as so radical. I know that I’m saying this on record, but I have reached a point where in Britain, I am myself struggling to justify a Yes vote on the EU referendum next year. So I’ve watched what’s happened to Greece. I have family there. It feels personal to me – the humiliation of Greece. In Scotland, we’ve just had a contract for what used to be a state-owned ferry company to the Scottish islands, which the European Union has forced to be put out to privatized competitive tender. And I’m starting to ask myself, can somebody explain to me why I should vote to stay in the EU? I’m personally unconvinced that it has prevented a war. I’m unconvinced that we have to stay in the EU, otherwise we will all turn into a barbarian nation. Given the moderate amount of oppression that makes me rethink being a member, and given what’s happened in Greece, why is there the overwhelming desire to stay?

No vote celebration, Greece. Demotix/Björn Kietzmann. All rights reserved. No vote celebration, Greece. Demotix/Björn Kietzmann. All rights reserved.Christina: I do not know if I can answer that, but let me clarify how the argument is phrased: how it polarizes Greek society, and how the prospect of exit terrorizes people. The card thrown on the table is that with Grexit, you lose everything – any funds allocated to Greece. We’ve seen social media campaigns where people post photographs of construction work made possible with funding from the European Union. So they’ve been posting photos from the Athens metro, and highlighting how it has been co-funded by the European Union. Then they say, “imagine what it will be like if you exit Europe” – the idea that all this will be destroyed, along with dreams of expanding and modernizing society.

Robin: When will the European Union give you money to build a new metro, when they won’t even give you money to buy medicine?

Christina: Exactly, but to read behind the lines is the most difficult thing. Some of us are saying that we are voting on austerity. Do you authorize us to go and negotiate a better plan? But the Yes supporters, in the way they frame the discussion of staying in Europe, they talk about the founding principles of peace, solidarity,  protection against war and open markets. They have framed the discussion around staying or exiting. The No campaign framed the discussion around accepting austerity. So there is a huge gap between voters, and also the framing of the discussion.

Robin: Let’s just note that we are talking the day before the Greek referendum, so we have no idea. It may not be worth speculating. But we’ve heard from discussions earlier today from people discussing the framing of the referendum. As someone from Scotland, I am very wary of the media presenting the referendum in a heavily biased way, to essentially do the work of the European elite. It sounds like what happened to Scotland. But in Scotland there was a massive drop in trust in the media. By overplaying its hand, by the media being so crude in its propaganda, in the long term it has made itself much weaker. Now, one of the outcomes of the Scottish independence campaign is a lack of trust in what used to be the establishment, the media, broadcasters, banks and corporations. Can Greece trust itself again? To what extent can Greece return to trust its institutions, its police, its system. If not, what does it do?

Christina: If there is any chance of trusting institutions again in Greece, there is no way Greek society can trust the Greek media again. This is the case for all thinkers across society, no matter their political views, whether elite or not. Go and speak to a Greek, and the first thing they will say is that the media is dead.

Robin: So do you have a flourishing alternative media?

Christina: Yes, this was the case after 2011–12. Alternative magazines went to print, websites and web radio on the rise, and a newspaper emerged, run by journalists from a big popular left-wing papers which had shut down. So there are alternatives, and new ways of dissemination. The mainstream media is a lost cause.

Robin: This is at least encouraging. Nearly 20 years ago when I first got to know Greece, in my twenties, I was surprised by the shrug about corruption. My brother-in-law at that time was a young leftist: he would acknowledge that politicians were corrupt, and the police, but would accept that’s how it was. I was surprised – why would a comparatively advanced modern democracy shrug its shoulders so much? I’m glad to hear you are building an alternative media. What other alternative structures are you building? I know the failure of the welfare state has been met through collective action.

Christina: With regards to the welfare state, there has been a massive response. After 2010-11, the most intense period of crisis and cuts, you had an immediate response from NGOs, social movements, alternative solidarity groups, offering everything from free education to alternative currency initiatives. In terms of the formal responses, Greek foundations emerged for the first time with huge grants – before the crisis we didn’t even know they were active in this area, channeling grants to NGOs. All of this involved replacing the state, but also funding alternative structures and reclaiming rights. There are also different levels of the movement – for instance, local occupations at the neighbourhood level.

Yes campaign, Scotland. Demotix/Allison Munro. All rights reserved. Yes campaign, Scotland. Demotix/Allison Munro. All rights reserved.Robin: It seems to me that, despite the darkness ahead, there are sparks of hope. What is left for the rest of us? Friends on the left in Scotland say that Syriza will show us the way. I’m skeptical – the roots of our struggle are similar – the neoliberal approach to Europe – but I have a feeling that if Syriza succeeds, we will all be told that this is a unique situation, and if it fails, then we will be told that this proves that we were all wrong.  So I am a little worried that it may not be helpful. Will Syriza change Europe, or will it be a moment like Tahrir square, where everything is different, but not necessarily better? For the continent, is Syriza going to be the great example or the terrible warning?

Christina: Solidarity needs to be infectious. Greek people would not have achieved a lot of things if they didn’t have the support of others in Europe. I would not underestimate the support given as Greece arrives at this moment. As we speak, there are meetings, rallies and demonstrations across Europe in support of what is happening in Greece. Whatever happens, of course it is context-specific, but the interpretation of what will happen is also in the hands of others, not just those in Greek society. If Syriza fails, there will be interpretations of its failure, and these interpretations will not come from just Greek society. We are not alone, no matter what the message is. Everything is connected.

Robin: I can promise you that solidarity is indeed infectious. Independence supporters in Scotland have held solidarity rallies and more than that, for many who support independence in Scotland, Syriza is seen as part of our fight. The leader of the Scottish National Party has called for debt relief for the Greeks, the first elected European leader to do so.  You can trace a direct line to our struggle. There is a tremendous amount of love in Scotland for the Greeks, and we wish you well in the vote tomorrow.

Christina: Thank you. I hope we do the right thing.

About the authors

Robin McAlpine is director of Common Weal, Scotland.

Christina Psarra is a social policy researcher and humanitarian worker, and an alumni of the London School of Economics and Political Sciences.

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