Athens taxis. Flickr/Manos K. Some rights reserved.A summer night in mid-August Athens is a thing to behold. The Athenians have retreated from the asphyxiating heat to old family homes in villages across the country, leaving the city’s streets blissfully abandoned. To make the most of this empowering phenomenon, you should wander through the abandoned streets in a car, the warm breeze on your face as you zoom down 3-laned boulevards solo, taking in the stillness of the otherwise chaotic Greek capital.
If you happen to take a taxi at this time, this near-spiritual activity is usually interrupted by your driver – especially if you happen to be Greek. Empty avenues are filled with the passionate monologues of Athens’ political animals; the single most unfaltering source of current affairs critique. I have had some of the most engaging political debates of my life with Athenian taxi drivers; from discussions on police violence and anarchy, to the deregulation of various Greek professions (taxi driving included) and our relationship with Europe. So this August I could not help but feel a gathering sense of dread as I hailed taxis on numerous occasions, told the driver where I was heading, and heard not another word from them until I was told the price for the ride.
No indignation at the pseudo-exit from the bailouts, no commentary on the deadly fires that hit Greece a few weeks ago and whose terrible death toll was only bolstered by austerity. Not even the most basic of exclamations of political indignation were voiced, in the form of familiar mantras like “politicians are all the same; they are all liars, all corrupt”.
Greeks are talkers, and Greek taxi drivers twice so. It might not be too surprising that it was here that the Agora, the Ancient Greek democratic talk shop, flourished over two-and-a-half millennia ago. It was this historical heritage that we drew from when in 2011, in the early years of The Crisis, thousands of us Athenians got together to occupy Syntagma square and organise spontaneous committees and workshops aimed at discussing and visualising a future beyond the debt that seemed to be strangling our society, economy, indeed our democracy itself.
Those early days were days of anger and disbelief, but also hope and resolution. We talked and talked into the night, about all the ways in which this crisis could be harnessed and used to create a new, brighter future.
But now, it seems, the talking has stopped. This is exactly what is missing from Greece, and from the EU as a whole. There is no discussion about the way forward.
The election of SYRIZA represented nothing short of a progressive revolution for many in Greece. Those first five months of a SYRIZA government were days of pride. But when Greek PM Alexis Tsipras proceeded to turn the mandate received from the referendum of the Greek people on its head, a huge part of the Greek electorate that had been invigorated by SYRIZA’s electoral victory was left betrayed, confused, and utterly alienated from politics.
This feeling of frustration and alienation is only reinforced by the cynical narrative that Greece is finally recovering from its economic woes; a story that does not tread water for many Greeks whose daily reality is proof that any talk of recovery is propaganda, pure and simple.
The triumphant occasion of Greece “exiting the bailouts” has been the proverbial propaganda-cherry on top of the rotten austerity-cake. The normalisation of life under crushing austerity while being spoon-fed tales of “return to normality” adds insult to an injury so great that it has numbed many citizens into apathy, taxi drivers included.
What are voters to do in a country where its first ever radical-left government was turned into the Troika’s most obedient minion? Where political narratives do not bother to try to offer hopeful visions of the future and where the quality of political debate has descended into unique depths – what political debate can there be in a debt-colony anyway?
The Troika is pushing a significant portion of the electorate to the political apathy that is the trademark of our neoliberal democracies. The economy is too important to be left to the voters, we are told by those who claim to know best. But with the IMF criticising the Troika policies on Greece, our European partners begging to differ, and the government elected by the Greeks to find a sustainable solution to the whole mess having been co-opted by the country’s economic torturers, it is not very clear who is meant to know best.
Machiavelli in his Discourses identified “friction” as one of the fundamental principles underpinning any healthy democracy. The legal and peaceful, albeit confrontational co-existence of ideologies in the political arena of any democracy is what keeps democratic culture and engagement alive amongst citizens, not to mention maintaining a fertile environment for the development of policies through debate. This is exactly what is missing from Greece, and from the EU as a whole. There is no discussion about the way forward. Colonies do not get to debate what to do. They get told what to do. Colonies do not get to debate what to do. They get told what to do.
So it is not only for the sake of Greece’s economic recovery that MeRA25, the Democracy in Europe Movement’s Greek political party, seeks to lift Greece out of its debt bondage. A country forced to maintain a primary budget surplus of 3.5% until 2021, and 2.2% for another 40 years after that, regardless of election results or of the socio-economic effects of the policies that make this surplus possible, is only a democracy in name.
Apathetic citizens that give up on politics (indeed, give up on democracy itself) are the harbingers of fascism, either by vacating space in civil society that is taken up by unrelenting extremists, or by reaching such levels of indignation that they support anyone who offers them and their country dignity and a return to normality, regardless of how they might disagree with them on refugee policy or national identity.
If Greece’s democracy is to survive, its citizens must once again feel like there is a point to politics other than deciding the colour of the ties the implementors of austerity should wear. MeRA25 is the only party serious about achieving exactly this, while refusing to abandon the dream for a united Europe of solidarity, collaboration and joint prosperity that the EU used to represent.
We want to get the taxi drivers talking again.
Stadiou street, Athens. Wikicommons/Jean Housen. Some rights reserved.