Feeling lost

On the eve of the elections, a Greek voter contemplates his choices in a ‘liquidified’ country.

Vassilis Mourdoukoutas
6 May 2012

Only a couple of hours away from one of the most crucial national elections in the history of Greece and the most recent polls suggest that the two larger political parties will not be able to form a coalition government on their own. It seems that, for the first time since the fall of Junta back in 1974, over eight parties will be present in the 300-seat Greek parliament.

The question “who do I vote for?” dominates daily talk at work, at home, in coffee shops, tavernas and bars. Opinions change from one moment to the next. Arguments are fraught with emotion. Most discussions seem unable to reach a conclusion, leaving the questions unanswered and emphasizing the overall sense of confusion. 

Surely, the simple fact that I have a choice is proof of democracy? However, given the social and political conditions, this is no happy question. On the one hand it is loaded with fear, anguish, wrath and a widespread sense of insecurity about the future. On the other, it looks like all available answers are dead ends: the crisis will still be here, irrespective of who I decide to vote for. The as yet unanswered question, who do I vote for, thus illustrates the confusion caused by the dire situation which Greeks currently face.

With well over 20% of the general population unemployed and with one out of two younger Greeks out of a job, today’s average Greek feels lost and angry. She feels lost because there is no visible sign that sooner or later things will get better. She feels angry towards all those held responsible for bringing Greece into this state of extreme distress. One of my colleagues at work put it in a very interesting and clear-cut way, referring to the majority of Greek politicians she claimed: “They are all traitors, they only cared for themselves and their personal interests, we cannot put them all in prison, the least we can do is vote against them, we have to.”

For the majority of Greeks these elections amount to a rare opportunity to protest against all those who have made the future look so terrifying. They feel that the two parties governing Greece since 1974, PASOK and NEW DEMOCRACY, must be punished and condemned to political extinction, especially in the case of PASOK. They feel that in this election they have to express their disdain, contempt, anger and rage against those who brought them into this bleak and humiliating situation. The desire to protest against the ruling political parties is colossal, uncontrollable.

But even among those who suppress this visceral need to protest, there is a blatant contradiction involved in casting a vote for either PASOK or NEW DEMOCRACY. The problems the country now faces are a result of thirty years of their rule. Can they be cured by the people who caused them in the first place?

Our anger can of course be channeled towards those that resist the cure. That’s probably the main reason why extreme or radical parties, either on the left or the right, parties that have taken a hard line against the EU-IMF memorandum, will gain a large number of voters (in comparison to previous elections). That’s why you hear people saying they will vote for SYRIZA, a leftist party that has managed to better encapsulate and more effectively express the anti-EU/IMF stance than any other. That’s why you also listen to young people saying they will vote for the extreme right. Both of these parties, SYRIZA and CHRISI AVGI, are perceived as offering tangible alternatives. They both have slick political answers to the question of what went wrong (the existing political system and the memorandum) and who’s to blame (the immigrants and corrupt politicians for CHRISI AVGI, the EU and IMF for SYRIZA).

But unable to generate a positive sense of politics, none of these radical parties seems to be capable of governing the country. They have not provided Greek voters with a viable alternative and fall short in offering a real political programme. They don’t have a feasible solution to the actual problems of deficit, depression and unemployment. At the same time, they don’t seem willing to cooperate with other parties, even those that constitute their closest ideological ‘relatives’. So voting out of anger generates another question. What will happen once these parties are empowered? The new parliament will be fragmented and consist of parties that don’t want to cooperate with each other. This scenario generates fears of chaos. The country needs a government. We need parties that can lead us out of this depression.

Still, many Greeks contend that not having a government would not actually be a problem. What is there to lose? We have been deprived of so much that the absence of governance and the ensuing parliamentary chaos might not be so terrifying after all. After all, how did we get to this dead-end in the first place? The short period between the announcement of the elections and the actual date did not help provide the time for more serious reflection. The ruling coalition of the two larger parties didn’t have much time to consolidate an argument for what happened over the last two years. In fact, many polls have proved that Greeks were not in favor of having elections from the outset.

Yet one should not blame the lack of time, nor the lack of rational arguments for what is about to happen. In order to grasp the depth of the problem, one has to look back and try to understand the colossal cultural, societal and political shifts that Greece has gone through. Over the last two decades the country has undergone unprecedented radical shifts in terms of collective values and desires, and sweeping changes in the way Greeks understand the world and themselves; a radical change in worldview. Greeks adopted the individualism of teenagers, which consisted of having rights but no obligations, and believing that individual desires and wants had to be satisfied immediately. In less than two decades before the crisis, we became cynical and nouveau riche. Our childlike hedonism was transformed into an inexorable thirst for money. We didn’t want just to enjoy life, we wanted more money, more cars, more clothes, more gadgets, a bigger home. What is more, everything looked easy, at least for the happy majority. Borrowing money from the banks was a piece of cake. We managed to enter the Eurozone and were now part of the wealthy few. This contributed to lower interest rates and yet more money swilling around. Underneath, the structure upholding the system became weaker and weaker.

Then came the dream of the Olympics. We thought that our country was making giant steps forward. We felt we were becoming internationally recognized. There was a pervading feeling of optimism and self-pride. But, all of a sudden, when the international channels left the country and the cameras were not here anymore, the mood changed. We started to observe that it was all a fiction. Our fiction, our Faustian bargain. We had been building Potemkin villages on our sandy beaches.

And now, in this morality play we were called on to pay, and pay dearly for decades of superficial development. But the money was not there. All of a sudden we were poor again. I remember some Irish journalist saying that being poor is not bad, it becomes bad once you get used to riches. The international economic crisis deprived us of any ability to hide, to conceal our state. We have in fact been in limbo for more than half a decade. The last couple of years of wild depression constitute, within this context, only the ugly, sad and hopeless end of a rather long shift. Where does that leave us? Our progress was an illusion, an illusion we blindly accepted and believed in. All we are left with is despair.

And who is to blame? The ruling parties were not willing to accept the burden of responsibility. They even tried to disperse the guilt. We ‘feasted’ together, they said. The guilt must be equally distributed. To avoid the havoc of the worst economic crisis that has plagued Greece since the Second World War, we were left with no choice but to succumb to a strict austerity programme and have everything decided for us by others. Goodbye to pride and any feeling of independence. If we wanted to remain a member of the Eurozone we had to agree to anything our lenders asked for.

Where do we stand? Our stability? Lost. Our sense of time and historical perspective? Lost. Our autonomy? Lost. Our vision of the future? Lost. Our traditional values that once glued our society together? Lost. We feel depressed. Unemployment breathes down our neck. A day at work might be described as a nightmare, no creativity, no drive. The only goal is to remain employed. We can flee our homeland, seeking a better place to live, even in far remote countries such as Australia. The pervading atmosphere is one of hopelessness, a feeling that resembles the loss of one’s family, house and property. The no-future generation feels numb and unable to even think about the future. What lies ahead seems difficult or even impossible to imagine. The rise in suicides in the first half of 2010 approached, according to the Ministry of Health, a dreadful 40%. Suicide too is an exit strategy. Perhaps the only escape for some.

Greek identity seems broken into pieces that will be hard to re-assemble. In the past it was easy to find someone to talk to about problems, we had a communicative culture, we can share happiness and suffering. We have a family culture, where an expanding nucleus of relatives provides a web of security, a haven to fall back on when in need. Yet if your whole family is deep in trouble, if that other one you want to share your suffering with suffers too, what happens then?

I was recently reading Durkheim’s groundbreaking book on suicide. The famous French sociologist found that the manifestation of an accelerating rate of suicides within a society reflects the moral confusion and lack of social direction. He used the term anomie in order to describe the breakdown of social norms, the fragmentation of social identity and the repudiation of existing social values. I guess that if Durkheim was right, then Greece is at the moment one of the most representative examples of a society in a situation of complete anomie.

Greece today is, to borrow a sociological term made popular by Zygmunt Bauman, a ‘liquidified’ nation-state. This ‘liquid’ state of affairs will be portrayed in the results of the coming elections. It is already illustrated by the number of parties expected to enter parliament and the fear that the creation of a coalition government will be hard. The country needs a radical re-start. Yet the political system lacks the nerve and the guts to implement this. Who knows, Sunday’s elections might prove otherwise. Till then, the question remains unanswered, who do I vote for? I still don't know.

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