Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tsipras plays Odysseus: The view from Tasso’s cafe

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Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

C.P.Cavafy, ‘Ithaca’

On August 21 Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras went to Ithaca to announce the end of the Memorandum Agreement with the Troika. True to form, he was creating a photo-op pregnant with symbolic significance while at the same time hiding the actual substance of the occasion.  If one recalls Tsipras did something very similar the day he first came into office in 2015.  He then made a point of paying his respects to the Resistance fighters of the Nazi occupation.  He also refused to be sworn in by the Orthodox archbishop of Greece as had been customary for all previous heads of state. This display of sympathy with the strong tradition of anti-fascist struggles and secularism in Greece burnished his credentials with his left wing supporters at the same time as he announced he was joining forces with ANEL, an extreme right wing nationalist party.

No one in Greece failed to notice that Tsipras’ August 21 visit to Ithaca was meant to serve as a bookend to former Prime Minister George Papandreou’s visit to the island of Kastellorizo in 2010, where he announced the first bailout of 110 billion euros ($126.7 billion) at the dawn of the austerity regime. Ithaca is in the Ionian Sea west of the mainland while Kastellorizo is on the other end of the country, in the Aegean Sea east of the mainland and close to Turkey.

While Tsipras is adept in the use of symbolism and mythology to deliver his message, few people in Greece were fooled. This was in contrast to the foreign press, which mostly reported Tsipras’ Pollyanish comments with a straight face without a hint of irony. [1] Everyone knows that while the memorandum agreement is officially over, Greece’s finances will continue to be closely monitored by the European Institutions. The National Herald, a Greek-American publication not noted for its left wing views  reported that despite Tsipras’ claims that the end of the memorandum agreement represents some kind of milestone,

   “ …the economy will be monitored for years by the country’s creditors, the Troika of the European Union-European Central Bank-European Stability Mechanism (EU-ECB-ESM) and Washington, D.C.-based International Monetary Fund, to make sure fiscal targets are hit and that the Premier doesn’t renege on reforms to them the way he did on anti-austerity promises to voters.”  [2]

Some form of these controls, which essentially make of Greece a vassal of European imperialism, will be in place until 2060!

On the same day that Tsipras made his announcement in Ithaca, I was discussing these and other issues with our friend Tasso in the tiny village of Komitata on the island of Kefallonia. The Northern end of Kefallonia, where we are located, is hardly a stone’s throw across the water from Ithaca.  

Tsipras in Ithaca
We last saw Tasso in the summer of 2017. Outwardly not much has changed in Komitata. Tasso’s café remains the only social center in town except for the church at the foot of the road.  But the church is only open occasionally while Tasso is always there in the summer. Tasso is a retired telecommunications worker who was active in his union.  He is very politically literate and has a good understanding of the different political groups in Greece. 

Tasso
During our conversation Tasso explained the power dynamics that used to govern Greece in the years prior to the economic crisis.  In those days the government would change hands between the Center Left PASOK and the Center Right New Democracy Party.  Mirroring the fortunes of PASOK and ND were the political affiliations of the public sector union confederation, ADEDY.  When PASOK was in the ascendancy unions that supported PASOK were in favor and similarly when New Democracy was in the ascendancy unions that supported ND were in favor.  What this came down to was that unions officials that were aligned with the ruling party could expect to receive plum positions in various government ministries and these officials in turn were able to maintain their positions by handing out jobs to subordinates.  This kind of corruption was endemic in the years prior to the economic crisis.  The relations between the unions in Greece and the Greek state were closely intertwined as a large part of the revenues that fund the operations of these unions came from direct government contributions.

After the economic crisis hit Greece in 2010 those sources of funding dried up considerably. This made it far more difficult for the unions to mobilize their members in support of this or that political formation.  Lacking incentives, and seeing their economic situation rapidly deteriorate despite the feeble protests of the unions, membership in these unions shrunk dramatically.

The economic crisis has completely upended those old class relations.  Not only did it see the virtual disintegration of Pasok and the rise of Syriza, but the role of the unions, once so essential in underpinning social relations in Greece, has been greatly diminished.  The official unions today are mostly irrelevant when it comes to setting the political and economic agenda of the country.

Tassos’s village of Komitata was initially very enthusiastic about Tsipras when Syriza first took over the reigns of government in 2015.  They took for good coin Tsipras’s promises to end the regime of austerity imposed by the European institutions.  I cannot think of any other country where a tiny rural village would be overwhelmingly supportive of a political party describing itself as “The Coalition of the Radical Left”.  The reason probably lies in the close connection most Greeks maintain between the urban centers to which they migrated, perhaps more than a generation ago, and the rural villages of their ancestry.  It doesn’t matter how long you have lived in the urban centers of Athens or Thessalonika, when August comes around, everyone returns to their village.

When I interviewed Tasso in 2017, two years after Tsipras’s betrayal of the referendum, his comment was that they had all voted “NO” [οχι] at the time but were shocked when the “NO” became a “YES”. [3] On this occasion, three years after the betrayal of the referendum, I asked Tasso how he would account for the relative quiescence of the class struggle since July 2015.
Tasso replied,

“People are still in shock. You have to understand how the economic crisis has affected people. They are too busy in their day to day struggle just trying to survive to become involved in political protests.”

I understood what he meant.  Greek society has undergone a profound transformation in the last decade.  That change cannot be grasped by citing raw statistics. For instance, the bare fact that in the last decade Greece’s GDP fell by more than 25%.  The only parallel to such a drop in economic activity was during the Great Depression.  A look at the statistics on unemployment paint a grim picture. According to a recent article in Jacobin,

“Unemployment peaked at 27.9 percent in July 2013. Since then this figure has slowly declined, and in May 2018 it fell below 20 percent for the first time. However, it will take another five years to reach pre-crisis level. Moreover, the rise in employment mainly owed to increased numbers in part-time and low-paid jobs. 54.7 percent of new jobs in 2017 were part-time.
The formal unemployment figures are also reduced by the simple fact that many working-age residents have moved abroad. These include both migrants working in Greece who left the country during the crisis, and Greek citizens forced to seek employment abroad.”[4]
Tasso explained what this means locally in the tourist industry of Kefallonia.  Many of the workers employed in the tourism business are largely, but by no means exclusively, immigrants from countries like Albania.  During the tourist season they work 7 days a week for about 600 a month. This is actually below the minimum wage but the employers get around that by calling this “part-time” work.  But “part-time” in this case means they work – officially – 7 hours a day instead of the normal 8 hour work day. In practice the distinction is meaningless as these workers are often forced to work extra hours without compensation.  The owners of the hotels and tourist businesses on the islands have managed to maintain their profit margins by drastically slashing wages and benefits. And work in the tourist industry on islands like Santorini are considered good compared to the situation in Athens where the average salary, providing you can even find a job, is even worse.  The overall average salary for full-time workers stands at €929 a month, down from €1285 in 2012.  For part-time workers it is now a miserable €378, down from  €587 in 2012. [5]

Tourists who visit Santorini or the Acropolis do not see this misery as a rule.  The Greek tourist industry makes it a priority to present everything as if nothing terrible is happening. But if you look just a bit beneath the surface or visit and talk to any Greek family trying to survive on a pension that has been reduced several times in the past few years, the evidence of social disintegration is hard to avoid. Strong family ties do provide a bit of a shelter from the economic devastation.  Grown children who are unemployed and can longer afford their own apartment move back in with their parents. Such options are not open to immigrants who generally do not have any family members that can assist them. In any case the ability to cushion the blows of austerity has its limits even with such strong family ties.  One figure, measuring the flight out of the country is telling,

“…427,000 permanent residents of Greece left the country between 2008 and 2013, including 187,000 non-citizens between 2010 and 2013. This flight continued in subsequent years and also took the form of brain-drain, as many young graduates sought work abroad.” [6]

This is close to 5% of the population of Greece. Such an exodus is unprecedented in recent history except during periods of war. 

Any attempt to understand the Greek situation today must take into account the effect of this unrelenting social misery on mass psychology.  Added to the equation is also the incredible disappointment many felt when their hopes were betrayed by Syriza in 2015.

Graffiti in Athens
Such a situation could cause despondency and despair and for the moment that seems to be the dominant mood.  But there is no necessary causal relationship between the social and economic devastation inflicted on Greece and the current mood. It could just as easily give rise to righteous anger and a mass movement that breaks with the status quo once the current interregnum period has passed.

Before leaving I asked Tasso how he saw the future.  If there was an election who would he vote for?

Tasso replied that he would of course vote for the Far Left.  To him that meant a vote for the ANTARSYA coalition.  But he is also well aware that ANTARYSA and other far left groups have little chance of winning an election or of being a significant influence on the course of events.  He cannot really see the future beyond that.

But Tasso also insists that the Greek working class is not finished. 

While Tsipras popularity is close to an all-time low, his main rival, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of New Democracy, hardly commands any confidence either.  The Sriza-Anel coalition government took a big hit  when they were popularly perceived to have been negligent in their handling of the tragic fires that broke out this summer.  According to a recent poll,

“… when asked who is more suitable for prime minister, 43 percent answered “neither”. Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the preference of 25% compared to 13 percent of Alexis Tsipras.” [7]

What these numbers indicate more than anything else is a repudiation not only of Syriza but of the entire spectrum of bourgeois politics.  The situation is therefore ripe for a new force that can establish itself as a genuine alternative.  This is a situation pregnant with both dangers and opportunities for socialists. The opportunity to establish a new political force that will break with capitalist austerity is there. But if that force does not emerge then the pent-up anger that will certainly explode in the next period could be channeled in the direction of the extreme right and fascism.  

This was the view from Tasso’s café.

Alex Steiner

Graffiti art in Athens: Dedicated  to the poor and homeless here and around the globe.



[1] For instance, take this report from Reuters, Tsipras declares 'day of liberation' after Greece exits bailout,
[2] From Ithaca, Tsipras Hails Greek Bailouts End, Wants Austerity Undone,  https://www.thenationalherald.com/211055/pm-tsipras-to-visit-ithaca-on-tuesday/

[4] Disciplined and Punished by PANAGIOTIS SOTIRIS,  https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/08/greece-syriza-tsipras-memoranda-austerity-odyssey

[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.