Sisyphus on the Climb (again) or Phoenix on the Rise?

Dimitris Paivanas writes from Athens in September on National Crises.

National crises are the result of sudden failures in established problem-solving mechanisms at institutional level. In this regard, the Colonels’ putsch in 1967 and the regime’s demise after the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 were a kind of response to crises. If crises are the sum total of brief or prolonged systemic dysfunctions, they also generate confusion, conflict and unhappiness both in society and the individual. They can be seen as debilitating impasses or a series of insurmountable obstacles causing, and caused by, disrupted equilibrium and curbed decision making. The online Business Dictionary defines crisis as a “Critical event which, if not handled in an appropriate and timely manner …, may turn into a disaster or catastrophe.” Viewed in this way, crises are a component of human experience that one constantly strives to transgress, resolve or eschew; a turning point, an impending decisive individual or social change. Financial institutions in societies attuned to the cycles of capitalist economies often preempt or take measures periodically to control or avoid sharp transitions to recession (i.e. economic crises). So, crises are also associated with an inability to predict or foresee the ‘historical ironies’ that might be latent in a particular set of circumstances or course of events. Thus, social crises cause and contain a sense of disorientation and panic in human ensembles that result from institutional stultification which is itself caused by lack of direction or an inability to predict and plan accordingly for the future. In this respect, crises are related to narrative or our culturally universal compulsion to construct stories of personal or broader import by giving them structure and purpose.

In the case of Greece’s recent crisis, a number of diverse issues related to systemic dysfunctions have arisen: Tax evasion, profound mistrust of state-revenue and foreign-debt management, the tortuous trimming of an unnecessarily obese public sector, incapacitated industries, malfunctioning education and national health systems, youth unemployment, brain-drain issues, a middle-class terrorized by the prospect of forfeiting the little that remains of its gains, even political maturity issues coupled with individual and state responsibility vis-à-vis the electorate’s now habitual credulity to populist rhetoric. At the same time, the involvement of the ECB and the IMF in the state’s fiscal affairs have spawned issues of national sovereignty and bred visions of a power shift to a European Federation or the European Parliament in Brussels. Issues of political representation within the country have germinated an array of new political parties, forced coalitions or defections to concertina-like political formations and generated a revival of right-wing nationalism and a concomitant rise of extremism and violence against all sorts of unsuspecting recipients.

Perhaps instinctively, some of us are aware that these manifestations or offshoots of the current crisis relate to Greece’s historical past; not only to what we believe or know actually happened in that past but also the kind of story we tell about it. To date, and with notable, albeit barely audible, exceptions, the manner in which a significant section of the intelligentsia has been turning past events into culturally acceptable facts has been largely partisan or one-sided. Over the years (from the National Schism and the Asia Minor Debacle to Metaxas’ Dictatorship, from the Civil War to the Colonels’ Regime, and from the beginnings of the Metapolitefsi to PASOK’s populism and beyond 1989), this historical narrative has been directly or implicitly manipulated by a hegemonic ideology that persecuted, blamed, demonized, marginalized or excluded some sector of the population, however large or small.

To remain within the scope of recent history, however, in the aftermath of the Colonels’ Regime, Greece experienced a series of positive social changes and the Greeks were granted new and thitherto unseen freedoms. In the longer term these gains remained unsupported by the necessary cultural adaptations, or were unaccompanied by a sound restructuring of the economy and a cleansing of state-patronized institutions and the public sector of their deeply ingrained nepotism and clientilism. In terms that are doubtless and inevitably oversimplified here, the arising divisive attitudes seem to have infiltrated the very sinews of Greek society and culture. Evidence of this can perhaps be seen not only in the continuingly Manichean approaches in, and responses to, historical writings, say, inter alia, on the vexed issue of the Civil War, which remains a subject of exploitation for reasons of political expediency, but also in the way certain literary works have been received, appropriated and interpreted to disseminate a knowledge infested with long-bred biases and self-imposed censorships. Perpetuating the discursive practices of a dominant ideology has sought universal consensus on cultural issues for political expediency or in the name of cultural acceptance in a society that remains largely divided, latently, if partially, aggressive and intolerant to difference and informed dialogue on a number of issues.

If there is any truth in these claims, it would seem that since the end of the internecine conflict, since the demise of the Colonels’ Junta and, more recently, since 1989, Greek culture has consistently witnessed a marked, more recently clandestine, institutional support for sentimental obfuscation rather than rational discussion and argument on aspects of its past. Exclusions and forgetfulness have been collectively favoured over unbiased understanding on a number of issues, generating a motley lot of social malcontents or marginalized identities in the process. Notwithstanding intermittent state and individual efforts to counter this wave, a widespread inclination to sweep past antinomies under the carpet of historical oblivion seem to have predominated along with economic issues as the principal obstacles in the transition from totalitarian, crudely binary or Manichean modes of thought at the expense of those fitting a more egalitarian and accepting society. This is, perhaps, the core of a prolonged cultural crisis that has been brewing and whose many opportunities were forfeited at institutional level since at least the annus mirabilis of 1974.

Dimitris Paivanas

Athens, 18 September 2014 (as admiring fans flock to the front of the “Grande Bretagne” to witness a fleeing Lady Gaga in the flesh)

Photograph: Courtesy of the writer Michel Fais

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