Stephanos Papadopoulos was born in North Carolina in 1976 and raised in Paris and Athens. He is the author of three books of poems : Lost Days, Hôtel-Dieu, and The Black Sea, as well as the editor and co-translator (with Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke) of Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems into Greek (Kastaniotis Editions, 2006). He was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship for The Black Sea and in 2014 he was awarded the Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Prize selected by Mark Strand.
His poems and translations have appeared in journals such as The New Republic, The Yale Review, Poetry Review, Stand Magazine and he writes regularly for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has translated works of Greek poets, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Yiannis Ritsos and Kostas Karyotakis among others. His own work had been translated into Greek by Katerina Anghelaki–Rooke, Italian by Matteo Campagnoli and Spanish by Rodrigo Rojas.
Stephanos Papadopoulos spoke to Reading Greece* about his most recent collection The Black Sea, a long poem-cycle exploring the histroric “great catastrophe” of the Pontic Greeks of Asia Minor in the 1920s, “the human condition” as the inspiration behind his poems, how cosmopolitanism has affected his poetry and Athens “the place he calls home”. He also comments on the appeal of Greek poetry abroad, noting that “more should be done in Greece to promote young poets and encourage translation as well as something to counteract the dismal publishing scene for poets” and on how poetry influences the way Greece is perceived by foreign readers.
Your most recent collection The Black Sea – recently translated into Greek by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke – is a long poem-cycle exploring the historic “great catastrophe” of the Pontic Greeks of Asia Minor in the 1920s through a series of “sonnet-monologues” or voices from the past. Why does such a major historic moment interest you?
I started thinking about voices speaking from the past when I discovered an old photo album from the 1920’s in a drawer in my father’s studio. My Grandfather was born in the city of Samsun, formerly Amisos, and so my family history was inextricably tied to the eradication of the Greek communities in Asia Minor. There were some recognizable family faces and lots of anonymous stares. The Black Sea, for me is a kind of cinematic experience. The poems began as “sonnets” because the sonnet reminded me of a snapshot––the shape, the concision, the compression of lines into a frame. It was a case of function dictating form. I didn’t set out to write The Black Sea with a concept.
I never much liked “concept” collections and I think American poets are now turning it into a cliché. Poets write poems, not books. But after five or six poems came about, I realized I wanted a more extended picture of what I imagined those people went through, and the historical context of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey was intense enough to sustain it. I decided to explore the region myself, to get closer to the landscape and so I took my motorcycle from Athens and rode through Anatolia, and then all the way back along the entire southern coast of the Black Sea, exploring villages, monasteries, and hanging out in the ports. If I ask myself whether I have the right to address such an issue, or whether I did justice to the memory of those people, I’m terrified.
As Anne Born eloquently put it, “there is sometimes a nicely melancholy tone to Papadopoulos’s work which puts him in the great tradition of poetic sorrows. But the elegance and flair in these poems makes the reader look forward to his next volume”. Where do you draw your inspiration from? What are the main themes of your poems?
I've said this before, so at risk of sounding repetitive, I truly believe poetry is about the same handful of subjects, again and again, through the millennia. What were Shakespeare's themes? What did Sophocles write about? Dante? Rimbaud? Villon? Cavafy? Auden? Yeats? It's all the same story, the human condition.
Your identity has been forged in a trilingual household that moved between America, France and Greece. Yet it’s Athens “the place you call home”. How has this cosmopolitanism affected your poetry? Does poetry actually constitute a kind of country for you?
Yes, a very strange country where one lives alone! It's actually more like a "spiritual place", a religion for atheists, a place which is yours and you carry with you wherever you are. Poetry is not a job, it's a vocation and it's a form of prayer-- that is something Derek Walcott has written about beautifully. My father never spoke English and my mother, who is American, never spoke to me in Greek. In the beginning, their only common language was French. I'm fluent in Greek, but English is the language I was schooled in and it’s my mother tongue, it’s the language in which I first read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Crime and Punishment, Look Homeward Angel, etc. I’m basically an American poet who is Greek, but it's a very schizophrenic scenario because I feel very much at home, and very much apart, in both countries. You don’t choose these things. I spent all my early childhood, adolescence and early adulthood living in Athens. It’s absolutely natural to me to describe the place I grew up in the language that I also claim as mine.
“Living in Athens can be like sleeping with a complicated lover; at some point, you will wake at dawn and lie there, eyes open, not quite sure who the person sleeping beside you really is. […] there is no logic in this place I still call “home,” even though I come and go, making and breaking promises with every return”. What does Athens represent for you? How has this city of contradictions changed over the years?
Athens is my home and the place I feel most comfortable in. Even more crucially, the house that my grandfather built in the 1920's is still our family home and is the axis to which I continually return. Objects hold memories and much of my childhood is caught up in the streets of that neighborhood. A real city has to break through with a kind of honesty in moments, a revelatory flash in which the truth is briefly exposed-- this could be a smell, a face, a shout or a peal of laughter, it can take any form. Athens does this, it breaks through to you if you pay attention. Faulkner said famously, "the past is never dead. It's not even past", which is how I see memory interacting with the present.
Athens is a massive contradiction, a city of immense beauty and incredible ugliness, it's modern yet entirely backward, a European capital but also a Balkan backwater. I find most Athenians are unable to talk about the place objectively--- the city suffers from an inferiority/superiority complex in equal measure, but I love every inch of it, even when I hate it, and no one can ever call it boring.
You have translated works of Greek poets - Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Yiannis Ritsos and Kostas Karyotakis among others – while you are the editor and co-translator (with Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke) of Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems into Greek. Is there an interest in Greek poetry abroad? Does this poetry influence the way Greece is perceived by foreign readers?
There is a great interest in Greek poetry abroad, at least by people who read poetry (but those are sadly quite few) and there are some excellent translators at work. Greek literature in general, including the Classics is read with interest, but most of it is centered on classicism, two Nobel laureates, Cavafy and Kazantzakis. Writers such as Karyotakis, Kalvos or Solomos are almost entirely unheard of outside Greece. This is a problem with Greek artists as well, who are rarely considered alongside their European counterparts. Contemporary Greek literature is relatively unknown outside of Greece with the exception of some recent efforts by Greek poetry festivals and publications as well as a number of anthologies by foreign presses and universities. More should be done in Greece to promote young poets and encourage translation as well as something to counteract the dismal publishing scene for poets. The fact that Greek poets have to pay publishing houses to produce their own books is unforgivable.
But Greek literature has definitely shaped how the country is perceived, and that goes all the way back to Homer. That poetry also exerted and enormous influence on other poets, from Byron to James Merrell for example. Even Derek Walcott's Caribbean has been deeply marked by a sense of "Greekness". Kazantzakis created Zorba, a poet at heart, and that romantic persona has come to embody the idealized sprit of Greece. It's part fantasy and part reality. I just hope we don't lose that joy as we descend deeper and deeper into a culture of worry and distress.
Are there any new ventures underway? What are your readers to expect in the near future?
Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke's translation of The Black Sea was recently published by Kastaniotis and I'm finishing up a new collection of poems in the USA. I'm also working on some prose, an experiment in process, but where that will lead remains to be seen....
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Read also: Grèce Hebdo - Stéphanos Papadopoulos: «La beauté exige notre vigilance» (Interview in French)
Kostas Katsoularis was born in Arta in 1968. He studied in Athens, Thessaloniki and Paris. He is the author of three novels – To Syndromo tis Margaritas (1998), O Paratheristis (2001), O Antipalos (2005) – two novellas – Istories apo ton Afro (1997), The Man who Loved my Wife (2010) and two collection of short stories – Mikros Daktylios (2007) and The Night Current (2015).
His short story, “The shoes and the Trousers”, from his collection Mikros Daktylios, was included in ATHEN. Eine Literarische Einladung, published by Wagenbach in 2008. His novella, The Man Who Loved My Wife –a deep exploration of male jealously– was translated into Turkish by Heyamola Yayinlari in 2011. His latest book, a collection of short stories titled, The Night Current was the recipient of the Anagnostis Literary Review Award 2016 for Best Short-Story Collection. The novella “Dead Dog at Midnight”, which forms part of the collection, was translated into English, Spanish and Hebrew for online literary magazine, Maaboret, The Short Story Project in June 2016.
Kostas Katsoularis spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book, Athens as the backdrop of his stories, his heroes who “deal with reality as a mystery that needs to be resolved”, while also commenting on what makes a good book, his stance towards literary critics, and people who read literature, “an ‘anthropological type’, a ‘species’ in danger from the onslaught of easy readings and of technological facilities that indeed need some kind of protection”.
Your short-story collection Night Current has just won the 2016 O Anagnostis Literary Award for Best Short-Story Collection, while one of the stories, “Dead Dog at Midnight”, was the first Greek short story to be selected, translated and published by the Short Story Project. Tell us a few things about the book.
The Night Current is composed of four, quite long short stories. One of them, the one you mentioned, “Dead Dog at Midnight”, would come close to being called a novella. I begin with this observation, given that this is rather unusual in Greek literature, where there is noted preference for shorter stories that in a wink of an eye narrate their subject. On the other hand, I am more attracted to prose that focuses on characters, plot, on multiple levels, on the development of secondary characters. All four stories are irrigated by the big and mysterious current of realism, even if internal realities are more highlighted than social ones or even dictate them.
Amir Tzukerman has described you as an “Athensnographer”, since the plots of many of your stories take place in the heart of Athens, and your central characters are residents of the city centre. What do you find intriguing in Athens? How has the Athenian way of lifeevolved in the last decades?
It is true that all four short stories, as well as those in my other books, take place in Athens and are in an open dialogue with the city in multiple and unforeseen ways. I live in Athens and I like to think of the city as a «scene» where all the action relating to my characters takes place. Very often, I like to restrain them in city centre, in places of strong social and historical impact, like Exarcheia, Kolonaki or Kypseli. That said, I would not adopt the characterization of Athensnographer for myself. The term implies a sort of genre approach, a kind of old fashioned prose which I do not think suits me.
In his review, Alexis Panselinos wrote that you are “a master in describing people”, commenting on your accuracy in “understanding and expressing the inner voices of different characters”. How would you characterize the protagonists of your books?
Alexis Panselinos, a very good writer himself, was quite courteous and generous in his comments. Anyway, if there is something specific that characterizes my heroes it is that they deal with reality as a mystery that needs to be resolved. Usually, towards the end of the story - whether a short story, a novella or a novel - my heroes realize that the enigma they are trying to solve does not have a single answer and that everything is constantly changing depending on what stance they take on every occasion. On top of that, they are people with moral concerns that try to do the right thing, despite the confusion they are often led to
“Good books are living organisms, they change as we do. Each time we open a book is never the same as the previous one”. What makes a good book? How would you characterize the new generation of Greek writers? Have they managed to overcome stereotypes, ‘writing’s biggest plague’?
I absolutely agree with this ascertainment. This is what books do. Books actually reborn each time they are read, which is something wonderful because it gives good books the chance to live hundreds or even thousands of lives, to converse with many and very different people through time. In that sense, 'good books' are those that can unlock various and quite unexpected readings. They are the books that challenge the reader to talk on topics apart from their subject, topics that their reader would never even think about if it had not been for a certain book. Finally, as far as contemporary Greek writers are concerned, I believe that we are going through a phase of fermentation that has already led to the production of very promising results.
You have stated that the quality of book reviews in a country reflects the quality of its literary production. What is your personal stance towards literary critics? Do negative reviews influence you?
Not all literary critics are the same, as not all writers are the same. Some critics are the best and most profound readers I know, who write reviews that are a pleasure to read, even when they include negative comments. There are others, fewer, who use clichés, as if they write about the same book ever time. I follow critical discourse closely and I am quite concerned about its retreat, while brief reviews and book presentations or notes not requiring full justification are more frequent. More traditional critics, although they may have many flaws, are by far more preferable.
What about book readers? Are they “a species facing extinction”? If this is the case, what may or should be done at an institutional level to ensure their ‘survival’?
Readers in general are not a species under extinction. The question concerns a certain number of readers, those who read literature. Those readers are able to receive a text that does not flatter them or that might even create a feeling of estrangement but in the end rewards them abundantly. I refer to those book lovers who read a considerable number of books every year and do not jump from page to page with their mind flying elsewhere. In that sense, people that read literature – a few thousand in Greece – are more or less an “anthropological type”, a 'species' in danger from the onslaught of easy readings and of technological facilities that indeed need some kind of protection. That 'protection' is not something that can be given in a simple way. Multiple interventions are necessary from state institutions, with campaigns and coordinated actions similar to those the National Book Center used to organise in the past.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Fotini Tsalikoglou studied psychology at the University of Geneva and is currently a professor of psychology at Panteion University in Athens. She is the author of many celebrated novels published in Greece, including The Daughter of Anthi Alkaiou, Eros Pharmakopoios, I, Martha Freud, I Dreamed I Was Well, Bertha’s Gift [shortlisted for Readers’ Award of the National Book Center of Greece in 2011], All the ‘Yeses’ of the World, The Happy Island and ‘What if?’ (with Margarita Karapanou). The Secret Sister – her English Language debut – was included in World Literature Today’s list of ’75 Notable Translations’ for 2015.
Fotini Tsalikoglou spoke to reading Greece* about how immigration has intermingled with Greece’s history over the years, how the words ‘Greece’ and ‘Greeks’ evoke conflicting images and associations, Greek society’s long history of contradictions and complexities, and the way her books attempt to ‘probe into the inevitable transmutations of the sense of belonging that is so deeply ingrained in the Greek psyche’.
She also comments on the current socio-economic and existential crisis, where ‘what is lost is the illusion of safety; what has hopefully been gained is the recognition that safety itself can ultimately be scary’ and how defying the crisis can constitute a revolutionary act. ‘Literature is a form of action, offering us not the hope of an elusive ‘idea’ but the only thing that truly matters: Cavafy’s hope that the voyage to Ithaca is a long one’.
The Secret Sister – your English language debut – is an exploration of the spaces between the past and the future through an intimate glimpse at the lives of immigrants both leaving and returning to their homeland. How has migration intermingled with our country’s history over the years?
Migration and Greece represent the two faces of Janus. We cannot conceive the history of Greece without taking into consideration the role that migration played in the struggle for a better future, a struggle suspended precariously between hope and despair. In their plurality and complexity, the wounds of migration are the wounds of Greece.
Mary Kitroeff's translation of the book was included in World Literature Today’s list of ’75 Notable Translations’ for 2015. Do you consider that the current crisis has rekindled the interest in Greek literature abroad?
It may very well have done so—an antidote to the negative national stereotypes that have emerged in the international media. Ironically, such stereotypes manage to survive in the midst of enduring visions of the ancient Greek ideal. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the words 'Greece' and 'Greeks' evoke conflicting images and associations, as aggression turns out to be the dark side of idealization.
On the other hand, Greek society has its own long history of contradictions and complexities. I believe that it is through art and literature that these problems can be brought on the surface with a renewed relevance and urgency. It is somehow true that ‘literature turns blood into ink’. My book attempts to probe into the inevitable transmutations of the sense of belonging that is so deeply ingrained in the Greek psyche, and to show how difficult it is, especially in times of economic crisis, to distinguish between nostalgia and hope.
One of the recurrent themes in your books is the mother-daughter relationship. As you have said, in this relationship, ‘there is played a game between life and death’. Would you like to tell us more?
‘Mother’ is the very first object of love in one’s life. In Winnicot’s words, ‘There is no such thing as a baby’: it is through the relationship with the mother or her substitute that an infant exists, fed not only with milk but also with a sense of warmth, of belonging, of safety. Τhis is the paradise of non-differentiation, the bliss of unification that lasts only a few months, yielding eventually to feelings of frustration, disappointment, sorrow, and betrayal.
Mother is now another person, unable to fulfill all our desires: alterity hurts. Yet without this anxiety of separation, without the recognition that the pleasure principle has its own limits, we would remain infants in search of a lost paradise. Without this incessant interplay between Eros and Thanatos, between life and death, there would be no life.
In your recent series of lectures at ‘Stoa tou Vivliou’, you urged people to get over our ‘national mourning’. How can we defend our right to life and creativity when loss, violence and depression loom around us?
In the Seminar Hall of the Athens Free University at ‘Stoa tou Vivliou’ I had the opportunity, with a large audience of different age and background, to share what it is like to live in the midst not only of an economic crisis but also of a psychological and existential one. Loss aims at reparation, mobilizing imagination and nurturing creativity along the way.
Loss makes us painfully aware of our vulnerability, but it is this awareness—manifested especially through art and literature—that protects us from the hubris of perfection and omnipotence. As Emily Dickinson reminds us, ‘I like a look of Agony, / Because I know it's true’. It is this ‘look of Agony’ that makes me write novels.
‘Eventually you realize that the life-jackets we were travelling with in a supposedly undisturbed sea are full of holes and that the sea is actually a rough, inhospitable sea […]. You are all grown up. You don’t need life-jackets to float […] This is what motivates me in recent years to refer to the ‘hidden gifts of loss’’. In what ways has the socio-economic crisis disrupted the relationship we maintain with ourselves and others? Is there a way out?
A crisis may be disruptive, but at the same time it offers the opportunity to re-invent our inner selves, allowing for a healthy distance from circumstances that we once took for granted and regarded as self-evident. What is lost is the illusion of safety; what has hopefully been gained is the recognition that safety itself can ultimately be scary.
In your most recent book Happy Island, the concluding message is that ‘everything is possible’. Does defying the existing order of things constitute a revolutionary act? Is there hope for Greece to become a ‘happy’ country?
Defying crisis does indeed constitute a revolutionary act. In that sense, it is not enough to understand how the economic crisis works its way into the fabric of society; we must also take the necessary steps to translate theories into action. And even if it s true that ‘between the idea and the act falls the shadow’ literature is a form of action, offering us not the hope of an elusive ‘idea’ but the only thing that truly matters: Cavafy’s hope that the voyage to Ithaca is a long one.
Concerning your question if there is hope for Greece to become a ‘happy’ country I will ask affirmatively by paraphrasing Pascal s wager: ‘Although we cannot prove the existence of God we have all reasons to bet on his existence. If he exists we win everything. If he does not exist we have lost nothing’. In that sense I would say ‘Yes, there is a Hope for Greece to become a happy country’ whatever this elusive and fictional word ‘happy’ means….
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Yiannis Makridakis was born in Chios in 1971 and studied mathematics. In 1997, he founded the Chios Studies Center with the purpose of research, archiving and studying of Chios, organizing its research and educational programs, while he published the quarterly journal 'Pelinnaio' up to 2011. In 2010 he moved from Athens to Volissos in the northwestern part of Chios “as an act of defiance against a global financial system he found unsustainable”. He set up the ‘Aplepistimio’ of Volissos, which organizes seminars on natural farming, an alkaline diet and an anticonsumption way of living.
He has written the following books: Syrmatenioi, xesyrmatenioi all. Chiot refugees and soldiers in the Middle East: Testimonials 1941-1946 (2006), 10.516 days: History of Modern Greek Chios 1912-1940, historical narrative (2007), One and Half Tin Cans, novel (2008), which was translated in Turkish, The right-hand pocket of the Cassock, novella (2009), Sun with teeth, novel (2010), Rabbit’s wool, novella (2010), The fall of Constantia, novel (2011) which was translated into French [La chute de Constantia, ed. S. Wespieser 2015], The rooster’s broth, novella (2012), God’s eye, novella (2013), Anti stefanou, novella (2015), The first vein, novella (2016). His political and philosophical articles have appeared in the international press and have been translated in English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch and Swedish.
Yiannis Makridakis spoke to Reading Greece* about his birthplace, Chios, where most of his books take place, his protagonists, “people who took an awry course in their life, yet defending it with dignity”, how the local and the global are closely interrelated and whether locality is still relevant in a globalized world, explaining why writing goes hand in hand with social activism, while also commenting on the current refugee flows and the need to “adopt a biocentric -and no longer anthropocentric- way of development and living”.
Most of your books take place in the island of Chios, your birthplace, eloquently depicting the language, customs, traditions and activities of the locals. What is it about Chios that continues to charm and inspire you? How do you respond to those who characterize you as a worthy descendant of Alexandros Papadiamantis?
My books take place mainly in insular micro-societies because I am inspired and charmed by the atmosphere that one can still experience in such societies. This atmosphere has been created through a long standing process of the islanders’ “fermentation” with the rough, yet sweet and serene Aegean scenery. Being an islander forms a major part of being Greek; yet, as it happens with all anthropological-ethnic diversities around the world, the islander identity is being overpowered and destroyed at a rapid pace by the onslaught of consumerism, resulting in the homogenization of societies through an environmentally destructive profit-oriented perception for development. As for Papadiamantis, it is a great honor to be compared to him; yet it is an easy and superficial comparison, solely based on the fact that insular societies hold a predominant role in Papadiamantis’ work as well.
In his review, Giorgos Kostakiotis wrote that your protagonists live on the margins of society, and the only way out is through total negation and rupture. Do you identify yourself with your heroes? Is rupture the only way to achieve our personal ‘catharsis’?
To some extent, I identify myself with my heroes, though I don’t really know if I have the same vigor and endurance. My heroes are usually people who took an awry course in their life, yet they are defending it with dignity. They are people who perceived life as a mission and stuck to that mission till the end. They are people who came in conflict with what they regarded as status quo because they couldn’t do otherwise. For the time being, that’s what I do myself and I hope to be able to do the same throughout my life. Rupture is, in my opinion, the perfectly natural reaction of a spirited human beingthat claims their right to life.
The local and the global are interrelated in most of your books, yet with an obvious priority to the former. Is locality still relevant in an increasingly globalized world? Could local actions spark changes or policy actions at a national or even global level?
The ‘global’ is the sum of all the ‘locals’. Anyone who cares to live harmoniously both with their peers and all those different creatures of their surrounding micro-cosmos, advances global harmony. It’s only through the collective actions of small communities, which are truly aware of their natural dependence and co-existence, that there is hope for change at a global level. It’s only from small communities that humanity may review its value system, shed its misguided self and realize that true wealth lies in biodiversity and natural resources.
Critics claim that your emphasis on rural happiness vs urban decline aims to revitalize an idealistic past. Since you are also an environmental activist and a farmer yourself, do your books constitute another way to motivate people towards an alternative way of life?
I'm not a fan, nor a fervent supporter of a past way of life. Because I’m sure that were we to go back to the past, we would sooner or later reach the same point, we would come to the same deadlock, which will be even more daunting. I personally live with plants and other creatures, close to natural resources, which I try to protect and manage as prudently and conscientiously as I can, while through some of my books I propose a change of attitude: to come closer to our natural self, renounce our consumer nature and turn to a post-consumer era; a change that has already started to take shape.
“To modern war refugees that come to our country we owe to give back in return what their ancestors offered to ours”. Given that your first book [Συρματένιοι, ξεσυρματένιοι, όλοι] is about war refugees of Chios in the Middle East (1941-1946), how would you comment on the current refugee/migrant crisis?
The current refugee flows move in the exactly opposite directions, compared to the ones in 1941, when impoverished Greek war refugees left for the Turkish coast on boats and ended up– after dangerous and long journeys – in the Middle East. War is the reset button of capitalism.
Modern wars are the result of the irrational consumption of the planet’s natural resources by the so-called developed countries and societies. These countries ‘thrive’ to the detriment of other humans and places, whose natural wealth they covet or have already conquered and immorally exploit in order to continue ‘thriving’. A perfectly natural consequence of such violent conquest or acquisition of a place’s natural resources is the shift of its population to where its natural resources are heading.
In the so-called developed world, we are witnessing the beginning of a widespread racial and population redistribution: it is neither possible nor ethical to try to stop this by violent means. The only solution is to move the political agenda towards preserving our natural resources, to adopt a biocentric -and no longer anthropocentric- way of development and living. We need to abandon the suicidal, if not murderous, rampant consumerism if we want to safeguard every country against disintegration and destruction.
“Writing and social activism go hand in hand. As long as I’m socially active, I will continue writing. When I’m tired, I will stop writing as well”. Tell us more.
Writing for me is a result of social activism; literature lies inside life itself, born and flourishing through the interaction among people and other living organisms. In other words, literature lives free in human societies and the writer, who, by definition, has the desire to discover it and turn it into a book, cannot but intermingle with other people, delving into their souls, observing their expressions, their actions, their attitude toward the world and gathering their words. When doing that, he cannot help but take part in their affairs and take a clear and public stance on all the issues they are preoccupied with. The writer cannot do otherwise; it’s a natural reaction against injustice. At least this is how I experience it personally.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Angela Dimitrakaki (1968) is a fiction writer whose work has been shortlisted for several prizes in Greece. She has published the novels Antarktiki (1997, revised edition 2006), Antisea (2002), The Manifesto of Defeat (2006), Inside A Girl like You (2009) and AEROPLAST (2015) as well as the collection of short stories Nosebleed (1999). Her novella Four Testimonies about the Exhumation of the River Errinyos has appeared in contemporary Greek fiction anthologies in France and Germany. Educated in Greece and Britain, she is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Edinburgh. She lives in Edinburgh and Athens.
Angela Dimitrakaki spoke to Reading Greece* about the Athens apartment culture and the ‘twisted democracy underpinning contemporary capitalist societies’, literature as ‘a carefully crafted relationship to the contemporary’ and her own preoccupation with ‘participating in the creation of a political aesthetics for our times’. She also comments on the importance of the present historical moment and how ‘a catastrophic economy translates into catastrophic politics’ undermining democracy, the way the ‘blame the crisis!’ discourse, though misleading, is the one that ‘determines people’s choice of rule in contemporary democratic societies’, the role of art in contemporary societies, the way Greece relates to modernity and what modernity has come to mean in, and for, Europe today.
In your Letters from Greece essay titled “Apartment Culture: The Athens Brand”, you write about the distinctive apartment culture of Athens, depicting the atmosphere of life in this city. How does living in an Athenian apartment feel like? How has the Athenian lifestyle changed due to the crisis?
What I called the Athens apartment culture in 2015 has been my Athens reality from early on in my adult life. In hindsight, it was the subject of my first novel, Antarktiki (1997), which described the return of its young female protagonist to such an apartment from her travels abroad. This return was a homecoming. Life in the Athens apartment where her friends lived was the only context she recognised as ‘home’, the implication being that she, as much as the other apartment inhabitants and frequent visitors, felt alienated anywhere else. A reviewer had commented at the time that the group’s mentality was indicative of the disenchantment experienced in the ‘swamp of democracy’ [στοχυλότηςδημοκρατίας], and he was spot on. This implicit critique of the twisted democracy underpinning contemporary capitalist societies was the novel’s subject, and we see that in the intervening twenty years things have only become worse. The apartment friends were proven right in their distrust. We (those the novel spoke for and to) were proven right, and funnily enough, the anger generated as a result keeps us going, it keeps us spirited well into our 40s.
It’s impossible to summarise developments here, but in 2016 more and more people are left with a broken social contract, daily affirmed. Capitalist globalisation, with its racialised and gender divides, has proven to be a project of engineered scarcity and precarity. As a result projects of self-isolation, of breaking from rather than joining in, abound. The EU is an obvious, sad example. In Athens, a city that has been hit hard by the austerity-and-debt extraction practices of contemporary capital, a sense of embattled togetherness has been a priority, it has been necessary for survival. Such togetherness is not a general prerogative of the urban population, some are in position to experience it more than others. I can’t imagine what life would be like if the genuine, friendship-based networks of apartment culture did not exist – for those of us lucky enough to have them. In my essay for Letters from Greece I explain the importance of these networks: they evolved naturally from what was already in place in the 1990s and are based on friendship rather than has been called social solidarity. The apartments are not squats or communes, but rather an extention of the Mediterranean hospitaliy principle combined with the spirit of an alternative youth culture. They offer the same sense of belonging as in 1990s but in changed, more desperate, conditions. The Athenian apartment of that sort is the symbolic and material hub of networks of love. And this is, I guess, what life ‘feels like’ in these apartments. They are places where friends share jokes, food, and mostly bad news, places essential not for pretending that nothing has changed but for confronting what has changed without wanting to kill yourself from despair.
To sum it up, the Athens apartment is where one does not feel humiliated as a result of being unable to pay the heating or telephone bill. It is where one does not feel a personal failure because he is currently unemployed but used to earn good money fifteen years back. It is where we feel like individuals rather than ‘parents’ when we bring our children along. Politics is now discussed all the time, obsessively. Fights break out more about the economy and less about the quality of the literature we read. But we still talk about literature, we still share music. We don’t lose sight of the possibility of living – that’s what prevails, even while ‘all that is solid melts into air’ in Athens and the continent at large.
You have said that you detest the idea of a “lonely writer”. Instead you write on the move, while commuting, at stations and airports. Where do you draw your inspiration from? Which are the main themes that your novels delve into?
I must admit that I increasingly find the idea of the aloof writer an insult to our complicated social reality, to our accelerated moment in history. Literature is of course an industry, the products of which must fill the shelves, which is why we have so much irrelevant, bad fiction and the still dominant image of a writer ‘looking for a subject’. I don’t look for subjects, and I hope some other colleagues don’t either. I belong to the category of writers who are hit by a subject on the head, so to speak. The subject chooses me, and my job is to articulate it. What I mean by this is the famous ‘how’. How can you write about the subject that hits you on the head without sounding patronising or didactic or even predictable and trivial? Or, how can you bring what is merely sensed into full recognition? Ultimately, how can you share rather than merely dispatch? It is not easy to share; on the contrary, it is hard work.
For me, literature is a carefully crafted relationship to the contemporary – ultimately, even if you write historical novels or science fiction. But when you write about the contemporary without pretending you’re writing about something else, things get complicated. The contemporary tends to be far more elusive than the past or the future. And the contemporary has a harsh, unforgiving audience: your contemporaries who can verify your articulation or reject it. People have opinions about the contemporary, whereas they like to be ‘educated’ about the past and ‘offered depictions’ of the future. So, the main subjects of my novels and short stories tend to be drawn from a deepening sense of exile, of displacement, even the kind experienced in one’s homeland or familial context. In all my life I have been witnessing an expanding pool of subjectivities that I could describe as exilic – mostly shaped through the struggle to end this traumatic condition of exile. Globalisation has created so many economic exiles, in addition to all the other kinds. I think contemporary patriarchal capitalism, which is the matrix of my subject matter, has generated so much antagonism as to have eliminated the possibility of ‘feeling at home’. Rather, it has brought forth the need, or desire, to flee the ‘here and now’, to chase after some imaginary safe haven, to ‘take back your country’, to see futuristic technology as refuge, to re-enact the past as refuge.
I draw inspiration from anything that is not escapism, let me put it this way. I am stunned by humanity’s perseverance and low-key struggles, but also by humanity’s ‘big projects’ (as put by a friend who ended up inspiring a protagonist in one of my novels) that exceed a human being’s life span. I count on the people I know and mostly write about them, and for them. That said, I know a lot of people because my job as an academic in the humanities requires constant travelling. Sometimes I try to imagine how nice it’d be to travel like the bourgeoisie in earlier times, simply because you wanted to, not because you had to. I have no idea what relaxing while travelling is about. I sit in crowded airports working on papers about social reproduction while I eavesdrop on a conversation where a child asks “Mama, what is candy corn?” and the mother hesitantly replies “Candy porn? I don't know much about it, I’m afraid”, and I try not to laugh but actually give the exchange some thought. What does this exchange mean? Or I can eavesdrop on a conversation where a man asks a couple at a departure gate: “Is this your first time in Edinburgh?” And they reply, casually, “yes, we found a job together in a hotel and said why not”. And I turn around to check whether the couple feels sorry about what they leave behind, and they don’t seem to, and they look like your typical, trendy eighteen years olds. They seem to be in love, and rather than setting off to see the world they feel comfortable in becoming immigrant labour. I almost want to intervene and tell them to think twice, but I don’t. My frustration at not doing so will one day generate the urge to write, that much I know. So, I feel I am in a permanent state of learning. I don’t mean that I become accepting of everything, far from it. Rather, I am forced to develop ways of comparing and evaluating. You cut through the shit faster this way, you feel compelled to reject, to take a stance, to reach a point.
In broader terms, I am preoccupied with participating in the creation of a political aesthetics for our times. In that regard, and as I am also an art historian, I am very attentive to debates in the visual arts, and in the fiction I write I often draw on discussions in this field. It is a very socially engaged field, but with a lot of dead ends, which I do find strangely inspiring. But if you ask my readers, very few are able to detect this connection, and to me this counts for a kind of a success: to have achieved a transversal connection, to have taken certain concerns into another territory, expose them to the social imaginary.
As Christos Kythreotis wrote about Aeroplast – your latest book – your “characters are seamlessly tied to the time they live in: the era when the illusions of globalisation are being dispelled … the time when the question of ‘what is to be done’ is being replaced by ‘is it ever possible to do something’”. How important is the present historical moment “here” in Europe and “now” in the 21st century? Is there a flicker of hope amid the widespread precarity?
Aeroplast is the material in which we wrap fragile objects, believing that we can transport them safely where we want them to be. So, the title of the book is an expression of hope. The content however is where this hope is tested. The five protagonists, all from Europe, come from different directions to this test. None of them has any illusions about the times they live in, and two of them go as far as to identity with Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, suspecting their love will also be defeated by the very historical conditions that made it possible. Aeroplast is, in many ways, a story about how Europe treats its intellectuals, though above all it is a story about a contemporary woman’s search for the prospect of revolt. She questions every step but she carries on, with all the self-irony and ruthlessness this could entail. She does not convince everyone about her cause, but she convinces those she meets about the need to defend her subjectivity as a ‘possibility’. I was envious of her when writing the novel and was asking myself: which subjectivity would I be prepared to defend? Which person among all I know is absolutely indispensible for hope to be maintained?
And this was because Aeroplast, unlike my previous novels, relies on actually existing individuals. What dictated this approach was that when I wrote the novel the situation in Europe was becoming exacerbated and apparent. One of the protagonists, the Spanish guy, says at some point that the way things are, if the Left came to power, it would no longer be the Left. This was written months before we witnessed the coup against the Greek government in the summer of 2015. I mean one could already see the brutality of the system, the ways in which it would defend the status quo, and guess what would happen. You could see, from years back, that fascism was making a comeback. I wrote about it in another novel, of 2006, called The Manifesto of Defeat. And here we are in 2016, in a Europe with politicians like Farage and Orban, with murderers like Breivik and Mair. So, the issue is not just precarity. The issue is that a catastrophic economy translates into catastrophic politics. It is now a platitude to say that democracy is undermined. I am not just saying this about Schauble’s infamous ‘elections change nothing’. I am also saying it about the British working class, which got caught into a Brexit campaign based to a great extent on the open promotion of racism and its corrosive violence. Farage had the right to quit, but the damage his party leaderhip did to British society, what he helped nourish in that context, will live on.
And yet of course it is possible to do something. In Europe, today, it certainly is. At least as long as we have open borders and can build grassroots networks. But networks are also claimed by the Right, they don’t just belong to the Left, which is failing (so far) to form effective transnational institutions. And no matter what Schauble says, we do have our vote. The EU is shaped by the politics of national governments. The alleged disappearance of the nation-state in globalisation is a myth that puts democracy at risk. If the Germans, the Hungarians, the Finns and so on continue to elect governments that are the functionaries of capital, that manipulate the ‘imagined community’ of the nation always standing against other ‘nations’, we will have the EU with its current face. It is as simple as that. Many Spanish people just voted for Rajoy, and so here we are in our European Groundhog Day. The myth of ‘national interest’, covering the reality of class divided societies (and there exist other divisions too), is a central tool of manipulation across the continent. It is aggressively preserved for a reason, and it must be exposed for what it is. The Left is also to blame for participating in preserving this myth, its politicians never daring to drop the idea of ‘national interest’.
You have stated that “it is not the crisis but rather the normality of capitalism that makes our times momentous” adding that “the ‘Blame the crisis!’ discourse is profoundly misleading, and yet it is the one that determines people’s choice of rule in contemporary democratic societies”. Could you elaborate on that?
All historians of globalisation are aware that precarity, for instance, did not arrive in 2008. Nor did the subversion of democracy begin in the inaugural ‘crisis’ year. Contrary to popular belief, democracy is not the bourgeoisie’s gift to the world, but rather something that had/has to be claimed against the interests of capital. There is a long bibliography about both. Precarity is structural to capitalism, which cannot exist without its armies of surplus labour. The welfare state, for which the working class exchanged the prospect of revolution, was a short period in the history of capitalism (with regional variations). I really recommend Michael Denning’s ‘Wageless Life’ (New Left Review 66, 2010) on this. Globalisation is a stage in the development of capitalism where precarity is exacerbated, but precarity as such is underpinning capitalism overall. When the crisis narrative appeared, it functioned as an excuse for governments to ask for ‘sacrifices’ from their citizens. The sacrifices were necessary to save capitalism, not to end it. The narrative of crisis implied, for most European people, a possible return to a prior state of affairs where things were ‘better’ or ‘normal’, after the sacrifices would have paid off. If the history of capitalism were taught at schools, it wouldn’t have been easy to keep going with this lie.
To begin with, things were never ‘better’ for most people in the world, to the point that we had theories about places ‘where capitalism works’ and other places where it doesn’t. And the world was told to learn to live with that… Secondly, it’s ridiculous to suggest that an economy based on fierce competition and which tends, structurally, towards monopoly will ever be one that works for all, or even for most. Thirdly, the so called ‘crisis’ is the process of capitalism re-structuring production on a global level. It is a violent process. It gives us our accelerated historical moment, where a lot of things happen – not least because capital does not operate in an empty terrain, there exist struggles against it. Yet so far the Left does the struggle while capital, in its hegemony as the Right, does the winning.
To sum it up, we just exited a century that ended with the defeat of the working class, but we have a new century ahead. And it is important for the working class to understand that there is no return to what was. Greece will not return to the 1990s, nor Britain will return to the times before Thatcher’s destruction of the miners. And we will not return to interwar fascism either: fascism will be new, the kind that expresses the contradictions of capitalism today.
In an era that practically everything is registered and approached in economic terms, what is the role that art is called to play? How difficult will it be to overcome the aesthetics of violence, fear and racism? Can art history actually give rise to a new critical paradigm?
Art has a history as well as a present. No matter what the history has been, what we can learn from it, we can only struggle in the here and now. And although I wouldn't have said it a few years back, now I do: once you have encountered the possibilities opened by art (in terms of critical interrogation and imagining) it is impossible to go on without it. Art is such an intense site of experimentation, even as it is also caught in the economy of exchange. But it is false to consider art as an antidote to the banality of the economy. First of all, art participates in this banality. And secondly, art can be a practice where the economy is interpreted and dissected. The most interesting art of our times addresses the economy in some way: the economy becomes art’s subject and form. I don’t mean just capitalism but rather the economy as the fundamental level of social life. Yet, although we have now a revival of the avant garde, we cannot be so naïve as to think that art can lead us to a place ‘outside’. The avant garde can expose and disaffirm but it cannot overcome the times in which it exists. No one can. It can make suggestions but does not have the power to implement its radical ideas as social reality. So, art history can help the avant garde remain an avant garde in terms of the new, militant understandings it elaborates. But to have a new critical paradigm as something more than a theoretical investigation or a separatism requires a level of mobilisation that exceeds the capacities of any singular discipline or experiment.
How does Greece relate to modernity? Does Greece constitute a ‘singularity’ in this context?
Absolutely not. Greece does not constitute a singularity, and I don’t know any country that does, though many countries have made similar claims. One funny thing about the European cultural space is that many countries will claim the identity of a peculiar ‘periphery’ or ‘semi-periphery’, some kind of exceptional fate that diverges from the path of ‘canonical’ modernism, and by implication, modernity. This peaked when postmodernism was the new black, in the 1980s, and for some belated contestants, in the 1990s. Suddenly, you had many countries, including Greece, claiming they had been ‘postmodern’ all along, avant la lettre, because they never had ‘modernism proper’. But of course modernism proper has tended to be a canonising narrative put forward by powerful institutions in intimate relations with the market.
I remember growing up in Greece with this idea of the ‘exception’, which was used to justify all sorts of contemporary ills. Of course, each country, including Greece, has its historical trajectory, but in Greece there was a thin line between serious historical analysis and the tendency to blame the past. And Greece has branded itself as a country with a very long past, which apparently improved the further it was from the contemporary moment. It took me a while to realise that it wasn’t just Greece that got shaped in the 19th century, that it wasn’t unique in that respect.
Greece is a modern society, with the complications this term indicates, with the divisions and hierarchies that structure any such society, and it should shed its weird inferiority-cum-superiority complex. It’s got some good things going for it. It has not recently been an empire, like France, Britain, Holland, Spain, Portugal. It is not burdened with a Nazi past like Germany. And it did not share the failed experiment imposed on Eastern Europe (which, I stress, had got nothing to do with communism). It is also free from royalty. Imperialism, Nazism, Stalinism, monarchy: what a legacy. A legacy interwoven with realised ‘modernity’, whether we like it or not. There is a tendency in Greece to speak about modernity in terms of the Enlightenment, as if the latter had been somehow uniformly positive and ‘successful’. The political contradictions of that era and its legacy are buried. We never had a secular Europe as part of the Enlightenment legacy, we have mainstream political parties called ‘Christian Democrats’, and this alone tells you everything you need to know about where the continent is in terms of its ‘modernity’. The modernity I appreciate is feminism and Greece had a feminist movement since the 19th century, just like other countries. It goes without saying that Greece has many things to feel bad about, but not more than others. We were not the only country with dictatorships and their horrors. We are not the only country in Europe that keeps the ancient myth of a non-human entity called God alive, preserving the power of organised religion. Because, of course, religion is a biopolitical tool much like the capitalist state, and they walk hand-in-hand. Religion controls large segments of the population and has made a formidable comeback, for reasons that should be obvious. So, when we talk about modernity we must qualify it.
As regards Greece, I have to say that although all the things that irritated me twenty years ago are still present, there are also some good things. In 2016 we don’t seem to be among the most racist and inhumane societies in Europe, and I can’t imagine how a positively inflected modernity, modernity in its idealisation as ‘progressive’, can be associated with racism and misanthropy. So I am not sure where this spirit of modernity currently exists in the continent. Is it in Switzerland where refugees are asked to offer their assets as ‘guarantee’? Is it in an economy of austerity that breaches human rights? We are told that every few months and nothing happens: breaching human rights is being normalised. At best, a country is divided over its xenophobia, much like Britain, a former empire on the verge of a velvet civil war as I write these lines. I can’t side with workers who want to close the borders to other workers and I can’t march under a placard that says “I love EU” either, because both positions are politically naïve as regards the roots and causes of the exploitation most suffer. But this is the era of easy listening and easy thinking, the era where democracy has disintegrated to angry anonymous commentary on newspaper websites. The humanities are not under attack for nothing, nor are the poor kept away from education for nothing. Historically, modernity appears to be a history of concessions to misery as much as the intention of emancipation. So, the question is not how Greece relates to modernity but rather what modernity has come to mean in, and for, Europe today.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Nick Malkoutzis is the editor of MacroPolis, an analysis service providing daily information on political, economic and social issues related to Greece. He was the deputy editor of the English Edition of Kathimerini, a leading Greek daily, between 2004 and 2016. He currently writes a weekly column for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek and other international publications such as Die Zeit and The Guardian. He has written several papers about Greece and the crisis for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Germany. In 2015 he was awarded the Ernest Udina prize for European journalism.
Nick Malkoutzis spoke to Greek News Agenda* about his long experience as a journalist, MacroPolis, his latest venture, how challenging is to practice independent journalism in Greece, the way the Greek crisis has been presented in the Greek and international media as well as about the current state of affairs in Greece and the country’s future prospects.
You have been the deputy editor of the English Edition of Kathimerini, while your work has also appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek and other international publications. Tell as a few things about your experience as a journalist for both the Greek and international media.
The last few years have been an incredibly intense, worrying, enlightening and exhausting period. As for many of my colleagues, this has entailed much hard work and personal sacrifice, regardless of whether you are representing local or international media.
Writing for outlets outside Greece, it has been strange to see a country that nobody used to pay much attention to thrust into the international spotlight. Naturally, this has led to some misperceptions that it has been important to address through balanced and accurate reporting. On the domestic front, the sheer pace and frequency of developments has been incredible. There have been times when it was impossible to keep up with everything that was going on. I think our colleagues abroad who are now covering the fallout from Brexit are getting a taste of what it was like. Saying that, I’m very appreciative of the knowledge that I have acquired and the friends that I have made along the way. It has been great compensation.
In 2013 you founded MacroPolis, an analysis service providing daily insight on key political, economic and social developments in Greece. Three years later, how things stand with your venture? Which are the main challenges you have faced so far?
Our aim with MacroPolis was to achieve two goals: a) To provide the context and data needed to make sense of developments in Greece and b) To become a trusted source of analysis. I think that we have done very well on both fronts thanks to the efforts of a very talented and experienced team.
However, starting anything independent in n negative business environment, like the one we have in Greece, is a real challenge. We face the same complications that other start-ups here do, which include the difficulties accessing funding, the increases in taxes and the significant levels of bureaucracy.
Thanks to the trust placed in us by our subscribers we have been able to meet these challenges and keep building on what he have achieved. Getting people to put their faith in you as reliable source of information involves a tremendous amount of hard work and application. It is difficult sometimes to be the one speaking in a calm, steady voice when everyone around you is shouting but that’s exactly what MacroPolis is there for. There has been a positive response to this approach and this gives us great encouragement for the future.
You have stated that MacroPolis' mission is to “provide its readership with impartial and pertinent analysis that puts Greece in perspective”. How challenging is to practice independent journalism in Greece?
Although what we do is analysis rather than journalism, I think the principle is the same. There are two key elements to being independent – one is the financial aspect, the other is editorial.
Maintaining your financial independence, particularly in the current testing circumstances, is obviously very difficult. In our case, since our content is aimed at an audience that follows Greece for professional reasons, it was important that we made it clear to subscribers that what we write is not open to the influence of business or political interests. That’s why we intended from the start to adopt a subscription model. In this way, we felt that we could secure our financial and editorial independence.
Saying that, I would like to point out that just because a media outlet is independent, or defines itself as independent, does not necessarily also mean that it is accurate or worthwhile. There is a lot of excellent output from the mainstream media and some very poor content from independent outlets, as well as the reverse. This is the case in other countries, not just Greece. Quality and independence do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. You have to fight separate battles for them.
During the last few years Greece has received wide media coverage due to the economic crisis and more recently the refugee/migrant crisis. How has Greece been presented in the international media? Which are the main differences compared to the Greek media coverage?
Greece is a small country that has made a lot of noise in recent years. Separating the signal from the noise has been the big challenge for foreign journalists who had to follow developments. There are a number of reasons that the Greek crisis has been a difficult one to cover: Greece is a complex country with many competing interests, it experienced an economic collapse whose magnitude was unprecedented for a developed country, the management of the crisis involved lots of actors with contrasting motivations and interests (Greece, European institutions, eurozone member states, IMF), and it was a crisis that stoked strong passions and arguments over political ideology, economic thinking and even visions for the European Union.
As a result, the quality of the coverage has been mixed. Some of the reporting and analysis on Greece has been excellent but a lot of it has been restricted to very stale narratives that either skimmed the surface of what was happening or fitted a particular pre-determined view. Similarly, the domestic media has also had a mixed time in covering events. While there has been excellent, probing work, there has also been a lot of coverage whose sole purpose was to strengthen the “pro-memorandum” or “anti-memorandum” argument, which has created such a cleavage in Greek society over the last few years.
You have stated that “to know [Greece] thoroughly is impossible; to understand it requires genius; to fall in love with it is the easiest thing in the world”. In your estimate, how things stand at a political level at the moment? Which may be the country’s future prospects?
While I would very much like to take credit for that quote, it does in fact belong to the late American author Henry Miller, who spent some time in Greece. I think it perfectly sums up what a lot of people feel about the country, regardless of whether they are Greek or foreigners, which is a mixture of frustration and perplexity that is overcome by an enduring passion for the place and its inhabitants.
I don’t expect that Greece will become any more straightforward in the coming months or years. Despite completing the latest bailout review, the government has a tough task ahead of it. It needs to implement further structural reforms and keep public finances on track, while hoping that the economy will start to recover. At the same time, the eurozone’s relationship with the International Monetary Fund has yet to be defined. Given that Greece’s lenders have yet to detail their plan for debt relief, clarity regarding the IMF’s future role is an important piece of the puzzle for Athens.
In this rather unstable environment, Brexit was the worst thing that could have happened. While it may yet lead to a faster and deeper integration of the eurozone, which would protect Greece to some extent, I expect that it will trigger very conservative reflexes among policy makers. I don’t think anybody will be willing to take the risk of supporting further burden-sharing and less sovereignty due to fears about giving the nationalists and populists in their countries more ammunition.
Also, we should not forget that the Greek economy faces a long, hard slog ahead of it. The IMF, for instance, expects that it will take around 30 years for the unemployment rate to drop to single digit figures. This will obviously have a painful social impact as well. So, the onus is on Greek decision makers to develop a clear vision about the way forward, particularly when it comes to growth, innovation and job creation. Greece has many talents and much potential. They have to be harnessed so we can start putting this period of devastation behind us.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Angelos Chryssogelos is president of the Hellenic Conservative Policy Institute – INSPOL (Ινστιτούτο Συντηρητικής Πολιτικής - ΙΝΣΠΟΛ). He is a research fellow at the Hellenic Observatory of the London School of Economics and an associate at the Europe Programme of Chatham House. He has studied in Greece and the Netherlands and holds a PhD in political sciences from the European University Institute in Florence.
Georgios Antoniadis is a managing partner of INSPOL. He holds a postgraduate degree in International Relations and Strategic Studies from Panteion University. He has worked for the Constantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy and the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies and has published a series of articles for the websites of the above organizations as well as for the online magazine Antiphono.
INSPOL is a think tank that aims to promote conservative values, ideas and priorities in the public sphere and in policymaking. It publishes policy studies and current affairs commentaries, and organizes public events of various formats. In 2015 INSPOL’s first major study on Church-state relations in Greece was published by Manifesto publications. Recent events organized by INSPOL include a public debate on the refugee crisis and an open symposium on the thought of philosopher Panagiotis Kondylis (Athens, Arpil 2016).
Angelos Chryssogelos and Georgios Antoniadis spoke to Rethiniking Greece* about Greek cultural identity and tradition, the Greek Right’s ideologies and Greece’s “geocultural parameters”, Greek philosopher Panagiotis Kondylis’ various readings and his importance for conservatism, New Democracy‘s new leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his Europe vs. populism opposition stance, as well as anti-austerity and Eurosceptic agenda in Greece and Greece’s handling of the migration crisis and SYRIZA yielding to European demands. For Chryssogelos and Antoniadis “Greek political system is locked in an almost unconditional acceptance of decisions emanating from Europe” and “European integration has to be reconnected with national identities and cultures and to be portrayed as a complement and enhancement of national interests in order to survive.”
Is there a conservative political current in Greece? Are there any affinities with the European and Anglo-American conservatism?
GA: Conservatism in Greece today is not a well-defined political camp but a heterogeneous social current that resists the universalist tendencies of modernization. The point where conservatives, right-wing populists and even left-wing communitarians converge is their skepticism towards the federalist pretenses of the European project, as well as their reservations towards elitist top-down attempts at modernization that neglect fundamental conditions of Greek society and traditions. Conservatives are also interested in Greece’s byzantine and post-Ottoman legacy and the contradictions that the implementation of Western-inspired institutions, practices and ideas encounters in the Greek context.
Modern Greek conservatism (not unlike the much better known Modern Greek Enlightenment) has always been in constant dialogue with European currents, whether one thinks of the ethno-romantic influences on Konstantinos D. Karavidas and Ion Dragoumis or the existentialist analysis of Heidegger by Christos Yannaras. Lately there has even been a turn of a budding neoconservative camp in Greece towards republican and libertarian ideas that are particularly prevalent in the Anglo-Saxon world. It is doubtful however whether e.g. the social-communitarian legacies of Orthodoxy can be reconciled with reactionary and individualistic ideas at the core of the Anglo-Saxon New Right.
The debate about “Greekness”, Greek cultural identity and tradition has been an underlying theme in the Greek political discourse from the days of Greek independence. What is the importance of this discussion under the current crisis circumstances? Is ideology an important issue for the Greek Right?
The question of Greek exceptionalism and the historical continuity of Hellenism remains topical, particularly given the exhaustion of the European project since the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, defining ‘Greekness’ in a proactive, and not just defensive, way is crucial for our current self-awareness. It calls for us to understand the Greek nation today as something different from the sum of citizens or a disposable ‘people’ trapped in the inescapable course of globalization. This poses some very practical questions. For example, if we are simply nothing more than a body of voters (as some theories of citizenship postulate) what keeps us from granting full citizenship rights to all immigrants living on Greek soil? Conservatives have a qualitatively distinct understanding of what constitutes a political community, both conceptually and with regards to the Greek case in particular.
On the other hand, formulating effective geostrategic and geoeconomic policies with regards to Europe, Turkey, the Balkans etc. presupposes that we take into account geocultural parameters when we think about potentials of amity and confrontation within and beyond the Euro-atlantic area. For the Greek right ‘Greekness’ could be the main pillar of a national strategy that, without ignoring the geopolitical anchoring of Greece to the West, would lay the ground for a multifaceted and realist reading of opportunities and risks that appear in the political environment of the Eastern Mediterranean – from transnational terrorism to new migrant waves and Islamic radicalization. Again, this self-awareness of Greekness is of much more than theoretical value. To use a provocative example, if we were to see ourselves as nothing more than Greek-speaking Europeans, would we feel safe entrusting the security of our eastern borders to a common European army? Would the opportunity to rid ourselves of massive defense expenditure justify such a move?
Philosopher Panagiotis Kondylis’ theory of power and decision refers to a bare individual seeking a meaningful existence through a friend-foe spectrum. Is Kondylis a conservative thinker? Why you chose to organize a symposium on his work?
GA: Kondylis cannot be considered a typical conservative traditionalist thinker like e.g. Christos Giannaras, whose work was the primary inspiration of the founders of INSPOL. Kondylis’ thought embarks primarily (though not exclusively) from materialism and Marxism, and his polemic against conservatism bears the marks of a Hegelian historicism that opens up his work to bourgeois-liberal, if not reactionary, readings. What INSPOL finds interesting in Kondylis is his accurate critique of modern European civilization and of its flawed perception in Greece, be it through a liberal or a social-democratic lens. Kondylis of course in his book on Conservatism (that was recently translated and published by Crete University Press) targets European conservatism as well, which he differentiates from the traditionalism of pre-capitalist social structures, ultimately pronouncing it as ‘dead’. Also, in the introduction of his book The Decline of Bourgeois Civilization he outlines a series of criticisms of various aspects of antique and religious Greek ethnocentrism, which forces Greek conservatives to rethink the limits and antinomies of their ideology.
By organizing an open symposium on the thought of Kondylis, INSPOL aimed among other things to generate a debate on his view that ideas are simply tools that reflect power relationships among friends and foes and whose only purpose is to assist in the survival of state power in the post-mass democratic era. It is this aspect of Kondylis’ thought that is used by the many defenders of a bourgeois nationalism, be they exponents of a modernizing ‘enlightened’ right or supporters of the national-liberal viewpoint that at the root of the Greek malaise lies always the Church, tradition etc. For INSPOL and the moderate-conservative camp in general it is important to disengage Kondylis’ work from its selective readings by those who want to promote what seems like a modernizing agenda but in reality is not very far from the classical West European far right.
Main opposition New Democracy’s ideology refers mainly to Konstantinos Karamanlis “radical liberalism” and pro-EU stance. New Democracy‘s new leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis seems to cultivate and build on the ‘modernization/Europe vs. populism/nationalism’ dilemma. Would you like to comment?
GA: It is true that the ideological profile of the Greek right has been decisively shaped by the two main elements of Konstantinos Karamanlis’ legacy: the ideology of radical liberalism and the strong support for Greece’s European course. Radical liberalism reflected Karamanlis’ effort to overcome the divide between liberalism and conservatism and between Europeanization and Greekness inside his own political camp, as well as the deep chasm between right and left in Greek society. The result of this exercise was that the post-war right never learned to think in Greek-centric terms. It is interesting to ponder whether things would have been any different if, instead of Karamanlis, the post-war right were lead by Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, an intellectual with a close affinity to the Hellenic modernism developed in the 1930s by thinkers like Georgios Theotokas.
By the same token, New Democracy’s identification with Europe was a reflection of the ideological void and permanent crisis the conservative political camp faced from the defeat of the ethno-romantic ideal of Greek irredentism (the ‘Megali Idea’) onwards all the way to the civil war, the authoritarianism of the post-war years and the military dictatorship. Europe was at the time a way for the right to cement its achievements in light of the rising tide of anti-Western leftist populism of Andreas Papandreou. Much like ‘radical liberalism’, ‘Europe’ became a substitute for sincere ideological debates and engagement of the Greek right with the legacy and contradictions of Hellenism.
At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the intergovernmental European Economic Community of the time was quite different from today’s deepened and intrusive European architecture. Regardless of the detrimental effects the uncritical identification with Europe has had on the political thought and practice of the Greek right, Karamanlis’ European choice was very different from today’s unconditional pro-Europeanism put forward by the remnants of PASOK’s social-democratic modernizing wing and vehemently pushed on New Democracy’s popular base as the ‘legacy of the party’s founder’.
AC: These problems remain very much relevant today as New Democracy tries to formulate an opposition strategy to SYRIZA. Kyriakos Mitsotakis wants to position ND as pro-European anti-SYRIZA party with few references to other ideological labels. This is perhaps understandable given that the economic crisis, with the referendum of July 2015 as the apex, largely realigned Greek politics along a Europe/populism dimension. We believe however that such a strategy is problematic for many reasons.
First, a mainstream right-wing party that explicitly abandons the right end of the political spectrum is a source of instability in any party system. In a context where the economic crisis allows antidemocratic and far-right agendas to have a broader appeal, ND shedding any references to the ‘right’ (indeed, even to the ‘centre-right’) is problematic for the quality of democracy in Greece.
Second, cultivating the Europe vs. populism opposition plays into the hands of populism’s divisive logic and polarizes Greek society. Europe can be a powerful signifier to rally those discontented with SYRIZA. But it says little about what the party stands for apart from opposing the current government. As both the refugee and the economic crises have shown, Tsipras is perfectly capable of cutting deals with Europe if it serves his goals. When this happens, the very notion of a ‘pro-European anti-populist’ party becomes meaningless. The discomfort and disorientation of ND after the finalization of the first evaluation of the bailout program in May were telling.
‘Anti-populism’ is not a political program and it does little to foster national unity around necessary reforms – a goal a moderate right-wing party should normally pursue. It was the unorthodox conditions of the memorandum/anti-memorandum divide that allowed a small party of the radical left to become the dominant force of Greek politics. As attractive a rallying cry as the ‘fight against national-populism’ may be, it plays into Tsipras’ strengths of presenting SYRIZA as the party of the ‘people’ and ND as the party of the ‘system’.
Finally, given the historically ambiguous character of Greek society towards the West, Europe and modernization, the postwar right became for long periods of time the broker of the contradictions between the demands of modernization and the traditionalist resistances of a semi-peripheral society. By reinforcing the wedge between ‘Europe’ and the ‘people’, ND abandons this role and essentially follows SYRIZA into exacerbating Greeks’ national schizophrenia with regards to their own identity and the West.
Findings of recent nation-wide surveys suggest that there is a growing trend for Euroscepticism in Greece - both among Left-wing and Right-wing voters, which does not yet have a concrete political expression. Do you think it is a matter of time to see a strong Greek Eurosceptic party?
AC: This seems like a logical question given that the space for expression of discontent with austerity in the party system has shrunk considerably after SYRIZA’s turn in the summer of 2015. However the link between austerity and Euroscepticism is not as direct as it seems. After all, the vast majority of Greeks still want the euro as their currency. The political upheaval of the last six years was certainly catalyzed by the crisis but it has its roots in deeper tensions between the Greek state and society. Those who benefited from popular discontent with Europe did so because they managed to present themselves as opponents of a corrupt and inept political system. It is thus ‘anti-systemness’ that will determine the success of any anti-austerity or Eurosceptic agenda in the future rather than ideological consistency. The failure of Panagiotis Lafazanis’ LAE party in the September 2015 elections, despite its impeccable anti-austerity credentials, was an indication of this.
As a journalist wrote on the day after the September 2015 elections, the anti-memorandum upheaval was just one in a series of ‘transmutations’ of popular frustration with a state that has been perceived as extractive and inefficient throughout the history of modern Greece. With austerity effectively neutralized as catalyst for the expression of discontent, a different point of reference – a new transmutation of popular discontent – will have to be found. The emergence of a new successful populist party is inevitable at some point in the near-to-medium term, but its exact ideological outlook (whether of the right, the left or a mix) is a matter of contingency. Euroscepticism most probably will play an important role in its profile, but it will not be the decisive factor for its success as a much as its credibility as a true opponent of the system.
What do you think of Alexis Tsipras’ handling of the double (economic/refugee-migration) crisis? Is there a politically viable alternative? What should be the Greek government’s stance toward the refugee/migration crisis, especially after the Paris attacks?
AC: Greece’s handling of the migration crisis was interesting in that it became an opening for the rapprochement of Tsipras and SYRIZA to Angela Merkel and Germany. Just a few months after Greece found itself completely isolated in the Eurogroup, its government’s humanitarian attitude towards migrants was in line with the priorities of the EU and its biggest and most important member-state. The migration crisis offered the first opportunity for the normalization of the relationship between SYRIZA and Europe, which continued with the successful negotiation of the first evaluation of the bailout program in May.
There are interesting analogies between the economic and the migration crises. In both cases SYRIZA has emphasized the various ways that it thinks the EU is treating Greece unfairly – austerity in the context of the Eurozone, the obligations arising from the Dublin regulation and Greece’s role as the external border of the EU for migration flows. Yet in both cases Alexis Tsipras’ government has ultimately yielded to European demands for Greece’s adaptation to EU rules and obligations. This in turn has undercut the opposition’s critique that is largely based on the claim that SYRIZA is jeopardizing Greece’s place in Europe.
There is a paradox with regards to how Greece has aligned with Europe in both the economy and migration: SYRIZA’s oscillations delayed Greece’s adaptation with the result that the terms of this adaptation worsen significantly. Yet at the same time it is these oscillations that allow the government to claim that it has tried to negotiate the best possible deal, so that reactions among the broader public become subdued. If one adds to the mix the opposition’s fundamental inability to highlight the parameters of the relationship between Greece and the EU that are in need of recalibration, one can see that the Greek political system is locked in an almost unconditional acceptance of decisions emanating from Europe.
What are the implications of the recent EU membership referendum in Great Britain? What does Brexit signify for conservative politics in Europe and Greece?
AC: What we find particularly interesting is that one of the main casualties of the Brexit debate in the UK is the unity of the British Conservative Party. The painful internal debate among the Tories shows how Europe today has become a particularly difficult issue for conservatives split between the belief in open markets and Western cooperation, and the support for national independence and sovereignty. The referendum result, whereby the vast majority of the Conservative electorate voted against the position of the vast majority of the party elite, showed that popular conservative followings should never be taken for granted by the internationalist liberal political class that forms the leadership of conservative parties around Europe. While in Greece EU membership is of course not an issue of contention between the elite and the electorate of ND, the leadership of ND would be well advised not to assume that the party base will acquiesce passively to a wholesale social-liberal transformation of the party.
The referendum has also showcased how narrow the social basis of support for the EU has become since the onslaught of the financial crisis. From the end of the Cold War onwards the EU has become increasingly identified with an economically and socially liberal coalition, relying on the support of those who feel comfortable both with economic and cultural openness. The result of the referendum, as well as opinion polling in most other EU countries, shows that this social-liberal coalition cannot guarantee widespread support for the EU any longer. The EU is becoming increasingly identified with the aspirations and caprices of an elitist milieu that is looking down on those concerned with economic insecurity, cultural relativism and national sovereignty. European integration has to be reconnected with national identities and cultures and to be portrayed as a complement and enhancement of national interests in order to survive. Antagonizing widespread popular concerns and downplaying them as ‘nationalism’ and ‘populism’ only alienates European peoples from Europe even more.
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis
Christos Ikonomou was born in Athens in 1970. He has published three collections of short stories, The Woman on the Rails, (Ellinika Grammata, 2003), Something Will Happen, You’ll See, (Polis, 2010) and All Good Things Will Come From The Sea, (Polis, 2014). Something will Happen You’ll See has won the prestigious Best Short-Story Collection State Award and became the most reviewed Greek book of 2011. It has been translated into German (CH Beck, 2013), English (Archipelago Books, 2016), Spanish (Valparaiso, 2016), French (Quidam, 2016), Croatian (VBZ, 2016) and Italian (Elliot Edizioni, 2016). All Good Things Will Come from the Sea has been translated into Italian (Elliot Edizioni, 2016). The French (Quidam) and US (Archipelago) editions are forthcoming.
Christos Ikonomou spoke to Reading Greece* about how writing gives him ‘the fascinating pleasure of living more than one life’, the ‘struggle to remain a human being in a world that becomes, day by day, less and less human’ as the holding thread of Something Will Happen You’ll See, the way foreign readers have related to the book in ways that go beyond the crisis, and the role a writer is called to play in times of crisis. “In times like these, I have to summon up my courage and write about a specific kind of truth which can be extremely painful and unsettling but, as it happens with all kinds of truth, eventually will set us free: the truth about who we really are vs. who we think we are or who we wish to be”.
What prompted you to become a writer? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Well, all these things are still a mystery to me. I guess I have that inexplicable, irresistible and overwhelming impulse to create a world of my own, and tell the stories of the people who live in it. After all these years, I’ve come to the conclusion that writing (and reading) gives me the fascinating pleasure of living more than one life. I have an apophatic, rather mystical approach to writing. I mean, the first thing that comes to my mind whenever someone asks me about how or why I write in this or that way, or where I draw inspiration from, is ‘‘well, I don’t know’’. When I write, I feel like I’m in a state of trance, in a state of ecstasy. It’s very hard for me to rationalize or explain afterwards how or why I did what I did. Maybe it’s not relevant, but I think that’s one of the reasons I hold in such high esteem these two great sayings: ‘‘Trust the tale, not the teller’’ (D.H. Lawrence) and ‘‘One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality’’ (George Orwell).
Your book “Something Will Happen You’ll See” has received rave reviews, characterized as “the Decameron of the crisis”. Which are the main themes of your stories? What makes these stories so timely?
As far as I can tell, the main theme of the stories is the constant struggle to remain a human being in a world that becomes, day by day, less and less human. What I’m trying to do is to write about meaningful things in a genuine and meaningful way. I’m trying to write about matters of life and death. And I’m trying to do all these things in a way that will appeal to the readers, no matter if they are Greeks or whatever else. I think that these stories are timely because they are not just about the Greek crisis, but they address many more universal and timeless issues.
What led you to choose Piraeus as the setting of your book and working class people as your protagonists?
I had always thought that, although it’s the chief port in Greece, and one of the largest ports in the world, Piraeus still remains a terra incognita for many people—Greeks or otherwise—since they get there just to take the ferries to the Aegean islands. So, I thought it would be interesting to write something about a place which is, at the same time, well-known and unknown. As for the characters, I was less interested in their economic or social background and more in their surviving skills. Being poor is a challenge in so many levels, and I wanted to explore as many aspects of that challenge as I could.
Your book has already been translated in six languages while your US promo tour has just been concluded? How has the book been received by different audiences? Do you think that the economic crisis has rekindled the interest for Greek literature?
I’m not sure there has been a revival of interest in Greek literature in general, but I do know that many people, in Europe and elsewhere, try to understand what’s going on in Greece these past few years and they are looking for some answers in literary works, since they are not content with what the media or the politicians and the bureaucrats say about the crisis. But the thing that matters most to me is that many foreign readers have related to the book in ways that go beyond the crisis. That’s quite interesting and, of course, quite encouraging.
It has been written that your stories seem to “reflect the resilience of the human spirit, capturing that elusive but crucial aspect in the human condition: hope”. Is there hope for Greek society? What is the role literature - and writers in particular - are called to play in such times of crisis?
To paraphrase the famous line by W.H. Auden, ‘‘we must hope or die’’. But, you know, hope is neither a feeling nor an abstract concept. It’s not something that exists outside of us or away from us. Hope is not a political slogan, an advertising gimmick or a buzzword in self-help books. Hope is our own creation. We create hope by all the things we choose to do or not to do. Hope is perhaps the most powerful weapon we have against the fear of death. Hope is the resistance against the oppression of the human spirit by the fear of death. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do: to speak for hope, not for fear of death. To speak for life, not for death. As for the role of literature—well, I’m trying not to generalize about these matters, so I’ll speak only about myself. In times like these, I have to summon up my courage and write about a specific kind of truth which can be extremely painful and unsettling but, as it happens with all kinds of truth, eventually will set us free: the truth about who we really are vs. who we think we are or who we wish to be.
Any new book underway? What are your readers to expect from you in the near future?
I’m trying to write the second part of a trilogy of short stories about a group of ex-urbanites Greeks, who are forced, after the outburst of the economic crisis, to move to an Aegean island (the first part was published in 2014). But I don’t think that it’ll be finished any time soon—I’m a painfully slow writer because I need time to believe in what I’m writing about and the only way to do that is by rewriting. You see, that’s what I do after all: I don’t write, I rewrite.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Manos Matsaganis is Associate Professor of Public Finance at the Polytechnic University of Milan and Associate Professor of European Social and Employment Policies at the Athens University of Economics and Business where he co-ordinates the Policy Analysis Research Unit, an informal group of staff and students. He has considerable experience as consultant or advisor to international organizations such as the European Commission, the OECD, UNICEF and the World Bank. Since 2013 he sits at the Advisory Board of Solidarity Now Athens-based charity.
Professor Matsaganis’ research interests include labour economics, economic analysis of public policy, social impact of the economic crisis, political economy of welfare reform, and development of tax-benefit models. Some of his latest papers and articles include: Scenarios for reducing poverty in Belgium, Greece and the United Kingdom; Greece’s Annus Horribilis 2015; To the Brink and Back in Greece;The Eurozone crisis and the future of Europe, as viewed from Greece and The crisis, the austerity, and social policy in Greece.
He also frequently publishes commentaries in Greek regarding various aspects of the Greek and European public debate in Το Βήμα daily, in Metarithmisi website, as well as in his personal blog. In 2014-2015, he visited the US as a Fulbright Scholar (Harvard University and UC Berkeley). During that period he regularly published “Letters from America” in the Athens-based Books Journal monthly review and recently published them in a book, offering a critical approach of the Syriza times in government.
Manos Matsaganis spoke to Rethinking Greece* about the Greek welfare state model and its under-protected outsiders, the Greek government’s parallel programme, the social impact of austerity in Southern Europe and the need for unemployment benefits, and a minimum income-type social assistance scheme in Greece, as well as the challenges lying ahead for European unity after the Brexit and the “failure of politics and the welfare state to protect the losers of globalization”.
What are the main characteristics or peculiarities forming the identity of the Greek welfare state historically?
As I have long argued, Greek welfare was singularly unfit for dealing with the social impact of the economic crisis. It combined extremely generous entitlements for over-protected insiders, with serious gaps in the social safety net for under-protected outsiders. Peaks of generosity were evident in the pension rights of public sector employees (in civil service and the utilities), liberal professionals (judges and lawyers, doctors and pharmacists, engineers and architects), and other groups. Private sector employees and other less favoured groups were left to their own devices: hundreds of thousands of workers, on losing their jobs, also lost access to social benefits for themselves and their dependants.
Analyzing today’s crisis, some commentators - such as Aristides Hatzis - present Greece as a precautionary tale of the welfare state. Is it fair to blame the country’s social policies for the severe economic crisis we are faced with in the recent years?
Yes and no. It is certainly true that spending on key programmes has gone through the roof: government subsidies to the ostensibly self-financed pension system in 2000-2014 piled up to a cumulative €200 billion, or about two thirds of Greece’s entire public debt. But while public money was wasted on overpriced medical procedures, and on workers retiring in their early 50s, support for the poor and the unemployed remained meagre: between 2010 and 2014, as the number of jobless workers doubled (from 624,000 to 1.27 million), the number of unemployment benefit recipients declined steeply (from 226,000 to 155,000), with the coverage rate falling from 36.2% to 12.7% of all jobless workers. This shows that what Greece needs is not so much ‘less welfare’ but rather a ‘different welfare’ where resources are allocated according to need, not according to the balance of power between categories.
What has been the social impact of austerity in Europe and especially in Southern Europe and Greece? What kind of redistributive policies and strategies can be applied to reduce poverty in times of recession?
Austerity is rather difficult to avoid when the budget deficit reaches 15.6% of GDP (as was the case for Greece in 2009). But there certainly is little doubt that the combined effect of austerity and the recession was to undo social progress (e.g. in terms of employment growth) achieved over the previous decades. The social impact was far worse in Greece than elsewhere in Southern Europe. But even in Greece, inequality went up by less than most people think. In fact, the main change in the income distribution was that poverty increased very significantly, and in the process changed character: the poor are no longer mostly elderly persons living in rural areas, but workless families with children living in Athens and other cities. This suggests what the appropriate redistributive policies and strategies might be: broad-coverage unemployment benefits, and a minimum income-type social assistance scheme of last resort – which is the two policy areas Greek welfare, in spite of high social spending, does particularly badly.
What is your overall assessment of the social policy measures that were undertaken in Greece during the years of the crisis and especially the measures that were included in the “parallel programme” of the current government, such as the Social Solidarity Income?
In a nutshell: “Too little, too late”.
In 2013 and 2014, the then government enlisted the support of the Troika to a modest expansion of the social safety net, engineered through improved access to unemployment assistance, a new means-tested child benefit, a lump sum social dividend, and a minimum income pilot in 13 municipalities. These policies, though welcome, were far too limited to tackle effectively the social emergency: the vast majority of jobless households, including those in poverty, remained without any income protection. Moreover, for each €100 saved as a result of cutbacks in social expenditure under the 2013–14 Spending Review, only about €20 was ‘reinvested’ in the four policies mentioned above.
In 2015, the much-awaited social programme of the new governing coalition (which had made so much political capital out of the country’s supposed ‘humanitarian crisis’) proved something of an anti-climax. It boiled down to three even more modest schemes, at a total cost of €130 million (0.07% of GDP). In comparison, the previous government’s measures, rightly criticized as inadequate, had cost €1,135 million (0.64% of GDP) in 2014.
As for minimum income, the new government has gone from total opposition to reluctant acceptance. The following months will show whether such a crucial step to strengthen the country’s social safety net can be achieved via moral suasion on the part of the European Commission alone, without the full commitment of domestic political and social actors.
You are a strong advocate of EU and the euro, supporting European federalization. During 2014-2015, you were a visiting scholar in Harvard and UC Berkeley; are there any lessons to learn from the US with regard to European integration? What are the biggest challenges lying ahead for the European project, especially after the Brexit?
My support for European unity is somewhat existential: I was born to Greek migrant workers in Germany, spent several happy years in England on a state scholarship, formed a Greek-Italian family, and now live in Milan. I hope the day will never come when my children are forced to choose between being either Greek or Italian. The European Union, for all its sordid aspects, remains the finest political construction in a continent twice torn to pieces in catastrophic conflict during the first half of last century. Brexit threatens to arrest the process that started soon after the end of WWII. More generally, the fact that the white working classes around the world turn to anti-immigration populists is proof of the failure of politics and the welfare state to protect the losers of globalization, but also the failure of grand political narratives of the Enlightenment (liberal, socialist) to provide meaning - let alone convince or inspire. On the other hand, the whole affair strengthened my conviction that thoughtless recourse to referendum can be great for demagogues of all political hues – and that goes for Britain, June 2016 as for Greece, July 2015.
* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou & Nikolas Nenedakis