The summer of No (OXI)

By Sarah Green

Rapid Response: Greece, Debt and Europe in Crisis

Lesvos, 8th July 2015

Everyone is lying. And everyone is telling the truth. That’s the general sense of what’s going on in Greece, in the Eurozone, in the Greek government, and in the Greek opposition to the Greek government. The truth/lies doublespeak is not only about the implications of the referendum held last Sunday (July 5th), but about the whole business: all that’s happened in the five months since the radical left government led by Syriza (in coalition with a populist anti-migration party that is also against austerity) took office after winning the elections. It’s all mirrors within mirrors.

So it’s hard to write about what’s going on, even though I’m right there, in Greece, and speaking to people every day. People are talking about it incessantly. To each other, on the TV, radio and social media – incessantly. A wall and war of words, endless. That’s true, and it’s not: in the more touristy areas, nobody says much. And if I ask people how they are (I can’t bring myself to ask them what they think), the most common response is a half smile, a nod, and a comment of: “Eh, you know, I’m – well, you know. Hard times.” So along with the wall of words there is also some speechlessness; there’s nothing more to say, what more could anybody say? Yet amongst Greeks by themselves, and with my close friends, the ones I have known for years, there is a lot to be said. Here is a small sample of what they have said to me since I arrived on the day of the referendum last Sunday.

Everyone knew the stakes of the referendum, but had very different views on whether one answer or the other would change anything. Some (No voters) felt that the European negotiators were so hostile towards the Syriza government from the moment that it was elected that there was nothing that could have been done by the Greek side – well, other than resigning and allowing a more conservative group to take over. Others (Yes voters) felt the government was deliberately throwing away the last lifeline, and that the plan all along was to exit the Euro. In any case, most agreed that those who voted No were the ones with nothing left to lose, and those who voted Yes still had quite a lot to lose. But there were even well off Greeks who voted No, and still have a lot to lose. One woman I met in the airport, who was on her way to her home town to vote, having travelled from New York, where she’s lived for the last 35 years, said: “I don’t know, really I don’t. I just want to do what’s right for my country.” She paused, and added, “You know, if these people in Europe were going to be neighbourly, European in the true sense, they would forgive some of the debt. We forgave Germany most of their debt after the war.” It was her way of telling me she was going to vote No.

A Yes voter (I did not meet that many) bitterly commented that she thought the No side had deliberately lied about the stakes of voting No: that a campaign of misinformation on a scale unseen in recent decades had been unleashed by the Syriza government, which realised that a Yes vote would mean the government would have to resign. The No supporters said exactly the same of the Yes campaign, except that it was the media and the European negotiators who were spreading staggering levels of misinformation. Each side desperately wanted to win; so maybe it was inevitable that even powerful dissembling (lies in some senses, truth in others) would occur across the board. And there is no doubt that some media outlets were as ‘conservative with the truth’ as some Greek government representatives. One friend suggested that nobody is going to speak plainly again until the world stops listening in; it will continue to be doublespeak until then.

Several people told me that Greece is more profoundly class divided now than it has ever been in their lifetimes. The middle class has more or less collapsed, some suggested, leaving the country with the super rich and the impoverished. Most agreed that previous Greek governments have been deeply corrupt, as has the civil service system that served those governments, and that this contributed majorly to the troubles that Greece is suffering now. Many also agree that the creditors during the pre-2009 period (that is, the period before the bailouts) were also partly to blame: they were falling over themselves, these banks, to lend money to Greece that they must have known they might not get back, just as was the case in the subprime mortgage scandal in the USA and elsewhere.

Nobody was under any illusion that a Greek exit from the Euro was on the cards, especially if the referendum result was No. Many voted No anyway, even though they want to stay in the Euro, because, people repeatedly said, facing more of the same was just too much after five years of it. That is what most of those who voted No felt they were being asked: do you want to continue with the same measures as you have been experiencing in the last five years, or do you reject that? Those who voted Yes really believed that the European negotiators would be more flexible after a Yes vote, in recognition that the Greek people were willing to go the extra mile, to pay the price of staying in the Euro. One man who voted No said Greeks had already gone several extra marathons, with nothing in return, and that was enough now. The one thing that was never offered by the European negotiators was debt relief as part of a package; without that, the No voters felt they would just be back to the same measures, the ones that had brought Greece to its knees, and massively increased its debt.

And while all of that is going on, the newspapers continue their obsession with pictures of people queuing at cashpoint machines to take out their limited amount of money every day. A popular joke here is: €60 per day? That’s €1800 per month. It would be fantastic for most if they could earn that.

Sarah Green is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Helsinki. She is co-editor of The Sociological Review.

Originally posted on 12th July 2015

Image Credit:Rogi.Official [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https-//creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

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