the symbolics of alternatives (and lack thereof) in greece


Olga Demetriou


Olga Demetriou is the author of 
Capricious Borders: Minority, Population and Counter-Conduct between Greece and Turkey


On 22 July 2015, I sat with a friend in an observation box in the Greek parliament and watched the debate on the Third Memorandum. The session passed, at around 5:00 am, the second of the law bundles set by the European Commission as ‘prerequisites’ for the conclusion of the agreement and disbursement of further funds. That evening provided a precious insight into the political conundrums of the current moment in Greece, which the 20 September elections expressed as abstention, resignation, a loss of hope, and creeping fear. 

The session was unequivocally performative. We sat, for part of the evening, in a ‘theorío’, the same word used for theatre boxes, watching the parliament as if in a play. A sense of theatricality was heightened by speeches uttered at times to an almost empty hall, as MPs came and went between auditorium, press room, bar, and restaurant – a theatricality dampened in the TV close-ups watched at home. But the key omissions of such home viewing were two empty boxes above the speakers’ desks, right above the cameras. The silence of these boxes speaks most loudly of the vacuity of the political performances that take place underneath them. 

The uppermost box is eternally empty: it is the box reserved for the king and it has been hermetically sealed since Greece’s abolition of the monarchy in 1974 (the lower one is for occasional visiting dignitaries). That empty box is perhaps the most poignant image for the state of democratic political conduct today. In earlier times its preservation could be laughed off as curious – is the space not being re-appropriated because some of the powers that be harbour delusions about a return of the king? If that was a comical question once, what is inescapable in today’s Greece is a much more sombre one: who is, really, the king here? What the box now signifies is a much more tangible effect of power. And it is that effect that the recent election results mirror.

Slavoj Žižek names this effect the truth of emptiness in the disclosure of the TINA moment. I would suggest that ‘emptiness’ does not quite suffice. That empty box points today to the sovereign who chooses not to be there and to whom parliamentary acts ultimately address themselves. One might say there is a historical lineage that connects the old royal and current democratic sovereigns. The monarchical institution was installed in the modern age in Greece by its European allies against the Ottoman Empire and was part of the quasi-colonial regime that bound Greece to the West. Who it is exactly that now embodies that relationship (the EU, the Troika, Germany, or neoliberalism) is more questionable perhaps than earlier times; and any of those answers offers a different political perspective, assumes a different political orientation. Undoubtedly, however, all of them are now haunting spectres in Greek politics. The conundrum is not the lack of an alternative to the emptiness they represent, but the failure to repossess what has been evacuated. 

Answering how such repossession would translate on the street, if not through default, was the big failure of September’s election campaign across the parties, which registered a 44% abstention rate. If the elections of January offered a spark of hope in Greece, the September ones mark its end. And if the referendum of July advanced a call for banishing fear, this fear seems to have played a role in returning Syriza to power as the lesser of many evils. What these affective predispositions bode for the future is the pertinent question. 

Since 2010 Greece has seen political events unfold on a rolling basis: elections, bail-outs, signing of memoranda, progress evaluations, protest waves, party shifts. In the temporality of crisis, the effects of each of these events appeared indiscernible, clouded in a dust that never seemed to settle into normality. The political subject forged in this whirlpool was often thought of as unique. Artists are flocking to the city, apparently, to experience this native point of view. A sense of alienation, however, seems inescapable, even there. One of the recurring questions I was asked in late July in Athens was about how other people (common friends, academics, activists) were seeing things – what did they say? If nobody can see in a cloud that is not clearing, anyone is as right or as wrong as the next person – and the self stands perpetually to be corrected. And all the while, sovereignty remains a hermetically sealed topos, hated and revered at the same time. If Greece is now entering a different phase, this is the moment where the clearest thing we can see is the ‘crisis’ narrative working to make that power impenetrable, to further its panoptical effect as all-seeing and empty at the same time. As long-term austerity settles into the normal, crisis is no longer to be overcome but to be managed. Syriza’s second mandate is this management.

Back in late July, bleak expectations for the future were already clouding Syriza’s pre-memorandum successes: the change of discourse on the EU; the passing of the citizenship bill that legitimizes some immigrant children; the stance on migration and the shift to anti-racist discourse; and the re-opening of the national broadcaster and re-hiring of its staff. All these successes were measured against the price paid for them in the Third memorandum and the fear they could be rolled back. 

A dystopic view of Greece was becoming hegemonic. Friends discussed emigration plans, even if these are unlikely to materialise; and when they discussed the other facet of migration, the plight of Syrian refugees camping in the park of ‘Pedion tou Areos’, en route from the eastern islands to the northern borders, their stay in Greece was never presented as conceivable. Activists collecting food, clothing, water, and laundry detergent, did not debate for once if the country had anything further to offer: assisting their onward journey was an obvious humanitarian act.

And yet, in the aftermath of the referendum everyone understood that Greece still stands to lose out of a bankruptcy. Even the friends who declared they were prepared to sustain a default seemed to do so in a rhetorical mode. It is likely that Syriza’s splinter group, the Popular Unity party which failed to enter parliament,was(correctly) read as doing the same. The referendum which had just happened did not appear to have eased fears of default, but to have exacerbated them – people had thought about their money, their jobs, and their options. These last vestiges of what still remains to be lost now constitute a new basis of fear. 

In the press rooms and the bar outside the auditorium in the parliament building that night of the vote, I met left wing activists I had known from earlier years who were now advising Syriza ministers and MPs. Their assessment of the situation hovered between conviction that the memorandum was non-implementable and the certainty that its approval was for the better. The stance of the Syriza youth, which stood at the front of the protesting crowd opposite the parliament that night, and which ultimately disbanded itself prior to elections in disagreement with both the party and its break-away cadres, is telling of the evacuating space of Greek politics in the face of these dispositions of fear and resignation.

And if this evacuation haunts a future of impoverishment, unemployment, and emigration, what sustains the situation is that alternatives, much bleaker ones, do exist. When the Golden Dawn leader recently claimed political responsibility for the murder of Pavlos Fyssas two years ago (the crime that brought most of the leadership in front of the courts and still awaiting a verdict), he did so in the context of claiming that there is no criminal responsibility to be taken up. This is the frightening aspect of the evacuation of the political, where lives can be taken with impunity and politics appealed to in order to mask criminality. Still more frightening is the fact that it cannot be a foregone conclusion what Greek justice will make of this, or indeed the Greek electorate in the future. For the time being, Golden Dawn has seen its votes rise in absolute numbers in 38 out of the 56 electoral districts, losing significant numbers only in the urban centres and registering peaks of new voters in areas in the immigration trail (Dodecanese, Lesvos, Samos, Evros, Crete). Against the disaffection of abstention rates, the party registered percentage losses only in Athens (an absolute drop of 8,000 equalling the overall drop of party votes across the country) and two other districts. 

So if these Greek elections mark the end of hope, they should also re-invigorate fears about what alternative radicality without hope might spawn. A closer view at the micro-level might be the only place left to turn. In the backwater of Thrace a mix of abstention and candidature politics entered a record of four minority MPs in this parliament. As inhabitants of Rhodoppe prefecture are now represented only by minority MPs, there is room to imagine a new democratic politics developing of addressing the state through what has long been constructed as a subaltern other. This is the same place where friends from the local minority spoke last July with regret of people they had befriended for years and who were now ‘turning Golden Dawn’. They used the verb ‘hrisavyízoun’ as if describing a process of discovery, or realisation, of a ‘true’ self. As a last semblance of reality, this should motivate an alternative beyond the observation that there is not one. The micro-processes that could, in minute ways, change everyday narratives, could be the necessary other side to wholesale change on a pan-European level that Syriza had imagined in January 2015.


  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 33 (1.2016)