The Fatal Blaze of the Politics of Affect

Greece, as a country in the periphery of Europe, has historically enjoyed the odd privilege of being at the fore-front of momentous developments poised to influence a larger world.  It was here that the collapse of Europe's “Old Man”, the Ottoman Empire in early 19th century led to the ushering of a new era of nation-state building in the Balkans and eventually the Middle East. It was here that the cold war ostensibly started with a civil war, the backing of UK and the US subsequently with the articulation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 shaping a new era of division by an Iron Curtain. It was here that the financial crisis, which began in 2008 in the US with he collapse of Lehman Brothers, took its first visible hold in Europe marking the beginning of long and painful process of financial reforms, which changed the world as we had grown to know it for generations-long. Similarly, it was here that a political crisis that still threatens Europe with the rise of populist leaders began in 2015 when a new coalition government between the radical left and the nationalist right fringe parties was thrust into power.  It remains to now be seen if the latest deadly fires of July 23rd in the periphery of Athens may symbolically mark the beginning of a new era characterized by the dissent of the populists and the extinguishing of the fire of affect as a perilous political factor shaping, at the present historical moment, the political map of Europe and the US.

 

Much has already been written and more will probably follow about the causes of the recent fires and their fatal results at the outskirts of Athens on July 23rd of 2018. As a psychoanalyst, however, I would like to turn my attention to the human factor. Not so much in order to identify sources of error, or linear causes that led to the disaster, but in order to remain closely attentive to human behavior before as well as in the wake of the fires and to perhaps help identify what might be at stake psychologically, anthropologically and, in a certain way, politically with a capital “P” at this juncture.

 

 

It is probable that the uncontrolled fires in a resort area at the outskirt of Athens have delivered a powerful blow to the collective sense of security on the part of the entire Greek population, even those residing far away from Athens.  In addition to the gruesome images, the heartbreaking stories, there is something about this incident that carries a symbolic value whose impact we will be coming to terms in the weeks and months ahead. Greeks have always had to reckon with a state whose Kafkaesque bureaucracy and deeply entrenched corruption represented a formidable obstacle to the normality of life. This negative legacy has arguably worsened as a consequence of the financial troubles of the country. Yet, somehow we have all been accustomed to a particular “greek reality” and have developed coping mechanisms to deal with it. Such mechanisms deserve their own meticulous analysis. For now, let me just say epigrammatically that they grossly consist in a collective cynical nihilistic attitude, where in the absence of a functioning public sphere, relationships of dependency, whether to family or to political patrons, are a fact of life, a necessary survival response to the precarity of individual life.

 

This nihilism, which permeates every aspect of our life in Greece, also fueled the radical political changes that catapulted to power a curious collision of the radical left party of SYRIZA and the chauvinistic populist right party ANEL (The Independent Greeks).   The imminent bankruptcy of the public sector in Greece in 2009 gradually shattered the bond of allegiance, the social contract between a large segment of the population in Greece and the two main political parties – the conservative New Democracy and the socialist PASOK - who had alternated to power since the end of the military junta in Greece, in 1974.

 

Enraged by the shock of the violent changes in individual finances and the prospect of a painful austerity reform period dictated by the country's creditors, Greeks voted for fringe parties led by populists who used vitriolic language to blame their political opponents for the financial crisis, which like a blaze had rapidly wiped off the collective sense of unevenly distributed affluence that greeks had enjoyed for more than three decades.  Having lived in a bubble we had fallen asleep believing that we were on par with Northern Italy to awake violently to the reality that we were rather more akin a Balkan country like Bulgaria. The blame for this painful fact, which no one wanted to digest, was projected vengefully to others: the elites, the creditors, the European union, the Germans, the traitors of New Democracy and PASOK....

 

The new coalition government of SYRIZA and ANEL rode a wave of popular rage whose implicit unconscious message could not be missed by the attentive observer: “Vote for us, the incorruptibles, who will change everything so that you – the exonerated, our voters – will not have to suffer any more painful changes”.  This message carried an appeal across the political spectrum, which helps explain how fringe parties were able to rise to power as well as how a radical left party could enter into a coalition government with a party of the far nationalist right.  It is important to realize that despite the rhetoric there is something profoundly post-ideological in the rise of populism at this juncture. Namely, there is no conscious commitment to an idea or an ideal by the electorate. Rather, the commitment is an unconscious one and an affective one for that matter.

 

When the populists were elected to power in 2015, the country had already gone through a period of austerity and reform and was well on its way to financial recovery despite many persisting ailments. The populists got elected with a mandate to undo the reform packages, which had been agreed with the country's creditors, part and parcel of the largest bail-out program of financial assistance to a country in world history, including a massive voluntary haircut of its public foreign debt (107 billion euro held by private investors) and a refinancing at the order of 153 billion euro allowing Greece to remain solvent despite its inability to access financial markets and service its 250 Billion euro debt by its own devices[1]

 

 

We all remember what is now called the Varoufakis-era, when an eccentric professor of finances with no governing experience or prior exposure to european politics and institutions was appointed the country's minister of finance to renegotiate the terms of Greece's financial assistance with its creditors at the time when the country was still hanging over an abyss. Varoufakis, a modern sophist, trained in the UK in economics and post-structuralist Marxist discourse applied his own variation of the mad-man theory associated with Nixon's foreign policy - whereby volatility, one's readiness to embrace the totally irrational and mutually detrimental outcome of a nuclear catastrophe was used as a weapon to bring America's opponents in Vietnam into submission. 

 

Embracing the irrational as a  negotiating strategy Varoufakis portrayed himself as a shrewd negotiator, a brilliant game theorist, who could force the Germans into giving Greece debt relief under the threat of a default of a country in the core of the eurozone. In essence, Greece's policy consisted in portraying the negotiation with its european partners as a zero sum game of chicken where under the threat of affecting irreparable damage to the economies of its partners by its own financial suicide Greece could force 18 nations comprising the boldest experiment of monetary Union in world history into submitting to its own terms.  Of course the nature of such a game is that there is no synthetic outcome. The weaker party experiences the total loss at the end.

 

After the experience of the unnecessary imposition of capital controls, the extension and redoubling of the austerity measures for an additional 3 years to correct the outcome of a failed negotiation - estimated by  credible sources such as Klaus Regling, Managing Director of the European Stability Mechanism, to have been in excess of 100 billion euro – many of us now know this painful reality well.   Psychologists also know that disowned helplessness is associated with a false sense of omnipotence. This helps explain how intelligent men and women may have been duped into thinking that a defunct Greece may have had leverage over its creditors at the moment of its most objectively weakened national  sovereignty, at the very moment when its financial survival fully depended on their willingness to provide a line of credit. 

 

How is it that such men and women not only underestimated the objective conditions that many an outside observer could not fail to see, but also never bothered to ask themselves what the outcome would have been if indeed they had succeed in obtaining the concessions they demanded? What would the next day have looked like for the 19-nation European monetary union if its members and institutions could be forced into concessions by a policy of brinkmanship whereby partners would be converted into enemies and where the one who could embrace more convincingly the irrational to mount a mad-man's threat against the others could achieve maximum benefit to the detriment of (former) partners? If the weakest party of this partnership, Greece, could force the 18 partners into concessions about its debt, what kind of signal would that give to the remaining nations and how could this eurozone be ever managed in the future? 

 

Arguably, the condition for the possibility of the emergence of populists in positions of power at this critical moment of our history lay in a collectively undigested anger in conjunction with a widely spread nihilism associated with a feeling of helplessness to affect meaningful change. Admittedly, there was a certain pleasure in witnessing Varoufakis and his associates flaunt every sense of protocol and etiquette in their comportment as public officials and vis a vis other leaders in Europe. In a state of humiliation and anger we took perverse pleasure in witnessing Varoufakis visit the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, at 11 Downing Street dressed with an untucked shirt, no tie, sporting a pimp leather jacket. We enjoyed seeing him ride a motorcycle, like a favorite action hero of a B-movie, into the alley of the Greek Prime Minister's Official Residence associated hitherto with every notion of respectability and decorum of an order that was now despised or sit on the floor of the parliament during an official plenary session like a happy camper; we experienced a vicarious sense of pride- as an antidote to our collective sense of unacknowledged humiliation and rage- in seeing him publicly admonish with resentment, as imbeciles and petty little men, the German foreign Minister and the president of the Eurozone, the very men at whose hands our rescue depended[2]

 

Similarly, we took pride in his boss, our own Prime Minister, who had promised to restore our national dignity by questioning the omnipotence of the markets. When at the verge of his election, Tsipras famously and triumphantly promised to force the markets into a dance to the rhythm that he would set with his politics, he was implicitly addressing our collective sense of impotence offering something we could not resist: an unconscious assurance that with him at the helm we would be henceforth invincible; we would never again be abandoned and put in harm's way like we had been abandoned by his predecessors, our political patrons hitherto. Arguably, the politics of the populist SYRIZA-ANEL relied on this collective need for invincibility demanded unconsciously by a large segment of the population feeling, quite rightfully, quite understandably - against a long history of clientelism and dependency - completely helpless and humiliated in the face of life-altering cataclysmic events for which they/we had never prepared.

 

 

Precisely because the bond between the electorate and Tsipras was neither ideological nor rational, but merely affective and unconscious, objective conditions did not matter at all. It did not matter that he had no prior work experience and/or any relevant experience in governance; it did not matter that he had no rigorous background in any subject, that he spoke no foreign languages, barely able to utter a few words of broken english inviting ridicule, or that he had no achievements to show other than organizing demonstrations, raising havoc and rising into the echelons of his fringe party. It did not matter that he had no answer to the persisting questions leading to his election as to where and how he would secure the funds to raise minimum wages to pre-crisis levels, extend pension privileges at the time when the state sponsored social security system was officially defunct, or engage in demand-led growth based on state-sponsored spending at the time when public coffers were empty and the country, as a member of a monetary union, was unable to print currency. Tsipras and his team had an-out-of-the-box answer for all of these questions: he would force the markets into submission, he would coerce  our creditors into concessions, he would single-handedly change the rules of the game and reform European politics, he would import cheap oil from Venezuela, secure big loans from China, strike big deals with Russia....The list was long; as long as the collective desire, which Tsipras so authentically expressed, to escape magically from the dismal reality confronting us.  

 

With the benefit of hindsight it now appears that his unfitness for office was turned into an advantage. Tsipras was chosen precisely because he stood apart from the despised elites, namely all those who had experience and knowledge in governance. He and his nationalist right-wing partner Panos Kamenos (last name standing eerily in Greek for the adjective “burned”) of the Independent Greeks (ANEL)- who had built a political career based on vengeful aphorisms, conspiracy theories, europhobia and chauvinistic tacky cliches - were voted not despite, but because they made little sense. They were rewarded for their audacity, their readiness, to defy common sense. When everybody in their right minds shouted fire, they were willing to challenge not only the act of running but also the very existence of a fire. Tsipras, as the next door prime minister, symbolized how each one of us, at this dismal moment of our impotence, could escape unconsciously to the phantasy of projecting our own selves into the omnipotence of a prime minister thereby remaining safe and intact in some other sphere of (infantile / mystical) existence where individual agency remains suspended, but also protected from the contaminated real world, which we as adults are otherwise forced to co-inhabit.

 

By putting him and his associates in power we were collectively opting for an unconscious strategy of defending ourselves from the daunting sense of personal responsibility that any menacing crisis demands from those it confronts when it stares them singularly in the eye. Faced with the prospect of a deadly calamity, natural or man-made, we each have to give a response: what will I do to survive? What will I do to respond to this menace? Will I stay put and watch the news on television or get up and move? Will I walk or drive? Will I jump into the sea? Will I stay with the larger group on the shore or venture out to the open sea and look for a gasp of clean air from this deadening fog that suffocates me?  Will I lend a hand in solidarity to the person next to me or will I look singularly after myself to the very end?

 

There is no better way of demonstrating invincibility than by publicly defying common sense. Varoufakis could in one breath say that leaving the Eurozone would amount to returning to the Stone Age while at the same time suggest that the only way for Greece to survive is to embrace the possibility of leaving the eurozone and to make active plans to do so – including secret and illicit plans to issue a parallel currency - after defying the terms that the country had agreed with its creditors.  As in a perfect fire storm, a confluence of factors were creating a multiplier effect with potentially detrimental effects. On the one hand, a collective sense of unconscious helplessness lying on a bed of inflammable rage. On the other hand, a set of populist politicians long prepared by training, constitution and conditioning to defy reality and tamper with the fire of populist sentiment.

 

 

A mix of superficially digested post-structuralism, with an uncritically read amalgamation of marxism, lacanism and hegelianism, whose most widely known exponent - and an early supporter of Tsipras – is the brilliant theorist Slavoj Zizek, provided opportunism and expedience with a theoretical under-bed, which indeed made the populists of SYRIZA politically invincible for their opponents and seductively luring both to the cynics who were driven by resentment and denial (self-interest not to be discounted) and the more youthful and sometimes learned romantics truly aspiring for social change. A popular wave had summoned what seemed to have been the most reactionary and conservative elements in conjunction with the most progressive ones in Greek society into the common destiny of a nihilistic collision course with reality.

 

Miss-appropriating Jacques Derrida's famous dictum, “in n'y a hors texte”, a notion suggesting that we are always embedded within discourse, and informed by theoretical postulates which have forcefully driven the point that there is no unmediated access to neither subject, nor object or meaning in a wide scope of thought ranging from Jacques Lacan to Jean Baudrillard, populists could now convincingly suggest that the so-called danger of a financial default, should Greece defy its commitments to its creditors, was a semantic matter of discourse. In fact, for some the public debt of euro 250 Billion was possibly an artifact that could be boldly questioned.  Upon coming to power, the newly appointed President of the Parliament, a member of the party of SYRIZA, Zoi Kostantopoulou would motion to constitute a Committee of Truth for the public debt with the intention to provide the legal basis for a subsequent unilateral erasure of the so-called “shameful and burdensome debt”.

 

Along this line of thought then, the fear that the media and the mainstream parties cultivated  about the prospect of a financial collapse was allegedly part of a deliberate capitalist neoliberal strategy to force the people into a permanent state of exception – a famous notion mostly associated with theorist Giorgio Agamben- whereby citizens are increasingly made subject to the power of state and non-state actors who dictate un-democratic measures to manage proliferating states of emergency, which seem to become the permanent state of affairs in a capitalist-led globalized world.  A radical politics would consist then in unveiling the expedience behind the so-called emergency. In front of the blaze of an imminent default, the responsible political stance would be to defy the fear and call the bluff. What was presented as an objective incontestable fact was – so the argument went- a political construct. The artifice of a seemingly objective reality, of an imminent financial collapse, would then be exposed and a true political struggle would follow that would restore people with the sovereign power that elites and marketeers had so shrewdly robbed them.

 

Against this background, it is not a surprise that one of the first steps that the populist government took in Greece was to reform the terms of the public discourse with regard to the management of the crisis. It would no longer call the body which represented the country's creditors, the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank, as the “Troika”. Henceforth, they would be called the “Institutions”. Similarly, the Memorandum of Understanding, the document which described the terms agreed by the country and its creditors, would now be called “The Agreement”. When this nominal politics, and the accompanying semantic tactics, which our minister of finance at the time coined as consisting in a strategy of “creative vagueness” ended in the collapse of negotiations with the country's creditors and the imposition of capital controls in order to avoid a bank run, the Prime Minister proclaimed a referendum in the summer of 2015. Within the course of a few days, Greek citizens were called to decide with a simple “yes” or a “no” whether they supported an austerity agreement they had no way of understanding in its complexity.  Tellingly, the very text which was on the table at the time of the referendum was not even valid any longer. For the electorate who voted overwhelmingly against the reforms this was a praised opportunity to express publicly a sense of dismay, to vent and seize the moment to collectively express a desire for the restoration of pride and empowerment at a time when agreements with creditors seemed to challenge national sovereignty and as individual livelihoods were violently undercut.  During the years of the crisis Greece lost as much as 25% of its GDP.

 

The subsequent experience of Brexit has taught us a lot about the perils of resorting to referenda at moments of political and societal crisis. Nuances pertaining to intergovernmental complex issues can become sidelined by party rhetoric and a democratic institution, the plebiscite, may be turned into a powerful political instrument to advance partisan agendas or, as in the case of SYRIZA and ANEL in 2015, to whitewash governmental responsibility for grave political choices, which had brought the country to the brink of the disaster.  Greece at the time, the summer of 2015,  faced no less than what its subsequently dismissed minister of Finance Varoufakis had predicted: the prospect of a return to the Stone Age.  After cheering for the triumph of democracy by the overwhelming victory of the “no” vote, Tsipras proceeded the very next day to embrace a policy of fully conceding to all the terms that Greece's creditors now demanded to keep the country within the eurozone; the triumphant “no” by the people had been turned into an expedient “yes” by their prime minister. Overnight his government was converted from an outright challenger of Euroatlantic institutions to a devout party to the reforms and the mandates of its partners. If political survival demanded a complete reversal of one's former ideas, or the political extermination of a large number of former comrades in order to affect a necessary turn to realism, Tsipras, who later admitted to having been self-deluded, would have no qualms[3].

 

 

During his inaugural speech in the Greek parliament in February of 2015 Tsipras, naming his government as one whose task was to bring “social salvation”, proclaimed memorably:

 

The [Greek] people are entitled to respect; they deserves to walk pridefully...this government can only  be the voice of its people; to the history, honor and civilization that the people carry in their baggages. This government can only be the expression of popular will and nothing more...therefore we declare emphatically that we will not negotiate our history; we will not negotiate the pride and self-respect of the people. These values are for us sacred and non-negotiable. We are flesh from the flesh of the people, we arise out of the pages of the history of the people and thereby we will serve the people till the end. We are every word of the constitution of this country.  To this constitution we have sworn and this constitution we will serve.  And we will serve it till the end vindicating the aspirations, sacrifices , the values and struggles of the Greek people [translation mine].

 

Three and a half years later these words seem to carry a sense of ominous echo. This early segment of discourse foretold a story of what would ensue. The eminent psychologist Carl Jung spoke extensively in his work about the notion of a participation mystique. The notion is borrowed from anthropology to express a state of affairs whereby a subject cannot distinguish herself clearly from a certain object thus keeping herself in a relationship of unconscious bondage and in a state of partial identity that suspends a sense of individual agency. The term provides an insight to the vision of the  social contract with the Greek people that Tsipras envisaged as he assumed power. A contract whereby, his party and the people are identified as belonging to one flesh. No space would exist between the history of the people, the statutory texts of its democracy and his political rule. He would be the authentic expression of the above subsisting in a state of undifferentiated identity. The lure of this vision of political power was twofold: to the helpless subjects at a moment of demoralization it promised an identification with the powerful holders of executive power. To the latter it signified the possibility of a type of rule, which under the trappings of parliamentary democracy – where mediation (i.e. representation) is a cornerstone principle and a pre-condition for accountability – it would also provide the jouissance (an excess pleasure beyond the prohibition of the pleasure principle in the discourse of analyst Jacques Lacan) of a revolutionary subversiveness that could not be openly admitted at this historical moment in conjunction with the added benefit of a carte blanche: a type of unaccountable governmental rule predicated on an a priori  - meta-historical- access to truth.

 

The point was clear: SYRIZA would respect the democratic constitution, but it would not do this like its predecessors who were mere mediated representatives of the people; SYRIZA would serve the people “till the end” and abide to the constitution from a position of complete identity, where the flesh of the ruled would no longer be distinguished from that of the rulers.  The term “till the end” deserves special attention in this non-coincidental selection of words as it carries a clear teleological (also read totalitarian) imaginary connotation, which the apocalyptic landscape of the recent fires in Athens only helps to bring in relief allowing a certain vision about governing rule, which can only be detrimental in its consequences, to emerge from the ashes.

 

Indeed, in the 44 years since the restoration of democracy in Greece there is no precedent for the extent of tampering with the independence of the juridical system in Greece. A regrettable fact, which the formal representative bodies of lawyers and judges have respectively denounced over the past three years[4].  We have no precedent to a government openly attacking the institution of the director of the independent Central Bank because of his unpopular evaluations of the prospects of the Greek economy. Never before in my more than 30 years of active memory as a citizen of this country do I remember such a tenor, such an attitude about an entitlement to power, predicated unapologetically on statements and beliefs about an alleged moral superiority by the holders of executive power, as the one encountered in the three years of rule by the government of Alexis Tsipras.  Surely, there have been countless low moments in the public sphere in Greece during the past rule of New Democracy and Pasok, both of whom are liable for many of the traits, which still plague our political life: clientelism, corruption, arrogance and an entitlement to power characterizing many politicians in Greece for much too long.  But, never has there been in my memory such a complete want of voices of learned moderation and prudence, within the governing party, to offset such proclivities as in the days of Alexis Tsipras. Never, has there been such a deliberate intent to rule by inciting division - between a benevolent “us” and a malign “them”- and class hatred as in the days of the present government: “either we will terminate them or they will”, Tsipras infamously declared at a rally on September 20th, 2015 to galvanize party voters[5].  Never has the spinning of truth been used as the main instrument to conduct politics as in the present moment in my country, so unabashedly, so remorselessly, as far as I can remember.

 

In a certain way, the very notion of a “reasonable truth” has been challenged to its limits by a government which could on the one hand promulgate reforms to meet conditions set by creditors and on the other hand supposedly support those who rally against these same reforms claiming audaciously the right to be both government and opposition, for and against privatizations, for and against the separation of church and state, for and against the resolution of a long standing issue about the name of the Former Republic of Macedonia.  As in a kind of poor hegelianism where opposites are turned into an identity, but without any accompanying commitment to spirit, knowledge, self-hood or freedom, the government of Tsipras – committed to the exigencies of power- has excelled in the politics of paradox-ology whereby one can say one thing and also its complete opposite without having to ever reckon with the consequences.  This kind of splitting when encountered in human behavior is a serious matter of concern for psychoanalysts as it points to some unintegrated aspect of one's personality remaining unconscious and as such outside of one's ability to exercise reason or control.  When split, individuals can perpetrate  actions with no sense of responsibility or remorse. Unrelated to self and other, the split personality continues to pursue ends with no proper sense of moral agency or empathy for the hurt caused to self and others.

 

This might help to explain how without any scruples the very same people who accused their predecessors for having betrayed their country by submitting to the mandates of creditors and signing up to reforms, the very same people who rallied Greeks to vote against a negotiated agreement with the Troika in 2015 dividing Greeks along lines, which seemed to redraw a schism reminiscent of the civil war in the 1940s, would subsequently flip their position post the 2015 referendum, fully submitting to the letter of the reforms. Freud called a neurotic symptom a compromise formation between two unconscious conflicting wishes. As such, the compromise formation brings a kind of balance in the personality which is unsustainable as evidenced by psychic suffering and disfunction in the neurotic's life.  Split between the desire to stay in power and an diss-avowed disdain for liberal democracy and open market economy that these reforms were aimed to serve in the first place, the coalition government led by SYRIZA opted for the unsustainable compromise of being both the agent of the letter of reform and the agent of subverting the spirit of such reforms. 

 

 

Without a proper ownership of reforms, in the absence of a congruent vision of governance, the result is a deplorable state of affairs whereby private initiative is stalled and sanctioned as the public sector is regressing into an entrenchment into a culture of political patronage and clientelism many hoped was finally over in this country.  Moreover, fiscally the government pursued the exact reverse course from what its members (unrealistically) advocated some years ago.  In lieu of a demand-led growth what has been applied is an unprecedented taxation drying the economy entirely out and enabling the government to build a massive surplus in its current accounts, which oddly surpasses the austerity demands of the country's creditors.  One wonders if indeed the goal is the proletarization of the entire Greek population and the complete eradication of the middle class, which has been so often cast as the enemy by the government of Alexis Tsipras.

 

This seeming turn to realism by the government was hailed as a positive development by many people in Europe. In the sobered-up version of Tsipras some Europeans saw arguably a template, an example of what could be followed in Spain or in Italy (no one dares think of France) if the populists and eurosceptics were to come to power.  But, for so many of us in Greece this was another moment to come to terms with cynicism. Was all the vitriolic language which Tsipras, Kammenos and their cohort had poured into the public sphere and which had divided us so bitterly to be forgotten out of the expediency of the moment? Were we supposed to simply swallow the mind-boggling fact that the same person who accused Greece's partners and creditors as having inflicted a humanitarian catastrophe in Greece was now portraying himself as the champion of the people after having imposed an even harsher regiment of austerity, much of it the consequence of a reckless handing of negotiations during the first six months of government rule[6]

 

On May 16th 2014 in an open later hosted by the Greek magazine, Επίκαιρα, Tsipras castigated the coalition government of A. Samaras and E. Venizelos (New Democracy and PASOK, respectively) for their disingenuous celebration of a supposed “success story” in the wake of the reforms that they had promulgated and which, according to Tsipras, amounted to no less than a “financial genocide [for the Greek people]”[7].

 

Some four years later, Tsipras, as the Prime Minister this time, would be preparing for a big fiesta to celebrate, on August 21st 2018, triumphantly the successful conclusion of the latest financial reform program dictated by Greece's creditors.  This was supposed, according to the narrative of the government, to mark the end of 8 years of austerity and foreign custodianship and the ushering to a new era where national sovereignty would be finally restored.  After eight long years, Greece will ostensibly be “free” to seek funding in the open markets after a “clean” exit from the program.  The communication efforts of the government machinery were mobilized to counter-act those who argued that this exit, which SYRIZA had done much to delay by its reckless policies in the past, came at a very high cost and that it did not look either as an exit nor as a clean one despite government fanfare.  Critics underlined that Greece is poised, as one would expect, to remain under close supervision by its creditors for many years to come. Furthermore, the country will also have to sustain very high surpluses in its current accounts, in excess of 3%, until 2060. Moreover, the cost of borrowing from the open markets, in the face of having applied token reforms without a real commitment to restoring foreign investor trust and without rehabilitating domestic private initiative- will be a very high one indeed rendering the country vulnerable to more financial misadventures in the near future.

 

Arguably, it was this party upon which SYRIZA and ANEL had invested a lot of political capital that the fury of the fires at the outskirts of Athens on the 23rd of July burned to ashes.  During that night,  and while people were already burned or swimming unaided for hours in the darkness of the open sea, where they had plunged to take flight from the fires, Tsipras flew back from Bosnia where he had been invited to receive a prize. The prime minister appeared in the operations' chambers with the key officials managing the crisis. Never before had such an event been televised. In retrospect, as the horrific number of casualties and as the extent of the disaster would begin to dawn the next morning, the whole operation would be decried by the opposition as a ploy,  a macabre photo-op devised to portray that the state machinery and its chief had done their very best despite the outcome; this was damage control for Tsipras and his government, critics would claim. 

 

Admittedly, Tsipras seemed disoriented and ill-prepared to pose any meaningful questions to the officers from the fire and police services who were directly responsible to manage the fire extinguishing operation: to think of it it was not clear at all what a confounded Prime Minister was doing there from an operational point of view. The Prime Minister  would be asking about the time the planes would lift at day-break when in fact the disaster had already occurred.  People, we would soon find out, had already been burned or drowned, more than 1000 homes in the close periphery of the capital city of a European capital city, burned to ashes.  No word was spared during that odd meeting to address the search and rescue operation to recover bodies and corpses. Relatives would in some cases have to wait a week to recover the identified corpses for burial.

 

My beloved mother, Aimi Androulidaki, had the misfortune of living ever so forgetfully, as so many of our compatriots, with the mistaken belief that Greece is still a normal European country. Aimi was very much aware of how broken and dysfunctional state bureaucracy is; she knew very well the ailments of our political system, but she had also developed strategies to cope and deal over the course of her eventful life. By force of habit she, as arguably the majority of the citizens of our country, grew accustomed to this dysfunction assuming that this is the familiar status quo, this is part of a perennial Greek reality. Embedded in this belief she probably could not imagine that it would ever be possible when blazes approached deadly close, that no one, no state official, no fire fighter, no policeman, no high rank officer, elected or not, would miss the imperative to notify people to run for their lives.

 

 

Still, Aimi knew well how to take command when the crisis finally looked at her and addressed her directly in the eye. At 73, after four cancer-related surgeries the past year, a long stretch of chemotherapy and a most recent two-week-old hip replacement surgery, she got up with her crutches and let her three guests into the car. A car which she chose to drive that day. Aimi made it as far as the beach, a mere 250 meters from her house as the roads were blogged by unregulated traffic of fleeing men, women and children.  Many of the people in these cars never made it to the beach, but burned alive because they did not know their way. Aimi made it to the beach where more than 700 people had taken flight believing perhaps that they had made it to safety. As the flames approached, the fumes of burning trees, homes and cars created an unlivable situation of hell, which forced these people deeper into the sea. Aimi swam bravely and quietly, to conserve energy, for close to two hours before conceding her last breath and departing from this world in the darkness of the night under heartbreaking conditions. She was by constitution a fighter and a survivor. I know that she gave it all before sending her goodbyes to us, which we, her two sons and her beloved nine year old grandson, did receive by word of mouth of the people who swam next to her and who made it back to safety more than 3 hours later when they were finally rescued by a fishing boat. 

 

Despite political affiliations or desensitization by force of habit stories as the above, which have began to emerge in the wake of the tragedy deliver a powerful shock to the population across Greece. In the images and the stories of the victims many imagine themselves, their properties as well as the tender lives of their most beloved: their spouses, siblings, children and grand children.  It remains to be seen if the deadly violence of this calamity will be sufficient to deliver a blow to a symbolic order of power predicated on sloppy and expedient notions, resting on an implicit bond of unconscious affect. One wishes that this may be a turning point into a new state of affairs whereby a national public debt or a fire might be finally recognized in their objective truth and menacing existence requiring full and timely attention.  So, that such calamities may no longer be taken as mere discursive constructs that can be done away with with wishful or spiteful words and charlatan witticisms. So that we finally may chose, as governors of our undefended city sober people trained and able to identify and deal with objective facts and threats, instead of those  who excel in the business of capitalizing on our helplessness, anger and misery to handle our real lives as if they were shadowy images of a televised simulacrum, a world without objective consistency, which they are so good at endlessly spinning.  Men and women willing to take the full responsibility of their office, refusing out of self-respect and a genuine sense of empathy, for those they have sworn to serve, to hide their privileged skin behind the flesh of those who elect them and who get burned and drowned so easily in this god-forsaken country where life is so appallingly cheap.

 

 

The nakedness of state power is all the more evident now as rulers, who proclaimed an allegiance of flesh with the ruled, are running to save their skin, offering half apologies going so far as blaming the burned and the drowned for having allegedly built homes without proper licenses, when they too issued licenses, as political favors, and they too collected taxes for such very homes. This seems to be the official pitiful line of defense of the government: this calamity was unavoidable because of climate change, the disaster had structural causes, which go many years back to the former governments of New Democracy and PASOK who had authorized the unregulated construction of homes in forest areas.  The death of 97 is thus ascribed onto some no-man's land existing between the wrath of nature and the depravity of past governments. One wonders what room is left in this odd calculus of accountability for the assumption of any responsibility for those presently holding the reigns of power and upon whom our lives now depend. 

 

The soon-to-be dismissed minister of the Agency for Civic Protection, Toskas, gave a self-congratulatory press conference directly after the fires had extinguished their deadly course proclaiming to a dazzled televised audience country-wide that he could not find operational mistakes in the way the fire had been dealt despite the fact that so many people had perished and more than a thousand properties had been burned. In fact, he suggested, if he could go back he would have done it exactly the same way.

 

In the face of mounting public outcry, Tsipras belatedly gave a press conference to assume the political responsibility for what had happened making sure to subsequently suggest that he had assumed more responsibility than he actually owed: once again a token of the moral superiority of the party of SYRIZA and its leader cut out of our own flesh[8].  Woe to us, who should now be probably thankful and find some consolation in our grief in the small change of this belated miss-measured sign of stately magnanimity. Woe to the citizens of any city, in Greece or abroad, who have bestowed the serious duty of looking after tender lives to   reckless guardians who, unprepared, are willing to turn a fire of emotion into an opportunity for self-promotion.

 

 

Evangelos Tsempelis is a psychoanalist based in Athens.

 

 

 

 




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