Varoufakis, a dead Greek cosmopolitanism, and a Greece that now has nothing else

8 Feb

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From Al Jazeera by Iason Athanasiadis: The Greek Varometer: The irreverent, shaven-headed, motorbike-riding academic’s arrival is viewed in messianic terms.

I’m posting this for completely tangential reasons.  Because as I’ve said before, I’m not in the least capable of any political economic analyses, and, though I’m instinctively and emotionally happy about SYRIZA‘s victory, I really can’t tell how things are going to turn out.

(This Guardian article paints things as pretty dire, though of course that might just be more bullying and threat masked as “inevitability”: Tsipras favours Greek jobless over creditors in defiant policy speech:

The British chancellor, George Osborne, admitted the UK had already embarked on contingency plans in preparation for a Greek exit from the single currency. “This standoff between Greece and the eurozone is increasing the risks every day,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday, adding that Athens’ departure from the bloc would not only send European financial markets into a tailspin, but cause “real ructions” in the UK.

Earlier, Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve, said it was only a matter of time before the country left the eurozone. He said it was difficult to see why anyone would be willing to lend Greece more money and that without additional loans, the country would be forced to default and leave the euro.

“It’s just a matter of time before everyone recognises that parting is the best strategy,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. “It is not a decision where they are going to come to an agreement. All the cards are being held by the members of the eurozone.”

Greenspan also conceded that a Greek exit might trigger a meltdown in global financial markets: “I don’t think we have a choice.”)

But that’s not what was most interesting to me in Athansiadis’ article.  What was most interesting — and most gratifying, though it confirms a sad truth about the Greek statelet — is that Athansiadis chooses to portray Varoufakis as a product of a giant Greek Diaspora that the twentieth century, and twentieth-century nationalism, destroyed:

“He [Varoufakis] is also a kind of Greek largely eclipsed from the international stage since the 1960s; polyglot, adventurous, and hailing from a lively and vibrant Greek diaspora before it solidified into small-minded communities nurturing a parochial definition of Hellenism fossilised sometime circa 1950. Varoufakis’ father was born and grew up in Cairo’s fabled Greek community, directs a major Greek metallurgical interest, and maintains an interest in Hellenistic civilisation on the Mediterranean seaboard.”

and

“Varoufakis seems to hail from another Hellenism, the one defeated at the end of the 19th century when politics and circumstance conspired to ensure that the Hellas that entered the 20th century was narrowly defined by national borders, rather than the spread-out Greek-speaking cosmopolitanisms of North Africa, the Levant and Anatolia.

“Always a protectorate of the West, modern Greece was trapped by small-minded nationalisms (including its vendetta with post-Ottoman Turkey), resulting in the homogeneous and small-minded parochialisms from which the Golden Dawn impulse springs today.”

[my bold emphases in all of above]

Yes, thanks, Iasona…  For stating so clearly what the essential thesis of this blog is: that Hellenism was, and is, doomed in many ways since it contracted into an EBSN (ethnicity-based nation-state).  The sad truth is that the economic and cultural loci of the Greek world were always outside the Helladic peninsula (see my: Upon escaping from Greece… from this past September and myriad other posts) from early Classical times until the 1960s.  The modern Greek kingdom/state was always an economic basket-case from its beginnings and dependent on the Greek diaspora for its economic existence and, in fact, its cultural wealth and vibrancy as well.  There has rarely been a time that modern Greece was not teetering on the brink of insolvency or bankruptcy and the credit-backed 80s and 90s were simply smoke-and-mirrors that obscured that reality.

The reality is that Greece itself has nothing.  And never did.  “Φτώχεια, καλή καρδιά”…and mostly γκρίνια…*(1)  Its dying agriculture doesn’t and never did produce anything that its Mediterranean or even Balkan neighbors don’t produce in greater quantity and often better quality.  (Even my mother used to buy Bulgarian feta when I was a kid.**[2])  Its industry was always rudimentary and not particularly competitive — certainly not for export — and has practically disappeared.  If Greece ever had the potential of becoming a regionally important service center economy, like Singapore or Hong Kong or, closer to home, Lebanon before its civil war, that potential has never been realized — except in Cyprus to a certain degree — for a whole panoply of reasons that I think I’m not qualified to get into.  And whereas the great Greek financial magnates and industrialists and merchants of Alexandria and Odessa and Constantinople and Smyrna and Bucharest and Constanța and Iași in the nineteenth century liberally poured their wealth into building the institutions of the new state,***(3) the Greek families that today control our one potentially and traditionally great economic resource, commercial shipping, largely choose to keep their wealth off-shore.

I’m sorry to say that I can’t see what could possibly change this picture.  More tourism?  Neither reforms of the the Troika or the SYRIZA type will change fundamental material realities.  I’m afraid that Hellenism only flourishes when it’s part of a larger regional political economic network and I’m not sure that Europe is that network.  But then who?  A Turkey we always choose to respond to with hostility****(4) — to which it obligingly reciprocates?  Or the Balkans, which we denigrate, while Turkey is busy building commercial and economic and cultural ties with Balkan Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo?*****(5)  Or the total basket-case countries of the Arab world?  Or Russia in its current pariah-state condition?

And yet those were the parts of the world where the most dynamic communities of Greeks always existed.  Modern nationalism destroyed them.  And not just Greek nationalism, of course.  But Turkish and Egyptian nationalism and that of everyone else in the region.  Every one in their own box.

I’m just afraid that that contraction cost us more than it did anyone else. 

And I don’t see how it can be reversed.

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*(1) The lyrics from a famous Xarkakos song: “Poverty, a good heart, and lots of kvetching…”  Here’s the great Bithikotses’ recording of it.

**(2) And being from a village and region with a largely pastoral economy, she knew her feta; but the Bulgarian product tasted more like the hard, fattier, well-brined cheese she was used to, as compared to the cream-cheese mush Greece used to export in those days.  Granted, the quality has improved greatly since then.  As has that of Greek wines.  Especially the whites.  Build an economy on that.

At some point in the late nineteenth century, the economy of the Greek kingdom was deeply dependent on one thing: black (often called “Zante”) currants.  Forget Cuba and sugar or the Gulf states and oil.  This was a mono-crop dependency that rested wholly on prayers that Brits would continue to use copious amounts of these currants in their plum puddings at Christmas and not find another source for them.  When they did, or when demand for them stopped for whatever reason, the Greek economy collapsed.

***(3) One of the most obnoxious traits of the Neo-Greek middle-class is their denigrating, mocking, condescending attitude toward what constitutes the Diaspora of today, mainly Greek-Americans and Greek-Australians.  The dynamics of cultural assimilation in both countries and in the modern world generally will assure that New York or Melbourne will never become a Greek Constantinople or Alexandria, of course.  But that Neo-Greeks choose to look at their compatriots that left the country in the twentieth century, not as tragic victims of the country’s material limitations and war-time chaos, nor as an incredibly dynamic and enterprising group of Greeks who left for foreign shores and “spun gold out of thin air” there, in Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s famous words, but as rubes and hicks to be made fun of, while they sat home on their asses waiting for a growing welfare state to feed them, is just one of the most infuriating manifestations of Neo-Greeks’ blinkered worldview.  Snobs in a way that only the truly provincial can be — which I always say.  Much more to say about that.

****(4) Of course, there is the phenomenon of the so-called “Neo-Polites,” the considerable number of young Greeks who, for economic, or intellectual, or historic, or cultural, or sentimental reasons, have recently started to migrate “back” to İstanbul — though the extent to which we can call this a reconstituting of Constantinopolitan Greek life is pretty questionable.  It’s much more likely that a Roman life of sorts in İstanbul will ultimately be given a new lease by the Syrian Christians who have moved to the City in large numbers in the past decades.  Also much more to say about all that.

*****(5) Now, many Greeks in Albania, who are strikingly uninterested in Greece, have started to extend commercial and manufacturing networks into the rest of the country from the small pocket of territory they inhabit in the south; I have close relatives who, out of nothing, have built a phyllo/yufka manufacturing company, based in my father’s village of Derviçani, that sells throughout Albania and is looking how to expand into neighboring countries as well.  How far that will go is also to be seen.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

 

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