A man walks into the bar and asks, “Am I an asshole?”
“No,” the bartender replies, seeming a bit confused by the question.
“Good,” says the first man, “keep on saying NO!”
They laugh. Stelios laughs as do the other patrons who speak Greek. Once it’s been explained to us, Nathan and I laugh too. We’re in good spirits.
We had been hanging out all afternoon with Stelios, a member of Internationalist Worker’s Left (DEA), a small but serious socialist group which operates inside a much larger political organization, Syriza, which leads the current government. He introduced us to several other members of the group. They’re all young, daring, and full of a sense purpose. They fully understand the situation their country is in and they know what their actions will mean, not just at home but across the whole continent.
They’re fairly certain that their side will win the referendum but much less certain what will be done immediately afterward.
Greece, like all of Southern Europe, has experienced a profound economic crisis. The human toll of the crisis has been devastating in a way that figures like “25% unemployment” just can’t full describe. With their economy in shambles, the previous Greek governments accepted bailout packages and loans which, unlike those offered the failed banks which made the whole mess, they have been required to pay back with major interest…like US student loan style interest. They have also been required to make deep cuts in what some call “entitlements” and others call “pensions” and “the ability to buy things.”
We spent the last evening riding around on scooters, pasting OXI posters on walls around the neighborhood. It’s now been quite a while since I’ve engaged in any activity of this sort. It felt good. It felt great. Now, as I sit in the grass in Syntagma square awaiting the results of the referendum, I again feel this infectious energy. The mixture of drums, vuvuzelas and chants of “OXI” (NO) — along with something difficult to translate but which relates to hanging fascists, and other slogans that are equally defiant, if less brutal, gives the whole event a potent mixture of celebration and protest.
We were sitting in this same spot a few hours ago, when the sun was still up and Greeks were still at the polls. Most of the city streets were empty, save for roving gangs of tourists. We did a bit of wandering around ourselves as we waited for nightfall. We snapped some photos of ancient structures and took a nap in the park to get away from the sun. How odd that for some visitors, despite all that is happening here, this is all there is to Greece. Just check out the #greece hashtag on Instagram on any given day…
Now, with the sun setting and the polls closed, Syntagma is completely overrun with people waving Greek flags, red flags, and placards with “OXI” emblazoned across the front. How many people where there? 20 thousand? 25 maybe? It’s hard to tell because you couldn’t see all the way to the end from any one spot. This energy built steadily throughout the evening so that what had originally felt like a 4th of July barbecue had turned into something like the mass celebration of a major sports victory.
There’s a particular feeling to political events of this nature. Without a stage and a speaker’s list, every grouping of people tend to do their own thing. Some wave flags, dance, and eat various meats on sticks. Others, like the contingent from the anticapitalist coalition, ANTARSYA — who campaigned for OXI but don’t support the Syriza government — are marching, pumping their fists, and chanting. Others are singing familiar anthems like the Italian “Bandiera Rossa” and countless songs from the Greek labor and radical movements that I’ve never heard.
There’s a tone of unity but very little is done in unison. In fact, some of the groups are outright competing with each other. There are many perspectives about what OXI means and where to go from here. Still, in this cacophonous, chaotic gathering of all manner of Greeks, there is something to share.
“Struggle, resistance, history is written with disobedience!” goes one chant. As soon as it begins to fade, another from the group next to us immediately picks up and overtakes the first. We’ve moved up near the steps of the parliament building by this point and the sea of people and flags can be almost dizzying to survey.
People are happy. With most of the ballots counted, it’s looking like NO has won by 61%. I foresee mountains of empty beer cans on the streets tomorrow.
The Greeks have been faithfully attempting to pay off loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) secured by the previous government; the terms of which the IMF admits are impossible to meet. They still want their money though. So do the German banks, to whom Greece owes the most, and their representatives haven’t relented. They say that the Greeks must “do more” and “get serious” and essentially wipe out every last vestige of social protections, regulations, or dignity that they’ve got. They want to make sure that the people in the rest of southern Europe don’t get any ideas.
Reflecting on everything we’ve seen from Porto to Livorno to Istanbul and our conversations with people — activists and otherwise — from Seville to Barcelona to Berlin, I certainly understand what they’re afraid of. People are finding it harder and harder to live and easier to accept the notion that anything would better than the status quo. If a “radical left” party can win power, riding a tide of social mobilization, and can wield the power of government to oppose the will of banks and the more powerful nations of the world, what’s the stop every debt-stricken, suffering country from doing so?
“Syriza, Podemos – Venceremos!” goes the chant. If Greece can do it, so can Spain. Since candidates backed by Podemos just took the key offices in both Madrid and Barcelona, it’s actually looking quite possible that “contagion” is both a political and an economic term.
The heads of the center-left and center-right parties, along with the whole of the news media had all warned that if the Greeks voted NO to the terms offered to their young government, they would face misery of epic proportions. They would have to abandon the common currency, their money would disappear, the shelves would be empty, and that the last 5 years of unbelievable hardship would look like a picnic compared to life without access to their benevolent lines of credit with countless webs of strings attached.
And yet the NO vote is 61%. It’s official now. The electoral map is a solid red as not a single department in the country had a majority YES vote. They shocked the wealthy and powerful around the world, probably even as much as they did in January when they elected Syriza, a party which sees bankers, financiers, and corporations as opponents of democracy.
What’s more, the mood in the streets of Athens is exuberant. Theirs isn’t a grim defiance, resigned to any particular fate but rather a proud and uplifting assertion that tomorrow could be brighter if the fight is carried forward. It could be darker too but with the overwhelming OXI vote, clearly this is a risk the Greek people are willing to take. I can’t help but completely share their enthusiasm. I left my own country with all of my political motivation completely sapped. Traveling through Europe has done a lot to help me regain it but nothing has been quite as refreshing as this.
“They say YES for fear, we say NO for hope,” they declare.
So, now what? The government wants to go back to the negotiating table and use their strengthened mandate to try to wrangle a better deal. The far-left inside and outside of Syriza want a complete break with the monetary union, a debt write-down, the nationalization of the banks, and the imposition of radical measures to ensure that Greek citizens and migrants alike, are given back what they’ve paid and more. The very fact that the government hasn’t completely buckled has upset financial markets in a way that illustrates very clearly the real relationship between money and politics.
When I ask how they feel about the vote and the demonstration, most everyone responds, “I’m excited about today and nervous about tomorrow.”
So am I.
In the coming days, I intend to meet up with Lefteris from the Socialist Worker’s Party (SEK) — whom Nathan and I met in Barcelona — to talk about the positions of the ANTARSYA coalition, regarding Syriza, the Eurozone, and the way forward for Greece. There are tons of things to learn from across the Greek left and it would be a mistake to think only of Syriza, despite their hegemony.
I can understand why so many do it though.
Yesterday I spoke with a member of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) about their voting against both the “NO” and “YES” sides by using their own ballots…which are invalid. I asked why do such a thing and he said, “It will show our strength!”
I think it ended up being about 4%.