“A real Greek spring would have to be both European and homegrown: an international movement to take democracy back from the banks, working hand in hand with a local one for transparency and fairness…..”
“…That’s a lot to ask of one desperate old man. If anything good comes of Christoulas’s awful death, it will be something quieter that takes place in hearts and minds, not on the streets of Athens: a recognition of the real, human cost of austerity, an absolute determination not to let this happen again.”
“Apparently the suicide rates in those countries experiencing the worst of the recent austerity measures has rocketed. There has been, for instance, a 40% increase in the suicide rate in Ireland. I would like to know what is happening to the suicide rates in the UK since the coalition grabbed power and imposed austerity on the poor saying, apparently, the UK as the fifth richest country in the world cannot afford a welfare state….. I am a pensioner, I worked all my life and paid tax and NI, I am currently living in such poverty I don’t know which way to turn.“
Yes, an absolute determination to stop these entirely preventable tragedies from ever happening again is just what Dimitris’s legacy should be. Welcome to the Resistance….
Early in February I tried to take the Athens metro and found it closed because of a suicide on the line. The cabbie who picked me up thought the deceased was an idiot: “What was the point of killing himself like that? He should have blown himself up in parliament and taken four or five of those crooks down with him.”
The 77-year-old retired pharmacist who shot himself in Athens on Wednesday didn’t do it in parliament but in Syntagma Square; still, his death has sparked a small political explosion. He’s neither the first nor (almost certainly) the last in Greece to take his life because the crisis has destroyed his livelihood and his dignity. Greece used to have the lowest suicide rate in Europe; the official number has doubled since the crisis began. This death, though, was public: it has made headlines, called protesters out on to the streets and forced politicians to shame themselves by saying something in response.
Dimitris Christoulas has already vanished under a swarm of platitudes and slogans, another martyr in a country that already has too many. But he must have intended that. The suicide note reportedly found on him ends with a call to arms. It refers to the government as “the occupation government of Tsolakoglou” (Georgios Tsolakoglou was the Quisling prime minister under the axis in 1941) and predicts that the futureless young will one day hang the traitors upside down in Syntagma, as the Italians hanged the dictator Mussolini. Suicides are always violent, it’s difficult to imagine an angrier one than this. It’s left an unanswerable accusation in the air, taking away any possibility of redress. Whatever happens next, Christoulas will still be dead, a symbol of all those who have lost their lives to the crisis.
The politicians, eyes on forthcoming elections, have struggled to find usable capital in the moment. Those in power have tried to drain it of political meaning, mumbling about solidarity in these difficult times, criticising the bad taste of those who would exploit a tragic death. Those seeking power have, of course, tried to exploit it while affecting not to. George Karatzaferis of the far-right Laos party (in the coalition government until its popularity plummeted) said that the bullet in Syntagma should strike the conscience of the whole political class. The Communist party blamed the capitalist system and its lackeys. The parties of the non-communist left, whose stars have risen as the crisis deepens, spoke of the misery to which the Greeks have been reduced by the politics of austerity. Christoulas will be, above all, their martyr, and the martyr of all those opposed to the savage cuts that have fallen on the most vulnerable.
But martyrs are a mixed blessing at best. They block conversation rather than opening it – because of that, they can end up being used against those who embrace them. Will this be the start of a bigger uprising, the “Greek spring” some observers have been waiting for? Some are saying Europe now has its Mohammed Bouazizi, the man whose suicide sparked the uprising in Tunisia. The hashtag #DimitrisChristoulas is trending on Twitter in Spain. Meanwhile, in Syntagma, the usual depressing scenes are unfolding as I write: a peaceful demonstration disrupted by battles between stone-throwing youths and helmeted police; industrial quantities of teargas. A woman journalist appears to be savagely beaten by riot police.
Only fools make predictions, but I don’t see a new movement emerging out of this. The Greek government has made it clear that large-scale protests won’t be tolerated (one Greek tweet on Wednesday read: “Don’t kill yourself in Syntagma. You’ll scare away the tourists.”). Many Athenians were chilled by the violence of 12 February, when the centre went up in flames. The enthusiasm of the summer of 2011, when Syntagma Square looked like the centre of a direct democracy movement, fragmented long ago.
And there’s a deeper problem: a lack of political vision and political agency. Though Greeks almost unanimously hate the situation they’re in, there’s sharp disagreement about what has brought them to it. Some people criticise domestic corruption and stalled reform while minimising the part played by the international crisis; others blame the foreigners while playing down Greece’s own role. Like the optical illusion of the Rubin vase and faces, it’s very difficult to see the whole picture at once. Meanwhile, Greek sovereignty has been dramatically curtailed by successive loan agreements with the EU and International Monetary Fund. A real Greek spring would have to be both European and homegrown: an international movement to take democracy back from the banks, working hand in hand with a local one for transparency and fairness.
That’s a lot to ask of one desperate old man. If anything good comes of Christoulas’s awful death, it will be something quieter that takes place in hearts and minds, not on the streets of Athens: a recognition of the real, human cost of austerity, an absolute determination not to let this happen again.
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