Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Robin Lane Fox: Why Pericles Matters

Thanks to the reader who pointed me in the direction of Robin Lane Fox’s lecture Why Pericles Matters, which was recently given at Royal Holloway College, here in London. (You can see the lecture here if your computer is up to it but, if like mine, it’s not, I did manage to extract the audio and you can listen to it above).

In his lecture, Lane Fox tells us why the life, deeds and ideas of Pericles, the great Athenian statesman – or ‘the Zeus of the human pantheon of Athens’, according to Hegel – continue to matter to modern societies. Naturally, Lane Fox pays closest attention to Pericles’ funeral oration, as recalled by Thucydides, in which Pericles, on the occasion of the internment of those Athenian soldiers who fell in the early skirmishes of the war against Sparta, presents his idealised view of Athens and its citizens. It’s an oration that, for Cornelius Castoriadis is ‘the most important political monument of political thought I have ever read’, though for its detractors is an odious expression of collectivism, nationalism, militarism and totalitarianism. And, indeed, it is to these critics that Lane Fox addresses his defence of Pericles.

Lane Fox starts by telling us that Pericles’ funeral oration matters because Pericles attaches no religious meaning or connotations to the Athenian war dead being commemorated. There is no mention of gods, martyrdom or paradise. These battlefield deaths are afforded no sacred significance and there is no religious comfort – of an afterlife, for example – that Pericles can offer to the grieving relatives.

Pericles and his funeral oration also matter, Lane Fox says, because of the radical democratic ethos represented. When Pericles speaks to the gathered citizenry, he speaks not as a monarch or president might, not as the leader of an elite or vanguard, not as a general or commander-in-chief, not even as a representative, but as one citizen to another, as an equal. Indeed, Athens is its citizens; and its citizens are Athens. The relationship is symbiotic. One does not dominate or exist separately from the other.

For Athenians to be so enamoured and engaged with their city – and for Athenians to make the best decisions on issues that ranged from the mundane to the momentous – required an unceasing dedication to education and culture – to paideia; and in his funeral oration, Pericles indicates that, in Athens, paideia is intended to prepare its citizens for civic life and public duty by inculcating in them a love of beauty – without this implying ostentation; and a love of wisdom – without this implying softness, or neglect of martial skills.

As such, for Pericles, according to Lane Fox, Athens and the Athenian way of life promoted arts, festivals and athletic games; championed thought and debate, enquiry and innovation; expected versatility not uniformity from its citizens; and, though adorned with resplendent civic buildings, recommended modesty at home and in the display of private wealth. In short, Lane Fox says, Periclean Athens matters because it promotes individual freedom but, at the same time, is vigourously communitarian. The individual who wanted to live outside the community, or disparaged civic life, was not the epitome of freedom, as he is in some modern ideologies, but an idiot (ἰδιώτης), a useless and inept character, with nothing worthwhile to offer or say.

For further discussion on Why Pericles Matters, go here and here.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

On translating and listening to Homer

Edward Luttwak has a good essay in the London Review of Books on the Iliad. Ostensibly, it’s a review of Stephen Mitchell’s recent translation of Homer’s tale of the Greek siege of Troy; but before Luttwak gets there he takes us on an interesting excursion – by way of why the Iliad outsells the Odyssey; the Iliad’s enduring popularity – apparently – with American soldiers about to leave for combat; and the appeal of the epic in China and Japan.

Regarding Mitchell’s translation, Luttwak is scathing, partly because of its use of American slang and colloquialisms but, more significantly, because of the New York poet’s ‘excisions’ and ‘mutilations’ of Homer.

In particular, Luttwak is appalled by Mitchell’s ditching of the recurring Homeric epithets and stock phrases and outraged by the translator’s complete omission of Book 10 – in which Odysseus and Diomedes, on reconnaissance, capture, interrogate and kill the callow Dolon – a scene Mitchell has described as ‘baroque and nasty’ and of dubious authenticity.

Another American translator of Homer who goes for slang and colloquialisms is Stanley Lombardo, whose version of the Iliad I’m currently listening to as an audiobook.

Lombardo’s resort to American slang is occasionally jarring, and his Achilles can come across as shrill at times; but, generally, his translation is exciting and shocking and his performance excellent, proving why Homer is better heard than read. I listened to Lombardo’s version of the Odyssey first, which was also very good; having dumped Ian McKellen’s reading of Robert Fagles’ translation, because I found McKellen’s hamminess intolerable. (See what I mean here).

Finally, if you haven’t touched Homer ever or, like me, for a while, I want to say this: Homer is the ultimate expression of human culture, imagination and experience and you’d be well advised to acquaint, reacquaint or keep acquainting yourself with his unsurpassed, incomparable masterpieces.

*See interview with Stephen Mitchell on his translation of the Iliad here. The video above is Stanley Lombardo reading from Book II of the Iliad, the scene in which the Greek rank and file are ready to rebel against Agamemnon and go home, with Thersites leading the insubordination and insults, only for Odysseus to turn on the guttersnipe and give him a beating. You can compare Lombardo’s demotic style with Robert Fagles’ translation from the same scene below. Download audiobooks here.

So Thersites taunted the famous field marshal.
But Odysseus stepped in quickly, faced him down
with a dark glance and threats to break his nerve:
‘What a flood of abuse, Thersites! Even for you,
fluent and flowing as you are. Keep quiet.
Who are you to wrangle with kings, you alone?
No one, I say – no one alive is less soldierly than you,
none in the ranks that came to Troy with Agamemnon.
So stop your babbling, mouthing the names of kings,
flinging indecencies in their teeth, your eyes
peeled for a chance to cut and run for home.
We can have no idea, no clear idea at all
how the long campaign will end…
whether Achaea’s sons will make it home unharmed
or slink back in disgrace.
But there you sit,
hurling abuse at the son of Atreus, Agamemnon,
marshal of armies, simply because our fighters
give Atrides the lion’s share of all our plunder.
You and your ranting slander – you’re the outrage.
I tell you this, so help me it’s the truth:
if I catch you again, blithering in this way,
let Odysseus’s head be wrenched off his shoulders,
never again call me the father of Telemachus
if I don’t grab you, strip the clothing off you,
cloak, tunic and rags that wrap your private parts,
and whip you howling naked back to the fast ships,
out of the armies’ muster – whip you like a cur.’

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Philip Sherrard: on the grizzly fate of Byzantine emperors

Philip Sherrard is known for his seminal translations into English of all the main twentieth century Greek poets – Seferis, Ritsos, Eltytis, Sikelianos, Cavafy, etc – and for his numerous books on Christianity and Greek Orthodoxy, particularly his four-volume English translation of the Philokalia, which comprises the core spiritual texts of the Orthodox church, to which Sherrard was a convert and a traditionalist adherent of.

At some point later on, I will post on Sherrard’s book, The Greek East and the Latin West, which examines the metaphysical and ideological schism separating Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and how this has contributed to the modern western world’s slippage, according to Sherrard, into spiritual dereliction and systematic barbarism. The book may be pertinent in the current circumstances.

But, for this post, I want to draw attention to Sherrard’s book, Byzantium, which is an introduction to the empire, its politics, history and culture. It was published in 1967, as part of Time-Life’s Great Ages of Man series, and is as immaculately written as it is illustrated. My favourite chapter is the one on the nature of the emperor in Byzantium – An Emperor Under God.

Here, Sherrard manages to get to a great Byzantine paradox: that while the rulers of the empire were regarded as divine – ‘as the chief representatives of Christ and of God Himself’ – and, indeed, God-like, since the emperor’s duty was to bring ‘all mankind into ordered harmony within a universal state under the ordered rule of the monarchy’, thereby replicating God’s mission of bringing ‘all heavenly principalities into an ordered harmony under His absolute rule’; then how do we account for the fact that throughout the 1,000 years of its history, the Byzantine Empire was known for the precariousness of its throne and for the ruthlessness of its court politics – the viciousness with which supposedly God-like emperors were replaced or overthrown – all of which resulted in 29 of the 88 emperors who ruled the empire meeting grizzly fates – decapitated, poisoned, stabbed and so on – while another 13, to avoid such an end, retreated to live in monasteries?

Sherrard offers this explanation for the Byzantines’ apparent disregard for the sacredness of their emperors. Since, Sherrard says, an emperor emerged by divine decree – i.e. it was the will of God and the will of God is by definition opaque – this meant that the ‘only certain method of knowing the divine will was to see who actually occupied the throne. In other words, all means of becoming an emperor were legitimate – so long as they were successful. An unsuccessful attempt to reach the throne, on the other hand, was unforgivable and disastrous for the would-be ruler.’

‘Furthermore,’ Sherrard goes on, ‘what God had given He could also take away. An emperor’s throne might be seized from him in as unpredictable and sudden a manner as it had been given to him in the first place – and the consequences for him were usually as terrible as if he had tried to seize power and failed.’

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Cyprus natural gas: if the Russians aren’t interested, then the Chinese are

Following on from my post highlighting a report in Politis suggesting that Russia’s state-owned energy colossus Gazprom is reluctant to get involved in bidding for an exploration block in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone for fear of jeopardising its South Stream pipeline deal with Turkey; it’s worth mentioning another article, this time from Phileleftheros, offering its information on which companies and countries are looking to get involved in exploiting Cypriot natural gas.

Thus, according to Phileleftheros, with the encouragement of the Cyprus government, major state-owned Chinese companies – such as PetroChina, Sinopec and Cnooc – are not only interested in bidding for exploration rights in the remaining 12 (of 13) fields, but are also keen to get involved in the building of a liquefaction terminal on the island and in the export from Cyprus of liquefied natural gas.

Phileftheros goes on to say that the Cyprus government would regard the involvement of China in gas exploration on the island not only as a significant boost to Cyprus geopolitically, but would also create a positive climate for any Chinese loan Cyprus might need to secure its economy, now that Cyprus has been shut out of loans on the open market. Already, Cyprus has agreed a loan deal of €3bn with Russia.

Regarding Gazprom and other Russian companies and their potential involvement in Cypriot natural gas exploration, Phileleftheros says that these firms are waiting for the outcome of Russia’s presidential elections on 4 March before they decide whether to bid for exploration rights in Cyprus’ EEZ.

According to Phileleftheros, Lukoil – Russia’s second largest producer of oil – is particularly interested in Cyprus; as are South Korea’s Kogas; Norway’s Statoil; Italy’s ENI; and Brazil’s Petrobas.

As for the defence implications natural gas finds has for Cyprus, there’s been a lot of speculation regarding co-operation between Cyprus and Israel and of an Israeli request to station aircraft at Andreas Papandreou military base in Paphos. The leading Israeli daily Haaretz has added to this speculation by talking (in this article) of a growing ‘military-economic axis between Israel and Cyprus’.

According to Haaretz, not only is Israel in the process of beefing up its navy with new submarines and missile ships to protect its massive energy finds from potential threats from Turkey and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, but to this end it is also lobbying Lefkosia to allow Israel to build an air station in Cyprus. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

It’s not the Fourth Crusade, but stolid German economics

From time to time, the nationalist in me decides that this annihilation of Greece by austerity is all an evil plot by the West/Franks/Germans, a continuation of the Fourth Crusade (1204), which, in more recent times, has seen attempts to destroy Cyprus and Serbia too. Ask yourself what Cyprus, Serbia and Greece have in common? Compare, why don't you, the EU’s treatment of Croatia – set to join the EU in 2013 – with Serbia, which cannot get anywhere near EU accession until it recognises the independence of Kosovo. Surely everyone knows that the break-up of Yugoslavia was done in such a way as to emasculate Serbia and was precipitated by Germany as part of a plan to extend its political and economic influence in the Balkans? And why have the Germans, Dutch and Finns not been as scathing, callous and insulting to Portugal as they have to Greece?

Now, there may or may not be some truth to the above scenarios; but I suspect the bottom line for Germany is cold, brutal economics. If you watch (above) Yanis Varoufakis’ exchange with Robert Halver, Baader Bank’s chief economist, it is clear that for German financiers, Greece (and Portugal) is just an accounting problem, and a problem that needs to be got off the books. For Germany, it just makes stolid economic sense that Greece leave the euro, reform – or not – its economy, this would be up to the Greeks – and then rejoin the euro when its ready, or when Germany decides it’s ready, after poring over the Greek books.

Talking of the Greek books, below is a report from BBC’s Newsnight on another aspect of Greece’s economic downfall: which is how Goldman Sachs, with the knowledge of EU authorities, connived with Greek officials to conceal Greece’s debts through swap agreements and give the impression that Greece was going to be a fit and able member of the eurozone. The report argues that while the swaps were full of risks for the Greek side, for Goldman’s, Greece’s anxiety to join the euro meant the deal they put to the Greeks was so tilted in its favour as to almost amount to loan sharking.

And, finally, even someone with my basic understanding of economics can tell that the new ‘bailout’ for Greece agreed this morning is not what it seems and that its assumptions – of Greece returning to growth in 2014 and continuing to grow until 2020 so that its debt will be reduced to 120 percent of GDP (extremely high, but manageable because of the robustness of this new Greek economy that will have risen from the ashes) – are pie in the sky; and that the more pessimistic scenario painted by the troika – leaked to Reuters and the Financial Times – of austerity stifling the chances of growth, of continuing political instability in Greece and the debt in 2020 being 160 percent of GDP and of Greece requiring assistance of €245bn, is more likely.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Russia backs away from Cyprus natural gas involvement

Last week, the Cyprus government announced that it was initiating the second round of hydrocarbons licensing to cover the 12 remaining blocks of the island’s southern Exclusive Economic Zone. Exploratory drilling by US-based Noble Energy in the Aphrodite field produced results that showed an estimated five to eight trillion cubic feet of natural gas and not a little euphoria on the island that it was on the brink of Gulf-style wealth.

Speculation has been rife in Cypriot newspapers that potential bidders in the new round would include Gazprom and Lukoil from Russia; Total SA from France; Shell and BP from the UK and Holland; Exxon from the USA; Petrobas from Brazil; and Petronas from Malaysia. The thinking behind attracting interest from such a diverse range of companies being the desire to implicate their national governments in the island’s energy endeavours and neutralise Turkey’s belligerent reaction to Cyprus exercising its sovereign rights – rights that, of course, Turkey doesn’t recognise.

Given Russia’s increasing economic penetration of Cyprus and President Christofias’ emotional attachment to Russia, it was assumed that it was almost inevitable that state-owned Gazprom would be a major beneficiary of the new licensing round, and would be awarded one or more blocks to explore.

However, according to this report (in Greek) in yesterday’s Politis, Gazprom has decided it won't be bidding for a Cyprus block, citing the high production costs involved in exploiting Cypriot hydrocarbons.

But cost, Politis says, is not the real reason behind Gazprom’s reluctance to become embroiled in Cyprus. Rather, Gazprom is backing away from Cyprus because it doesn’t want to alienate Turkey now that Turkey has agreed to allow the construction through its territory of the South Stream pipeline, which will transport Russian gas to Europe under the Black Sea, obviating Ukraine’s involvement in the project.

The Politis article goes on to argue that the Cyprus government has also overlooked the fact that the transportation to Europe of hydrocarbon deposits from the Eastern Mediterranean will upset Russia’s plans to make Europe dependent on Russian gas and that Moscow has a vested interest in creating tension between Turkey and Cyprus. Politis further suggests that the much-vaunted despatch to the Eastern Mediterranean last October of a Russian battle group led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov had less to do with warding off Turkey from its threats to disrupt Cyprus’ gas exploration and more to do with showing support for President Assad in Syria.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Greece: is reform or revolution the answer?

Above is another video from the BBC’s Newsnight programme on the Greek economic crisis; this time from 13 February with former PASOK finance minister and current environment minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou debating Greece’s options with London-based economics professor Costas Lapavitsas, who’s become something of a regular in the Guardian comments pages arguing that Greece should default and leave the euro. Papaconstantinou pins a great deal of blame for the Greek economic crisis on the Greeks themselves, for the corrupt, inefficient and unproductive economy and society they created and is scathing of Lapavitsas, accusing him of putting forward arguments that are nothing more than ‘a collection of slogans’.

A dark, dramatic picture of Greece… but is it true?

Above is Paul Mason’s report for the BBC’s Newsnight, shown last night, on the social and political fallout of the economic crisis currently afflicting Greece. Newsnight is the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme and Mason is its economics editor.

Mason paints a dark and dramatic picture. He has to, otherwise there’d be no justification in him going all that way to Greece, with a producer, camera crew and so on in tow. But it’s hard to know the level of reality he’s reflecting. He uses a Roma woman to indicate how an increasing number of Greeks are in need of charity medical care previously reserved for illegal immigrants. He speaks to illegal immigrants – desperate to get to the promised land of London – to discern the depth of the crisis; he wants to know of anarchists whether Greece is on the brink of violent strife; and he takes seriously the dire warnings of a PASOK MP and her rationale for postponing elections, elections in which PASOK will be wiped out.

More generally, I am not convinced by all these images of the hopelessly poor and destitute in Greece, as if this was an indication of an explosion of third world-type poverty in the country. (In Cyprus this week, there was a drive organised by the church and RIK to collect food and clothing for Greece, as if Greeks in Greece were now starving and naked). Even in better economic times, Greece had poverty and people who, for whatever reason, had fallen through the safety net. And this applies not only to Greece, but to every country in the world and every society that has ever existed. We need more information and facts before we can decide the extent of Greece’s social decline and how well – or badly – Greeks are coping in the current circumstances.

Samaras: in Cyprus to receive and give hope

New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras is in Cyprus from tomorrow for a three-day official visit following an invitation from DISY leader, Nikos Anastasiades.

Speaking on last night’s news on ANT1 Cyprus,  Samaras said: ‘This time I’m coming to Cyprus not just to give hope, but to receive hope too.’

He explained that he will take hope from the great achievements of Hellenism in Cyprus, and will transmit the message that ‘despite the dramatic difficulties, Greece will soon stand on its feet again and will enter a period of recovery and creativity.’

Responding to concerns that a weakened Greece will have a negative influence on the Cyprus issue, Samaras stressed that: ‘Greece will show its presence at all levels. [Greece and Cyprus’s] fate is the same, the battle is common and Greece, I can assure you, will soon be back on its feet.’

The leader of New Democracy said that every visit to Cyprus for him was full of emotion and pain; a pilgrimage but mainly a rededication to justice.

(Translated from this article in

Friday, 17 February 2012

Can Greece really default and stay in the euro?

I’ve become convinced recently that Greece’s best option regarding the economic crisis its enduring is to default and to do so while retaining the euro. This is, essentially, the argument Yanis Varoufakis has been making.

All along he’s been saying that providing loans to a country that is insolvent and imposing stringent austerity on an economy in chronic recession is absurd and will result in an economic death spiral. So far, Varoufakis has been proved right. Austerity has not turned Greece’s economy into a lean, mean fighting machine, but killed it stone dead. It has also contributed to the social fabric of the country being torn asunder and engendered dangerous levels of internal strife. But what of Varoufakis’ remedy, of defaulting and staying in the euro?

In the debate I published previously from Bloomberg TV, former IMF board member Miranda Xafa repudiates the idea of a default within the euro, suggesting that the European Central Bank would simply stop financing Greek banks, which would immediately collapse, only for Varoufakis to state that if the ECB did do such a thing to Greece, then it would prove that ‘there is something fundamentally wrong with the eurozone’.

Varoufakis goes on to argue that if an economic disaster similar to the one befalling Greece were to befall California or New York, for example, then there would be no question of expelling these two states from the dollar zone; rather, the other 48 states and the federal government would rally round and make sure California or New York pulled through. If the euro represents a unified currency worth its salt, Varoufakis’ argument seems to go, then the ECB would act in relation to Greece in the same way as the federal reserve would act in relation to California or New York.

Except haven’t we learned from this crisis that, indeed, there is ‘something fundamentally wrong with the eurozone’ and that what binds the dollar zone – a shared sense among its 50 constituent parts of national identity and national solidarity – is absent in Europe, which still operates on the dog-eat-dog level of 27 different and competing nation-states?

And then there’s this piece by Joshua Chaffin in today’s Financial Times, examining the consequences of Greece defaulting and dwelling on this point of dispute between Miranda Xafa and Yanis Varoufakis, over whether it’s possible for Greece to renege on its loan commitments and stay in the euro.

This is what Chaffin writes regarding the crucial point on what the reaction of the European Central Bank would be to a Greek default:

‘It might be possible to keep Greece in the eurozone and contain the damage if the ECB were to provide a lifeline to the country’s banks, some analysts believe.

‘But it is also possible Frankfurt would decide it could no longer accept Greek government bonds as collateral. Without ECB liquidity – cut-off from financial markets – Athens would have to print drachmas to pay its bills.

‘The new currency would plunge in value against the euro. That would trigger another wave of defaults for businesses and citizens, unable to pay outstanding debts in euros. Litigation, and even deeper recession, would probably ensue.’

Conclusion: Varoufakis’ proposed course of action, of default within the euro, seems to be predicated on a belief that the ECB will act politically, in accord with the ideals of European solidarity, and not economically, in accord with the interests of the stronger eurozone countries, which would rather not have to be burdened with Greece and its wrecked economy; it is a belief this crisis has shown has little basis in reality.

*ADDENDUM: If, as I suggest there is no political imperative for the ECB to save Greece, there may be an economic imperative for the ECB to do this, as Varoufakis explains here.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Israel, Cyprus: a relationship neither wants

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been in Cyprus today for talks on energy, security, trade and so on with President Christofias. It was the first ever visit to Cyprus by an Israeli PM; which was something Netanyahu commented on, saying that even though it only takes 45 minutes to get from Tel Aviv to Larnaca, it’s taken 63 years for an Israeli prime minister to visit Cyprus.

The fact that this is the first visit to Cyprus by an Israeli prime minister indicates how poor relations between the two countries have been down the years, with the Israelis allied to Turkey and Cyprus close to the Palestinians and the other Arab nations; and how rickety this new relationship is. Indeed, it is a relationship neither country really wants. The Israelis would much prefer things were still the same for them with the Turks and the Cypriots find it hard to accept that they now have to overlook the fact that Israel’s violent usurpation of Palestinian lands reminds them of the Turkish invasion and occupation of Cyprus, an invasion and occupation Israel had always found it convenient to support, in one way or another.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Insults fly as Greeks turn to anti-austerity parties

It’s pretty clear now, isn't it, what Germany and the other Axis powers are up to. They’re trying to force Greece out of the euro. No promises Greek politicians make, no amount of self-defeating measures they adopt, will be enough. The Axis has decided that Greece is not worth salvation and that to protect their own interests, it has to be cut adrift. So much for European solidarity, so much for European union. That myth – which Greeks have clung to more determinedly than any other country in Europe – has disintegrated.

But even if it is the intention of the Axis powers – Germany, Holland, Finland and Luxembourg – to make life so impossible for Greece that Greece decides by itself that it jacks in the euro; then Greece mustn’t fall into this trap. Why give the Germans and the Finns what they want? Wouldn't it be harder for them – and easier for Greece – if Greece says: ‘We're defaulting; but we’re keeping the euro.’

Anyway, above is President Karolos Papoulias’ outburst today after German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble said Germany was no longer prepared to ‘pour money into a bottomless pit’, and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the group of eurozone finance ministers, said Greece would need increased supervision to ensure it implements the austerity programme.

Papoulias said: ‘I can't accept Mr Schauble taunting my country. I can't accept this – as a Greek. Who is Mr Schauble… to taunt Greece? Who are the Dutch? Who are the Finns? We always had the pride to defend not only our freedom, not only our country, but the freedom of Europe.’

And what of the humiliating pledge the Axis are making Papandreou/Venizelos and Samaras sign that they will retain the austerity measures after the April elections? Well, it seems to me as if it’s being made on the false assumption that Samaras, in particular, will emerge as the new prime minister. In fact, the latest opinion poll suggests New Democracy’s fortunes are flagging and Samaras’ position may deteriorate even further if the general election turns into a referendum on the austerity programme. Thus, the current standing of the parties is as follows: New Democracy 27.5 percent; the Democratic Left 16 percent; the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) 14 percent; Coaltion of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) 13.5 percent; PASOK 12 percent; LAOS 4.5 percent; Greens 3 percent; Golden Dawn 2.5 percent.

If these numbers were reflected in the actual election, then Samaras would not be prime minister – or would be PM of a weak, minority government – while those opposed to the troika measures would be considerably strengthened in parliament.

To default, or not to default: that is the question

The above video from Bloomberg pretty much sums up the dilemma facing Greece. Former IMF functionary Miranda Xafa tells us that the unending economic crisis affecting Greece is the result of government failure to tackle vested interests – ‘a small vocal minority’, she calls them – and implement widespread structural reforms. Greece has no alternative, Xafa insists, but to accept the loans and terms of the troika. On the other hand, Yanis Varoufakis insists that the measures proposed in the new memorandum are ‘impossible’ and ‘unworkable’, and that the best way forward for Greece is to default within the euro.

Defaulting within the euro is now becoming the mantra of those opposed to austerity; but Xafa disputes the viability of such a strategy, claiming that if Greece were to default, the ECB would cut off funds to the Greek banks, which would collapse, ushering in a period of chaos and disorder in the country. Varoufakis doubts whether the ECB would cut off funds to the Greek banks, insisting that to do so would be an admission that the eurozone is disintegrating.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Margaret Thatcher would fail in Greece

I’ve heard it said that what Greece needs is a Margaret Thatcher, i.e. a leader with an ideological commitment to capitalism, reduced state spending and personal responsibility. Greece, the argument goes, is a socialist experiment gone wrong and the country to revive itself must now engage in wholesale privatisation, dismantle the overweening and unsustainable welfare state and replace it with a culture of free enterprise and individual endeavour. And just like Margaret Thatcher rarely wavered or doubted her vision – conviction was far more important than consensus to her – Greece has to acquire a prime minister unafraid of confrontation and willing to push through change, impervious to collateral damage.

Now, I don’t want to go into the merits or otherwise of Thatcher’s doctrinaire enthusiasm for capitalism; but I do want to point out a couple of things, which people often forget about her politics when they seek to apply it to Greece.

Thus, it should be stressed that Thatcher did not slash public expenditure or reduce the state across the board. In fact, spending on the police and on improving the pay and conditions of the police force was a priority for her, and this was not only because another important aspect of Thatcherism was law and order but also because Thatcher heavily relied on the police to repress opposition to her policies, most notably during the 1984 miners’ strike.

Indeed, the use of the police to enforce Thatcherism was part of a wider strategy that involved using the law and the courts to defeat opponents. This was particularly the case with trade union reform. Thatcherism had long identified the power and influence of trade unions in society as a key cause of Britain's economic decline and law after law was passed restricting their activities. Trade unions that sought to defy laws on strike ballots, picketing or closed shops were dragged before the courts, their funds sequestered, their leaders fined and jailed.

In other words, Thatcherism knew that to impose her brand of ‘people’s capitalism’ on the UK meant that the left, its culture and institutions, had to be confronted and dismantled and to do this she was prepared to use all the means at the state’s disposal. Now, regarding Greece, since there is no ideological commitment to the things being done at the moment – the reforms are the evil designs of the troika – and the Greek state is defunct, then it’s clear that Greece is not going to make the transition demanded of it. The tools Thatcher used to push through her agenda in the UK would not be available to her in Greece. Greece’s problems are far more intractable than the UK’s in 1979.

It’s also worth pointing out that in the first three years of her premiership, Thatcher was hugely unpopular, low in the polls, heading for certain defeat at the next general election; and then, in 1982, Argentina seized the Falkland Islands… Thatcher’s resort to nationalism is another overlooked aspect of her ideology.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Varoufakis: Greece should default on its debts

In this radio interview done today with Fran Kelly of Australia’s ABC, Professor Yanis Varoufakis of Athens university explains why the new bailout deal for Greece is a waste of time, doomed to failure and that the best option for the country is to default on its debts and start again.

It's over! Greeks in the tomb

After my post yesterday regarding Greece’s economic predicament, in which I urged the long view – if geology has its way, Greece will be swallowed up by Africa – and suggested that Greece isn’t pensions and the minimum wage, but its poets, philosophers and so on: I thought that, maybe, sat here in London, 1500 miles from Athens, I was being somewhat flippant and unsympathetic.

Thus, I decided to give the view from Greece and have translated the piece below by Giorgos Delastik from today’s Ethnos, which castigates the Greek government for accepting the conditions of the latest bailout from the IMF and the EU, claims that Greece is under ‘economic occupation’ and predicts that, unless Greece fights back, it is destined to become an impoverished backwater of the Fourth Reich.

I am not convinced by Delastik’s argument, as it still suggests the crisis is about bad foreigners and good Greeks and fails to accept that the dismantling of the Greek economy was inevitable given that it was built on such unsustainable foundations and that, really, it was up to the Greeks to do this before things got as bad as they did and outsiders had to be called in.

Indeed, even when outsiders were called in, Greece still had the opportunity to ward off the worst effects of this necessary restructuring of the Greek economy by charting a new path for itself by itself, but because of two factors, for which Greeks are wholly responsible, and which I’ve been saying from the start would mean the bailouts and austerity would count for nothing, Greece was not able to take control of its destiny. These two factors are: 1. the inability of the Greek state to assert itself; and, 2. the inability of Greek society to reform itself.

Anyway, here is my translation of Delastik’s article:

It’s over! Greeks in the tomb
Indecisive, enthral to fate, pygmies. Nothing was negotiated. Nothing was salvaged. They caved in to all the terms demanded of them by their EU and IMF overlords, casting the country into a darkness deeper than its experienced in its modern history. To blame are the leaders of the political parties in the coalition government – Giorgos Papandreou of Pasok, Antonis Samaras of New Democracy and Giorgos Karatzaferis of LAOS.

It proved exceptionally easy to overcome those ‘red lines’ which for six months Samaras has been saying were non-negotiable – they melted away like ice cream in the Sahara. As for Papandreou and Karatzaferis, there was no doubt as to what they do would do, since they had already voted for the first Memorandum; but it has now been revealed that Samaras, at the crucial time, didn’t have the courage to differentiate himself from those he had been chiding, and in the end he’s reserved for himself a place in the same category as those already condemned in the consciences of the Greek people.

The names of all those who had positions of responsibility and agreed to surrender to the demands of the social barbarians from the EU and the IMF will be written in black letters in Greek history’s annals of shame – not that the guilty will be bothered.

The future of the country is being grimly eradicated after this capitulation to foreign lenders. Millions of Greeks will fall victim to this economic occupation. Already, there are a million ‘dead’ – those made unemployed by the policies imposed by the first Memorandum: the number of unemployed came to 1.029.000 in November – that is, at a time when many businesses  were clinging to the hope that perhaps the holiday season might provide them with the kiss of life.

But now that every hope for economic revival has disappeared, it seems inevitable that the number of unemployed by June will reach 1.5 million, meaning that 30 per cent of Greece’s active workforce will be without jobs.

The ‘dictatorship of the lenders’ will not show any mercy despite the economic plight of the subject population of Greece. They are foreigners; what do they care about the Greeks? Like moneylenders down the years, all they’re interested in is how to spend their billions.

They’re not a philanthropic institution, concerned that Greeks are hungry, that our schools are closing, and our hospitals falling apart.

At most, they might appeal to German priests to organise some… philanthropic mission to hand out rations to the starving Greeks, to put on a show for German TV and reinforce Berlin’s propaganda that Greece is being saved and, on top of that, being fed.

The EU and the IMF are ruthlessly and effectively promoting their aim, which is nothing more than the squeezing of Greek salaries – to 500 euros a month, a thousand euros at most; a fall in pensions – to three-four hundred euros a month; and the firing of hundreds of thousands of civil servants and millions in the private sector, so that, in the end, Greece will be reduced – just like all the other countries in the European south – to the category of cheap and impoverished regions of the Fourth Reich.

This has already been the fate of those former socialist countries from Eastern Europe, who entered the EU and were ‘saved’.

Grim times for Greece and for Greeks. There is no halting this headlong rush towards the abyss. The avarice of the European dynasts cannot be satiated. So long as in our country there is not a prolonged social explosion, the logic of our sovereigns will be that ‘the beast of burden can take it, pile more on its back’.

They’ve made clear that in June they’re going to take even further measures. They’re going to slash pensions this time. Now they’re not even scared to say in advance what pain they’re going to inflict on the Greek people. Woe to the vanquished…

*(I should add, for what’s it worth, that my opinion is that enough is enough and Greece shouldn’t approve the new bailout deal and should default instead).

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Remembering why we are in love with Greece

I don’t want to minimise the dire economic and political situation in Greece at the moment and I don’t doubt the consequences will probably set the country back years; but we must also take the long view – for example, I heard today on BBC World Service that Africa and Europe are slowly converging and at some point the Mediterranean won’t be a sea but a mountain range – and not get entangled or vexed by the quotidian. Greece will no doubt survive – not because it always has, that’s just rhetoric, nations have died and will die again – but because what Greece is suffering from at the moment is not quite fatal. So, we must, on this the 32nd anniversary of the death of Nikos Xylouris, remember that he is why we are in love with Greece and what happens to pensions or the minimum wage or whatever can't affect this.

Above is Xylouris singing the traditional Cretan song: Τη μάνα μου την αγαπώ. And below is Manolis Lagos’ classic version with Lavrentia Bernidaki, followed by an interview with the singer recalling her pioneering role along with Lagos, her brother Yiannis Baxevanis and Stelios Foustalieris in defining modern Cretan music in the 1930s and 1940s.

Ben Gazzara talking Killing of a Chinese Bookie

My favourite interpretation of John Cassavetes’ Killing of a Chinese Bookie is that Cosmo Vitelli and the strip-club he presides over, as father-figure, lover, director, producer and all round life and soul, is a metaphor for Cassavetes the artist and his films; his metaphorical depiction of all the rubbish an artist has to put up with in order to assert his vision. Poor Cosmo has to deal with gangsters and money men trying to take his club away from him; recalcitrant performers who don’t understand his vision or insist on bringing their personal problems to work: a public indifferent or even contemptuous of his art; and so on.

This interpretation of Killing of a Chinese Bookie always made a lot of sense to me, and it’s one Ben Gazzara, who played Cosmo, gives credence to: ‘I remember when we shot the scene in the limo, where I’m alone without the girls, and John was on the floor, holding the camera. Between takes, he explained what the film meant to him: “All these people who destroy art, who persecute you, who make you do things and never leave you alone.” He began to cry. I thought: My God, it’s really a personal thing for him. The gangsters were a metaphor, Cosmo was John. The club was where Vitelli created beauty, with its girls, music, jokes and spectacle… and the gangsters were the system, which was so hard on John.’

Above is a clip of Gazzara in Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and below he – and producer Al Ruban – discuss the hostile reaction the film received from audiences and critics on opening, causing it to be withdrawn after a week.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Ben Gazzara on John Cassavetes: ‘He wasn’t a filmmaker; he was a poet’


It breaks my heart to have this era come to an end. Ben meant so much to all of us. To our families. To John. To Peter [Falk]. To have them gone now is devastating to me.’ Gena Rowlands

Sadly, the actor Ben Gazzara has died. He was involved in many notable films but was defined by his collaboration with John Cassavetes, for his roles in Husbands (1970); Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1975) and Opening Night (1978).

Above is the documentary the BBC made on the filming of Husbands, which starred Cassavetes, Gazzara and another (recently deceased) Cassavetes’ stalwart, Peter Falk.  The documentary captures something of Cassavetes’ intensity as an artist and his working methods, though these are wrongly described in the introduction to the programme as relying on improvisation.

In fact, rather than improvisation, Cassavetes’ method was to revise and rewrite his scripts during rehearsals in light of things he and his actors discovered about the characters and story. Other directors would approach their films having already decided what lines their actors would speak and made up their minds as to how and where they expected actors to move and behave. But for Cassavetes’, film – all art – was not a technical endeavour; it was a process of exploration, an odyssey, a way of life, so that the film was shaped and emerged only in the making of it.

The myth of Cassavetes’ improvisational style – only his first film Shadows was properly improvisational – obscures his brilliance as a writer; his ability to convincingly convey the impression of spontaneous speech and deeply-embedded emotion – the inarticulate outpourings of men and women struggling to fathom their lives or the world. His characters often appear to be improvising, to be making it up as they go along, because Cassavetes wrote it that way and because this is what Cassavetes believed people do in real life, make it up as they go along. A lot of Cassavetes’ genius, as well as the hostility with which mainstream critics and audiences reacted to his films, can be attributed to his determination to show, against Hollywood, that people don’t know what they’re doing, that they can never make sense of themselves no matter how hard they try and that we all make it up as we go along, with all the danger, awkwardness and inevitable failure this implies. In other words, for Cassavetes, echoing another Greek: all that we can know is that we know nothing, and that, not unlike Socrates, Cassavetes pokes and prods – even tortures – his characters, takes them apart (always sympathetically, never cynically) to reveal to them their flaws and weaknesses and make them think again about who they are.

Below is a clip of Ben Gazzara talking only last year about working with Cassavetes on Husbands:

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Seferis, Leigh Fermor and the Cyprus crisis

Thanks to Hermes for pointing out the above programme from Greek TV in 1972; an episode of This is Your Life involving the British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, known as much for his books on the Mani and Roumeli as for his exploits in Nazi-occupied Crete, where as an SOE officer he executed with the Cretan resistance the kidnap  of the island’s senior German commander, General Heinrich Kreipe, an incident captured in the 1957 Powell & Pressburger film Ill Met By Moonlight, in which Leigh Fermor is portrayed by Dirk Bogarde.

In the moving and almost surreal TV show, Leigh Fermor is reunited not only with two of the Cretan fighters involved in the kidnap, Manolis Paterakis and Giorgos Tyrakis, but with the unfortunate Kreipe himself!

I've been thinking a bit about Leigh Fermor recently. I’ve never read any of his books on Greece, but he does crop up as part of the Katsimbalis circle, the group of Greek, British and American writers brought together by the literary critic and publisher, Giorgos Katsimbalis, the eponymous Colossus of Maroussi as depicted by Henry Miller.

Katsimbalis was responsible in the 1930s for launching the literary careers of, among others, Giorgos Seferis, Odysseas Elytis and Giorgos Theotokas, though his idol was the poet of the Megali Idea, an Idea Katsimbalis shared, Kostis Palamas. The American and British writers and intellectuals involved in the Katsimbalis circle included Steven Runciman, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, the translator Rex Warner, Osbert Lancaster, Leigh Fermor, Philip Sherrard – all of whom, through their intimacy with Katsimbalis and the Greek poets in his circle, developed a passion for and knowledge of Greece, which they converted into literature that inspired a generation of Britons and Americans sympathetic to Hellenism.

However, this Anglo-Greek circle was ruptured by the Cyprus crisis in the 1950s, which pitted Greek against British nationalism.

Seferis, in particular, was deeply involved in the struggle of Cypriot Hellenism. The poet and diplomat was an ardent admirer of Makarios and strong supporter of Grivas and the armed revolt he led – regarding it as pure and just as the Cretan resistance to Germany Leigh Fermor participated in – and as such Seferis cut off all contact with Britons he knew during this period.

I’ve not been able to find any explicit details regarding Leigh Fermor and Cyprus – whether he supported Greek demands or British imperialism – but he was one of the Britons Seferis broke with; although, unlike with Durrell – who not only moved to Cyprus during the EOKA revolt, but was also recruited into the colonial administration’s Information Office (Seferis refers to Durrell as assuming the role of a gauleiter) from where he argued for the virtues of continuing British rule in Cyprus and, indeed, that the Cypriots were not Greeks and their demands for Enosis illegitimate – relations with Leigh Fermor were later resumed.

Nevertheless, the bitterness of the rupture was sincere, particularly on the side of the Greeks, who felt their British friends, who they had embraced, trusted and guided, were little more than parasites and hypocrites.

On 18 April, 1955 – two weeks after EOKA began its armed struggle to unite Cyprus to Greece – Katismbalis, the Venizelist and veteran of the Macedonian campaign, the attempt to liberate Ionia and the Albanian epos, wrote to Seferis:

»Είμαι μπαρουτιασμένος με τους φίλους μας τους Άγγλους… Είναι όλλοι τους πούστηδες και καθίκια (και δεν εξαιρώ κανέναν εκτός από το Ρεξ και τον Όσπμερτ – ίσως).»

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Ergenekon has its roots in Cyprus

When Andreas Papandreou famously said in 1971 that ‘Cyprus lies at the heart of the tragic political developments that have led to the death of democracy in Greece’, he meant that it was the inability of Greece’s politicians to impose the Acheson plan on Cyprus – and the resistance of figures like Papandreou to such a plan – that helped convince the CIA to conspire with its Greek underlings to bring about a government in Athens less committed to Cypriot and Greek national interests and more committed to US/NATO interests, which demanded a diminishing of Greco-Turkish confrontation through the partitioning of Cyprus.

(Some would also argue that junta characters like Giorgos Papadopoulos and Dimitris Ioannides picked up clandestine para-state tips and attitudes through their involvement in Cyprus and were, for example, the sort of men in the Greek military in 1963, during intercommunal violence on the island, that certain Cypriots – like Nikos Sampson, Polykarpos Giorgadjis and Vassos Lyssarides – could go to when looking for weaponry and expertise when the official Greek state wasn’t prepared to provide them. The irony being that having derived their taste for conspiracy and political violence in Cyprus, Papadopoulos and Ioannides turned against the island when the survival of the junta became more important to them).

It can’t come as any surprise, therefore, that the Turkish ultranationalist deep-state organisation Ergenekon, members of which are currently on trial in Turkey for sedition, terrorism and so on, according to the Turkish media, and reported by Nikos Stelgias in the Cyprus edition of Kathimerini, also has its roots in Cyprus and, in particular, in the Turkish Cypriot terrorist gangs it helped organise, man and operate in the 1950s and 1960s.

According to Stelgias (my translation): ‘New testimony and information coming to light in the Turkish media reveals that the Ergenekon network was established in the 1950s in Cyprus and had as its basic goal the consolidation of the actions of Turkish Cypriot armed groups. 

‘On Tuesday, Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, which maintains close ties with Turkish government circles, in its inside pages and under the headline “Ergenekon was set up in Cyprus”, writes that former naval officer Erol Mütercimler, accused of being part of the Ergenekon conspiracy, told investigators that Brigadier General Memduh Ünlütürk revealed to him that Ergenekon was established in Cyprus in the 1950s.

‘Mütercimler said that Ergenekon was established to “protect” the Turkish Cypriots and some of its formative members were the Cyprus-born Alparslan Turkes, the [notorious] founder of the far-right Nationalist Action Party; Turgut Sunalp, founder of the Nationalist Democracy Party; and many other members of the Turkish military.'

The involvement in Cyprus of some of Turkish politics’ most lurid figures is not new information – retired General Sabri Yirmimbesoglou, who served in Cyprus in the 1950s and 1960s in his country’s Special Warfare Department, confessed in 2010 to sabotage and the burning down of mosques to ‘stir up the Turkish Cypriots’ – but it is a reminder that the partitioning of Cyprus is rooted in an aggressive and expansionist Turkish national ideology that, unlike the nationalism or, more correctly, the pseudo-nationalism, of the Greek junta, continues to inform Turkey’s attitudes to its neighbours. Indeed, we note that the Ergenekon investigation in Turkey is not really interested in confronting Kemalist ultranationalism but anti-Islamist opponents of the AK party government.