A lost Platonic dialogue has shed light on the puzzling historical episode known as ΒΡΕΞΙΤ, in which the citizens of the city-state Athens in the European south, known to many today as the “cradle of democracy”, voted in favour of withdrawing from the Hellenic world. Extracts of the dialogue attributed to the Classical philosopher Plato (circa 428-348 BC) were found among the crumpled newspaper cushioning a “Macedonian” gold wreath reportedly found under a pensioner’s bed in Somerset, which recently sold at auction for £14,000 (at the time equivalent to just over $20,000, now worth approximately a couple of good laying chickens of no specific breed, and rapidly depreciating). The authenticity of the wreath has been questioned, however the Plato fragment is said to “bear all the hallmarks” of a lost work. Extracts are published for the first time below:
“Some have said that it was a mistake to give a voice to the people on matters of serious consequence, because they lack the judgement to make correct decisions. This is not my quarrel. To the contrary, I hold that it is good and just for well-born Athenians to resolve their petty disputes and pursue to their personal ambitions by calling on the unenlightened hoi polloito take on the burden of responsibility. For in addition to removing from the wise the labour of having to do the “hard shit”, this allows for the flourishing of the art of demagoguery [lit. that of leading the people], which will be counted as one of the great gifts of this glorious city of ours to the world.
In future generations, true followers for my political vision will rightly make this primitive practice of consulting the people directly obsolete, such that they will need to invent new names for it in their own tongue, and exercise it only in exceptional circumstances. For now, we call it “democracy”.
My quarrel with our system of democracy is that for too long we have been too soft on our women, our slaves and our metics [resident aliens], so that they no longer know their place, while the rightful citizens of Athens, male and Athenian born, feel threatened in their own polis.
For too long we have delegated decisions on serious matters of state to untransparent and undemocratic processes like the Oracle of Delphi and the machinations of the faceless priesthood in the distant Delian League.
For too long we have allowed the riches of our silver mines to be used to undertake foolish wars and build costly temples, roads and bridges in foreign lands, in cities which arrogantly refuse to pay us our rightful tribute.
The citizens who have cast their vote for ΒΡΕΞΙΤ have simply acknowledged that they need to be led by decent chaps (καλὸς κἀγαθός types), fine graduates of my Academy, classical scholars with the wisdom to make this city great again, and never to be enticed by delusions of empire into disastrous and costly foreign expeditions, like their predecessors.
I believe that those in favour of ΒΡΕΞΙΤ are right to propose an Antipodean-style points system for metics, combined with a Hyperborean trading model. I also hold that it would be a mistake to put a limit on the number of slaves. Slaves and metics, along with the unpaid labour of women, are what make it possible for our citizens to keep their fingernails clean by not engaging in manual labour, and to devote themselves directly to matters of state, in between travelling to support the Athenian sporting prowess in their noble defeats in the numerous Panhellenic Games.”
“Those citizens who etched “Metics Go Home” on the metope of the Temple of Xenios Zeus [Hospitable Zeus, patron of hospitality and guests and avenger of wrongs done to strangers] were merely adapting the customary and legitimate practice of ostracism writ large, voting to expel those who have abused our hospitality, without trial or debate.”
For more nuanced discussions of the fallacy of the “too much democracy” argument in response to the UK’s EU referendum, we direct you to Matt Taibi’s article about Brexit in Rolling Stone Magazine. More on the uses and abuses of Plato in contemporary political analysis can be found in the recent debate about the ascendancy of Donal Trump an others in the Los Angeles Review of Books. For a direct insight into the realities of the first democracy, red in tooth and claw, you can read our earlier post on the evidence of lynchings and mass executions in the early days of Athens. It is not clear which campaign, Brexit or Bremain, Plato would actually side with. Being the original reactionary, he would probably be happy with either, given that they were both led by what we would now call “elites”. I suspect he would have a soft spot for Boris Johnson given his veneration for the Classics.
IMAGES: “The School of Athens” by Raphael; Ostrakon (voting sherd) bearing the name of Kimon, son of Miltiades, a fifth century BC Athenian general, victor of the Battle of Salamis and commander of the Delian League forces, who was exiled (ostracised) from Athens for ten years (via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.5).
It’s that time of year again, when our elected leaders kick the ball into the stands, and ask the “sovereign people” to get them out of a pickle by posing a “once in a generation” EU-related question. Last year it was Greece, this year it’s the UK. Are you having trouble telling your Brexit from your Grexit, your Greferendum from your Breferendum? Or do you still think they are halitosis remedies? We have put together a handy disambiguator for the confused.
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
(or, if you are Welsh, “A ddylai’r Deyrnas Unedig aros yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd neu adael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd?”).
Ah, but it’s really about…
Austerity, national currency, national dignity, the European Project, the Establishment, the Germans.
Self-determination, trade agreements, national security, the Establishment, the Germans, but mainly IMMIGRATION (Polish plumbers, Syrian refugees, ISIS terrorists and everything in between – excluding Russian and Chinese oligarchs, and global kleptocrat property investors).
Ah but it’s really, REALLY about..
Ingenue politician’s (in)ability to lead own party.
Ingenue politician’s (in)ability to lead own party.
Any wider consequences of Grexit/Brexit I should be concerned about?
The first step towards the end of the world as we know it. Allegedly.
The first step towards the end of the world as we know it. Allegedly.
The Government Line
How much time do I have to decide?
How long does it take to print ballot papers? Referendum announced 1am on 27 June 2015; referendum held 5 July 2015.
Since Maggie was ousted. But officially… Referendum pledged January 2013; polling date and question announced February 2016: official campaigning started April 2016; referendum to be held 23 June 2016.
How would a Marxist firebrand/Keynsian economist vote?
OXI: Alexis Tsipras and Yianis Varoufakis, supported by US-based Nobel prize winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, and promoted by UK-based embedded cheerleader Paul Mason.
REMAIN: all named in left hand column; readers are advised not to attempt new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “RELUCTANTLY REMAIN” acrobatics in the polling booth, as it will almost certainly be counted as a spoiled ballot.
How would an ordoliberal German Finance Minister vote?
We hope this has been helpful. Those of us entitled to a vote have cast it, and may our British friends make the right decision. No pressure. As the summer solstice aligns with a full moon, we’re absolutely confident nothing can go wrong!
A propos of nothing, given that yesterday was a quietnewsday*, I recall a little vignette of post-referendum Athens.
Waiting to cross at the traffic lights in my Athens neighbourhood in the midday heat, a gentleman waiting next to me, in is late middle age, slightly dishevelled but respectable, observes the queue of pensioners outside the bank waiting to collect their €120 weekly stipend. He tuts. “This is disgraceful, this is what we’ve come to.” Then he pauses as he observes a little boy with an ice cream cone accompanying his grandmother. “That looks nice and cool,” he muses. Pause. “Of course the cucumber that Alexis (Tsipras) will bring back from Brussels will also be cool. And we’ll all get to share it. Not just the 60%,” (referring to the bailout negotiations that were due to follow the 60% “no” vote in the “bailout referendum”). He caught himself saying this, and suddenly embarrassed he apologised, adding “but you know what I mean.”
Scroll to page 236 of this scholarly work for the definitive (and very clinical) analysis of the meaning of αγγούρι (aggoúri, cucumber) in the Greek vernacular. I will give you a hint: it has very little to do with Greek salad.
* In case you haven’t followed the links, or read the news, pretty much every economic indicator for Greece is pointing due south. The Athens Stock Market plunged almost 23% intraday on its first day of trading since the easing of capital controls (before recovering to “only” -16.23% at close), the PMI manufacturing index was in free-fall through July, factory employment at a 16-year low, SME activity sharply reduced in the course of July for 9 in 10 businesses, and turnover down over 70% for 1 in 3 businesses. All directly attributable to the bank closures, capital controls and the climate of uncertainty created by the 5th July referendum, none reversible in the near term.
** This is where I realise that I have missed my true calling as a cultural analyst…
Ask a straight question and you’ll get a straight answer.
There is some independent confirmation that the Greek referendum of the 5th July confused voters into producing a non-sensical result. An interesting article by Nick Baltas provides additional theoretical perspective for the analysis presented in this blog last week. He explains the mental process in voters’ minds by referring to psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s concept of “attribute substitution,” a mental shortcut that leads people when presented with a complex question to substitute it for a simpler one.
The results reproduced above, from Efemerida ton Syntakton (Εφημεριδα των Συντακτων), a Syriza-supporting paper, translate as follows:
Given the choice between “a deal with tough terms with the creditors” vs. “no deal and default / exit from the Euro” what position would you personally take? Respondents answered 70% in favour of a deal.
To the question “If a referendum were conducted today and the question was ‘Euro or Drachma’ which way would you personally vote?” 73% respondents voted for the Euro.
At the same time, voting intentions indicate that Syriza would win an outright majority with 42.5% of the popular vote if elections were conducted now. It sounds very much like voters want a confident Syriza to pursue a pro-Euro, pro-agreement strategy.
It will be interesting to see whether they rise to the occasion. Yesterday’s reshuffle suggests that they are biding their time until elections to shed the naysayers. In that case, the crucial question is whether there is enough intersection between the intending Syriza voters and the Euro/deal supporters (63-66% of Syriza supporters back these options according the survey) to put them in power with an enhanced mandate, or whether a few months of a coasting, inexperienced and divided government tasked with a critical mission will prove their undoing.
Meanwhile, the tab is still open on the economic consequences of the referendum itself: €3bn. and counting…
Last night the Greek Parliament approved the first round of measures linked to the latest bailout. Plenty of inflammatory language was used, even by Members who voted in favour. Here are some interesting examples for non-Greek speakers:
πραξικόπημα (praksikópima): coup = what the lenders are committing by demanding reforms in exchange for further lending; not to be confused with direct democracy. Popular meme on twitter #thisisacoup.
εκβιασμός (ekviasmós): blackmail = the negotiating strategy employed by the lenders, culminating in the all-night marathon of meetings in Brussels last weekend. Sounds ominously like the related word βιασμός (viasmós): rape. cf. Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos in a statement to the press earlier this week: “Our Prime Minister was being blackmailed all night.”
στα τέσσερα (sta téssera): on all fours = the negotiating position allegedly assumed by previous governments vis a vis the country’s creditors, according to junior coalition partner Panos Kammenos of the Independent Greeks. Now they find themselves on the receiving end after several of their MPs voted “yes” to the latest measures (including Kammenos himself), not to their amusement.
The harsh bailout terms offered the Greek government in the latest round of negotiations have been greeted with a horrified chorus of #thisisacoup. The implication is that the demands of the creditors violate the democratic will of the Greek people, as expressed in the triumph of the NO vote in the 5th July referendum.
But how democratic was that referendum to begin with?
The vast majority of Greeks did not vote on the ballot question. Non-Greek speakers will find this hard to appreciate, but they should not feel too bad; most Greek-speakers were also confused. This is no accident, nor is it proof of political immaturity. The choice of question, the way it was presented, the compressed timeframe, and the rhetoric surrounding it were all designed to discourage informed, rational choice, and to encourage the knee-jerk reaction, the lazy thought association, the emotional response, the defensive reflex. Plebiscites are not designed for nuanced political thinking, but even within these parameters, the Greek referendum could not be further from a triumph of democracy and a pure expression of popular will. It was a divisive ploy, designed to let a cornered government off the hook of having to make difficult decisions, and share the blame for their failure with a desperate population. You do not need to be pro- or anti-bailout in order to appreciate the mechanics.
For apprentice populists, here’s how it works:
Set an incomprehensibe question on the ballot
Offer a very basic interpretation and a strong emotional steer, stir, repeat
Interpret the mandate at will
What was the question, again?
On the face of it, it was an opporunity to vote for or against a dry, bureaucratic checklist of policy measures, following the by now familiar recipe of fiscal austerity and governance reform that has been Greece’s steady diet since it entered the bailout programme in 2010.
Our more leisurely unpicking of the referendum ballot shows that it is not so straightforward. We have the luxury of time now, that Greek voters were deprived of. If more voters had been able to access, read and absorb the referendum documents, more would have understood that they were being presented with a non-question.
I have spoken to several people who decided to spoil their ballots or abstain after doing their homework and reaching this conclusion. One, an under-employed digital media professional who had used his slack time to take online economics tutorials, launched a facebook appeal to gather the supporting documentation. Another, a postdoc in natural sciences, had followed the negotiations in detail and merely noted that the bailout offer debated was no longer on the table. That was my natural instinct, too. Why justify this travesty with my vote? In the end I decided to hold my nose and vote tactically, anticipating that (over-)educated (over-)analytical voters would be a minority and that the protest vote would have the stronger turn-out. I did not want to be the principled Nader voter in Bush v. Gore 2000. But all of us felt disenfranchised.
We all know what this is really about… or do we?
The real signals that voters reacted to had very little to do with the ballot question. Here is an unscientific survey of reasons people gave for voting YES or NO:
To end austerity
To end subjugation to foreign powers
To protest against the corrupt political class
Because the EU/Euro has hurt us
Because I have nothing left to lose
To try a different model
Because Greece belongs in Europe
Because I cannot take the risk of leaving the Euro
Because I don’t want to wake up in Albania/Bulgaria/Serbia (with all due respect to our Balkan neighbours)
Because I don’t trust the government with a blank cheque
To cancel out a “no”
(Notably, not one person in my unscientific survey of YES voters said that they agreed with the specific proposals on the referendum ballot, but most grudgingly acknowledged them as the price of a future recovery).
Many outside observers will have assumed this was a referendum on the Euro or the EU. From the outset, the government worked hard to suppress this association, by stressing that NO did not equate to Grexit. They will have had in mind not only Syriza’s own election manifesto, but pretty much every opinion poll conducted since their election win, which confirmed that Greeks overwhelmingly favoured remaining in the single currency. In contrast, statements emanating from the European creditors in particular, tended to reject the notion that a NO vote could be compatible with a European future. The largest rallies and ad campaigns in support of YES were organised under the banner of “Μενουμε Ευρωπη” (“We stay in Europe”).
The messaging apparatus of the two sides of the debate was asymmetrical, but not in the way that is often presented in the foreign media. The government accused the “toxic” “Oligarchic” private media of terrorising the people with pro-creditor propaganda and nightmare scenarios. In the process, it allowed some of its more “outspoken” representatives to label the YES supporters as stooges of private interests and foreign overlords, and even traitors (“γερμανοτσολιαδες”, to use the evocative WWII term for Nazi collaborators). The same standards of impartiality were not applied to the state and party media, least of all the state TV stations that had been recently reinstated in a grand gesture by the victorious Syriza (the previous government having scored a spectacular own goal by taking them off the air in mid-broacast).
Much of the foreign coverage focussed narrowly on the broadcast and print media landscape that they could readily monitor and rushed to concur: yes, private broadcasters, owned by large state contractors, and often operating without licenses, greatly outnumbered the government-allied outlets, and they were generally supportive of the YES vote. But this misses a big part of the picture. The reach of Syriza and its affiliated groups is based on a formidable grass roots organisation in public sector unions, universities and the social media, including a long-standing tradition of telegenic street protest. Within hours of the referendum announcement, city centres were plastered with NO posters and graffiti, while coalition deputies were given ample opportunity to use the bully pulpit. The YES block managed to muster sizeable crowds at two hastily organised rallies in Athens, but they were clearly unaccustomed to taking to the streets, lacked spontaneity, and were easily lampooned as “the elites strolling in Syntagma square”. The YES movement managed to gain some popularity as long as it lacked party political affiliation, and gave some hope for the emergence of a civil society movement. The decision to wheel out largely discredited political grandees cost it dearly. Then there was Tsipras’s undeniable personal appeal. The Prime Minister made frequent unscheduled interventions across all media outlets in the run-up to the vote, with a measurable impact on voting intentions.
Finally, a NO vote had the unabiguous appeal of an outright protest. NO was not linked to an alternative proposal, there were no costs and benefits to weigh, no compromises. It merely implied that there was a zero-cost option, a way to end austerity, bring growth and restore national dignity without accountability. Between more pain and no pain, there is no doubt which has the most appeal.
The government’s NO argument focused on the most emotive elements of the draft proposals (their “red lines”), notably pension and salary cuts, but appealed mainly to an abstract sense of wounded national pride against the threat of humiliation. This rhetoric is the natural stomping ground not only of Syriza’s strange bedfellows in the coalition government, the right wing populist minority party of the Independent Greeks, but also the openly fascist Golden Dawn party, who both came out in support of NO.
The people have spoken
Ultimately, as some of the more nuanced government rhetoric put it, this was a vote of confidence, intended to strengthen the government’s hand at the negotiating table. By forcing people to chose between a “straw man” and a wide open mandate, the government was ultimately able to secure popular approval to do, well, whatever it deemed right in the name of the people.
Within hours of the the decisive 60/40 NO result, the narcissist, confrontational Finance minister who had vowed to resign on a YES outcome celebrated the victory of NO by exiting his post and the negotiating table. Next, the government submitted to the creditors proposals that amounted to an enhanced version of the plan supposedly rejected by the proudly defiant democratic people of Greece. The NO vote delivered a YES outcome overnight.
Was it worth it?
This would only be an obscure footnote to the ongoing Euro crisis, were it not for the toxic legacy that the referendum will leave, regardless of voting outcome.
Much was made of the administrative cost of the ballot, in a country that was barely able to scrape together the monthly public sector paybill. For the sake of argument, let’s will take the middle estimate of €50 million. This is pocket change. The real economic cost is yet to be worked out, but unconfirmed estimates of losses to the real economy indicate around €1 billion for every week of bank closures and capital controls (two weeks at the time of writing, and counting). Large numbers of businesses have suspended or cut back trading and put staff on unpaid leave, import and export activity has been frozen, and bookings plummet as tourists begin to reassess their plans to holiday in Greece. This may still sound like a drop in the black hole of the Greek economy, but at this stage, and after five months of procrastination, it could be make or break in terms of being able to orchestrate a recovery. Many of the businesses now in an induced coma will never be resuscitated, and Greek national debt has now been pronounced conclusively unsustainable. The economic fundamentals dictate that any new bailout agreement will be harsher than the one on offer even two weeks ago. Did this strengthen Greece’s negotiating position? You would have to be delusional to think so.
I predict that the social and political legacy will be even more enduring. The polarising dog-whistle language that Syriza and the other NO factions have employed to great effect in their rise to prominence and particularly in the referendum, has created a palpable rift within Greek society. Ask most Greeks today, and you will hear at least one story from each of a social gathering ruined by an angry political row, or a friendship ended over voting differences; this is shocking in generations who have had no direct experience of anything but liberal democracy. This rift will only widen as life quality nosedives further, either through Grexit or more extreme austerity. Dire precedents have been set for democracy and freedom of speech, and they are becoming the norm with every day that passes in stress and uncertainty.
A final word to well-wishing foreign observers: It is all too easy to tap out a word like “coup” in a catchy Twitter hashtag, it is more chilling to hear it repeated by a Minister of Defence who just a few days earlier stated that the army was at the disposal of the government to guarantee public order. It is easy to accuse the European powers of “killing the European project” by asking for more guarantees for their loans. Nothing will kill the European project faster than a divided, desperate nation on the fringes of Europe.