Immersed in thoughts about whether Greece will strike a last-minute deal with its foreign creditors to avoid a debt default, I found myself on Tuesday evening outside an Athens souvenir shop selling a T-shirt with this slogan:
To be is to do – Plato
To do is to be – Aristotle
Do be do be do – Sinatra
Shop owners at Pompeii must have sold items like this in the summer of AD79, just before the eruption of Vesuvius.
What is striking about the mood in Athens is its extraordinary calm. The sun is out, and everyone has returned from a refreshing Easter break. One acquaintance tells me the restaurants are so full – with Greeks, not just foreign tourists – that he couldn’t make a reservation anywhere the other night.
All in all, this does not seem like a society that knows, or fears, that it is two steps from the precipice.
To tell the truth, Athens felt more tense in June 2012. That was when Syriza, the radical leftist party, rattled the cages of the political establishment and fell just short of victory in a general election. When the results came out, there was a palpable sense of national disaster avoided.
Now that Syriza really is in power, and really is behaving in a way that raises concerns about Greece’s eurozone membership, you might expect citizens to be anxious, desperate or angry. But they are not. They are tired and fatalistic.
Except, that is, for the band of youthful far-left protesters who are in their third week of a sit-in at the administrative headquarters of Athens University. I have visited the Greek capital as a reporter for more than 20 years, and there has been politically motivated trouble of one kind or another at the university every time I’ve been in town.
The way the Syriza-led government is handling this protest reveals much about how it understands its duties and objectives in power. Far from cutting off the protesters’ water, electricity and WiFi, as a former university rector proposes, government ministers seem uncertain and divided about what to do. Quite a few Syriza legislators are sympathetic to the protesters.
The explanation is twofold. First, among the most celebrated moments of modern Greek history is the student unrest of 1973 that contributed to the downfall of the military junta that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974. Student protest is considered, on the left, to be not just evidence of a healthy political consciousness but a sacrosanct human right.
Secondly, Syriza is a party born to a large extent out of Marxist activism among intellectuals and students. Though some supporters help out at the homeless shelters and food kitchens that have sprung up during Greece’s debt crisis, the party leadership and apparatus – from Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, downwards – is anything but a grass-roots movement.
To end the sit-in at Athens University would violate Syriza’s deepest emotional instincts. Far more important, now that they control the levers of government, is to purge the state of the rightwing enemies who defeated their forebears in Greece’s 1946-49 civil war, made the lives of leftists hell under the 1967-74 junta and now have made Greece the helpless slave of its capitalist eurozone partners in the debt crisis.
In other words, Syriza sees itself as on a principled, patriotic mission whose goals are coloured deeply by the course of 20th-century Greek history.
In Athens, I am hearing nothing to suggest that the government will sacrifice this mission in order to make the concessions to Greece’s creditors required to avoid a debt default and stay in the eurozone.
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