Me and a Meander: Michael Pattison’s second Thessaloniki report

the tide turns

The ancient Greeks referred to people not actively interested in politics as “idiots”. Towards the end of Angelo Kovotsos and Calliope Legaki’s Time for Heroes, the tireless, octogenarian, Washington-based journalist Elias Demetracopoulos reminds us so. Demetracopoulos himself is no idiot: exiled during the Greek military junta, he was a persistent thorn in the dictatorship’s side. Uncovering financial links between the junta and Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, he had his Greek citizenship revoked in 1970, and later discovered that he’d been under extensive surveillance by the CIA and FBI at various points between 1967 and 1974.

Nixon was political. So too were his supporters. But even a political disinterest has deeply political consequences. What the ancients likely meant by “actively interested in politics”, then, was “actively interested in changing the world rather than upholding it.” And while every country at any given moment will have its fair share of idiots, in some parts of the world it’s seemingly harder to be one than it is in others. At the 16th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) in March, there was sufficient and welcome evidence that something resembling communism is beginning to take charge in the cradle of western democracy.

A large number of the Greek documentaries at TDF—including Time for Heroes—chimed with one another in their subject matters, leftist agendas, selection of interviewees, general anger and more. Several screenings were the most impassioned I have ever attended. Introducing his own film to a packed Olympion theatre, The Lost Signal of Democracy director Yorgos Avgeropoulos was interrupted by an outspoken audience member who ranted over his every word. After the film, I was informed that the audience member’s complaint was that the time planned for a post-screening discussion was too meagre for a detailed conversation to take place. And, during the film itself: boos, hisses, knee-slaps, outraged laughter, applause, exasperated sighs, sarcastic laughter, nods in agreement, fierce protests and, finally, many tears.

A large part of the audience comprised former employees of ERT, Greece’s public broadcaster, which was shut down within the space of five hours on 11 June 2013, after 75 years of continuous operation. Lost Signal offers a comprehensive overview of the chronology that followed ERT’s closure, and begins to gather in one digestible narrative a series of questions and angry tirades regarding the unthinkable governmental policies that are destroying democracy—and are doing so, “ironically, at its birthplace”, as one intertitle reads. At one point, when archive footage of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is followed by the latest slice of shameless realpolitik from Pantelis Kapsis—Minister of State, government spokesman and general suck-up—I thought a riot might break out.

sign O the times

I’d have happily joined in. The Lost Signal of Democracy is a persuasively scathing attack on the austerity measures and reactionary forces currently governing Greece’s upper echelons. These are the same upper echelons, of course, who—like their international equivalents—employ a word like ‘riot’ with keen abandon: as soon as it’s circulated, as my present editor once noted to me in conversation, out come the riot police with all the semantic justification they need to violently quell any sniff of a revolutionary impulse. On Saturday, 15 March 2014, I caught sight at lunch of a long line of riot police on its way to meet—of all things—an organised anti-fascist march in Thessaloniki’s centre.

On the same day as said march, me and my fellow jurors awarded a Best Film prize to Kalavryta: People and Shadows, a documentary about the 1943 holocaust of nearly an entire village’s male population by the Wehrmacht. At the time, the Nazis justified the massacre as a response to the killing of 78 German soldiers captured by local partisans fighting against the occupation. Hundreds of men and adolescents were machine-gunned after being assembled on a hilltop. By its end, Operation Kalavyrta, mounted against several adjacent villages in the Peloponnese, had claimed nearly 700 civilian lives. Though the majority of Elias Yannakakis’s impressive film concentrates on bearing witness to the survivors of the massacre, part of it also questions the extent to which the partisans were culpable for the retaliation.

Obvious answer to my mind: not culpable at all. I’ve had unprompted run-ins with local leaders of the English Defence League (EDL) here in north-east England and will never fumble for words when calling them and their kind a thoroughly despicable bunch. When a fascist army actively occupies a foreign territory, resistance movements play a vital role. The moral burden can never be placed upon the occupied forces.

Against actively violent racists and their apologists in the right-wing media, strength in numbers and an organised, mobile movement with which to effect brute force is required. It is not just that sticks and stones are better than more ‘diplomatic’ strategies; it is that they become, at some point in the anti-fascist struggle, a necessity. To quote Woody Allen in Manhattan, “It’s hard to satirise a guy with shiny boots.” We might add: it’s much easier to pummel him.

What makes a film like Kalavryta especially important is its timing. Brought to its knees by a repugnant, inept, debt-ridden government, Greece finds itself at a sharp historical juncture: with capitalism in the toilet, those mortal foes socialism and fascism charge ahead on rival recruitment drives as each looks to harness the hurt, confusion and anger that define working-class life in times of economic crisis.

city of industry?

Turning inward through prejudice and paranoia, fascism pounces with predatory instinct on capitalism’s divided: the vulnerable, the marginalised and the dupable are forced against one another with crude, short-term goals and the gilded promise of regaining past and fictional glories. Socialism, by contrast, is international by nature: identifying the class system as the root cause of economic crisis, it subsequently promotes common needs between the world’s oppressed.

The rise of political parties such as Golden Dawn, however, suggests an epidemic of political amnesia in Greece. With the events to which Kalavryta bears witness still in living memory for a number of the film’s interviewees, how is it possible that a visibly racist and murderous group like Golden Dawn can muster any support at all? As the narrator says early on in Kalavryta, looking at the eponymous town today gives no visual evidence of the unthinkable trauma that lingers over daily life there. How, then, was Golden Dawn able to nab 7% of votes in the 2012 elections?

Of course, an economic crisis is only the sharpest expression of ongoing class tensions. The crisis itself does not create fascism. Fascism is merely a reaction to prolonged social failure. Translating and republishing extracts from articles originally published by the Greek leftist magazine Xekinima, the Dec/Jan 2012/2013 issue of Socialism Today reads: “As long as there are absolutely deprived areas with massive poverty and unemployment then problems will arise in relation to criminality and general social breakdown. In these conditions, Golden Dawn and fascism in general have a golden opportunity to rise.”

Such conditions are incredibly contradictory. Their causes are two-fold. On the one hand, there is the apparent political predominance of a visibly malfunctioning economic order, whereby the capitalists remain in power despite the basic tenets of their worldview appearing no longer to be tenable. On the other hand, there is the extended absence of an organised left operating on internationalist principles—an absence that has itself historically complex roots.

uptown, downtown

The nationalist and inevitably racist principles with which Golden Dawn was able to grow in popularity speaks, then, not so much of an easily duped nation, but of the seeming impracticability of other political alternatives. As Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s opposition SYRIZA party, observes in Alexandre Papanicolaou and Emilie Yannoukou’s documentary Hope On the Line: “A great part of Greek society believes no alternative to misery can exist.” To this end, Golden Dawn’s cause was assisted by its own adoption of anti-austerity and anti-government propaganda.

But here’s the identifiable danger in every capitalist country. The government itself always (and rightly!) fears a revolution from the left more than it does from the right, which is precisely why parties such as Golden Dawn and the EDL are left to pay lip service to a governmental overthrow all while continuing to physically attack the working left. Capitalism necessarily enables fascism: to repeat an earlier point, the line of riot police I saw one afternoon in Thessaloniki was on its way to meet an anti-fascist march. It is said that in the 2012 elections, half of Greece’s police officers voted for Golden Dawn.

In Thessaloniki itself, explicit evidence of rightwing currents are—or were during TDF at least—decidedly minimal. Indeed, though its geographical arrangement made it an easy target during World War II—first to Fascist Italy, who bombed it in late 1940, and second to Nazi Germany, whose forces occupied it from April 1941 to October 1944—its recent history contains numerable instances of steadfast resilience. It was here that the first Greek Resistance group was founded, and it was here also that the first anti-Nazi newspaper in a Nazi-occupied territory was established. Both the resistance group and the newspaper went under the name Eleftheria; in English, the word is ‘freedom’.

Freedom indeed: making one’s way up the steep labyrinths to the north, one comes to the city walls still visible today. Dating back to the founding of Thessaloniki itself, these walls—and the wider fortifications they supported—functioned defensively against invasion. In the most north-easterly corner of the city, the Heptapyrgion, an Ottoman-era fortress, was used as a prison from the 1890s. It was still a functioning jail as recently as 1989.

When ascending the hills, the walker is taken aback by the cluttered hotchpotch of housing. Upon reaching the walls, she is then taken aback by how clean and serene the air is in comparison to the urban bustle below. At an elevated remove from the city, the streets begin to open out. Residents have more space, more time, more… home. The same also goes, of course, for festival delegates daring to meander beyond the safe confines of the cinema.

Indeed, none of this is to deny that Greece’s second largest city has actual and allegorical symptoms today of a more complex social snapshot: where general economic bankruptcy reigns, so too do the fizzing atoms of fascism’s potential solidification. Down below, from a more literal ground-level perspective, one observes palpable contradictions. The streets are narrower but the buildings are taller. To proceed along the seafront at midday is to walk a gauntlet of stalls manned by street vendors hawking cheap sunglasses, fruit peelers and other unwanted goods. To do so at dusk, however, is to join the ranks of a salaried workforce winding down from their daytime office jobs, out to enjoy a leisurely stroll or a run.

castin' a glance

As the sun sets, an elderly fisherman casts his line into the sea. Along the way and far beyond the point at which both tourists and locals begin to decrease in numbers, the sea secretly collects rubbish—just outside Thessaloniki Concert hall, a centre for the performing arts that cost €41 million and opened in 2000. On the horizon, a freight ship turns on its lights. It’s impossible to dine on an outdoor decking area without being approached by a young girl playing a tuneless sound on her accordion before standing there for some time proferring her dry, empty hand. Everywhere one walks in the city there is poverty.

Down by the harbour, where the majority of TDF’s cinemas are located (in converted warehouses), one sees the Port of Thessaloniki. Venturing toward it, away from the city, one realises very quickly that access is limited: the roads seem designed to circumnavigate it. A pinkish-red factory building sits abandoned and dilapidated. Not too far away, closer to the centre, other buildings stand half-finished, with no sign of construction or completion in sight. The seemingly disused railway tracks near the port itself have an especially grim association. During the Holocaust, the Nazis used these railroads to deport and later exterminate 96% of Thessaloniki’s Jewish population.

tracks

While the number of homeless people who vote in any election may be slim, the growth of unemployment and destitution are alluring dungheaps for the bluebottle flies of fascism. The present government, so the fascists will claim, has failed its citizens—and has done so not only because it has followed the economic anarchy of a free market, but also by diluting the long-standing principles of national pride and power. Greece, Hungary, Britain: it doesn’t matter.

It also doesn’t matter that notions of national pride are innately false, are based upon fictionalised sentiments and irretrievable pasts. The economic displacement of local populations is promoted as the direct result of a foreign invasion. Hence, fascism appeals to the base instinct of protectionism: our rights over theirs. That such invasions are themselves the result of economic as well as geographic displacement matters little: the anger and hurt caused by a failed transglobal system leaves enough young people disillusioned that any old contradictory cause can come sweepingly along and drill up interest with almost involuntary ease.

The decline of heavy industry and the labour relations formed by it is also of significance here. The advancement of capitalism necessarily coincides with the advancement of worker-consciousness. Such a decline was inevitable: faced with an organised labour force more and more aware of its own rights and more and more demanding of higher pay, capitalism understandably seeks a more exploitable equivalent elsewhere, and accordingly moves its plants and factories to continents whose workforces are less organised and demanding. Such shifts have prompted a crisis in masculinity. Prolonged mass unemployment and/or the disappearance of an intergenerational, hereditary labour market creates much domestic uncertainty: stress; depression; inward turns…

Humans are a social species. The danger in killing off working men’s livelihoods is that their natural wont for collectivism makes them an easy target for more hopeless causes. The deindustrialisation of the 1980s was followed, in the 1990s, by the corporatisation of football, that most socialist and inclusive of sports. Relying on the paid subscription of thousands of men, football today brings mobs together in fierce territorialism. What was once a magnetic pastime is now a religion. Meaningful to many, it’s also a house of cards. Recognising vulnerability in the faces of these men, fascism infiltrates such ranks and recruits them to its cause. On that crisis-ridden poison-pit we call Facebook, many otherwise pleasant acquaintances from my old secondary-school today churn out jumbled venom towards the system that has failed them: authority, the government, the police, foreigners. The motto of such self-appointed idiocy: “I’m not racist but…”

Capitalism is a snake. To ensure its own survival, it’ll side with anyone. The growth of Nazi Germany was ensured by the active alliance of big business with a party nominally opposed to it—and whose chief defining features were definitionally racist. Why? Because Hitler associated communism with the Jews, and so hated it outright. Capitalism’s future lay, in the short-term, with him. The Second World War, as well as the Holocaust, finds its roots in the international bourgeoisie’s vigorous fear of and crusade against socialism—the one thing that threatens it.

"abandoned pink building", Thessaloniki

The legacy of such an alliance is the disillusionment and dissolution of an organised left: how could the Russian Revolution of Lenin and Trotsky have segued so easily into such a trans-global atrocity? All too happy to accept and promote Stalin(ism) as the logical heir to October 1917, the bourgeois world was able to ally itself with Nazism in order to defeat it, and then claim thereafter that all other economic alternatives had gone west.

But capitalism has failed again. And with each inevitable, cyclical and all too fucking predicable failure, the class tensions sharpen and the fascists’ task is made easier. The task of the international working class, meanwhile, doesn’t change: the overthrow not of one government but of the system as a whole; the disbandment of state authorities and of private property; the implementation of a representational politics based on democratic grounds and economic needs.

That’s as daunting as it is exciting: as Marx and Engels said, we’ve nothing to lose but our chains. The wholesale abolition of society as we know it, in favour of trust, love and togetherness. Because somewhere, not too far away, a line of riot police is shuffling along a pavement giddily eager to harass, kettle and attack. They, too, are idiots.

Michael Pattison
7th May, 2014
all photographs by the author

Only Connect: the first report from Thessaloniki, concentrating on three new boxing documentaries