One of the things that I think the English language Media got consistently wrong last week was their absolute focus on the idea that the Referendum was a confusing and divisive thing.
On the face of it, this is understandable. The Greeks were voting on an expired deal that their Government had already irrevocably rejected; what was the point of the Referendum?
In fact, if European leaders had just ignored the referendum this might even have been an accurate narrative. If they had maintained liquidity in the Greek banks and if they had not attempted to change the meaning of the Referendum from being about a single offer to being about EU membership, then the vote two days ago would have been effectively pointless.
Instead, they chose to escalate repeatedly. The ECB put pressure on banks and forced credit controls. Figures like Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz made one attempt at another to make the οχι seem an apocalyptic choice. The media, both in Greece and in the West ran a series of absolutely absurd pieces about panic. The goal of all of this seems to have been to use the referendum in an attempt to remove the leftist party Syriza from power in Greece.
On the Fifth of July, however, the Greek people chose to overwhelmingly vote in favor of the οχι across the entire country. So what were they rejecting? Surely you don’t get a huge turnout and a landslide victory if the issue actually is a rather arcane financial question?
The answer gets complicated. To start with, the Οχι has more resonance in Greek culture than almost anyone in the western media seemed to understand. On October 28, 1940 the Greek government (then a dictatorship, but this doesn’t matter so much for the legend) was told that they had to allow Axis forces to take strategic locations throughout the country. According to the popular version of the story, the only response received was the single word οχι, that is no. This decision brought Greeks into a head on collision with Italy and Germany. They trounced the former, but were no match for the latter. October 28 is now commemorated as ΟΧΙ day, and has become a general Greek holiday dedicated to the rejection of fascism and foreign control of the country.
So, what does this have to do with a couple days ago? Well, by escalating the vote into more than it was, the EU leadership actively put themselves onto the wrong side of a narrative that the Greeks have well rehearsed in their national memory. The recollections of Marathon, Thermopylae, Vergas, the Italian invasion in WWII all present the same basic narrative as an essential Greek trait: When faced with people who try to use power or money to subjugate them, the Greeks say οχι.
What Greece said no to was not simply the terms of the deal, but the entire dynamics of the discussion. The idea that other countries with greater resources and power have a right to tell them how to run their own country is offensive. The constant attacks on their character as a nation from northern European and English language press is offensive. The feeling that the only reason anyone is still using the austerity plan is because of a moral sense that the Greeks should be punished is offensive. The idea that Northern European banking experts have a better idea about the problems in the Greek economy than the Greeks do is offensive. These offenses have all been percolating for years, but the Referendum brought it into high relief.
Martin Schulz and the like became the face of a group of people that say that the Greeks cannot choose their future for themselves. A group that said that the Greeks need to let rich people from other countries tell them what to do. A group that said that the Greeks need to be deathly afraid of getting on the bad side of the European system.
And so the no wasn’t a no so much to the particular terms offered. It was a no to the entire idea that the Greeks should be scared of the Troika.
Out of the graffiti and the signs and all of the other OXI media that I saw in Athens and Thessaloniki last week, the biggest thing that stuck with me was the prominence of the association of OXI with fear. The Greeks didn’t just say no to the terms of the agreement, they said no to the entire idea that they needed to be scared about what would happen. They said no both to their own media and to the technocrats who had screamed the message of fear for the last week. The fact that the entirety of the Undecided column in the pre-election polls broke in favor of οχι is in many ways less a vote of confidence in Syriza than it is a rejection of the idea that the Troika and other EU institutions have the right to tell them that they should be afraid.
But this is not enough to explain the sheer sense of relief and the party atmosphere in the country. To explain that we have to turn to another Greek historical trope, namely the narrative that the Greeks are unable to come together in a crisis. This narrative also draws from a long history, but the basic gist of it is an idea that when push comes to shove the Greeks fight among themselves rather than rallying. Like the all such historical narratives used for culture construction this is a result of cherry picking the past into a cohesive story, the past is never so neat. But regardless of whether they are factual, these narratives have power, the idea that the Greeks would not come together was a common theme in the conversations I had in the run up to the referendum.
This is the narrative that the media was obsessed with over the last week. “The Greek Referendum is Dividing the Country” was the repeated theme. The stories highlighting chaos (which didn’t exist at all, in reality) caused Greeks to be scared that the no would win and caused me in particular to receive several worried messages from people back in the states. The narrative that was being pushed by the Yes camp and by the international press was that “Like always, the Greeks are not going to come together.”
In this case, the narrative produced the opposite result. The fear campaign pushed the undecided into the no column and the idea that Greeks would not come together seems to have caused the Greeks to come together. I think the parties that took place throughout Greece on Sunday Night happened in part because the Greeks had broken the narrative that they would not come together.
Greece is right now united in its total opposition to the dictates of Austerity and it is united in its rejection of the idea that it is a junior partner in the European World. Come what may, Europe is now dealing with a united Greece.