Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

News from Athens

Wednesday 4th April 2012: a funny old day, though my field notes record that it began well.

An early morning message arrives from Athens, from Periklis Douvitsas. He’s the editor of the publishing house looking after Why Democracy. It’s shortly to appear in Greek translation. “I am sending you the cover art”, he writes. He explains its minimalism. “We have had two best sellers each year (2010 and 2011) based on this design, a black [pencil sketch] drawing by P. Ghezzi.” With a hint of sadness, Periklis says he likes the “black fog” and the “scratched ballot box” because “it is a very good commentary on the Greek situation”. He signs off. “I hope you like it.” I write back to say I do, a lot.

Later that day, I log on to check the news from Athens, a city where I once briefly lived, and quickly grew to love. For nearly a year, I’ve been following events there almost daily. Political convictions should be tested, so I wrote several pieces for The Conversation. They sketched a basic thought that still seems pertinent: the citizens of Athens, against their will, have been flung into a stress-test laboratory where the meaning and viability of democracy have been pushed to breaking point.

Since those essays appeared the Greek crisis has deepened. Jürgen Habermas writes in his new book, The Crisis of the European Union, that the spectre of “post-democratic, bureaucratic rule” hangs over Europe, that its “political elites are burying their heads in the sand” and “persisting unapologetically” in the “disenfranchisement of the European citizens”.

Things are actually more complicated and much worse for Greek citizens. It’s not just that they’re being bossed about by publicly unaccountable bodies such as the European Central Bank, the IMF and the Merkel government and its allies. Truth is that the Greeks’ own system of party politics and representative government badly failed them. It helped corrupt their state and bankrupt their economy. Greek citizens were then herded into the rotten uncertainty that comes with unemployment, massive debt and poverty. Democracy failure robbed them of their dignity.

The afternoon’s gloomy news of the suicide of Dimitris Christoulas drove home these points. The distraught 77-year-old retired pharmacist shot himself through the head in Syntagma Square near the parliament building. Shaken witnesses said that before pulling the trigger he’d shouted “I don’t want to leave debts to my children.” The note he left behind, pinned to a nearby tree, compared “a dignified end to my life” as far better than “scrounging through garbage cans for my sustenance.” He added: “I believe that young people with no future [nearly 50% are now unemployed], will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma Square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945.”

Jack Zalium/Flickr

The public reaction was swift. A motorcycle protest rally through the streets of Athens happened within hours. There was a public vigil in honour of Christoulas, organised by citizens who pointed out that Greece’s suicide rate, once nearly the lowest in Europe, had doubled since 2009. Then came the evening hooded protests, the hated riot police and street fighting. “This is not suicide, it is political murder,” one banner said. “Who will be next? ” asked another. “Austerity kills,” read still another.

The suffering of those who take their own lives is always an enigma, ultimately private and unfathomable. But towards the end of a strange day I can’t help pondering what comes after Greek democracy and wondering whether Why Democracy is too little too late…