And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.  — C.P. Cavafy


The lobby of the Arethusa Hotel, a few steps down from Syntagma Square. Caramel vinyl couches, brown marbelsque floor, big mirrors, men in boxy suits and eyebrows like caterpillars, broad-beamed woman in black leotards and peroxide-blonde hair, all smoking over Kathimerini. The dozen daily papers in a rack. The reception desk with its bank of pigeonholes. I love Athens because it still has that louche, loose feel of Melbourne in the ’70s, or like Little Athens in Lonsdale Street still does. The muzak from the coffin-size stainless steel lift is Cat Stevens: Bring tea for the tillerman, steak for the son, wine for the woman who made the rain come … and then the dance, as traditional as Zorba or plate-smashing:

“I’m afraid we have no record of your reservation”

Parakalo … [points for Greek]

“We have no record of your reservation.”

“But I’m checking out. I’ve been here four days.”

“Even so …”


“Did you have anything from the minibar?”

“How can I? I wasn’t here”

“Ah, we have found your reservation …”

Every time, every time. Checking in and out. Computers on every desks, and still it’s always like arriving in Nouakchott in 1971, as if the whole process has to be invented from scratch each time. I’m on the Greeks’ side, I shouldn’t make a big thing of it or draw conclusions but Every. Goddam. Time.

Still and all, nothing can take the edge off those great days. Outside, across Syntagma, the steel barriers have gone, by order of the new police minister, Nikos Voutsis, who has spent years in the police lines — being beaten by riot cops, as a photo being tweeted around portrays.


 The privatisation of Piraeus harbour and a bunch of other things has been put on hold, as has the prosecution/persecution of those who couldn’t pay their electricity bills, hundreds of thousands camping out inside their darkened flat for months and years. Alexis Tsipras being sworn in and refusing the Orthodox blessing with water and basil from the Patriarch. Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek-Australian finance minister walking the street without bodyguards, taking hugs and kisses, giving them back. The refusal to negotiate with troika bureaucrats. And yesterday, despite the presence of the right-wing Independent Greeks in the government, more than a hundred thousand Greek-soil-born children of migrants were made into citizens with the stroke of a pen. They weren’t before, they were in a stateless limbo, not out of fears of overcrowding or similar, but out of a last burst of chauvinist Hellenism: how could they be Greek? Gone, now, in a move that not only ends unnecessary suffering, but changes the whole idea of citizenship in the country, the reality of it, in a stroke.

In the cafes, in the lobbies, everyone’s been talking about the deal with Independent Greeks, or ANEL, made at 3am on a Monday morning, the time when ANEL deals are — OK I’ll stop this. Independent Greeks are an odd bunch; they’re chauvinist, reactionary, nostalgic, resentful, have a whiff of old-school Greek anti-Semitism. But they are saved from having a large contingent of really noxious racists (as, for example, UKIP has) by the fact that there’s a whole party for them, Golden Dawn. So Independent Greeks are not vile, by and large. They’re just fruitcakes.

Their leader, Panos Kammenos, is not only obsessed by the Orthodox Church and its enemies, a Greek Bolt, he is a firm believer in chemtrails, the idea that jet exhaust trails are laced with chemicals to make us docile. Of course he is. The Right is the repository of all paranoia and irrationalism. The Independent Greeks deal dismayed some, mostly Syriza supporters, as did the rapidity of it. But for the moment it’s looking like a good deal. Syriza have 149 seats in a 300-seat parliament. God, I like saying that.

If ANEL depart in a huff, they can now carry on as a minority government, supported by PASOK, maybe the centre-right To Potami (The River), and, at a last resort, the KKE (Communist Party). There’s no base for a spill against them. So Independent Greeks will get very little from this deal — most simply, less of a crackdown on the generalised tax evasion of the Orthodox Church, and a delay in legalising same-sex civil unions. The tough days are to come. And support is still far from universal. In a coffee shop that used to be a Costa (a UK chain with a Greek name), an old guy yells out, in English for some reason, “yeah, but they’re all Communists! Communists!” and there is a lot of this feeling around. When New Democracy were voted in, in 2012, to pretty much accept everything that the troika would demand of them, there was a widespread feeling among many Greeks that the jig was up, and they were getting what they deserved. The rorting had been shared out among so many sectors of society for so long that no one could really claim they didn’t know what was going on. At the highest level, national accounts were fudged — to disguise deficits, to get into the euro — but the conduct continued at every level of life. The public knew that a more spirited process of citizenship could have opposed it, but it never happened. There was the final Olympics boondoggle, and then the 2008 crash, and it all came apart. People braced themselves for the shock. No one expected what happened next.

Days later, in Exarcheia, the genuinely resistant space in Athens, walls drenched in angry graffiti, ad hoc cafes, squats, a dozen bookshops around a single small green square, none of your hipster bullshit here, at a meeting above a cafe, I feel somewhat less so. In the days after the victory, there have been meetings all over the city and the country, by the Left, the extra-left, and the beyond-left, anarchists hunkered down with Deleuze and Guattari while the city sprouted with flags of all colours. It was European “far-leftists”, mainly Trots, some Syriza MPs — the person next to you at last month’s march is now a Syriza MP — some from ANTARSYA, the further-left grouping that was hoping to get from 0.3% to 1.5 or 2%, and thus be in place for a 3% quota (and eight seats) in the next election. They got 0.6%, and some blame them for denying Syriza a majority in its own right  — erroneously, in my view. The talk here is on the Independent Greeks deal, anti-racism, immigration reform — anything but the economy, which is bearing down on the government faster than anyone dare think about, with 15 billion in capital flight, and the sharemarket falling 10%. A week earlier, the EU had released one trillion euros in “quantitive easing”. A trillion euros! Straight to banks. Where much of it will stay. But enough will be lent to take the edge off northern European stagnation or so — and thus further divide northern European workers from southern, especially Greeks.

“This will only buy them about six months,” said an editor from New Economics, “but while it does it creates real problems for Greece”. Everyone listens, and then the discussion returns to anti-racism. Given that Golden Dawn — their base in the police — go around murdering black and brown people, it’s a pretty important issue. But there’s nothing like a cash-reserves crisis, and no police salaries, to turn a resistant police force into a militant one. People talk about how they feel, inconvenient facts appear to be frowned on. I ask a question about Syriza’s ‘third sector’ plank – developing post-capitalist networks, co-operatives, an entire sector within the broader frame of left social democracy. No one seems to know. It feels like another chapter in the long, long goodbye of West European “far-leftism”/Trotskyism, which has been the backbone of a lot of organising. Marxists who don’t want to talk about the economy, who sound like the armed wing of the Huffington Post.

Jesus. “Istoria, istoria” Tsipras had said speaking on the steps of the Academy, to the polis, last Sunday night. History it is, or could be, because Syriza is the wiliest post-social-democratic Left to emerge, and that is no coincidence, because it has emerged at the point of maximum contradiction between society and system, in the neoliberal order — and because they were able to step in when the KKE made a series of traditionally disastrous strategic turns, and exited the main stage. So we have a government, a party, a movement, willing to deal with the reality of a system in place, but to build within it a third space of post-capitalist life, a space which the state keeps open, and assists, but does not direct. Modest now, the possibilities of this are substantial. Furthermore, realistically, we know that this is what the Left political goal has to be — that this is the state form we will be seeking in this century, that the Left state will always have to be an adjudicant between market, state and society – and that it is in the third of these that real development can occur. Would it be too much to say that the Syriza moment is one in which we can close the door on October, 1917, and the hold it has had on the radical Left imagination for a century — uselessly, for half of that? Can this be a starting point for a political direction that is fruitful and rich in real possibilities, as opposed to the endless performance of Antigone that the Left has become? The Syriza moment, in its various guises is how the Greens, how new Lefts, will come to power — and, judging by the state of the Right in Australia, it is not only in Greece where one will be able to bend down in the street and pick it up like a halcyon feather. You could do worse than spend time here, for it would not be political tourism, but an opportunity to explore new possibilities, and freight them home. If the city of Athens feels like the ’70s, it is not because of the retro decor, but because there were possibilities then, and there are again. If I were young, I’d go there. I am young I will go there, with hope, with possibility, without reservations.

“People are so angry. They yell down the phone at each other, they’re so angry”. In the dark quiet of the Alexandria cigar bar, in the Grande Bretagne Hotel, Nick Skrekas tells me about how the Greek collapse made its way into every area of society. Sometime broker, international lawyer, in blazer and cream pants, he’s telling me how the people around him have switched from voting New Democracy, directly to Syriza — across a line separating the Right from Communists, marked in Greece, last century, by blood, regularly refreshed. “They say ‘it’s the same old, families, they run it all, they’ve done nothing'” — as if that were anything new. But it appears to have become obvious to a lot of people in the past two years, and that is an interesting fact. For it was not only the plunge into depression beyond anyone’s expectations — a 25% drop in GDP, 30% unemployment — including the troika’s, but the blithe attitude of the Samaras government to what was clearly becoming a catastrophe. By some point the crisis had touched everyone — “the woman in the flat next door, she was a teacher, she doesn’t turn on the heating, people are rummaging through bins in the same street they live in” — which persuaded even those who thought that a conventional process of austerity would work. “We got a pretty good deal,” he had told me four years earlier, with the banks taking a 30% haircut, and a measure of budget independence preserved.

But like many, he believes that something happened, a disconnect between government and people, even when there were things that had to be done. “Closing down ERT (the Greek national broadcaster) in a single evening was a disgrace, but no one can deny that a third of the employees literally did nothing, did not even turn up. So what are you going to do?”. This is one dilemma Syriza will face — a challenge as great as negotiating with the troika. In order to smash PASOK decisively, it simply promised a restoration of a society that can’t exist anymore — a massive clientelist state, with people’s lives and stability anchored by public service jobs. Much of the howling criticism of Greece was directed at its generous public service provisions, and retirement at 55 — unaltered from a time when life-expectancy was not much more. But Greece’s welfare system is familial, not individual. The dole has always been practically non-existent. Families support each other, and public service salaries and pensions acted as a keystone, which kept more precarious lives upright. “So really a year or so ago, everyone ran out of money”. Once that happened, once people couldn’t lend to each other, because the entire society was so deflated that there was no cash, then many made a psychological break — with PASOK, which continued to support ND, and with ND itself. Hundreds, thousands of co-operatives have sprung up, from free medical clinics, to ad hoc farmers markets, to collective cafes and workspaces — many of them simply so people can go somewhere where the heating is on. In the metro, you look around, and notice how frayed and scuffed so many people’s clothes are – and you realise that this is what depression looks like, what the 30s must have looked like. Not the people at the gates, but the slow winding down of everything, the unpicking of the thread. “PASOK really bears more to blame than anyone for this” says Nick as we finish our six-euro mineral waters. “But they’re paying for it. And I don’t know if Syriza will be good for Greece — if we default, Jesus, the first thing would be hyperinflation, and real starvation, and I don’t know what — but this is going for be good for Europe. This is what is needed.”