A tale of two cities, or more…


This time last week I was still in Athens. The difference between the two places seems more stark than ever. When I’m here in the UK, I can’t quite believe that it was possible to operate or think in the way that it is possible in Athens.

What is so different? It’s the conversations, the vitality, the level of engagement, the sense that politics is what happens among the people as well as among the politicians, the feeling that politics matters. It would be a mistake, of course, to romanticise that aspect of Greek life when the country is experiencing a significant trauma of this nature.

It shows me, too, what a different perspective you get when you are among people, even different to observing them. Back in the UK it’s frustrating that the media, the broadcast media particularly, doesn’t give the question of austerity an airing. It’s perhaps a reflection of how accepted and established it’s become in the UK that the the ferocity with which many Greeks are opposed to it – and to the Troika of the IMF, ECB and EU that forced it on them is so rarely present in the debate. In the same way that, in the context of welfare cuts, the idea of the undeserving poor has closed people’s minds to the plight of the unemployed and the disabled among others, Greece has been portrayed as profligate and unreasonable, as people who want something for nothing and take from the hard working people. Meanwhile, the Troika are frequently presented as respectable, reasonable, trustworthy, the people who are doing their best to sort the mess out. This takes oxygen from the debate about the accountability of Europe and its financial institutions, as well as the role of the IMF. The fact that some EU leaders have been talking about regime change in Greece gets a glancing mention, but really only in the context of at least then they would have someone to work with. Where’s the debate about the wider implications for democracy when a government that the Greeks voted for faces opposition of this kind?

Of course, the day by day, hour by hour developments preoccupy the Greeks, but when you are there, you know the context – you know immediately that an opposition leader who presided over the country when many fell into poverty shouldn’t be taken too seriously when she goes on TV to say how shameful it is that grandparents are expected to queue at the banks for their pensions. Where were they and what were they saying when old people were reduced to begging and raking through bins for their food would be a justifiable retort.

I miss the conversations about politics, the intensity, the roll ups. I miss what Paul Mason describes, using a phrase Aldous Huxley once used about Shanghai, as “life with the lid off” – “so much life, so carefully canalised, so rapidly and strongly flowing”.

Back in London, the lid feels firmly on. I went to the French Cafe near my home on Wednesday and sat and did some work. It struck me as strange that I didn’t know what the other people there were thinking about, writing or communicating about at their laptops. How also struck me as strange when I was on a bus that the conversations I overheard people having on their mobile phones were about where they had been the night before, their latest shopping haul, where they were going on holiday… So it was good to sit down at Bar Italia later on that day and strike up a conversation with Martin, who had worked in Athens, knew something about its history, the reality on the ground – someone who said how hardworking the Greeks are, for instance, or that he thought Greece had a raw deal in Europe.

It’s enjoyable to talk to someone with an interesting perspective, one that complements your own, maybe, but the question remains as to if it makes any difference – it’s like the issue of social media that’s raised from time to time – are we simply entertaining ourselves in our intellectual silos?

I’m staying with friends at the moment and because of Sue’s study, the word “dialogism” comes up frequently.

In its definition, Wikipedia makes the point that it’s not only term applied to literature, although it was used by the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his work of literary theory, The Dialogic Imagination.

Bakhtin contrasts the dialogic and the “monologic” work of literature. The dialogic work carries on a continual dialogue with other works of literature and other authors. It does not merely answer, correct, silence, or extend a previous work, but informs and is continually informed by the previous work. Dialogic literature is in communication with multiple works. This is not merely a matter of influence, for the dialogue extends in both directions, and the previous work of literature is as altered by the dialogue as the present one is.

From the Greeks I know and have met, I’d say there is a great respect for democracy, and although argument can be intense, there is a willingness to at least give other views a hearing. But in that country right now, conversations aren’t in the least bit removed from everyday life, or simply dinner table entertainment, the outcome really matters. In the UK, it’s easy to see news programmes, social media and conversations about politics, as something we do with our time. So often these aren’t conversations driven by the same force that I see in Athens – by necessity, the fact that this isn’t just a conversation topic, it’s life. But going back to the agitation I’ve felt since this last time in Athens, particularly since seeing Socrates Now where do our conversations sit in relation to the powerful influences arraigned against the Greek people?

The other night I talked to some friends of Sue and Roger’s about Greece as I saw it, and one of them commented that he realised he hadn’t really factored in the human story, so heavily slanted was it towards banks, agreements, policies. I’m interested in how dialogism might operate in politics, equally certain that in the current crisis it doesn’t get much of a look in. But the question is relevant to us all – do we seek to convince others we are right, or to have our perspective reinforced by others, or are we willing to risk not only hearing another’s point of view, but being changed by it?

In Madrid, I sensed that Nieves and Maria who I spoke to were approaching politics differently, that they had been involved in a process that was about focusing on finding a way forward and working towards agreement, rather than remaining in entrenched positions and digging in. Apply these principles to a situation like the one Greece faces, start thinking about the difference it would make, and you begin to grasp how revolutionary such an approach is.

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