Why would people seem to vote for their own destruction? Why would they go against their own economic interests? Why would they risk abandoning the Euro?
Perplexed politicians, journalists, and ordinary individuals from around the world posed these questions following the Greek referendum on Sunday, July 5, 2015. Friends, colleagues discussed this with me as well. No one could make sense of how an entire nation could defy the European political and economic establishment and jeopardize its future.
In the hastily arranged referendum the Greek people were asked to vote on whether to accept the latest offer presented to them by their European creditors. The radical-left government of Alexis Tsipras, elected to power in January 2015, had been engaged in acrimonious and fruitless negotiation with the European creditors to alleviate the burden of this debt that had plunged the Greek economy in a depression unprecedented in time of peace. Not only were the creditors unwilling to offer debt-relief but they also presented Tsipras with an ultimatum to accept their latest proposal. Unwilling to buckle to these demands and renege on his elections promises, Tsipras announced the referendum on whether to accept this offer from the creditors.
The referendum was to take place in a week when the social, political, and economic conditions of the country were becoming perilous. Not being able to pay the latest installment to the IMF, Greece was technically in default. Worse still, the Greek people, fearful of an imminent exit from the Euro, emptied the ATMs in one weekend.
In a political move, the European Central Bank refused to offer any more liquidity to the Greek Central Bank. As a result the Greek government imposed currency controls, with each citizen able to withdraw €60 daily (about U.S. $66.00). Lines continued to form everyday, with pictures on television of senior citizens fainting in front of closed banks. There were stories of Greeks hoarding food and medicines and other news accounts reporting shortages.
To many commentators inside and outside of Greece this was going to be a taste of things to come, the chaos that would ensue after a Greek exit from the Euro. People were understandably frightened. And I, having just returned to the US from a five-month research trip to Athens, was worried about my relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
World attention focused on Greece, with over 1000 correspondents arriving in Athens to cover the referendum. How would Greeks vote? Would they be horrified at the worsening economic state of their country and cross the Yes box? Or would they jump into the abyss outside of the Euro?
Astonishingly, 61% voted against the latest offer from the creditors. People, including myself who had hoped for a Yes vote, were shocked and dumbfounded. Why did they do it? I offer below a provisional attempt to understand.
First, one must remember that for the last five years Greece has been undergoing a severe depression that was orchestrated by the neoliberal policies of the Eurogroup, the IMF, and the European Central Bank. As Thomas Piketty pointed out in the Guardian, the economy has shrunk by 25%, unemployment is 25%, with youth unemployment set at over 60%. Wages and salaries have been cut back by as much as 40%. There is widespread poverty and misery. No modern, western economy has experienced such implosion since WWII.
Believing that they had little more to lose, some people began to think the unthinkable, to take risks, the see themselves beyond fear. Greeks whom I spoke with told me that they could not bear the conditions of life any longer and wanted to send a message to the world.
Above all, they wanted to maintain their dignity. Over and over, they said that their self-worth was more important than their pocketbooks. It was this aspect of pride and defiance that European and American commentators had a hard time understanding—that a people could exist for whom self-respect and honor were more significant than economic well-being.
It is important to keep in mind that “Ochi,” the Greek word for “No,” has symbolic associations in Greek history. In 1821 the Greeks launched the first national revolution in the world to end 400 years of Ottoman rule. In October 28, 1940 they said "Ochi" to the invasion of their country by the army of Benito Mussolini. Indeed October 28 is celebrated as Ochi Day, a national holiday. Subsequently Greeks fought valiantly against the Nazi invasion, even when the Germans took gruesome reprisals against them, prompting Winston Churchill to declare that, “hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
It was this boldness that expressed itself during the referendum. Young and old, workers and professionals, showed that in utter hopelessness you could maintain your dignity. And we, accustomed to materialist explanations of human motivation, namely that people would chose their pocket books over pride, have difficulty understanding this.
As Pericles said in his oration to the Athenians in 431 BCE, “happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.” This freedom became more elusive a week after the referendum when the Eurogroup, led by Germany, converted Greece into a debtor’s colony, punishing the Greeks for their defiance.
But we should keep in mind the final words of Pericles. “One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn with age, is not making money” but having one’s self-respect.