TAKING ON THE HYDRA
July 8, 2015 § 2 Comments
On Monday I watched Newsnight, something I do less and less often, its political and investigative coverage now being what it is, i.e. eviscerated. But one item made it worthwhile: a brief package commemorating the 70th anniversary of the 1945 election, which was actually on Sunday. This was the first Labour government with a full working majority, the government that created the Welfare State, and as the 97-year-old Denis Healey pointed out, the government that built more public housing than any before or since. Healey won as a Labour candidate in that election. The other Labour candidate interviewed, the 100-year-old Jeremy Hutchinson (Lord Hutchinson, celebrity QC), failed in his bid for unwinnable Westminster; he retold his famous anecdote about canvassing at 10 Downing Street, where the tenant (Churchill) was away but the staff assembled to hear him ask for their votes. Peter Mandelson was the third interviewee, expressing, in circuitous terms, his unsurprising view that 1945 was ancient history. Newsnight had asked – in a nonchalant, who-cares kind of way – whither the Labour Party?
Despite its token status, this piece had an inevitable poignancy. Healey, clearly frail though with eyebrows bushier than ever, is one of the few 1945 MPs still alive, and the photographs and film footage of that great turning point could only emphasise its remoteness: or rather, our present remoteness from those hopes.
1945 was also the year when the geography of Greece as we now know it became synonymous with the national state. The Dodecanese islands, including Rhodes, had been an Italian possession, acquired in a bargain with Turkey following the end of the Ottoman occupation in 1912. Until 1943, when Nazi occupation took over, Italy had held them in a grip that got tighter with the rise of Mussolini’s fascism, imposing Italian as the language of education. With the end of the Second World War, they were finally united with the rest of Greece. By then civil war had begun.
Greece’s nineteenth century had meant the long battle for freedom from the Ottoman Turks, but 1912 had not brought peace. The experience of occupation, war, fascism, invasion and dictatorship runs through Greece’s twentieth century. Yesterday’s Guardian had an opinion piece by Michael White that gave a not entirely accurate chronology of modern Greek history and reached the conclusion that though Greece has had it tough, so have the Germans, and Greece should therefore take more responsibility for itself. Like so much of the commentary on Greece’s current crisis, this shows an extreme disregard for the relative wealth and power of nations.
The end of the Civil War saw the country broken and in right-wing hands, thanks to British, then enduring US intervention. A US-backed coup in 1967 put paid to imminent elections and set up a military dictatorship that lasted until 1974. For a host of reasons, some of them external, Greece had little scope to develop strong political institutions or to build its economy, prey to the most parasitical forms of international capitalism and vulnerable to corruption. But over and over again Greeks have fought back. And they know that they cannot afford to forget their history, ancient or otherwise. Its injustices have pressed hard, and they do now. Earlier today Alexis Tsipras addressed members of the European Parliament with a closing reminder: “Sophocles taught us that the greatest law of all human beings is justice… and I think that is something we have to remember.”
Since the recession in 2008 Greeks have suffered greatly, the poorest have experienced immiseration, and the country now faces total financial ruin. Last Sunday, following the lead of Syriza, a majority of Greeks – in every region of the country without exception – voted no to the injustices of neoliberalism, an economic system based on the inhuman laws of the free market. Neoliberal economics have sadly become an orthodoxy, subscribed to by all the dominant financial bodies and institutions, by governments the world over and by the remnants of a Labour Party that in 1945 was committed to the righting of economic wrongs, to a fairer and more just society.
As Alexis Tsipras knows, the philosophers and the dramatists of ancient Greece live on as a source of knowledge and insight. Likewise the mythology of that ancient world continues to provide us with illuminating metaphors. I see neoliberalism with its many weapons as the Hydra, a murderous monster with 100 heads. As soon as one of these was cut off two more grew in its place, unless the wound was sealed with fire. In the end Hercules defeated it. The Greeks have shown the way, despite the enormous risks involved in saying no to their creditors. Let us hope that their No vote ignites the fire we need to defeat this modern Hydra. If it does we’ll be very grateful to the Greeks, indebted to them.