Greece 2010 -- A True Story
Huffington Post, 6 October 2010
Woody Allen once said "Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. The horrible are the cancer patients and the terminal cases..., the miserable is everyone else. So, be thankful that you're miserable". In Greece these days we hope to be miserable.
This 4th of October marked the first anniversary since our last parliamentary elections. Within this year, we Greeks experienced the narrative of our lifetimes. Plot twists, staccato rhythm, powerful but flawed heroes, vast changes in everyday life, falling masks, power games, blood, intrigue, crimes -- but, alas, very little punishment, boisterous montage, hand held camera shots, jump cut. To employ a motion picture analogy, it feels as if the producer went berserk and decided to pack ten films into one.
At the core of this narrative lies one crucial event: the financial crisis. There are many persons in our social circle whose professional, personal or social life has been turned upside down. In Argentina, during the peak of the crisis, Barrio Freud -- a "shrink ghetto"-- was established, where a handful of specialists spent all day trying to heal tormented souls. Each culture has its own specificities of course. Us Greeks -- being extrovert Mediterraneans -- like to talk. Not necessarily on couches but in tavernas, coffee shops or the balconies of our friends. We talk and we listen. And listening is what's new now.
But how was this narrative structured?
Calling a snap election, the former PM announces that there is a problem with the economy: "I am unable to fix it without passing austerity measures", he claims. The upcoming PM -- by then certain of his victory -- is also aware of the problem. He also knows that the cancer exists. What he perhaps doesn't know is the extent of its spread. But, in any case, you never throw the patient all the bad news at once. You go step by step, surgically. The first plot step is: "If I don't announce the whole extent of the bad news, I can be elected with a larger number of MPs, so I will have a clean majority and I will be more able to pass the measures which I consider the only solution". Don't forget, truth is not the number one concern in politics; what matters most is effectiveness and the restoration of hope.
In every election, the goal of each opposing campaign is to fence its opponents within its own narrative, to bring them to its preferred turf. In politics when you control the question you frame the debate. By achieving this, your narrative can become cohesive, with minimal leaks. Nonetheless, a strong political narrative is neither a just another slogan nor a "unique selling point", a niche. A successful campaign has to tell a story and to explain it in simple terms.
At this point, the narrative cries out for a Bad Guy, somewhat of a Deus Ex Machina for a political message. In our case, call me the International Monetary Fund. So the narrative line develops like this: "I thought that money did exist, but when I took office I found out that the state was in shambles from mismanagement and corruption caused by the previous administration. Our priority can only be to save Greece from default and the only one that can help is -- alas -- the bad guy. Thus, the austerity measures are not the product of my policies or values; they are imposed by the bad guy, the IMF".
It is brilliant that the Ministers who sit on the table with the representatives of the "bad guy" can then appear on talk shows feeling for the old ladies whose pensions have been slashed. It is a classic case of a "double message", but the narrative can find a way to encapsulate it, because one of its key points is expectation management: you lower the bar so much so that you can be sure to pass it.
This is not to necessarily imply that the motives of the administration are faulty. The right question to ask is "what else could they do?" How do you obtain social legitimacy to pass the most severe austerity measures of a lifetime without the narrative of a lifetime?
Nonetheless, this year's narrative has left so many subplots untouched, that the upcoming year will need a narrative maestro, a genius script doctor to unbind all the Gordian knots -- and not necessarily by cutting them. We all heard about some spoilers, but rumors are always rumors, and not too many people have access to the production office, despite our perennial national taste for gossip and exaggeration. The past has only been the introduction. Greece 2011 awaits.