Friday, 25 September 2015

‘The freedom we enjoy in our government
extends also to our ordinary life’

Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp von Foltz (1860)

Patrick Comerford

The Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (Αλέξης Τσίπρας) had his new cabinet were sworn in on Wednesday [23 September 2015] following Sunday’s election, many of the senior positions going to members of the previous cabinet – a move that is seen by many observers as attempt to present stability and indicate a commitment to the terms of Greece’s bailout terms.

The thorny issues the new 27-member cabinet is expected to tackle in the weeks to come include pension cuts, tax increases on farmers, recapitalisation of banks, the privatisation of state assets and the liberalisation of closed markets.

Doubtless, these measures are going to bring further hardship to the long-suffering people of Greece. They are going to be put in place before international inspectors begin a review of the economy as a step towards to unlocking €3 billion in aid and address the crucial issue of debt relief for Greece.

Earlier this month, the Athens daily newspaper Kathimerini published a glossy magazine supplement, Greece Is Democracy, devoted entirely to the theme of Greek democracy.

The contributors include leading Greek and international academics from Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge to the Greek historian Thanos Veremis, who founded the thin-tank Eliamep (Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy) – I co-chaired one of the workshops at the Halki International Seminar organised by Eliamep on the island of Halki off Rhodes in 2002.

The publication of this colourful supplement marked the occasion of the Athens Democracy Forum 2015, but also came a week before the latest elections.

The cover illustrates the famous funeral oration by Pericles in 430 BC, as recorded by Thucydides (Peloponnesian War, Book 2.34-46). It is a timeless statement on the value of democracy:

“Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.

“The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

“Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

“If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes.

“Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.

“Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration.

“We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.

“Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favours. Yet, of course, the doer of the favour is the firmer friend of the two, in order by continued kindness to keep the recipient in his debt; while the debtor feels less keenly from the very consciousness that the return he makes will be a payment, not a free gift. And it is only the Athenians, who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.”

The swearing-in ceremony of the new Greek Cabinet earlier this week (Photograph: Michalis Karagiannis/Reuters/Guardian)

In what may be the most academic cabinet in any EU member state, with probably the highest number of PhDs, Dr Euclid Tsakalotos (Ευκλείδης Στεφάνου Τσακαλώτος), returns as Finance Minister. He is a Rotterdam-born economist and went to Saint Paul’s School, London, before going on to Queen’s College, Oxford. He held that position in July and August, and helped to negotiate Greece’s third bailout with its international creditors after Yanis Varoufakis stepped down.

Euclid Tsakalotos is a leading member of the “group of 53,” a faction within Syriza that has an uneasy relationship with Alexis Tsipras, and some members of the faction even threatened not run in last Sunday’s election.

Yannis Dragasakis (Γιάννης Δραγασάκης) returns as Deputy Prime Minister, and is overseeing the bailout-related ministries. He is from Lasithi in Crete and has studied in London. He was a prominent member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Greece until 1991. He resigned to join Synaspismos, which became one of the founding forces in Syriza.

Dr George Chouliarakis (Γιώργος Χουλιαράκης) is the alternate finance minister and remains the chief economist and negotiator. He has a doctorate from Warwick University and is a lecturer in economics at the University of Manchester. He was also the chief negotiator for the Greek government in the run-up to the third bailout package, and is known in the Greek press as the “invisible negotiator.”

Panos Skourletis (Πάνος Σκουρλέτης), who remains Energy Minister, studied economics at the University of Piraeus.

Dr George Stathakis (Γιώργος Σταθάκης) is back as Minister of the Economy. He was elected for the Chania constituency in Crete. He is a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Crete and a former Vice-Rector, but has been on leave since he was first elected in 2012.

Dr Nikos Kotzias (Νικόλαος Κοτζιάς), who remains Foreign Minister, has worked at Oxford and Harvard, and is Professor of Political Theories and International and European Studies at the University of Piraeus.

The leader of the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL), Panos Kammenos (Πάνος Καμμένος), is the Defence Minister. He has claimed that “Europe is governed by German neo-Nazis” and has called German’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble persona non grata because of the war reparations that Kammenos demands from Germany.

A colourful member of the government in Terence Spencer Nicholas Quick (Τέρενς Σπένσερ Νικόλαος Κουΐκ) a well-known journalist and member of the Independent Greeks, who returns as Deputy Minister of State for Coordinating Government Operations. He worked for a number of newspapers and front many well-known newspapers, and is a former member of the leading opposition conservative party, New Democracy.

But within hours of the cabinet being sworn in, the deputy minister of infrastructure and transport, Dimitris Kammenos of ANEL was forced to step down because of his antisemitic views. He recently posted a picture on his Facebook page doctoring the words above the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp to “We’re staying in Europe.”

He and his right-wing party leader more than any other cabinet members needed to hear those words of Pericles: “We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing.”

But perhaps everyone sitting at the cabinet table over the next few weeks will be conscious too of these words from Pericles: “We have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.”

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