A book I recently read about Albert Camus, A life worth living, by Robert Zaretsky, reminded me very much about the current Greek political and economic situation.
Zaretsky does not write about contemporary Greece but he writes about key concepts in Camus’s quest for meaning. The Mediterranean, Europe and Greece, the latter through its ancient mythology, feature prominently in this regard. In Camus’s words, “the world of myth wherein I feel most at home is the world of Greek myth”.
In one of his most famous writings, The myth of Sisyphus, Camus appeals to us to imagine Sisyphus happy. The latter is a hero of the absurd, being condemned to push a boulder up a mountain only to find it roll down again. Yet, he finds hope once he chooses to push the boulder up again.
In a later work, The rebel, Camus says that authentic rebellion is moderation as it respects its adversaries.
In this regard, he makes an appeal for refusal to submit to one’s condition but also to avoid absolutist approaches such as those that are found in authoritarian and totalitarian politics.
Camus, thus, introduces the concept of ‘measure’, which is characterised in Greek mythology by the manner in which Ulysses preferred faithfulness to the land of his birth over immortality.
Similarly, through Prometheus, Camus explored questions of freedom and responsibility. Prometheus is tragically right and wrong, giving fire to mankind but at the same time violating the cosmic balance ruled by Zeus. Therefore, Camus argues, “limit must not be transgressed”.
In my reading, Yanis Varoufakis, the charismatic brash intellectual who was Greek finance minister up to the Greek referendum some weeks ago, fits in Camus’s notion of the absurd.
Greek hope is worth supporting but so is Greek realism against worse alternatives
His tactics hindered Greek negotiations, yet, he was free enough to quit after the referendum result.
The Greek referendum itself was rather absurd because it did not offer an alternative to voters, yet everyone was free to vote No, just as Varoufakis is now a free academic.
Hope is therefore limited to specific constraints, as is the case with Sisyphus.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras can be seen to exemplify Camus’s concept of measure.
The Greek Prime Minister’s relative moderation and resilience kept Greece in the eurozone and kept Syriza government possible, to the dismay of hawks, sectarians and Eurosceptics.
Despite a number of tactical mistakes, which revealed certain economic and negotiating limits of populism, despite its electoral effectiveness, Tsipras’s strategy has so far been successful.
In the post-referendum eurozone negotiations, Tsipras proved to be a statesman rather than an ideologue.
Now he has the task of leading Greece towards sustainability and stability, which is ultimately what many citizens aspire for. In the circumstances, this is the best legitimate alternative to eventually move away from austerity.
In his attempts to maintain parliamentary support for Greece’s eurozone requirements, Tsipras could not have addressed his adversaries in a better way. As he put it: “I’ve seen reactions, I’ve read heroic statements but I haven’t heard any alternative proposal… Syriza as a party must reflect society, must welcome the worries and expectations of tens of thousands of ordinary people who have pinned their hopes on it.”
Indeed, many Greek citizens seem to vindicate Tsipras’s measure. Just a few days ago, a Greek poll showed that Syriza remains the biggest party with 42.5 per cent compared to the 21.5 per cent of its nearest rivals, New Democracy, which also supports eurozone membership. The poll also showed that 73 per cent of Greeks want to remain in the eurozone.
Going back to Camus, he once famously said that a writer’s duty is twofold, namely “the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance against oppression”. This very much characterises the task that Tsipras now faces.
His government’s mandate to fight austerity and to remain in the eurozone present a formidable challenge to seek social justice but also to be realistic about it, knowing that the alternative to eurozone membership would likely be worse.
If rebellion is an eternal human condition against injustice that makes life worth living, and if this is bounded by measure and self-constraint, then we can say the same of Greece.
Greek hope is worth supporting but so is Greek realism against worse alternatives.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.