Rot – Part 13

Even when I was young, I never understood the privileging of youth. Turning eighteen in 1968, one of the more asinine slogans I had to contend with was the one about not trusting anyone over 30. The French are so much better at this sort of thing. “Sous les pavés, la plage!” says it all without rancor, let alone bigotry regarding color, gender, age, or place of national origin.

In the event, my closest friend was more than 20 years older, and I certainly trusted him more than I did SDS. Yet, all of us at the time were in awe of the heroic generation of the Thirties, which had come of (its) age in Spain. What did it mean, then, not to trust anybody over 30? If you were fighting fascism during the Siege of Madrid, you had to be roughly 50 (or over) during the siege of Low Library (talk about history as farce). What, exactly, was the point?

Perverted Romanticism, of course: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very Heaven!” and all that. Of course, that assumes the ability to distinguish a real dawn from a false one. “Youth rebellion” might mean many things, but it rarely signifies anything even remotely revolutionary, or even societally atypical. (Wordsworth’s own youthful revolutionary enthusiasms would give way, in later life, to a defense of “softened feudalism.”)

Greek youth has been more or less protesting continually since the Polytechnic uprising against the junta in 1973, with each passing year piling on the disrespect to the memory of that genuine revolt. It’s been 35 years, and the “γενιά του Πολυτεχνείου” is now not only in power in Greece, but deeply entrenched in every cranny of public life and every part of society. Yet, the “rebellion” continues. I am reminded of another slogan from May ’68: Travailleur: Tu as 25 ans mais ton syndicat est de l’autre siècle (Worker: You are 25 years old, but your union is from the last century).

Greece’s protestors might be 25 (or 15), but their goals are self-consciously those of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Fighting a losing battle against Thatcherism (decades before we all got the chance to live through the earth-shattering wonders of truly free markets), the European left reinvented itself as the enabler of a new agenda of corporate entrenchment of what was once called labor aristocracy (now mainly composed of public-sector unions) fighting to freeze its benefits at indecent—and socially disruptive and divisive—levels of self-interest and -aggrandizement. By the late Seventies, European social democracy had permanently turned its back on its entire history of social solidarity (and political purpose and social cohesion) to pursue its new function as a management theory of group entitlement. Γενιά του Πολυτεχνείου, meet the γενιά των 700 ευρώ.

Greek college graduates complain that many (some? a lot? are there any actual data?) make only the minimum wage of €700 a month. At yesterday’s exchange rate ($1.32374 to €1), €700 equal approximately $926.60. The current federal minimum wage in the United States is $6.55/hour. If we multiply that by 35 hours (a full week’s work) and again by four weeks (for the month), the final sum is $917 for a young American on minimum wage. Not much difference—except that an American must provide for his/her own health insurance, which, of course, a Greek does not because of universal state provision. (The American might have insurance provided by his employer, but minimum-wage jobs in the US are not famous for their health benefits.) Putting aside the issue of the actual cash benefit of that provision to a working person (personally, I’d say at least $5,000 per annum, very conservatively speaking), the fact is that it’s nice to know (to say the least) that, though you’re working for minimum wage, you don’t have to worry about your health.

In Greece’s social culture, moreover, there’s not a young man or woman who is not subsidized by parents to often extreme (and, for any non-Greek, unseemly) degrees. (The laundry bag dropped off at Mom’s house is not so much urban legend as fading custom.) Greece also has one of the highest home-ownership rates, not only in the EU, but in the developed world as a whole, at over 83% (Eurostat, 2003), as opposed to, for example, about 68% (US Census Bureau) in the US before the subprime mortgage crisis. That explains why so many young people live at (their parents’) home. Actually, it’s unusual not to before one is married. More to the point, it’s considered “normal” for (indeed morally incumbent upon) parents to buy housing for their offspring once they’re married (a case of the extreme subsidization I mentioned above).

Most important of all, Greek youth has an opportunity now that no previous generation ever had: the right to live and work anywhere in the European Union. But it refuses to take advantage of it. Indeed, according to the European Commission in 2001 (Employment in Europe), Greece had the lowest rate of internal labor mobility of any nation in the EU 15 (only 15.7% of workers were at jobs less than two years). As for external mobility, a study by the European Central Bank in 2006 (Cross-Border Labour Mobility Within An Enlarged EU) indicated that, for the first ten years following Greek accession, only 10,000 people moved to other EU nations in search of work each year. That’s in a labor force of roughly 4.2 million! In other words, less than a quarter of one percent of the employable population chose to take a chance on Paris or Barcelona or London or Milan or Berlin or anywhere but near their respective παρέα. Home is just too sweet.

And comfortable. Because the fact is that a young couple can live in Greece on €700 each. Fourteen hundred euros covers basic expenses. Again, if we add to that visible income the invisible but very material family solidarity that is a given in Greece (and can’t be ignored), I think Greek youth are in no worse, and perhaps considerably better, shape than their peers in most other Western societies. And, despite their own incredible claims to the opposite, they are profoundly more privileged and economically secure than their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents ever were. But they want people to believe the contrary, which is why they’ve indulged in their own ideological reinvention. That’s all that theatrically self-pitying self-description, γενιά των 700 ευρώ, means in the end.

(To be continued)

7 Responses to “Rot – Part 13”

  1. Tom LeClair says:

    This cranky old man says this is the best post yet, but Peter forgot to mention the high price of automobiles in Greece. Hard to get one of those “self-movers” on 700 euros a month.

  2. Peter Pappas says:

    Absolutely, Tom, which is exactly what parents are for (in Greece, at least): “extreme subsidization.”

  3. Blake More says:

    Yes, Peter, but you seem to go as deep as what is identifiable as fact. And while this is informative and enriching for those of us who cannot live in Greece full time (at least not right now), mere fact and phenomena don’t really give an idea of the general and profound spiritual malaise that seems currently to afflict Greek youth. If anyone asked me, which they have not, I would say (I base this on the many conversations I have with Greeks young and old during the two months I spend there each year) that the problem with young people in Greece is that they are starving for meaning. That’s it. They have no meaning in their lives. Even their own lives don’t mean much to them and therefore have little value for them. And their families even less. And why does this make them different from young people in other modern democracies? Well, because the society in which they live is still holding on (some would say hypocritically and venally) to the bearers of meaning it has been managing and manipulating with great success for centuries (e.g. symbols, images, myths, rites) without realizing (or without being willing to admit) that the “traditional” meaning bearers are already dead and have been for some time.

    That’s the problem with symbols and similar devices: after a while they become detached from meaning and when this happens they must either be thrown away or reattached to new meanings. This necessary transformation has not taken place, I believe, in Greek society and even less in the Greek educational establishment. By definition, meaning is what mediates between human consciousness and human experience. There is a big disconnect in evidence when we see a store window broken – and that’s all we see. No looting, no nothing. Just a human act, a human experience, totally unmediated to the mind of the perpetrator by meaning. The scene has the same meaning to a dog walking with his owner as it does to the person who shattered the window. In other words it has no meaning at all. But to the dog’s owner, there must be some kind of meaning to this act – for him all human acts done by civilized persons, have a meaning that mediates between the consciousness of, say, the brick thrower and his consciousness. And of course the guy walking his dog is right. His expectation of meaning is reasonable. When there is no such meaning to be found, you know there is a problem of some kind…usually of a very grave kind.

    Nobody asked me to assign blame here, but I wonder if Greeks should look at their public institutions to see if they can make them a bit more public and not allow them to continue functioning as closed social clubs. I am thinking in particular of the church, the academy and the government. These seem to be the societal mechanisms whose job should be to make sure that the society’s symbols do not become lame, its rites do not turn rancid, and its foundational narratives keep at least some part of their luster.

    I tried to speculate (like a madman) about meaning and the lack thereof as part of Greece’s current problems (street riots are not its only problems) in an earlier contribution to this blog. I do not think I did an adequate job on that occasion and I am under no illusions about how I am doing at this moment. But let me keep trying.

    And maybe someone could tell me where Peristeri is. I cannot find it on any map and I would dove to know.

    Blake More

  4. Peter Pappas says:

    There’s really nothing with which I (can) take issue in your comments, Blake, which are, actually, more than “adequate” and, in fact, very thoughtful. Suffice it to say that you’re right, of course: I’ve always been deeply prejudiced in favor of “what is identifiable as fact.” I admit it: I’m an old-fashioned materialist (historical, biological, and otherwise). I “believe” in science, and data. I think ideology is exactly that: ideology. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize my own self-deceptions, (orthodox, almost nineteenth-century) Marxism being high on the list; it just means I try to adjust them to the world’s reality.

    As for Greek youth starving for meaning, I’d humbly suggest that they might find it outside the ελληνάδικα, the Church (which, in poll after poll, ranks first as the “most trusted” institution among the young), and the armed forces (which consistently ranks second in the same polls). Ersatz culture, neo-Orthodoxy (more ersatz culture), and flagwaving (the essence of ersatz culture): What’s wrong with this picture? Again, call me old-fashioned, but is it possible that this search for meaning and human consciousness might be more effective (and, um, MEANINGFUL) if pursued through—hm, let’s see, how about BOOKS, and MOVIES, and REAL music, and, oh yes, I almost forgot, engagement with the world AS IT IS, IN FACT? That’s what my generation did when we were looking for meaning, way back when. Not that I’d use my generation as a model for anything, but we got a few things right (for a few of us), at least.

    You’re also right about the utter degradation of Greek institutions, Blake, but—as with every society—that degradation is the product to a real degree of the complicity of living, breathing human beings. Greeks love to blame the κράτος for virtually everything—and they’re right most of the time. Except that, last time I checked, Greece was a democracy. So, guess what? It’s THEIR κράτος.

    Peristeri, finally, is a famously working-class “western suburb” (as in banlieue) of Athens (or, at least, was, as it’s become increasingly middle-class in the last couple of decades). Being working-class, Peristeri is/was also famously left-wing (and I mean communist). Which, of course, leads to the final question: Would living in Peristeri have made me less sympathetic to the rioting youth than living in Kolônaki? All things being equal, I assume the answer is a resounding no, since the left-wing fathers and mothers (and aunts and uncles) of Peristeri, and every other working-class neighborhood in Greece, consider these youth τα παιδιά μας. (Whether they are, in fact, is, naturally, a totally different question.)

  5. Blake More says:

    Peter……..Thanks muchly for your reply. The final sentence of your penultimate paragraph made my mind go wandering, of all places, to the White House, soon to be vacated by the president of a country that has not been so misgoverned since the British were in charge of their New World colonies in the XVIIIth Century. The current relation of government to people in the U.S. has, I think, certain similarities to what one finds in Greece. Apparently they are both divided countries. The voting margins in George’s two elections were very small (so he had no choice but to steal the election, right?) As I understand it New Democracy has a one-vote majority in Parliament (which seems to justify a certain underhandedness, right?) Even so, the fact is that in both cases these governments were put in place by “the people.”

    So, does this mean there is something wrong with the people … with their ability to discern and discriminate? You bet it does. When it comes to elections we are faced in both countries with a non-reading and therefore ignorant electorate who are dominated by their single-issue mentalities, which in turn center on what is immediately good for them as individuals and leave out of consideration future generations, the environment, public order and othersuch matters having to do with the well being of the collectivity.

    Is there a remedy for this electoral malfunction? Of course there is, and you hit the nail on the head when you point to books, movies, real music and engagement with the real world … as it is. (By this engagement I am sure you do not mean wholesale and exclusive embracing of “popular culture.”) With regard to music I offer an anecdote in a minor key. Having read an extraordinary book by Camille Paglia I was pleased to watch a televised address she gave (I think it was at the U.S. Naval Academy) during the course of which she declared “I was brought up on Rock music and I love it.” Good grief. Well, I suppose everyone is allowed at least one flaw.

    Books are a different issue. Access to them is free in public libraries both in Greece and in the U.S. (And what I have seen in Greece is really impressive, even on the islands.) And those who cannot get to a library can stop spending so much money on their houses and cars and spend it on their minds and spirits by buying and reading good books. Highly recommended.

    Blake More

  6. Peter Pappas says:

    Like a lot of other people, Blake, I’d rather not discuss Camille Paglia; still, I, too, was brought up on rock, and movies (as opposed to cinemah). The road from Chuck Berry to Miles Davis (or Roy Orbison to Bill Evans) is pretty short, and pretty sweet.

  7. Blake More says:

    Right on. Camille Paglia can get along without any help from me. And I think she is doing all right, even if I have only read one of her books. But I do expect people who are smarter than me (I) to have better taste in music than me. And she is definitely smarter than me. My own sense of music comes to a halt just before Mahler. The people you mentioned are all musicians, I think. I have heard of them all but I don’t know what styles they represent. One of these days I must take some time out and learn all this. As to movies, sure, why not? But I suspect you and I agree that books offer the real salvation for the human spirit.