Photograph: Dimitris Vlaikos
PEDRO OLALLA – Philhellenism and Reality
The world of the Spanish writer, Hellenist, translator, photographer and film-maker Pedro Olalla, is a world of stark, epic contrasts. Today’s conjuncture appears as a threat of total loss: of civilization, of democracy, of ethics, of the mind. And Olalla goes against it, with impassioned language, written and spoken, and Hellenism as his focus. One of the high points of this resistance was in October 2011, when he placed on the Internet a 15-minute video entitled Palabras desde Atenas – Words from Athens, (press cc for English subtitles), in which he spoke of the problem of the “crisis” in Greece, seen from an international viewpoint. The scenario he describes appears nightmarish: that, in historical terms, those who control economic power in the world have appropriated ever more sectors of the political power through the creation and exploitation of “debt”; that they are doing this with the connivance of our governments and the absence of an organized response on the part of citizens; that what is presented as a “crisis” is in fact an organized economic attack, and what is presented as “debt” is the meticulously planned product of subjugation, a sequel to colonialism and perpetuating the same violence. The list of consequences is long: tax increases, salary cuts, sackings, ransacking of the health system and social gains, “third-world-ization” of the labour market, privatization of public services, with exploitation of national resources passing into the hands of foreign investors. In the past all this may perhaps have sounded like windy rhetoric. Now we see it becoming a tangible reality all around us, and for many it is already a living nightmare. Last Sunday (20th May) Pedro Olalla was in Aegina as a speaker at the function on Philhellenism at the Museum of Folk Art that had been organized by the Active Citizens’ Association, and we had the opportunity for a person-to-person talk with him, covering the whole agenda. In perfect Greek, of course.
How did you develop your obvious love for our country?
My province is the human sciences, so for me Greece was always on the horizon: as food for thought and as a reference point. I started coming and going in 1984, and this was when the “recognition” came, in the ancient sense: encountering on the spot the elements I had detected within myself, seeking them out and revaluing them in contact with the Greece of the real world. It was a fascinating process, to which I kept returning again and again. In 1994 when I left Spain in search of new experiences and stimuli I travelled around Greece with the intention of staying one or two years and finally I decided to enter into a give-and-take relationship that has proved very creative and keeps me here to this day.
When did the euphoria of recognition give way to anxiety for the future, not only of Greece but of the planet?
The point of departure was the decision by the immediate entourage of George Papandreou to put us into the INF. We had seen again and again what that means, in different parts of the world. That was when I began to monitor the fortunes of Greece, with some anxiety, but with just as much anxiety for Spain, where there are even more objective criteria for it to be subjected to such a “plan for salvation”. Quite apart from the huge public and private debt, the sky-high levels of unemployment and the generalized corruption, the most conspicuous peculiarity of Spain is the gigantic construction-industry bubble: thanks to its collaboration with the political class, the building sector was for years acquiring excessively great weight in the economy and, now that the bubble has burst, it has left behind it a distinctive “brick crisis”, which translates among other things into thousands of instances of fixed property falling into the hands of the banks and an insane wave of evictions: by 2015 it is estimated that there will have been 500,000 evictions, meaning 500,000 families on the street. The second is the unique administrative structure: the system of self-managing regions has brought into existence a huge state and a huge political class: seventeen parliaments apart from the central parliament, and a legion of tax offices. And the third is that at this moment we have in government a party that is aligned with the world-views of the neo-liberal hard core in Europe.
What is it that you fear most?
What frightens me most is the disorientation of my fellow-citizens. This is what I fear – the inertia of the many. In the recent history of the democratic polity, politics has been devalued: it has become a private affair, whereby some networks of self-interest condemn entire peoples to destitution, with the complicity of their governments, and for the purposes of profit-making. And really able people don’t get involved. This is a cancer in the body of democracy, for democracy is by definition a polity grounded in the virtue of citizens, and without that element it has no foundations. Democracy presupposes a “demos”, a people that is free and responsible, with a consciousness of its own self-respect and determined to exercise it. Where is that “demos” to be found today?
What Democracy are we talking about?
About the democracy we have to construct. Democracy isn’t an unquestioned reality. It is a desideratum, a work in progress. And in the times we are living in, all the world’s democracies remain very flawed.
What do you hope for?
I hope that before we reach the situation where the peoples are so naked, so destitute, that they no longer have the strength to resist, but will be ready to do anything for a mess of pottage….that people will get up out of their armchairs and resist this arbitrary power. The solution is to be found in the generalization of resistance and participation. The European citizen: Spanish, French, Italian, must stand by the side of the Hellene, because if he does not do so, he (she) will be the next victim. I also have hopes for the Internet. At the moment it has the capacity to function as the Agora of the Demos, to articulate a discourse and create linkage.
As far as political developments here are concerned, do you have anything to say?
I think that in the last two years for the Greek people there have been two stolen referenda: one of them that would have allowed people to decide whether or not they wished to surrender to a bailout scheme that would seriously mortgage their present and their future and oblige them to take out one of the biggest loans in human history (a decision taken by the Papandreou government without even securing the full consent of parliament) and the other to choose a new government – democratically – after the resignation of Papandreou, a right that was forfeited in favour of having an executive government designed to facilitate the tasks of the “rescuers”, headed by Loukas Papademos.
At this moment, the greatest defeat at the last elections was that those disagreeing with the logic of the Memoranda did not succeed in coming together in a united front based on a lowest common denominator and instead went to the elections divided. Pragmatically, and despite whatever differences I might have with them, I would today give my vote to SYRIZA, because it is the only grouping in the position to secure a large enough proportion of the vote to act and for a change of course. Already a great commotion has been caused in Europe by our election result, and a change of course is very important both for Greece and for Europe, which has not yet succeeded in constituting itself around a progressive vision, of democracy and solidarity. In my opinion if the Greeks of today succeed in overturning the scenarios of blackmail and robbery to which the people and the country are being subjected in these days, and passing that message on to Europe, this corner of the world undoubtedly make another great contribution to the progress of humanity.
P.S. (An answer from Pedro Olalla to the intervention made by citizen G. Tsatiris at the function in the Museum of Folk Art, with his assertion that today’s Philhellene movements, such as the movement We are All Greeks, are folkloric in content, lacking in courage, and comprised of lumpen elements.)
I would like to say that today the most securely entrenched lumpen are in the establishment. It is very negative to see these mobilizations as something marginal and insignificant, whatever imperfections they may have in their mode of functioning. The community must become more radical and progressive in its attitudes, and personally I maintain that the concept of present-day Hellenism may be hazy, but Philhellenism in the best sense has never been folkloric, or a kind of literary divertimento. It is an engaged stance that asserts the Human, in the name of Greece’s cultural heritage. Historically speaking, I think that without the Philhellenic stance, there would be no Hellenism, and without Hellenism, there would of course be no Hellas.