This past July Greek light-pop music singer Antonis Remos gave a concert in the private resort “Nammos” in the island of Mykonos. 1500 people paid the hefty entrance fee and the outrageous costs involved for booking a table in the venue. Among them were some of Greece’s well-known ship-owners, businessmen, and jet-setters. When a group of them opened a box of Moët & Chandon champagnes, allegedly worth tens thousands of Euros, in Remos’ tribute, the singer responded from the stage with a curse against the “bloody Germans” and a reference to finance minister Wolfgang Schauble, who “would rise up from his wheelchair, if he were to see this”. Remos’ insults brought national and international attention to lavish spending in the midst of generalized suffering. Yet some commentators defended Remos and the lavish spenders, for their right to spend their money as they wish. I argue that they are wrong.
In an article in the newspaper “Ta Nea” on 17th of August, and in the context of the general outcry against Antonis Remos’ concert, Panagis Panagiotopoulos defends “Mykonos of luxury and consumption” and our right to “enjoy life, spend money and use our body as we want to”. He criticizes the rampant “political correctness” and a “neo-conservative moralizing” of a “deprivation-austerity” sort, expressed by a part of the intellectual bourgeoisie inspired from the “iconology of the generation of 30’s” (a movement of poets and intellectuals praising Greek virtues of moderation and simplicity). This narrative not only “romanticizes poverty”, he argues, but also contributes to the “entangling of democracy” by the neo-fascist Right, undermining fundamental conditions of the capitalist economy, i.e. the freedom of choice and the desire for wealth. Like the anti-capitalist Left of Syriza which cannot see that the collapse of capitalism in Greece can only lead to fascism, the intellectual bourgeois do not realize that their idea of moderation legitimizes a moralizing reactionism which threatens market democracy.
Panagiotopoulos supports that, by attacking conspicuous consumption like the one in Remos’ concert, the intellectual elite does not criticize tax evasion, as it pretends to, but the “low taste” of the majority of the Greek people, symbolized in the popular music of Remos. In effect the criticism of the concert is an expression of dislike for the cheesy sentimentality and spending passions of the “bouzoukia” scene (light-pop music of a Greek style). Intellectuals are simply asserting their own distinction, castigating the taste of the majority. Panagiotopoulos reminds us that there is no moral or social welfare basis for such a criticism, since there is no direct link between tax evasion and any particular form of culture and spending. Tax evasion is to be criticized independently of whether the evaded money is spent lavishly at night clubs, or for Fine Arts studies in London.
Panagiotopoulos would be right if what was being criticized in Remos’ concert was indeed the irrational spending of money or the bad taste of music and attire. But was this the case? I argue that not. Spending money “un-reasonably” takes place also in traditional island feasts all over Greece, without raising reactions. And there are hundreds of night-clubs in Greece with music of questionable taste that have not caused any reactions. What was it that the Remos’ concert symbolized?
Zorbas’ behaviour depreciates the importance of the overvalued “ego” of our age. He did have a powerful personality, but he mitigated his own power by spending it unreasonably. Likewise, spending money in popular feasts in the islands dilutes “egos” into a collective “we” of feasting in common, renewing, in this way, social ties through collective consumption
A certain degree of “non-rationality” and self-destructive personal wastage may be distinctive features of the Greek culture when compared to its European counterparts. Indeed, this was part of what the generation of the 30’s saw as a particularity of “Hellinikotis” (Greek-ness), as distinct from a protestant ethic of restraint. The iconology of the 30s however was not one of lavish spending, nor one of austerity. It was one of “metron”, i.e. a balance and interplay between passion and reason (symbolized by the parallel devotion to both Apollo and Dionysus in the same places in Ancient Greece). Passion and escape from the world of reason were also symbolized in Kazantzakis’ novel “Alexis Zorbas”, a literature icon posterior, but imbued by the values of the generation of the 30s. Zorbas’ memorable feasts, gifts or self-destructive and irrational business plans were symbols of spending beyond a reasoned calculation of personal utility. Paradoxically, this spending was an expression of humility and this is what made Zorbas a likeable character. Unlike conspicuous consumption, his passionate spending was not intended to signify status. It symbolized a denial of rational calculation, a rejection of the egotistical optimization of personal costs and benefits. In spending money, Zorbas rejected the very value and power of money. Zorbas’ behaviour depreciates the importance of the overvalued “ego” of our age. He did have a powerful personality, but he mitigated his own power by spending it unreasonably. Likewise, spending money in popular feasts in the islands dilutes “egos” into a collective “we” of feasting in common, renewing, in this way, social ties through collective consumption.
In comparison, the spending of money by Remos’ customers is anti-social. It is first and foremost a vulgar expression of personal wealth, separating instead of uniting, destroying instead of renewing. The Greek elites by spending money in concerts like this, signify their power and status to “Krauts” who “believe that everybody in Greece are equally poor having nothing to eat” as well as to their compatriots to whom they basically say “unlike you, nothing can touch us”. The ability to spend thousands of Euros in a single bottle of champagne when others have nothing to eat is a display of distinction and power enhanced by the very indifference to the social reaction it could create. Remos’ concert is a shameless display of the extreme inequality damaging Greece. This caused the general outcry, and not the quality of Remos’ music.
P. Panagiotopoulos supports that the pursuit of wealth for display is essential for capitalism. There is no problem as long as the wealth that is displayed is legally acquired, he argues. Historically of course this is not true. As is well-known, in its early Protestant stages capitalism built upon an ethic of restraint and accumulation, whereas redistributive charity was (and continues) to be a principal instrument of distinction. Furthermore, in any social order, behaviours are not to be limited and judged only by legal codes, but also by a set of dominant social norms and customs. In other words, the fact that there is no law prohibiting the socially offensive
behavior of Remos’ customers does not mean that this kind of behavior is a priori socially acceptable. What is at question here is not just law evasion, but whether the norms propagated by this type of behaviour improve, or not, social welfare.
P. Panagiotopoulos is surely right that consumption and its display have become of primary importance for late (neo-liberal) capitalism. Previous crises and the limits faced by accumulation on the basis of restraint led to a model of capitalism based on consumption and the freedom of personal choice. Social scientists, such as Frederic Hirsch or Daniel Bell, had already foreseen in the 1970’s, that by over-privileging individual gain at all costs, this model of capitalism is self-destructive, destroying the legal and cultural bases necessary for its reproduction. And this is in fact what happened, and what lies at the origins of the current economic crisis, in Greece and beyond. At the heart of the financial bubble and its bust were the uncontrolled commodification of everything and the collapse of the social and legal norms that were putting a hold on the socially destructive unlimited pursuit of personal wealth.
The debt crisis in Greece is not just the fault of Greece, but a result of this general crisis of neoliberal capitalism (and this is independent of the fact that Greece, unlike other Western countries, had not been fully “neoliberalised”). Over-debtedness is not somehow related to faults of the “Greek character” or our tendency to “avoid paying taxes”. It is not just Greeks that are indebted, but also the supposedly more restrained Japanese, the English and the American. It is not just Greece in crisis, but also Ireland, the not-so-long-ago “information economy miracle” or Italy and Spain, two of the strongest economies of the world. Crisis in Western economies is the result of the pumping of cheap credit and money in order to sustain an increase of GDP that was otherwise unsustainable. In US, Great Britain or Spain cheap money was channelled through private debt: credit cards, consumer loans and housing mortgages. In Greece, where the State still plays a central role in the economy, money was created through public debt. Greece did not do something worse than others; we borrowed money through the state whereas others borrowed money through the banks. Even tax evasion is not Greeks’ patent. Sure, the petite evasion taking place in Greece is more easily traceable but no worse than the semi-legal flee of taxable income to tax havens. Both legal or illegal tax evasion, and the boosting of consumption through cheap credit are structural outcomes of neo-liberal capitalism, legitimized and propelled by the kind of conspicuous consumption exhibited in Remos’ concert. And this is the second reason why the lavish spending of Mykonos is problematic and consequential.
As in the 1930s, capitalism today commits suicide, and risks collapsing into a state of neo-fascism. This development has nothing to do with the anti-capitalist Left or the intellectual elites. Feasts like Remos’ concert remind one of “the last days of Rome”. They are symbols of an utter moral and social corruption, where inequalities and power are not even hidden, but celebrated and exhibited. I may agree with P.Panagiotopoulos that, clumsily expressed, ideas of moderation or sobriety, the praise of poverty-as-simplicity, or the exercise of distinction through the criticism of popular taste, can be highly problematic. The response however cannot be the defence and reassertion of the vulgar pursuit and display of wealth, when this is exactly what lies at the heart of our current predicament.
In some of the more progressive writings of the generation of the 1930’s, there were ingredients for framing a distinctive Greek model of well-being based on simplicity, frugality, conviviality and of being – and spending - in common. The generation of the 30s was indifferent to the politicization of its ideals and in this it failed. Their ideals were seized and distorted first by the national patriots of the dictatorships and then commodified and banalized for the sake of the tourist industry (the “Zorbas’ icon” speaks for itself). Yet, and despite all this, the secret for a new and inspiring narrative for the Greek Left, may actually lie in retrieving and re-politicizing precisely such ideals.