Could nostalgia for a sinful past create a hopeful future?
Young Greeks look at their bittersweet past using humour and sarcasm as their weapons.
In a changing world, it is normal to look back at the past. Especially in “sick” societies wrecked by crises, this reflex becomes inescapable, and more importantly, invaluable. The courage to move forward only comes when we make peace with the past and feel supported by it. The Greek society is sick. And after seven years of being buffeted by economic and social crises, Greeks are turning to their past to find hope for the future. And perhaps this is justified. After all, nostalgia is a Greek word — sort of…
Nostalgia (noun): a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.
Etymologically, the word is a derivative of the Greek words νόστος (nostos = return journey) and άλγος (algos = pain). The French combined them and created nostalgie which was then adopted by many more languages, including Greek (νοσταλγία).
Greek history is indisputably rich. But as full of treasures as the Antiquity is, it’s also far too removed from modern Greek life to appeal to 21st century Greeks, who have instead found refuge in the 1980s. But nostalgia for the 80s is atypical and largely satirical, centered on mocking the modus operandi of that period: a mindset that led, to a greater or lesser extent, to the economic and political crisis that would hit the country 30 years later. Using social media as their weapon of choice, the Greek youth are turning against previous generations that acted irresponsibly and, according to some, mortgaged the Mediterranean country’s future. At the same time, however, this trend could be seen as the expression of a shy longing for the carefree lifestyle of that era, with all of its accompanying virtues and sins.
So, why the 80s?
The 1980s was a glorious decade for Greece — at least on the surface. Following the end of the military junta in 1974, the new Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, an emblematic figure of Greek politics, initiated the accession of Greece to the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor. These developments made Greece attractive for foreign investment and kickstarted a period of unprecedented economic growth. Not everyone was benefiting from it, though; those with lower incomes demanded a piece of the pie. They wanted, needed, change.
In the elections of 1981, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), led by Andreas Papandreou, the charismatic son of a former Prime Minister (and the father of a future one), won with exactly that slogan: CHANGE. Papandreou dominated the Greek political scene for the rest of the 20th century, with a short break during the period 1989–1993 when his political opponents banded together to take him to court over his involvement in a big corruption scandal that took place during his term as Prime Minister.
Andreas, as both his friends and his enemies called him, implemented a statist model in Greece. The creation of an overpowering state, combined with a rapid increase in the flow of money gave way to extravagant consumerism and an overly luxurious way of life. New cars, champagne and other imported products became symbols of the 1980s for a part of the Greek population. Of course, not everyone got invited to this party. A fair amount of people did, though, with most of them copying what their neighbours and political leaders did.
Andreas remains a very controversial figure today, 21 years after his death. Many praise his government for giving the people purchasing power, creating jobs, restoring national unity and democratizing Greece’s political system. The social welfare state was established and the economy was on the rise. Finally, Andreas turned the country into a powerful player on the international stage, with a multifaceted foreign policy that maintained good relations with both superpowers of the Cold War and a respected member of the ECC.
But many accuse Andreas and PASOK are of short-sighted populism purely aimed at staying in power. Not to mention a cascading series of scandals. People today often use the term “old PASOK” to describe the machiavellianism, corruption and wastefulness that defined this period’s leaders. And it is this same term that is used by the administrators of one of the most popular Greek social media pages: The Old, Orthodox PASOK (Παλιό ΠΑΣΟΚ — το Ορθόδοξο).
And why now?
The differences between the 1980s and the 2010s are obvious. Irrespective of their sinful character, the 80s were a time when Greece was a strong and wealthy country. In contrast, the Greece of today is drowning in debt and has virtually no national sovereignty, as a result of the bailout agreements that the country has signed with its creditors (the EU Commission, the ECB, the ESM and the IMF).
This immense gap makes the 1980s a sort of mythical era. So mythical that many often tend to forget that it was real, possibly in an effort to avoid blame. It is in this context that the past few years have seen a rise in social media pages that mockingly glorify the days when PASOK and Papandreou dominated the landscape, “favourably” comparing the former political titans to current Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his party, SYRIZA. The most prominent example is The Old, Orthodox PASOK, which has even more Facebook followers than the actual PASOK party.
If in these pages political disillusionment has taken on a fundamentally satirical character, a feeling of nostalgia is also present, albeit unconsciously. This nostalgia, expressed with self-derogatory humour, sees the 1980s as a carefree period that the creators of these social media pages — millennials, most likely — will probably never experience, because of the country’s ongoing economic recession. This is also the subject of a new song from the Greek ska band Locomondo, titled 80s. The lyrics of the song mix popular culture and specific events of the 1980s with those of today. The song’s final verse is a dedication “to all those who lived the 80s / the witnesses of an unmerciful change / a generation that is paying its debts.”
Some find this kind of nostalgia dangerous, suggesting that reminiscing about this period will spur Greece to repeat its past mistakes — if and when the country overcomes the recession. But that concern is misplaced. It is normal for people to long for a time of their lives that was marked by prosperity and high living standards. In any case, the websites that engage with this sense of nostalgia are run by young people who take a mocking stance towards a past that has condemned today’s youth to a precarious lifestyle; the exact opposite of the extravaganza that was the 1980s.
The new generations of Greeks have creative potential, and they show it in many different ways — one of which is, of course, through memes and political satire. The question is whether they will have the opportunity to apply this creative potential, nourished as it is by nostalgia and a self-critical approach to the country’s past, in order to create the Greece of the future. A future which can be much better and much more profound than the kitsch that characterized the 1980s. For the sake of the whole country, and of Europe too, let’s hope they make it happen.
*This article was originally published for Are We Europe‘s September issue on Nostalgia.