As we work our way through material for Time of Troubles, we are struck by many things, such as the rampant economics imperialism of the last couple of decades, or the assumption that the ‘economy’ refers only to commercial activity and that agriculture is for some strange reason not an economic activity. But the other day, I was struck by another question: why did female slaves not tend to work the fields in ancient Greece and Rome? It may have something to do with the following assumptions, shared by all classes in these ancient societies. For example, as Ste. Croix points out, it was believed that if a menstruating woman touched a rue shrub it would wither. If she even glanced at young cucumber shoots, they would immediately die. On the other hand, such special properties may have been put to good use, for it was also believed that a menstruating woman could kill caterpillars by walling around the endangered plant three times with loose hair. Then again, the risk of collateral damage may have been too great.


Are we witnessing the end of the myth of Western classicism? By this I mean the myth that ancient Greece, with its philosophers, drama, art, culture and pretence at democracy, is the foundation of ‘Western’ – that is, European – culture. The efforts by many of the north-western European powers to force Greece out of the Eurozone and the European Union suggest that we may well be seeing the end of that myth.

Slightly less than two hundred years ago, ancient Greece entered forcefully into the Western European consciousness. In 1823 Greece began fighting for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Support in Western Europe was widespread and enthusiastic. By 1827, the Ottoman fleet was destroyed at Navarino. Greece became autonomous and independent, which for many Europeans was Greece’s ‘natural’ status. In Western Europe, people of all manner of persuasions supported Greece’s inclusion in Europe: Christians, political liberals and left-wingers, conservatives and even new humanists. Greece stood at the border of civilised Europe and the barbarous Orient, so it was crucial to claim that it was part of a vibrant and advanced Europe. No longer were ancient Egypt, India and China the embodiments of power, wealth and wisdom.

The elevation of all things Greek was spectacular. What had been a trickle became a flood. As custodians of ancient Greece, the modern Greeks embodied ‘progress’ in terms of freedom, harmony, individualism and the role of reason, and they provided the sources of philosophy, drama, the arts, politics and the ideal of the human form. Philhellenes abounded, especially in Germany, where Greece was regarded as the true source of all that was good in the world. Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Friedrich August Wolf may have been precursors in the later eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, the Humboldts and Hegel all proclaimed the greatness of Greece. For Hegel, only in ancient Greece had human society begun ‘to live in its homeland’ (The Philosophy of History, 1837, p. 247). Or as Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, an early sociologist, wrote in Kulturgeschichtliche Charakterkopfe (1891) concerning his recollections of life in a German gymnasium of the time:

We regarded Greece as our second homeland; for it was the seat of all nobility of thought and feeling, the home of harmonious humanity. Yes, we even thought that ancient Greece belonged to Germany because, of all the modern peoples, the Germans had developed the deepest understanding of the Hellenic spirit, of Hellenic art, and of the harmonious Hellenic way of life.

How things have changed. A couple of centuries ago, a Western Europe conscious of its new global power needed a dynamic new model that was in some way European. The classical Greeks provided that image: youthful, energetic, progressive, even ‘democratic’ (although this took longer to emerge). The ‘Classics’ became the core requirements for educating the ruling class, providing a cultural framework that had its own codes and signals. Plato occupied the chair in many philosophy departments, with Aristotle his understudy. Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes found similar locations in drama departments. Pericles and Athenian democracy became the darlings of political science. All of them seemed very much present, interlocutors in current debates.

Now Greece is a pariah. For north-western Europeans in our time, Greece is the embodiment of ‘southern laziness’. Their culture is chaotic; they cannot manage their finances; they allow all those dreadful Africans into Europe; they are too close to Turkey and the turmoil of the Middle East. So for the last five years, they have been punished with ‘austerity’ measures, administered by European banks, funds and politicians. At the forefront is Germany, which has had a profound change of heart. And when the Greeks elected a mildly left-wing government, led by Syriza, the grey bureaucrats of the European Union felt called upon to punish Greece even further. How dare they vote against austerity measures! They will be brought to heel. So each time the government of Tsipras caves in and agrees to the latest round of measures, the EU manipulators raise the bar.

Indeed, it has become clear that a hard-core majority of European states want to push Greece out of the Eurozone, out of the European Union, and thereby out of Europe. They keep proposing measures that Greeks can hardly accept. The tragedy in all of this is that many Greeks have internalised the myth of the Greek origins of Europe. While they oppose the crippling austerity measures, they overwhelmingly wish to remain part of Europe. Indeed, they cannot imagine that the rest of Europe would banish them. Or rather, they respond with disbelief that north-western Europe should wish to do so. In light of this situation, it may well be that for the time being the government caves in to the latest and even harsher measures. But this will be yet another step in the process of banishing Greece.

The symbolism is powerful. The fount of Western civilisation is now being stripped of that mythical honour. It may have enjoyed this status for a couple of centuries, but it is fading fast. But this raises a problem: who or what will become the new basis? Will it be a revamped Aryan myth? Not so long ago, this myth was expressed in terms of the Indo-European hypothesis. The problem with the hypothesis is that it included the Greeks. But another strain has always argued that human civilisation began not in the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East, not even among the Mediterranean peoples, but in northern latitudes. Will this become the dominant myth of north-western Europe as it demonises anyone from southern or eastern Europe – especially Greece?

By now the dust has somewhat settled on the much-watched elections in that Balkan country, Greece. It would have to have been one of the most interfered-with elections in recent European history, in a way that makes Putin look like a shining democrat. No surprises that the conservatives ‘won’, primed, financed and advised by the Euro-lords and led by a man, Samaras, in one of those repulsive business suits that signals money and exploitation. Of course, many among the left are disappointed that Syriza ‘lost’, let alone the communist KKE.

The whole terminology of ‘win’ and ‘loss’ in elections has taken on the air of football matches – like the Euro 2012 going on at the same moment. Your team trains, fronts the media, does its best or maybe not so best. If they win, you leap about, feel the tingle in the spine, drink yourself into the ground, and think the world has changed. If they lose, you drag your feet, smash things, don’t want to get out of bed, weep inconsolably. But everyone abides by the rules of the game. With the final whistle, it’s game over. The losers may complain about the refereeing, sack a coach, and so on. But until the next game, everyone goes home and gets on with life.

So where the hell is Lenin when we need him? Elections and the parliamentary system aren’t about ‘winning’ and ‘losing’. They are means for getting your party’s views out to a much wider audience rather than playing according to someone else’s rules. On that score, the Greek elections were a raging success. Elections are certainly not the main game, and you don’t go home after the final vote is counted. Rather, they comprise one element in a much larger scene, which includes active organisation, strikes, legal and illegal activity, agitation among the armed forces, for without the army no revolution is successful, and of course the willingness to seize power when the time is right.

I remember some time back in 2003 or thereabouts, pundits were wondering whether a renewed and united Europe might challenge US dominance, acting as a counter-weight to the last one standing after the Cold War. The drive to unity seemed strong, eastern European countries were joining in the grand project, the constitution was being bounced around, economic figures seemed promising. How quaint all that discussion now seems. The truth is that ever since 1945, Europe has been the US’s tart. While the USA enjoyed global economic power, it could buy it’s tart (one of many) fancy clothes, nice cars, penthouse apartments, in exchange for a few ‘services’. And Europe could pretend that it was doing reasonably well on its own, that it was a respectable dame, to the extent of thinking it might go out on its own. But now that the pimp has begun to find cash a little short, to realise that its control of the streets is slipping, the tart has found that the good life really is over. All that the rolling crisis since 2008 has done is strip off the baubles, repossess the fine cars and evict the tenant from the penthouse.  (Here it is worth remembering that as soon as a major power needs to use military force, it has already begun the long slide downhill; the reason is that use of force is a signal that others dare to challenge it. That would mean the decline of the USA began in the 1970s).

The problem is that it is taking a while to realise this. Like passengers on a ship who refuse to believe that the alarming tilt of the ship is more than a roll, people assert that the ‘euro will not collapse’, that ‘they will do something’. Might be worth going up on deck to see what is going on. Or, to shift the metaphor, all that the EU managers are left with is trying to emulate God at the moment of creation: merely saying that the crisis will be averted, that the Euro will be saved, that Europe will survive, is somehow regarded as enough to make it actually happen.

I would suggest that the Greek situation (or indeed Spanish or …) is part of this larger picture. Rather than some short-circuit that may revive Europe, it is better seen as a clear indication of the marginalisation (or peripheralisation) of Europe on the world stage. Why? The problem is not Greece but Europe as a whole, which is pretty much cactus – as any time spent there soon reveals. Further, the possibility that there may be a revolution in Greece, even if it is crushed initially, signals precisely that marginalisation. Recall that all of the successful communist revolutions have happened on the global peripheries thus far. But rather than make the most of this situation, a goodly number on the Left remain residual Eurocentrics. Having given up on other parts of the globe as the locus of any progressive promise, they hold vainly onto the belief that Europe will lead the way. Better to embrace the marginalisation and go hell for revolutionary leather.

When were veils invented for women? Was it Muhammad, or perhaps one of his followers? Not at all, for veiling is first attested in a Middle Assyrian law code from between 1400 and 1100 BCE. It distinguishes between five classes of women: respectable women (married or concubines), widows, daughters of free men, prostitutes (both temple and street) and slaves. The first three classes were to wear a veil, the other two not. And for not observing this rule – the prostitutes and slaves were to be beaten if seen wearing a veil.

The context was an ongoing class conflict, between the ruling class and increasingly impoverished farmers. Part of that oppression involved women – wives and daughters – being sold to slavery and/or prostitution. Soon enough, poor women regularly engaged in periodic prostitution, while the women of the ruling class were increasingly guarded. The law was an effort to determine who was who.

But veiling took off in another society somewhat later but with similar approaches to women – ancient Greece, the source of all those beautiful things such as philosophy, democracy, sculpture, architecture and plays. The wonderful aristocracy, which included figures such as Plato and Aristotle, thought it was perfectly fine to bugger adolescent boys while their women were sequestered at home, chaste and modest, away from the sordid life of the streets. And if she went outside, a woman in a democratic city like Athens would never be seen without a veil. What began as an aristocratic affection soon became a practice for all ‘respectable’ women.

Why waste a good crisis? Or so the adage would have it. North-western Europe is using the ongoing euro-crisis to wage a ‘civil’ war against the south-east. And the purpose of that civil war is a desperate effort to bolster the fading dominance of the north-west. Having ensured that the old communist bloc of Eastern Europe is an economic basket case, now the target is Greece. After all, the time has come to relegate Greece to its true status as a Balkan country in Eastern Europe. For instance, in 2008 Romania cut all public wages by 25% and is sitting on the same rate of unemployment. In the recent package of ‘austerity measures’, Greece is set to emulate such a wage cut while unemployment has passed that figure. And in the midst of that war, the propaganda war is at full tilt. In north-western European countries, news reporting on crimes always makes a point of commenting if the perpetrator is Bulgarian, Romanian, Polish, Greek …, but no comment is made if the perpetrator is an ethnic Dane, German, Dutch. Spoken as if it were the gospel truth, people observe that Greeks are lazy and have been sponging off the government purse, Italians are corrupt, Poles criminals. The increasing opinion is that Eastern Europeans are not European at all. Meanwhile, back in Greece with its massive strikes and protests, the Germans are portrayed as reborn Nazis out to dominate Europe, the French as imperialists under a new Napoleon, and the craven politicians (including so-called socialists) as lackeys of these supposedly dominant powers. But are the Germans and French really that strong? The Germans for one are in deeper trouble than they make out: aging infrastructure, relying on workers from the east, threadbare public institutions, universities that are running purely on reputation. No wonder they want to take out someone else.

This one has always bugged me, ever since I studied classical Greek, Latin and philosophy. How come Greece is the source of Western thought? It is a narrative assumed and reiterated in a way that suggests a trauma: Greece is not of the West and the path from one to the other is decidedly rocky, if there is a path at all. Even people who should know better, such as Badiou and Butler, assume this narrative, and only Negri has questioned it by mentioning the history-defying immediacy of philosophical debates (Plato vs Aristotle could be happening side by side with Zizek vs Butler). But, last time I looked Greece is Eastern Europe, the language of the Eastern Roman Empire was Greek, and if you bother to attend a church that owes its origins to Greece, it will be Eastern Orthodox.