Chosen Cells is a sequel to Solitary Subversives and our seventh article for Witte de With Review (an initiative of Rotterdam-based Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art) of which we, vitalspace.org and I, are their… ‘Athens Desk’). Click here for the Witte de With Review site which contains several photos missing here. Or read on…
BY YANIS VAROUFAKIS and vitalspace.org
“If the agent chooses bundle A over bundle B, where both bundles are available, it is revealed that he directly prefers A over B.” —Paul Samuelson, “A note on the pure theory of a consumer’s behavior,”Economica, 1938.
“Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another […] the one sole original, inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity.” —Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals,1797.
1. Sign Here!
“I am sorry for the rough treatment. You are a good boy and did not deserve this. But you know, these are treacherous times and my men are on edge. Forgive them. Just sign here and off you go. With my apologies.”
The secret police officer seemed sincere and Yiorgos, the twenty-year-old Athens University student he was addressing, was relieved that his ordeal at the hands of the lowly security men, who had apprehended him on the steps of the Chemistry Department, was at an end. But then, as he began to read the statement the officer was asking him to sign, a cold chill ran down his spine. The typewritten page simply stated, “I hereby denounce, truly and in all sincerity, communism, those who promote it, and their various fellow travelers.”
Trembling with fear, he put the pen down, summoned all the gentleness of the French Enlightenment-sourced liberalism that his mother, Anna, had instilled in him over the years, and said: “Sir, I am no Buddhist but I would never sign a state document denouncing Buddhism. I am not a Muslim but I do not think the state has the right to ask of me to denounce Islam. Similarly, I am not a Communist but I see no reason for being asked to denounce communism.”
That conversation took place in the fall of 1945, at an Athens police station gearing up for the impending second phase of the civil war that marked Greece’s postwar history so indelibly. Thus, Yiorgos’s civil liberties argument stood no chance. In his defense, he had no way of knowing, having only recently arrived from Cairo, where he was born and raised in the bosom of a Greek community that enjoyed all the trappings of middle-class affluence denied to the Egyptian masses and, indeed, to the Greeks living in Greece.
Having given up a cushy job at a Cairo bank, so as to study chemistry in the land of his Greek father, Yiorgos arrived in Athens in January 1945, only a month after the conclusion of the first phase of the Greek Civil War, which was the Cold War’s first episode. A fragile peace deal between Left and Right prevailed upon his arrival, giving him a false sense that his decision to migrate from the bourgeois vestiges of Cairo to an Athens reeking with tension and hunger was not too foolish.
This illusion was further bolstered on the first week of the semester when he was approached by student activists of both the Left and the Right who saw in him an ideal compromise candidate for president of the students’ association, untainted as he was by either side of politics and a potential symbol of the prevailing truce. Lured by the ‘honor’ of being endorsed by both sides of student politics, he accepted. And when, shortly afterward, the university authorities doubled tuition fees at a time when students wallowed in absolute poverty, Yiorgos paid the rector a visit, arguing as best he could against the fee hike. As he walked out of that meeting, students working for the secret police manhandled him into a waiting van.
The young student leader’s reluctance to sign the denunciation document incensed the officer who summoned his underlings for a fresh round of beatings. With every blow the pain and terror pushed Yiorgos deeper into the contradiction of, on the one hand, craving to succumb while, on the other, feeling increasingly unwilling to sign. With every strike, every swearword, his signature on the denunciation document appeared to him less and less feasible. The longer the torture continued, the less at liberty he felt to do as he pleased—to sign, end the pain, and go home the same day. Thus, it was not for another five tortuous years, in a variety of cells and concentration camps, before Yiorgos would step out of his incarceration, into a grim society that neither knew of his peculiar choice nor really cared.