Schwardmann: In this interview, we’ll mainly be discussing your consternation over what’s going on in Europe. In my last interview about six years ago, we began by talking about the visual arts’ potential for political intervention thanks to their ability to confuse and subversively break down customary perceptions and responses. Is your need for practical and intellectual intervention in these times related to your art? Does it inspire it?
Kalaizis: Obviously it affects me. The Greek crisis and the current refugee situation worry me almost every day. Hardly a morning or evening goes by that I don’t read something about these catastrophes. Nevertheless, it would be foolish of me as an active painter (and I prefer to describe myself as a painter rather than an artist) to chase after everything going on in the world in search of material, for that’s a race which can’t be won. I have to wait until a bigger picture emerges, until the political angle takes on a universal dimension and enters the realm of contemporary history. Only once this race has grown from a sprint into a marathon can I imagine expressing it in art. In other words, in order to see the larger picture, I have to swap my telephoto for a wide-angle lens. This explains why I took action in 2009 by painting ‘Europe’, even though I wish the vision it contained had never materialized.
...have to wait until a bigger picture emerges, until the political angle takes on a universal dimension and enters the realm of contemporary history
S: You’re referring to your painting on the cover of the April 2009 issue of Leipzig magazine kreuzer. Being the son of Greek immigrants who fled the civil war in the late 1940s when they were children and found refuge in East Germany, you naturally have a close affinity with your parents’ homeland. Following the abuse piled on Greece by the media, politicians and much of society, has your view of social processes you once took for granted changed?
K: I’d never have guessed that the image of a nation could become so negative so quickly. These are bitter times for me. I’m not the sort of person to ignore things, walk away or change sides when the wind blows a different way. But when I’m buffeted in this way, my German-Greek disposition is a great help. In fact, both elements have been fruitfully intertwined since I was born. Whenever the German inside me is downcast, the Greek comes along to help – and vice versa. But yes, I was astonished by the crude primitiveness of the invective against Greece. In response, the Greek inside me was strengthened.
But contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that this biased image was created by the media. Instead, I think the situation was stoked by what certain politicians said. I’m not saying politics shouldn’t be contentious; that’s all part of the struggle for the better argument. Sadly, however, politicians are increasingly aiming below the belt, and that worries me because that used to be the preserve of the media. And what I bitterly realized is that it doesn’t take much to stigmatize an entire nation with abstruse simplifications. The other sober realization is that society may be modern, but it’s not very enlightened. This began to worry me long before the Greek debate. I don’t want to sound like a historical pessimist, but now and again in this media-heavy age I sometimes imagine the wrong man appearing at the right time and can see the course of history being reversed.
S: Give me an example.
K: The media have gone to new extremes on both sides. On the one hand, it was ridiculous for the Greeks to show Madame Merkel in a Nazi uniform. Then again, it wasn’t beneath Merkel to start peddling appalling resentment of the lazy southern Europeans There’s clearly no love lost on either side. But whereas the Greeks merely projected their anger onto Merkel and Schäuble as individuals, Merkel’s vilification stigmatized the entire Greek nation. Incidentally, according to an OECD study comparing the average number of hours put in by workers in each country in the EU, Greece is nearly at the top of the table. True, this doesn’t automatically mean that the Greeks are the most efficient workers. But being the son of Greek ancestors, I know how hard my parents worked, along with the families they came from.
S: You’re criticizing the media for disseminating a kind of mass opinion and frequently disregarding any opposing views.
K: Of course I’m am! All too often, the media – and ultimately the people behind the media – merely act as a mouthpiece for individual politicians or political currents. Journalism mustn’t be allowed to descend into simple regurgitation as otherwise democracy will gradually lose its self-monitoring ability. Let me give you a small example from the ‘informative’ media. I listen to national broadcaster Deutschlandfunk almost every day. The newsreader reads out some piece of news, for instance on the euro crisis. Afterwards, a politician with a view on the subject is briefly quoted – and the matter is ticked off. But that’s just someone’s opinion, designed to stir up the listeners.
What would be fairer would be to contrast the opinions of two politicians from different parties. Listeners would then have to make up their own mind. The current approach is probably taken because apart from the grand coalition in the Bundestag, there’s also a sort of print media coalition, an alliance governing the media, which usually polemicizes in a fairly uniform manner. However, there’s a risk that more and more people, and not just on the right of politics, will turn their back on this media coalition.
S: Although your criticism of the media is certainly correct, what you described was being done in the media long before they started covering the crisis in Greece. What do you think will happen if, as you fear, people increasingly withdraw from the established opinion-forming media so that social debate, the struggle for consensus, takes place in other ways?
...people are still taking a left-wing stance, the mindset of society is drifting to the right
K: My answer’s very simple. The old opinion-forming media will gradually be replaced by new, smaller media, reducing their power over interpretation. We needn’t be afraid of this. Opinion-forming media will probably still continue to exist. After all, the Internet doesn’t constitute a threat to democracy; in fact, it’s an intrinsically democratic platform because it’s open to unprecedented participation. We just have to learn to deal with anti-democratic opinions without taking the usual German approach of banning them willy-nilly. There’s no reason to be pessimistic, even though journalism has to be produced faster in today’s digital age and publishers face growing difficulties. There will always be journalists who want to get to the nub of the matter. How we deal with this new responsibility will be up to us readers. If we want to use this responsibility, as readers we need to become more active.
S: Have you changed as a result?
K: I think so. I stick my oar in. And I find myself increasingly rejecting the mainstream opinion which is fed to us day in, day out in all walks of life. I can say this because, being a painter, I meet all sorts of people. What strikes me is that while outwardly people are still taking a left-wing stance, the mindset of society is drifting to the right. This can be seen not only in Germany but especially in wealthy European countries, and it’s clearly reflected by parliamentary elections. In the past I probably used to just grumble and not say anything, and my silence was interpreted as approval. Nowadays, my attitude is intended to at least express some ambiguity, to make people stop and think, even though in the worst case it may well be futile to try and make something plausible to an idiot.
S: Which of these social processes are in your view mainly responsible for the fact that almost three-quarters of the adult population of this immensely wealthy country feels it needs to demand increasingly tough sanctions on another country, even though the social impoverishment caused by actions which clearly make little economic sense are everywhere to be seen?
...what we urgently need in order to tackle these and other crises is knowledge and empathy
K: I think this is mainly because we’re increasingly losing our sense of history. For example, if we in Germany were fully aware that in the twentieth century, Germany wasn’t just the biggest debtor but was actually put back on its feet by other countries by means of debt relief on four separate occasions between 1924 and 1953, we’d be talking differently about today’s debt crises.
After all, it wasn’t just big powers like the United States but also smaller nations such as Greece which had to foot the bill for Germany at the London Debt Conference in 1953. If we’d managed to develop a different grasp here of what happened in post-war Germany, if people understood that the country’s subsequent economic recovery was due less to far-too-frequently cited Prussian virtues such as diligence and discipline and more to structural support and recovery programmes funded by other countries near and far, we in Germany would view other economic crises more sympathetically.
In other words, what we urgently need in order to tackle these and other crises is knowledge and empathy. Without empathy, we won’t be able to solve the worsening problems, regardless of whether we believe in the pure doctrine of a Milton Friedman or a Maynard Keynes. Just look at how we’re all interlinked across the world. Even two superpowers which were once at loggerheads like China and the USA are now inextricably tied together. Globalization has intertwined the world to such an extent that responding to supranational solutions by means of empathy can only be a sign of political wisdom.
We can’t deal with today’s and tomorrow’s crises simply by declaring guilt and passing sentence. Accordingly, the eurozone must learn from the mistakes of the recent past, and outrageous austerity programmes mustn’t be imposed on weaker euro states again under the dominance of a single nation state. I’m not saying that Greece doesn’t need reforms. It desperately needs reforms, but it also needs to carry them out at a slower pace, as otherwise they won’t find popular acceptance. After all, the best reforms are those which are supported by as many people as possible. Since time immemorial, political diktats have not been viewed as especially constructive because they undermine the sovereignty of the people. But in the face of an intensifying global debt crisis which is a huge obstacle for both creditors and debtors, at the end of the day we all need to grasp that crisis management can only succeed if we change.
S: Why do you think that such tough austerity measures haven’t been imposed on any other crisis-stricken countries in the EU? Was the sentence passed on Greece supposed to act as a deterrent? Was it just down to certain individuals?
K: I think it was. World history has often come about owing to personal animosities. There’s an all-too-human aspect involved which is often overlooked.
S: Are you alluding to the troubled relationship between Schäuble and Varoufakis?
K: Yes. One of them is progressive, the other conservative. One of them is young, good-looking, and rides a motorbike to the ministry; the other one goes to work in a wheelchair. That’s already enough fuel to stoke the conflict, although we know too little to speculate.
S: But it’s no secret that Wolfgang Schäuble was a key player and had a significant influence on the other finance ministers.
K: I’m sure that Wolfgang Schäuble is a very good finance minister for Germany. He’s received awards for his services rendered to his country – and rightly so. On the other hand, it has to be questioned whether his political skills are up to making Europe succeed. Because if it’s true that he dictated the EU’s response to the debt crisis, he was an atrocious strategist on the big stage of international politics. Europe now seems to be more divided than ever, and in actual fact his hard line against Athens only succeeded in bolstering rather than weakening left-leaning voters in Spain and Portugal. His disastrous economism has given a strong boost to the fight against austerity, and more cracks have appeared in Europe. It would have been far shrewder for Schäuble to offer the indebted economies incentives instead of threatening them.
Just look at the USA, which used its new-found dominance in the twentieth century to set up a $12.4 billion European Recovery Program for Western Europe and hence laid the foundations for European stability. On the other hand, it’s undeniable that Greece urgently needs reform. It suffers from a bloated bureaucracy, and the legal system and the pension system need to be overhauled. The main cause of the crisis is that Greece has one of the highest levels of military spending in the eurozone. In recent years the country has become a great power in military terms, and I believe that Greece’s financial crisis could have been averted if before the crisis a quarter of government revenue hadn’t been spent on the military sector.
...what we urgently need in order to tackle these and other crises is knowledge and empathy
Nevertheless, there seem to be many vested interests in not significantly reducing this expenditure: the Greek conservatives, NATO, which requires its member states to spend at least 2% of their GDP on the military, and the industrial sector in weapons exporters such as the USA, France and Germany. But how can a budget be stabilized without economic growth or major incentives? How is a strict austerity programme which hasn’t worked anywhere in the world supposed to succeed in Greece of all places? Austerity accompanied by nonsensical tax increases has regrettably driven the country into an even bigger crisis and an even higher level of debt. Since the introduction of austerity measures, the economy has shrunk by 25% while youth unemployment has reached nearly 60%.
Many entire families have to survive on elderly members’ pensions – which, by the way, have been cut for the eleventh time in just five years. Varoufakis was right when he described the troika’s economic forecasts for Greece as absurdly high and revised them downwards. Nevertheless, at no time have the troika (or the institutions as they now call themselves) admitted that they made a mistake.
All that’s happened is that the IMF has revised its assessment of the viability of Greek debt by recommending a haircut. It doesn’t take a fortune-teller to see that Greece will be in further trouble in the near future – at the latest when it struggles to repay its EU loans due in 2018. Quoting the magic formula of the ‘lack of willingness to reform’, the same actors will suggest that solely the Greek government is to blame for this failure. Yet real earnings have fallen since the crisis by 35% and the budget deficit has been slashed from over 15% to just 3.5%. In a nutshell, the Greeks have saved more than $500 billion since 2008. I know of no other economy which has undergone such radical treatment. Then again, the patient has got worse rather than better, for since 2008 debt has risen by as much as 80% of GDP. At the same time, turning our gaze to another country, in 2009 Germany responded to the deteriorating global economy by investing in a stimulus package in the form of the car scrappage scheme, which clearly helped the German economy.
...I’m currently disgusted to be a member of the European species
S: You said you’d always been a big fan of Europe, but now you’re becoming increasingly sceptical.
K: Yes. I’m currently disgusted to be a member of the European species. At the moment, Europe is little more than a health farm for consumers. Its much-vaunted values dating back at least two thousand years appear to exist only in a few books; they’re certainly not practised in its nation states. For years, whether we’ve been talking about the refugee problem or the euro crisis, solutions to problems have been deferred indefinitely. The hopeful yet shocking thing is that we like being European, we like being international, we like being global – but only as long as we can still tap new markets. The main problem about Europe is that we quickly turn national and anxious as soon the downsides of globalization start encroaching on our comfort zone.
S: The brief spring of hope under Syriza demonstrated the viability of a new political model which goes against the neoliberal guardians of austerity and the euro. What will its aftereffects be, particularly in Greece? Do you regard phenomena like the astonishing rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the electoral success of Podemos in Spain, and even Bernie Sanders as a Democratic candidate in the USA as comparable to the triumph of Syriza – or is that just unique to Greece?
K: In all the countries you listed, a revolt is undeniably taking place against the neoliberal model. This comes as no surprise, for the problems regarding the neoliberal model seem to be escalating. Moreover, concern about the old political elites is growing – and not just in the crisis-ridden countries. Therefore, from Germany to the United States, I believe that the political changes are only just beginning. Then again, when it comes to the crisis-hit countries in Europe, we shouldn’t beat about the bush or expect too much. Unless things change, political developments in those countries, especially Greece, will continue to be shaped by the liquidity lever of the European Central Bank and their other creditors rather than their national parliaments.
Whether the ECB and democracy deserve this role, both now and in the future, is another matter. It’s also obvious that owing to this loss of sovereignty, a risky democratic vacuum has arisen in Europe, and as a result people are increasingly doubting the sense of elections. However, it’s also true that the Greeks re-elected their left-wing government and so decided to remain in the single currency. On the whole, I think it would have been better for Greece to leave the euro. Following Varoufakis’s departure, those remaining have unfortunately managed to neatly sidestep Grexit.
Nevertheless, Syriza remains a modernizing party campaigning for a modern, corruption-free government, social justice and minority rights. Given Greece’s long tradition of patronage, I see no real alternative in the Greek political hierarchy. Syriza’s main problem is still its very limited leeway. But although there’s little cause for optimism at the moment, I’m still confident that Greece will manage to turn things around in the long run, despite most indicators pointing the other way. The free lunch is over. The Greeks are now waking up and smelling the coffee, and as they do so, they shouldn’t forget that they were the ones who named our continent Europe and gave it culture. Furthermore, the Greeks invented not just tragedy but also comedy. And Greece has also shown us how to overcome severe crises without weakening democracy, which is a considerable achievement. I simply can’t imagine what would have happened in Germany if similar cuts had been imposed. Accordingly, I’m not worried about Greece.
As far as I can tell, the Spanish party Podemos has a less tangible programme than its Greek sister party. What unites them is their outrage at the political establishment. But unlike Syriza, Podemos flatly refuses to cooperate with the political elite, although it does back economic continuity. As I see it, this expression of political rejection could lead Spanish society into an unproductive gulf, for superficial populism won’t be enough to steer Spain into calmer waters. Nevertheless, from New York to Madrid, solutions must be found today and tomorrow in order to finally tackle crises such as the population explosion, growing total debt, and the increasing inequality of wealth and income instead of continually deferring problems. All in all, however, I remain sceptical – not because I’m a historical pessimist, but because I’m a historical realist. After all, mankind isn’t just a being that seeks knowledge and experience; it also goes to great lengths to avoid them. Ultimately, of course, mankind has always been driven by simple hardship.
S: In my opinion we ought to clarify these “much-vaunted values” of Europe, which you also cite with some emotionalism. After all, it was in the name of some of these values that the continent waged bloody conflict with itself and externally. Shouldn’t we define these values that we want to defend – not just as smug Europeans but in open, equal debate with other cultures, and with reference to themes like human rights, human dignity, solidarity, enlightenment and universalism?
K: Of course. State constitutions aren’t simply dreamed up. They evolve on the basis of values fought for – often bloodily – by other people. The modern state was built on the foundations of Christianity, and I doubt whether a free state can entirely do without religious values. And talking about values, we mustn’t forget the civil religions which existed before Christianity. Even at that time, people were able to morally distinguish between good and bad. Seen thus, the values of Europe are the sum of all religious and nonreligious achievements towards a more humane life. The frequently cited Standard Eurobarometer reflecting the values of Europeans with its individual categories such as democracy, solidarity, the rule of law, etc. is ultimately meaningless if they aren’t linked to other narratives. Because then, we can’t practise our values because we can no longer see the basis from which these values first emerged. Consequently, the amalgam from which society tries to reach a consensus is in danger of becoming fragile.
In a nutshell, the phrase about the inviolability of human dignity enshrines the cultural achievement of our entire continent. It sums up Homer’s dreaming, Plato’s Politeia, and Aristotle’s zoon politcon (‘political animal’). It describes mankind’s social and political make-up, essentially the whole cosmos of ancient teachings up to Seneca, it contains Augustine and his theocracy, it contains Diderot and his Encyclopédie, and so on. But nevertheless, as you correctly point out, the blood-spattered twentieth century showed how quickly European values can be buried.
As a way of solving or avoiding conflicts close to home and further afield, you appeal to empathy, humans’ individual ability to take other people’s sensitivities and interests into account in their own, cooperative action. With the possible exception of staged diplomatic goodwill, empathy isn’t an acknowledged key competency of political power logic (unless it’s employed as a perverted social technique in the form of political power games). We can see this for example in the gradual dismantling of Angela Merkel’s empathetic (at least initially) attitude. Moreover, market logic as a combat zone for securing the biggest possible advantage is the perfect antithesis of collaborative, empathetic action, yet decides what goes on in the world far more than politics. Should we conclude from this a need to add a counterbalance to representative politics in the form of more rational (i.e. empathetic and courageous) mass action?
K: I’m simply saying that it’s better from the outset in this interlinked world for everyone to employ empathy and cooperation from the outset. One reason is that conflict is less likely if we work together. And anyway, the future will compel us to cooperate. In other words, we’re all in the same boat. I don’t necessarily see rationality and empathy as a natural pair, but sooner or later reality will force us into the logic of cooperation.
It’s already becoming apparent that today’s Germany is experiencing a turning point. The country is emotionally polarized, conceptually confused, and incensed. The drama of this situation isn’t clear yet. Following politicians’ ruthless abandonment of solidarity regarding Greece with the full backing of three-quarters of the population, were you surprised to see large sections of the middle classes taking in refugees from war-torn and impoverished areas of the Middle East and Africa? How do you explain this?
...we’re all blacks
To be honest, Merkel’s stance amazed me most of all. I’ve often wondered about it. Was she driven by rational motives, emotional motives, or perhaps a mixture of the two? Was the image forged abroad of the cool German Protestant starting to grate on her? At any rate, my amazement turned into admiration. Behind her decision lies political will, even though she still fails to sufficiently distinguish between immigration and asylum. And yes, her actions also have an air of empathy. Her courage is astonishing, although any desired immigration must of course be followed by the possibility of integration through employment, because otherwise the refugees run the risk of being far more stigmatized than is currently conceivable.
Getting back to your question, sizable parts of German society support a culture of welcome, whereas others polemicize and mobilize against refugees. Despite all the laudable efforts and assistance by civil society in Germany, we can’t ignore the fact that in 2015 there were about 1,000 assaults with racist motives. Sadly, that, too, is part of reality. That’s why I don’t think that President Joachim Gauck is right to divide the country into bright Germany and dark Germany. Slogans shouted on the right are increasingly being accepted by the core of society. Germany is neither bright nor dark. It has bright elements and dark elements. And it’s been a country of immigration since the 1960s. A sixth of the population has an immigrant background. Migration movements have never gone without a hitch, not even for those Germans who were expelled from other countries in east-central Europe after the war and sought refuge here. The labour recruitment campaigns by the young West Germany from the mid-1950s until the 1970s didn’t go completely smoothly either. Nevertheless, there isn’t a single migration movement that could be branded a failure in the history of the Federal Republic. Isn’t it about time we raised awareness of the fact that following vast migratory movements dating back thousands of years, it’s ridiculous to talk about pure-blooded Germans, Greeks or Spaniards? Surely we don’t seriously think there’s not a drop of foreign blood flowing in our veins? By the way, who realizes that Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones all had a Roma background? Who knows that Steve Jobs’ father came from Syria? In other words, racial purity has always been absolute nonsense. If we look at the reverse of the coin and take this thought experiment back to the origins of human civilization, we could claim with some exaggeration that we’re all blacks.
That’s all a bit histrionic for me.