Aris Kalaizis

Europe is Dead. Long Live Europe !

This reflect­ive con­ver­sa­tion between artist Aris Kala­izis and pub­lish­er Stephan Schward­mann addresses sim­pli­fic­a­tion as well as the loss of under­stand­ing and empathy in our troubled view of the crises in Greece, Europe and the Arab world.

Aris Kalaizis, Europe | Oil on canvas | 79 x 87 in | 2009
Aris Kalaizis, Europe | Oil on canvas | 79 x 87 in | 2009

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.

Aris Kalaizis, 2015 | Oil on wood | 26 x 39 in | 2015
Aris Kalaizis, 2015 | Oil on wood | 26 x 39 in | 2015

S: Let me return to my ori­gin­al ques­tion. How do you polit­ic­ally assess what looks like oppos­ing responses among large swathes of the pop­u­la­tion: Greece on the one hand being regarded as a col­lec­tion unworthy né’er-do-wells, war refugees on the oth­er deserving solid­ar­ity – even if this view is rap­idly fading?

K: Are you really so sur­prised by these dif­fer­ent responses? When people are con­stantly told about the ‘aid pack­ages’ inten­ded to keep the spend­thrift Greeks in the euro­zone? When it’s sug­ges­ted that the Greeks are to be paid one month’s salary as a bonus every year, are expec­ted to retire earli­er than the Ger­mans, and to top it all are set to receive high­er pen­sions? Lies may be repuls­ive – but lies which are believed are even worse.

S: Return­ing to empathy, surely it only works as a guid­ing prin­ciple at first sight but fails in the face of indir­ect, mis­un­der­stood con­flicts, allow­ing ignor­ance and anti­pathy to take over? Do mor­al action pref­er­ences fade the more oblig­a­tion arises from them?

K: We’re not try­ing to reach for the stars. Empathy will nev­er work as a mod­el for soci­ety as a whole; it can only be a mod­el for polit­ic­al action. Its import­ance is demon­strated by the cur­rent fail­ure of solu­tions. Weren’t the appeals for help from Italy and Greece regard­ing the first waves of refugees ignored at the centre of Europe for years? Later on, the same European alli­ance of ignor­ance devised and, as it were, per­ver­ted the Dub­lin Reg­u­la­tion, for­cing the Medi­ter­ranean Mem­ber States of first arrival, already in dif­fi­culty as a res­ult of the euro crisis, to shoulder even more indi­vidu­al respons­ib­il­ity. But a policy of defer­ment only increases the poten­tial risks. At the same time, the power­ful states have approv­ingly allowed the very com­plex Syr­i­an war to carry on for five years. It’s only now with refugees from the Syr­i­an civil war knock­ing on our door that we’re start­ing to won­der about how the war began and why people are leav­ing their home­land. Ignor­ance and indif­fer­ence only work as a pair as long as they remain isol­ated from people’s real problems.
On the oth­er hand, there are still flowers of hope in the con­flict-rid­den Arab world which we mustn’t allow to with­er. Con­sider the small coun­try of Tunisia, where the fourth con­sti­tu­tion grant­ing uni­ver­sal suf­frage and equal rights to men and women has now been adop­ted. But instead of enter­ing into bilat­er­al rela­tions with Tunisia, which could bring the coun­try growth and prosper­ity and hence inspire a whole con­tin­ent, we’re doing noth­ing of the kind. Instead, we’re for­sak­ing this nation with its out­stand­ing pro­gress­ive­ness by Afric­an stand­ards and allow­ing ret­ro­gress­ive move­ments to take root. But this polit­ics of ignor­ance is some­thing we won’t be able to pur­sue for much longer. After all, many con­flicts and achieve­ments come from afar and build up gradu­ally before finally erupt­ing. This is described in writ­ings by our great philo­soph­ers, soci­olo­gists and authors long before these events occur. In oth­er words, it nev­er hurts for politi­cians to engage in far deep­er inter-com­mu­nic­at­ive exchange than in the past in their search for empathy.

S: Won’t cour­ageous civil soci­ety also have to gradu­ally aban­don the dis­curs­ive pair of solu­tions you describe – know­ledge and empathy – in favour of polit­ic­al power logic if it is to have even a ghost of a chance against the onslaught of the increas­ingly bru­tal right-wing ‘defence of values’?

K: One thing is clear: we stand to lose a great deal if we don’t man­age to vig­or­ously put the pet­ti­ness of all walks of soci­ety in its place. Ulti­mately, the only reas­on why the Wei­mar Repub­lic failed was because there weren’t enough Demo­crats to stand up for it.

S: Last year you painted a pic­ture with the sig­ni­fic­ant title ‘2015’ con­tain­ing apo­ca­lyptic attrib­utes. Nev­er­the­less, it still shows the motif of hope. Let me ask you dir­ectly how you think the future will pan out?

…I’m not appeal­ing for a fair soci­ety. I don’t believe in it

K: I don’t have a blue­print for the world. How­ever, my fath­er always brought me up with the seem­ingly straight­for­ward max­im ‘Live and let live’. I think he always men­tioned this motto whenev­er geo­pol­it­ic­al events on all scales dis­played excess­ive imbal­ances. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not appeal­ing for a fair soci­ety. I don’t believe in it, espe­cially since a fair soci­ety has no need of art or philo­sophy. ‘Live and let live’ sup­ports an entirely reas­on­able and more sus­tain­able approach in which, say, chick­en farm­ers in Ghana would be able to live from their work if we didn’t want their live­li­hood des­troyed, for­cing them to seek their for­tune over here. They don’t need domest­ic agri­cul­tur­al sub­sidies in order to be able to com­pete with sub­sid­ized chick­ens from Europe and North Amer­ica. All they need is for much lar­ger chick­en man­u­fac­tur­ers to accept that West Afric­an farm­ers want and should be able to make a liv­ing, too.
Or let’s briefly turn our atten­tion to the now glob­al debt crisis and the fre­quently name­less little band of super-rich cred­it­ors for­cing debt-rid­den states to meet their old interest pay­ments. Once again, com­prom­ise is required if the whole sys­tem isn’t going to col­lapse. After all, in the long run, a little less is often really more.

S: In recent years, we Ger­man Europeans have lived in a polit­ic­al Pampers state, but now we’ve come to real­ize that we’re liv­ing in a world of bloody con­flicts, some of which we con­done. Do you find this dis­con­cert­ing and para­lyz­ing? Or do you see some­thing chal­len­ging and indeed enrich­ing in this intru­sion by the bru­tal out­side world?

K: We have to change and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so. We rightly com­plain about the lack of tax com­pli­ance in quite a few European coun­tries while hypo­crit­ic­ally clos­ing our eyes to the fact that new European tax havens are join­ing the old uncon­cealed ones. On a recent Ger­man talk show, it was inter­est­ing to hear ex-fin­ance min­is­ter Varoufa­kis being accused of not doing any­thing to tax rich Greeks while he was in office. Varoufa­kis replied to a Ger­man MEP that in his first week of office he had tabled a pro­pos­al in Brus­sels to tax wealthy Greeks, but this had been turned down. In oth­er words, there’s plenty of hypo­crisy involved. If the pom­pous chiv­alry from Brus­sels doesn’t finally stop, the cur­rently fash­ion­able dis­af­fec­tion with demo­cracy and gov­ern­ment can only turn chron­ic. Com­ing back to the max­im of ‘Live and let live’, we shouldn’t close our eyes to the fact that the huge post-war eco­nom­ic growth in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury also cre­ated vic­tims. Of course it brought prosper­ity to many and even made some very rich, but oth­er inhab­it­ants of the world didn’t do so well out of it, and it def­in­itely harmed our envir­on­ment. Per­haps in future we ought to real­ize more clearly that our actions can indeed have unwanted con­sequences – for example, if a trade sur­plus in our coun­try leads to a trade defi­cit some­where else. Mind­ful of the need for bal­ance, we should make sure that this spread doesn’t get too big – always assum­ing we don’t want to cre­ate an even big­ger crisis.
Let me give you a brief example. Nearly a year ago, I drove through vari­ous coun­tries in Europe before finally reach­ing the Greek Peli­on moun­tains. On the way, I stopped off in Bud­apest and Bel­grade. It was the same pic­ture every­where: the roads lead­ing to the towns and cit­ies were flanked by large for­eign bill­boards usu­ally put up by Ger­man cor­por­a­tions. In these towns, I went shop­ping at a Ger­man dis­count super­mar­ket and a Ger­man drug­store chain. There were hardly any domest­ic products on the super­mar­ket shelves. And it was even worse at the drug­store, where you really could only buy Ger­man items and there wasn’t a single region­al product on dis­play. I wondered how tomorrow’s Europe would func­tion. I don’t think that a Europe which increas­ingly regards itself as an expand­ing con­sump­tion zone can be viable in the long term. In con­nec­tion with this, and after study­ing the Greek crisis, I sadly learned that coun­tries which joined the EU in the early 1980s such as Spain and Greece had ‘indus­tri­al restruc­tur­ing’ imposed upon them. This was due to EU con­di­tions inten­ded to trans­form these states into ser­vice sec­tor soci­et­ies in the name of ‘mod­ern­iz­a­tion’. The rudi­ment­ary indus­tries dis­ap­peared in their entirety and were not replaced. On the oth­er hand, we must remem­ber that the European Struc­tur­al Funds have indeed brought about a great deal of improve­ment in areas such as health­care, infra­struc­ture and education.

S: Finally, allow me to repeat my first ques­tion some­what more dir­ectly by ask­ing what paint­ing – or you as a paint­er – can achieve in this pro­cess of elucidation?

K: I don’t expect paint­ing to make bet­ter people. How­ever, I do believe that the bru­tish ele­ments of human beings can be ironed out by paint­ing, lit­er­at­ure and cul­ture in gen­er­al. I’d hate to ima­gine what the world would be like without art!

Stephan Schwardmann and Aris Kalaizis at the KREUZER-Magazin 2016
Stephan Schwardmann and Aris Kalaizis at the KREUZER-Magazin 2016

©2016 Aris Kala­izis | Stephan Schwardmann

© Aris Kalaizis 2023