In Athen’s Syntagma Square, back-to-back demonstrations this week calling for a “Yes” or “No” vote in Sunday’s era-defining Greek referendum featured a noticeable class split: poorer, less-educated monolinguals largely supported Syriza’s rejection of the EU austerity deal, while a more cosmopolitan, better-dressed crowd passionately demanded their right to remain in the euro, nevermind what consequences austerity is having on their less financially insulated compatriots.
At the pro-euro vote, a middle-aged man was photographed sipping a glass of rose wine and instantly acquired cult status as his image was mockingly superimposed onto photos featuring bedraggled pensioners’ queues at soup kitchens and ATMs. On social media, a meme did the rounds showing a scale balanced between “500,000 sorted Greek and foreign millionaires and their children” on the one side, and “9,000,000 unemployed, poorer, indignant, low-paid/unpaid youths without a future” on the other.
“And yet the scale is balanced,” the message concluded, “because the few control the fear and opinions of the many”.
Various guises of austerity
Across the West, and under the various guises of austerity, the rise of the far right, or protests against the one percent, new internal cracks are appearing.
Whether in bankrupted Greece, a France mired in a national identity debate, a US where racially related violence is peaking, or an England where a austerity-pinched majority watch a hyper-rich, rootless elite drive London housing prices higher, we are witnessing a social divergence between those who have succeeded in an ever more transnational, interconnected and geographically unrelated world, and those who have failed.
Our future is unknown, but as I argued here, ideological self-selection is rapidly migrating from online ghettos to the physical world. It may not be too long before countries find themselves competing with an archipelago of disconnected, interest-driven communities, many of them privatised, where common ideals and purchasing power take precedence over shared nationality.
It may not be too long before countries find themselves competing with an archipelago of disconnected, interest-driven communities, many of them privatised, where common ideals and purchasing power take precedence over shared nationality.
These may take the form of exclusive retirement communities, hippies living in off-the-grid agricultural communes or – why not? – disaffected Sunni Muslims raising a pious new generation in a caliphate founded on land belonging to a collapsed state.
It is the logical conclusion of the decoupling between those who have the luxury of choosing their ideological and geographical setting, and those who don’t. It may also mean the end of nationalism in its statist form.
A parting of ways
Countries used to construct their citizens’ identity around principles such as shared geographies, languages, and cultures. But the internet and rapid air transport have abrogated distance for today’s elites, who adopted English as their lingua franca and often share deeper foundational experiences with their peers at international schools and foreign universities, gleaming business capitals, or expat postings, than with their own societies’ less privileged.
Their borderless lifestyle is expressed in slogans celebrated by our media: openness, freedom of expression, the right to choose. Addressing us in English amplifies and normalises their voices, dreams and ambitions.
But their success is often predicated on displacing those less privileged others who, for the time being at least, remain their compatriots. They insulate their consciences by justifying their choices with the same free-choice lifestyle narrative.
As technology and interconnectedness accelerate, this parting of the ways will expand, with countries hollowing out their welfare states in an effort to offer the cheapest, best-serviced business environment.
The democratisation of producing wealth has resulted in broader Third World elites whose magnified influence compensates their smaller numbers, triggering domestic social tensions.
In 2009, a disputed poll in Iran resulted in the re-election of a piously traditionalist former mayor of Tehran on the slogan “the street-sweeper of the people”. He was opposed by the young, urban and secular whose vision stretched beyond the constricting horizons of the Islamic republic, and brutally cracked down on them. In Ukraine, the split took the form of a civil war between supporters of accession to the EU’s alluring modernity, and those seeking the comfort of the religious and ethnic shelter provided by Mother Russia.
In Egypt’s epic post-revolutionary showdown between the traditionalists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the modernisers of the army, a pious, sunglass-wearing, bicycle-riding neo-Pharaoh stepped up from the ranks of the army to quash his opponents.
And in Turkey’s Gezi Park movement where the young, tolerant and open-minded rejected party labels to confront bulldozers and riot police water-cannons, and were dispersed by a deeply devout president (and former mayor of Istanbul) who could claim the fanatic support of his traditionalist power base.
Global scramble to the bottom
In all cases, whether the modernists or reactionaries had initiated the confrontation, they were motivated by an existentialist dread that their progress was on the verge of being stymied, their identity abrogated.
Last week’s Syntagma rallies highlighted this same dynamic: the turning of privilege against poverty. Our globalised, networked economy has inexorably moved beyond the nation-state, rendering predominantly wealthy or destitute countries a thing of the past. Now elites and the impoverished exist everywhere, often in close proximity.
Ebbing away is the idea of solidarity among classes, an essential building block for all societies.
Some countries resist the global scramble to the bottom by bunching together into protectionist trade blocs like the EU, adopting illusory covers of regulatory safety.
But they are doomed to fail because the austerity they impose on their members erases the welfare ideal on which Europe was built. Also ebbing away is the idea of solidarity among classes, an essential building block for all societies.
A recent blog posting titled “Why I’ll Vote Yes” succinctly illustrates this: “I like internationalism: I’m a consumer. I want cheap and quality products. Why should I care if the olive oil is Greek or Spanish? I don’t purchase it to support the studies of the Greek farmer’s daughter but so I can enjoy my salad.”
This paean to transnationalism was a spoof, but it prompted angry comments, both by those feeling left behind and those entitled to not having to wait for their societies’ stragglers. It was also a reminder why a “No” to austerity may also be a clarion call towards a kinder, less conflicted future.
Iason Athanasiadis is a photojournalist who covers the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.