Author Douglas Coupland on Greece, Utopias, and the Curse of Leisure
Until recently Greeks were able to spend their days doing nothing, which was nice; now they have to spend their days with nothing to do, which is scary.
OK... just look at the following words: Grexit. Syriza. Tsipras. Merkel. Austerity. At first glance they don't even look like words; they resemble, I don't know... launch codes—or maybe they're the names of recently FDA‑approved osteoporosis medications—and yet at the moment these words are some of the most freighted in the language, and unlike most new words, they have the potential to demarcate the end of one era and the start of another.
Let's have a quick peek at the Greek economy. Greece is odd because it's an ostensibly middle class place with a twist: It's a warmer, slower-paced version of other middle class societies in the liberal democratic west. Miami? Not quite. Santiago? Too young. San Antonio, Texas? Nope. Greek citizens still pretty much do normal middle class things and they live middle class lives and yet... when you look at the Greek economy overall, it turns out Greece doesn't really do anything. There's no tech or manufacturing or large scale agribusiness... it's just islands and hotels and many, many people with pensions and ATMs that only dispense cash to non-Greeks. This is not meant to be disparaging, and if you read further, you'll understand this. It also makes you wonder, Well then, just how were these people filling their days?
Hi! I'm Greece! I'm the happy sunny Shirley Valentine country where the living is easy and your days are filled with nothing, if not the absence of labor. There's Ouzo. There's outdoor chess. And as a tourist there's an ever present whiff of the possibility of sex with people out of your league.
OK then... Greece doesn't really make or do anything the way other European nations do... but there's definitely large-scale tourism, and a bit of agriculture. And what's wrong with having only that? Light drinking. Outdoor chess games. Sun. Life in Greece has always sounded great, and when we think of retirement, Greece's dolce far niente is often what springs to mind. Doing nothing all day? Life in Greece isn't even utopia; it's heaven. So then, what's the problem?
During Argentina's 1998-2002 financial crisis, vast chunks of its middle class were violently burped out of the nation's economy, except at the time it happened, these people didn't realize that they were being permanently burped out of the middle class. The years rolled on and all those Brooks Brothers button-down shirts from the 1997 trip to New York grew ever more threadbare. The leather Coach handbag from the 1996 trip to Miami faded. And eventually: Honey, I think it's over.
And it was.
The social devastation in Argentina never fully registered in the northern hemisphere, but now Greece is one Grexit away from Argentinian-style demiddleclassification, and this time it's registering the world over. Greece is sort of like a social terrarium from which all the money like oxygen, is being extracted. The folks putting the lid back on top of the terrarium are giving each other guilty looks while hoping that the ensuing slow protracted death of Greece's financial ecosystem won't be overly filled with audible screams of angry dying little Greeks.
Another metaphor: Greece is a financial car crash that's blocked traffic for miles, so when you finally drive past, you've earned your right to rubberneck, and in your head you're also thinking, God, I'm glad it wasn't me. And a seemingly inevitable Grexit makes us all ask ourselves, "Who's next?"—but not just in a short-term Portugal/Spain/Ireland domino effect way. Our pondering is existential and more like, when does the overall system that supports middle-class democracy eventually end? Just why is it that only the existence of a large complacent middle class represents both the health and validity of a society? We seem to equate middle-class existence with existence itself.
Greek society is intricate and complex, and it would appear one must be born into it to comprehend its intricacies, but it is a society nonetheless, and just because it can't meet fiscal benchmarks established in Brussels, that doesn't make it less of a society. Since when is the value of any society judged almost solely by the robustness of its capitalism? Why can't we look at Greece's reasonably comfortable mildly under-occupied life as a sort of utopia instead of The Death of Western Society? Maybe what we see in Greece is actually a dark precursor to what we envision for ourselves down the road.
To be discussed.
So OK then, Greece leaves the euro, or the euro leaves Greece. In that scenario would Athens become the new New Delhi? Would everyone have to hand in their Lacoste shirts and iPhones to receive a box of Nestle tinned meal substitutes and sit in communal theaters watching TED Talks projected onto bedsheets? Does Greece enter class warfare? But wait—Greece doesn't really seem to be a one-percent‑y country; Greeks seem to more or less all be in the same boat, so there aren't that many heads you can chop off and put onto stakes.
And what would it mean for Greece to no longer be middle class? It wouldn't be really blue collar or working class now either—because there's no work available in which to be working class. Would everyone sit around all day nursing a single cup of coffee while discussing Marianne Faithfull's vocal tracks in Broken English? Would everyone go out and riot? But riot for what? More money? There is no more money. More respect? You've got respect... you just don't have any more money. Do you put your entire country up on eBay? Do you Airbnb every single residence in the country? Emigrate to England or Denmark where they still have a Middle Class Classic™?
The global middle class, just like Alaskan glaciers, is melting away at an extraordinary rate, and we very much need to rebrand the successor of the middle class society as utopian—or at least suck the dread out of it and strip it of horror vacui. Greece is telling us this. Greece is the new template for the rest of the Western world. Greece forces us to worry about the new world order where an invisible high-tech conveyor belt relentlessly replaces formerly middle-class workers with machine intelligence, taking us all into a world of perpetual clicking, linking, embedding, and liking. Greece forces us to worry about the abrupt vanishing of a social structure so old, we don't even see it as a social structure but, rather, a universal right, but it's not. It's as artificial as aspartame.
The Greeks are now involuntarily moving from the position of being a society of tacit, off the books euro-subsidized leisure, into a culture of borderline mandatory inactivity. That's a subtle shift. Until recently Greeks were able to spend their days doing nothing, which was nice; now they have to spend their days with nothing to do, which is scary. Greece is beginning to feel, if anything, like a JG Ballard novel about a dystopian future in which leisure becomes a cruel monkey's paw curse. You're still doing basically the same nothing as before, except now, instead of being pleasant it becomes terrifying. I mean, really, how it is that something as wonderful as life in Greece has somehow become a new definition of societal hell? The Adriatic weather's great, and potatoes and lamb ought to reasonably be cheap and readily available. Add booze and it's fantastic. Do you really want a massive Siemens optical fiber facility in your neighborhood? And would Siemens ever conceive of building one there? I mean, really, think about it. Would they? And would the Greeks in-their-bones actually want it?
Let's discuss doing nothing. Doing nothing means doing nothing. It means being offline and walking down a street and... simply walking down the street. Sitting on a bench for ten minutes or however long without crumbling and looking at your latest electronic whatever. It sounds simple, but almost nobody does nothing any more, in fact the hallmark of our age is the impossibility of doing nothing. Our attention spans are so thoroughly colonized by the cloud that even brief separation from the linked universe causes dread and something akin to homesickness. Maybe 20 years ago, people were very good at doing nothing. These days people are hopeless at it.
Now let's discuss "having nothing to do." It means waking up, thinking about the day to come, and realizing that you have, well... nothing to do. No job. No way of earning a living. Maybe you'll go out with friends in similar straits, and maybe you'll do a massage for a foreign hotel guest at the Athens Marriot. Torch an Uber Mercedes. The night goes on. You have a drink back in your apartment. Then maybe some Netflix.
Until recently you either had something to do called a job and you did it—or you were unemployed and had nothing to do and you more or less meditated all day, possibly about being unemployed, but also maybe wondering about the seagull that just flew over your head, or maybe about the meaning of the end of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Being unemployed 25 years ago wasn't so much a capitalist state of being so much as it was an existential state of being... "Hi—I'm unemployed, and because of this I'm probably more contemplative than people who are employed."
Enter the cloud.
Let's discuss earthly paradise. Let's discuss utopias. Utopias don't have to be all about comfort and luxury. Growing up on the west coast of Canada, I saw group after group of hippies head up the coast to create utopian communes, which almost always went kaput the moment the women figured out they were doing all the work while the guys were out smoking weed in the hammocks. Or look at the Islamic State. They took a desert where there's very little for most of its citizens to do, and instead rebranded the place as a form of utopia, generating meaning in a place where little existed before. It's hardly life onboard a Carnival Cruise liner, but people are seem to be flocking to join. Meanwhile, migrants are swarming the Chunnel entrance at Calais, Africans are drowning trying to reach the Sardinian coast, and people are walking thousands of miles to reach the cabbage fields of Hungary—their jumping off point into the rest of Europe. Most of the world still sees Europe as a utopia, but the Europeans don't. They see themselves as stagnant and somewhat rudderless, but at least they've got something to do.
Having something to do seems to be an important aspect of a utopia being a utopia, whether it's building Airbuses or beheading people. At least you know what you're doing when you wake up in the morning. British novelist Susan Ertz said, "Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon." It's true. Busy is better.
Tourism, which is an engineered short-term utopia—as well as Greece's strongest business card—now also fosters a great irony for the Greeks. It enforces confrontation between people who come to the country to do nothing, and those locals who now have nothing to do—which can only be galling. But remember, Greece is just now reaching a place where we're all going to be sooner or later, a world of massive labor obsolescence where unless you actually know how to do something useful, you'll just become one more piece of middle-class space junk. And don't forget, while people in the West see the erosion of the middle class as downward mobility, for most of the world, getting online with Android devices to comparison shop for Martha Stewart towels is proof positive they're on the way up. It's just that everyone on Earth is reaching a new middle, and we're still unclear where that middle will be and what it will look and feel like.
Rich people especially want to know what the remains of the middle class will morph into, but in the end they won't get there first because they have and process the same information that you and I do. If Bill Gates can be blindsided by search engines and mobile devices, then anyone can be blindsided by anything.
Modern people are largely incapable of doing nothing the way we discussed earlier—walking down the street and simply looking at the world around us. People are incapable because doing nothing means not being electronically connected, which is an unsettling state of mind that becomes intolerable after even a short hiatus. Omnipresent cloud-fueled devices devour our attention spans. We're all deeply, deeply into the shredded attention span paradigm and let's face it: It's not going to go away, and nor do we want it to.
At the same time we inhabit an age of massive and extreme unknowns, lurking in time and space both nearby and far away. Look! Mr. Putin is dangling a clump of grapes over the mouths of austerity weary Athenians. Look! China wants to turn Greece into a Double Lucky Golden Prosperity Node. Look! Global warming just destroyed this year's grape crop.
Our new world is defined by a duality of fear and diversion. Non-stop online diversion is palliative; it manages to make a world of extreme unknowns bearable. Diversion in turn makes having nothing to do OK. Diversion has become our new solace.
And all those tourists who came to Greece to do nothing? They're not doing nothing. They're just as trapped in the new duality as anyone else. It's irony squared.
The twentieth century? Those were the days, my friend. Enter, please, the twenty-first century schizoid man.
Douglas Coupland, one of Canada's preeminent authors and artists, has been relentlessly chronicling the future of mass culture for 25 years and has usually been right. He is currently Google's Artist in Residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris.
Follow Douglas Coupland on Twitter. Lead image by Ben Ruby.