In a country where even radicals never purposely target civilians, Greek society is mourning the first and hopefully last fatality of the recent two-day mass strikes and protests against the unending round of Troika (EU-IMF) lenders-inspired austerity. Senseless death is “a very ugly thing” in a society that still has sensibilities for its own collective soul and clings to hopes that the social fabric won’t be torn down.
No amount of hand-wringing politicians or vacuous media spin will bring the middle-aged construction worker back from Hades. No one is even listening to the expedient sound bites any more.
The fact that it was an unprovoked heart attack from the stress of guarding one of the many marches to keep anarchist infiltrators away, bent on venting their anger and sense of hopelessness, doesn’t lessen the blow in a community that prays it can avoid past explosions of bloodletting. Greeks know it’s no longer a sovereign country but the overwhelming majority clings to precious liberties such as public protest and freedom of speech.
A key to understanding the mindset of the very normal Greek taking to the streets non-violently, since more than 100,000 were out on Wednesday and Thursday, is few see any real end to this austerity debt trap. Living standards have been peeled back a good decade to before eurozone entry by sequential rounds of more taxes, more cuts, and even less social or economic justice because the poorest and weakest are again shouldering a disproportionate burden.
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Well-meaning promises that the situation has bottomed out just don’t wash because the failed institutions and political “status quo” that led the country down to an abyss have been discredited. Legitimacy is in short supply as voters now throw full yogurt containers at many politicians daring to dine publicly … Pity to waste good yogurt on scoundrels eating lobster.
The turnaround has been as speedy as the shock doctrine’s application since 2010. Three years ago, 80% of Greeks polled supported the two major parties — the “Pasok” socialists and “Nea Dimokratia” conservatives. These days 50% of Greeks have contempt for every party and at least a third won’t go to cast a ballot even though its compulsory.
In the heady debt-fuelled, fake prosperity days, most of the “duopoly” party differences are the shades of grey in their imported suits and vibrancy of swank ties. The currently ruling socialists have a tragic record of populism and the opposition conservatives kept just as few of their promise too.
Paradoxically, the pendulum swings between the two that have dominated the political landscape since the fall of the junta in the mid-1970s and have now switched roles. The socialist are applying the harshest IMF reform agenda ever designed for a developed economy because they have absolutely no choice for the country to avoid official bankruptcy. Greece needs to get its next loan cash “hit” of €8 billion so pension and wages can be paid past mid-November. Meanwhile, the conservatives haven’t been shy about exploiting the unpopularity of these unprecedented measures, veering to the centre left. Even amid the gravest crisis in 60 years, there is no semblance of political unity to the confusion of European and G-20 partners. Internal reform is beyond the political system’s ability as some have converted into whistleblowers while others dream of power over scorched earth.
And the lack of local cohesion is only exceeded by the imperial hubris of the de facto decision makers — the back — stopping Troika lenders — and the endlessly dithering EU politicians. After the Finns blackmailed for loan collateral, the Slovenians sent a shudder by threatening to sink the July bailout decisions, and the whole while hapless Franco-German axis continues to dither. A perfectly unstable front — at home and abroad — for the confused and cash-strapped Mediterranean country.
All this of course means little to the foreign press circus, which arrived in town late Tuesday rubbing its hands at the prospect of gladiatorial battles, accurately tossed Molotov cocktails and … hopefully exploitation of a community deteriorating into chaos, if not explosion.
Every television crew from Scandinavia to Japan littered Constitution (Syntagma) Square for the past two days looking for morsels of senseless destruction and video of “cat and mouse” games between rioters and riot police. Their thirst was quenched for happy snaps of violence and destruction right in front of Parliament and the sacred monument to countless centuries of Hellenic war dead. All the “experts” who have hardly spent a holiday on the turquoise-hemmed Greek islands, shed their “crocodile tears” from spectacular balcony views of five-star hotels — between ordering room service that costs more than the average monthly pension these days.
But they are right in saying all is not well in the troubled and debt-laden Mediterranean country. And the massive turnouts on consecutive days were not demoralised or defamed by the mindless rampage of a few trouble makers. People from all walks of life engaged in non-violent protests and their discontent is real and justified. The public sector was side by side with the private sector. Communists and hard-core nationalists uncomfortably chanted similar choruses. Mums and dads, widows and orphans in prams … all with a common cause under the bright sunlight of an Athenian October sky.
Infiltration from very small extremist elements is unfortunately par for the course, even in such never before seen “mass” movements. Why miss a good opportunity to perform for the international and local press cohorts?
Sadly, these “kids” are hardly from deprived backgrounds. They tend to live in the wealthiest Athenian suburbs and tend to be above the law since they are the sons and daughters of judges, colonels and even parliamentarians. Not exactly proletariat, in fact upper middle class. They could care less about the daily lives of the average man, woman, student, pensioner that took to the streets because their tolerance has stretched beyond the outermost limits.
The past two days signals that from now on all bets are off, because the Hellenic canary in the austerity coal mine is sliding off its perch, and many other peoples in Europe and the US may well follow the lead of the Greeks since living standards are being crushed worldwide.
No question, many in the public sector benefited from patronage appointments and the private sector indulged in parasitic state contracts. But most folks did no more than tolerate rife corruption and nepotism for a good 40 years. They didn’t spark the 2008 crisis, it wasn’t they who were over-leveraged, nor did they gamble on the derivatives casinos. They were never asked about whether Greek budgets added up or if they were based on blue-sky projections. And worst of all, they weren’t honestly told just how bad national finance trends were ballooning.
But now they find themselves called to shoulder the unbearable burden of paying off old and new loans — and always at compound interest — which does more to keep teetering European banks afloat that fund local needs. It’s a wonderful business socialising losses when private profits run out, and of course, the utility of austerity is its own reward, according to the gospel of mainstream dogma.
Problem is there is unfortunately little nobility in austerity. It means patients die in public hospitals for lack of surgical gloves, children in far-away islands and villages don’t get an education because schools are closed, and pensioners who worked for more than 35 years and paid all their dues need to scrounge for food scraps in farmers’ markets.
The latest raft of austerity was passed Thursday evening in the Hellenic Parliament with 153 votes out of a total of 300 deputies. Many breathed a collective sigh of relief because while no one wants to overdose on poisonous Troika medicine, the alternative of full and chaotic bankruptcy, or even worse an untimely and unprepared euro-exit would be far worse.
It won’t be far worse for the local billionaires who have squirreled away their wealth safely overseas, waiting for calamity to return and cherry pick the best hard assets for cents on the euro. It will hit those who won’t be able to afford food or fuel, and those who will see their bank savings evaporate into no more than gas and more tears.
Again the socialist government was forced to expel one more member for voting against one of the articles. This time it was former Labor Minister Professor Louka Katseli, who said she could not in good conscience vote to demolish private sector basic salaries to below the current pittance of below €6000 a month. In truth, no one can live on that minimum wage in Greece, and the private sector is already overworked and underpaid.
But these Venetian Troika merchants have the upper hand and they write the laws in oligopolistic fashion to allow even sinew and bone to be torn off nations.
Their pristine equations and models discount all historical memory. Few recall that Greece has paid back usurious loans from the 1880s until two years ago, despite the fact it has been bankrupted four times since they were concocted. Even less like to recall that the legal successor of the Third Reich still hasn’t paid Greece for the wholesale destruction of infrastructure, stolen gold and a still valid Nazi loan imposed on the nation that wiped about 10% of the total population between the firing squads and famine. The bill totals about €200 billion, which is more than half of the current parabolic debt.
However, historic injustice doesn’t dampen an irascible Greek sense of humor … even when trapped in a central hotel for four hours. The “done thing” locally is to entertain and hearten clueless tourists, even luckless Aussies, disappointed that they won’t get to see the spectacular Acropolis museum or catch their flight to the black soft sandy beaches of Santorini Island (Hera). It’s unjust and unfair, but average Greeks have it much worse.
Today the same bravery that Churchill described in his famous quote: “From now on we won’t say the Greeks fight like heroes, but heroes fight like Greeks” still applies. It’s just that we are beginning to also fight with one another again.
To avoid hostilities, I recommend when exiting a central Athenian hotel amid running battles that discretion is the better part of valor. Keep your tie and blazer neat when heading through the confused riot cop lines where gentleman are acknowledged … and then remove them super quick turning them into a hood before cruising sheepishly through the disenchanted rioters … savvy dress sense means you can be all things to all men in an impromptu riot.
Never forget that spewing tear-gas and burning rubbish bin fumes are the best cures for insomnia and likely to make one quit a two-pack-a-day habit … After more than 5000 years of recorded history there is still much wisdom in Athens — but it resides in the average person and not the closed shop elites.
Greeks know the IMF has zealously “visited upon” about 120 countries since its Bretton Woods inception — always the same policy recipe — and always the same result — miserable painful failures.
The mood in Greece suggests that no matter from which ideological angle one views the Parthenon, this misadventure won’t end nicely in polite luxury hotel lobbies, when a third of the population is living below the poverty line and more than a million are unemployed. And some are betting exactly on that.
Dr Nick Skrekas is an author, economic analyst and international lawyer.