Politics and culture, news and views from Europe.
Margaret Thatcher leaves a Westminster polling station with her husband, Dennis, after voting in the 1983 general election. (AP Photo/Peter Kemp)
Margaret Thatcher’s dead at last, and the pictures that crowd in speak of war and confrontation: riot police on horseback bringing their batons down on the heads of striking miners; cars in flames in Trafalgar Square during the poll tax riots; riots in Brixton and Toxteth against racist policing; US cruise missiles nestled behind the fence at Greenham Common; the infamous Sun headline—GOTCHA—when the Argentine cruiser Belgrano was sunk outside the Falklands exclusion zone; the ten IRA hunger strikers for political status dead in the Maze prison; the IRA bomb that almost killed Thatcher herself in Brighton. Hard on their heels come images of polished domestic smoothness: the handkerchief disapprovingly dropped on the tail of a model plane that bore no Union flag; the helmet of bright hair; the handbag, sign of female thrift and household management, of the grocer’s shop at Grantham gone terrifyingly global.
The slide shows are two sides of the same coin: it’s partly because Margaret Thatcher was a woman that she was able to drive through her relentless war on the unions, the working class, the welfare state, the left. Her eleven years as prime minister tore Britain apart, dead-ended lives, decimated industries and starved communities, made greed a virtue and indifference a mark of maturity. Her ruthlessness came coated in a lethal emollient: the soothing voice, the honeyed firmness of the nursery. She was the first British leader built for television, a masculine fantasy of forceful femininity.
She was also, in many ways, Britain’s first American leader (the second was Tony Blair), although she would have hated to be so described. When she became prime minister in 1979, Britain was a crumbling post-imperial power, battered by globalization and the oil crisis, stalled by waves of strikes as unions fought to hold their piece of a shrinking pie. Sweeping aside the post-war consensus for a mixed economy and a universal welfare state, she used the revenues from North Sea oil to shrink the government and fund a radical restructuring, lowering taxes, privatizing public assets from water to electricity to council houses, tearing down protections (or, in her view, obstacles) against market forces. Unemployment rose to nearly 13 percent, the highest it had been since the 1930s. Deindustrialisation had already begun; she sped it up deliberately, without a care for the lives being ruined in the process, with the barely disguised intent of destroying the labor movement. “As you know,” she famously said, “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
We are all Thatcher’s children now, in Britain and in Europe, where the austerity policies she road-tested in the eighties are being applied as if there were no alternative and no tomorrow; Germany’s Angela Merkel is the lady not for turning now. In the week of Thatcher’s death, Britain has seen deep welfare cuts—deeper than hers—with tax cuts for top earners. The language of “skivers versus strivers” in which the Tory party has framed this debate would have been political poison before the 1980s, when Thatcher and Ronald Reagan whipped up resentment of “welfare moms” and welfare dependency. New Labour, Thatcher’s greatest success, firmly hammered home her counter-revolution, chiselling at the principle of universal provision in health and education, reducing class mobility, cutting child poverty but widening the gap between the lowest and the highest earners. Privatization, discipline, austerity in a recession, kill-or-cure remedies: in so many ways, Thatcherism is now the new normal.
In the months before her death, “Lady Thatcher” enjoyed a rehabilitation. There was the Meryl Streep film Iron Lady, which framed her political career with a touching portrayal of her descent into dementia; there were the Cabinet papers from the time of the Falklands war, released a few weeks ago, which described her breaking down in tears at the thought of sending British boys to their deaths. Obviously to hate Thatcher (as so many of us do) is to succumb to a reverse cult of personality. But it isn’t only that. Like her friend Ronald Reagan (who can forget the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s poster of the two of them as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara before a mushroom cloud?) she was one of those politicians who sums up and seems to embody more than a set of policies: a shift of mood, a zeitgeist, a way of thinking and feeling about social life. Her megalomania knew no bounds. (With Reagan she took credit for the fall of the Soviet Union, as if it were a consequence of her crusade against the left.) She shifted the boundaries, rolled back decades of progress, moved British politics irrevocably to the right; now that she’s dead, we have to endure the spectacle of a “ceremonial funeral with military honours” in St. Paul’s Cathedral, as if she were some sort of saviour of the nation. The dead hand of tradition will heap blessings upon her head, along with no small number of her old enemies. The millions of us who dissent will remember that hypocrisy is essential to the British elite; that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
Read Allison Kilkenny's take on the Tory's new tool of regression: the "bedroom tax."
Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, Europe's only militarily divided city. (Flickr/Jorge Láscar)
The kaleidoscope spins again; the shards are rearranged; this time, the fragment at the centre is Cyprus. Faced with yet another country needing an urgent bailout (and with the German election looming in September), Eurozone leaders and the IMF have come up with a new wheeze: make savers pay to rescue the banks that were meant to look after their money, in exchange for a bailout of 10 billion euros.
Not unreasonable, you might say: Why should the proverbial German taxpayer cough up for Russian oligarchs and shady foreign businessmen who’ve stashed billions on the island? But the plan will take a cut from everybody’s savings—farmers, pensioners, orphans, oligarchs and oil magnates—on a roughly graded scale. (The proposed levy on accounts under 100,000 euros—which were in theory guaranteed by the Cyprus government—will probably now be reduced from 6.7 percent to 3.5 percent, which reminds me of the sage Nasrudin Hoja’s advice to the man whose house was too small.) Over the weekend Cypriots queued at cash machines; one man drove his bulldozer up to the door of the bank.
As the newly elected government of President Nicos Anastasiades postponed a vote on the plan and closed the banks until Thursday, the blame-shifting began: Was it Anastasiades who sold out the small savers to keep the Russians sweet, or the Troika heavies who showed him the brass knuckles? (Answer: it’s complicated, but there were brass knuckles.) Vladimir Putin weighed in, calling the plan unfair, unprofessional and dangerous. Russia has loaned Cyprus 2.5 billion euros; the EU is hoping it will extend the terms.
Why does all this matter? One, because this is the first time the EU and IMF have decided to take money directly from people’s pockets rather than through the messy process of cutting wages and pensions and putting taxes up. You could perhaps read this as a tacit acknowledgment that austerity has failed, economically as well as politically: it’s messy, it’s unreliable, and it makes people vote for leaders who won’t play the game, like Italy’s Beppe Grillo. You could certainly read it as a sign of how profoundly Europe’s leaders have lost the plot. Though the market meltdown predicted over the weekend hasn’t materialized, howls of derision have issued from bankers and business leaders as well as Cypriot indignados: if guarantees on bank deposits aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, if people’s savings can be siphoned off by fiat, then the world as we know it, or at least the banking system, will come to an end. (It’s worth remembering here that before the last Greek election a Syriza economist proposed tapping private deposits to fund public investment; he was pilloried as a dangerous radical who would destroy the principle of private property.)
Two, it matters because with both ends of the economic spectrum lining up against it, the latest Band-Aid offered for the ailing Eurozone looks more and more like a crowbar to help tear it apart. The European Union, a liberal project with the twin goals of preserving peace and solidarity and facilitating commerce, always had opponents on both left and right. As the crisis deepens and peace and solidarity drop out of the equation, those voices are getting louder, not only in Greece and Italy but in Scandinavia, where far-right parties are rising, and in Britain, too. The anti-immigration UK Independence Party beat the Tories to second place in a recent by-election. Cyprus, a former colony, is home to several thousand British retirees; the front page of the Daily Mail today denounces the great eu bank robbery. The financial “contagion” from the Cyprus bailout might be containable; the political fallout will be more problematic.
Three, it matters because the plundering of ordinary people’s savings to bail out the banks lays bare more starkly than before where the real power lies. What price is democracy, when the European Central Bank’s Jorge Asmussen can present an elected European leader with the choice to accept the deposit tax or we will let your banks go under, and your economy too? (And yes, I know that Cyprus has a bloated banking sector; I know its people elected the governments that chose to let this happen; I know it’s a center for money laundering. But so are Switzerland and Luxemburg and the City of London, not to mention—according to the Basel Institute of Governance—Germany.)
Last but not least, it matters because Cyprus matters. Always in the cross-hairs of Great Power rivalries, betrayed by its former colonial masters, pushed and pulled by the politics of its neighbors Greece and Turkey, the island has struggled for decades to shape its own destiny. When the crisis hit Greece a couple of years ago, a Cypriot friend wrote to me, “Don’t bring us down with you, the way you did last time.” She meant 1974, when the junta in power in Athens launched the coup in Cyprus that sparked the Turkish invasion that split the island in two. Cyprus’s fall this time is due in part to its exposure to Greek bonds, which were given a short back and sides last year by the same financial wizards who have hatched this latest plan.
You might be forgiven for thinking that those wizards want the Eurozone to fall apart. But that’s conspiratorial, and gives them too much credit. Like the British in Cyprus the 1950s, they’re trying and failing to juggle their own contradictory interests. And as in the 1950s, it’s the locals who’ll get hurt first.
In Hungary, protesters are hitting the streets for basic rights. Check out Laura Flanders's take.
A Golden Dawn demonstration in Athens, June 27, 2012. (Flickr/Steve Jurvetson)
There’s a shadow play going on in Athens, a symbolic political war that also involves real actors and real bombs. The one that went off on Sunday in a suburban shopping mall owned by oligarch Spiros Latsis peppered the front pages of this morning’s papers with shrapnel—“Security cameras show four hooded men”; “Police speak of new terrorist generation”—and made The New York Times: “Bomb Attacks in Greece Raise Fear of Radicalism.” Over the last ten days there have been small explosions outside the homes of pro-government journalists, at banks and local party headquarters and in the building where the brother of the government spokesman lives; someone shot a Kalashnikov into the empty office of the prime minister. So far the only casualty has been people’s sense of security and sanity, the feeling that they can grasp what’s happening around them—but that’s been in intensive care now for some time.
Who’s doing this, and why? The attacks outside journalists’ homes were claimed by an obscure group calling itself the Lovers of Lawlessness/Militant Minority, but that doesn’t tell us much. They could be, as the government says, “far-left anarchists”; they could be, as some on the left say, provocateurs linked to a murky parastate intent on more repression; they could be both at once. But whoever they are, their actions are part of a tightening, an escalation of tension, a narrowing of possibilities, that seems to be gathering speed.
Violence has been simmering for some time in Greece, not just among the young who rioted in Athens in December 2008 but among older people, too. Austerity wears the gentleness out of people’s hearts. At first it was mostly rhetoric. “There are plenty of guns in Athens, plenty of guns, you wait,” an elderly man shouted at me back in 2011. Words became weapons: “They should all be hanged”; “Burn the brothel parliament”; “There’s going to be blood”; “I want Golden Dawn in parliament to beat the others up.” But from the beginning, there was physical violence too: in the attacks on migrants by Golden Dawn supporters with the connivance of the state; in the beating of peaceful protesters and the wild spraying of tear gas by the riot police; in the rain of stones and Molotovs at every demonstration; in the surge of suicides. You could say that hunger and homelessness in the midst of plenty are a kind of violence, too.
That’s not to say that these things are equivalent, or that one form of violence justifies another, only that violence in itself is nothing new. What is new, perhaps, is violence as spectacle, part of a coded dialogue: security theater against the propaganda of the deed. I’m not sure which of the two I dislike more.
The rash of bombings began after riot police raided two anarchist squats in Athens and arrested the occupants; Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias described the squats as “centres of lawlessness.” The older one, Villa Amalia, had been going for twenty-three years in an old neoclassical building, a crumbling former boys’ school in the center of the city with flaking stucco and a grassy, gap-toothed balustrade. The squatters had put up scaffolding to protect passers-by from falling masonry, and carefully restored one side elevation. A blue sign on the corner, printed to look official, listed the contractor as “The Solidarity Company,” the funding as “Self-Organized,” and the sponsor as “The Organization of Living Buildings.”
Villa Amalia had long been part of the local scene, viewed slightly askance by some but mostly tolerated. The squatters kept the place from becoming a shooting gallery, ran a café and free concerts and a radical printing press. Lately they had taken a more active role: local people told me that “the kids” were their best defense against Golden Dawn vigilantes who were moving into the neighbourhood, terrorizing immigrants and extorting protection money. (Last week two Golden Dawn supporters stabbed to death a young Pakistani man, Shehzad Luqman, in an Athens suburb; his coffin was carried past City Hall as part of an anti-fascist protest on January 19.) When blackshirts came with clubs to “clear” the nearby square, it was anarchists and other supporters of Villa Amalia who stood their ground against them.
During the raid on Villa Amalia police said they found 1,247 empty beer bottles, sixty-two ball bearings, fourteen flares, one plastic container with flammable liquid in it, one knife, one firework, one folding metal club, one gram of cannabis, twenty staves and four catapults—materiel for mayhem maybe, but not quite a cache for the coming insurrection. In photos, the squat’s interior looked like a teenager’s bedroom on a very bad day, strewn with coffee cups and computer parts. But watching Greek television, one might be forgiven for thinking it hid the pulsing heart of violent revolution.
The show was a good distraction from a vote to enable the new round of austerity measures, and from parliament’s farcical discussions about whom to prosecute over the government’s handling of the “Lagarde List” of 2,000 Greek depositors in a Swiss bank. It was also a trap for Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, which is pretty much neck and neck with New Democracy in the polls and has repeatedly been accused of supporting street violence (and even blamed, by some, for the rise of Golden Dawn). A Syriza MP put his foot right in it by declaring his anarchist sympathies while sporting a red keffiyah; party leader Alexis Tsipras made the requisite distancing noises. New Democracy’s spokesman, though, did not hesitate to blame “the hoodlums of Syriza” when the first firebombs went off outside journalists’ homes. A slanging match ensued, further denting what little is left of the Greek people’s faith in any of their politicians.
Nor has Public Order minister Dendias felt it necessary to address the most powerful “center of lawlessness,” the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which has infiltrated the police and part of the judiciary, recruits in schools, trains militias, openly advocates civil war and beats people up under the nose of the police, and whose supporters post pictures of their treasured weaponry on Facebook. For the state has two ways to deal with challenges to its monopoly on violence: repression and cooptation. For the left, the Greek state has chosen repression; for the extreme right, tolerance and cooptation. That is its historical pattern and its comfort zone; it’s also what best suits the neoliberal model being imposed in Europe.
The suppression of left-wing protest isn't always violent. Read Allison Kilkenny's take on the curbside protests of Obama's inauguration.
There’s a chant that used to irritate me when I heard it on Greek protests against austerity last year: “Bread, Education, Freedom, the Junta didn’t end in 1973.” (It’s a bit better in Greek; it rhymes, at least.) If you call an elected government a junta, I thought, however catastrophic its policies, what will you call a real junta when you see one? And if you conflate disparate historical moments—the military dictatorship that ruled Greece for seven years from 1967, say, with the collapse that began in 2010, when the socialist government declared the coffers empty and signed up to the EU and IMF’s disastrous austerity program—how will you make sense of what’s actually happening?
I still don’t like that chant. But it is also true that Greece can no longer be called a functioning democracy. (Some might say it never could; but that’s another story.) Here, very briefly, are three reasons why:
One: A significant part of the police, elements of the judiciary and some sections of the coastguard have been infiltrated by supporters of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which won eighteen seats in parliament in June and has been soaring ever since. Police not only turn a blind eye to increasing far-right violence against immigrants and leftists: they sometimes participate in it. (For more about the rise of Golden Dawn and its penetration of the police, see my long report for The Guardian, Paul Mason’s for the BBC and this from Borderline Reports.)
Having allowed a fascist organization to hijack law enforcement through a lethal cocktail of intention, incompetence and inertia, the state is still failing to address the problem. A scheme has just been announced to set up a central police database that will record all racist incidents, but there is no plan to purge and reform the police force itself. Instead, the government will create a new unit to combat racist violence—which suggests the surreal image of opposed police squads fighting each other on the street.
Two: Allegations of police mistreatment and torture of anti-fascist protesters, unreported by the Greek mainstream media until The Guardian published them and now partially confirmed by a medical examiners’ report, were met by Nikos Dendias, the minister of public order and citizen protection, not with a promise to investigate but with threats to sue the paper for “defaming Greek democracy.” In response to questions tabled by the left party Syriza, Dendias has now said that the allegations will be investigated as part of a “sworn administrative inquiry,” described by UNHCR in 2008 as an internal and confidential police procedure designed to protect the rights of the officer involved rather than those of the complainant.
Three: Press freedom, always precarious in Greece where most private media are in the hands of well-connected oligarchs, is a dead letter.
On October 27, investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis of the magazine Hot Doc published the “Lagarde List”—naming 2,059 Greek citizens with deposits in a Swiss bank passed to the government two years ago by the IMF’s Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister, as an aid to investigating possible tax evasion. Tax evasion has been estimated to cost Greece 28 billion euros a year—double the 13 billion in further cuts being demanded by Greece’s lenders, which will fall mostly on pensioners, working people and the poor. The list, mysteriously mislaid by Greek officials, includes the names of a former culture minister, finance ministry employees and prominent businessmen.
Vaxevanis made it clear in his editorial that not everyone on the list is guilty of tax evasion; he was arrested the next day on misdemeanor charges relating to privacy laws. His trial begins on November 1. “Instead of arresting the tax evaders and the ministers who had the list in their hands,” he said “they’re trying to arrest the truth and freedom of the press. I’ll say something very simple: Journalism means publishing something that others are trying to hide. Everything else is public relations.”
Then, on October 29, Greek state television suspended the two presenters of a popular morning talk show, Marilena Katsimi and Kostas Arvanitis, because they discussed on air Dendias’ threat to sue The Guardian over the torture allegations and pointed out that medical reports confirm police malfeasance. Aimilios Liatsos, the broadcaster’s news director, said that the journalists had “violated the basic rules of journalistic practice” and made “unacceptable insinuations” against Dendias. ERT journalists are planning a wave of twenty-four-hour strikes until the presenters are reinstated. Meanwhile, in Corfu, a man has reportedly been arrested for posting on his Facebook page photographs of police officers in company with members of Golden Dawn at a parade commemorating Greece’s entry into World War II…
So, in the “cradle of civilization,” we now have state security services infiltrated by a violent fascist organization; a failure to independently investigate allegations of police violence; and a penchant for shooting the messenger. I won’t call it a junta, but it’s not democracy either.
To see a less-than-democratic practice in the US, check out Ross Tuttle's report on New York's stop-and-frisk law
“I’m telling you, we’ll go bankrupt inside the memorandum. Blood will be spilled in Greece, out of hunger if not anything else. But since this government’s been elected, until that happens there’ll be funds for that job—the question is, Will they be released this week or next? I hope it works out for you, because there’s money there. There are no salaries anymore, for me it’s just what I can sell in the souvlaki shop…” The heavy-set, white-haired man shouting into his mobile phone on the overground in Athens summed it up perfectly: a temporary reprieve of sorts, a postponement, followed by—what?
There’s always a sense of let-down after an election: all those promises, all those fantasies and fears giving way overnight to hard reality. The Greek vote on Sunday came with more than its share of dramatic expectations. Athens was crawling with foreign hacks waiting for “drachmageddon,” if Syriza should win and scrap the bailout memorandum. The German Financial Times published a piece in Greek telling voters to “resist the demagoguery of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza” as if they were the Luftwaffe dropping leaflets on occupied Athens; Die Bild followed suit in a more demotic vein: “If you didn’t want our billions, it would be fine with us if you voted for any leftist or rightist clown you liked.” Meanwhile, Alexis Tsipras was promising a new dawn of dignity and hope, change and renewal, liberty for Europe’s peoples, free gifts with every purchase. And New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras—who has twisted 180 degrees with the political wind on the bailout agreement, and whose party is co-responsible for the state of Greece’s finances and up to its eyes in corruption—was playing the national savior, warning of disaster if the “drachma lobby” should triumph.
Whatever else the Greeks may be, they weren’t born yesterday. Most people I spoke to on election day didn’t think much would change whichever party won: the economic and social breakdown is now so profound that it will take many years to swim up to the surface. Many still weren’t sure which way they were going to vote because “no party expresses me”—or because they were afraid they might get what they wished for. Those who have little left to lose went for Syriza in droves, unfazed by the fear-mongering, pushing up its share of the vote from 4 percent two years ago to 17 percent in May to 27 percent on Sunday. But even Syriza’s leaders, or so the rumour went, were hoping to come second. A friend involved in their campaign put it to me like this: “If we lose, I’ll be disappointed and relieved. If we win, I’ll be worried.” Until a few weeks ago Syriza was a small oppositional left coalition; it isn’t ready (yet?) to nail its various banners to a single flagpole and become the state. And if Syriza won and failed,as it was almost bound to do given the situation, its inexperience and the guns of Berlin and Brussels all lined up against it like a firing squad? Then where would the dispossessed of the memorandum turn?
A frightening number have already turned to the far right, especially to the violent neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn’s vote dropped only 0.05 percent since the May 6 election, giving it eighteen seats in parliament and confounding predictions that people would turn against it once its true face was revealed. On the contrary: the physical attack on two left women MPs by party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris on live television in June apparently helped its cause. “Serves the lesbian right,” some said; others saw it as the symbolic slap they’d like to give the system. With eighteen seats in parliament, Golden Dawn is now firmly established on the mainstream political scene, despite (or maybe because of) its sharp fascist rhetoric and street-fighting muscle boys. It’s obviously a response to humiliation and poverty and the thousands of destitute migrants trapped in Greece’s cities, but it’s also the resurgence of an extreme-right current that’s been there since the thirties, waiting for the moment to emerge again. In parts of Athens it works hand in hand with the police, who’ve been known to pass a phone number on a scrap of paper to citizens complaining about immigrant crime.
The official response to the election from Europe’s politicians is a small sigh of relief. In theory it buys them time to find some last-minute Band-Aids for the crumbling Eurozone: the rudimentary Eurobonds discussed (but not agreed on) at the G20 summit, some investment for growth, perhaps a softening of the rigid German austerity recipe. They may also offer a lollipop or two to the Greek people for voting the right way, or at least a longer timescale for the cuts to come. But with the same “clowns” (or thieves, as most Greeks call them) from New Democracy and Pasok voted back into power mainly out of fear, nobody expects anything good from the government.
That may be the best thing to come out of this election. In spite of the deepening poverty and the grim prognosis, in spite of deep anxiety about violence in the streets, there’s also a new blend of resignation and self-reliance in the way some people talk. Maybe it’s because they feel they’ve almost hit rock bottom; maybe it’s because the election didn’t lead to sudden death; maybe it’s that the rise of Syriza restored some sense of dignity for those who weren’t scared by it. As the historian Tasoula Vervenioti put it, “We’ve done all right, the Greek people. We’ve taken a lot of tear gas. And Syriza, to produce Syriza that shook them all in Europe, that was something too.” Now that the demonizing of Greece in the foreign press has eased a little bit, people seem more able to face their own complicity in the country’s trouble—the lack of a sense of citizenship and public responsibility, the widespread willingness to plunder the public purse in ways both large and small. It’s only a little thing, but when this government falls apart, as many expect it will, it might turn out to mean a lot.
The sea at Katounia is a million shades of blue, ripples and shivers moving, changing all the time, pushed by the tides and currents of the Euboean Gulf. This place is a touchstone: rock and light and water, nothing that isn’t true. But last week it felt as if the sea was full of knives.
The Greek crisis has been a bonanza for journalists like me. Besides the speculation about a Greek exit from the euro, containment and contagion, we’ve had endless stories about corrupt Greeks, lazy Greeks, suffering Greeks and hungry Greeks, heroically resisting Greeks, reckless and feckless Greeks. In these last days before the election that’s supposed to determine the fate not only of Greece but of the whole Eurozone, the media feeding frenzy has reached piranha proportions.
For those who live here, though, the breakdown goes much deeper than the visible currents of economics and politics. What does a country mean for those who belong to it, beyond everyday life and home? Some alchemy, perhaps, of human connection and history; a language and a landscape; things that go without saying. The pain of what’s been happening here touches on all of that. It’s changed people’s connection to the past as well as the present, their intimate relationships, their sense of who they are. It’s taken apart the story they’ve believed about their lives for the last forty years. Rage and betrayal are mixed with a toxic sense of shame.
A woman I’ve known for two decades and always seen in motion sits slumped at the end of the day in front of the TV news. Two clone-like blonde presenters are discussing the latest “plan” to eject Greece from the Eurozone. How does she see the future? She waves her hand around the empty restaurant she runs with her family. “Nothing,” she says. “Nothing.” Her son has a young family and has to go running all over the place to look for a day’s wage. “He’s got a couple of goats back there, you should see how nice he’s made it, so he can slaughter a kid now and then to fill the freezer with.” She looks at me hopefully, as if I might know something: “Who do you think would be better, Tsipras [of the radical left party Syriza] or Samaras [from conservative New Democracy]?” I’m startled to hear her ask: this is a region where Syriza polled first in the May 6 election, where almost all the villages were on the left the civil war. I say, somewhat inanely, “I don’t think any of them are telling the whole truth.” Her eyes light up a little as she answers, slightly shyly, “I want Golden Dawn in Parliament to beat all of them up.”
It’s inconceivable that this woman would ever vote for Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party which won almost 7 percent of the vote in May and has since been flexing its muscles, stepping up its violent attacks on immigrants and leftists, unmolested by the police. A week before, the party leader’s daughter had been arrested in Athens with a group beating up Pakistanis and let go without bail; the following day Golden Dawn’s press spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, made the international media when he physically attacked two left-wing women MPs on live television. (He has since sued the TV station and the women for “unprovoked defamation.”) The day after that an Israeli photojournalist was beaten up in Athens, almost certainly by Golden Dawn supporters, for taking pictures of men pursuing a group of migrants; the poor man wondered in an interview if telling them he was from Israel might have helped. And the day after that a friend phoned me to say that Golden Dawn were attacking the Panteion University where he teaches, smashing windows and fighting with students while the police again stood by.
And yet that line—“I want Golden Dawn in Parliament to beat all of them up”—has almost become a slogan, a fist against the system, heard not only from the right but sometimes even from people likely to vote Syriza. It’s a symptom of humiliation, hopelessness and rage—and of the molecular meltdown of Greek politics. The old categories of left and right, which in Greece have long represented deep-rooted identities and painful family histories, are fraying at the edges. Many people won’t decide till the last minute how they’ll vote. A former Eurocommunist told me he might go for the hated New Democracy to keep Greece in the euro; a conservative taxi driver (until six months ago a civil engineer) says he’ll vote Syriza because “that young man [Tsipras] is smart, and also clean.”
The simple narrative imposed on this election by European politicians, bankers and journalists—that it’s a referendum on whether Greece stays in the Eurozone—doesn’t begin to map it. It’s more like a wild bet, a frightened guess at which might be the less disastrous choice. As countless people have already said, the Greek people’s faith in the old political class—which ground down the economy, called in the bailiffs of the EU and IMF, and then applied their measures in the most unjust and destructive way—has utterly collapsed. The political terrain is crazed with new divisions, some real, some mythical: private sector workers, who make up the vast majority of Greece’s new unemployed, against the public sector, which has suffered deep cuts in pay; “reformers” against the rest (though pretty much everyone agrees reform is necessary); so-called “pro-Europeans” against what Samaras calls “the pro-drachma lobby” (though 80 percent of Greeks want to stay in the Eurozone and almost nobody is advocating a return to the drachma); “pro-memorandum” against “anti-memorandum” forces.
In fact, the real decision about whether Greece stays in the Eurozone rests not with the Greek electorate but with the EU, the Germans and the IMF: the only way an exit will take place is if they decide to push it by cutting off the next tranche of the bailout funds, forcing Greece to print its own money in order to pay the bills. (As ever, the messages leaking from Berlin and Brussels about whether or when this might happen are oracularly ambivalent.) In spite of the polarized atmosphere, both leading parties say they would “renegotiate” the bailout, though only Syriza has dared to play chicken with Angela Merkel by talking about rejecting it outright. And some of their proposals—such as extending unemployment benefits to two years and freezing wage reductions—are strikingly similar.
Of course there are deep differences, on traditional left/right issues: state versus private investment and economic control, taxation, redistribution, immigration policy. For all the talk of renewal and new beginnings, in many ways both parties are singing ancient songs. Samaras is shamelessly playing the right’s old nationalist card, giving aid and comfort to the extremists in Golden Dawn; Tsipras draws on a rousing populist rhetoric familiar to the Greek left. And while Syriza presents itself as a new, squeaky clean force that will sweep away corruption and the old clientelist system, here, too, there is less of a break with the past than might at first appear: among the party’s supporters are the old featherbedded Pasok trade union leaders and traditional clients from the public sector.
So the Greeks go to the polls in a strange hall of mirrors, papered with partial truths. This is hardly surprising: the meltdown here has been too fast for politics to keep up with, the tides of change too strong and unpredictable to contain. Besides, Greece’s future depends in no small part on outside forces, which have their own agendas and conflicting interests. Whatever government emerges out of Sunday’s vote, I suspect it won’t last long. And when this latest lightning rod for despair and hope has failed, I am afraid of what might happen, of where the barely pent-up rage and violence might lead.
Supporters of France’s newly elected President François Hollande react after the early results during a victory rally at Place de la Bastille in Paris May 6, 2012. France voted in elections on Sunday and Hollande becomes the nation’s first Socialist president in seventeen years. Reuters/Charles Platiau
So the voters have voted—in Britain, in France, in Greece, in Schleswig-Holstein—and the markets are tumbling. In Britain, the Tories took a serious beating from Labour in local elections, though Ken Livingston lost in London to Mayor Boris Johnson; their Liberal Democrat coalition partners were more or less wiped out. France has elected a socialist president for the first time since 1981 (though, as I recall, that one didn’t turn out so well); François Hollande has pledged to challenge European austerity and renegotiate the German-driven fiscal treaty that has effectively outlawed Keynesianism on the continent. Schleswig-Holstein dealt a blow to Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU and elected members of the Pirate Party to its regional assembly. And Greece has voted loudly, if incoherently, against the austerity program imposed by the EU and IMF. Across Europe, it’s no to austerity, and yes to—what?
European voters everywhere are turning against the elites that have managed most of the continent for the last few decades. The financial crisis has broken the illusion of stability; the cracks in the concrete of the Eurozone are gaping. As I wrote here on Friday, the voices being raised against austerity come from the far right as well as the left. Yesterday Greece became the first European country to elect neo-Nazis—twenty-one members of the racist Golden Dawn party—to its parliament. Their leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, dedicated his victory to “the brave boys in the black shirts”; some candidates used the rising phoenix, emblem of the colonels’ junta of 1967 to 1974, as their election poster. “Those who slander us,” he barked, and “those who betray this country should be afraid: we’re coming.” Golden Dawn won votes across much of the country—and not just in the inner cities, where its supporters stage pogroms against immigrants and woo old ladies with offers to escort them to the cash machine. It also got the votes of one in ten young people. If you add that vote to those of the other two far-right parties, Laos and Panos Kammenos’ Independent Greeks, then one in five Greeks voted for rabid nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
I’ve tried to explain the rise of Golden Dawn in my piece for the Guardian today—and also the success of Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left. Syriza was the breakthrough party of the Greek election, taking all of the greater Athens region and central Thessaloniki and coming in second—ahead of the discredited socialist Pasok—overall. The charismatic Tsipras managed to articulate a very basic program—opposition to the EU/IMF measures, redistribution of wealth, a restoration of welfare rights—that much of the broad left opposition to austerity could sign up to; he’s also the man who figured out how to speak to the people in the streets. “We are the many, they are the few,” goes one of Syriza’s slogans; “They decide without us, we proceed without them,” goes another.
Greeks who remember the ’80s and the speeches of Pasosk’s founder, Andreas Papandreou, find much in Tsipras to remind them of that master rabble-rouser. Although he swears he’s for “the people,” not “the state,” he has refused to talk about the reform of Greece’s creaking bureaucracy, or about how exactly he plans to save the economy, beyond taxing the rich and calling the Europeans’ bluff on ejecting Greece from the Eurozone. But at moment like this, populism can be (very briefly) useful, as well as seductive and dangerous. Set beside Hollande’s victory in France, Tsipras’s success has helped drive home the message that Europeans have had it with austerity. Both elections were referendums on European economic strategy; both roundly rejected it. The German finance minister issued a shameful threat to the Greeks the day before the vote, saying that they must honor their commitments or “take the consequences.” It isn’t clear yet what those consequences will be; but then, what we’ve got now clearly isn’t working either. In the long battle between the markets and democracy, it’s one to democracy, with all its flaws and pitfalls. No one said it would be easy.
How do you hold an election in a country that has lost its sovereignty, its sense of its own past and its imagined future? What promises can discredited politicians sell, in the fifth year of recession, to people whose wages have vanished or plummeted by a third, pensioners living on less than 300 euros a month, a younger generation facing one job between two?
Greece goes to the polls on Sunday, the same day as France, which is predicted to elect a Socialist president who has vowed to renegotiate the German austerity-driven European fiscal compact. If Hollande, in partnership with Spain and Italy, can add weight to the growing consensus against austerity, the French election may turn out to matter more for Greeks than their own. The economic crisis has exposed a crisis of representation: even the control nation states used to imagine they had over their own affairs has been sacrificed to the power of the financial markets. At the same time, in Greece, the collapse has completely discredited the two mainstream parties that have alternated in power since the colonels’ dictatorship fell in 1974—the center-left Pasok and the center-right New Democracy—laying bare the corruption and stagnation of the whole clientelist system. In Greek, “thief” is almost a synonym now for “politician.”
This is partly a local phenomenon, a consequence of the particular deformations of Greek politics, but it’s also part of a wider European pattern. From the Netherlands to France to Portugal people are losing faith in the old political elites, who have failed to protect democracy, hard-won rights and basic solvency from the financial markets and the impact of globalization. In the strange, shifting landscape of the Greek election campaign, in which thirty-two parties are running and nine or ten are expected to enter parliament, the deepest rift has opened not between left and right but between pro- and anti-Memorandum forces—between those committed to the EU/IMF bailout program and the Eurozone at any cost, and those prepared to take a leap of faith into an uncertain future, betting against the continuation of austerity politics and perhaps of the euro itself.
In Greece, as elsewhere (France, the Netherlands, Italy, Finland, even Britain) the anti-austerity camp includes the nationalist far right. This Sunday the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn—which escorts old ladies to cash machine and beats up immigrants, which sells protection to shopkeepers and harbours Holocaust deniers, whose symbol is the ancient Greek meander, shaped rather like a swastika, in black on a red ground—is almost certain to win seats, for the first time, in parliament. New Democracy’s leader, Antonis Samaras, has pandered shamelessly to the far right’s supporters: if he can’t win their votes, he may well need their parties (Golden Dawn, the Popular Orthodox Rally and the new Independent Greeks, led by a former New Democracy politican who thinks Greece should look to Vladimir Putin for salvation) to prop up a minority government. His rallies have been a sea of blue and white Greek flags (the same flags that were waved by some of the aganaktismenoi in Syntagma last summer before the anti-austerity movement started to fragment); he has vowed to protect the church and religious education as the core of Greek identity and to repeal a law giving citizenship rights to the children of legal immigrants. One of his campaign ads features Aghia Sophia in Istanbul, the lost heart of Byzantium and symbol of Greek irredentism, with its Ottoman minarets conveniently cropped away.
But populist nationalism is not confined to the right. At least since the rule of the first Pasok prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, in the 1980s, parts of the Greek left have had a strong nationalist streak, rooted in the anti-imperialist opposition to the CIA-backed junta and to decades of cold war meddling in Greek politics. Now, with Greece’s sovereignty once again hemmed in by foreign powers, those buttons are easy to push, and make for strange bedfellows. Politicians of all stripes reach for ugly metaphors of disease and war. In April Pasok ministers called the migrants in Athens a “hygenic time bomb” and began turning military bases into detention centers. A Russian prostitute who tested HIV-positive was locked up on criminal charges and had her picture plastered all over the media; when several Greek hookers were also found to be carriers, the immigration panic morphed into a moral one. Half the worried johns who called a public helpline turned out to be—shock, horror—married men, carrying infection into the heart of the “Greek family.”
Alexis Tsipras, the young leader of Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, also plays the nationalist card (though he has never stooped to anti-immigrant rhetoric) and explicitly claims the mantle of the old populist PASOK—which is why, despite his recent embrace by the US media as a possible king-maker, I can’t bring myself to trust him. Together the three left parties in Greece—the neo-Stalinist KKE, the social democratic DIMAR and the hybrid Syriza—have polled at 37 percent. (There is also the Green Ecology party, perhaps the only one to take a truly global view, which is also likely to win its first seats in parliament.) Though pigs would fly before the KKE cooperates with any other party, and Dimar split from Syriza in 2007, Tsipras has made repeated overtures towards a coalition; some on the left have hailed this as the promise of a new dawn. Pasok leader Evangelos Venizelos launched a full frontal attack on him today, a sure sign he’s becoming a significant threat.
Tsipras has said that his first act if elected would be to cancel the EU/IMF memorandum and, “with the people backing us on the streets,” tell the European Commission that the Greeks demand a policy of redistribution and growth; otherwise Spain and Italy will follow Greece into despair, leading to the inevitable breakup of the Eurozone. The old liberal politicians are horrified by his nods to Chávez and Allende and his cheerful embrace of the masses on the streets, as are the reformers gathered in Dimar and in one or two small pro-European “modernizing” parties. I admire his chutzpah—someone should have taken such a stand many moons ago—and envy his certainty, but I can’t help feeling that it’s not going to be that simple. Without a wider European shift away from austerity and democratic reform of Greece’s political culture and economy (along lines which have hardly begun to be discussed), there’s no way out of this labyrinth for many years to come.
For Europe as a whole though, perhaps the most important fact about the Greek election is that almost all the candidates see support for austerity as political suicide. Samaras has promised to renegotiate some of the terms of the bailout and to halve unemployment in three years; even Venizelos has vowed to bring Greece “out of the memorandum” in the same period while slowing the pace of reform. The old parties reach deep and will die hard, but the air is crackling with rage against the politicians who drove the country’s economy into the ground, called in the IMF and let the heaviest blows fall on the most vulnerable. How Greeks will vote on Sunday remains an open question. The likeliest outcome is an inconclusive vote, followed by days or weeks of tortuous negotiations. What happens after that depends to some extent on what happens elsewhere Europe. But the opposite is also true: coupled with the election of Hollande in France, a strong anti-austerity vote in Greece may well push the Eurocrisis round another corner. There is no way to know what’s waiting for us there: the maiden or the minotaur, a new commitment to growth, solidarity and investment or a convulsive break-up of the Eurozone.
When I was in Athens last week many people I talked to wondered aloud why there hadn’t yet been an uprising against the austerity measures that are devastating the country. There was anger everywhere, but sullen and suppressed. Maybe there’s still some fat left in the system, they said. Maybe they’ve just brainwashed us, put us all to sleep. I took a taxi one day when the subway wasn’t working because of a suicide; the driver opined that the deceased was clearly an idiot. “He should have killed himself in Parliament,” he scoffed, “and taken five or six of those idiots down with him.”
Well, now there has been an uprising of sorts, but it doesn’t feel any better. More—perhaps many more—than 100,000 people turned out on Sunday afternoon to protest the new austerity package being voted through parliament to secure a further 130 billion euro loan; the riot police used tear gas to clear them from Syntagma Square, out of sight of the TV cameras perched on the balconies of the grand hotels. In the side streets there were running battles between police and hooded protesters, tear gas and truncheons and boots against firebombs and Molotov cocktails and flying marble shards. Some forty-five buildings blazed, not only banks but some of the neoclassical beauties that have stood through fifty years of rampant development. Better buildings than people. Amazingly, no one died and only 100 (officially) were injured. But a weapons shop on Omonoia Square was broken into and looted. I passed it last week and wondered at the racks of guns and scimitars openly on display.
Following the Twitter feeds from Syntagma last night, I read that 20,000 people were singing all together and wished that I could be there, in spite of the flames and tear gas, to feel the lift of the crowd. But this morning I spoke to a friend in Athens who was out on the streets last night and reality returned. She told me she’d met many people she knew and all of them felt alone. “We don’t know what to believe in, what to think any more,” she said. “It’s as if the violence is meant to make us feel more defeated and more powerless, to warn us that we can’t even begin to lift our heads.”
Greece now feels like a labyrinth with all the exits blocked. The new austerity program, which includes a 22 percent cut to the minimum wage (32 percent for the young) and 150,000 public sector losses cuts by 2016, will further sink an already devastated economy. Unemployment is above 20 percent (near 50 percent for the young); manufacturing output fell by 11 percent in a month; tax revenues are down 18 percent since last year; 60,000 businesses have closed since the summer. If you ask people on the street if they would rather Greece went bankrupt than accept further “measures,” they point out that Greece is already bankrupt; that many public sector workers haven’t been paid in months; that hospitals have no bandages and schools are short of books; that the poor are being wrung dry to pay the banks. If the new loan comes through—and those who decide these things in Brussels and Berlin don’t seem at all sure that it will, even after last night’s vote—up to 70 percent of it will go to pay Greece’s creditors. More and more voices—from IMF officials to Italy’s Mario Monti to countless economists—are joining the chorus of those who admit that the program will not work. (For more, please see my piece on the Guardian’s site today.) Meanwhile democracy is indefinitely suspended: though elections are now planned for April, all party leaders have to sign up in writing to the new loan agreement before anything changes hands.
For a long time I thought default would be a terrible mistake. I was irritated by glib comparisons with Argentina, which defaulted in a boom time with far greater resources, and where people still went hungry. I thought about the shelves of Athenian supermarkets, stacked with foreign products; about oil and energy and the run on the banks; about the violence that erupts when there isn’t enough to go round. But many companies are already refusing to export to Greece because they think they won’t get paid; the only country that will sell Greece oil on credit is Iran, which is shortly to face an embargo; and last night Athens went spectacularly up in flames.
I still think default would be terrible. But the only alternative path on offer is also terrible; and default still waits at the end.
“Nein! Nein! Nein!” roars today’s headline on Ta Nea, Greece’s largest circulation daily, over a caricature of Angela Merkel controlling a map of Greece with puppet strings. This is not just the usual Greek rage against the EU’s austerity measures: Last Friday the Financial Times made public a German proposal to take over Greece’s finances so extreme as to look like parody. In order to receive the next tranche of its bailout, the document explains, Greece would have to agree a “transfer of national budgetary sovereignty” to a European commissar, “preferably through constitutional amendment,” making an absolute commitment to service its debt before spending public funds on anything else
Merkel has since backed off from the document, but whoever leaked it obviously wasn’t aiming at a warm, candle-lit atmostphere between Greece and Germany at the ongoing negotiations for a write-down of Greece’s private sector debt, or at today’s European summit in Brussels (where there’s also a general strike in progress against austerity measures). Once again, the Greek crisis is at the heart of the talks, though it’s not on the published agenda. The official business on the table includes the new European fiscal compact, due to be signed in March, which would punish states that exceed fixed deficit and debt levels and has been described by one official as a plan to outlaw Keynesianism; and measures to promote growth and create jobs, especially for the young, who are now being tagged as a “lost generation.”
If that sounds a bit schizophrenic, that’s because it is: the tensions at the heart of the Eurozone, between German-style take-no-prisoners fiscal discipline and a more growth-oriented Gallic approach, are being pulled to breaking point. Germany, as Europe’s engine, still holds most of the cards. But with all the southern countries now in crisis (the bond markets are dropping Portugal; Spanish unemployment is at 22 percent, and 51 percent for the young; Italy will be in recession at least until the end of 2013 even though Mario Monti’s cuts have made him the darling of the Eurocrats; Greece’s economy is in meltdown), it’s become obvious to almost everyone else that austerity isn’t working. Financiers tend to speak softly: when IMF chief Christine Lagarde acknowledged earlier this month that austerity “could strangle growth prospects”, and when the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s pointed out that reform “based on…fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating,” what they really meant was, Wake up and smell the coffee, we’re heading for the cliff.
Will the Germans bend? According to the International Herald Tribune, the hope is that a treaty on fiscal discipline will make it possible for them to countenance “far reaching efforts to end the debt crisis,” whatever those might be. But such bargaining is worryingly reminiscent of the trade-offs made to keep Germany happy in the early days of the Eurozone, which left economic “convergence” between richer and poorer countries in the lap of market forces. Nor is it clear how Europe’s poorer countries would ever be able to meet Germany’s fiscal targets, or how such restrictions might coexist with democracy and national sovereignty.
Which brings us back to the leaked Greek document, a veritable goldmine for Internet theorists. One blog claims that Germany has now decided that European banks are sufficiently protected against the consequences of a Greek default that Greece can now be dropped—the “soft landing” (for Europe, not for Greece) that’s been in preparation for some time. Another suggests that the proposal is meant as a warning to Portugal, Spain and Ireland against seeking their own debt “haircut”: try to renegotiate, and we take you over. A third points out that Germany’s Minister of Economics, Philipp Roesler of the Free Democrats, has openly endorsed the proposal—which suggests it might have been a shot across Merkel’s bows from her coalition partners before the Euro summit.
Whether all or none of these turn out to be correct, the Greek economist Yannis Varoufakis is surely right to argue that the proposal is the logical consequence (for Germany) of piling loans on an insolvent nation while imposing an austerity program that has shattered the economy and (for Greece) of accepting both the loans and the conditions. Time for Greece in this game appears to be running out (more on that on another occasion); for the rest of Europe, much depends on whether the leaders at the summit can make a real commitment, even at this late date, to job creation and growth over rigid fiscal discipline, and to democracy over the rule of the financial markets.