Athens Burning

Athens Burning

Greece feels like a labyrinth from which there is no exit.


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.

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