Greece in Meltdown

Greece in Meltdown

In less than two years, Athens has changed from a reasonably prosperous capital to a broken city.


A policeman stands guard in front of Parliament during an anti-austerity demonstration in Athens February 22, 2012. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis 

The Athens neighborhood of Nea Ionia has always lived at the sharp end of history. Between the 1970s apartment blocks you can still see a few of the small cabins built to house refugees from Asia Minor in 1922; visiting in early February, I passed one neatly trimmed in green and shamrocks by a supporter of the Panathinaikos football team. As a textile industry grew to employ the new immigrants, so did support for the Communist Party; during the Axis occupation and the civil war that followed, Nea Ionia was a heartland of the hard left. But over the past two decades the factories have closed; now the building trade has dried up, and the shops are going too. The big red letters you see everywhere no longer advertise the workers’ utopia but 50 percent off.

Nea Ionia has been hit hard by the economic crisis that has devastated Greece, but it’s also organizing. The borough council was the first of more than thirty in Athens to support its citizens in refusing to pay a property tax charged through electricity bills under threat of disconnection; the government has since quietly softened its stance. In a building lent by the old textile workers’ union, the council has set up a “community general store”—a food pantry that supports about 770 people with a monthly supply of pasta, pulses, milk, flour, sugar, coffee and tinned fruit, packed in plastic bags and waiting to be collected on rows of metal shelves. The pantry is funded—after protracted legal wrangling and a refusal of help from supermarkets and corporations—from the council budget and staffed mainly by volunteers. The soft-spoken deputy mayor, Yannis Kolmaniotis, explained to me that the social services vet every family seeking aid and emphasized that nothing goes in or out of the building without a receipt—crucial in a country where too much has happened off the books.

As we talked, volunteers and clients (in the new Greece, the categories blur) dropped by; the store also operates as an informal community center. Among them were an elderly scoutmaster whose boys have been helping at food drives; the fur-collared secretary of the Friends of Stelios Kazantzidis, a popular singer who was born in the neighborhood; a former truck driver who has helped set up an association of the unemployed (“one of the only ones in Greece”); and a former car salesman who now can’t even get black-market work as a waiter. None of them had any expectations of Greece’s second bailout by the “troika” of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF: “A big nothing will happen. Nothing for the people. Everything for the banks,” one told me. “They keep saying we’re going to go bankrupt. But we’re already bankrupt. This is bankruptcy now—of the many, not the few.”

It’s not hard to imagine what these people must think of the agreement that’s since been signed in Brussels, which offers Greece a loan of 130 billion euros on condition that it cut the last bit of flesh from wages, pensions and public services; abolish 150,000 public sector jobs within three years when unemployment is at 20 percent; vote through dozens of structural reforms in nine days; sell off 50 billion euros worth of public assets; change the Constitution so that the debt must be serviced before the needs of the Greek people; and accept the permanent presence of foreign monitors in Athens. Not least because no one, inside or outside Greece—not the Eurocrats, not the markets, not the ratings agencies, not the politicians—seems to think the deal will do anything but deepen Greece’s depression and kick the inevitable default a little farther down the road.

Like most of the local projects people are starting in Greece to help themselves and others—the soup kitchens, the homeless shelters, the free medical clinics, the swap shops and barter networks, the community gardens, the “can’t pay, won’t pay” campaigns and guerrilla electricity reconnection services—the Nea Ionia community store makes no distinction between charity (or solidarity) and politics. Souzi Magoulianou started her working life in a textile factory; her last job was as a cleaner, but she’s been unemployed now for nineteen months. She’s been volunteering here since the beginning. “The thing that sensitizes you,” she said, “is always your own need. That’s where you set out from to see what you can do…. The first thing society does is to make you see your difficulties as a personal matter…but taking part in an effort that’s made by many people helps you realize that your inability to live like the majority around you isn’t your fault. You can’t solve it by yourself.” Kolmaniotis put it in more programmatic terms: “You’re engaging in a struggle for survival with a large population. Through this process the citizen realizes that he has to participate. And so you are building a kind of movement, which I think could also lead in the future to a new kind of politics…. But this will take time in Greece.” At one point as we spoke, his eyes filled up with tears. “My generation, those of us who didn’t get involved in all those dirty tricks, we’re still ruined,” he said. “We’ve gone back to the beginning.” He meant the fall of the colonels’ junta, almost forty years ago.

For decades, Greeks have had a relationship of antagonistic symbiosis with the state, resenting its inefficiency and petty bureaucracy while relying on the big party machines to keep them comfortable. “They’d put us to sleep all this time,” Nikolaos Koumbariotis, the former truck driver, growled. “Let’s set your kid up in a little job so we’ll have your vote. Let’s sort your cousin out so we’ll have your vote. And I’ll tell you something: I feel I’m not without responsibility, because I voted for them, the people who govern us now, who’ve stolen everything.” In the past, a project like this one would have been “appropriated” by one party or another, but people have become allergic to that way of doing things. Kolmaniotis, for instance, belongs to the Left Bank, a small, green-tinged independent local grouping. “The whole political system has been discredited,” he said. “At this moment, no one believes in anything. No one has any faith that there could be some sort of representation that could solve our problems.”

* * *

The crisis has caused a tectonic shift in the Greek political landscape. This is largely because the old politicians are seen as responsible both for looting the country and for turning it over to the EU and IMF; with the economy in meltdown it’s no longer in anyone’s interest to turn a blind eye to the corrupt clientelist networks on which their power was based and which had come to operate as a kind of parastate. But it’s also because Greek democracy has been suspended for some time. Both main parties have split under the pressure of the impossible choice—default or deeper austerity—extorted from Greece by its lenders; on February 12 each expelled some twenty members of Parliament for voting against the terms of the new loan deal, a 700-page document they were given one day to read. The center-left Pasok, the former ruling party, is gasping for air in the polls between 8 and 13 percent; the center-right New Democracy is between 19 and 24 percent, despite the maneuvering of its leader, Antonis Samaras, who in opposition last year expelled an MP because she voted for the previous set of measures.

Instead, support has flowed toward the larger parties of the left, which have all opposed austerity and which, after a series of fissions, fusions and more fissions, currently number three. The old neo-Stalinist Communist Party (KKE) calls for immediate withdrawal from the eurozone and a workers’ democracy; the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), an amalgam of Eurocommunists and other left groups, proposes staying in the euro with a moratorium on bond payments and a complete renegotiation of terms; the more solidly pro-European Democratic Left (Dimar) is also against austerity and the dismantling of welfare and workers’ rights but favors economic and political reform. A magnet for disaffected Pasok voters, Dimar recently polled as high as 18 percent; together the three parties could theoretically win a majority if elections are held this spring. But the KKE will never cooperate with anyone (its unions even hold separate demonstrations, guarded by men linking red flags on sticks). In 2010 Dimar split from Syriza, and is seen by some former comrades as a shill for the hated Pasok.

Meanwhile, on the right, disgruntled supporters of LAOS, the nationalist party that joined Pasok and New Democracy in the coalition government, have edged over to the neofascist Golden Dawn, which is on the verge of winning seats in Parliament. At moments like this one—moments of powerlessness and deep humiliation—part of the far left and the far right in Greece meet on the field of nationalism. Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras recently accused the government of being “not that Greek”; a delegation from Golden Dawn brought food and fraternal greetings to striking Communist unionists at a steel plant near Athens, one of whom welcomed them with the words, “All Greece is at our side.” Both ends of the spectrum enthusiastically exploit the anti-German feeling that’s now almost ubiquitous, with swastikas burning in Syntagma Square and cartoons in the popular press of Angela Merkel wearing a Nazi uniform.

The suffering of “the Greeks” now features regularly in the Western media, displacing the endless stories about Greek corruption and tax evasion that for months stood in for analysis of the economic crisis. But when all systems fail, what comes to fill the gap? The mood in Athens veers between sullen depression and rage. The overwhelming feeling is of being trapped. For every generous citizen bringing a quilt or a coat to a soup kitchen or shelter—and there are hundreds of them—there is another who wants to tear everything down; sometimes they’re the same person. In the days before February 12, when Parliament voted on the terms of the new loan while Athens went up in flames, a sweet-faced young woman driving her father’s cab told me she was waiting for the uprising so she could take to the streets. Respectable middle-aged matrons screamed at the police, calling them traitors and collaborators. The health ministry was occupied by mental health workers concerned both for their livelihoods and for their vulnerable chronic patients; the law school was occupied by a handful of men and women, some with masks and sticks, holding it as a “jumping-off point” for the big demonstration. All the internal walls were scrawled with a chaos of graffiti: “Silence is complicity,” “I want to see stabbed fascists,” “Solidarity with migrants,” “Dead cops everywhere.”

The protests and projects springing up all over Athens have no common vision beyond survival and refusal; how could they, when there’s no apparent way out of this nightmare? Initiatives like the community store in Nea Ionia, or the homeless shelter run by the Klimaka mental health charity, or the free clinic set up by the Athens Medical Association for the growing number who have no health insurance, have the atmosphere of order that comes from an institutional base and a foot in a functioning past. There are also more free-form efforts, like the neighborhood People’s Assemblies—more than forty of them in Athens—which grew out of last summer’s direct democracy camp in Syntagma. Many have focused on resisting the hated electricity tax and helping those in need; they bring people together who, a year ago, might not have found themselves in the same room. At one meeting in central Athens, a head teacher whose pupils are going hungry listened patiently as two anarchists explained that though their squat would like to give her the supply of free vegetables they’ve been offered, they would first want to engage the parents in a political dialogue, because charity is immiserating. Elsewhere, the rhetoric is more threatening. One assembly’s website carries a photograph of a graffitied local pawnshop, calling the owner a parasite and a black marketeer—words that immediately recall the Axis occupation. Every Greek knows what the wartime resistance might have done to such a man.

The demons of Greek history—the occupation, the civil war, the colonels’ dictatorship of 1967–74—are alive on the streets of Athens. They’re in the slogans people chant at demonstrations, in the graffiti scrawled all over the walls, in the politicians’ language, in family memories. They offer a seductive if distorting lens through which to view the present. But the crisis has laid bare real divisions in society: of class, of culture, of political orientation. The wealthiest remain unscathed; their assets are offshore, in ships and businesses and tax havens and trusts. Estimates of capital flight since late 2009 start at 60 billion euros; the real figure is much higher. Like the foreign investors eyeing choice bits of property to be sold off by the state, Greece’s old oligarchs are playing a waiting game. Anger is running deep, and in more than one direction. So far, private companies have borne almost all the job losses; businessmen rage that the entire public sector should be fired instantly. Friends who once had civilized debates around the dinner table can’t be in the same house. A cosmopolitan intellectual told me in October that he doesn’t recognize striking workers as his compatriots.

But the vast majority of Greeks, from every walk of life, are against the disastrous austerity measures imposed from abroad, which have in fact made necessary change much more difficult. There are those who say that the sclerotic Greek economy, with its overregulation and mismanagement and rats’ nests of red tape, could never have been revived without some kind of crisis; too many people had too much invested in the system. I doubt, though, that they dreamed of a crisis like this one. People who wanted change, who a year ago wouldn’t have marched beside members of public sector unions they saw as corrupt and self-serving, now find themselves on the street with them shouting against the troika. The hope of constructive democratic reform is being drowned by a flood of measures meant to extract as much as possible for the banks, not to build a functioning, sustainable economy.

* * *

What’s going to happen next? Unless Europe bends, unless the intolerable pressure being put on Greece is lifted, I can see only more misery. In less than two years Athens has changed from a reasonably prosperous European capital to a broken city full of hunger and homelessness and the husks of empty buildings, where black graffiti and red “For Rent” signs cover all the walls, where junkies shoot up at midday beside the National Library, where people in the street no longer meet one another’s eyes. How will this world absorb another round of austerity? Over the past few months the waves of protest have become increasingly violent: more riot police, more tear gas, more hooded youths throwing bits of smashed-up paving stones. On February 12 the police drove more than 100,000 peaceful demonstrators out of Syntagma with tear gas and fought pitched battles in the side streets with the violent minority while forty-five buildings burned. Most Athenians were appalled by the destruction; a young woman I know from an anarchist collective had a more equivocal response. “My country’s being destroyed,” she wrote to me. “I don’t care about the burned buildings, I reacted violently too to all that repression. It’s clear that violence is being legitimized and we can’t control what’s happening any more…. Five years ago we all had our identities, and on that basis we’d decode each situation. Now situations run on and those identities don’t help us understand them. That’s what I felt on Sunday: so many people, so much violence, to which I’m not opposed, though I don’t like it either. Everything in flux.”

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