“Hope is coming!”
That’s the slogan that Syriza, the left-wing Greek coalition party, used throughout the campaign to distinguish itself from its fear-mongering opponents on the right. But on the night of January 25, as Syriza won almost 36 percent of the vote and ascended to power, the slogan could have spoken for all of Europe. In a tent in Athen’s Klafthmonos Square, a marble plaza dotted with Coca-Cola kiosks, banners from all the rising left parties in Europe—Podemos of Spain, Die Linke of Germany, the Left Bloc of Portugal, as well as various social movements, including the rainbow LGBT flag—waved proudly. Greek leftists and their European allies broke into a riotous rendition of “Bandiera Rossa,” the Italian socialist anthem. Die Linke members carried signs reading “Change in Europe Begins in Greece.” The international left seemed raised from the dead. Athens was celebrating a miracle.
At the other end of the square, in front of the neoclassical main building of the University of Athens, a red dais and empty microphone awaited the arrival of Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s 40-year-old leader. Tsipras had already been shown exiting Syriza headquarters on television, as political commentators, employees of the media monopolies his party has pledged to start charging for their use of the airwaves, spoke solemnly against a backdrop of crowds cheering and dancing. Directly addressing his supporters, Tsipras declared that “to all the Greeks, whether inside or outside of the country, particularly to the thousands of young university students who are living as migrants abroad and who could not come back to vote, we dedicate this victory. We promise them that our great national interest is to regain work in our homeland, so we can bring them back and work all together to lift this country up high.” Later, Antigone Sacher, a young woman involved in local solidarity activism, would tell me that, while she didn’t know if Syriza would succeed, “we felt like we were free, like out of a war, like out of the civil war.”
In Klafthmonos Square, I ran into Nikolas Koumoundouros, an IT professional who works with Syriza and has for years worked with Avgi, the party newspaper. He has thick-rimmed glasses and an elastic face, and I expected him to be delirious with joy. Instead, he declared himself “very nervous.” Like many Syriza members, he viewed with trepidation the prospects of a tiny party with no government experience being saddled with the worst crisis ever to occur within the EU. Despite winning a resounding victory, Syriza had only about 15,000 registered members as of 2012, in a country of 11 million people. The material basis of its success is not broad-based commitment but broad-based desperation.
There has been a great deal of mystification around Greece and debt within the eurozone, so let’s describe the moment bluntly. We’re witnessing a hostage situation on a global scale. The troika of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank holds the gun: it will not let Greece declare bankruptcy, under threat of cutting off Greek banks and causing a total collapse of the nation’s tottering economy. The beneficiaries of the crisis are, primarily, German banks, which for years before the global financial meltdown made profligate loans to southern Europe and now want their money back. The hostages are the Greek people, who must hand over their resources—income (the troika insisted on the rollback of minimum-wage laws) and funding for healthcare, education, even housing—to German banks. What was once regarded as a project of continental harmony has become an extractive project that imposes austerity on poor nations in order to collect debts on behalf of rich ones.
As a result, Greece suffers what Tsipras has repeatedly called a “humanitarian crisis.” A quarter of all Greeks are unemployed; a third live below the poverty line; 300,000 are without electricity. About 800,000 people lack health coverage. Infant mortality shot up 43 percent between 2008 and 2011. And when money is drained from hospitals and schools, where does it go? Simply to pay the interest, i.e., profit, on the loans made by German banks before and during the economic crisis. No one pretends that Greece can pay off the principal now or, probably, ever. The nation desperately requires stimulus, but Greece can’t use the sorts of fiscal tools the United States might—printing money, for example—because Greece does not control the currency. Note that since the troika got involved in Greece in 2009, the debt-to-GDP ratio has risen from 115 percent to 165 percent because of a massive shrinking of GDP. The irrational economics are cloaked in a language of morality: Greece has spent beyond its means, and now it must succumb to its financial masters.
The task facing Syriza is no less than ending this hostage situation and insisting that a modicum of democracy be restored to the European system. Whether it can do this will in part depend on Greeks’ patience with the party: if Syriza doesn’t deliver some immediate relief to suffering Greeks, they may be out of government before the scheduled 2019 elections. They will have to deliver these services while negotiating with the troika, without any tax base in Greece to speak of. What’s more, international resistance to the troika hangs in the balance. If the Eurocrats are able to make an example of Greece, who will dare challenge their dictates?
* * *
Two years ago, Koumoundouros, not yet a Syriza member, had suffered a bad week. “My father was very sick and hospitalized and I was seeing firsthand the devastation brought to the medical system here in Greece,” he told me in a café near Omonia Square. We had met near Omonia because I wanted to see an anarchist-led anti-fascist demonstration. Two hours later, while we continued to talk, Golden Dawn, the rising Greek Nazi party, held a public rally a mile from where we sat.
Anarchists at a Golden Dawn counter-protest in Omonia Square on January 31 (photo by Sarah Leonard).
His father’s doctors, Nikolas said, “were lacking very simple things. They were asking relatives of the patients to bring syringes or cotton balls or baby wipes to clean the patients, even simple medicines.” The public health budget in Greece was reduced by 40 percent between 2008 and 2013. The bailout deal with the IMF and European Union capped public health spending at 6 percent of GDP (compared with an OECD average of 9.3 percent), even as Greeks turned to public hospitals to replace the private care they could no longer afford.
Soon after seeing his father, Nikolas was suspended from his job at a cash-strapped public trade school. The next day, he went again to visit his father, who had been moved to an intensive-care unit and who needed booster injections for his immune system because of complications from chemotherapy. The head doctor of the unit, Nikolas recounts, told him, “Your father needs some injections, and we know from the logistics unit that somewhere in this hospital there are three of these injections, no more. But we don’t know where they are. The people that carry medicine between these clinics, they have been laid off, and I can’t send a nurse because I need six, and I have two.” As of 2013, 35,000 doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers have been laid off in Greece. “Can you please go out to these clinics and ask, because your father needs that injection tonight?” the doctor asked Nikolas, who finally found the medicine at the sixth or seventh clinic he visited.
The next day, Nikolas went down to Avgi and made a choice. When some of his colleagues asked if he’d join Syriza, a suggestion he had always resisted, Nikolas said, “Fuck it, I’m coming.” “At some point, you draw a line, and you take a stand,” he recalled. “You need to try.”
Nikolas’s initial skepticism of Syriza reflects a Greek left that historically has produced byzantine party structures and alliances. Syriza itself was founded in 2004 as an alliance of several minuscule left parties. All of them remained independent organizations, but they coordinated strategically within Parliament. All together, this version of Syriza represented between 3 and 5 percent of Parliament from its founding through the elections of 2009.
But between 2009 and the elections of 2012, Greece imploded. In 2010, the notorious IMF Memorandum went into effect, prescribing a strong dose of austerity to be enforced by the ruling social-democratic PASOK government, provoking waves of protests in 2011 in Athens’s Syntagma Square. These protests were led mainly by activists emerging from social movements against globalization. Syriza, which had been struggling since the previous election, was reborn. The party earned widespread respect by showing up on the front-lines of demonstrations, with elected MPs standing shoulder-to-shoulder with activists, getting attacked by cops along with everyone else. “It’s a myth that through voting you can stop austerity,” Antigone told me. “However, Syriza joined the Syntagma Square movement while other left parties criticized [it].”
In May 2012, the Syriza alliance became one party. It became the main opposition facing the conservative New Democracy party, as PASOK crumbled under corruption and its enforcement of unpopular troika dictates. New Democracy and PASOK formed a coalition government in 2012 with the aim of abiding by troika rules but attempting to soften them somewhat. Meanwhile, Syriza distinguished itself with a lengthy platform that included suspension of payments on the public debt until economic growth could begin, nationalization of banks and worker control over industry.
In January 2015, snap elections were held because of Parliament’s failure to elect a president. Syriza’s platform, by now, had been refined. The four pillars of its Thessaloniki Programme were to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, establish sources of revenue through tax justice, create 300,000 new jobs and increase popular democratic participation in governance. They set the price tag at €12 billion. They no longer flirted with leaving the eurozone and promised to negotiate for the good of both Greece and Europe.
When Tsipras ascended the platform at Athens University to declare victory, he promised the return of both dignity and jobs, declaring that “this is the Greece of the workers,” calling to mind militant laborers like the cleaners who had been fired by the Ministry of Finance, whose encampment outside their old workplace had become an international symbol of resistance.
The new finance minister promised immediately to rehire the 600 cleaners and dismiss what he considered to be a surplus of advisers at the ministry to save money. The very first part of Syriza’s broader program is estimated by the party to cost only €1,882 billion. It includes free electricity and meal subsidies for 300,000 poor families. It also includes a housing guarantee, free medical care for the uninsured and repeal of a recently implemented tax on heating fuel. The party has decided to prioritize the material needs of Greeks, seeking to alleviate the humanitarian crisis even as it heads into negotiations with the intransigent troika.
The challenge is that the Greek state has no money and, historically, no ability to collect any. Not only is the tax collection infrastructure antiquated and corrupt, which has contributed to Greece’s debt since the 1980s when PASOK introduced basic social services, but there is no longer much money in the country to collect. The poor have their money under their mattresses. The wealthy have their money overseas. In the ten days between the May 6, 2012, elections and May 16 2012, when many thought Greece was close to leaving the eurozone, €3 billion were withdrawn from Greek banks. Then, in the five days between January 19 and January 23 of 2015, in the lead-up to Syriza’s victory, withdrawals exceeded €14 billion. A party that had been a faltering alliance of fringe parties a few years earlier suddenly stands poised to direct the state, but financially, the state lies in shards around them.
There are, of course, plans for raising revenue. One of Syriza’s most highly publicized plans is to force media monopolies to pay television licensing fees. For years, the state has given public airwaves away for free because of corruption. Experts estimate that enforcing these fees could net half a billion euros. Syriza also plans to crack down on tax evasion. The State Minister for Combatting Corruption announced Tuesday that €2.5 billion of evaded taxes would be collected right away through the strengthening of the Financial Crimes Squad. He says that it has uncovered tax evasion totaling €7 billion.
None of this will easy. Syriza must both implement a wide-ranging social program and, in the process of collecting funds, combat what Greeks know as the deep state or the entanglements—years of favor-trading and de-professionalization of government by PASOK and New Democracy. They must also negotiate a difficult coalition within the government. Because Syriza won a plurality rather than an absolute majority, they entered a coalition with the Independent Greeks, a right-wing nationalist anti-austerity party comprising dissenting remnants of New Democracy. As part of the coalition deal, Tsipras appointed one of the Independent Greeks, Panos Kammenos as Minister of Defense, giving him power over lucrative contracts. Other ministers represent parts of Syriza that are in conflict: ecologists with engineers, Marxist economists with Keynesians, technocrats with true believers in worker control.
Difficult though governing will be, there has been a subtle change in attitude among Greeks after Syriza’s victory, which is a start. A few days after the election, Nikolas told me, his friend, an art teacher, called him to say, “I felt that what I was doing was in vain because everything is bleak, dark and you have to support austerity and poverty, or things get even worse.’” She told him that as the kids were drawing, she started crying. “Her students asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ She said, ‘I have hope now.’”
The attitude seems to be widespread, at least for the moment. Since the January 25 election victory, the core Syriza team has been focused on troika negotiations and promised social services have yet to emerge. Yet eight in ten Greeks approve of the government’s actions. In the words of Matthiaos Tsimitakis, a Syriza member and journalist for Avgi, “The main issue is that people are very happy to have gained back some of their dignity and pride. Syriza is very high in the polls because people feel like they really are represented. Giving electricity and housing and proper nutrition to 300,000 is not such a big deal. Syriza will do it.”
* * *
Soon after Syriza’s victory, I visited a bright office, located on a busy street in central Athens now marred by vacant storefronts, full of volunteers manning phone lines that connect individuals with locally organized social services—food banks, medical clinics, eviction protection. The conference room was lined with signs from these collectives, including the cleaners, as well as a floor-to-ceiling banner for the coordinating committee whose office I was visiting: Solidarity for All.
The social-solidarity movement at work here and in hundreds of other locations is difficult to measure. It is widespread, diverse and lacks consistent record keeping. While many of its volunteers are members of Syriza, it is independent of that party and others. Some of its organizations will be familiar to any American who has rolled their eyes at co-op cafés whose members seem more interested in the purity of their internal practices than in the state of the economy at large. Other services, notably medical clinics, rose out of sheer necessity and are managed collectively by the doctors and assistants serving their neighbors. Still other social-solidarity institutions are steps toward economic rationality: Solidarity for All has connected farms with local groceries, who pay up-front, unlike big supermarket chains, thus lowering prices for consumers and increasing profits for farmers and stores. The farmers are often required to donate a small quantity of food at no charge to the truly needy.
“In a very practical way, this movement underlines this shift in how we think in collective ways about meeting basic needs,” explained Christos Giovanopoulos, a member of Solidarity for All who speaks often with the press. Christos is a longtime activist with a tangle of hair to his shoulders who, among other things, was onboard the 2008 aid flotilla that broke the naval blockade of Gaza. He shows me a map of Greece with all the social-solidarity movement collectives marked: triangles for commercial spaces like cafés and groceries, circles for medical clinics. The shapes are clustered densely in Athens, spread thinly in the rural provinces. “By putting them [the collectives] on a map, people start seeing how many there are,” says Christos, spreading the brochure on the table, “and they understand themselves as part of a larger movement. By creating this common vision and picture, you take a step in creating space for actual communication. We [Solidarity for All] enhance the flow of capital, goods, expertise between the different structures.”
The crisis in Greece has, essentially, thrust a fringe idea about worker-controlled businesses into the mainstream. “We were the underdogs,” says Christos, with an air of disbelief at Greece’s rapid shift. Indeed, research shows that twenty-first-century Greeks have among the lowest levels of voluntarism in Europe: in 2011, according to the European Social Survey, only 14 percent of Greeks participated in voluntary activities, compared to an EU average of 24 percent. Before the crisis of 2008, the underdogs were activists without much influence. Christos describes one pre-crisis solidarity group involved in defending public space from commercial development, noting that “After the Movement of the Squares [the anti-Memorandum protests of 2011], they began a solidarity club, and they used the Syriza office. They decided to turn it into a full solidarity club, so they took down the sign of Syriza. This wasn’t to deceive the people but to allow other people to participate.” The party has been engaged in a careful dance of separation and support with the Social Solidarity Movement. Syriza’s MPs donate 20 percent of their monthly income to a fund that Solidarity for All uses to build the movement’s infrastructure. But they are adamant that the movement is separate from the party.
Describing the early solidarity club, Christos adds that “by developing all this solidarity work without connecting to Syriza as a party, the Syriza base in the area tripled. Local people recognize that the activists of this movement really care, and this builds a different kind of social relationship with the people there.”
The solidarity movement is thus responsible, in part, for Syriza’s success. When I visited a volunteer medical clinic in Athens, I found a Syriza poster taped up inside the backroom of the pharmacy. The pharmacy was open Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays for just two hours at a time. It is staffed by a volunteer pharmacist who closes her own practice to come help. Most of the medicines are donated by families of deceased people. Volunteers estimate that the pharmacy sees between forty and eighty people in two hours and, indeed, when I stopped by on a Friday, the small room was packed. An attendant quickly distinguished my friends and I as foreign journalists, waving us into a back hallway that was very clean, fluorescent-lit and painted with orange poppies.
In the back of the clinic, many of the doctors’ rooms were empty. No one at the clinic is paid, so hours are sporadic. A volunteer dentist, Irina Marinou, showed us the dentists’ office, explaining that thirteen dentists work at the clinic in shifts, alongside two technicians. “We do all kinds of things here, but no dentures or bridges because the materials are too expensive.” Everyone sets their own schedule and accepts their own appointments. The clinic, she says, has a twenty-day waiting list and has seen 7,000 patients in three years, about 50 percent of whom were immigrants. “I joined last year after hearing about the clinic from a friend,” said Irina. “At first I was afraid of the conditions, of sterilization, and so forth. But after coming here, I realized that everything was fine. We are responsible for everything.” Asked if she thinks the clinic is better than government services she says yes because “the government has no money, and because this comes from our hearts.”
Her attitude reflects a very practical tension heightened by the social-solidarity movement. The movement is a function of economic catastrophe, of the need to survive, not some coherent political program. In a sense, it’s a visible plea for state funding. However, the cooperative nature of the work has the positive effect of educating people in solidarity and getting them out from under despair. Antigone, who is active with social-solidarity work in her neighborhood in Athens, explained to me over a dinner celebrating one of the organizers’ election as a Syriza MP. Before social solidarity, “behind closed doors, people were suffering—there were suicides.” Her experience is backed up by the Lancet, which reports that state funding for mental health decreased by 64 percent between 2010 and 2012 and that Greeks were two and a half times more likely to suffer major depression in 2008–11, with deaths by suicide up 45 percent from 2007 to 2011. The Social Solidarity movement aims to replace depression with action, a crucial first step.
While most people visiting clinics and food banks are simply thinking about survival, Christos takes his motivation from more overtly political efforts worldwide. The solidarity movement kicked into gear during the fortieth anniversary year of May 1968 as activists were screening Punishment Park for the first time in Athens, alongside movies about the Black Panthers, Weather Underground, and films from the California Newsreel. The collision of anniversary with crisis produced the memorable slogan, “Fuck 1968, Fight Now.”
“What feeds our imagination is diverse,” says Christos. “The inspirations are distilled through struggle, and what is useful for us to do.” For example, “the Starvation Program of the Black Panther Party is an inspiration, despite the fact that these solidarity structures don’t have political education. Both programs reacted to the basic needs of the community, and enhanced democratic processes within the community.”
The test now is how the social-solidarity structures will interact with a left-wing government. Syriza has professed commitments to worker self-direction and control over production. Discussing the Syriza base, Matthaios, says that while troika negotiations are ongoing “no one is talking about collectives, communities, social economies. All of that is left behind right now. But people will not be happy if they stay in the background for too long.” The solidarity network serves a tiny portion of the people in need in Greece, and Athens has proved much easier to organize than the dispersed rural population, but the people who have been with Syriza since the beginning emerged from that cooperative milieu. “The state now [since Syriza’s election] will provide for some of society’s most urgent needs, not just for food and healthcare, but in terms of the feeling that we live in a more democratic society,” says Christos. “So, how in these new conditions do you maintain the momentum and dynamics of the movement? It’s not going to be easy.” This is especially true given how many of the solidarity structures seem unsustainable: medical clinics staffed by volunteers and reliant on donations cannot last without the state support that would sap the movement of the autonomy it demands.
* * *
As Syriza begins to govern, only one man looks like he’s having fun: Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s new finance minister. There are already Tumblr pages devoted to his gleefully confrontational meetings with troika officials, sans tie, of course. His reputation as the globe-trotting bad boy of eurozone negotiations began with a meeting with Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem in which Varoufakis announced that “with this…flimsily constructed committee [the troika] we have no aim to cooperate,” then leaned back grinning while Dijsselbloem waited for his translation, and continued smiling as the chief abruptly got to his feet and stalked offstage after a brittle handshake.
Underlying Varoufakis’s bomb-throwing strategy is that fact that Greece has almost no leverage in its negotiations. Many believe that a Greek default has already been built into the troika’s calculations. Thus, the one threat that Greece might credibly make—exit—isn’t an effective stick. (Varoufakis denies this and has claimed that Greek exit would destroy the euro.) An agreement must be reached by March, when €4.3 billion in loan payments come due. Greece is asking for a bridge loan through August and modifications to the overall loan and repayment package. Negotiations so far have been tense and unproductive, with Varoufakis and Deputy Prime Mminister Giannis Dragasakis yielding little ground.
The Memorandum requires that Greece run what is called a “primary surplus,” or a budget surplus not counting interest payments on loans, of 4.5 percent in order to make these payments. Tsipras ran on implementing a merely balanced budget, and using the money saved to fund social services. The Memorandum also demanded a economic liberalization package—scrapping union protections, making cuts to social services, rationalizing tax collection and so forth. At the February 11 Eurogroup meeting, Varoufakis and Dragasakis proposed a bridge program for Greece, a “New Deal.” The proposal includes scrapping 30 percent of the Memorandum, reducing the primary surplus target, and reducing the debt itself through a debt swap plan. Greece has proposed two exotic but sensible instruments for their debt swap—a “perpetual” bond, meaning the principal is never paid back, and a bond linked to GDP growth. “Tsipras stated in Parliament that this is the first government that will keep its promises, meaning the basic promises about the debt,” says Matthiaos. “He has to come back with a deal he can sell the people, that will give people back their dignity and their pride.”
Germany indicated even before the meeting that it would require that Greece stick to its earlier program, and no conclusion was reached. In sum, so far, the troika demands that Greece keep promises made by a government the Greek people have thrown out. Not only is this an abrogation of democracy, but it seems odd to stubbornly embrace a strategy even as it fails on two fronts. First, economically speaking, you can’t squeeze blood from a stone, and you can only seize so much lucre from an economy as decrepit as Greece’s. Payback requires growth, which requires stimulus instead of austerity (look at how the United States emerged from the financial crisis). As the ballooning debt-to-GDP ratio has shown, austerity has rapidly shrunk the Greek economy. Greek GDP was $341 billion in 2009 and now, under troika supervision, stands at $241 billion. As a result, in order to run a surplus, Greece must cut more and more spending. This in turn weakens the economy further as Greeks lose jobs and consumption drops. How far can this spiral go?
Second, politically, austerity is encouraging the rise of Euroskepticism, a populist revolt against the troika itself. The most drastic expression of such is the rise of Golden Dawn, which received a shocking 6.3 percent of the vote in this election, making it the third-largest party in Parliament. Germany has literally created a fresh Nazi party through its fiscal policies. “This is one of the main arguments that Tsipras is using in Brussels, that austerity created this.” says Matthaios, “And we know that once fascist movements appear, they are not easy to fight.” The specter of a rising fascism was most clearly glimpsed last year during European Parliamentary elections, the first in which Golden Dawn won seats, that inspired headlines like “Populists’ Rise in Europe Vote Shakes Leaders” and ” Europeans United, in Hating Europe.” Fringe parties, mostly right-wing, surged in Britain, Denmark, France, Greece, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Hungary. In fact, the 2014 election resulted in a European Parliament that, according to one BBC estimate, is about one-third Euroskeptic.
Right-wing Euroskepticism will be the alternative if the rising left in Europe is crushed. The next test for the international left is the Spanish elections in December—the ad hoc party Podemos, produced by the decentralized Indignados movement, has never participated in the national government, but is currently leading in the polls. Because southern Europe lacks leverage, and the troika disdains flexibility, the solution can only be political, with a fire being lit under the troika to change the terms of the debate from either the right or the left. I asked one Syriza member about the impossibility of the party’s position the night before the election—in a crowded bar, while we sipped raki and chatted with the endless flow of friends and reporters coming by to trade gossip and educate the American. (If I learned one thing in Greece, it’s that you should always be ready to add a table.) “At each stage,” he told me, “we have created our own reality.”
* * *
Near Syntagma Square, the cleaners are still camped outside the finance ministry. Despite Tsipras’s promise that they will have their jobs back, they do not begin work again until March and, according to Thespina, a middle-aged woman with red hair going white, “We’ll be here until the final day we have a signature on paper saying we’re rehired.”
The encampment includes a tent under a jerry-rigged tarp, a large red heater, a television on which soap operas were followed by footage of Varoufakis at the Eurogroup, and banners and pamphlets displayed to the public. Half a dozen women sat in a semi-circle near the heater, talking, knitting and sipping hot drinks from disposable cups.
The cleaners were suspended in September 2013 and fired in May of that year, as New Democracy went about fulfilling the troika’s demand for public spending cuts (the women were public employees). The women were largely uneducated and too young for their pensions, but too old to find new work. They chose to protest, and demanded meetings with the finance minister. In June 2014, they were violently beaten as they sought one such meeting. “I keep thinking about the violence—not the physical pain, which fades—but what shocked me was the idea of violence, that one person could do this to another,” said Dimitra Manoli, a women with dark hair and a rhinestoned sweater, who had stood in this election as a candidate for Syriza (she did not make it into Parliament). The image of middle-aged women being beaten by police traveled fast, and the cleaners were quickly adopted by the larger solidarity movement—and by Syriza.
The cleaners began camping out in front of the ministry. “We are in the tents twenty-four hours a day. Some people come in shifts, some stay all day and night. It gets cold, so everyone gets sick at some point.” Supplies came through the solidarity networks. “From the beginning, we felt solidarity with many other movements, so we felt the need to give back to things we support, like the prison movement, gay rights, other unions,” explained Thespina. As the cleaners became more enmeshed in the anti-austerity movement, they became as symbol of it. Syriza flew them to a European Parliament meeting—thirty-five women went, according to Dimitra. “I will never forget it. The Left and Green parties wore gloves [red rubber gloves are the symbol of the cleaners’ struggle] and raised their fists.”
Two cleaners outside their encampment in central Athens, displaying their signature red cleaning gloves on January 31 (photo by Sarah Leonard).
Asked if they’ll stay involved in politics when they have their jobs back, the women say “of course.” “I doubt anyone will just go back to their house and be quiet. I will remain part of Syriza, but this isn’t the only way to be involved.” Dimitra tells me about a solidarity committee she will join in her hometown of Volos, about 200 miles north of Athens. “I met people who work in drug rehab, and I would like to work on that here in Athens and in Volos. I think drugs kill and destroy many people’s lives and…I have seen people who have broken an addiction and are healthy members of society.” Addiction is, of course, a major component of the crisis, especially given cuts to healthcare. Incidents of HIV infection and tuberculosis among intravenous drug users have increased as public health programs, including distribution of syringes and condoms, have fallen. Dimitra also expects to be involved in solidarity work in Athens.
“Everything has changed about my life. Before, I was on the left in a loose way. What we felt from the beginning was huge solidarity from other people, so we had to give back. During this time we became one fist together. We weren’t friends before, didn’t know each other even, and now we’re like mothers, daughters, sisters, friends,” says Dimitra. She says, “I’m very happy to have met these women, and I never want them to leave my life.” The cleaners are a lot like other members of the social-solidarity movement, and of the party. Having been forced by austerity to organize collectively for survival, they feel politically transformed. Yet, still, they are suspended, waiting for cash that has yet to come.
Greece’s limbo feels like the whole European left holding its breath. The election night tent was packed, because after years of economic crisis and the inexorable crush of the troika, there is a spark of hope, one that must start a fire throughout southern Europe if Germany and Eurocrats are to feel the heat. On election night Greeks sang resistance songs from the dark days of the military junta, because the period is remembered as much for the heroic struggle engendered by the colonels as for the suffering they caused. Greek people feel a close kinship with those fighters now, many remembering their own relatives. Nikolas’s uncle, a communist, was tortured under the junta, and “the night of the elections I was suddenly overcome because I thought what a shame it is that he wasn’t here to live for what he was fighting for all his life. And I was moved to tears actually…. I looked around and I saw…people older than me—60s, 70s—they were thinking back decades ago. For many of them it was a dream they never thought would come to fruition, and it was obviously both inspiring and scary, but during that night they were just overjoyed. And I remember people singing songs from the resistance against the Germans, from back when the left was the Communist Party and the nucleus of the resistance.”
The left forces of Greece are finally on the march, sustained by the material desperation and the tenuous hope of their countrypeople. One wrong move, and there is every possibility that they will be swallowed up by the forces of reaction, by the troika’s decrees and the fascists’ appeal. “I have been an activist for forty years,” says Christos, the Solidarity for All organizer. “Now, for the first time in my life, I’ve started realizing how much pain and effort it takes to conquer space and change the smallest thing. To open the cracks through which you can see the horizon takes so much effort. Everything we do is tested on the ground. If you’re useful to the people, you’re recognized.”