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.