A protester throws a stone at riot police during clashes in Athens. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
The decision by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to hold a referendum on the European debt deal of October 27 stunned members of his own party, his European counterparts and the financial markets, threatening to turn a smoldering blaze into a conflagration. As I write he is on his way to Cannes to explain himself to the G-20 leaders; on his return to Athens he faces a vote of confidence that may end his government. In the hall of mirrors that is Greek politics, there is no easy way to parse his move’s intent and consequences. Was it a sudden return to socialist principles, a buck-stops-here declaration, as he told his cabinet, that democracy must remain above the markets? A wild populist gesture of the kind favored by his father, an attempted heroic suicide that risks bringing down the house? A last-ditch effort to force his political opponents and the country at large to choose: back me or lose the euro? A desperate bet that Greece’s creditors would rather soften the terms than face disorderly default? Or all of the above?
Returning to Greece in October after three months away, I found the state close to dissolution and people in despair. The collapse is no longer just economic, or political, or social, but epistemological: it is almost impossible to make sense of what is happening. The air is full of threats and rumors that change every day: plans for new cuts and taxes, shifting deadlines to register for this or that exemption, warnings of punitive measures for those who don’t comply. No one knows what to believe; no one can plan beyond tomorrow. Conspiracy theories of all sorts rush in to fill the gaps, chaotic as the black graffiti scrawled on all the walls.
The government has abdicated many of its basic functions, paralyzed by internal dissent, by the unenforceable measures demanded by the EU and IMF, and by the rage of its own employees, who for days at a time have occupied major ministries. The police are overwhelmed and underpaid and angry. Large tracts of the city have become no-go zones except for those unfortunates, many of them immigrants, who are condemned to live there. Destitute men push carts full of scrap metal to sell (a day’s haul might fetch 7 euros if you’re lucky); junkies shoot up on the pavement; men walk in and out of brothels full of trafficked women. For two weeks a garbage collectors’ strike left towering heaps of rubbish to fester on every corner: empty food cartons, rotting vegetables, scraps of meat, torn clothes and toilet paper, waiting to be picked over by the poorest of the poor.
It’s not just the poor who are suffering now, though they had less far to fall. The corrosion has eaten deep into the middle class. Everyone knows someone who has lost a job; public sector workers, from clerks to lecturers, from street cleaners to doctors, have taken a cut in earnings of about 30 percent. In the heart of Athens, For Rent signs are everywhere; shops are either closing or holding knock-down sales, devastated by the crisis and by the waves of protest that wash over the streets, leaving broken windows and smashed pavements in their wake. Buying gold to export is one of the few new enterprises: a wholesale jeweler told me that even the formerly rich are selling their wedding rings. Many are leaving if they can, for Europe, for Australia; Greece is hemorrhaging its educated young. Those who are left behind stare at the future blankly. If you ask them what they imagine, they answer, “I don’t imagine” or, “It’s the children I worry for.” The trouble is, they say, we haven’t reached bottom yet. We don’t know where the bottom is. This is only the beginning.
The quality of protest, too, is different since the summer: it’s darker now, and grimmer, almost ritualistic. The direct democracy camp in Syntagma Square is gone, cleared by the Athens mayor; the aganaktismenoi have abandoned their Greek flags to march under union banners or organize more quietly in the neighborhoods. During the general strike on October 19–20 it seemed as if all of Athens was out on the streets, but without joy or hope or any energy but rage. They converged on Syntagma, more than 100,000 strong, and milled about there, waiting. Enterprising immigrants sold builders’ masks and goggles, water bottles and kebabs. And then white shards of marble began to soar through the air—not, as usual, toward the riot police from bands of troublemakers (provocateurs, government agents, fascists, anarchists or all of the above, depending on whom you listen to) but between two groups of protesters, identically dressed in black, with the full gas mask the accessory du jour, until the riot police tear-gassed us all and drove us from the square. Still, people stayed in the side streets chanting until after dark, setting heaps of rubbish alight to disperse the toxic chemicals that hang in the air for hours, pricking the back of your throat and filling your mouth with the taste of anxiety and fear.
A man died in the square that day, apparently from a heart attack: a 53-year-old unemployed builder, the father of two girls. He was by no means the first casualty of this catastrophe; there are also the suicides, the sick who can’t afford to pay for medicines that used to be free, the drug addicts whose treatment programs have been closed, the victims of violent crime. Violence runs deep now in the city’s veins, secreted by fear and powerlessness and insecurity. As community bonds break down under the pressure of poverty, as politics fails utterly to grasp the situation, there will be more fissures through which it can erupt.
It was against that background that Papandreou went to Brussels and came back with the agreement for a 50 percent “haircut” (or controlled default) on Greece’s private debt and yet another bailout program, with more strings attached, to be negotiated by the end of the year. Barring a full default, the haircut was inevitable and may in the long run bring the government some relief, but it won’t be nearly enough to make Greece’s debt sustainable, and it will also hit Greek banks and pension funds. Nor will it alleviate the draconian austerity program or restore the country’s sovereignty. On the contrary: speaking in Greek after the Brussels meeting, Papandreou presented the agreement as a step away from dependence and pronounced the country “saved”; speaking in German to the Bundestag a few days earlier, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Greece’s problems will require “permanent oversight.”
The fact that it’s Germany calling the shots and German tabloids slandering all Greeks as tax-evading scroungers stings especially. On October 28, the national day commemorating Greece’s entry into World War II, the army march-past in Thessaloniki [Salonika] was canceled because tens of thousands came out to demonstrate. Parading schoolchildren in many towns turned their faces away from government officials and raised fists wrapped in black; musicians hung black ribbons on their instruments; a banner in Syntagma Square proclaimed, Arbeit Macht Frei. The symbolism of these acts is doubly powerful: they not only brand the government as traitors and collaborators but recall the start of the civil war that tore the country apart after the occupation, killing many tens of thousands, depopulating the countryside and ushering in thirty years of repression.
Perhaps it was that insult that prompted Papandreou to stake all on a referendum, which comes too late to promise anything but danger. This is a man who saw himself as the white knight of politics, the one who would clean up the clientelism and corruption nurtured by his father and modernize the state. He may have thought, when he called in the EU and the IMF, that they would help him do it; having once summoned the gods he is now powerless to control them. Nor can he manage the mortals in his own government, determined to protect the system that has nourished them. Instead of the needed reforms he has presided over a brutal scorched-earth policy, crushing the country’s economy, immiserating its people, throwing open the gates to the most predatory forces of international finance. What meaningful choice can he put before the Greek people now? To stay in Europe and accept more years of dependent austerity, or to default and take their chances as a bankrupt Balkan state, shut out from financial markets? As Franz Kafka put it many years ago, there is hope, but not for us.