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"They Are Stealing Our Lives"

Greece in Chaos

by NOËLLE BURGI

“Who knows what tomorrow will bring?” people ask in Athens, Salonika and right across Greece. There’s a sense of collective imprisonment, individual uncertainty and impending catastrophe. Yet Greece has had a turbulent history, and the Greeks have always seen themselves as a gifted people, sturdy and accustomed to adversity. “There have always been difficult times, and we always made it through. But now, all hope has been taken from us,” said a small business owner.

While the austerity measures are piling up, an avalanche of laws, decrees and edicts is sweeping aside the social, economic and administrative frameworks. Yesterday’s reality is crumbling. As for tomorrow — who knows?

Greek citizens are subject to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with its incomprehensible, fluctuating regulations. Addressing colleagues, a civic employee in the Cyclades said: “People want to conform to the law, but we don’t know what to tell them, [the authorities] haven’t given us any details.” A man had to pay € 200 and present 13 papers and proofs of identity to renew his driving license. Salary cuts among public employees have disrupted the public sector. “When you call the police to alert them to a situation, they reply, ‘it’s your problem, you deal with it’,” said a retired engineer officer from the merchant navy. Tensions are rising. Reports show a big increase in domestic violence, theft and murder (1).

Salaries are falling (by 35-40% in some sectors) while new taxes are invented, some backdated to the beginning of the calendar year. Net incomes have fallen drastically, in many cases by 50% or more. Since the summer, a solidarity tax (1-2% of annual income) and an energy tax (calculated on the consumption of petrol and natural gas) have been levied. Further novelties include the lowering of the tax threshold from € 5,000 to € 2,000, and a property tax of € 0.5 to € 20 per square metre levied as part of electricity bills, payable in two or three instalments (failure to pay results in power cuts and penalties).

Since the start of November, pensioners and public and private employees cannot anticipate their monthly earnings. Many workers go without pay altogether. The state is reducing its workforce drastically as part of its restructuring programme. Between now and 2015, 120,000 public employees over the age of 53 have been earmarked for “semi-retirement”, the precursor to full mandatory retirement after 33 years of service, during which employees are obliged to stay at home, and only receive 60% of their basic salaries. Once fully retired, many public employees will be reduced to living on very little. A group of ex-railwaymen, aged 50 and above, said they used to earn between € 1,800 and € 2,000 a month, a relatively comfortable salary in Greece. They have now been posted to jobs as museum guards as part of a “voluntary transition” package (2) and their basic monthly income fluctuates between € 1,100 and € 1,300; semi-retirees are restricted to € 600. All are barred from taking on extra paid work to supplement their income — the penalty, immediate loss of revenue, is enforced.

’Insurance payments have stopped’

The loss of income is tearing society apart. Bills are not paid, consumption is down, stores are closing and unemployment rising. In May the official unemployment rate was 16.6% (10 points higher than in 2008) and 40% among the young. The actual rate is likely to be much higher. The social, economic and political crisis has shaken the national health service. Hospital and public health care centre budgets have been cut by 40% on average. More patients are admitted to the emergency room, others go to Doctors of the World health centres, and many choose to do without medical care altogether. People report being denied access to crucial medicine. One journalist said her father suffers from Parkinson’s disease: “His medication costs € 500 a month. The pharmacy told us it will stop supplying him, because insurance payments have stopped.”

Physical ailments (notably heart conditions) and mental illnesses are increasing at a worrying rate. Recent epidemiological studies have shown that heightened stress, exacerbated by high debt and prolonged unemployment, is generating “major depressive disorders, disruptions and generalised anxiety” (3), which account for a dramatic rise in suicides. According to unofficial figures discussed in parliament, the suicide rate increased by 25% from 2009 to 2010, with a further rise of 40% in the first half of 2011, compared to last year, according to health ministry sources. Figures published in The Lancet (4) reveal an alarming increase in prostitution, as well as infection rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (5). There are unprecedented numbers of homeless people, and they are no longer limited to alcoholics, drug addicts or the mentally ill. A recent study demonstrates that the middle class, the young and the moderately poor are now more likely to end up on the street (6).

The Greeks struggle to see a way out of what a social worker described as a return to a “barbaric” way of life. They feel abandoned and unable to cope. Strong family ties are buckling under the pressure of diminished incomes and a collapsing welfare state. Those who can leave, do so. The options for those remaining are limited. Some turn to the Church, which arranges soup kitchens and other social services. In Salonika, Father Stefanos Tolios of the Orthodox church, is swamped by desperate people looking for work. Residents of several cities (Volos, Patras, Heraklion, Athens, Corfu, Salonika) have set up community-based informal economies, based on local exchange systems. Families are bringing their elderly back from retirement homes, to recover the monthly charge of € 300-400.

No country could withstand this. Greece is worse equipped to deal with the social consequences of the austerity measures imposed with a “scientific cruelty” (7) by the national and transnational elites. Post-1945 Greece, with a weak state and clientelism, had neither the time nor means to build a resilient system of social protection. The existing safety nets are now tearing. “Everything is falling apart,” said Sotiris Lainas, a psychologist and coordinator of the Self Help Promotion Programme at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Salonika).

Who’s to blame?

The previous government, under George Papandreou, scrambled to conform to the demands of the “troika” — the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank — for instance by cutting 210 budget lines in the health ministry. No thought was given as to how the budget cuts would undermine the ability of essential (and viable) services to function, such as the day care provided by the Panhellenic Federation of Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders. Thus the transnational forces, which for nearly 30 years have worked to erode the welfare state, have passed on the task to national enforcers, themselves longtime beneficiaries of a nepotic, inefficient, corrupt system.

Responsibility for the crisis has been shamelessly dumped upon the Greeks. Accused, but not tried, they have been pronounced guilty because of their association with their inept leaders. Certain sections of the population are exposed to popular fury: seen as a privileged caste, public employees are stigmatised; doctors and shopkeepers are all suspected of untruthful tax filings. But the people know that the system and their leaders are at the root of the rot. Knowledge is not power, though, and the nation is left wondering what to do next.

Patronage and corruption have historical roots. Greece has never enjoyed a modern state with a relatively autonomous bureaucracy, free from private interests, with the capacity to shape economic and social development. Nor has it had a strong civic identity. Foreign powers have imposed their preferences since independence in 1830 (8), when Greece was forcefully integrated into the world capitalist economy in a peripheral position, kept servile and buffeted by various great powers. History has superimposed an artificial political model on a fragmented society traditionally centred on local loyalties, the extended family and community values. As a result, the Greek political system has always been authoritarian and centralised, denying the separation of powers, local autonomy or real democracy (9) — fertile soil for corruption and patronage, which serve the interests and entrench the domination of the elites. The Greeks have resigned themselves to all this.

They are not naive or ignorant of their and their country’s shortcomings. But they are destitute and disempowered. What hope is there for a nation that has proved “fundamentally incapable of forming a political community” (10)? Even if it wanted to return to the pre-crisis days, “when we were living a lie”, as Lainas put it, Greece would be unable to do so. It has been hit too hard, as the repeated calls for order and control make clear. Polls initially favourable to the new government formed by Lucas Papademos, the former governor of the Greek Central Bank replacing Papandreou as prime minister, point to the belief among some Greeks that a technocratic administration might be preferable to the disgraced political class. This does not imply an adherence to the austerity measures, but rather a willingness to set matters right. For some, a strong foreign authority, mentioned by Mario Monti before he became Italy’s prime minister (11), might guarantee an honest and competent government acting in the interests of the country.

But everything points against it. Having seen off their worthless leaders, Greeks may not know who the enemy is any more. “There is no enemy to fight,” said Lainas: “You can’t fight what you can’t see. Their strength lies in abstract governments. Such as the EFSF [European Financial Stability Fund]. The enemy may be abstract, but the tragedy is real. They are stealing our lives, depriving us of a future.”

Noëlle Burgi is a researcher at the Centre Européen de Sociologie et de Sciences Politique (CESSP), Sorbonne University, Paris

(1I Simerini, Nicosia, 16 March 2011.

(2) Part of the railway company’s preparations for privatisation, which include reducing the number of staff.

(3) Study yet to be published by the University Mental Health Research Institute, conducted February-April 2011. See Eleftherotypia, Athens, 5 October 2011.

(4) Alexander Kentikelenis et al, “Health effects of financial crisis: omens of a Greek tragedy”, The Lancet, London, vol 378, no 9801, 22 October 2011.

(5) See “Risk of HIV outbreaks among drug injectors in the EU”, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Lisbon, 14 November 2011.

(6) Study conducted by Klimaka, an NGO based in Athens. Also see “Greek crisis creates thousands of middle-class homeless”,www.monstersandcritics.com, 9 October 2011.

(7) Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation.Originally published as The Origins of Our Time(Rinehart, New York 1944); latest edition published by Beacon Press, 2001.

(8) Following the War of Independence (1821-1830), the London Treaty (1832) imposed a monarchy on Greece. Otto de Wittelsbach, prince of Bavaria, was installed on the throne by the European Great Powers (France, Russia, Britain), which dabbled constantly in Greek affairs.

(9) See Nicos P Mouzelis, Modern Greece: Facets of Underdevelopment, Macmillan, London, 1978.

(10) Cornelius Castoriadis, “We are responsible for our own history” (in Greek), cited in Le mouvement grec pour la démocratie directe, Lieux Communs, 2011.

(11) Mario Monti, “Il podestà forestiero”, Corriere della Serra, Milan, 7 August 2011.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.