By Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton
Athens is empty in August. The sidewalks, fractured and misshapen by overgrown oleander and bitter orange trees, take on a calm one rarely experiences in this city. Bakeries and other small businesses temporarily close while Athenians escape to the islands or, just as likely, to mountain villages for family reunions and local religious festivals. Barring the tourist vortex between the Acropolis, the quaint Plaka district, and the Monastiraki flea market, August betrays few signs of Athens’ otherwise constant pace. Those who choose to remain behind claim the city is at its best during this period. Some take evening excursions to Lycabettus Hill (created when Athena clumsily dropped a mountain she had been carrying) to gaze at the massive summer moon. Students pass spliffs on the grass in Gazi or share a few beers in Psyri. The entire country takes a month off during diakopes. This year was different. Many Greeks simply could not afford to leave for the holiday and as they could neither afford to dine out, their unusual presence was not apparent. Throngs of American and German tourists notwithstanding, Athens still exuded an outward calm, hiding the country’s very serious problems. Greece, after all, is a society on its knees.
The sovereign debt crisis and more than two years of economic austerity imposed by the European Union (EU), European Central Bank (ECB), and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—collectively known as the Troika—have taken a visible toll on the population. The economic fallout has adversely affected nearly everyone either directly, through cuts to public pensions and income, or indirectly, through cuts to health services and other basic infrastructure. Drug and alcohol abuse have spiked, suicide rates are up 40 percent, and life expectancy is already reported to have dropped. Unemployment is quickly approaching 30 percent, forcing one in four Greeks into poverty. With the economy in its fifth straight year of contraction, an exodus of young, educated Greeks are leaving the country, settling in the cities of Western Europe, Australia, and the United States. Fear and rage have become the basis of political existence, eclipsing other concerns as the crisis consumes everything in its wake. What political scientists call a “collective action dilemma” (the inherent risks and potentially insignificant rewards that come as a result of political mobilization) has become a daily question of very real significance for every Greek citizen.
The violent social and political ruptures that plague Greece and the resistance that has emerged in response will likely have consequences that resonate well beyond the state’s borders—even beyond the Eurozone. Liberal democracy’s inability to reconcile the interests of neoliberalism with popular demands for basic economic viability has resulted in a depressingly predictable outcome everywhere it has arisen: the public has almost uniformly been forced to bear the costs of decisions made in corporate boardrooms, far beyond the reach of public accountability. The interminable dissonance between capitalist political economy and democratic governance, never an even match at the best of times, no longer resembles a skirmish so much as an outright massacre. The last vestiges of public accountability have been shelved, while the stern rhetoric of fiscal responsibility fills the void with its vapid appeals to market rationality. However we approach the Greek crisis, it seems clear that this tiny country of eleven million people has become ground zero for the future of neoliberal capitalism, which is precisely why so much of the advanced capitalist world finds itself transfixed. A kind of morbid fascination grips us. As Greece undergoes what amounts to a protracted experiment in political revolutionism, ordinary citizens have been forced into a struggle of survival—and what a spectacle! Everyone wants to know; just how far can a society be pushed before it finally breaks?
A European Backwater
Greece is a country of contradictions. Once the ancient center of Western civilization, it is today a poorly planned urban sprawl saved by excellent food and, notwithstanding abysmal environmental standards, stunning natural beauty. Greeks are quick to boast that much of the English language derives from Greek or that democracy developed in ancient Athens. Though several millennia have since passed, Greece’s classical heritage is exploited by nationalists, who deeply regret the demotion from antique glory to European backwater. Greek national identity romanticizes and, paradoxically, fuses ancient Greek with Orthodox glories, albeit eschewing liberal Olympian sexual mores for a particularly patriarchal, socially conservative expression of Christian virtue. Greek nationalism is very much like a souvenir shop in Monastiraki—a jumble of pagan and Christian curiosities.
In some ways, ancient Greece supersedes its Christian history. Irredentist dreams of a greater Greece have never fully been extinguished. (Consider the special rage reserved for the Macedonia/FYROM issue.) The absurd notion that modern Greece inherits an undisturbed lineage of racial continuity from the time of Alexander still does much to offset the inadequacy felt as modern Western European powers first dominated the country economically, then ravaged it culturally. When economic growth, and later specifically capitalist growth, became the chief standard against which national success was to be measured, Greece lost its ability to compete with the rest of Europe. Culturally, it was no better off. Sequestered on the “wrong” side of the Ottoman curtain for four hundred years, the country missed out on the European Renaissance—and Aeschylus wrote a very long time ago indeed! Moreover, the modern state industrialized rather late and capitalism conquered society only gradually. Few Europeans took much interest in the peasant hinterlands besides a handful of British philhellenes and German archaeologists, whose interests in the region typically extended only to the plundering of ruins. Western Europeans scarcely thought of the people who happened to live there as Europeans at all and they regarded Eastern Orthodoxy with a contempt usually reserved reserved for Muslims and Jews. In the European imagination, Greece remained little more than a repository of the West’s cultural heritage in spite of its swarthy, hot-blooded inhabitants. Surely the “mercurial and semi-Oriental” Greeks had more at stake in the Sublime Porte than the Parthenon. Hence, it was not thought criminal when Lord Elgin plundered the latter’s exquisite friezes and had much of the Acropolis shipped off to the true center of Western civilization, the British Museum, where they remain to this day.
Sadly, Greece’s particular national anxiety over faded halcyon glory is immaterial against the long arc of the twentieth century and the massive suffering imposed on Greeks at the hands of the imperial powers. From the Italian and German occupations during WWII to the country’s forced entry into Cold War patronage by Britain and the United States, hundreds of thousands of lives were wiped out and generations lost to mass emigration (witness the emergence of the Greek community in Astoria, Queens). Placing austerity in this historical picture, 2008 represents only the latest in a series of recurring crises brought about by foreign powers for which Greeks have been made to pay the cost.
“Fuck Your Parliament”
Contemporary Greek politics is characterized by enormous political fissures molded by the grand ideological battles of the twentieth century. Capitalism, neoliberal or otherwise, has never been able to secure hegemony in Greece; large swathes of the population adhere to one or another variant of anti or alter-capitalist views. Until Greece’s recent electoral upset, the Communist Party (KKE) regularly claimed third place in parliamentary elections. Moreover, as anyone familiar with modern Greek society knows (and as poll data confirm) the vast majority of Greeks, no matter their politics, harbor a default anti-Americanism: the Left resents the United States for its bourgeois consumerism and militarism, the Right for its cultural decadence. Indeed, 77 percent of the overall population holds a negative view of the United States, placing Greece among the most anti-American countries outside those currently being bombed by US drones. Since 1975 (and as recently as 2007), there have been no less than 175 terrorist attacks on Americans or American interests in Greece. Most of these attacks were carried out by fringe leftist groups, but a reflexive distaste for the United States remains mainstream. Major political demonstrations in Athens, no matter their purpose, commonly end at the American embassy. This persistent antipathy towards the United States is easy to comprehend given the countries’ history.
Immediately following the devastating period of Italian, Bulgarian, and Nazi occupation during WWII, British and American geopolitical maneuvering precluded any prospects for meaningful democracy in Greece. Under the Truman Doctrine, the United States reserved for itself the right “to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” In effect, the doctrine amounted to a thinly veiled claim to universal military intervention at any time in the service of American foreign policy prerogatives at the dawn of the Cold War. As in much of Europe, the partisan resistance to Axis occupation, comprising communist groups of various ideological stripes, had become the enemy by the time the war ended. Communism was not to be tolerated, however domestic its origins.
During the Greek Civil War (1946-49), the United States invoked the Truman Doctrine to transform the decimated Greek military into a ruthless proxy army with which to crush the popular nationalist-communist uprising. Besides the 150,000-plus people killed in the course of the Civil War, the conflict bears the especially dismal distinction of having witnessed the first use of napalm against human beings since WWII. The level of carnage ensured that by the early 1950s, Greece was the model anti-communist state, enthusiastically repressing political dissidents and exiling subversives to remote Cycladic islands. Greece’s security establishment would remain firmly in the hands of the extreme Right up to the present.
By the 1960s, political change began to occur on the basis of liberal reformism in the parliament, though reactionary control of the security apparatus remained. Moderate social democrats like Andreas Papandreou pushed for universal public education and other basic democratic standards already common across Western Europe. Unfortunately for Greece, Cold War paranoia guaranteed that the country’s patron would not tolerate anything resembling popular sovereignty and certainly not formal neutrality towards the USSR. President Johnson called the Greek ambassdor to Washington and chastised him for the Papandreou government’s mild reforms. When the ambassador protested that Greece was a sovereign, democratic nation with a parliament and constitution, Johnson lost his composure:
Fuck your Parliament and your Constitution … We pay a lot of good American dollars to the Greeks, Mr. Ambassador. If your Prime Minister gives me talk about democracy, parliament and constitutions, he, his Parliament and his Constitution may not last very long.
Johnson’s threat became reality only a few years later. In the early hours of April 21, 1967, a cabal of military officers seized power in a bloodless coup d’état. Key articles of the constitution were immediately suspended, political parties dissolved, and martial law declared. Papandreou was forced to flee after the regime’s agents threatened to shoot his son (future Prime Minister George Papandreou) in the head. The American connection to these events was always quite clear, despite the tepid protestations coming from the Johnson administration immediately following the coup. For the next seven years, Greeks lived under a pseudo-fascist dictatorship that regularly jailed and tortured political undesirables. Amnesty International targeted the United States for special criticism during this period, arguing that its government “offered tacit, and sometimes, explicit, approval of the Junta, its ambitions and policies.” The de facto leader of the military junta, George Papadopoulos, had been on the CIA’s payroll for fifteen years at the time of the coup and his colleagues in Washington joked that he was the “first CIA agent to become Premier of any European country.”
By the early 1970s, the regime began to liberalize, tolerating a degree of dissent, and activists took advantage of the opening. In 1973, students at Athens Polytechnic barricaded themselves inside the university, declaring their opposition to the dictatorship and calling for a wider struggle. The occupation quickly became the epicenter of what escalated into a mass demonstration of workers and students. Panicking, the regime deployed military troops and on the morning of November 17 1974, a tank came crashing through the gates of the university. In all, the military killed twenty-four people that day, mostly college and high school students. These events, compounded by the crisis in Cyprus, proved insurmountable and the regime collapsed altogether only months later. Liberal democracy was reinstated and exiled politicians returned, ushering in the post-dictatorship period Greeks refer to as the Metapolitefsi.
Both the Civil War and the years of dictatorship were defined by direct imperial intervention that strongly influenced the outcomes of domestic politics. If we consider the Cold War’s role in determining Greece’s fate during both periods, it becomes easier to comprehend the ideological polarization that persists in Greek society up to the present. There has been no serious attempt at national reconciliation, and while November 17 is now a national holiday in Greece, neither the Civil War nor the period of dictatorship is taught much in primary education. The history is too recent and too raw. At least ideologically, the Civil War never really ended.
The Greek electoral landscape during the Metapolitefsi period is comparable to much of Europe following WWII: two dominant parties of the center-right (New Democracy) and center-left (PASOK) have dominated, each brought to power in alternating cycles of predictability. Only recently has the pattern been broken as voters, outraged at politicians no longer perceived as even marginally representative of popular interests, soundly rejected the two mainstream parties at the polls. If the Metapolitefsi has been characterized by liberal democracy and a minimal welfare state, we may be witnessing the emergence of a new political era in which both are eviscerated simultaneously.
Last year, the Eurozone crisis resulted in the first overthrow of a democratically elected leader. In October 2011, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou made a surprise announcement calling for a referendum on the punitive conditions attached to the Troika’s bailout loans. Widely viewed as dithering and politically inept, Papandreou decided once and for all to put the matter before the Greek people. Yet Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy mocked even this half nod to democratic legitimacy. Papandreou stepped down only days later, promptly replaced by Lucas Papademos, a former Vice President at the European Central Bank. It’s difficult to fathom the sheer contempt for popular governance one must adopt to tolerate the rule of unelected bankers, but perhaps one illustration will do: Commenting on Germany’s role in bringing about Papandreou’s ouster, one of Angela Merkel’s aids boasted “We could teach the neo-cons a thing or two about regime change.” The Cold War may be over, but capital is more powerful than ever.
In the mainstream media, Greece has been treated as a special case, a nation of irresponsible, fiscal troublemakers who retire in their 50s to suck off a bloated public welfare system, while scrupulously avoiding their taxes. The characterization is often colored by Orientalist references to “Mediterranean” corruption, ostensibly inherited from Greece’s former Ottoman overlords. Greece has become a byword for fiscal irresponsibility. Mitt Romney, for example, blames the Greek crisis on “European-style socialism” and suggests that President Barack Obama has pushed the United States towards a similar crisis. “We’re on the road to Europe,” he argues, “we’re on the road to Greece, and I’ll get us off that road.” For those of us who care about the facts, the situation looks very different.
Most Greeks have absolutely nothing to do with the state of the country’s finances. Despite misleading stereotypes, Greeks work the longest hours on average of any other EU member state. (By contrast, Germans are among the states that work least on average; only the Dutch work less.) While many Greeks often do go out of their way to avoid paying taxes, this has more to do with the justifiable perception that politicians and other elites use their position to extract personal financial gain and land corrupt deals with private companies. When people feel their tax money is more likely to line the pockets of corrupt government officials that it is to be redistributed via social policy, taxes become unpopular. One doesn’t exactly need a degree in political science to observe as much. Yet, the canard that Greek tax evasion is to blame remains a convenient way of distracting from the exceedingly more relevant factors. The bloated welfare state argument is simply false. Government spending in Greece as a percent of GDP is far lower than much of Northern Europe, including Germany and all of Scandinavia, states that have weathered the crisis fairly well. Moreover, despite the undoubted prevalence of tax evasion and government corruption, it seems likely that Greece would have been able to bring its national debt under control had it not been for the 2008 global financial meltdown.
When it became apparent that the country’s sovereign debt was unmanageable, crossing legal thresholds set by the EU, the Greek government hired Goldman Sachs to help conceal the extent of the crisis for as long as it could. The charade didn’t last long and when the extent of the crisis became public, financial ratings agencies downgraded Greek bonds to junk status, exacerbating an already bad situation. At present, Europe has an interest in preventing Greece from defaulting on its debt so as to avoid potentially setting off yet another crisis in global markets that many believe will accompany Greece’s exit from the Eurozone (the so-called “Grexit”). To that end, the Troika has dispersed multi-billion euro loan packages to Greece tied to standard neoliberal structural adjustment conditions: cuts to public pensions and public employees, privatization of public infrastructure, etc. The Greek government has largely complied with the the Troika’s financial blackmail, despite the inconveniently persistent voice of mass public opinion. Unsurprisingly, Europe has been less successful in extracting concessions from bondholders of Greek debt—including many hedge funds—sucking Greece dry with extortionate interest rates. European attempts to lower interest rates so as to give Greece some breathing room have been fought tooth and nail by those profiting from the country’s misery. Property rights are classified as human rights under European law, so when Greece recently attempted to advance a plan lowering interest rates for its private bondholders (though not the ECB), lawyers representing hedge funds threatened to sue the country for human rights violations! Perversely, many of these bondholders are unconcerned that Greece might default; they’ve taken out insurance on such an eventuality in the form of credit default swaps.
In fact, many bondholders would actually prefer the country default if it weren’t for the possibility of precipitating yet another global financial crisis. The basic structure of the economy must remain intact and it’s up to the working people of Greece to support the billionaire lifestyle of the international financial elite. Where does this end? The Troika seems intent on destroying Greek society by demanding round after round of austerity supplemented by paltry bailout funds. The government, and by extension the entire country, is locked in a suspended state of emergency. The notion that Greek working people are bearing the brunt of austerity is either dismissed or downplayed by European elites. The cavalier attitude was expressed by IMF chief Christine Lagarde, when she condescendingly suggested that the Greek crisis was getting too much attention and that it was caused by irresponsible tax dodgers anyway. “As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.” This is particularly disgusting coming from someone whose half million-dollar salary is made up of completely untaxed income.
Austerity is a downward spiral. As funds dry up, consumer demand disappears, jobs evaporate, and the cycle of depression consumes everything in its wake—including democracy. Seniors have seen their pensions slashed by as much as 60 percent, saving the government 5.2 billion euros. Forced retirement has skyrocketed, while those facing such prospects have had their already decimated pensions postponed for up to a year. Homelessness has risen 25 percent in the last three years. Young Greeks fare little better. Prior to the crisis, Greeks spoke of the “700 generation,” referring to a generation of young professionals doomed to make only 700 euros per month. That figure was optimistic. Now Greeks speak of a “500 generation” for those who are lucky enough have a job at all. At 55 percent, Greece leads Europe in youth unemployment (ages 18-25). To offer some comparison, overall unemployment never exceeded 25 percent in the United States during the Great Depression. In Greece, the national average is quickly approaching an untenable 30 percent.
Cuts in public service spending have been similarly harsh. Public hospitals begun imposing fees for certain operations and rationing scarce supplies. Education spending has been cuts by 23 percent since 2009. School buildings now go unheated in the winter and extended waiting periods have been imposed on new faculty, whose compensation has been already been slashed to the lowest in Europe. The country’s cultural heritage is also (literally) being stolen as cuts to security at national museums have opened an opportunity for black market art dealers. One month after a several pieces of art (including a Picasso) disappeared from the national gallery, armed robbers made off with more than 60 ancient artifacts from a museum in Northern Greece. Similar cases of theft have been reported at many museums and archaeological sites.
While the vast majority of Greeks do not wish to leave the Eurozone, neither can they abide austerity. Of those polled, 65-70 percent reported opposition to the loan agreements during the second round. That figure is likely higher today. Yet, both New Democracy and the PASOK committed to the Troika’s demands. Last year, when popular outrage made it politically unfeasible to publicly support untrammeled austerity, Merkel and Sarkozy orchestrated Papadreou’s couster. His unelected successors pushed through a second, harsher round of austerity. Thanks to the primacy of markets, Greece abandoned any pretense of popular sovereignty as it transitioned from liberal to nominal democracy. As the recently elected government prepares to push through yet another round, many are wondering where this story ends.
As basic governmental accountability has receded, Greeks have resorted to that powerful weapon the masses: refusal. Greece has a long tradition of popular mobilization but demonstrations on this scale have not been seen since the police shooting of a teenage boy sparked riots in 2008. The aganaktismenoi, Greece’s answer to the indignado movement in Spain, gained international recognition with the enormous protests that took place in May 2010, coinciding with the signing of the first austerity agreement. Unlike most demonstrations, the aganaktismenoi have remained broadly unaffiliated any specific political party or ideology. Seniors protest cuts to healthcare and pensions, public employees protest cuts to government services, students protest cuts to universities and high schools, inner-city youth, middle class suburbanites, undocumented immigrants, Greek flags, European flags, black flags, red flags, pirate flags… As one person put related the situation to me, “Everyone came to Syntagma Square. They didn’t necessarily know why they went or what would happen, but everyone in Greece felt they just had to be there. There was such a strong sense of solidarity.” The various participants in these demonstrations are often bitter enemies (clashes commonly break out between neo-fascists and anarchists for example), but everyone has been in the trenches, tear-gassed and beaten by police while the politicians, cloistered behind the barricades of Syntagma Square, sign away the country’s fate. It is a portrait of neoliberalism’s future, the future of so-called democratic capitalism.
The only social group not engaged with the aganaktismenoi is the police force. As mentioned earlier, Greece has a strong anti-authoritarian streak and contempt for the police is nearly universal. One of the most common chants heard by protestors of all political stripes, for example, goes: “Cops, pigs, murderers! Cops, pigs, murderers!” The Greek police force, the second largest in Europe, is widely perceived as an extension of the extreme Right, a legacy of the Civil War and regime of the colonels. As David Graeber accurately writes:
Rates of most forms of violent crime (rape, murder, that sort of thing) are among the lowest in Europe, but the rate of political crime (burning or looting banks, attacks on corporate or government offices) is veritably off the charts. Clashes between police and leftists of one sort or another are an almost daily occurrence. In a very real sense, the Greek civil war … never ended.
Whatever illusions foreign progressives may have of protestors lining up alongside the police to demand an end to neoliberal authoritarianism, they are simply not grounded in reality. Such an alliance is unthinkable at the moment. For example, when members of a police union recently held their own demonstration against proposed cuts, they assembled far from the other crowds.
Greek demonstrations are often violent affairs. The more militant Greek protestors throw Molotov cocktails at riot police, who commonly throw bricks and other debris at protestors. Teargas is practically de rigeur at this point. In May 2010, the violence became serious. A bank was set on fire, burning to death three employees working inside (it was later revealed that the building had neither an emergency exit nor a fire alarm system, and that the workers had been compelled to show up on the day of strike under threat of immediate dismissal). It’s still unclear who started the fire but the tragedy chilled the crowds and fragmented the movement. No further deaths have occurred since then, though the demonstrations that erupted last February in opposition to the second round of austerity resulted in the burning of 45 buildings in Athens, including the historic Attikon theater. While property damage pales in comparison to the damage austerity has wrecked, much of these has terrified middle-class protestors. The perennial problem of tactics applies in Greece as anywhere else.
Besides the enormous demonstrations and general strikes that regularly attract hundreds of thousands of protestors into the streets, a number of targeted forms of activism have sprung up. The Greek anarchist movement, among Europe’s most robust, has organized a number of creative actions such as physically occupying houses to prevent the eviction of familes facing foreclosure (very similar to actions taken by Occupy here in New York). The “we won’t pay” tax revolt has gained traction as small business owners refuse to pay arbitrary new taxes on basic necessities like electricity; there is an effort to avoid paying increased highway tolls and VAT tax; and at the time of writing there were no less than seven major strikes underway involving hotels, hospitals, pharmacists, national museums, banks, public transportation, and members of the police and firefighters.
It remains to be seen if the aganaktismenoi will be able to sustain the energy necessary for waging a long-term battle. Indeed, the latest general strike on September 26 was smaller than previous efforts. The country is exhausted, but the battle is likely to gain new life as a third round of austerity sets in. The state is clearly prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the population under control and Europe has only encourage the authoritarian turn. Anticipating events as early as 2009, the Greek government hired international security specialists to help control the country’s angry population. The Greeks are naïve enough to believe their democracy should be at least minimally accountable to the public and for this, they are treated as a security threat by a state charged with little more than guaranteeing repayment of foreign debt. Against this backdrop came the elections of June 17, 2012.