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Greece: The Summer of Despair

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Greece

Greece: The Summer of Despair

 

 

 

Thanks for reading Hellenic News of America

Robert Zaller

 

 

 

I was dining with an architect friend at his home in Piraeus not long ago. He’s retired now, and he cultivates a garden plot on the island of Salamis that puts fresh vegetables on his table. Of his three sons, all intelligent and well-educated men in their thirties, two are unemployed, and the third marginally employed in a venture with a former teacher. This is the Greek middle class in 2013.

After dinner, my friend took out his guitar and began to sing, song being one of the few things the Greek authorities and their German overlords haven’t yet succeeded in taking away. Then he brought out a Cretan sword, a family heirloom that dated back to the late eighteenth century and had no doubt seen a lot of service. He swung it downward, vigorously. “That,” he said, “is for the traitors.” By this he meant the present Greek government.

 

 

In numerous conversations over a five-week visit, the word “traitor” was the term most often on people’s lips when referring to the coalition that has governed Greece since 2011. Only one person with whom I spoke argued that the savage economic depression now in its fifth year was primarily the responsibility of the Greeks themselves. To be sure, few will deny that the Greek economy suffers from structural defects, that there has been feather-bedding in public sector employment, and that corruption and tax avoidance are deeply embedded in the political culture. These are hardly faults unique to Greece, however. They are typical of underdeveloped economies in general, and well enough known in mature ones such as ours, where one in four corporations pays no taxes at all. The precipitating event of the Greek crisis, moreover, had nothing to do with the country at all. It was the collapse of the international banking system following a runup of unbridled speculation and chicanery on a scale unknown since the Great Depression, whose culprits have been rewarded rather than punished, and whose victims have been those furthest removed from genuine responsibility: debtor nations and their populations caught in a credit squeeze imposed by the very institutions whose abusive and criminal practices caused the crisis.

 

 

Another snapshot from the summer of 2013: At lunch at a home in Maroussi, I meet a distinguished-looking man of fifty, lively and capable, with a mane of white hair. He’s a computer engineer, trained in France, and till recently he’s been doing well. Now, however, he’s working his job for forty percent of his former salary as a result of successive pay cuts. It obviously won’t support him. There are no other jobs to be had in his field at his former income. “I had the chance to stay in France and make my career there,” he tells me. “But I’m Greek. I wanted to live in my own country. And now, it’s too late for me. My family is here, my roots, my life. I can’t start over somewhere else at my age. And I can’t survive like this, either.” He throws back his handsome head and laughs. There isn’t a trace of complaint or self-pity in his voice. “Traitors,” he says. “Of course we have a government of traitors.”

 

 

In midsummer, a poll of Greek opinion came out. The government was supported by exactly ten percent of the population. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras announced that he had no intention of calling new elections, and that he planned to serve out his full term, which expires in 2016. During the spring, the smaller of his two coalition partners had quit him. The other partner, the remnants of Andreas Papandreou’s Panhellenic Socialist Party—PASOK—has no choice but to remain, or at least its leaders don’t. There isn’t a single commentator in Greece who thinks the party, under whose governance the country was plunged into its crisis, could survive a new election. Its former leader, George Papandreou, is now under investigation. He’s been teaching government at Harvard, where one can only hope his students have been few. 

 

 

In the summer of 2012, Antonis Samaras announced plans to reduce Greece’s unemployment rate from a level of 23% to 10% over four years.

 

 

In the autumn of 2013, Greek unemployment stood at 28.3%, with youth unemployment at more than double that figure.

 

 

In a taxicab driving past the shuttered shops along Stadiou, one of the main arteries of downtown Athens, the driver quoted the German novelist Thomas Mann, a bitter opponent of German fascism. “The fascists are here now,” he said to me.

 

 

Fascism is the natural product of capitalist collapse. It was the response to postwar depression in Italy and Germany. It offers xenophobic nationalism as a balm for economic misery, and also as an explanation for it. Foreigners abroad are to blame for one’s troubles, and immigrants at home who compete for scarce jobs and work for starvation wages. 

 

 

There is enough truth in these tales to make them credible. Foreigners, indeed, did shut off Greece’s credit in 2009, plunging the country into de facto bankruptcy and keeping it on the edge of a default secured only by loans tied to policy demands calculated to drive it into deep depression. This was no fantasy, but simply the reality of what was euphemistically called “austerity.” It is true as well that illegal immigrants constitute a major social and economic problem, all the more compounded by catastrophically rising unemployment and falling wages for the citizen majority. Of course, there is no comparison between the sleek-suited bankers, bureaucrats, and politicians who engineered the Greek crisis and the desperate legions who seek haven in Greece from Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans; but the xenophobia peddled by Golden Dawn, the home-grown fascist party that had become the third largest voting bloc in Parliament by 2011, made no such distinction: “foreigners” were trying to destroy Greece, whomever they were.

 

 

Golden Dawn had close ties to the police and military, raising the specter of an officers’ coup on the lines of the junta that seized power in 1967 and ruled Greece for seven years. The desperation of the situation was borne home when a liberal journalist suggested to me that a military takeover was the only way out of the country’s downward spiral. Democracy, she said, had become a sham behind which a quisling government had cut self-serving deals to protect a plutocratic elite whose interests they served and to which the political class itself belonged. Greece might perish, but the plutocrats would survive, their euros safe in Swiss banks.

 

 

No doubt Samaras himself had envisioned such a scenario, and he gave the paramilitary thugs of Golden Dawn a long leash as they launched violent assaults against immigrant groups. Nor could the possibility of a partnership with Golden Dawn be ruled out if individual PASOK MPs deserted the governing coalition. Fascism had come in the back door that way in Germany in 1933.

 

 

At the same time, pressure from abroad mounted on Samaras to curb Golden Dawn. In April, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner urged that the party be proscribed as an illegal entity practicing systemic violence. This was richly ironic, since the Council’s relentless economic throttling of Greece had created precisely the conditions under which Golden Dawn—and similar neo-Nazi groups elsewhere on the Continent—had gained traction. A flashpoint was reached with the assassination of an anti-fascist Greek rap singer, Pavlos Fyssas, in September. Ten days later, Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, was arrested with several parliamentary colleagues and charged with forming a criminal organization. Given the economic violence facilitated by Samaras and his cohorts against ten million Greeks, one might wonder whether this was not a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

 

 

A purge of police officials followed, giving credence to allegations about Golden Dawn’s collaboration with them. It remains to be seen whether these links, and the party itself, can be broken. In any case, it does not affect the ongoing misery of which Golden Dawn has been merely a symptom. The reelection of Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany in October will assure the continuation of austerity, at least for Greece. Although very weak growth has returned to some of the depressed sectors of the Eurozone, the Greek economy continues to plummet, with no bottom in sight. A friend in Athens with whom I spoke just before beginning this article described the present situation in two words: “Beyond suffering.”

Greece: The Summer of Despair

 

 

 

Robert Zaller

 

 

 

I was dining with an architect friend at his home in Piraeus not long ago. He’s retired now, and he cultivates a garden plot on the island of Salamis that puts fresh vegetables on his table. Of his three sons, all intelligent and well-educated men in their thirties, two are unemployed, and the third marginally employed in a venture with a former teacher. This is the Greek middle class in 2013.

 

 

After dinner, my friend took out his guitar and began to sing, song being one of the few things the Greek authorities and their German overlords haven’t yet succeeded in taking away. Then he brought out a Cretan sword, a family heirloom that dated back to the late eighteenth century and had no doubt seen a lot of service. He swung it downward, vigorously. “That,” he said, “is for the traitors.” By this he meant the present Greek government.

 

 

In numerous conversations over a five-week visit, the word “traitor” was the term most often on people’s lips when referring to the coalition that has governed Greece since 2011. Only one person with whom I spoke argued that the savage economic depression now in its fifth year was primarily the responsibility of the Greeks themselves. To be sure, few will deny that the Greek economy suffers from structural defects, that there has been feather-bedding in public sector employment, and that corruption and tax avoidance are deeply embedded in the political culture. These are hardly faults unique to Greece, however. They are typical of underdeveloped economies in general, and well enough known in mature ones such as ours, where one in four corporations pays no taxes at all. The precipitating event of the Greek crisis, moreover, had nothing to do with the country at all. It was the collapse of the international banking system following a runup of unbridled speculation and chicanery on a scale unknown since the Great Depression, whose culprits have been rewarded rather than punished, and whose victims have been those furthest removed from genuine responsibility: debtor nations and their populations caught in a credit squeeze imposed by the very institutions whose abusive and criminal practices caused the crisis.

 

 

Another snapshot from the summer of 2013: At lunch at a home in Maroussi, I meet a distinguished-looking man of fifty, lively and capable, with a mane of white hair. He’s a computer engineer, trained in France, and till recently he’s been doing well. Now, however, he’s working his job for forty percent of his former salary as a result of successive pay cuts. It obviously won’t support him. There are no other jobs to be had in his field at his former income. “I had the chance to stay in France and make my career there,” he tells me. “But I’m Greek. I wanted to live in my own country. And now, it’s too late for me. My family is here, my roots, my life. I can’t start over somewhere else at my age. And I can’t survive like this, either.” He throws back his handsome head and laughs. There isn’t a trace of complaint or self-pity in his voice. “Traitors,” he says. “Of course we have a government of traitors.”

 

 

In midsummer, a poll of Greek opinion came out. The government was supported by exactly ten percent of the population. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras announced that he had no intention of calling new elections, and that he planned to serve out his full term, which expires in 2016. During the spring, the smaller of his two coalition partners had quit him. The other partner, the remnants of Andreas Papandreou’s Panhellenic Socialist Party—PASOK—has no choice but to remain, or at least its leaders don’t. There isn’t a single commentator in Greece who thinks the party, under whose governance the country was plunged into its crisis, could survive a new election. Its former leader, George Papandreou, is now under investigation. He’s been teaching government at Harvard, where one can only hope his students have been few. 

 

 

In the summer of 2012, Antonis Samaras announced plans to reduce Greece’s unemployment rate from a level of 23% to 10% over four years.

 

 

In the autumn of 2013, Greek unemployment stood at 28.3%, with youth unemployment at more than double that figure.

 

 

In a taxicab driving past the shuttered shops along Stadiou, one of the main arteries of downtown Athens, the driver quoted the German novelist Thomas Mann, a bitter opponent of German fascism. “The fascists are here now,” he said to me.

 

 

Fascism is the natural product of capitalist collapse. It was the response to postwar depression in Italy and Germany. It offers xenophobic nationalism as a balm for economic misery, and also as an explanation for it. Foreigners abroad are to blame for one’s troubles, and immigrants at home who compete for scarce jobs and work for starvation wages. 

 

 

There is enough truth in these tales to make them credible. Foreigners, indeed, did shut off Greece’s credit in 2009, plunging the country into de facto bankruptcy and keeping it on the edge of a default secured only by loans tied to policy demands calculated to drive it into deep depression. This was no fantasy, but simply the reality of what was euphemistically called “austerity.” It is true as well that illegal immigrants constitute a major social and economic problem, all the more compounded by catastrophically rising unemployment and falling wages for the citizen majority. Of course, there is no comparison between the sleek-suited bankers, bureaucrats, and politicians who engineered the Greek crisis and the desperate legions who seek haven in Greece from Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans; but the xenophobia peddled by Golden Dawn, the home-grown fascist party that had become the third largest voting bloc in Parliament by 2011, made no such distinction: “foreigners” were trying to destroy Greece, whomever they were.

 

 

Golden Dawn had close ties to the police and military, raising the specter of an officers’ coup on the lines of the junta that seized power in 1967 and ruled Greece for seven years. The desperation of the situation was borne home when a liberal journalist suggested to me that a military takeover was the only way out of the country’s downward spiral. Democracy, she said, had become a sham behind which a quisling government had cut self-serving deals to protect a plutocratic elite whose interests they served and to which the political class itself belonged. Greece might perish, but the plutocrats would survive, their euros safe in Swiss banks.

 

 

No doubt Samaras himself had envisioned such a scenario, and he gave the paramilitary thugs of Golden Dawn a long leash as they launched violent assaults against immigrant groups. Nor could the possibility of a partnership with Golden Dawn be ruled out if individual PASOK MPs deserted the governing coalition. Fascism had come in the back door that way in Germany in 1933.

 

 

At the same time, pressure from abroad mounted on Samaras to curb Golden Dawn. In April, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner urged that the party be proscribed as an illegal entity practicing systemic violence. This was richly ironic, since the Council’s relentless economic throttling of Greece had created precisely the conditions under which Golden Dawn—and similar neo-Nazi groups elsewhere on the Continent—had gained traction. A flashpoint was reached with the assassination of an anti-fascist Greek rap singer, Pavlos Fyssas, in September. Ten days later, Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, was arrested with several parliamentary colleagues and charged with forming a criminal organization. Given the economic violence facilitated by Samaras and his cohorts against ten million Greeks, one might wonder whether this was not a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

 

 

A purge of police officials followed, giving credence to allegations about Golden Dawn’s collaboration with them. It remains to be seen whether these links, and the party itself, can be broken. In any case, it does not affect the ongoing misery of which Golden Dawn has been merely a symptom. The reelection of Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany in October will assure the continuation of austerity, at least for Greece. Although very weak growth has returned to some of the depressed sectors of the Eurozone, the Greek economy continues to plummet, with no bottom in sight. A friend in Athens with whom I spoke just before beginning this article described the present situation in two words: “Beyond suffering.”

The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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