"Can't Pay, won't pay!" From Dario Fo's play to our contemporary Greek dystopia

22/10/2011 by

El Pais asked me to write a piece on the ‘fiscal disobedience’ movement that seems to be shaping up in Greece. Here is what I wrote. (I shall post the Spanish version, off El Pais’ site, when available): 

“Can’t pay won’t pay”, was Dario Fo’s boisterous satirical play by which the playwright incited his audience to rethink their political responsibilities. During the past two years, here in Greece, a spontaneous implementation of Fo’s title has been taking place. It started on the nation’s highways when drivers refused to stop at the tollgates, demanding that they are allowed to drive on without paying the toll. Their defiance was fuelled by reports that a previous government had, effectively, sold the future stream of tolls to private investors utilising complex derivatives brokered by Goldman Sachs. The idea that so much money, to be paid by Greek drivers to the state in the years to come in order to maintain the roads, had been usurped by politicians and financiers stirred up the anger that led to these protests.

Then came a series of raids into people’s meagre savings by a state so panicked by its own bankruptcy that it lost all sense of propriety. Tax notices arrived in each household demanding of low income people to pay additional tax retrospectively; for no reason, without justification, and in a manner that any decent court would have  declared unlawful. And when, as a result of job losses and wage cuts, many people found it impossible to make these payments, what did this ‘socialist’ government come up with? The brilliant plan of taxing them again, this time through their electricity bill, essentially blackmailing families that unless they cough up they would have to cook using  coal fired stoves while their children did their homework by candlelight.

In this climate of a total collapse of the social contract between the government and the governed, citizens find it easy to declare that justice requires fiscal and civil disobedience. It does not begin as a political move. Non-payment is usually the result of a simple, sad inability to pay. But when the state reacts with aggression and unscrupulously, anger builds up which, spontaneously, takes the form of moral enthusiasm for defying a predator state. It will probably not help solve anything. But at the very least the disobedience which we are witnessing everywhere, from the nation’s schoolyards to the tollbooths, from the offices of the electrical company to the central square in front of Parliament, may well be the only recourse that citizens have to reclaiming part of their stolen dignity.

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