In preparation for a radio interview on ABC Radio National, I was asked the following questions on the situation on the ground in Greece. Thought I should share my answers with you. Will keep you posted re. the actual interview.
With the bailout have come deep austerity measures that have led to a depressed economy and a depressed population. What’s been the economic impact?
Devastating. The difference between a recession and a depression is, primarily, that in the former it is the average company and household that experience a contraction whereas in the latter everyone does. In this sense, a recession has some redemptive effects in that, while most sectors suffer, some firms and lines of business do well eventually acting as the locomotive that pulls the whole train out of the mire. But in a depression there are no silver linings. Even profitable companies go under because, for instance, the Greek banks’ guarantees are not acceptable overseas, the result being that Greek manufacturers cannot import raw materials on credit – which, in turn, means that their capacity to produce is severely constrained and cannot supply consumers even if profitable and even if they have a full order book. So, the combination of failed banking, wholesale retrenchment in the private sector, savage cutbacks in the public sector, ridiculous new taxes imposed on the exhausted band of dependable taxpayers (who are a minority in view of the tax immunity of the upper class) – all this conspires to create a long Winter of Discontent. One that has lasted for three years and counting.
These austerity measures are also having a massive social impact, we’re reading stories about old people raiding rubbish bins for food and families not being able to pay their phone and utility bills. What’s life like for you in Athens?
Heart wrenching. A society that took pride in its rise from the hardship and poverty of the 1940s and 1950s, which had caused the economic migration waves of that era, is now sinking with incredible speed into a black hole. Worse still, the direction of change being what it is, it leaves no room for hope. At least back in the grim days of the Second World War and even the misanthropic Civil War, there was hope. Hope that things cannot get much worse and that when the war is over, as wars eventually are, Recovery would follow. But now, this is a sinister, a silent ‘war’, which can drag on potentially ad infinitum. The hopelessness occasioned by this prospect turbo-charges the economic hardship and gives an opening to all sorts of evil forces.
What are people saying, how much are they hurting?
Indignity, rage, resignation, determination, depression, exemplary solidarity, menacing misanthropy, racism, selflessness, pain, elation when they hear a good piece of music – this is the mélange of contradictory sentiments that are constantly and chaotically in the air. What is certain is that you cannot meet anyone, on the street, in a bar, in a reception, at work, without going straight into a conversation about our Predicament.
There was a report in the London Telegraph about the sick not able to buy medicine, because Greek hospitals and social insurance funds are not paying their bills. What’s happening to the health system?
As you might expect, an imploding social economy cannot but bring down with it its health service system. Pension and health funds have run out of money long ago. Their unpaid bills to pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies causes the latter to stop importing a large variety of medicines (since they lack the cash to do it), and demanding up front cash from patients before they order their medicine from the pharmaceutical companies – in full knowledge that the patients may never get their money back from their fund. Add to this the severe reductions in the size of pensions and wages, plus the rampant unemployment, and you get the picture…
According to an article in The Guardian, Greece is facing a humanitarian crisis with over 10pc living in extreme material deprivation? Is that the case?
If anything this is an under-estimate. The humanitarian crisis is proliferating fast and catches up with hitherto middle class people. We have homeless families who until a few short months ago had a home and whose members had some kind of job. Now they have fallen through society’s cracks, perhaps irreversibly.
Is Athens on the brink of social breakdown, or is that a leap too far?
That the social fabric has been damaged seriously there is no doubt. But things can get worse. Families are still sticking together and civility has not disappeared. People manage to find innovative ways to respond to the depression, e.g. falling back on a soothing musical tradition (that, after all, was the product of poverty), on cheap but wholesome ways of entertainment, of acts of inconspicuous solidarity and even renewal. But if this depression continues in the absence of hope, a social breakdown is on the cards.
What do you know about the rise of right-wing Neo-Nazi groups. What impact are they having? What can you tell us about the Golden Dawn Party?
The Golden Dawn Party is not an extreme right wing party. It is not even a neo-Nazi party. It is a fully-fledged Nazi gang. And here lies the great paradox: Greece, along with Yugoslavia, out up the most dogged, bloody, successful resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War, giving the Nazis a serious run for the money, so to speak. The bulk of the population rose up against them with great acts of valour that inspired the Allies at a time when Nazism was almost unopposed in Europe. Yet, there were collaborators – as there always are. Hooded men that went around the towns and the villages with the SS and the Wehrmacht, pointing out the resistance fighters. The Golden Dawn gang is their direct descendant. You see, after the Nazis retreated from Greece, quite tragically, their collaborators managed to infiltrate the armed forces (following the Civil War in which the Establishment’s war against the Left, thus giving a chance to the Nazi collaborators to remain ‘useful’ to the state); so much so that in 1967 there was a coup d’ etat that put Greece under a neo-fascist dictatorship for seven years. Since the end of that sorry episode, the remnants of that regime have been sidelined by a prospering democracy. However, after the economic and social implosion of the past three years, the worst elements of that rump (who had never really gone away; instead, they were biding their time, reciting Mein Kamf) re-appeared using purposely the tactics of the 1920s German Nazi party and, in particular, of Goebbels. By this I mean that they adopted a narrative on the crisis that is split in two parts: The first part is an utterly sensible critique of crony financialised capitalism (an exact copy of Goebbels’ 1927 critique of the failures of midwar capitalism). Then comes the second part: blaming the foreigner for the crisis (who can be Pakistani just as he can be a Jew) and calling for ethnic cleansing. Add to this mix: (a) offers of personal security services to hungry pensioners too frightened to step into the street, (b) free food and vegetables only for ‘ethnically pure Greeks, and (c) stormtroopers savagely attacking migrants and Greeks opposing them, and what you get is the ‘total recall’ of the bleakest aspects of the 1920s and 1930s.
We know that Greece is broke, but is it also broken and beyond repair?
Greece is too old and ragged to be easily dismissed as beyond repair. We have been through incredible hardships, occupation, betrayal, depression, conquest, self-destruction, and so on. “Greece is hard to kill” as a member of the older generation of wartime partisans once told me. The tragedy is that this crisis is destroying lives and generations unnecessarily. It is not the Crisis we had to have.