Austerity ground-zero: a dispatch from Athens

Just before leaving for Athens, I remember something about the city that I had literally completely forgotten: not only is it the epicentre of austerity and the resistance to it, it is also a great city of antiquity. But more than that, this city was where democracy – albeit flawed – was born. The bailout-conditions imposed on Greece by the Troika, however, have not been democratically sanctioned. Indeed, after the then-Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed a referendum on the conditions, he was out within 11 days, installing instead Lucas Papademos, a former Vice President of the European Central Bank. The place where democracy was born is the place where democracy has gone to die.

There is an interesting historical echo throughout Greece. The ancient Greeks had their Gods of Athens and Poseidon and Zeus: unlike the God of Christianity, they were not omni-benevolent; far from it – they were capricious, vindictive, violent, temperamental. And in a way the same is true to today.

When Naomi Klein titled her book ‘The Shock Doctrine’, she was saying that the belief in the power of the free market was, quite literally, a doctrine: a form of religious fanaticism, not fitting with the empirical evidence from the real world. In Greece, the evidence diverges from the theory to such an extent that it would be laughable if it were not so tragic. Taking government spending statistics from Eurostat and yields for 10-year bonds (the interest rate on government debt) from the FT data archive*: in 2009, public spending was 124bn euros and the yield was 5%; in 2010, spending was 114bn and the yield was 11%; in 2011 spending was 108bn euros and the yield was 32%. The message is clear: austerity leads to debt crisis. The people, the demos – sacrificed to the capricious God of the Market.

Of course, a central component of democracy is the Fourth Estate: an assertive, robust, challenging media which holds those in power to account. The Greek public service broadcaster (ERT), however, has been shut down. In response, the former ERT employees occupied their central headquarters and ran an ad hoc broadcasting service. On November the 7th, however, this was raided by the police, and the building is now permanently monitored. One youth member of anti-austerity party, Syriza, said to me: ‘This is the second worst thing to happen in Greece since the attack on the Polytechnic in 1973 [when the military Junta murdered 24 civilians outside the Athens Polytechnic in response to an uprising]. It’s as if you put on your TV and the BBC channels were just blank’.

Everyone I spoke to in Athens said this had been done for political reasons. The European Broadcast Union has explained that Greece is legally required to have a public service broadcaster. The government therefore intends to replace ERT, which had a workforce of 2,600, with a smaller, leaner substitute called Nerit, which will have a workforce of 600 employees. The Syriza youth member says he expects it to be filled with members of New Democracy – the governing right-wing party. One ERT building, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, remains occupied and is still broadcasting, but some journalists from ERT said it may only be a matter of time before it too is raided.

But democracy is not the only Greek invention under assault – there is also the closing of the Academy. Athens was the site of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum – and in some respects was the world’s first university city. Now, the two main institutions of higher education – the University of Athens and Athens Polytechnic – are now shut down. Walking into the University of Athens, I chance upon a student general assembly meeting where they are deciding how to proceed. The situation is this: the Ministry of Education wanted to lay-off hundreds of administrative staff, who have since gone on strike. The students and teaching staff believe the university simply cannot function without them, so have gone on strike in solidarity. The Education Minister has made it clear that, should teachers and students wish to return (assuming that would be possible given the lay-offs), he would send the police in to stop admin staff sabotaging the work of the university, breaking the strike by force. This would violate decades of legal convention in Greece – where police are not permitted on university campuses – and the teaching staff have said they would not teach in such circumstances.

The Athens Polytechnic, meanwhile, is now under occupation by the students. When I walk into their buildings, the cavernous hallways are decorated with all the iconography of the far-left – the star, the clenched fist, anarchy is order, and the squatters’ resistance symbol. They are in an identical situation, with the admin staff on strike and the students and teachers not working in support. One student I spoke to said she had not even been able to register. The presence of police officers on the Polytechnic campus would have a chilling historical precedent. In 1973, students at the Athens Polytechnic began an uprising in protest at the rule of the military Junta. The ensuing demonstrations were met with fierce resistance from the Junta – who sent in a tank through the university gates. 24 civilians were killed. The day of the beginning of the uprising – the 17th November – is now marked every year.

Last Thursday, both the former ERT journalists and the city’s students gathered together in central Athens for a demonstration – which the students tells me are now weekly events in Athens. They rallied together before marching off in separate directions. The ERT contingent was small – only around 200 – marching up through Syntagma Square towards the Hellenic Parliament before being swiftly blocked by riot police. The students, meanwhile, marched to the court where the legal status of the admin staff strike was being decided. I was not present at that point, but one student emailed me to say: ‘The demonstration was very peaceful, the crowd was just sitting there saying their demands (e.g. public education, public health, jobs for everyone, food for everyone). All of a sudden, police officers started spraying the crowd with chemicals and throwing flashbang grenades. The crowd didn’t retreat, they stayed there, shouting their demands much much louder.’

While for many in the Troika the belief in austerity may be a form of ideological delusion, there does also seem to be a darker and more deliberate agenda. In the book ‘Revolt and Crisis in Greece’, one contributor argues that capital, having soared off into the financial stratosphere in search of profit in the 90s and 00s, only to fall back to earth like Icarus, is in desperate search of profit. What better, therefore, than the fertile ground of the public sector – this large chunk of the economy that corporations do not yet control? When I stopped to ask a communist activist how the university deadlock will resolve itself, he said: ‘Oh, they’ll send in corporations to provide the services instead’.

It rings true. My two last stops in Athens were the Evangelismos Hospital and the occupied Empros Theatre. One month ago, two actors from the theatre were arrested and detained. When I spoke to them – in the midst of a rehearsal for a new play about anti-fascism, which will be dedicated to Pavlos Fyssas, the rapper recently murdered by the fascist Golden Dawn – they told me the government is desperately trying to sell the theatre off. At the hospital, meanwhile, one doctor told me that they barely have enough staff to perform basic lab tests anymore, and do not have sufficient money for medicine. Patients now have to pay between 30 and 40% for their operations. As with the utility companies, the price patients will pay will not be the lowest they can get away with, but the highest. People will not get treatment as a result.

What hope is there for Greece? In the guidebooks and around the museums much mention was made of the ancient Greek statesman Perikles, responsible for pioneering the building of the Acropolis and the development of Athenian culture, as such helping to create full-employment. Think of it as a Keynesian stimulus for the age of antiquity. This is what Greece needs: a new Perikles. A government able to replace the death-spiral of austerity with the virtuous circle of investment. Remaining within the euro makes that look unlikely. So there is, of course, the exit of the euro and return of the drachma – allowing a Greek Central Bank to devalue currency and underwrite government borrowing, allowing for fiscal stimulus. As one student at the University of Athens said to me: ‘The media keep saying we will suffer if we exit the euro and return to the drachma, but how much more can we suffer?’

* The figures have been taken for the 1st of December each year.

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1 comments
me myself
me myself

The western money system has reached its logical conclusion and the end - if it cannot grow, it can only consume itself and wither away, unfortunetely taking many people with it.

Interest is the root of all evil.

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