Scylla and Charybdis redux: Navigating the perilous straits between suzerainty and nationalism

I arrived in Athens on Kathari Thefthera or “clean Monday” -- the first day of the Lenten fast.

In contrast to the postcard photos of dazzling blue skies, bleached white facades and crowded plateies, Athens was windy, wet and cold. Few people were on the streets (because it was a holiday? because of the crisis? I could not tell). Those that were seemed down and out – huddled in small groups around the train stations, rummaging in bins, smoking. Most were men, wearing cheap shiny black parkas and thin trousers. Many, I guessed, were not Greek by birth. But perhaps not: rough living burnishes everyone to the hollow-cheeked and leathery hue.

I was in Athens 27-29 February, as part of a 20-member delegation of European activists to meet with different political and social groups, to show (long overdue) solidarity, to get a better sense of how Greece’s three-year long economic-social-political crisis is unfolding and to discuss what can be done. (2)

We were staying in the inner-city area called Exarcheia, made famous in 1973 by the student uprisings against the military dictatorship: since then the district has been associated with the radical left, protest movements and student unrest. It was in Exarcheia in December 2008 that 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot dead by police, triggering two weeks of protests and rioting not only against police brutality but also youth unemployment and institutional corruption. This was the first event in the present cycle of protest. These days, it is a semi-militarised zone with armed and battle-ready police patrolling the streets; they say against criminals and drug dealers, but anarchists and the homeless are just as likely to be harassed and intimidated by the police whose powers have expanded as the economy shrinks.

On the following day, Tuesday 28 February, the Greek Parliament -- lead by the unelected Prime Minister and former European Central Bank vice-president Lucas Papademos (3) -- was due to approve a raft of far-reaching structural reforms that (they hope) will persuade the Troika (the IMF, European Central Bank and the European Commission) to open a 130 billion line of credit to avoid default and return Greece’s debt-GDP ratio to 120 per cent by 2020. This is the same level as it was before the first “Memorandum of Understanding on Specific Economic Policy Conditionality” between the Troika and the Greek Government in May 2010. Unsurprisingly, this swingeing round of wage, pension and spending cuts triggered a recession (it seems the EU and IMF economists have learned nothing from the past two decades of financial crises) which widened the budget deficit, shrunk GDP by 16 per cent and blew-out the debt-GDP ratio to the current level of 170 per cent – one of the highest in the world. Simply to get back to where they were before the Troika arrived, Greece will have to endure more cuts, more privatisations, more unemployment, hunger and homelessness.

The February 2012 MOU is clearly an effort to reform Greece “root and branch”. (4) It is an extraordinarily detailed list of when and how the Greek State and bureaucracy must achieve the standards of efficiency, liberalisation and competition required by various EU directives and to regain the “trust” of the markets. The MOU contains 3.2 billion euros in budget cuts, including 400 million in defence and 400 million in public investment; sweeping privatisations projected to yield 15 billion euro by 2015, including Hellenic Post, the water and sewerage companies of both Athens and Thessaloniki, as well as the public gas (Depa) and oil (Helpe) companies, motorways, marinas and ports, broadcasting infrastructure and even the Olympic Village (5); targets for slashing both wages and staff numbers in the public sector; a 22 per cent cut to the minimum wage (32 per cent for those under 25) to just 470 and 400 euros (after tax) respectively. (Incidentally, this effectively smashes collective bargaining in Greece, which dates back to 1914 and significantly undermines trade unions.) 

All of this comes on top of two years of wage cuts and economists estimate that the average income of the population has fallen by 40-50 per cent. But there are also dozens of seemingly mundane requirements, such as naming the computer software for the taxation office, mandating the use of electronic signatures, liberalising professions from dentists to masseurs, setting the deadline for switching to digital broadcasting, and eliminating the economic test for opening slaughter houses.

The February 2012 MOU has nothing to do with “saving” Greece.
First, it aims to calm the markets and buy time for the Troika whose main concern is to save the Euro by building a “firewall” strong enough to stop the “contagion” from spreading to Spain, Portugal, Ireland – and most important of all -- Italy. Italy is a seriously important economy, and if it were to go under, then all bets are off as far as the future of the Euro is concerned.

Second, it is an attack on workers. This and earlier austerity programmes aim to drive down Greek wages to the level of its South East European neighbours, Bulgaria and Serbia which are presently about 150 euros a months. Ostensibly this is to reduce Greece’s balance of payments by making its exports more competitive (and, because it is not possible to devalue the euro, budgets and wages are the only “flexible” elements of economic policy). For some analysts, this marks the beginning of a full-blown downward convergence that concerns all workers across Europe. 

Third, it is an old-fashioned structural adjustment, equal to any seen during the Asian financial crisis. Stathis Kouvelakis, reader in political theory at Kings College London, has described it as “programmed destruction” -- a lethal combination of David Harvey’s “accumulation by dispossession” and Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine”. Countries of the South and Eastern Europe have gone through this before, but never has it been attempted in so close to the heart of capital and never have the stakes been so high: the fundamental economic architecture of Europe. (6)

And fourth, it is an ideological project where debt ratios are merely the pretext to justify an extraordinary intervention into Greek domestic policy. It’s the economic version of the “right to protect” except in this case the intervention is being done to protect the big European banks and corporations -- not the people. 

Three years of austerity has wrought social and economic havoc. Officially unemployment is 21 per cent and close to 50 per cent for those under 25 (the actual numbers are certainly much higher, even without the tens of thousands of undocumented migrant workers who do not appear in the official statistics). At least 30 per cent of Greeks are now living below the poverty line; 25,000 homeless people sleep rough on the streets of Athens; half a million jobs have been shed in the private sector with at least one in four enterprises closing; conservatively, pensions and wages (for those still working) have been cut by 30 per cent, to say nothing of the unemployed, migrant workers and small business owners who are not eligible for unemployment; hospitals are closing, schools no longer have books, the worker-owned housing organisation OEK is slated to be closed. Schools are providing lunches for students who are falling asleep from hunger. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have returned to their home countries: it seems that things are better in Albania. (7)

“This is a fight for freedom and democracy”
Yet, while the economic and social realities are part of the day to day struggles and protests, most people I spoke to during my (too short) three day visit believe that the crisis is fundamentally political, with implications not only for Greek democracy, but the whole European project.

Alexandros Frantzis, a marine biologist specialising in whales and an activist from the “squares” movement that occupied Athens’ central Syntagma Square during May – July 2011 (the movement spread to dozens of locations across Greece) told us, “Greeks want to fight for freedom. People understand that this is a fight for freedom and democracy, not against austerity.” This was echoed by many who spoke in an open forum organised by Diktio – the Network for Political and Social Rights that grew out of the movement against the military dictatorship of the 1980s.

But they also believe that there is a real problem within Greek society. Loukia Kotronaki, a doctoral candidate who works in a bar to support herself, says that over the years Greeks have become very individualistic: the main aim was to “stand on your own two feet” and the traditions and practices of solidarity have disappeared. This “individualistic dogma” she explains, has its origins in the “clientalism” that flourished in the post-dictatorship period and was institutionalised by Andreas Papandreou’s Pasok party that has dominated Greek politics from the early 1980s.

Costas Lapavitsas, a political economist and commentator from London’s School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) and one of the most lucid interpreters of Greece to the English-speaking media, agrees. In an interview with The Real News he said, “Society has become very individualistic, cynical, looking after number one. It’s lost values of solidarity, values of social support. People feel that very keenly, but they don’t know quite what to do about it.” (8)

Sissi Korizi, an activist from Syntagma Square and a trade unionist agrees that Greek society has to overcome a long period of individualism, but says that new movements such as “I do not pay” and spaces such as Syntagma Square can help. “Traditional political groups, such as parties and trade unions, have lost the trust of the people. In Syntagma, people did not want to hear about old-fashioned politics. They are seen as being at the edge of the movement, they are not the movement.”

One young activist from Syntagma Square claimed that the union leadership calls for a general strike “only when they feel the pressure, to let out a bit of air”. For him, the union leaders have “sold” themselves to the government. Others echoed this criticism but emphasized that it’s the leadership that has “sold out” while many of the base unions continue the struggle. Others believe that, aside from the leadership of the main private and public sector confederations, the full spectrum of the workers’ movement – from the communist, radical left and the anarchist-aligned unions -- are the point of reference of the movement.

As I was to discover, there are strong and sometimes violent differences on key issues. This highly politicised fractiousness is a defining characteristic of the Greek left, even without a crisis.

Electoral politics, too, is a fraught issue. An election is due late April this year, but several people we spoke with believed that the actual date is likely to be set by the Troika, which has already indicated its support for the neo-liberal/social democratic Pasok and the centre right New Democracy Party, both of whom have signed letters promising that they will continue to implement the austerity and structural adjustment programmes. Even though these parties are almost totally discredited for having bowed to the pressures of the Troika and are seen as responsible for the crisis, apparently the EU leadership has gone as far as saying that, if the Greek people vote for any other parties, “we will not be here to support them.”

But if the polls are correct, the Troika might be disappointed. Pasok and New Democracy have less than 40 per cent between them, with Pasok in the embarrassing position of being the junior partner with just 8 per cent compared to their 2009 election result of 44 per cent. (8) The same polls show that three parties to the left of Pasok – Syriza (a parliamentary coalition of ten parties and organisations), the Communist Party (KKE) and the Democratic Left – would gain 42.5 per cent of the vote, but given that the KKE – with 12.5 per cent support -- is committed to a “sectarian and nostalgic Stalinist line”, the chances of a left coalition are zero. (10)

Nonetheless, Yannis Almpanis, an activist from Diktio who has been involved with anti-globalisation movement and the European Social Forum, believes that the elections are not a lost cause as they will “increase systemic instability and reshape the Greek political map.”

“It is absolutely vital for the movement that leftist anti-memorandum lists will get more votes. That will be an undeniable proof that there is no social consensus on austerity plans,” he says.

The real point, though, is what programme these left parties could offer. Costas Lapavitsas argues that, “any force… that wishes to take the country out of its predicament must provide answers across the board... It’s a major, major task in front of political forces. It’s a task of basically restructuring the whole of society.” (11)

Whether the Greek left is up to the task is another question, given its reputation for being intellectual, fragmented and argumentative: but I guess that’s what we should expect from the culture that gave us, amongst other things, democracy.

Vangelis Pissias, a water engineer, activist and the inspiration behind the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, believes that it will be difficult to have a “new Greek project” with the current political actors. But at the same time, the key is democracy: It is imperative, he says, that the Greeks have the possibility to decide for themselves.

And although he believes that elections can help “reshape the map” Yannis Almpanis said that it is no longer possible to find a political solution with the traditional political actors and that the politicians, parties and trade unions cannot “lead” the movement for change.

“Change must come from the processes that are being created by the squares movement, ‘I will not pay’ and the occupations,” he says, “but it must also include the existing political left.”

The Euro: Should we stay or should we go?
A concrete example of the complexity of the challenges facing Greece is the question of the euro zone: to leave or to stay? It is also one of the key issues dividing the Greek left.

In the past two years, Costas Lapavitsas has written and commented widely on why Greece should make an orderly default and quit the Euro which, he says, would “create the opportunities for rescuing the economy and society.” (12)

His arguments are compelling. Most importantly, it would enable Greece to devalue the currency to regain competitiveness and economic growth. (At present, the only way that it can hope to gain competitiveness in the Eurozone is through wage suppression, and that is simply deepening the economic depression.) Devaluation, coupled with capital controls (which are expressly forbidden in the February 2012 MOU), redistribution, new industrial, economic and social policies and “cleansing the state from the bottom up” is what’s needed to put its economy and society on a different path. 

Having followed closely the Asian and the Argentina financial crises – where capital controls, devaluation and counter-cyclical budgets yielded the best results in terms of minimising social impact and leading to economic recovery -- this seems to me the only way that Greece can escape its predicament.

I expected to have this view reinforced by Greek leftists inside Greece, but not so. In the trade union movement there is “no formal debate” on the issue and for the majority of Syriza, the radical-left parliamentary grouping, whether it’s drachma or euro is not the issue. According to Alexis Tsipras, president of the “second” communist party Synapsismos and head of the Syriza parliamentary group, “You can have bad policies with the drachma or with the euro. The main point is to change the correlation of forces.”  

Considering the current correlation of forces and interests at play in the Euro zone, this seems like wishful thinking and a rather naïve attachment to the European project. Yiorgos Vassalos, a Greek activist and researcher with the Brussels-based NGO Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) that monitors the European Commission agrees that you can have bad policies with the drachma, but he says, “You cannot have good policies with the euro.”

Still, the majority of Syriza believes in “Europe as a field of struggle” and their strategy is to build a “Southern” alliance with the other periphery countries – Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy – who are not only under threat, but whose collapse would be a threat for everyone. As Tsipras says “they don’t save us because they love us, but because they are scared.”

Some parts of the non-parliamentary radical left oppose the “drachma project”. They believe that a euro exit managed by a bourgeois government would not benefit the workers and that devaluation would harm both the working class and middle class. Indeed, the rich have already transferred their money to Swiss bank accounts or bought apartments in London, so they are well insulated against any devaluation. 

Yannis Almpanis says that redistribution is far more important than monetary policy but “the real question is not euro or drachma, but whether we can build a radical way out from neoliberal capitalism. 

While the radical left argues about the “drachma project” the workers at Hellenic Steel -- who are now in their fifth month of strike against forced lay-offs and cuts in wages and working hours -- are very clear on the issue. They have four simple demands: cancellation of the debt, exit from the euro, rehiring of sacked colleagues and reinstatement of working hours. (Their strike is supported by the All Militant Workers Front (PAME), the trade union of the Communist Party, KKE. Both the PAME and the KKE call for debt cancellation and exit from the euro.)

We met about fifty workers on Day 121 of their strike, outside the factory gates where fires in 44-gallon drums gave scant refuge against the freezing winds sweeping across the Port. The good news is that, due to the economic slowdown, the water is less polluted than two years ago. In the distance, snow covered the hills surrounding Athens: Picturesque but also tough for the workers rostered to sleep overnight in the factory to guard against scabs and scoundrels. The workers claim that the steel mill is profitable but that the owner is using the economic crisis as a pretext to increase profits by cutting labour costs. Some months ago, management announced that 80 workers would be laid off, that the working day would be cut to five hours and salaries to just 500 euros a month. Haris, who has worked at the factory for 14 years used to earn 1000 euros a month. He paid 200 a month for travel and another 500 rent. Even before the strike, he worked a second job with his mother cleaning local schools. These are the “lazy” Greeks. (13)

Indeed, these are the very people who might benefit most from default and devaluation if the opportunity was seized to build a viable social, ecological and economic alternative for Greece. Even before the debt crisis, Greece’s economy was in a sorry state: trade liberalisation, especially in the agricultural sector, has decimated what should be one of Greece’s strengths: growing food. Presently, agriculture accounts for just 3.3 per cent of GDP but 12 per cent of workers. We were told that 80 per cent of supermarkets are foreign-owned – German or French – and 70 per cent of meat is imported. Even olives, tomatoes and cucumbers – the basic ingredients of a Greek salad – come from Morocco and the hothouses of the Netherlands. Tourism is declining: Turkey is (apparently) just as nice and a lot less expensive. Infrastructure is in a sorry state (and likely to get worst with privatisation) while important sectors such as renewable energy are virtually undeveloped.

The destruction of the Greek economy pre-dates the current debt crisis: deindustrialisation, abandonment of the agriculture sector, and an overdependence on services – in particular tourism – has left Greece vulnerable. Furthermore, a study by forensic accountants has found that budget and debt data submitted by Greece to Eurostat to meet euro-zone requirements had a statistical distribution “indicative of manipulation”. (14)

There are many similarities between what’s happening in Greece and what happened in Argentina at the turn of the century: a fixed exchange rate, recession, mounting debt and unemployment culminating in an economic crisis and a complete collapse of trust in the political system. In Argentina, people seized the moment to say “¡Que se vayan todos!” “They must all go”. Being from the South, the Argentines had no illusions about power and who has it. Perhaps the Greeks believe too much in the myth of Greece and Europe, and not enough in their own story of struggle and their own future. 

10 days later…
After ten days of trying to understand what’s going on in Greece, various drafts of this article, a few harsh email exchanges between some of the people quoted herein, and a growing sense of despair that the “progressive” forces in Greece would ever agree on anything (or, more accurately, that I would ever understand what’s going on) I met Alexandros Kastrinakis and Georgios Arhontopoulos, activists from Thessaloniki’s “Movement 136”. We were walking together towards the Vieux Port of Marseille, during the demonstration marking the end of the Forum Alternative Mondiale d’Eau – FAME –taking place in opposition to the business friendly World Water Forum. (See Mary Ann Manahan’s article below for more on the FAME and M136.)

Maybe it was the sunshine, but hearing about this initiative to prevent the privatisation of Thessaloniki’s water and sewerage company (EYATh) gave me hope. Movement 136 grew out of discussions at Thessaloniki’s historical White Tower during the “squares movement” of summer 2011 and is supported by local unions of the water-company, indignad@s, associations and communities. Their aim is to ensure social control of the municipal water by setting up a cooperative to buy the 40 per cent share of EYATh that will be sold under the austerity programme. Citizens are being mobilised to buy shares in the cooperative costing 136 euros, hence the name. K136, as it is known in Greek, wants to show that “cooperatives, solidarity and respect for the environment” are the base of an “alternative to capitalism”. (15) 

Alexandros Kastrinakis, an historian and independent film-maker who aligns himself with the United Popular Front (UPF) movement, says that K136 is a way for citizens to practice their own “shock doctrine” -- using the expression that Naomi Klein popularised to describe the neo-liberal offensive in post-crisis situations.  He is also enthusiastic about the UPF, which, he says, is “neither left nor right” but builds on the resistance tradition of the 1940s, uniting all people who live in Greece, with the aim to “get our country back”. (16) 

But others I spoke to are cautious about the UPF.  While the “neither left nor right, Greece first” discourse is attracting “ordinary” Greeks and activists who are tired of political factionalism and taps into a deep vein of nationalism that runs across the political spectrum, more problematically, in the name of “unity”, the UPF has opened its arms to ultra-nationalists and far-right groups.

Once again, the reality of Greek politics keeps getting in the way of my happy ending. (I felt like Sisyphus: the rock of understanding keeps rolling back to the bottom of the hill. 

But, despite the complexity and difficulties, from an anti-capitalist, internationalist, ecological and social justice perspective, progressive forces in Greece have no choice but to build something new from the ruins of a discredited political class, economic disintegration, and the distrust and factionalism on the left.

Stathis Kouvelakis believes that Greece’s current situation is “unlike any we have seen in post war Western Europe.” But, he speculates, Greece may once again find itself in the forefront of history: in 1821 it was the first European continental country to achieve national independence; in 1940 it lead the resistance against fascism; and in the 1970s their uprising against the military dictatorship inspired similar movements in Spain, Portugal and beyond. (17)

Millions of Greeks are trying to regain control of their destiny from the EU and from the corrupt elites who have aligned themselves with the “programmed destruction”. This is happening everyday, everywhere: massive protests with millions in the streets, the movement of the squares, occupations, strikes, protests, self-help groups, cooperatives and solidarity initiatives. Indeed, Greece was already rising up six months before the “Arab Spring” of 2011. But somehow, it has not (yet) built to a decisive moment. As one Syntagma Square occupier said, “we cannot have small victories, we must have a big victory”. How this will happen, and what it might look like, remains to be seen.

 

* Nicola Bullard was part of a 20-member solidarity delegation to Athens 27-29 February 2012. She is an associate with Focus on the Global South.

σας ευχαριστεί/thank you: I would like to thank the Greek friends who organised our visit to Athens and for their collective insights into this complex and difficult situation and for their spirit of struggle. I am especially thankful to Loukia Kotronaki, Yannis Almpanis, Yiorgos Vassalos and Stathis Kouvelakis who read drafts of this article and helped steer me through the Scylla and Charybdis of the Greek left. All misinterpretations and errors are my own.

 

NOTES

1. In Greek mythology, the two monsters Scylla and Charybdis lie on either side of a narrow passage of water. Sailors who attempt to avoid one will pass too close to the other, and vice versa.

2. Olivier Azam’s documentary video of the solidarity delegation can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/38837161

3. Lucas Papademos, as governor of the Bank of Greece between 1994-2000, was “integrally involved” in the financial manipulation that allowed Greece to meet the Maastricht ‘convergence criteria’ and thus join the Eurozone. See Stathis Kouvelakis, “The Greek Cauldron”, in New Left Review, Number 72, November-December 2011, 17-31 for more on Lucas Papademos.

4. The February 2012 MOU can be downloaded at www.tovima.gr/files/1/2012/02/10/mnhmonioagglika.pdf, accessed 20 March 2012.

5. The Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund website is aptly named “Rolling Ahead: http://www.hradf.com/en/rolling-ahead, accessed 20 March 2012.

6. “Grece: Destruction programmee d’un pays”. Entretien avec Stathis Kouvelakis, RDL No. 4, Mars – Avril 2012.

7. You can watch The Real News/Jihan Hapiz's excellent report on the social conditions in Greece. http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&I..., accessed 18 March 2012.

8. “Greeks Looks to the Left for Solutions” Interview with Costas Lapavitsas on The Real News, 24 February 2012. http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&I..., accessed 20 March 2012.

9. Gideon Rachman, “The rise of the Greek extremes” in Financial Times, 14 February 2012. http://blogs.ft.com/the-world/2012/02/the-rise-of-the-greek-extremes/#ax..., accessed 20 March 2012

10. See Stathis Kouvelakis, “The Greek Cauldron”, in New Left Review, Number 72, November-December 2011, 17-31 for a rich analysis of the Greek left, parliamentary politics and the origins of the current economic and political crisis.

11. “Greeks Looks to the Left for Solutions”. Interview with Costas Lapavitsas on The Real News, 24 February 2012. http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&I..., accessed 20 March 2012.

12. “Should Greece pull out of the Euro?”. Interview with Cotsas Lapavitsas on The Real News (undated). http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&I..., accessed 20 March 2012.

13. You can see Haris talking by Skype to a solidarity event in Brussels earlier this year, http://vimeo.com/37239000, accessed 19 March 2012.

14. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Greece, accessed 20 March 2012

15. For more about Movement 136 see www.136.gr and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PazS8SDTOCY, accessed 19 March 2012.

16. For more on the United Popular Front see http://www.epam-thess.net/category/epam/, accessed 19 March 2012

17. Stathis Kouvelakis, “The Greek Cauldron”, in New Left Review, Number 72, November-December 2011, 17-31.

 

Focus on the Global South
Date of publication: 
Mon, 2012-03-26

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