Archive for the ‘The Crisis’ Category
Today at work I learned my pay was being cut by 25%. The CEO had gathered the entire staff in the large conference hall and made the announcement. He said it was voluntary. He called it our investment in the organization’s future. But we all knew what it really was. Logo krisis. “Due to the crisis.”
So many of our conversations in Greece these days seem to begin or end with this phrase. “We’ll probably just go to my father’s village in August this year, logo krisis.” “Logo krisis they decided they won’t heat the apartment building come fall. Half the tenants won’t or can’t pay the common charges.” “Oh, did you hear? Marina’s leaving for Australia. Logo krisis.” “Lentils, logo krisis.” It has become our Insha-Allah, a mantra of our helplessness. Along with chunks of our salaries, pensions and, yes, privileges, we are losing as well the illusion that we are in command of our lives. Things now happen to us. And they are usually bad things.
It is not that we have necessarily become pessimists. It is not that we see or interpret things more negatively. Rather, we have become more adept at reading what is likely to come next. We do not see a half-empty or half-full glass. Instead we see a glass that will have much less water next month or next year.
I wasn’t shocked by the announcement. All of us at work had seen it coming. The signs were there: fewer clients, budget cuts, personnel transfers. Staff who left or were fired weren’t replaced. Indeed, most of us wondered why it hadn’t happened earlier. Logo krisis.
I wasn’t angry, either. Who should I be angry at (first)? For better or worse, I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theories popular on both the right and left, which attribute Greece’s woes to the machinations of a (mostly German) cabal of ministers, bankers and industrialists—often conveniently conflated into a demonized Merkel as the personification of the enemy—bent on stripping Greece bare of its assets, talent and autonomy. I am angry, of course, at this absurd insistence on the ‘save-till-you-die’ austerity program we have been obliged to implement. But I am just as angry at our government’s failure to implement the great majority of structural reforms which comprise the most important part of the bailout Memoranda and which, had they been implemented, would have obviated the need for the crueler measures adopted later. But then I must also be angry with the trade unionists and the guilds of the closed professions that managed to throttle the few tentative efforts at reform. I can be angry with the political leadership of the country in the last 25 years and its particularly perverse and profligate policy of redistributing income, not from the rich to the poor (the rich got much richer during these years) but from future to current generations. I’m angry at them for fostering a bloated, inefficient, corrupt public sector that was used to provide countless jobs that didn’t need to be done. But then I must be angry, too, at our own complicity in this system (as I’ve written before, clientilism politics doesn’t make sense without clients). In the end, I wind up being angry at everyone, which is pretty much the same as being angry at no one.
I wasn’t indignant. The salary cuts were introduced fairly. No cuts for the lowest paid workers and then a sliding scale of progressive cuts. I couldn’t even feel sorry for myself, which is not something I ordinarily do anyway, but one could argue that losing a fourth of your salary is a time when you have the right to feel miserable. But doing so would have felt, I don’t know, so petty.
I once had surgery for hernia repair in a large public hospital. I was in a large ward with another four or five patients, and I remember how reluctant I was to call the nurse the night after the operation to bring me some water, even though I must have been severely dehydrated. But the man next to me had had his leg amputated, and the guy across from me had had a tumor removed. How could I complain of being thirsty?
As my friend Natalie, who’s also had to accept a cut in salary, says, “It’s not dire. Having to feed a family of four on €50 a week is dire.” And she’s right, of course. I still have a job, though for how long I’m not sure. I still get paid for doing my job, which is no longer a given in this country. I’ll now buy cheaper wine and take fewer taxis. I’ll travel less and more wisely. But these are minor deprivations, hardly sacrifices. They are not things like heat and homeland. I may be thirsty but I have not lost a leg.
Loss becomes relative, not only to what has befallen others but what is likely to befall you in the future. Now, logo krisis, we can’t console ourselves by believing that things can’t get any worse and if we just pull through this patch of misfortune we’ll be alright. Instead, logo krisis, we console ourselves, for the time being anyway, knowing that things will get worse and content ourselves with what we have now.
When Greeks exchange holiday or birthday wishes, they are quick to tuck in a little phrase: iyia pan’apola. Health above all. It tempers the hubris of wishing for a long life and everything else one could want. It, too, is a kind of Insha-Allah, but a counterweight to logo krisis, a reminder of our mortality and a call to focus on what is important in life. Health, yes, and friends and family. Taking care of yourself and the people you love. Setting things right.
But I don’t see much will for reform in the country, much less the infrastructure and mechanisms to implement it. Of the two, will is the more important; the rest can be acquired or learned or borrowed. I wonder how many of us have realized the extent of reform that must happen if we are to prosper. How much needs to be done to create a system of just taxation, in which all pay their due share, what changes need to happen to open up the economy and reduce waste and corruption in the public sector. The rise of the left- and right-wing anti-Memorandum parties, which seem to promise a return to the way things were 10 or 15 years ago, suggests that many haven’t. But of course we can’t go back. At some point in the future, a future bleaker than what we are experiencing now or perhaps can even imagine, we will be obliged to change. If this is hope, it is one that is steeped in tragedy.
It was never really much of a main street, just five blocks of shops. Despite its illustrious name, the narrow street was never the kind you walked along but instead walked to. It wasn’t meant for strolling or window-shopping. The stores were mostly places you’d go to get something done or fixed or to buy something to eat or drink. It had a tailor’s, a hairdressing salon, a dry cleaners, a bakery, hardware store, shops like that. A couple of pharmacies, a barber’s, two greengrocer’s, a butcher’s. The DVD store, of course. I seem to remember a shop with artist supplies and another one that sold women’s clothes. But those must have been the first to close, right before the crisis became visible to most of us. That’s how we date things now. Before and after the advent of the crisis.
The first shop closures were followed by the two florists and the travel agency and the pet shop. And then I lost track of exactly what shop closed when. I can’t even remember what some of the other empty storefronts used to be before the crisis. There are so many of them. I counted 29 as I walked down the street this morning.
The signs of the crisis are everywhere to be seen, of course. You encounter them throughout the day, like the intermittent pain of a tooth starting to go bad, a nagging reminder that this is not going away and a harbinger of how much worse things will get. I don’t mean just the announcements of yet another tax increase or pension cut, or the headlines that report yet another contraction in the economy and higher unemployment rates. I mean the stories, too. Like the one my friend Lina told me yesterday. She lost her job last year and hasn’t found a new one yet. She was saying she needs to put up bars on the windows of her ground-floor flat. The house next door to hers was broken into. Apparently they got in through the window. Right now Nina keeps hers locked all during the day and night but she doesn’t know what she’ll do in the summer. She can’t afford the bars.
Or Anna and Marios, who are moving to Germany, where Anna has found work. Marios has been out of work for more than a year. Anna has a job, but it’s one without health insurance. “I hate the thought of leaving,” Anna told me, “and Marios even more than I do. But how can I have a kid with this kind of uncertainty?” We gathered in a small smoky taverna in an old Athens neighborhood to wish them off. There was tsipouro and wine and honest food from the grill, and a trio that played rembetika. There were presents, of course, to remind them of the country they were leaving: a bronze pendant inspired by ancient Cycladic axe, books of poetry, a set of small ouzo bottles with hand-designed labels each sporting a different Greek saying in the original and a funny fractured mistranslation into German.
I hate how life in the city has turned into a series of leave-takings.
There are the less dramatic signs, too, but more frequent reminders: the ever thinner ply of the paper towels in rest rooms (at least restaurants and bars still stock the dispenser; Alexis, whose wife works in a public school, tells me the teachers themselves stock the dispensers at the school), the pouches of rolling tobacco that have replaced the packets of Marlboros or Camels that I used to see on café tables next to the mobile phone and cappuccino freddo.
But the closed shops are perhaps the most striking and ever present mark of the blight wrought by the recession. In most places in most times, a shop or two that goes out of business passes almost unobserved. At most, you’ll notice a sign in the window thanking the loyal customers who supported the business over the years, but the place gets rented soon enough and a new shop sets up business. But here the shops stays closed. And the one next to it or two doors down soon closes as well. Then others. Now in my neighborhood most of the shops along the six blocks of a street named after the first Prime Minister of Greece and the man who delivered Byron’s eulogy, are hauntingly empty. It’s not much different from what’s happening in a lot of other neighborhoods in the city, maybe a little worse (one in four shops in Athens have closed since the beginning of the crisis). In any event, I notice it more here. I live here.
I see the city receding before my eyes. I see it becoming ever smaller and emptier. The streets downtown are empty most evenings (this for a city that was renowned for its 1 a.m. traffic jams), partly because of the crisis, partly because of higher crime or the perception that the incidence of crime has increased downtown. A recent initiative has been launched to get people back into the center on Friday evenings—discounts at restaurants and cinemas, free concerts and happenings, extended happy hours. It helped in the first few weeks, but it was probably the novelty of the idea. The streets are pretty much still empty. The city is receding, caught in a slow, inexorable process of decay and attrition. And as the city changes, I feel that I am changing too.
One of the first things my friends in Athens ask me about when I got back from a recent trip to Germany was the weather. They always ask about the weather when I come back from the North.
I could have told them about the mournful cadet-grey cloak of low-lying cloud cover that turns the day into one long period of extended twilight. About the morning mist that segues into a midday drizzle that lingers throughout the day, protracted foreplay to a storm that never breaks. But I kept it simple: “Cold, grey and wet.”
“With weather like that,” a colleague said, “I’d work like the Germans, too.” Meaning, of course, that there wouldn’t be much else to do other than work.
(The irony is that Greeks work on average more hours per week than the Germans do) But Alexis was convinced he’d work longer and harder in a country of long dark winters and cool wet springs. It was if the carpet of overcast skies would sponge up all his enthusiasm and élan vital along with the light of day.
Apparently, in very dim light people lose their color vision. They see everything in shades of grey. Alexis says he’d feel the same way.
The slow decay of the urban core threatens to become our gloom, forcing us to downshift into a monochrome of dullness and despair. I wonder when I will become anaesthetized to this twilight zone of loss, when it will no longer sadden me, as it does every morning as I ride the trolley to the gym, my way marked by the signs of a city that is wasting away.
It is not like this all the time, of course. There are pockets of vitality everywhere in Athens. There’s still much creative energy in the city, new initiatives in the arts and community action projects. And as Alexis would say, the weather is gorgeous now and just sitting outside with a friend for coffee at a café—the only business that seems to be booming—is deeply restorative.
I’ve acquired a much greater appreciation for the neighborhood shop and the people who run them. They’re eyes of the street and gossips in the good sense of the word: collectors of social news. They anchor the neighborhood in a sense; their shops are points of social encounter for the neighborhood as a whole, perhaps the only one for people like me who don’t go to church or play cards in the very old-school neighborhood café that is frequented mostly by retired men.
Yannis’s shop is one of the few left on the first block of the street. He sells fish. He bought the business from the woman who was retiring. He did it right in the midst of the crisis. Maybe he figured people could do without a dry cleaners but every neighborhood needs a place to buy fish.
The fish from the central market is much cheaper, and there’s much greater variety, and that’s where I go to find things like razor clams and skate or when I’m going to make a fish dinner for friends and need a lot of fish. But I try to buy from Yannis for everyday fish, despite the surcharge. I think of the extra cost—entirely justified seeing as he doesn’t have a huge clientele—as a neighborhood duty in both senses of the word: a responsibility to the neighborhood and as a payment due by virtue of living in the neighborhood, a tax whose proceeds go to keeping the neighborhood alive. I pay it as gladly as I pay the surcharge to the brothers who have the (admittedly well-stocked) corner wine shop.
I’m not one of Yannis’s big customers. I usually buy cheap stuff like mackerel and cuttlefish and farmed sea bass, not the big-ticket items I see some of the other customers buying, red mullet or gilt bream or, God forbid, dentex. Once in a while I’ll splurge on some shrimp for a paella. Sometimes he’ll recommend something I don’t know—he’s a man with a mission—and I’ll take his advice. I always take his advice.
He treats me as if I were one of his best customers, whatever I buy. He even offers to fillet the sardines I buy. To appreciate the magnanimity of this offer you need to realize how tedious this work is and how cheap the fish is (try asking your significant other to gut and debone 20 small fish). In fact, it’s so generous an offer than I never let him do it.
Last Saturday afternoon I was passing by his shop on my way to the bus-stop. On the sidewalk right in front of his place he had set up a small folding table, on which plates of food were set out. I waved and said hi as I made my way to stop. “You’ve got to try this!” he called out to me. “Monkfish liver!” he exclaimed as he proudly pointed to one of the plates on the table. “Have you ever had it?” I confessed I hadn’t. “Well, it’s awfully hard to get, because fishermen usually keep it for themselves, but I found some this morning and, ah, you really have got to try some.” I hesitated but he was so excited I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm.
He had sautéed slices of the liver on a makeshift propane-gas burner at the back of his shop, where he had also fried medallions of tope shark and prepared the small bowls of olives and pickled hot peppers that were meant to accompany the fish.
The liver was surprisingly good, all buttery rich and tasting of the sea. Later I learned that monkfish liver is a prized delicacy not only among the fishermen in the Aegean but also on upscaleNew Yorkmenus. I wound up buying a small piece to sauté myself the next day.
Just cooking this stuff in his shop, much less serving it on the sidewalk probably violated a dozen provisions of the health code, and in a city like New York or Munich he would have been fined by mid-morning.
But he wasn’t selling anything. Maybe it was a smart business move in a kind of relationship-marketing loyalty-building way, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt like he just wanted to share his good luck. He was treating us. The neighborhood. This “middle ground of light and shadow”. I don’t know if he’s a promise of better days, a voice of resistance to the discourse of social implosion that is the daily fare served up by the more extreme parties and the boulevard press. I don’t even know how much he weighed the risks of taking on this business at a time when many in the neighborhood are turning to generic tuna as their fish of choice. Maybe he’s just a guy who loves what he does. In any event, I’m glad he’s here.
Yannis Kounellis’s untitled site-specific installation now at the Museum of Cycladic Art until September 30th is being presented as a response to the turbulent times in which the Greek people are living, a mordant commentary on the crisis that has befallen us. “The exhibition is not mournful,” Kounellis has said, “it is harsh.”
But it is difficult not to feel the sense of loss that imbues this powerful one-act (as the artist preferred to call his installations) tragedy. And there is no mistaking the presence of death. Death is the first thing you encounter as you enter the elegant Stathatos mansion which houses the exhibition, a grand townhouse which was first built for one of the oldest and wealthiest of Athens families and which in recent years has hosted exhibitions by contemporary artists such as Louise Bourgeois and the deste finalists.
Set in the entrance hall and exactly aligned with a virtual path that runs like the trajectory of an arrow from the outer staircase up through the museum’s doors and into the entrance hall, is a grave. Literally, it is a concentric ring of coal-filled burlap sacks that contain a mound of earth. On the top of this mound lies an uninscribed rectangular slab of marble, a toppled unmarked stele. The slab is set like a two-headed compass onto the mound, pointing at the same time to the city outside the building and to the continuation of the installation within and above.
The mound seems to recall in miniature the ancient tells of abandoned settlements that testify to the life and death of a city that no longer exists: the heaped debris of razed houses, collapsed walls and urban rubble, long since eroded and now covered in earth.
The plangent yet defiant dyad of loss and witness that is evoked by this anonymous tumulus forms the theme of a threnody whose variations are developed in the adjoining rooms on the ground floor. In one, the coal-filled sacks, again arranged in a circle, enclose a heap of plaster fragments, broken replicas of busts of ancient god (I think of them as variants of Apollo), lying half-wrapped in pieces of yesterday’s newspapers. You can make out a few words from the newsprint visible between the white shards: ‘foreign interest’, “opinions”, “complicity”. This is certainly not coincidental.
The heap of shards looks like a cargo of pottery fragments from an ancient shipwreck, the unhappy end of one of countless shiploads of cultural artifacts that crossed the Mediterranean in Antiquity. And the mound arguably plays on the association between trade and culture, indeed, the trade in culture, the commercial exploitation of s cultural legacy; after all, the pieces of statuary are circumscribed by coffee sacks—a symbol par excellence of commodity trading (some are emblazoned with a stencil that reads Côte d’Ivoire). But mostly the mound is a witness to what is no longer whole. Something has been lost, though we don’t know exactly it is. The sense that we control our destiny, the cultural identity we once fostered, the autonomy we once had?
Off to the side of the room stands a huge iron easel on which presumably an equally large canvas is set, though it is shrouded, as are the paintings in church on Good Friday. The shroud is made up of navy overcoats that have been stitched together with rough string. In a recent interview to Athens Voice before the exhibition opened Kounellis said that the only response to the terrifying is to howl, but what we have here is the silent cry of a masked painting, the untold stories of the nameless simple men who once wore these coats, the mute enigma of a crate of broken statues. If it is a howl, it is that of a nightmare, powerful but unvoiced.
The room off to the other side of the lobby also features a sack-enclosed mound, this one a pile of eyeglasses. There is something almost inconsolably sad about these glasses. Or horrifying, as they call to mind—or at least did for me—photographs taken at Auschwitz of piles of confiscated spectacles. On one wall hangs an inverted cross, at the base of which an oil lamp is set. It fills the space with the church-like scent of burning oil. Fragments from the Apollo replicas—a lock of hair, a nose, part of a jaw—have been affixed in a row along one of the other walls, held in place by a cruciform wire bracket. It is hard say whether the fragments in this via dolorosa of statuary serve as witnesses to a crime or votive offerings for salvation, but their presence reinforces the sacral (sacrificial?) aura of the space.
The last mound is set in the mansion’s atrium, a grand space lined on one side by panels of opalescent glass that are etched with delicate fronds and ribbons and set above a bank of pattern ferns. The mound is entirely shrouded in black cloth, as is the chandelier handing from the ceiling above. Kounellis talks of these mounds as “four dervishes dancing through the space [of the installation]”. But if so, they are prophets dancing under heavens clothed in blackness (Is 50:3).
The signs of absence are even more manifest on the second floor of the installation, where the focus of the narrative becomes more individual. In one room a row of black wool overcoats hang forlorn on butcher’s hooks on each of the walls. A large rock occupies the seat on a simple chair. A line of worn brogues and felt fedoras are displayed in an eerily illuminated case framed by drapes in the same mournful black cloth. Whoever had these shoes took care of them. Though the leather is worn in spots and the lining frayed, and even a shoelace goes missing here and there, they are not terribly scuffed. They are the Sunday shoes of men of limited means, cared for over a lifetime.
I can’t decide whether the assembly of shoes and hats is curatorial or commercial, an exhibition case for the belongings of the anonymously departed or funereal shop window. But regardless, the ghosts are there. Their presence is almost palpable. We see their traces everywhere and though the installation does not contain a single human image (Apollo is a god, and his shards don’t count), I’ve found myself conjuring up faces as I moved from room to room. The installation is haunted.
Kounellis, who began as a painter, once said that all painting is a ghost. I suppose by this he meant that painters incorporate and recapitulate techniques and achievements of earlier generations of artists and movements, even when they expand the boundaries of the art of their own age; every painting thus bears traces of—is haunted by—the paintings of the past. But one could say that this installation is haunted as much by Kounellis’s own past works as it is by the tradition (and predecessors of) arte povera.
The inventory of humble materials—the burlap coffee bags, the chunks of coal, the plaster replicas of an ancient god, the second-hand overcoats and hats and shoes, the empty bottles—have long featured in Kounellis’s work. They are somehow universal and timeless, simple basic things we mine or grow or weave or make, the work of laborers and farmers and artisans. Even the mound has figured in earlier installations, including the 1993 work on exhibit last year in the Polyglossia show at the Onassis Cultural Center. These elements form the particular iconic language of an artist who works more in the manner of a poet than that of the painter. They are, as Rudi Fuch notes—“the morphological fragments of a lexicon that substitutes the art of painting”.
Kounellis has recombined and redeployed these elements specifically for this site and for this time. I don’t know if, as the curator argues, this one-act play constitutes a response to our troubled times. But it certainly is a witness to the crisis. Or at least that is how I read it. Kounellis’s work is richly enigmatic and we will each tell a different story. It is in the nature of an installation such as this, something in its theatricality and sheer physicality (including the scent of burning lamp oil), that invites us to narrate. In her Sense and Non-sense of Revolt, Kristeva describes how contemporary art installations call on the spectator not merely to contemplate images but to commune with being. And we do this telling the story of what we sense and experience: “An installation invites us to tell our story, to participate, through it and our sensation, in a communion with being.”
A way of life we have known for decades has been irretrievably lost. It was not in some respects necessarily a good life, but it is the one to which we grew accustomed, and now it is gone, and nothing has come to take its place save for austerity and poverty. We’re stuck in a seemingly interminable Good Friday, and no one knows in what guise and at what time salvation will come. Most are prepared for worse times. Many economists agree. Political leadership, which trades on optimism, doesn’t, of course. Eighteen months ago the Minister of the Economy assured us 2012 would be a year of modest growth. Instead another contraction of the economy, the fifth in a row, awaits us. Granted, politics is the art of the possible, but most of us have little confidence in the ability of this leadership, or the one that will succeed it after the May elections, and much less the one in Europe that is dictating an increasingly catastrophic “save-till-you-die” austerity program, to bring us out of the crisis.
For Kounellis, however, the problem is not the economy but identity. He says we have lost our sense of who we are. It is broken, like the shattered cast of an ancient statue. Some would argue it was not the crisis that broke it but the cultural estrangement wrought in the hyper-materialist decades that preceded and precipitated the crisis.
Not everything has been lost, though. “They said the same thing after the war and then again after the civil war,” he says, “but the country survived.” Perhaps, as Cavafy wrote, the gods are not dead, though the statues may have been broken and the gods driven out of their temples. (I was reminded of the reference when reading Stefan Beyst’s engrossing essay “Jannis Kounellis: the Metamorphoses of Apollo” )
The last room on the second floor contains the only piece of white cloth in the entire installation. It is wrapped around a tall, broad stack of empty green glass bottles, enclosing in its cincture yet another black overcoat. But unlike the ones in the room of coats, this coat does not seem to point to absence. Maybe it’s the whiteness of the cloth that protectively girds it. Or the way the white canvas cloth resembles a sail. Yes, a sail.
It was the number that grabbed my attention as I was flipping through the pages of this week’s Athens Voice. 63. Political positions, that is. “Which of these 63 political positions do you think are positive?” the article by Stefanos Papanikos asked. And there they were, 63 one-sentence statements arranged in a passe-partout around an ad of a slightly bloodied, sword-wielding Rosemary Pike as Andromeda in the new Wrath of the Titans film.
I thought 63 was a peculiar number of items for a manifesto. Though not a prime, it also wasn’t one of those neat, certain numbers ending in five or zero, like Luther’s 95 or Badiou’s 15 (Theses on Contemporary Art). Nor was it one of these familiar grouping numbers like 12 (Principles of Agile Software Development). But I figured maybe it was a good sign—finally a political movement thinking out of the box. Maybe it was the platform of one of the new parties that spouted up after MPs in the major parties broke ranks (so many are popping up that pollsters find themselves obliged to add the name of the founder in parentheses so that respondents can tell them apart).
I was already excited by the time I had read the first ten.
Liberalization of 121 closed professions, creation of a comprehensive computerized land registry system for the whole country, review of the assets of at least 200 tax officials every year, internal auditors in all the public hospitals… Finally, a platform of common sense!
And then I read: creation of an online system for public-sector procurement, whistleblower protection, reduction of the pharmacies’ guaranteed profit margin by 15%… and the list went on. Imposition of mandatory deadlines for the hearing of court judgments, privatization of the energy sector and implementation of the renewable energy program, Helios. There were provisions to reduce the operating costs of public transportation and health services, including the use of generic substitutes for prescription drugs (only 18% of prescribed drugs in Greece are generics; in the US it’s 85%, in the UK 60%, in Germany 68%)
I had been thinking—for the first time in my life—of casting a blank ballot in the upcoming elections, mostly because I couldn’t find a political party that I believed had a comprehensive workable platform of reform that included difficult but, in my view, needed measures to rebuild the public sector and make it effective, accountable and efficient. And then here they were, 63 succinct theses of common sense (many, in fact, are ideas that have been talked about but not acted on for years).
Compulsory rotation of Directors of the Tax Offices after a specific period of tenure, abolishment of permanent tenure in the civil service, tax audits of freelance professionals and high-asset-individuals…
It was only as I got toward the very end that I began to sense that this platform wasn’t exactly what it seemed to be at first. The last two policy proposals were harsh medicine that no political movement could realistically espouse, even if the intention of these measures was to foster job creation: reduction of the minimum wage by 22%, and for new hires under the age of 25, by 32%.
Written upside down in a little green box at the end of the article was the statement that these 63 theses were taken from the Cooperation Pact (μνημόνιο or mnimonium, which isn’t really a legitimate transliteration but I like the allusion to pandemonium) that was negotiated with or perhaps imposed by the troika as the precondition for the approval of the second bailout package for the country.
Papanikos’s piece was a clever way to illustrate the irony of the anti-mnimonium fervor that informs so much of the public discourse on the crisis. It’s become almost an article of faith for most. Ordinary folk and politicians alike claim that the troika’s prescription was a mistake from the beginning and inexorably led to a vicious circle of recession that decreased state revenues and necessitated further and harsher austerity, which in turn deepened the recession and so on. There’s some truth to this but it’s also true that we didn’t take the medicine as prescribed, or rather, took just a small part of it. The cruelest part that was also the easiest to implement: across-the-board cuts in salaries and pensions and property tax hikes. Hostage to special interests and trade unions, mired in anachronistic machine politics, the first mnomonium government of PASOK resorted to measures that could be quickly implemented—the state signs the pension checks and property surcharges appeared on the electrical bill—while failing to address the thornier problems of structural reform. It’s a bit (though only a bit) like an obese patient with diabetes who takes his insulin but continues to stuff himself with carbs, fails to monitor his glucose, keeps drinking and spends his waking hours at a desk or on the couch. And then wonders why he has to up his insulin dosage.
The Pact has already been approved by Parliament, so in a way one could think of it as a platform for the entire country. But it’s only been adopted in principle, and its implementation can easily be sabotaged through legislative loopholes, ministerial directives that undermine or contradict the original provisions of the law, the unwillingness or incompetence of agency officials who must put the law into practice and the absence of infrastructure and technical personnel to support the task.
And reform will be sabotaged unless there is widespread popular support for change. It really is ironic. The lower- and middle-income wage workers, pensioners, small property owners, young freelancers just starting out in their profession—actually young people as a whole—ordinary people whose income and assets are there, all declared, for the state to see and tax, people who work hard and do a job that needs doing, they—we—continue to shoulder the cost of this debt crisis We should, in fact, be the most ardent supporters of this “political platform”, the pro-mnimonium majority, demanding that it be implemented in its entirety, that all pay their share and that the sacrifices we have already made and will need to make in the future will have some positive impact and not simply be consumed in the waste, graft and inefficiency of the current system. Reform is about change, but it is also about justice.
When I was living with E & J, we’d talk at breakfast about our dreams. Since we did it so often, we got good at remembering our dreams, and so we always had something to talk about, and it got to feeling ordinary in a way, a kind of “So, honey, how was your night?” kind of thing. I was also in therapy at the time, so I had even more incentive to remember my dreams, though I worried sometimes if talking beforehand with E & J would compromise the psychoanalytical benefit of the dream as therapeutic content, make it less raw and more rehearsed and hence censored. Of course, it didn’t really matter, but I didn’t know it then.
I wondered some times if this habit of talking about dreams, both at breakfast and in therapy, influenced in turn the way I dreamed, if there wasn’t some kind of strange feedback loop in which the dramatic retelling and interpretation of the dream made me dream more dramatically. And the more epic the dream, the greater significance I’d attach to it, which then made me dream even more dramatically, to the point where I was dreaming of swimming through strange stone cities (yes, I was more aquatic than avian in my greater flights—or, rather, glides—of fancy) and falling from a narrow mountain path to my death on a massive hieroglyphically inscribed stone disk.
I didn’t know about Hobson’s paradigm-bending theory of dreams back then, his proposition that dreams are the result of the forebrain trying to make sense out of the noisy input generated by relatively random signals in the brainstem. Maybe it’s good that I didn’t. It might have punched the magic out of therapy. And we would have had to start to actually read the Boston Globe that arrived at our doorsteps every morning.
But I like this idea of the brain working to create narrative out of chaos. I like the notion of this imperfect pattern-maker and storyteller who pieces together isolated feelings and events, interweaving memory, attributing motive, providing sequence, identifying cause and in the end generating as best as it can a text which, if not entirely coherent, can at least be ‘read’ and followed.
I think this act of transforming the intermittent and incongruent into a story is somewhat similar to what we do consciously whenever we recount our own history. We give this autobiography the illusion of linearity, if not fate, connecting (some of) the dots of the things we’ve done and the people we’ve met with the markers of time, result, concession and purpose. And then it gradually emerges! The outline of a recognizable I.
Granted, the firings are not entirely random. There’s already a deeper pattern inscribed in our choices that is not a matter of will. The landscape of possible outcomes is constrained by the geology of character, childhood and trauma. And each significant event in our lives increases or decreases the likelihood of another event happening later, including those that have already occurred. One can never truly revisit the forks in the road one has taken. But the act of interpretation is an integral part of how and why we talk about ourselves.
If that’s true, then talking about dreams must be a particularly hermeneutically dense meta-discourse. It’s a recounting—and hence an attempt to make sense—of a not wholly coherent synthesis of seemingly random events. An interpretation of an interpretation. And that’s just at breakfast.
But I have two problems with this activation-synthesis theory of dreams (researchers in the field, of course, have others, including William Domhoff and his “The Problems with Activation-Synthesis Theory”)
One is how to explain recurrent dreams, of which, to quote Job, there is no end. I ask myself, is it the same set of synapses misfiring or is my forebrain narrator stuck in a rut, repeating itself in stock characters and hackneyed plot lines? Am I really that pedestrian?
The other thing this can’t explain is the appearance of threatening or negative elements in dreams. I’m pursued by monsters and bitten by rabid ferrets. I run through a smoldering cemetery as a volcano erupts in the city. I die in a car wreck. I miss examinations, show up in public naked, wind up in jail. Admittedly it doesn’t happen a lot. More often it’s my house: the roof is torn away, walls leak, strange plants devour the balcony, and drug dealers take up residency on the terrace. I wonder if my narrator is a pessimist, a writer of darkness as my friend Natalie would say, and then think what that says of me, although I don’t think of myself as a particularly morbid person, even if I do have my moments.
A few of these dreams themes repeat themselves, as in the case of the toxic ex-lover who moves back into my house to commandeer my space and life. Not always in the same way, but the basic scenario is the same.
It makes me wonder what exactly is twitching that needs to be translated into narrative, that asks for a face and a storyline. The well-trodden pathway of accumulated if unexpressed anger, perhaps?
This motif of recurrent toxic dreams seems an apt metaphor for what is happening to us inGreece. Or happening to me. The country seems to be dreaming the same thing, again and again: a bleak future of failed reform (if even attempted), deeper recession, and harsher austerity. Dreams in which the same mistakes are made, again and again. The firing impulses of the need to reform is interpreted in the same old narrative and quieted in the accommodation to special interests.
It’s sad and infuriating. Two years after the issue was first broached of opening up the trucking and taxi cartels, legislation is being presented to Parliament. The Minister of Infrastructure has chipped away at the initial draft to delay the liberalization of the trucking industry (which makes it more expensive to ship goods from the north to the south of Greece than it does to ship them across the Adriatic Sea) and to ensure that taxi drivers will have first dibs on the licenses for the new leased mini-vans. The recently appointed Minister of Education is blocking—for the sake of the politically connected interest group of university rectors—the implementation of legislation recently passed that would for the first time introduce assessment of public universities. It’s as if our political leaders’ sense of what is possible–apart from the vicious across-the-board salary and pension cuts and tax hikes (for those who actually pay taxes)–is an only half-disguised attempt to do what we’ve always done. The sense of a future that it’s just a blurred copy of a corrupt past. Plus ça change.
I live in a city shrouded in a Colossus of anxiety rising from the recurring dreams of ordinary women and men who worry that they will lose their jobs or who have already lost them and are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet and feed their families, the hundreds of thousands of people in the private sector who, with the new measures contained in the cooperation pact with the troika, will lose 25% of their salaries in the year ahead.
Ok, it’s not all bleak. There are some voices of reason in the chaos. Isolated and faint, but they’re there. New ideas. Grass-root initiatives like Δημιουργία Ξανά (“A Fresh Start”) that seem to be genuinely committed to reform.
Despite charges from psychoanalysts of reductionist determinism, Hobson didn’t see any inherent contradiction between his activation-synthesis theory and creativity. On the contrary, he maintained that dreaming could be a source of innovative ideas:
Dreaming may be our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas. While many or even most of these ideas may be nonsensical, if even a few of its fanciful products are truly useful, our dream time will not have been wasted
One hopes it will be for us, too.
No one explained to me when I was growing up that we were a family of very modest circumstances. Even if they had, I wouldn’t have understood. I never felt the absence of things. There was always food on the table, even if at times they were warmed up leftovers. As the eldest of three boys, I was bought new clothes now and then. My brothers were less lucky, though the start of school and sometimes Easter meant new clothes for them, too. We lived in a working-class neighborhood in the city. In the morning the air was redolent with the aroma of roasted coffee from the Maxwell House factory by the river; in the afternoons I’d come back home to the smells of sofrito and kielbasa. But I spent summers at my grandfather’s country house by the sea.
Oh, I knew that there were better streets in the city than the one we lived on, but I knew there were worse ones, too.
A disinterested observer would have pointed out that my brothers and I slept on a pair of sofa-beds in the living room. That the clothes were bought on sale from discount houses. That my mother was a fanatical coupon clipper, dinner was sometimes Taylor Ham-and-egg sandwiches, and my father, whom I rarely saw during the week because he so often worked late nights, drove a boxy embarrassment of a car.
The car was the only clue I had that we didn’t have much money. A red Rambler that always seemed to be dirty, however many Saturdays we spent washing and waxing it. Our car always stood out when we’d gather at my grandfather’s farm for some holiday. My uncles drove big shiny black cars that glided silently over the road, Chryslers and Cadillacs, with leather seats and electric windows. But then again, my father himself, a wiry fair-haired man whose mother spoke German, stood out among my mother’s lumbering Italian-Americans brothers, and our quirky car all seemed to me to be part of the package of who my father was.
I was happy growing up. We never lacked for toys, though looking back I can see that they were all inexpensive. Things like yoyos and tops and colored gimp we’d plait into bracelets. Occasionally something special like coloring sets or models of birds and monsters and knights in armor, though they were bought by my grand-uncle or grandfather and not my father. At Christmas we’d find things boards games like “Chutes and Ladders” and “Candyland” under the tree, and the Elgo red-brick-and-white-trim sets with which I would design and build suburban split-levels and ranch houses, the kind of house my father used to talk of taking us to one day.
There were treats as well, more often than not one of the dozens of ingenious ways that manufacturers had devised to deliver doses of sugar to kids: we slurped syrupy liquid from tubes of wax and picked off beads of pastel-colored sugar candies from a roll of paper. We sucked on straws filled with fruit-flavored sugar and clicked on dispensers that would disgorge a pill-sized sugared brick. I didn’t have music lessons or French, but I did have candy. We were fairly close to poor, but I never felt it.
I was telling this to a friend of mine who’s been laid off from his job. His wife still works and they’ve got some savings, but they’ve downsized, cutting expenses wherever they can. Kosmas is worried most about the kids. About the things they can no longer have. “But kids don’t really need that much,” I said. “A feeling they’re loved and safe and special. Regular times to eat. Hugs and kisses. But you know all this already,” I said.
“It’s different with my kids,” he said. “They’ve grown up having things, and now they’ll have to make do with less. A lot less. You and I didn’t have any standard of comparison. We grew up poor. But they didn’t. They have a standard, and it’s ‘now and then.’ And they’re not going to be happy with the ‘now’ .”
That made me think of something that the novelist Petros Markaris said about how Greeks once had a culture of poverty that helped them live well despite privation—and by well he didn’t mean materially. This culture of poverty has nothing to do with the now widely discredited theory first made popular by Oscar Lewis in his study of slum dwellers in Mexico City, the idea that the poor—“aliens in their own country”— have a distinct subculture marked by feelings of powerlessness, dependency and personal unworthiness. Markaris was talking instead of a set of values, including the importance of living in solidarity with others in community, which enabled Greeks for centuries to live, as philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin would say, poetically—literally so, when you think this is a country where ordinary people, even those who couldn’t read, would know the works of poets like in the songs they sang. It was a culture marked with the ability to celebrate the small things in everyday life and the resourcefulness to do it well with limited means.
This culture was subsumed, though not lost entirely, in the frenetic hyper-consumerism made possible by the inflow of cheap EU money. It was a sham prosperity, created by an economy fueled by personal consumption, construction, loans and a ever burgeoning public sector that generated jobs that served no productive purpose—a country where the public TV channels had twice as many as all the private channels taken together, a country where, as Stefanos Manos notes, the state-run Olympic Airlines was losing €1 million a day while the private Aegean Airlines was earning as profit of €100,000 a day.
It was a sham, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. Kosmas bought 60€ rugby shirts for his kid who’d outgrow them in a year. It felt real enough, this prosperity, though there were voices that tried to warn us that this perverse ‘model’ of development was unsustainable. Perhaps we had an inkling that things were not all right when we saw banks outdoing themselves in offering eortodaneia and diakopodaneia (the notorious “holiday loans” and “vacation loans”). We laughed, but perhaps there was the slightest undertone of concern in our laughter. Or maybe not. It’s hard to remember now what exactly it felt like then. Back then before the loss.
The signs of loss are everywhere to be seen, and most tragically in the recent unemployment statistics that speak of 20% unemployed. Everyone knows it’s higher; the numbers don’t include my friends Luiza and Marios and Leandros, freelance graphics artist, music teacher and translator respectively, whose commissions have all but dried up, or those, like Menios, who never had a legal job and so isn’t on the unemployment rolls.
I see this loss, too, in the neglect and abandonment that seems to be claiming ever greater swathes of the city. One usually thinks of “depressed neighborhoods” in economic terms, but it really is more than that. The psychological symptoms of apathy and self-neglect, the aching emptiness and evacuation of joy are just as present. It doesn’t happen all at once but there is a point when the encroaching sadness is impossible to ignore: the fungus of tag graffiti that soon covers every imaginable building surface, the proliferation of for-rent signs in the lobbies of apartment buildings, the permanent state of disrepair into which more and more buildings fall–the equivalent in concrete to the depressive’s disinclination to shave or change his underwear.
One sees this loss in the closed up shops in my (working-class) neighborhood in Athens. First to go was the pet shop and one of the butchers, then a hairdresser and the tailor’s shop and the hole-in-the-wall that serviced PCs, and then two florists in the space of three months. Luxury items in a crisis, you’d say, not surprising they were forced to close. But then the corner supermarket closed and then the dry cleaner’s. We still have three pharmacies in the space of four blocks; the profession, with an obscenely high state-guaranteed profit margin and protective legislation regarding operating hours, is still “closed” to real competition. I wasn’t sad to see the supermarket close. It was a dirty shop with grossly overpriced goods that exploited its singularity for a quick profit. The prices didn’t seem to matter back then, before. At some point they began to matter, though.
In his visually arresting series of photographs of “The New Economy” Panayotis Ioannidis has delivered a moving and eloquent narrative of this loss and abandonment. His photographs of empty shop windows, with their flotsam of dashed dreams—a mascot doll from the Athens Olympics, a lone table soccer figure lying alone on a shelf like a discarded mummy of a discredited sect, burlap-wrapped crates, a scrap of a “Made in Greece” poster that stands like a memento mori on a bed of crumbled wrapping paper in a display window—each in its own way bears witness to the ruins of an impossible economy. There always seem to be something missing in these works: the casing for an electrical box, the seats in an open-air theater now given over to weeds and rust, a chunk of a decaying balcony, the nameplates next to the buzzers on a business building (the last in an intriguing Rothko-like composition in which the repeating vertical blocks of the absent nameplates is recapitulated in a graffito to the right).
Nowhere is this abandonment, however, more strikingly emblematic of the crisis than in his photographs of empty billboards. Billboards were once ubiquitous in the city, not only on empty lots along the expressways, but also on the roofs of apartment buildings along thoroughfares in the downtown area. Legislation against streetside advertising in the city curtailed the use of these billboards as advertising surfaces, but that almost seems irrelevant. Even without legislation, the budgets are no longer there to use them. In one shot, the uncovered grids of a pair of billboards sit like awkward crowns of folly on the roofs of dilapidated low-rise houses. The foreground of the photograph is dominated by a futuristic three-headed streetlight (financed no doubt in part by EU money) that rises up like an alien probe, an anemometer whose readings were taken but not disclosed. The empty billboards have become literally a sign of the crisis; like an empty picture frame in a gallery or on a living room end-table, they are sad witnesses to theft or loss, heralds, now struck dumb, of a culture of wealth to which we were unaccustomed.
This is perhaps not a story of the crisis. But it may be one for the crisis.
The crazy old woman who lives across the street from me has gone missing. Lena, who lives above her, and Daniel, who lives below, swear the woman was coerced or duped into selling her apartment and is now living as a virtual prisoner in a shack in the hills of Athens. I believe them. They spent the last two weeks looking for her.
I hadn’t noticed she was gone. Now that it’s winter I don’t spend time on the terrace and the double-glazed portafinestre insulate me from the sounds of the city, including the foul-mouthed orations the old woman would deliver from her balcony. Besides, I had gotten so used to her chaotic rant of political commentary and pareunolalia that I didn’t much attention to it when I did hear it, even though she delivered it in a surprisingly loud voice for an otherwise frail woman. Her declamations were just subsumed within the white noise of the city, the basso ostinato of cars rumbling down the streets, horns honking, kids playing in the street.
It was only when the city hadn’t yet roused itself or was deserted, only in the village-like peace that settled over the city on Sunday mornings and August afternoons, that I was obliged to pay attention to her. Then I would hear her the way I did when I first moved here. It was horrifying. It wasn’t just the shock of hearing an old woman bellow in the language of the docks or bordellos. In any event her profanity was merely a condiment and not the main stuff of her muddled tirades, which mostly had to do with an assortment of whore-mongering, traitorous politicians. No, it was more the experience of witnessing a mind gone awry, the brain awash in the wrong mix of neurotransmitters and hormones, synapses short-circuited, ganglia run amok.
And more: it was the sadness of seeing a life gone to waste. If you listened carefully you would notice clues to her former life: the occasional well-pronounced French phrase, the spattering of katharevousa, a reference to a poet, the name of an elegant café. They were the signs of another life, one punctuated with parties and lovers, with books and music and travel, a life that must have met with tragedy, though no clue could be found in her ravings to the chain of events had led her from this life to one which she spent reviling Prime Ministers from a narrow balcony in a distressed city neighborhood.
Her apartment was diagonally across from mine and a floor lower. I could only see a small part of the inside of her apartment from my veranda, her kitchen, I think. She had covered every surface with sheets of newspaper. I could sometimes see her moving about in the room, a short, thin woman with long unruly ash-grey hair, dressed in a housecoat that was her daily attire. She would come out of the room onto the balcony, shuffling in very small deliberate steps as if weighted by shackles or bound to some unseen ramp, deliver her declamation and then return to her apartment. Her appearances reminded me of the figurines in the Prague Astronomical Clock, but it wasn’t Death or Vanity or Usury that twirled but the Indignation of a mad minor prophet.
Or could she have been a peculiar character from a fairy tale, the old woman in a shoe, say, though she didn’t seem to have any children, or if she did, no daughter or son ever came to visit her. I wondered how she managed to take care of things like paying bills and buying groceries. I never saw her on the street. Yannis and Lena are around during the day much more than I am, and they used to see her occasionally in the bakery or supermarket, but in the weeks leading up to her disappearance she apparently didn’t even venture the three blocks to the market. She must have been living exclusively on small cartons of juice and pre-packaged croissants she bought from the kiosk right outside her building. Had she been afraid to distance herself any further?
Her ranting used to bother me, especially in the first years of living in the neighborhood. She disturbed the temple-like calm of the perfectly minimalist space M and I had turned our 1930’s apartment into. She was the aural equivalent of a neighborhood eyesore, I thought. At first I couldn’t understand why the neighbors hadn’t done something, why they hadn’t called the police—there must be a law, I thought, about noise harassment, perhaps nothing as draconian and impossibly detailed as the Lärmschutzverordnung you’d find in a German city but something at least that prohibited people from regularly screaming and cursing on their balconies. Why didn’t they get in touch with her family and have her treated or committed or in any event just taken out of the neighborhood (a thought I’m now quite ashamed of)? I couldn’t see how they could just put up with it. Of course, it turned out that some did more that just endure the woman; one would buy her a sweater for Christmas, another would bring her back olive oil or country sausages from the village.
At some point M moved out and a problem with shoddy insulation work on the roof led to rainwater dripping from a corner in my ceiling, and a crazy old woman who shouted from her balcony didn’t seem all that important anymore.
Lena was the first to discover that Nana was gone. “I was coming into the building,” she explained later, “and I noticed someone dragging an old mattress down the stairs—he obviously didn’t live here—and I thought, who would do that?” Lena, works from home as a translator and knows everyone in the building and their comings and goings, which I suppose would include their plans for beds old and new. “I ran through the apartments one by one in my head and then I got to Nana and I realized I hadn’t heard her for a couple of days.”
She waited for the man to return to the building and followed him up the stairs as he proceeded, as she had suspected, to the old woman’s apartment, where she confronted him, demanding to know where Nana was. I don’t know how Lena got him to talk but the man eventually admitted he was clearing out the apartment for its new owner. But there was no reason in heaven Nana would sell the apartment—that much Lena was sure of. She pressed further until he gave her an address. Or rather the name a dirt road he said was at the edge of a suburb in the hills of Ymittos, one of the overnight boom towns of the 80s and 90s that flared up like a concrete rash on the bare mountainsides to the east and west of the city. “I was only there once so I don’t remember it all that well,” the man said. “The road just ends in a bunch of small houses right before the woods start. He lives in one of them. With a porch, I think. Maybe it was white.”
Lena recruited Yannis and then Nikos, who lives in my building, to help look for Nana. “I must be the crazy one,” Yannis said when Lena first told him what she wanted to do. “Looking for a woman who for three years or however long I’ve been here never let me sleep in on a Sunday morning.” But he did go look for her.
They spent two weeks shuttling back and forth to this enclave of poverty in the hills of Athens and talked to enough people there to eventually find the house of the old man who bought Nana’s apartment. He wouldn’t talk, of course, but some of his neighbors did and Lena and the guys would eventually learn three things: Nana had been in love with the man after they had met many, many years ago while working in some state agency. The house had been bought in the name of someone else. And no one could or would say where Nana was staying now.
Taken together, these three facts made for a very sinister story. Lena swore that Nana was probably being held a prisoner in one of the shacks in the woods. Nikos thought it might be worse. “Now with the crisis, you never know. People have been killed for less than the price of an apartment.” In any event they thought there was enough to go to the police, which they did, but wound up getting shuffled from one precinct to another, the duty officers of each station invariably claiming it wasn’t their jurisdiction. They finally landed at the headquarters of the financial crimes unit, where the officer who took their statement told them, “Well you seem awfully interested in this woman and her apartment. Now why would that be? What are you after?”
Since there was no relative to make a complaint, the only way to get the police interested was to collect signatures from concerned neighbors. Which is where we are now. But we’re not confident that Nana will be found.
In his prescient essay, Pour une pensée du Sud, philosopher Edgar Morin makes a distinction between what he calls the two faces of humanism. There is the Cartesian 0ne in which humanity is a force that seeks to dominate and control Nature. It is a humanity governed by “the logic of efficacy and predictability, a logic calculated, measured and ever more highly specialized.” And then there is the other face of humanism, “the one which recognizes the value and dignity of all human beings, whoever and wherever they may be,” a humanism marked by solidarity and the logic of “better not more”. It is this other humanism, a Southern humanism with roots in Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance that Morin says we must not only embrace but also champion.
Lena and Yannis and Nikos, who spent weeks looking for the old woman, battling an indifferent if not hostile bureaucracy and who are now gathering signatures to start an inquiry; the mother of the artist who lives in a ground floor studio across the street who used to bring Nana a gift of spoon sweets or (new) items of clothing whenever she visited her son; the neighbors who would greet the old woman from the street below as she wished them a good day (she had her moments of lucidity)—all these people exhibited in their relations with this crazy old woman precisely this other, universalist humanism. While certainly not a characteristic of Greeks only, much less of all Greeks for that matter, it is a way of being that most here would immediately recognize as their own.
The discourse of the crisis has often focused on our failings. We learn ever more details of the scandalous waste and vested interests of an almost criminally ineffective and bloated public sector. We are reminded again and again—rightly so, I think—of the need to reform the state mechanism, to excise corruption, to ensure that the privileged who haven’t shared in the burden of righting this country now pay their share. We are made profoundly and infuriatingly aware of the extent of graft, the utter lack of accountability and fear of taking initiative which is so endemic to the public sector and which Lena and her friends experienced at the series of police stations they were passed off on. We read ever more stories of the pervasiveness of tax evasion, of dermatologists with offices in the highest rent districts of city who declare less income than a primary school teacher. We are reminded of our own collusion in this miasma of interlocking net of self-interest, our willingness to pass along an envelope of cash to the surgeon in the public hospital, our reluctance to ask for a receipt from the plumber who services our solar heater and the tutor who gives math lessons to our children. We are reminded of our responsibility in perpetuating a system of clientelism, special interests and opportunism that was in large part responsible for the current crisis.
Yes, we need to hear this, particularly given our tendency to accord blame everywhere and at everyone—corrupt politicians, inept political leadership, thieving businessmen, foreign corporations, big banks, the troika and, most recently,Germany—except ourselves.
Yes, we could benefit from a heightened sense of duty toward the public good, a stronger recognition that society, together with the laws that regulate it, is not something imposed from without or above but something that we create and benefit from (which is not to say that a particular society is in itself necessarily just or that we all contribute equally to shaping it).
But we also need to hear other voices, ones that bear witness to the values of a culture that endures despite the gross consumerism fueled by the false prosperity of the last decades. Voices that tell unassuming stories of solidarity and caring, stories of a profound humanism that remains at the core of Greek culture.
In the end, the logic of the North is blind to realities of the South, which it considers backward, archaic, indolent. The Northern way of thinking was made to deal with technical, practical, quantifiable problems of organization, in other words, with the prose of life. But human life is more than prose. Prose is what we do out of obligation or constraint… Prose enables us to survive. But to live means to live poetically, that is, in communion, in love, in self-realization, in joy—at the verge of ecstasy… As prose has come to invade ever more of our lives, is it not the mission of Southern thought to help us recall the essential character of the poetry of living?
We need the prose. But we also need to recall the poetry.
[This post also appears on Greece, Voices Within]
In the autumn of 1930 Edvard Munch executed a series of very unusual drawings and watercolors. All have one thing in common: a stain. In some cases, it is a ring of brightly colored concentric circles or a treelike fleck, but in many instances it takes the form of a large dark bird. It seems to be commanding a space that doesn’t belong to it. A threatening interloper with the power to change things: “[I see] the bird move before me,” Munch wrote. “It gives off illuminating rays of blue, which turn into green and then into a brilliant golden ring, and as it changes position, anything it touches with its colors begins to move—thick snakes in the most extraordinary colors begin to slither about on the chaise longue and coil up together.”
In one work, the bird appears in the midst of a green globe, in another it has occupied the torso of a seated nude. In yet another it has spread out its wings below a self-portrait of the artist. It is everywhere to be seen. Yet it is, in fact, nowhere. This threatening eagle-like creature is only the artist’s depiction of an optical illusion, and indeed, one whose source came from within the eye itself. In the summer of 1930 Munch suffered a haemorrhage which damaged blood vessels in his right eye. This series of paintings and drawings was Munch’s attempt to document the effect of the damage to his eye and his recovery (in the later works in the series the flecks become increasingly fainter).
Those who have had a thorough eye exam and experience their field of vision suddenly overlaid with a Martian surface of blood-red canals—the images of the blood vessels in their own eye—will have experienced a similar kind of “seeing”. Unlike ordinary optical illusions such as duck-or-rabbit figures, Penrose stairs or spinning barberpoles, illusions that can be shared with others because, they, too, can see them, the entoptic phenomena of Munch’s bird or our own blood vessels cannot be viewed by anyone else. They are truly of our own making. The bird was never there but we kept seeing it nonetheless.
I’ve been thinking about Munch’s birds, even though some of them look more like crows than the broad-winged eagle on the German coat-of-arms, because of the conspiratorial discourse I’ve been encountering in both the media and among friends and acquaintances about a putative German strategy to pillage the country. Journalists, commentators, politicians, even colleagues at work—they all keep seeing Germans, and the Germans they see are very scary. One blogger writes of the “take-no- prisoners attitude of the Frankfurt-Berlin axis with respect to Greece” that is at core of a German-led “policy of humiliation of the Greeks”. Another writes that “recession is a deliberate strategic choice that Germany has made to impose its hegemony throughout Europe… what we have here isn’t a “German mistake” but a conscious decision of the gravest significance.”
Stathis Stavropoulos, a staff cartoonist for the now defunct daily Eleftherotypia, depicted the Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos giving the Hitlergrüß to a soldier. He said his cartoons illustrate the German onslaught: “… what Germany did not manage with weapons during WWII, it is now trying to do through economic means.”
One particularly graphic example of this anti-German sentiment was the viral “news” item that circulated in Greek blogs in early February regarding the putative arrival at a military airport outside Athens of a contingent of German policemen; their mission: to help control the upcoming demonstrations in Athens against the government’s austerity program.
There are countless other examples. These may not be the most widely read or commented, but they’re representative of the sentiment of a significant portion of the population, if I judge from the comments I hear on the street and at work, and from what I read in the papers and discern in the results of recent polls of Greek public opinion.
Most of these conspiracy theories defy rudimentary common sense. Say you’re a powerful export-driven economy with a state-of-the-art infrastructure, highly skilled and disciplined labor force and an exceptionally efficient public sector that invests heavily in education and technology. You produce high-quality goods that markets all over the world want. Why would you want to leverage your economic and political might to deliberately ruin an economy in a peripheral market and depress consumption so that nobody there can buy the products that thousands of companies in your country manufacture, even if you can buy up—at rock-bottom prices—a slew of that country’s assets, all of which, however, are saddled with low productivity and antiquated infrastructure and encumbered by an impenetrably complex and growth-defeating bureaucracy?
But in a sense it doesn’t matter whether the conspiracy makes sense. We desperately need to explain what is happening to us, the tragedy that has befallen the country, the relentless recession and growing poverty that threatens an increasingly greater part of the population (though not all—those who have always managed to evade their taxes continue to do so). It is easier to conjure up a Teutonic ogre than to recognize our own responsibility for the crisis that is upon us. But like the sinister watermark of Munch’s birds, what we see on the surface of our everyday life, this spectre of German hegemony, is in fact a projection of our own pathology.
That is not to say that the ultimatums to Greece that in large part have been dictated by Germany (yes, I do recognize the central role that Berlin has in the shaping of European Union and European Central Bank policy) have not created more problems than they were intended to solve. On the contrary, they have focussed too much on austerity measures and provided little in the way of development initiatives. But though misguided, even wrong, even if often guided by internal electoral concerns, these measures are not part of a satanic plan to colonize Greece. We rightly bemoan the short-sighted across-the-board wage and pension cuts for the lowest earners, but are often quiet on the other demands of our European paymasters: the structural reforms intended to free up the economy, help us become more competitive internationally and generate development. Like the President of Greece, many Greeks were incensed at German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s “insulting remarks” about Greece. But what the man actually said was “who can be sure that Greece will make good on what we have now agreed on” („Wer stellt denn sicher, dass Griechenland zu dem steht, was wir jetzt mit Griechenland vereinbaren“). For the Finance Minister of another state to make this comment was perhaps a breach of protocol but it was certainly something very much on the minds of millions of Greeks themselves. Two and a half years have gone by since the issue of the “closed professions” in Greece was raised—and most of these more than one hundred professions are still “closed”. And there is no indication that the myriads of lawyers, physicians, glaziers, architects, plumbers, contractors, musicians, club owners, roofers, locksmiths and engineers are now paying their fair share of taxes. The monstrously wasteful Greek public sector is still as bloated as it was two and a half years ago.
This German conspiracy theory is dangerous. Not because of the impact it has in exacerbating relations between the peoples of the two countries. Not because anti-German sentiment in Greece prompted the Greek Minister of Culture to voice concerns about the effect it has had in reduced bookings of German tourists to the country.
No, it’s dangerous because this discourse deflects from our own collective responsibility for the crisis that is upon us but even more from our responsibility to set it right. Every minister, every MP, every political commentator is an advocate of “development”—as if just wishing it to happen will make it come true. The word has become an incantation, an “open Sesame” that promises to lead us as if by magic to a promised land of debt-free prosperity. But the very politicians clamoring for development are the ones whose parties (and often they themselves) have served the vested interests that have throttled initiatives for reform in this country for the last God knows how many years.
George Baselitz also painted birds. He began painting his in the early 1970s, and specifically eagles. The naïve observer, however, would not immediately identify the figure in the powerful gestural paintings of this period (in contrast to the ones that figure in the artist’s recent works). There are no identifying features to the dark core of paint that dominates the pale gray or blue background, no beak or talons. Particularly in the Adler of 1977, the observer might think it is an abstract painting, an explosion of an inky mass that has sent fragments of black or indigo hurling across space. Only very slowly do the shards begin to resemble feathers, and then one realizes that the painting is inverted, and as one cocks one’s head the eagle finally assumes its definitive shape.
Like our own role in the crisis–or at least our consent as the crime was being committed–the bird was always there. Even if we couldn’t see it.
My friend Adrianne has started a group blog called Greece, Voices Inside. She started it in order to provide a forum for us who are witnesses to this crisis, a way, in her words,
… to voice some of what has been happening in Athens from the point of view of those of us who are here, to communicate the conversations “from the streets and kitchens” as a friend put it, to talk about what is not always in the news, or what many feel is “just part of the story”.
She tagged the blog ‘beauty in chaos’ and invited me to post.
I’m not sure there is beauty in chaos itself. Or if there is, it is a horrific one that can only be discerned if you are not living in the midst of it. There is no beauty in the schizophrenic’s hallucinations and disintegration of thought. I witnessed this once and the fear I saw in this man’s eyes is something I will never forget.
Perhaps what my friend meant is that we must look for beauty—and the other things that make life worth living, the company of friends and the embrace of lovers—as we struggle to deal with the ever-present crisis that envelops us. And among the most beautiful of things we can find are the acts that express our deepest humanity, the care we extend to the people we love but perhaps even more to those whom we don’t know.
We need to be reminded of this, I suppose, because in the midst of crisis we may overlook beauty. It’s certainly easier to find the enemy. Many in Greece claim to have found him or, better, them. And not surprisingly, it’s not always the same enemy, and the enemy today is not the same enemy we pointed to at the start of the crisis.
I’m not sure I understand exactly what she meant by chaos. The crisis in Greece is not the chaos of utter disorder. The tragic irony is that this crisis has emerged from an arrangement of specific and identifiable forces acting in very predictable, if highly corrosive ways and almost wholly on the basis of their own group interests. The malaise of the Greek economy was created and in many instances is still being maintained by a very particular and perverse order, a system of massive inflows and outflows of money, favors and influence orchestrated by a densely interconnected and self-regulating nexus of labor unions, professional lobbies, political parties, and state suppliers and contractors.
Nor is it the chaos of state failure. Public services, never efficient in the first place, have been stressed. It may take over a month to get an appointment with a cardiologist, but you will be seen. Petty crime has increased and there are now areas of the city where most Greeks wouldn’t walk alone at night (and that is new), but there is none of the lawlessness of truly failed states. According to a survey conducted recently by the Institute of Small Enterprises, three out of four Greeks with a monthly income of less than €1000 have cut back on the amount of money they spend on food. The lines at the soup kitchens have grown longer. But the country is not (yet) being ravaged by hunger.
No, it is not chaos but rather an ever accelerating process of decay, first visible on the fraying margins of society, in the abandonment one senses in the newly emerging ghettos of the central city but then increasingly deeper within the connective tissue of Greek society. The decay can be read along any one of what used to be thriving business thoroughfares of the central city—Patission and Aiolou and even the once grand Stadiou—but now speak more of flight than commerce: many of the shops have closed, and the only life to be seen on the block are the immigrant peddlers who have set up their makeshift stands of cheap shoes and handbags along the sidewalk. The stores still doing business barricade their storefronts when closing for the day (and on days of protest rallies, during the day as well), as if awaiting the onslaught of an invisible enemy. A city besieged. A decade ago, Stournara Street was half jokingly referred to as Athens Silicon Valley: six blocks of shops selling personal computers, peripherals, DVDs, mobile phones and books on programming. Three out of every five these stores along the street have since closed. For a while it became a hangout for the junkies who had been (finally) chased from their previous Needle Park alongside the National Archaeological Museum and who have since been dispersed (many have now gravitated a half kilometer eastwards to the National Library). The street is symbolic not only of the effects of the crisis but also of at least a part of its cause. I used to wonder how so many shops could survive but they did booming business in the years before the crisis. But very little of the merchandise sold on Stournara was actually produced in Greece. Stournara is a street that, like so many others in Athens, could survive only in an economy on a wild spending spree, an economy fueled by private consumption (much higher than in most other European countries), construction and borrowed public money.
The old order is gone and will not come back. The frightening thing is that we don’t know what will replace it. It is not at all certain that even with the enactment of legislation for structural reform that things will be turned around. Laws may be drafted along the guidelines of our economically more progressive Northern European paymasters but they will be implemented by the very people whose behavior the laws are meant to change. And the Leviathan of the Greek public sector has remarkable and deeply entrenched defense mechanisms. The Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini reported (2.26.12)—and this after the austerity measures for the second aid package were approved—that while the central tax offices may be suffering from a shortage of personnel, 40% of newly hired taxation employees will start work at offices that are either not operational or will soon be abolished.
Even if there is political will for reform—and I’m not at all sure that there is—the Greek state apparatus and control mechanisms are not now up to the task of implementing reform. The State loses a staggering €15 billion through tax evasion each year. According to a report prepared by the EU Commission’s Directorate General for Taxation and Customs Union and cited in WirtschaftsWoche three-quarters of self-employed professionals such as doctors, engineers, notaries and lawyers declare income lower than what the tax authorities have determined as the minimum subsistence level. But the State cannot even fully collect the taxes on declared income; the Ministry of Finance reported in June 2011 tax arrears of €41 billion. The same EU report noted that the Greek state has claims of €63 billion in back taxes from the firms and individuals with the highest amount of arrears.
Taxation is only part of the picture. Transparency International’s annual survey of corruption in Greece reported that bribery cost the country €632 million in 2010. One in ten Greeks report having to paying a bribe for a service, largely in the public sector. Almost one out of every three Greeks who used the public health system reported paying a bribe.
The cost of corruption and tax evasion is exacerbated by the massive cost of inefficiencies, if not blatant waste, that is the legacy of concessions made to a slew of special interest groups—from taxi drivers and truckers to lawyers and pharmacists.
No new trucking licenses have been issued for four decades, although the volume of goods transported within the country tripled. Licenses became a highly prized asset, traded within the industry, passed on to family members or sold on the black market up to as much as €300,000. As the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE) reports, this monopoly meant that it cost more to truck something from Athens to Thiva than from Athens to Rome. This was supposed to change but two years have been wasted and we’re still awaiting liberalization.
The privileges enjoyed by closed professions (especially the trucking industry) include an array of minimum prices and mandatory profit margins. Pharmacies were guaranteed a 35% mark-up, part of the reason why total expenses for pharmaceuticals in Greece for 2009 were twice the level of those in Belgium, which has roughly the same population. Protectionist measures were rife. Until quite recently, cruise ships were required to employ a high percentage of Greek as crew if they wished to start or end their voyage in Greece. No wonder that many operators bypassed Greece in favor of Turkey, Malta, Italy and other Mediterranean bases. These dysfunctionalities, together with the anti-entrepreneurial disincentives and convoluted bureaucracy of the public sector strangle competition, increase the cost of Greek goods and services and block investment and growth. The IOBE study estimates that opening up these professions would generate an increase in GDP of €35 billion in five years. Greek GDP would rise by 1% just by liberalizing the trucking industry.
The shockingly harsh austerity program that the Greek government was forced to move through Parliament in exchange for EU approval of the second €130 billion bailout package for Greece included cuts in the minimum wage and pensions. On their own, these cuts are almost certain to exacerbate the recession. Many Greeks attribute the savagery of these measures to a German-led plan to bleed the country dry and depress the value of state assets slated for privatization so that Germans firms can then come in and pick up prime properties for a pittance. These conspiracy plots are not only the stuff of tabloids and reactionary nationalist discourse. I have heard such stories even from ordinarily rationalist colleagues of mine (none of whom actually read the text of the bill that passed the Parliament, which also included a number of far-reaching structural reforms in addition to the wage cuts).
We have found a new enemy, and it is Germany. It’s not just the rabidly anti-German sentiment of the nationalist right-wing (or left-wing, for that matter) factions. It’s not just the odd protestor burning a German flag at a demonstration (I can’t remember the last time I saw a flag burn at an Athens demonstration). A survey released just last week indicated that eight out of ten Greeks are negatively disposed or hostile to Germany.
Three fourths believe that Germany is increasingly hostile toward Greece. When asked, “what feelings do you have when you think about Germany, 41% replied “Anger/frustration/rage”. Only 1.5% had generally positive feelings. A slight majority (51%) of Greek respondents also believe that German economic strength is attributable in large extent to the lack of transparency in its firms’ business dealings outside the country and not to competitiveness of its economy and productivity of its labor force, the quality of its manufactured goods, its exceptional infrastructure or work ethic.
Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. As Richard Hofstadter noted in his essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics the enemy we think we see if often a projection of what we most dislike in ourselves and what we most desire to become, a projection of the ideal and the objectionable. It is revealing that Greeks would attribute German industrial and export success to precisely one of the factors that has been endemic to the failure of Greek competitiveness: corruption. (Just for the record, Transparency International’s Bribe Payers Index for 2011—a measure of the likelihood of companies from 28 major economies to win contracts abroad through bribery—ranks German firms as among the least likely to use bribery to gain business, in 4th place after the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium).
Conspiracy theories, as Roger Cohen once said, are “the ultimate refuge of the powerless”. It is much easier to reduce complex and often mutually contradictory economic processes to a single plan engineered by some personification of malicious intent— a cadre of greedy MPs or Angela Merkel—than to accept one’s own responsibility for the crisis at hand. I remember the Indignants who were camping out in Syntagma Square during the early days of the crisis. They would gather in front of the Parliament building when it was in session, focusing the green beams from their laser pointers on the windows of the MP’s offices, calling for the incarceration of the corrupt politicians who had lived well from the graft and kickbacks of the last two decades. I have no doubt that many were, if not corrupt, then ethically lax with regard to the benefits of influence peddling. But it was ironic how the Indignants had distanced themselves from the machine politics they were decrying. How many of them, I thought, were part of the very system, how many had found their way into a sinecure in the public sector, how many had greased the machine of the Planning Commission or local Tax Office to get a matter of their through faster or without too much scrutiny, how many had performed services without a receipt or handed the local doctor an envelope with cash. And how many had voted for these men (and most of them are men) and the parties they served although all knew how mired these politicians were in graft and clientilist politics?
The conspiratorial discourse of Greek commentary on the increasingly salient “German question” is, for me at least, disturbing. The Germans are out to “punish” Greeks for their profligacy. Merkel and Schauble want to “reduce Greece to its knees” and pave the way for German acquisition of Greek public utilities. Some have even detected nefarious motive in the willingness of the 160 experts from German taxation authorities who have volunteered to assist the Greek authorities in devising ways to more effectively collect taxes. I find it disturbing not because of the admittedly disagreeable undertones of nationalistic sentiment and the careless and uncritical thinking this discourse reveals but more because it perpetuates our unwillingness to look at our own culpability for the morass in which we are mired.
Of course I know that the motives of German political leadership are dictated primarily by the longer term interests of its constituents, including its banks, and short term electoral politics. But these interests are better served by a prosperous Greece than a perpetually insolvent one.
It is easy to blame the Germans or the troika or even a hundred corrupt politicians. But it doesn’t help.
I read an unsettling, insightful article on the Greek crisis in the German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, written by the Greek crime novelist, Petros Markaris. Entitled In Athen gehen die Lichter aus (The Lights Are Going Out in Athens) the article appeared on December 1, 2011 in issue 49. For me the text depicted the social and economic malaise of the country in such a striking way that I wanted to share it with my friends. I couldn’t find an English translation of the piece, so I translated it myself. This is not an authorized translation, but Mr. Markaris was kind enough not to object to my uploading it on the blog. I forgot to ask him if the title was meant to recall the remark Sir Edward Grey was said to have made on the eve of the First World War: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time”. In any event the wartime tenor of the reference certainly seems to fit.
Petros Markaris’ “The Lights Are Going Out in Athens”, translated from the German:
Alongside Parliament, with its seven political parties, we have another, parallel system in Greece, one with four parties: the four blocs into which our society has splintered in the wake of 18 months of financial crisis. The continued worsening of the crisis and the struggle for everyday survival has not brought these groups closer. On the contrary, they have become more and more estranged from one another. Coalitions are being formed between these factions but trench warfare has set in as well.
First, there’s the “Profiteers’ Party”. It comprises the businesses that benefited from the patronage system of the last thirty years, in particular construction firms. They had their heyday in the run up to the Olympic Games of 2004, when the State lavished them with lucrative construction contracts.
But the members of the Profiteers’ Party also include the businesses that supply state agencies with goods, for example, firms that provide medical equipment and pharmaceutical supplies to public hospitals. Greeks are only now beginning to understand the extent to which money was squandered. Until recently the hospitals themselves were responsible for the purchase of pharmaceutical supplies and medical equipment. The Ministry of Health has now centralized the purchase of pharmaceuticals online; given previous expenditures, it made 9,937,480€ available. It now turns out that the drugs cost only 616,505€, or just 6.2% of the previous amount!
Without the new austerity measures it would have been business as usual. It was these profiteers, the construction firms and procurement agents, who cultivated a smoothly functioning alliance with the political party and ministers who were in power at any particular time. Everyone in the state apparatus knew about these interlocking interests and the costs they had for the general public, but no one said anything. Not only because the parties pocketed massive donations but also because the corrupt business sectors financed the MPs’ election campaigns and secured well-paying jobs for members of their families.
One could also call the Profiteers’ Party the “Tax Dodgers’ Party”, because they all—still—evade taxes, most notably self-employed, well-paid professionals such as doctors and lawyers. When a Greek walks in the doctor’s office, the physician tells him, “The visit costs 80€, but if you want a receipt, it will cost 110€.” Most patients thus do without the receipt and save 30€. Good relations with the respective ruling party means that state agencies tolerate the system and quietly look the other way.
The bloc of destitute citizens, on the other hand, keeps growing. Many cannot even scrape together the money to pay their share of the cost of their prescriptions. So what do they do? They turn to the aid organization “Doctors of the World”, which dispenses certain medicines for free. The two clinics that “Doctors of the World” maintain in Athens were actually intended for destitute immigrants who paddle over from Africa in dinghies. Now a growing number of Greeks are asking for help. On some days there are up to a thousand people standing in line at the “Doctors of the World”, including diabetics who can no longer afford their insulin.
The misery of the immigrants has spread to the Greeks. Six months ago, when I opened my balcony door and looked down on the street, I would see refugees picking through the garbage bins to find something to eat. In the past few weeks there are more and more Greeks as well. They don’t want their hardship to show, so they make their rounds of the dumpsters in the early morning hours, when only a handful of people are on the streets.
The Profiteers and Tax Dodgers have no such cares, of course. They have hardly felt the crisis. Even before the crisis broke out they had transferred their money to bank accounts abroad. In the last 18 months roughly six billion Euros have been lost to Greek banks while banks abroad, in particular Swiss banks, are rubbing their hands with glee.
It is also the Profiteers who, in perfect understanding with the left-wing parties in Parliament, are advocating for a return to the drachma. They are betting that their wealth will increase several fold and they’ll be able to quietly go about buying up a sizable number of state assets. Quite aside from the question of Euro or drachma, the Greek state is obliged to privatize a considerable part of its property.
The third fateful coalition is the one between the Greek government and the farmers, who are also members of the Profiteers’ Party. Ever since Greece joined the European Economic Community (ECC) in 1981 every government has bewailed the lot of the “poor Greek farmers” who deserved a better life. The farmers have long secured for themselves this better life thanks to the agricultural subsidies of the European Union.
The subsidies were indiscriminately and haphazardly given out to the farmers, without any care taken to ensure that the grants in any way corresponded to actual production. Farmers buried their produce, declared false figures and collected the money. On top of that, the Greek Agricultural Bank gave them generous loans that have still not been paid back. The farmers’ friends in the ruling parties nonetheless could not be pressured into acting. They needed the agricultural vote. The Greek Agricultural Bank is now bankrupt, but the farmers drive around the villages in their Cherokee Jeeps.
The second of the four parties which Greece has come to comprise could be called the “Party of the Righteous”. I prefer calling them the “Martyrs’ Party”. This is the party of the owners of small- and middle-sized enterprises and the people who work for them, and freelancers such as taxi drivers and repairmen. They disprove the image many Europeans have of easygoing Greeks who shy away from work. Although the Martyrs’ Party is the largest of the extra-parliamentary blocs, it is too weak to forge coalitions, which is why it is exploited from all sides. The Martyrs have been the hardest hit by the crisis, hence the name.
The hardest blow for the small- and medium-sized enterprises has been the recession. One is met with the bleak sight of empty shops all over Athens, even in the more upscale shopping districts such as Patission Street. Patission, as the Athenians call it, is the oldest of the three long streets that run through the center of Athens and a boulevard of the middle class. I know the street very well, since I live nearby. Patission was always dimly lit, but that didn’t matter, because the shop windows shone so brightly. In these days the street is pitch dark; every second shop has closed down. The few shops that have survived eke out a living with special sales.
Aiolou Street in the city center, a traditional lower-income shopping street, looks even more desolate. There are still some shops open but they’re empty. No customers. Aiolou Streethas become a pedestrian walkway without pedestrians. “How much longer can I hold out?” asks the owner of a small shop for men’s clothing where I’ve bought a pair of socks. “Days go by before a single customer wanders in.” At the same time you think twice before entering a shop because once you’re in, the owner or a shop-clerk will besiege you with how bad things are. The woman with the men’s clothing shop couldn’t hold out: as I was walking along Aiolou Street yesterday, I noticed that her shop, too, had closed.
A friend of my sister’s works in a small construction business that builds single-family homes. The owner has let off the entire personnel, except for her. Who builds a house these days, when there are houses everywhere for sale that no one buys? My sister’s friend hasn’t been paid for seven months but still she’s lucky. She still has a job.
The worst part for the members of the Martyrs’ Party is despondency. They’ve lost all hope. For them, the crisis holds no perspective for a better future. When you talk with them you get the feeling that they’re just waiting for the end. When a broad part of the population can no longer summon up any confidence in the future, life becomes very depressing. Many apartment buildings in which lower- and middle-income people live no longer turn on the heat. The families don’t have money for the heating oil, or they prefer to save it for something else.
I rarely drive. I have a taxi driver who takes me to the airport and picks me up from the airport. His name is Thodoros. He’s unmarried and lives alone. “What do you think of Lucas Papademos?“ he asked me last week when he picked me up from the airport. I told him I thought Papademos was the right choice to lead the government, because he’s a smart, decent person who is highly respected in both Greece and the European Union. “Yeah well, he’s not going to be bringing me any fares,” my driver answered in resignation. “That would be expecting a bit too much, no”? I replied. “Look,” Thodoros said, “I pay 350€ a week to rent this cab. I work seven days a week, and it’s sometimes not enough even for the rent. Whether Papademos is Prime Minister or somebody else is, my business is shot all the same.”
Greeks used to take taxis a lot because they’re so cheap. You can get to practically anywhere in downtown Athens for 3.20€. A longer ride doesn’t cost more than 6€. Half a year ago you would have waited in vain for an empty taxi at lunchtime. Now everywhere you see long lines of taxis waiting for a fare, not just at midday but in the evenings and on weekends, too.
But things get worse. The recession is not the only source of the Martyrs’ distress. Though their business has gone to ruin, they’ve had to pay up three times: first with the income tax, then with another extra tax on income and finally with a solidarity surtax. Next year they’ll have to pay the solidarity surtax twice. The value added tax was raised twice in the past year.
While tax evaders pay very little if any of these surtaxes and solidarity contributions, simply because they don’t file an income tax return or when they do, conceal the larger part of their income, honest citizens are being squeezed dry.
Private-sector employees and the unemployed also belong to the Martyrs. There are only a few employees left whose salaries or wages are regularly paid. Most get their money in small instalments, with a delay of several months. They live in great need and in even greater fear that their employer may close down at any moment.
Since consumption no longer fuels growth and loans have dried up, many small businesses are going under. They disappear, leaving behind their debts. My brother-in-law, a wholesaler for children’s clothing, sadly told me he encountered three such cases in the last week alone. He is in despair.
You see long lines of the unemployed waiting at the Unemployment Office for their monthly payment order with which the Bank will remit their unemployment benefits. But they can’t be sure the payment will be made at the beginning of the month. Sometimes they need to wait longer for their 416.50€. The number of the unemployed is increasing day by day, and the Labor Ministry is running out of money.
Because the state apparatus, above all the tax authorities, has collapsed, someone in the Finance Ministry came up with the brilliant idea to collect taxes through the electricity bills. If you fail to pay your taxes, your electricity is turned off. I’ve seen pictures on Greek television of old persons standing in line at the cashier’s desk of the public electricity company to pay the first installment of the tax. I wanted to cry. “The first installment is 250€”, a man in his 60s told the camera. “My pension is 400€ a month. How am I supposed to live out the rest of the month with the 150€ that’s left?” It made me think back to the 60s when I came to Greece. I was met with one of the strangest sights you can imagine: one-story houses in middle-class or working-class neighborhoods with concrete roofs sprouting iron rods. The rods looked ugly but they were a kind of promise: the dream of a second story. The dream of a place on the upper floor for the son or daughter to live. These poor folk had stinted and saved for this all their life. Now they are being made to pay up. In its sham prosperity, a bankrupt political system with its vile system of patronage has destroyed the dignity of ordinary people.
Yet another party is the “Moloch Party”. It recruits its members from the Greek bureaucracy and state enterprises. The party falls into two blocs. The first group is made up of civil servants and officials who work in public agencies and state enterprises. The second are the trade unionists. The Party of the Moloch is the extra-parliamentary arm of every ruling party and the guarantor of the clientele system, because the great majority of its members are party members and party officials.
The system has long history, reaching back to the 1950s, the time after the civil war, when the Nationalists, the victors of the civil war, staffed the entire state apparatus with fellow combatants and adherents of the cause—a reward for their loyalty to nationalist ideals.
Then in 1981, shortly afterGreece’s entry into the EEC, the socialist PASOK party assumed power for the first time, the party that was to raise this practice to a principle. At first the arguments sounded halfway reasonable and found broad acceptance in the population. PASOK argued that after so many years of right-wing dominance the state bureaucracy was hostile to liberal forces, and PASOK could not govern without placing their own people in key positions in the state administration. Except that they didn’t stop at the key positions. Soon the entire state apparatus was in the hands of PASOK party members and their cliques. One of every two party members was rewarded with a position in the public sector.
Every government since has tied itself to these interest groups, right into the first months of the crisis. There was always enough money thanks to subsidies from the European Common Union and later from the EU. When there wasn’t enough money, the holes were plugged with loans. But most of the party members in the public sector never did any work or did only the absolute minimum. A friend of mind, who has a job as an engineer in a state agency, had this to relate: a year ago a new colleague arrived in her department. On his very first day he said to them, “Colleagues, I’m sorry but I’ve forgotten everything I learned at university.” From that day on he never worked a single day, and none of his superiors ever did a thing about it.
But the Party of Moloch is split. One part would be more at home in the Martyrs’ Party: the civil servants who weren’t channeled into the public sector via the party but had to take a test to get the job. They are the only public employees who work hard; they sometimes even do the jobs of two or three other colleagues, because they’ve been saddled with the work of party members. They are victims of the system. The other part of the Moloch Party cultivates an old-boy’s network not only with the ruling party but also with the Profiteers’ Party. This large three-party coalition has ruled and tyrannized the country for thirty years.
The widespread plague of tax evasion that has ruined the state’s finances would not have been possible with the collusion of the Tax Offices. Corrupt officials, however, were generously rewarded for their readiness to collaborate with tax evaders.
Public sector workers bewail the fact that their salaries have been cut by about 30%. But this hasn’t affected everyone in the same way. The victims of the system have indeed lost a third of their real income. But the Profiteers’ coalition partners receive an income on the side that isn’t reported. They make up for what they lose on their official income from their undeclared income.
Trade unionists form a sub-group within the Moloch Party. I often read in German newspapers about general strikes and demonstrations in Greece. When I’m on a book tour in Germany, everyone asks me: why do the Greeks go out on strike so often?
The only general strike that Greece experienced in recent years took place a few weeks ago, when Parliament was passing the new austerity package. In the demonstrations that followed—there are no strikes in Greece without demonstrations, even the tiniest strike doesn’t come off without some kind of rally—more than 140,000 people gathered in front of the Parliament building in Syntagma Square. It was the largest demonstration in years. Even the shopkeepers closed their stores, not because they were afraid of rioting—which often happens—but because they went out on strike as well.
None of the strikes in the past were general strikes; the trade unions just called them that. They were strikes of the over-privileged employees in the public sector. Private-sector employees went to work, as they do every day.
The truth is that the Greek trade unions have no influence over private-sector workers. Their power in the public sector, however, is almost absolute. They can call and enforce a strike whenever they want to. They mobilize about 10,000 demonstrators on average, all of them public-sector employees.
The power of the trade unions has its own history. Andreas Papandreou, the founder of PASOK and its first Prime Minister, ruled the country like a monarch. But like every monarch, he, too, needed a “nobility” to stabilize his power. There were the court nobles, Cabinet members and party bosses who were in close contact with the monarch. Then came the city nobles: the trade unionists and party functionaries in the state bureaucracy and state enterprises. The rural nobles were composed of the officials who dispensed the European Union’s subsidies to the farmers.
All the democratic institutions more or less functioned, but it took just a word from the monarch and a noble could fall into disfavor and lose his position. Conversely, the monarch’s favor endowed the party official or trade unionist with absolute power.
The coalition with the party apparatus greatly enhanced the power of the unions in the public sector. This power is linked to numerous privileges. Nothing happens in the state enterprises without the consent of the unions. Managers in these enterprises don’t dare oppose the unionists. They are afraid of getting into trouble with the relevant ministers and the party apparatus. When conflict breaks out between the union and the management, the minister often steps in and management winds up with the short end of the stick.
The strikes in public agencies and state enterprises, and the demonstrations that are sometimes held on a weekly basis, like the famous Leipzig Monday Demonstrations, are just a last desperate attempt to preserve their privileges or at least save what can be saved.
The Martyrs’ Party bears the consequences. When there’s a demonstration, the center of Athens is often closed off to traffic and the shops close up in fear of rioting. When mass transit workers strike, which happens all the time, the downtown area is empty. Businesses lose the few customers that still can buy something. When the busses and trains are on strike, people must bike or walk to get to work, which can often take an hour or two. But they can’t afford to stay at home; the Martyrs are afraid of losing their jobs.
If you understand how one side is looking out for its own interests at the expense of the other, you can see how little solidarity there is in Greek society. It is the weak who are paying the price of the unions’ battle with the government and its austerity measures.
The fourth and last party in Greek society is the one I’m most worried about: the “Party of the Hopeless”, the young Greeks who sit at their computers all day, desperately searching the Internet for a job—somewhere in the world. They’re not guest-workers like their grandparents, who left Macedonia and Thrace in the 60s and moved to Germany in search of a job. These young people have a college degree, some even a Ph.D. But they head straight from the studies into the ranks of the unemployed.
I was born in Istanbul and grew up in Athens, where I’ve been living for many years. With my daughter it’s the other way around. She is a native Athenian and now lives in Istanbul. You might call it the repatriation of the second generation. And my daughter isn’t the only one. A stream of young people migrated to Istanbul last year. They show up at the Ecumenical Patriarchate looking for a job and help in finding a place to live. Youth unemployment has overcome our age-old animosity toward Turkey.
Whether it’s recession or the austerity packages, a haircut or reforms, the crisis will claim at the best the fate of two generations, in a worse case scenario, three generations. Young people are the ones who have lost the most today. We are the ones who will have lost the most tomorrow, because the most dynamic forces in our country will be gone.
The only ones who still come to Greece are people who are even worse off than we are. I buy my newspapers every day at the same corner kiosk. The owner is Albanian. “Just look,” he said to me the day before yesterday when I was picking up my paper. He pointed to an African man not far from us who was poking around in a dumpster. “They should send them all back.”
“Haven’t you forgotten that the Greeks used to call you a filthy Albanian twenty years ago?” I asked him angrily. “Yeah, but that’s over now. My kids go to Greek schools, they speak fluent Greek, you can’t tell them apart any more from the Greek kids,” he said. “Many of us have become Greek citizens. But now I have a problem. Do I emigrate to Albania as a Greek or an Albanian?”
“You want to go back?”
“Well, the kiosk is going alright but it’s not enough for two families. My son is married and without a job. His wife is Greek and she doesn’t want to go to Albania. So I’ll go back with my life and leave the kiosk to my son. If I go back as an Albanian my friends will laugh at me. Because I wanted a better life in Greece ans now I’m coming back flat broke. In their eyes I’m a loser. But if I go back as a Greek, they won’t make fun of me. They’ll say, “You Greeks always looked down on us. We had to wait months for a Greek visa and were treated like crap. And now you’re looking for work in poor Albania.” The kiosk owner isn’t the only one who wants to go back to Albania. Many Albanian families have already left Greece.
In the school parade on October 28th the students of a middle school in Athens showed up up wearing a black bandana tied around their neck. You need to know that October 28th is a national holiday in Greece. It commemorates the Greek victory over the Italian fascists when Mussolini’s forces invaded Greece in 1940.
There was an outcry when the incident with the black bandanas became known. “An affront to the national holiday,” journalists wrote. but the alleged perpetrators were just school kids from Agios Panteleimon, one of the most run down neighborhoods in the city of Athens. Agios Panteleimon has one of the highest jobless rates in Attika.
To get their high school diploma, students in Greece take classes at a so-called prep school, otherwise they have no chance of getting into a university. This is also true for the kids in the middle school in Agios Panteleimon. But many of them have parents who are without a job and can no longer pay the prep school fees. “We didn’t want to cause trouble at the parade. We just wanted to show our protest against the future that’s waiting for us,” said one of the students who were involved.
But there’s the other side of the coin. I was sitting one evening last week in my publisher’s café as a woman in her 40s approached and asked if she could sit down with me. She wanted to talk with me about my crime novel, Expiring Loans, which is also about the Greek people straining under the weight of the financial crisis. At the end my visitor told me “I teach in a middle school in one of the northern suburbs of Athens. Every day I reproach myself for how badly we’ve raised these children.”
“What do you mean,” I asked her.
“I watch these kids every day during the break. They only things they talk about are cars and Armani jeans and Gucci t-shirts. They have no idea of the crisis and what’s awaiting them. They come to school pampered by their parents and then we spoil them more.”
Two schools, two kinds of people – this is Greece. One lives in the poorer neighborhoods, the other in the affluent ones. You see how different these young people are already. The parents in the wealthy suburbs give their children a car when they manage to graduate high school. They can’t bear the thought of their offspring taking the bus to university as normal students do.
A journalist who was at a state unemployment office gathering material for a story was talking to a young man. “Swear you won’t use my name,” he said to her. “My mother doesn’t know I’m here and out of work.”
I was waiting at a bus stop earlier this week. An elderly man pointed to the now-familiar line of taxis. “No one takes taxis any more,” he said. “And there are fewer traffic jams these days. People just drive their cars less, because gas costs too much.”
“ Yes, these are hard times,” I answered.
“You think?” he replied. “I grew up in the 40s, a time of great poverty. You know, I went to school barefoot because I had only I one pair of shoes and couldn’t wear them out.”
Quite true, but the post-1981 generation grew up not in a time of true poverty but in a time of false prosperity, and they panic when they think about giving it up. They know as little about poverty as they do about the desert. The young people of today are the children of a generation that was shaped by the so-called Polytechnic uprising in November 1973, when students went on a protest strike against the military dictatorship that was then bloodily suppressed.
The Polytechnic generation has destroyed this country. They wanted to build a new Greece with the jargon of the left and failed. The ones with any integrity have withdrawn to take care of themselves. The others have gone into politics or gotten themselves a lucrative job doing business in the patronage system or landed a well-paying position in the state bureaucracy.
In the beginning of the 80s this leftist jargon was crucial if you wanted to get into politics under the banner of PASOK or land a position in the state bureaucracy. Anyone without a good grasp of the jargon was part of the old, reactionary system. In the meantime some of these people have become filthy rich. But they still use the same leftist jargon. But it’s become a masquerade.
They were yesterday’s winners. Their children are among today’s losers. And tomorrow the fathers will come to feel their children’s wrath.