Street fighting before Parliament Building in Syntagma

Fault Lines

The closer you get to the main square in downtown Athens, the one across from the Parliament Building and the National Garden, the more marble you see. Grand neo-Classical buildings of exquisite harmony and restrained ornamentation, clad in the whitest of marble stand next to the less aesthetically successful but perhaps more imposing luxury hotels, with their broad hem of marble staircases. Even the entrances to the Metro are ringed by marble railings with finely wrought newel posts and finials that sit like a row of brilliant white chessboard bishops. It’s as if the square and its environs had been overlaid with a mad icing of stone. But there’s something not right about this confection. The railings seem to have been gnawed at, leaving a vine of sad, jagged thorns. The edges of the hotel steps have been chipped at and the marble slabs on  the façade of banks and luxury shops stripped off.

These are the wounds left by recent clashes between a small band of self-styled anarchists wielding pickaxes and sporting gasmasks and the riot police. The street fights took place during the two days in June 2011 when Parliament was deliberating on the new austerity package that was required to secure the next tranche of loans from the troika of the EU, the European Bank and the IMF. The vandals used the pickaxes to chip off pieces of marble to use as projectiles to hurl at the police, and the gasmasks to hide their identity and filter out the teargas that the police used, arguably in disproportionally excessive measure, to disperse them. Municipal cleaning crews cleared away 20 tons of marble from the square.

The rioters smashed in not only the plate-glass windows of the banks and shops along the square but also the glass sidings of the bus shelters. I could understand the bank, but the bus shelter? Clearly the people who will be standing at the stop pelted by the rain come October won’t be the privileged elite or even the middle class but workers, the elderly, the unemployed, immigrants. It made me think of an autistic child bent on hurting itself. Though probably none of the vandals ever take the bus. I imagine they get around on motorcycles.

Shop owners replaced their shattered plate-glass windows, but it will be a long time before the bus shelters will be repaired. In a country whose state coffers are empty and whose municipalities are one step from bankruptcy, in a country in the second year of a deep recession and a massive public debt to finance, the serrated remains of the balustrades will remain an emblem of senseless violence.

The rioters were no more than a 100 or so and the vast majority of Greeks condemned their actions, though perhaps not as stridently as they voiced their criticism of the police. Unfortunately, the foreign press was not always careful to note that the Marmornacht in Syntagma Square was the work of a handful of extremists, and in no way representative of the behavior, convictions or intentions of the vast majority of the Greek people, nor indeed of their anger.

But that said, the rampage was in my view somehow indicative of a broader societal autism, one of the depressingly large number of instances of self-injury inflicted on the body politic by its own citizens.

Not paying taxes, for example. Many of those who can, meaning non-salaried, freelance professionals and workers who are not taxed at the source—doctors, carpenters, plumbers, lawyers, architects, notary publics, housepainters and taxi drivers—evade taxes. The easiest way was not to issue receipts for the services they provided (that is, until last year, when the state recognizing its own inability to clamp down on tax evasion, obliged the ordinary citizen to take up the role of the tax collector by making the tax deductible he receives dependent on the collection of an equal amount of value in receipts). Not everyone, of course, cheats on taxes, and not on all the amount. But still 7 out of 10 freelancers wind up not paying taxes at all, and the black-market economy is estimated at 30% of GNP. The average net income declared by lawyers in 2006 was only €14,588; doctors did somewhat better at €26,700 (even allowing for high office overhead that’s about 1 ½ patients a day per doctor). But if you ask taxi drivers (who pay on average less than €800 per person in annual taxes) or doctors who’s to blame for the massive public debt and abysmal state of the Greek economy, they’ll probably tell you it’s the bloated, inefficient, ineffective, bribery-ridden public sector.

Certainly, the inefficiency of the state sector is legendary, and the maverick politician Stefanos Manos has recorded some of the most outrageous on his website . It would be less expensive to send every one of the state railways’ passengers to their destination by private taxi than to continue running the trains, largely because of its swollen payrolls. When Olympic Airlines was a state-held company, it was losing €1 million a day, while the private Aegean was making €100,000. The three state television channels have twice as many employees as all the private channels put together.

Not surprisingly, the culture of protectionism within the manifold tiny fiefdoms of privilege that make up the massive sclerotic bureaucracy of the Greek state has been extended to the private sector in the form of what is known as ‘closed professions’. Accommodating itself to pressures from a myriad of special interests, the state erected a bulwark of legislation that protected an astonishing array of occupations from competition. The laws, which are only now slowly being dismantled, limited the number of persons who have access to the occupation, set geographical limits in which a person could exercise the profession, established minimum guaranteed prices, and even regulated the minimum distance between professionals. Beekeepers, midwives, longshoremen, locksmiths, pharmacists, pawnbrokers, taxi drivers, gunsmiths—more than 100 categories of jobs and services were turned into the modern-day equivalent of the guilds. The European Commission estimates the cost of the closed guilds at €1000 per year for each Greek household.

But if you ask the one of the tens of thousands of protesters who throng the city streets during general strikes who is to blame for massive public debt, they’re likely to point to the Parliament building and say, “the politicians and their kickbacks.”

They are right, of course, to be angry at politicians, not only for orchestrating and perpetuating a political system rife with graft, payoffs and corruption, but also and more importantly for failing to lead. For conspiring with us in the worst kind of machine politics in which votes were traded for a job in the public sector, a taxi license, or a quick path to a building permit that otherwise shouldn’t have been granted. For encouraging us to believe that we could live beyond our means in an economy whose growth in the last 20 years was largely primed by consumption and easy loans. But we wanted to believe. And we voted for them, time and again, and it didn’t matter if, like the shifting fortunes of the factions at the chariot races in Byzantium, the colors of the party in power changed from green to blue and back to green.

It’s always someone else’s fault. One of the most popular and salient slogans voiced by the angry masses of demonstrators who have seen their wages shorn and taxes hiked has been den plirono, den hrostao, den poulao. “I’m not paying, I don’t owe anything, I’m not selling.” But we are, and we do, and we will have to.

Who created this pubic debt if not us? Every time we failed to declare a part of our income or cajoled a local MP into mediating for a son or daughter to get a state job that didn’t need to be done, every time we told the plumber we didn’t a receipt (because it was cheaper for us that way), whenever we slipped an envelope of cash into a surgeon’s hand or built an illegal extension to our house, whenever we voted for the MPs who could best protect the interests of our guild, we put our names to a contract of collective responsibility that mortgaged the future of the country for the benefit of our own short-sightedness and self-interest.

We didn’t take a pickaxe to the marble posts of the Metro railings. We were chipping away at something far more important.


Image: The Greek Parliament Building. Photo by Efthymios Gourgouris, by permission


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