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.
Image: Yannis Kounellis, Untitled