On the social conditions in Greece, now

In preparation for a radio interview on ABC Radio National, I was asked the following questions on the situation on the ground in Greece. Thought I should share my answers with you. Will keep you posted re. the actual interview.

With the bailout have come deep austerity measures that have led to a depressed economy and a depressed population. What’s been the economic impact?

Devastating. The difference between a recession and a depression is, primarily, that in the former it is the average company and household that experience a contraction whereas in the latter everyone does. In this sense, a recession has some redemptive effects in that, while most sectors suffer, some firms and lines of business do well eventually acting as the locomotive that pulls the whole train out of the mire. But in a depression there are no silver linings. Even profitable companies go under because, for instance, the Greek banks’ guarantees are not acceptable overseas, the result being that Greek manufacturers cannot import raw materials on credit – which, in turn, means that their capacity to produce is severely constrained and cannot supply consumers even if profitable and even if they have a full order book. So, the combination of failed banking, wholesale retrenchment in the private sector, savage cutbacks in the public sector, ridiculous new taxes imposed on the exhausted band of dependable taxpayers (who are a minority in view of the tax immunity of the upper class) – all this conspires to create a long Winter of Discontent. One that has lasted for three years and counting.

These austerity measures are also having a massive social impact, we’re reading stories about old people raiding rubbish bins for food and families not being able to pay their phone and utility bills. What’s life like for you in Athens?

Heart wrenching. A society that took pride in its rise from the hardship and poverty of the 1940s and 1950s, which had caused the economic migration waves of that era, is now sinking with incredible speed into a black hole. Worse still, the direction of change being what it is, it leaves no room for hope. At least back in the grim days of the Second World War and even the misanthropic Civil War, there was hope. Hope that things cannot get much worse and that when the war is over, as wars eventually are, Recovery would follow. But now, this is a sinister, a silent ‘war’, which can drag on potentially ad infinitum. The hopelessness occasioned by this prospect turbo-charges the economic hardship and gives an opening to all sorts of evil forces.

What are people saying, how much are they hurting?

Indignity, rage, resignation, determination, depression, exemplary solidarity, menacing misanthropy, racism, selflessness, pain, elation when they hear a good piece of music – this is the mélange of contradictory sentiments that are constantly and chaotically in the air. What is certain is that you cannot meet anyone, on the street, in a bar, in a reception, at work, without going straight into a conversation about our Predicament.

There was a report in the London Telegraph about the sick not able to buy medicine, because Greek hospitals and social insurance funds are not paying their bills. What’s happening to the health system?

As you might expect, an imploding social economy cannot but bring down with it its health service system. Pension and health funds have run out of money long ago. Their unpaid bills to pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies causes the latter to stop importing a large variety of medicines (since they lack the cash to do it), and demanding up front cash from patients before they order their medicine from the pharmaceutical companies – in full knowledge that the patients may never get their money back from their fund. Add to this the severe reductions in the size of pensions and wages, plus the rampant unemployment, and you get the picture…

According to an article in The Guardian, Greece is facing a humanitarian crisis with over 10pc living in extreme material deprivation? Is that the case?

If anything this is an under-estimate. The humanitarian crisis is proliferating fast and catches up with hitherto middle class people. We have homeless families who until a few short months ago had a home and whose members had some kind of job. Now they have fallen through society’s cracks, perhaps irreversibly.

Is Athens on the brink of social breakdown, or is that a leap too far?

That the social fabric has been damaged seriously there is no doubt. But things can get worse. Families are still sticking together and civility has not disappeared. People manage to find innovative ways to respond to the depression, e.g. falling back on a soothing musical tradition (that, after all, was the product of poverty), on cheap but wholesome ways of entertainment, of acts of inconspicuous solidarity and even renewal. But if this depression continues in the absence of hope, a social breakdown is on the cards.

What do you know about the rise of right-wing Neo-Nazi groups. What impact are they having? What can you tell us about the Golden Dawn Party?

The Golden Dawn Party is not an extreme right wing party. It is not even a neo-Nazi party. It is a fully-fledged Nazi gang. And here lies the great paradox: Greece, along with Yugoslavia, out up the most dogged, bloody, successful resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War, giving the Nazis a serious run for the money, so to speak. The bulk of the population rose up against them with great acts of valour that inspired the Allies at a time when Nazism was almost unopposed in Europe. Yet, there were collaborators – as there always are. Hooded men that went around the towns and the villages with the SS and the Wehrmacht, pointing out the resistance fighters. The Golden Dawn gang is their direct descendant. You see, after the Nazis retreated from Greece, quite tragically, their collaborators managed to infiltrate the armed forces (following the Civil War in which the Establishment’s war against the Left, thus giving a chance to the Nazi collaborators to remain ‘useful’ to the state); so much so that in 1967 there was a coup d’ etat that put Greece under a neo-fascist dictatorship for seven years. Since the end of that sorry episode, the remnants of that regime have been sidelined by a prospering democracy. However, after the economic and social implosion of the past three years, the worst elements of that rump (who had never really gone away; instead, they were biding their time, reciting Mein Kamf) re-appeared using purposely the tactics of the 1920s German Nazi party and, in particular, of Goebbels. By this I mean that they adopted a narrative on the crisis that is split in two parts: The first part is an utterly sensible critique of crony financialised capitalism (an exact copy of Goebbels’ 1927 critique of the failures of midwar capitalism). Then comes the second part: blaming the foreigner for the crisis (who can be Pakistani just as he can be a Jew) and calling for ethnic cleansing. Add to this mix: (a) offers of personal security services to hungry pensioners too frightened to step into the street, (b) free food and vegetables only for ‘ethnically pure Greeks, and (c) stormtroopers savagely attacking migrants and Greeks opposing them, and what you get is the ‘total recall’ of the bleakest aspects of the 1920s and 1930s.

We know that Greece is broke, but is it also broken and beyond repair?

Greece is too old and ragged to be easily dismissed as beyond repair. We have been through incredible hardships, occupation, betrayal, depression, conquest, self-destruction, and so on. “Greece is hard to kill” as a member of the older generation of wartime partisans once told me. The tragedy is that this crisis is destroying lives and generations unnecessarily. It is not the Crisis we had to have. 

25 thoughts on “On the social conditions in Greece, now

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  3. Yes indeed, Yanis, this is the picture we want to present. The truth, however, is that an enormous percentage of people has borrowed and spent unreasonable amounts for a prolonged time. Now that the party is over and the inevitably long depression has set in, things are going to be tough for everyone, even the minority who did not partake in the feast. Because, unfortunately, those who did not partake directly or indirectly in the looting is a minority. What we have achieved in Greece in the last 20+ years, the Greek Dream as I call it, is the democratization of graft and looting. For a couple of decades, democracy has returned to our country. Stealing from government, graft, corruption, public and private wasteful spending, all the goodies normally reserved for the privileged few, came within the reach of the ordinary citizen. Almost everyone had an opportunity to participate in the looting and many took advantage of this perverse reality of “equal opportunity”.

  4. Tasso is correct and where are all the productive Greeks living outside around the world – everyone who really cares about their heritage should all get together and clean the entire corrupt house of Greece of its criminals and traitors!

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  6. Its mass hysteria, I tell you! I could easily start saying all sorts of rubbish like: “Greeks, its in your hands – stop feeling sorry for yourselves – bite the bullet – take it like a man – suffer the short term consequenses to save the long term future…” What rubbish!!!! The first issue is that we are still not as bad as they say we are. Life is still cheaper and more sustainable in Greece than it is in England, for example. Yes there are many people who are not as rich as they used to be, but I can easily recollect poor people searching through rubbish even on the best of times. We have taken notice only now that there are people in this situation? Why only now? Why not all the years before? I know why… because now we feel a genuine fear that we may join them. Before we didn’t feel that fear, we looked at them and ignored them, thinking that this could never happen to us… that they were themselves at fault for the situation they were in… England is suffering a similar crisis like the greeks… tremendous unemployment. Nearly impossible to find a job in England! And taxes may not be “crippling” in England as they are in Greece, but life is still harder because of CRIPPLING RENT!!!! CRIPPLING TRAVEL EXPENSES!!!!! CRIPPLING FOOD PRICES!!!!!! Its more expensive to live in England even with the Greek crippling taxes. The difference between the English and the Greeks lies in that the Greeks are in a state of mass hysteria!!!!!!!!!!! And the English aren’t. So, I’m going to suggest something else to my fellow Greeks, a prospect so ridiculous that I laugh as I write it: TURN OFF YOUR TV, STOP READING THE NEWS PAPER AND START WORKING AS YOU WOULD WITHOUT THIS FEAR AND HYSTERIA THAT HAS A HOLD OF YOU!!!!! But, that of course is our weakness… we are fashion victims and we are currently being victimised by this fashion of speaking about the crisis all the time. Because it gives us an excuse to not look for a solution, to not compromise, to not have to lower our prices and then blame the crisis….. AS LONG AS THERE ARE PEOPLE SELLING COFFEE FOR 5 EURO IN GREECE, AND NEARLY ALL THE COFFEESHOPS ARE FULL AND THERE ARE NEW COFFEE SHOPS OPENING, THERE IS NO CRISIS IN GREECE!!!!!!!!! We as a nation, as a group of individuals have a choice…. not to prolong the crisis. We aren’t bitching because we can’t find solutions. We are bitching because we want everything the way it was 10 years ago. And this is truer even of our politicians! They can’t be as corrupt as they were and that pisses them off!!!! We are turning to racism, but not for the same reason the germans did 80 years ago. Hitler and the Nazis got into power because after WWI there were horrible sanctions made on Germany… the Germans were deprived of their right to work as they wished, deprived of their right to build industry and they were basicaly a country under siege! And remained that way for a lengthy period, much longer than 3 years!!!!! And so, feelings of racism and the need for scape goats was born!!!!! (the jews). We are allowing ourselves to nourish feelings of racism for situations that are faaaaaaaaaaaaar less tragic than the Germans before WWII and are looking for scape goats to blame for the fact that we can’t have 5 Euro coffee…. and this mass hysteria which is threatening our way of life is of course putting the small man out of business and into the trash bin food menu. But, one must remember something which is the difference between now and then: Our trash bins are full!!!!!! Back then, there wasn’t anything even in the trash bins. We are being very self indulgent indeed and this crisis is the result of the TV telling us that we are in crisis far more than a few bankers in danger of going out of business! Stupidity feeding on stupidity. If a government came and censored everything about the crisis (and I know that this would be an attack on free speech, but just for arguments sake, losing free speech is better than turning to human baking!) and the TV stations and newspapers could not speak about the crisis… I wonder if we would remain in this mass hysteria… perhaps, we would get up and look for solutions, restart industry, lower our coffee prices… who knows… but everything I’m saying is utopia. Unfortunately, everything everyone else is saying is Utopia. But, please, don’t compare the predicament of the Greeks now that has lead them to racism to the predicament of the Germans of then. And don’t compare the hopelessness of having entire families killed in an instant with today’s inability to not be spoiled superconsumers and than bringing the end of hope for all t
    ime!!!!!

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  8. Thank you. For us Greeks abroad who are constantly asked the question ‘what is going on in Greece’ this short description of current social fabric of the country is very needed.

    • I live abroad. I am research member in a respected institute of Europe which still needs many years of work to compare with the Greek universities of my research area. Yannis probably knows better what I am talking about.
      When they, ALL my colleagues, with pure malignity, ask me “how is the situation in Greece” I reply…it’s great..we still have the most beautiful country, the best food, the best climate, people that do not try to mock you in every chance and, the most pretty women (ok this is purely subjective, but true to some extent)!
      and I see they roll their eyes disappointed because they did not hear what they wanted to hear, that Greece is a black hole etc
      Don’t give any food to these trolls! Please!

  9. The german ARD really asked today “does the euro-crisis come BACK?”. Too funny… But that’s how even ARD talks about the Crisis, since years. I wrote to them and asked why they leave so many facts aside and why they do not, finally, present alternative views, like from Professor Varoufakis. Taken that I am a mightily influential person in this country^^ (choirs from afar, around 450 voices, sing, “yeees”) – take it for granted they’ll call you soon :-))).
    It is really horrible how we are “informed” in Germany. The ARD is, by far, not the worst of our media.

    • It will only disappear, when (not if) the Euro disappears, very simple.

  10. What I see when I visit (I’ve a middle class job in the UK) is a remnant of unsustainable consumerism and a failue of production at the basic end. Greece is now full of malls, multiplex cinemas, and coffee franchises, which were the result of the consumerist boom in the ’00s and may have been supportabe in the absence of austerity but I doubt it.

    At the same time it’s hard to find the basic productivity that was there before: cheap tavernas, food stalls, or street markets are no longer. Attempts to bring back this efficiency of production, like farmer’s markets for staples, are much in demand but don’t happen enough. Tragically it seems that Greece can’t get out of the consumerist bubble and go back to the sustainability of its past. So it resembles depressed areas of the UK, where people of low income spend money on trvial stuff rather than soild essentials.

    • Your description of Greece is quite apt. Yet it is equally apt for… Britain. A formerly industrial power that de-industrialised, built ugly mall upon ugly mall, replaced production with financial services, Tescos and horrific estate agents and is not on a path toward banana republic status.

    • I presume, Yani, that you meant to write “and is NOW on a path to banana republic status”.

      The strange thing about comparing the plights of the Greek and UK economies is that they have apparently converged despite the deindustrialisation of the UK and the lack of industrialisation of Greece.

      The key is clearly reliance on consumption as opposed to production, along with the failed measure of GDP which politicians and many economists insist on using — despite its equivalence of consumption activity with production activity. This misleading statistic was always open to abuse by politicians, and we see this in official accounts of the “success” of both the UK and Greece in highish GDP growth before the crisis.

      The problem is that I don’t hear a discourse on production or re-industrialisation from our current brood of clucking politicians. Given the appalling low wages that the Troika is trying to foist on southern Europe, it would at least be a silver lining if the southern economies could provide manufacturing in Europe to sustain employment levels. But it’s not going to happen without real political commitment in both northern and southern Europe.

    • Yanis and Pavlos;

      Have you both not just described Canada, the US and a lot of other countries ?
      It seems to me that if your whole economy is based on continued and conspicuous consumption, there is no way in Hades that it can be sustained. Something is going to have to give and it will.
      North America is next on the list for deep economic trouble as far as I can see. I cannot find anything manufactured in Canada and I am even willing to pay more provided the goods are of a durable quality ( unlike the crap in our Wal-Marts and Targets ). As jobs here disappear, money goes elsewhere,, and disposable income decreases. Canadian personal debt is at an all time high and while jobs are created, they are part-time, or lower paying. The middle class, as in the U.S. is decreasing and we know where that will lead to. In many ways the consumer is at fault for wanting cheap goods, but at the same time corporations have to share in the blame for wanting the highest profits possible through off-shoring or outsourcing or whatever you want to call it. North American corporations are helping to wreck the buying power of the market they originally came into existence to serve.

  11. “A society that took pride in its rise from the hardship and poverty of the 1940s and 1950s, which had caused the economic migration waves of that era, is now sinking with incredible speed into a black hole.”

    It may appear like a black hole, yes. But is it not shrinking the Greek economy to it’s natural, inherent size? The bubble economy Greece could entertain via cheap money during 2003-2009 or so, thanks to the grotesquely misdesigned common currency, was far, far beyond this sustainable size, and it just allowed to kick the can of necessary restructurings of society and economy down the road. That’s why today the mountain of things to correct is so high, and the social costs are so brutal.

    As for the hardships many Greeks are doubtlessly going through, I do feel sorry for them, a lot. But there is nothing I can do. Nor can any other person, any other nation, or any supranational entitiy.

    As I wrote several times, it is up to the Greeks themselves, and ONLY to them, to take the way ot of the dire straits. Default and leave the Eurozone. It will be brutal and it will cost the Greeks and her creditors incredible additional amounts of money. But it is, I think, the shortest, if not only viable way to get out of the debt spiral.

  12. Ευχαριστούμε που μιλάτε με ακρίβεια για όλους εμάς.Δυστυχώς τα πράγματα είναι όπως τα περιγράφετε.Έτσι, με αυτή την άθλια συνεχιζόμενη πολιτική, καταστρέφονται άμεσα τουλάχιστον δυο γενιές.Μια η δική μας που χάνει όλο το δυναμικό της, τις γνώσεις της, την διάθεση να δημιουργήσει κάτι παραπάνω σε αυτόν τον τόπο και μια τον παιδιών μας που δηλητηριάζονται από όλα αυτά τα “τοξικά”αποτελέσματα των ενεργειών κάποιων λαμπρών εγκεφάλων.Και δυστυχώς έπεται συνέχεια.

  13. What about the European Union’s responsibilities? They know that their policies favour the nazi gang (which, if there were any non-nazis in the Greek Police, should have been listed as a terrorist group), yet they insist on these exact policies and support a far-right “government” that adopts huge chunks of nazi ideas and even openly says that Golden Dawn is its “sister party”. Incidentally, it was the EU that, once upon a time, lambasted New Democracy and PASOK for harbouring corruption and now support the very persons they once decried for their wholesale corruption.

    I think EU officials are in cahoots with this sort of thing and they must be called on their foul, pro-racist, misanthropic policies. They are criminals. All of them and without exception.

    • All these horrble facts can be put into perspective:
      - old people raiding rubbish bins for food
      Go to any German train station and you will see the same
      - and families not being able to pay their phone and utility bills.
      - also very common on Germany (six figure households)

      So it shows more the descent of the EU countries

    • Two comments (I had a glance at your useful blog). First, is that the 2011 Census was conducted really badly, so its results are not comparable with the 2001 census. The staff were not properly trained, there was no advertising, there was no special provision for people to go later to register in an office, there was no linkage with immigrant communities… So, one cannot conclude that Greece is in population decline from a poor survey.

      Secondly, on actual demographic structure — Greece, like all of Europe, has too many old people and too few young ones. This has very serious implications for the immediate future even, for a variety of reasons. One is the dependency ratio — how many pensioners relative to workers. Of course, this ratio is now a disaster in Greece, anyway. Those older people are more reliant on medical and personal care, so how can this be funded? the same with pensions, of course.

      A separate problem exists in the political sphere. it is no accident that the Arab Spring occurred in those countries at exactly the time that their youth population had grown to massive proportions. It is not a simple matter of employment (although this is central): it is also about how young people can affect political life. Middle aged and elderly people incline to conservatism, to risk avoidance: when they dominate the electoral scene, as they do across Europe, the result is governments that behave in a conservative way. There can be no innovation, and also no revolution (since the youth numbers are too small without involving extreme violence). Basically, Europe is turning into a large old people’s home, with no way to pay the bill. As one of its future old people, I am traumatised by this prospect.

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