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Greece: 'We are drowning, let's sink the rotten boat'

By Demetra Kotouza & John Barker, 20 September 2011


Greece: “We are drowning, let’s sink the rotten boat”

by Demetra Kotouza & John Barker, published online August 2011

From Shift Magazine:

One month after the 48-hour general strike in Greece, with the austerity package passed, and after the extreme police terrorism unleashed on protesters (involving 2860 teargas canisters thrown indiscriminately even at first-aid centres, inside the metro station, and into cafes 1.5km away from the demonstration; beatings of everyone including men and women of old age; extensive rock-throwing at protesters; invasion of pedestrianised areas by riot police bikers; and the chasing and beating of demonstrators all the way into private houses where they ran to hide) much of the mainstream press presented this as a great ‘victory’ for the Greek government who managed to obtain the ‘rescue package’ from the ‘northern European taxpayer’ and avoid default. A few weeks later, the government ‘achieved’ a ‘partial default’ which would extend the terms of their loans and give lenders a ‘haircut’ in exchange for several guarantees in the form of state assets. On 30th July, with the squares movement somewhat deflated, the mayor of Athens managed to evacuate the square. People returned the same night and held the biggest assembly of that month. But even now, after British press coverage started to become a bit more sympathetic, many still haven’t understood why ‘the Greeks’ protested so vehemently. Did they want to default? Surely that couldn’t be a good solution (and yet a ‘partial default’ is somehow sold as precisely that now!). ‘Why don’t Greeks get down to work to develop their economy and learn to pay taxes instead of complaining?’ outraged northern Europeans have been asking.

To get an idea of the roots of the anger in the Greek streets, consider this: since May 2010, when the first bailout was agreed with the IMF-ECB-EU troika, unemployment has shot up to 20%, and youth unemployment to over 36% (but also consider that official statistics always underestimate this); small businesses have closed down one after another emptying out town centres; workers have gone unpaid for months and are easily dismissed with new legislation that abolishes collective contracts and encourages employer bullying; wages have fallen by 30% and to a new minimum of €560 per month and €476 for those under 25; homelessness has rapidly increased because of repossessions; pensions have been cut; public transport prices and street tolls have increased exponentially; a myriad new regressive taxes have been invented and VAT has risen to 23%; the suicide rate has increased by 40%. We are talking about rapid impoverishment, proletarianisation and despair and this is only a snapshot of the situation.

As for the purported ‘Swedish welfare’ Greeks have been enjoying, well, this never existed. Benefits are meagre. A very large proportion of pensioners only receive €400 per month, many queuing in soup kitchens to survive. Single mothers have to work. The dole – now only available for four months in four years – is impossible to survive on if you also pay rent. National insurance contributions are essential to get it, excluding a vast number of people under 30 who are exploited in unreported jobs. Such contributions are also essential for access to the health service. Amid steadily increasing unemployment the new mid-term austerity programme will reduce these benefits, reduce pensions and wages even more, lay off tens of thousands of public sector workers, further loosen labour legislation, increase taxes on the lowest incomes, as well as sell off the totality of public assets. This is widely seen as a plan to turn Greece into a pool of cheap labour and a cut-price investment opportunity, before it inevitably defaults. But this is not simply anger towards foreign bankers, the EU and the IMF, not just anger towards the government. It is anger towards the entire political system of parliamentary democracy and all the political parties. It is a true crisis of representation.

It is no wonder people have been protesting daily outside the parliament shouting ‘crooks!’.There is a Greek joke of the father with three sons who says one should join the conservatives (New Democracy); one the socialists (PASOK) and one the communists (KKE), just in case. What the state has had to offer, jobs or infrastructure, has been distributed for at least the last 30 years through political parties, with some jobs as sinecures. This clientelism has played a part in the build-up of state debt. But this does not mean that all Greeks benefitted, neither does it mean that the benefits received were particularly generous – they were jobs, licenses, subsidies, even places in universities – not the kind of thing that you should have to sell your vote to gain access to. Sadly, in Greece, desperation or complacency led many to play by the rules of the game. On the other hand, massive high-level corruption from dodgy planning permissions upwards at the top-end of the political-media class, has generated far larger amounts of debt, the most obvious in defence contracts, which for a country of its size have been enormous, the highest spending per head of population anywhere. The vainglorious Olympic Games, costing some $25billion benefitted only some contractors and security firms. Most Greeks did not receive any trickle-down of state largesse, and those who did not receive are now paying for it.

Focusing on corruption, however, like much of the mainstream media has done recently, constructing the stereotype of ‘lazy, corrupt Greeks’, misses out an important part of the story: the relation within the EU between central, exporter, lender states and peripheral, importer, debtor states. Predominantly French and German banks have been lending money to Greece so that it can buy exorbitant German military equipment and French industrial and consumer products. Not out of any particular spite as some Greek nationalists present it. This is simply how the system works. But it was not going to work forever. Greece finally reached a point when, after having bailed out its own banks that were hit by the crisis, its debt became unmanageable.

After one year of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme, the Greek state is now, unsurprisingly, more indebted than ever before. You didn’t have to be a genius to see that the conditions imposed would shrink the economy, and thus reduce the tax base. With a debt rollover deemed impossible by rating agencies who see such a move as a de facto default, and to avoid a ‘disorderly’ default that would send shockwaves across the banking system, the troika forced a new bailout loan down Greece’s throat in return for a 4-year programme of austerity and a wholesale privatisation of public assets, whose budget doesn’t even predict a significant reduction of the debt up to 2015.

Despite the summer lull, there is still a sense that the situation now is explosive. Across the political spectrum, anger is widespread. Those on the left denounce the attack on the working class. Those on the nationalist right talk of ‘traitors’ who have ‘sold off the country to foreign interests’ by signing the bailout agreement which gives creditors the right to confiscate the assets of the Greek state. Everyone can plainly see that the bailout directly benefits the banks who will get their interest payments while the Greek state, blackmailed by the troika, is attempting to get blood from a stone. That Greece will default at some point is taken as a given. The fight is over who will pay for it. And much of the Greek public has figured that the longer that takes, the more they’ll have to pay with their lives. In fact, they will pay with their lives anyway, as the debt is used as an excuse to impose measures hitherto inconceivable. Meanwhile, far-right extremism has increased, as hordes of new immigrants from Asia and Africa are trapped in Greece, mostly Athens, prevented from entering northern Europe in line with the Schengen treaty. There are racist attacks by small groups of self-described ‘indignant citizens’ (who are mostly members of fascist organisations such as the Golden Dawn) on a daily basis in Athens neighbourhoods: stabbings, beatings, burning of homes, hostels and mosques which commonly escape prosecution. Besides, it is widely known that the Greek police has close informal ties with the Golden Dawn.

This is why, when on May 25 tens of thousands of people flooded Syntagma square in front of the parliament and squares across the country under the name ‘indignant citizens’, it did look confusing. Many – if not the majority – of the demonstrators waved Greek flags and shouted nationalist slogans. A protest march by the electricity workers’ union was booed out. The Greek media were celebrating the ‘apolitical’, ‘humorous’ and ‘unpatronised’ quality of the demonstration. But late at night, after the big crowd left and those remaining sat down to have their first ‘democratic assembly’ a different image emerged. Mostly young people, hungry to express their anger at the government, the political system and all political parties, talked about their shoddy life experiences and of their desire to create something new. They occupied the square and Syntagma was packed with demonstrators on a daily basis for the next month and counting. The a daily assembly grew, and diverged from the Spanish model, developing its own ideas: direct democracy and rejection of all political representatives; refusal of all state and personal debt, asking for its write-off; counterposing a new social organisation, involving popular control of the economy; cooperation with labour unions while pressurising their sold-out leaderships to call a long-term general strike; rejection of racism and solidarity with immigrants, in favour of open borders; conflictual struggle, blockades, occupations and self-defence instead of unqualified pacifism; the desire to create assemblies in every neighbourhood and workplace. The assembly participants daily develop and refine the processes of collective decision-making and self-organisation. Similar to the Spanish squares, they have open thematic assemblies and working groups which are developing structures of mutual support and sharing resources, particularly with those most in need, while the general assembly has the ultimate power to propose and make decisions. These ideas and practices are not ex nihilio. They follow on both from the neighbourhood assemblies created after the December 2008 uprising and from the recent practices of popular movements, such as ‘I Don’t Pay’ that blockades highway toll booths and sabotages public transport ticket validation machines, and the militant resistance in Keratea against the creation of a landfill site.

Assemblies did spread in several Athens neighbourhoods and across Greece, and the older local assemblies have expressed solidarity with the new movement. Many of those assemblies have been organising actions against privatisations of local public space and assets, and some are more active in promoting the idea of non-payment campaigns and anti-repossession actions that have not yet taken off. Also the oldest local assemblies, especially those linked with anarchist collectives, have been instrumental in establishing free language schools for migrants and anti-racist actions, as well as appropriating public space and turning it into ‘self-managed people’s gardens’, most notably in Exarchia. Now there are also ideas for setting up free support lessons for kids who have missed school because of homelessness or destitution.

While not entirely adopting the language of the anti-capitalist left, the assembly has adopted many of its ideas. This is partly related to the ‘incognito’ presence of leftist party members in the square pushing their views through working groups, but there is also resistance to those who try to turn the assembly into a distributor of social-democratic manifestos. The anarchist contingent also has a significant influence, meaning that many of the dominant views in Syntagma are more radical than those of the mainstream left which is not finding it easy to keep up with events. Not that the fascist threat is gone for good however. Small far right groups have been present in the square, mostly away from the area of the assembly and working group stalls, waving flags, shouting nationalist and racist slogans, and even attacking immigrants. Those organising in Syntagma have had to confront them, particularly when they even had the audacity to store crowbars in one of the tents, from which they launched their racist assaults. After the 29th however, with videos of police thuggery and collaboration with fascists flooding not only the web but also mainstream TV news, Greek nationalism has received a backlash.

With the mid-term programme passed, the occupied squares have been working on their next course of action. They have been talking about actively preventing the programme’s implementation, building alliances with students and workers, and organising non-payment strikes on taxes, loans and bills. They have also been discussing student resistance to the new education bill, which is a major move towards privatising and commodifying the higher education system, and will be probably put to the vote over the summer. A similar bill was dropped in 2007 after over a year of student occupations and protests.

After the evacuation of Syntagma, many returned to the square after weeks of absence, bringing renewed energy for occupying local buildings and organising resistance to repossessions. The first time such a ‘return’ happened, it was surprising to some that Syntagma did not disband after their defeat on the midterm and after savage police repression; that they stayed true to their pledge to continue the fight regardless. Police violence did not scare them, instead it caused enough outrage that many pacifists began to justify those who had engaged in street war. The thousands who have participated for over a month in the squares, against various attempts at co-optation, have experienced a different form of politics, a different way of relating to each other. They have protected their space and each other from fierce assaults by police and fascists, have fended off undercover agents, have withstood impossible amounts of teargas, stun grenades, beatings and street battles. Now, there is a wider sense that even if this movement doesn’t grow momentum in August, September will definitely be a very intense time, when the relative euphoria of summer is over, and the new measures really start to bite… Demetra Kotouza is a PhD student and contributing editor at Mute magazine. John Barker writes fiction and non-fiction for, Mute and Variant magazines.