Barbarism at the gates

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Politicians often say things during election campaigns that they later regret. Looking back on his first year as prime minister, George Papandreou must be wondering what possessed him ahead of last year’s October 4 poll to utter – with excruciating regularity – the words: “The money is there.” Unless, of course, by “there” he meant in the back pockets of pensioners, civil servants, motorists and most middle and working class families that are now footing the bill for Greece’s economic rescue effort.

The money was never there and everybody, including PASOK, knew it. This didn’t stop Germany’s Werkstatt Deutschland organization from awarding Papandreou the Quadriga Prize for “Power of Veracity” on Sunday. The award, named after the sculpture of a horse-drawn chariot that sits atop the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, was in recognition of Papandreou revealing the truth about the state of Greece’s public finances, which seems a bit like giving a lollipop to a child who admits its part in smashing a vase but only after discovering there was nowhere to hide the broken pieces.

Nevertheless, the trip to Berlin may have given Papandreou an opportunity to contemplate one of the other regrettable statements he made before last October’s election. “Socialism or barbarism,” the PASOK leader had said, echoing Marxist activist Rosa Luxemburg, a late resident of the German capital who believed adopting Socialism was the only escape from an unjust existence. Papandreou spoke in a slightly different context, arguing that the global financial crisis was proof that the capitalist model was unsustainable and that a center-left structure, with more emphasis on regulation and the state, should replace it.

However, 12 months on, his dreams of 21st century Socialism have vanished into the same vortex that is consuming the billions of euros Greeks are paying to prevent their country from going bankrupt. In the meantime, the threat of barbarism has become very real.

Some of the measures taken over the last 12 months were undoubtedly necessary and long overdue but the manner in which they are being applied and the IMF/EU market-driven philosophy that underpins them is brutal. While all eyes are trained on safeguarding financial capital, little attention is being paid to the negative effect on social capital.

The recent liberalization of the road haulage sector set a dangerous precedent. Apart from the truck owners themselves, most people would argue that time had run out on the closed-profession privileges the truckers enjoyed for so many years. Yet, it’s unsettling that the forced end to their lengthy strikes – first with a civil mobilization order in the summer and then with legislation threatening truckers with jail sentences in September – should be met with such satisfaction within the government and among some of the public. After all, this was a failure of democracy and had a distinct totalitarian element to it. PASOK backtracked on its promises to the truckers, one of the many groups that have been pampered by successive governments, and then portrayed them as being unreasonable and obstructing progress. Unable to engage in debate and then formulate policy – functions of the democratic systems we uphold and the governments we vote for – PASOK rammed the liberalization through Parliament and down the throats of the truckers. The government’s heavy-handedness throughout the dispute does not bode well for the future.

Greece’s experience is being replicated in other European countries, such as Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Britain, where citizens are being presented with a fait accompli. Their governments, regardless of political hue, are telling them that austerity measures must be adopted without question. In doing so, elected politicians are not only perverting the very system that put them in power, they’re also sowing the seeds of deep discontent as people grow increasingly aggrieved with the impact of the austerity measures and the lack of alternatives.

The United Nations work agency, the International Labor Organization (ILO), warned last Friday that the global employment market, where 22 million new jobs are needed, would not recover from the crisis until 2015 and that this would only fuel social unrest. “Fairness must be the compass guiding us out of the crisis,” said ILO director general Juan Somavia. “People can understand and accept difficult choices if they perceive that all share in the burden of pain. Governments should not have to choose between the demands of financial markets and the needs of their citizens. Financial and social stability must come together. Otherwise, not only the global economy but also social cohesion will be at risk.”

While scenarios of popular revolution are pure fiction as far as Greece is concerned, the country is no stranger to social unrest. The longer that measures which impact on people’s viability are passed one after the other, with no discussion or effort to present a vision for a better future, the more resentment will fester and the threat of a backlash will grow.

The possible breakdown of social cohesion creates the conditions for another, even darker, reaction to austerity. While understandable to some extent, the glee some citizens and commentators expressed at the abrupt way the government dealt with the truckers is a tell-tale sign that, given the current circumstances, a larger proportion of the population than usual thinks the use of force – psychological or physical – is acceptable. The danger is that the longer the government depends on this tactic, the more people will become accustomed to it and start believing it’s a perfectly legitimate way to run a country and get things done. In Greece, where society has been fragmented for many years thanks to each group pursuing its narrow interests, the flourishing of this mind-set will lead to even graver polarization.

Hungary, which was discovered in 2006 to have been fiddling its economic figures and had until this year been applying the austerity measures prescribed as part of the rescue deal it signed with the IMF, offers a salutary tale for Greece. Earlier this year, the extreme right-wing Jobbik party won 850,000 votes in the parliamentary elections on the back of a campaign that targeted the Roma but also played up the failures of the traditional guardians of power in Hungary, the conservative Fidesz and the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). “The main factor behind Jobbik’s rise has been its ability to make political hay out of popular demand for extremist policies,” writes Peter Kreko for the Political Capital think tank in Budapest. “The primary driver behind extremist sentiment is a decline in public morale: Many Hungarians feel they can no longer trust the political elite or their governing institutions. The other fact is a rise in prejudice, especially toward foreigners.”

So, as Greece takes stock a year on from when Papandreou made his foolhardy election campaign pronouncements, it can draw some timely conclusions from its own and others’ experiences. It’s clear that the money is not there, nor is Socialism. As for barbarism? It’s creeping through the gates.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 8, 2010.

3 responses to “Barbarism at the gates

  1. I am an “ekseno”, living in Greece for the past few months only. My wife is a greek citizen, and despite the fact that we have been married for 13 years, and that my two sons also have greek citizenship, I am waiting for the famous Greek bureaucracy to award me a 5-year Family VISA. If I’m not mistaken, Greece is the only country in Europe that do not give automatic citizenship to the spouses of Greek citizens, who wish to live in Greece. What does that have to with the subject matter addressed by Nick Malkoutzis in the article above you may ask, but it has everything and nothing to do with it at the same time, I venture to challenge. The Greek mentality has astounded me over the past few months, and I have yet to be exposed to the full extent of it, I hear you say. What I see is a country in deep crisis, its people generally believe everyone else (not them) are rotten to the core, its society will forever be fractured by the ill gotten gains of the have’s (read closed professions, rotten corrupt polititians and state employees, and all the millions of tax dodgers), and its power to expunge itself from this mess will forever be eroded by the perceived hardships of the have-nots who are too uneducated to understand the complexity of the mess Greece has landed itself in . The “closed professions” are not the only cartel like arrangements that exist, and other possible growth areas will be nullified by the fact that Greeks generally dislike “eksenos” and do not want them to experience any form of success in Greece. To expect FDI to flourish in an enviroment like such as this, is simply foolish, enter the Chinese. Having smelt desperation and as elsewhere in the world when they smell desperation, they flock to the rescue, with all sorts of aid packages and “trade deals”, designed to ensure a safer and more equitable passage for their thousands upon thousands of settlers to follow, creating yet another off-set market for their cheap products and killing off yet another country’s ability to attempt manufacturing as a pillar to build economic growth upon. On another unrelated yet related note, the problem with illegal immigrants in Athens (and elsewhere) that is not being addressed by a seemingly lethargic police force, employed by a spineless bureaucracy, is another problem that will soon escalate beyond Greece’s grasp. I do not expect Mr Malkoutzis to share my views on the illegal immigrants, and how to deal decisively with the problem, as I have read a very liberal and humanitarian attitude into most of his articles. But I will air my views anyway, by saying that if Greece does not decisively, and with as much force as required deal with this scourge soon, it will make of Athens a dungheap that no-one will want to visit, despite the great and uncontestable historic significance of the capital. On the subject of the decisive action taken to stop the trucker strike, I have no problem with it at all, and many Greeks that I have spoken to share a desire to curb the “closed profession” scourge by any means necessary and possible, and perhaps it moves the country closer to accepting the fact that more pain is due, and that only severe pain will stand a chance of moving Greece closer to becoming a country on the verge of Europe, which it doesn’t seem to be at present.

    • Hennie, you make some good points and I can appreciate your problems with Greek bureaucracy – I am sure most Greeks can sympathise. However, I think it is wrong to say that Greeks do not understand the mess that the country is in. I think a lot of people do – they may not like this new reality but they appreciate we are here. It would be wrong to think that 35,000 stubborn truck owners are representative of the whole. I used them as an example in my piece because I feel it sums up the contradictions that Greece is facing. Bar those 35,000 men, most people accept that the restrictions on their profession must change (as with other professions) but they have to be convinced about how this will benefit the country. This is where the government is losing the argument, basically because it is not making one! It has not made enough of an effort to explain to both those directly affected by the changes and the wider public why this will put Greece on a better footing. You have lived abroad and this will seem like pretty basic stuff but you have to appreciate that Greeks have been used to a completely different way of doing things as succesive governments have pandered to specific interest groups. I would liken it to a parent feeding its child jelly beans every day and then when it reaches 30, saying that it has to eat brussel sprouts every day for the rest of its life. The chile (by now an adult) is not going to react too well, and who would blame it? It’s up to the parent to explain that he/she has been making a big mistake all these years, before explainin why brussel sprouts will be good for the child. This is what democracy is about after all, isn’t it? In the case of the truck drivers, the government avoided all discussion and only antagonised them by failing to acknowledge that it had been leading them on for years and then having the decency to sit down and speaking to them like adults. Although I was no fan of their strikes, passing threatening laws to force them back to work was the coward’s way out and creates the kind of antagonistic atmosphere that could come back to haunt the government.

  2. Your comments are all valid and with merit, however Nick I would like to offer a reply to some of the pertinent points you make. When I said that the majority of Greeks are too uneducated to understand the complexity of the mess that Greece has landed itself in, I am speaking from my experience as an outsider, talking to and listening to ordinary Greeks on the streets where I live. I can appreciate that perhaps the level of person that you interact with daily may have a better understanding of the complex issues facing Greece, but in my estimation the average person simply does not know enough about the financial affairs of the country, or understand where and how the pertinent issues intersect. This is actually not an exclusively Greek trait, but something that is true all over the world, where the general populace typically do not have a clue about the country’s real economic state, and understand little of what they read in the newspapers about these matters. Governments all over the world faced with severe economic crises have in the past taken severe measures to arrest the bleed and it is always the citizens that suffer. This is where the issue of the goverment not making an argument comes into play, as the lack of a cohesive and realistic action plan will forever hamper any constructive debate, and ultimately any noticeable gain. I will accept your contention that the Greek public knows how much trouble the country is in, but at the same time I believe the majority simply have too little knowledge of the drivers of their own economy in the contect of the EU/world economy to comprehend the subtle nuances buried deep inside the immensely complex problems that this country’s economy (and its people) faces now, and what it actually needed to put it on the path of recovery (and as you say, neither does it appear that the goverment has a clue!). Furthermore, it has been my limited experience (but I am not a political animal who eats and breathes matters political) that slow reforms in a volatile environment have no chance of succeeding, as they get overrun by contingent matters in due course. I believe that nothing less than a revolutionary approach to these matters will save Greece from ultimate financial collapse and national failure, and that a mixture of 70% force and 30% persuasion and cohersion is what’s needed to get things on the right track. However, you are a Greek citizen, you understand the complexities of the Greek nation, and you are in a better position to make the call as to what type of measures they will repsond to more positively, so lets put that debate to bed.

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