Fear itself

Fear is a sentiment that Greeks have learned to live with over the past couple of years. As the thread by which the country hangs grows ever thinner, fear has begun to pervade all aspects of life. It is so prevalent and has been lingering for so long that most people have become desensitized, blocking from their minds the worst scenarios that could lie ahead.

Every now and then, though, there is a jolt to the system that reminds us of how precarious Greece’s situation is and how there are about 11 million people clinging to this fraying thread, hoping that it will somehow repair itself before it snaps and they are cast into the dark valley below.

This week, there have been plenty of reminders of just how close the abyss is. Perhaps the most shocking came on Tuesday when during a Skai TV report about drugs shortages, a woman’s cries could be heard from inside a pharmacy. “Where am I going to find my medication?” she screamed with a fear that pierced through the shield of inurement that Greeks drag along with them wherever they go these days.

It was the cry of a woman exasperated by not being able to find her medicines due to pharmacists’ refusal to provide drugs, including those to treat cancer or diabetes, on credit. Fed up with being owed millions by social security funds, pharmacists refused to bankroll a state that can’t pay its bills. This unfortunate and incensed woman, like thousands of others, was caught in the middle of this tug-of-war, which has led to elderly and seriously ill people traipsing from one hospital or pharmacy to the next in the hope of finding the medication they need. In northern Greece, for example, the state-run health organization EOPYY only operates one pharmacy, in Thessaloniki.

It is a scene from a pre-apocalyptic Greece that is being played over and over. The difficulty the country is having in paying its medicines bill, which has been slashed by about a third this year, is symptomatic of the breakdown in Greece’s public finances, exacerbated by the deepening economic crisis.

Unemployment was up to almost 22 percent in March, according to figures published on Thursday, and social security contributions have fallen by almost 10 percent. State hospitals are 1.6 billion euros in arrears and social insurance funds owe 2.8 billion euros. The government will need to find 1.4 billion euros from somewhere by the end of the year if pensions are going to be paid, experts say. Authorities scrambled this week to provide a 250-million-euro loan to the state energy providers amid fears of imminent cuts. The gas company, DEPA, is looking for a loan to pay its suppliers because Greek energy suppliers have not paid their bills.

The rivets have started popping off the rickety joints in the Greek economy but society is also coming apart at the seams. The queues at pharmacies this week were a visible reminder but there are plenty of signs beneath the surface: crime, suicides, mental illness, homelessness and the hopelessness of scavengers who sift through rubbish on many street corners in major cities, where the effects are more pronounced.

Perhaps the only reason that the social impact of the crisis is not more visible is the safety net that has been stretched from Alexandroupoli to Ierapetra by the ultimate Greek institution: the family. But even this bedrock of Greek society is now under severe pressure and, unless the mounting pressure lets up, it can only be a matter of time before it gives way. More than 1 million people are unemployed, of whom some 600,000 receive no benefits at all; many more have no health insurance, while social transfers for families with disabled and sick children are being slashed.

All this is happening against the backdrop of an economy that seems to be in free fall. Data out on Friday showed a drop of 6.5 percent in GDP in the first quarter of 2012 — the fifth year of the economic downturn. Greece’s recession has already lasted longer than the 1929-32 Great Depression. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” became a hit song in the US during that time but today it’s the code by which many Greeks survive. Brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters are now the only barrier between some struggling Greeks and destitution. But dwindling pensions, savings and wages (if they exist) can only stretch so far.

The family as the last bulwark against impending disaster is perhaps a far cry from the role it has played in contributing to the crisis. The idea of looking after family members, even if at the expense of society, contributed to a whole host of problems, such as the lack of meritocracy in the public sector, corruption and tax evasion, that have exacerbated Greece’s weaknesses. Philosopher Stelios Ramfos is one of those who identify the family as a great obstacle to progress in Greece.

“In our society, time is a closed concept; it is founded on a great historical past and is perennially based on the idea of a family that is willing to accept reality only to the extent that it presents itself as a familiar whole, in the form of an endless repetition of past experiences,” Ramfos said in a recent speech. “Our tendency, the key problem of our culture is that it needs to do away with the transforming time. Societies that resist their modernization are societies that transform time into space.”

These regressive family values were transposed to political parties over the last few decades. Allegiances to brothers and cousins became allegiances to party colleagues and officials. Like the family, the party stood above society in terms of importance. It granted impunity if it was in the party’s, although not the country’s, interests. This had a tremendously damaging effect on Greece’s economy and society. It fostered special interest groups, usually clustered around particular professions, and a resistance to change.

The May 6 elections and the current political flux confirmed that the party, as an institution, is being demolished. The seeds it planted throughout Greek society are now shriveled weeds that will have to be pulled up if the crisis is to be overcome. In this arid no-man’s land, New Democracy and PASOK are struggling to find a new relevance, while SYRIZA is trying to straddle both worlds — the past, which allows time to stand still, and the future, which allows Greece to break from the past.

All, however, have played on people’s fears. New Democracy and PASOK have exploited people’s concerns about power being granted to an untried SYRIZA with risky and unrealistic policies. A TV spot aired by ND this week showed schoolchildren (the most vulnerable and loved family members) asking their teacher why Greece wasn’t part of the eurozone. At the same time, SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras was suggesting to civil servants that there was no need for them to go through an evaluation process that is being set up with the help of French experts. The message seemed to be that outsiders can’t tell us how to run things in our family, thereby allaying fears that things would have to change.

Trying to scare people when they are already living in fear can have no positive outcome. Equally, providing false hope to those who are scared cannot stand the test of the time. Toying with fear will only produce even more frightening results than the ones we see around us now.

Nick Malkoutzis

19 responses to “Fear itself

  1. Thanks to the non-stop campaign of terror from the German Taliban and Ayatollah Merkel, the Greeks are now completely immune from such inferior tactics of Berlin propaganda machine. We are now not even fearful of fear itself thanks to Frau Ignoramus.

  2. Dean, don’t bite the hand that you want to feed you. Your misery isn’t Chancellor Merkel’s fault. It is all yours.

    • Oh, yes it is all Merkel’s fault. If not how do you explain Spain? A country that had none of the fiscal problems the Merkel propaganda told us Greece “had”? (a pathetic lie as it turns out).

      Spain was pushed over a cliff by completely unjustifiable ECB tightening last year, and by the EU’s contractionary mix for the whole region. Spain did not violate the Maastricth Treaty. It never conformed to the bogus Merkel-Schauble morality tale of fiscal excess. It had a primary budget surplus of 3pc of GDP in 2007.

    • Estevao Veiga

      I had been married with a Greek woman for 21 years, and for the last 20, I had been horrified by the unbelievable capacity of the Greeks of never assuming their fault. It is never their fault, they are always victims. It looks like their emotional development stops at the age of 16 and they never get to the adult age.

      • Are you having spousal problems? Is she beating you up?

      • Estevao Veiga

        Dear Mr. Dean Plassaras,
        Thank you for your concerns concerning my marriage, happily, as an individual, my wife was able to evolve. But you must be aware that your behavior in this exchange are dictated by a culture, a culture of evading responsibility and putting blame in everybody but ourselves when bad thing happens.

  3. An insightful look beneath the hallowed stereotypes; glad to see I’m not alone in thinking that the Greek (variant of the) institution of looking after ‘you and yours’ at the expense of everyone else functions both as a lifeline and a noose, depending on who’s at which end of the rope.

  4. To Dean Plassaras and all those others who use Merkel as a scapegoat, and tend to condone the flaws in Greek, Italian, Spanish politicical/economic systems:

    Simom Nixon in the WSJ:
    But if those advocating a euro breakup are barking up the wrong tree, so too are those arguing for the immediate creation of common euro-zone bonds and a banking union. It is obvious a much deeper political union must be part of the long-term future of the euro zone. Germany knows this and Ms. Merkel herself has said as much. The question is when and under what terms? If Europe’s problem was simply one of excessive debt, the current criticism of Ms. Merkel would be justified. But the euro zone’s real problem is a crisis of competitiveness, a legacy of decades of entitlements, privileges, overgenerous welfare systems, inefficient bureaucracies, unnecessary and burdensome regulations and high taxes. Ms. Merkel rightly argues that a short-term fix that doesn’t address these structural problems would be a grossly irresponsible betrayal not only of German taxpayers, but also of future generations of euro-zone citizens in every country.

    Rather than attacking Ms. Merkel, those outside the euro zone who want to play a constructive role should aim their fire at the political elites in member states that continue to block reform. They should demand to know why even now Spain has still not fully restructured and reformed its broken banking system; or why Greece has still barely sacked a single civil servant or privatized a state-owned asset. They might ask what exactly Mario Monti has achieved as prime minister of Italy? Before taking up his post at the ECB, Mr. Draghi set out the reforms he believed Italy needed to restore its competitiveness, but how much of this agenda has been delivered? How many closed professions have been opened up? How many pointless regulations repealed? Why does Italy still have 8,000 administrative regions when the U.S. can get by with only 3,000?

    • Thanks for bringing up this WSJ article. One of the best descriptions of what Europe’s problems really are which I have read todate. Some have more of them (like Greece) and others have less of them (like Germany), but all of “Old Europe” has them. Our over-socialized elites have engrained on us the thought that for some reason Old Europe is privileged in the world; that we don’t have to try as hard as, say, emerging countries. And they overlook that some of those countries now have even better educated people than we do. Not to mention that in terms of recorded working hours, most European countries (not Greece!) are the laziest people in the world. But we still think that we have a God-given right to the world’s highest living standard.

    • Harmen:

      Even a cursory review of Simon’s background shows him to be a Merkel mouthpiece for hire:


      I hope that it comes at no surprise to you that given journalism’s transition from a print to a web medium, that there are tons of pens out there for hire and that for a little extra on the side there is a whole class of “journalists” who would basically write just about everything on demand.

      That the euro is a flawed construct it has been known since its inception. However it is also very well known and universally accepted by now that the Merkel framing of the euro problem as a fiscal crisis is as flawed as they come. About 99.9% of the the world’s economists today admit that the euro crisis is the result of a banking crisis and a competitiveness issue.

      Before you get on on the reform bandwagon, you need to understand that the reform in Greece will be as dictated by the interests and skills of people like me (i.e. Greeks themselves), not some ignorant Frau that can’t even identify the real problem to begin with.

      So, if it is reform that you want then you to have to reason it with the Greeks themselves. Only if we buy off on the amount and type of reform needed we can then proceed to implement it.

      This dream of yours of managing Greek affairs long distance from Berlin is DOA (Dead On Arrival).

  5. “Before you get on on the reform bandwagon, you need to understand that the reform in Greece will be as dictated by the interests and skills of people like me (i.e. Greeks themselves), not some ignorant Frau that can’t even identify the real problem to begin with.”

    As long as your ideology allows the same amount of autonomy for the people in Finland, the Netherlands or Germany everything will be fine.

    Sometimes one gets the impression that Greeks like you seriously think to have a god-given right to be feed by others and that the world outside of Greek borders is populated only by neoliberal cyborgs without the right for an opinion.

    • Marek:

      I think you are insulting our intelligence when you classify loans to Greece with interest as “feeding” Greece. The only feeding involved is the Greeks feeding profits in the form of interest to the ECB and other mechanisms which have replaced the market.

      As far as the rest, it’s an overwhelming case: Austerity a la Germania has failed.

      • Dean, some time last year Nick Malkoutzis (or one of his colleagues; I don’t remember for sure) phrased it so beautifully in an exchange with the German Handelsblatt (and I am quoting from memory):

        “Maybe at the end of the day we can agree that Germany has found the best model for productivity and we Greeks have found the best model for living (albeit funded by others)”.

        Absolutely priceless – and correct, too!

      • Klaus:

        Are you asking me to take seriously someone who is twitting every 5 minutes or so what Tsipras is saying?

        As to your claim that the Germans are good in production, what of it? Haven’t you heard that consumerism is at the core of the global financial sickness? Are you telling me that Germany playing the role of a global drug pusher is a good thing? How so?

  6. The Greek Chief tax investigator Nikos Lekkas said it for everyone clear to hear: “I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Lagarde. Tax evasion in Greece amounts to 12-15pc of gross domestic product. That’s €40bn-€45bn each year. If we could raise even just half of that, Greece’s problems would be solved. Our politicians have begun to understand this.” (Die Welt, 8 June 2012). Please sort out tax evasion, corruption and the inefficient justice system in Greece and you will be on the road to recovery in your truly beautiful country. However, so far it seemed for too many to be easier to loudly blame everyone else (especially the Germans) then tackling the real problems in Greece.
    Tackling the real problems in Greece would require courage, intelligence, integrity, sacrifice, seeking of truth. I hope enough people in Greece have the will to transform their country, as it is only them who can do it.

    By the way, it seems Nikos Lekkas confused euros with dollars.
    12-15 pc of gross domestic product would be 29 – 36 billion euros,
    not 40-45 billion euros. He may have been thinking in dollars, or he was wrongly quoted (Greece GDP approximately 300 billion dollars or 240 billion euros).

  7. Nikos Patiniotakis

    It is sad that the current situation in Greece is creating trenches. Greeks blaming Merkel, non Greeks blaming culture (that s a bit scary). Inside Greece the right playing the card of communist danger that will desmantle bourgeois. Syriza trenched against the EU and IMF.



  9. Nikos Patiniotakis

    I am a bit confused on what is going on in Greece right now. One might say the people take their fortunes on their hands and they are going to vote for an alternative way and they believe they can make it against all odds. To make it happen this requires a common vision, a sense of common direction, collectiveness and solidarity. It requires people that go to work every day not because they get a salary but also because they are commited in a higher cause. They feel inside that by doing their work right they contribute to something bigger. My problem is that I don t think we are there, if we were the exit polls wouldn t deliver percentages per party less than 30% and it wouldn t be a math equation how the first party can have a proper majority in the parliament. My problem is that the people are angry, exhausted and trying to find a hand to pull them out from the gutter. This is dangerous, a desparate man grabs anything he finds. I am not against Tsipras I am against to the feeling that he is playing with the last optimistic hopes of a country in hard times. When SYRIZA comes out and say, forget the austerity plan we ll do it another way it plays with the WHAT IF idea. People start thinking What if he s right, what if it is game of the bankers, what if we don t need the cuts, what if we don t really need a smaller public sector. And the biggest fear is that the alternative plan of SYRIZA just stays there, there is not a strong proposal for a counter attack, an alternative plan that will show that there are ways to get out from the crisis. People in Greece are voting tomorrow having the feeling that things are going to change now, and if there is no change quickly SYRIZA’s votes will go away as fast as they came. And then…??

  10. Pingback: Hooliganism: A Destructive Stigma for Young Greeks | EuroKulture

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