This is the second of five articles in the series “Athens: The Crisis Within the Crisis” (click here)
The people of Greece have found ways to care for themselves, when the state entered a welfare crisis, as a result of the financial crisis. This article series shows some striking examples of community self help among citizens in Athens, even involving migrants. While the Greek people have helped themselves, their government has been stuck in an impossible political game. What was the grand strategy?
Solidaric citizens take responsibility
Some of the most striking community efforts are found in the hands-on efforts management of the migration crisis, where citizens and migrants combine old resources in innovative ways, covering basic needs without money, and thus, generating value. In our article series, we have documented two complimentary efforts, one directed by the Syriza government, another led by the Anarchist movement. In line with recent studies in economic anthropology, we have turned the attention to “the other side” of the crisis: how do common people, out of necessity, innovate alternative infrastructures and currencies, and how do they generate economic value from scratch? One may have hope in this grass roots political economy. This undergrowth spreads unnoticed, in the shadow of the elitist political economy, with its investors, governments, banks and treaties.
Irresponsible deals between banks and elites
While recognizing the grass roots political economy, one should also not forget the elitist political economy, because its failure has caused everyday suffering and practical problems. The middle class in Greece is striving to keep up their way of life. In this situation, some of my friends are establishing a family. The father has gained a full time job, which hardly covers their expenses, while the toddler is being looked after by his mother. She also re-schools herself to qualify for jobs with predictable payment, while the kid stays with his grandparents. As in most families, care work is done on a voluntary basis, mostly by women, also by retired or unemployed men. Informal economy covers welfare needs, and generates value – but not without costs. Common people in Greece ask the simple question of why they have to pay for the irresponsible deals between Greek elites and European banks. The reformist government was voted in power in order to keep the irresponsible parties responsible of their actions. Why did it fail?
Keeping peace with the Greek elites
Why did not the irresponsible elite in Greece pay for the economic crisis? Why did the reformist government refrain from a Robin Hood policy – stealing back what the rich had taken from the poor, in order to return it to the poor? One reason might be the need to maintain peace in a country where old people still remember civil war. When the reformist Syriza Party became the largest party, their election campaign was supported by a host of radical socialist and anarchist movements. These were known for spectacular street clashes with the special police force Delta. Most members of this police force voted for the fascist Golden Down Party, according to election research. The Fascists believe in the unity of the ethnic nation, while the Anarchists are loyal to the unity of the social class. Thus, the two movements suggest two opposing ways to overcome the destructive effects of financial capitalism. In both blocs, the activists have grandparents who risked their lives in civil strife during the World War II and after. In between these two blocs, it may have been difficult to be the Syriza Party: on the one hand, trying to be loyal to the socialist bloc, on the other hand, trying to avoid antagonizing the nationalist bloc. This may explain why the Syriza Party chose to create a coalition government with the conservative nationalist Anel Party. Perhaps this move prevented civil strife? Perhaps it also made it impossible to keep the old elite responsible of their corruption?
Keeping peace with the European banks
Why did not the irresponsible European banks pay for the economic crisis? During the negotiations about the debt crisis, the media attention was won by the Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who looked like a rock star. But the power game was won by his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble, a hard liner. He demanded that the Greek tax payers should pay for the Greek debt crisis – against the suggestions from those who have tried this recipe before, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and former World Bank leader Joseph Stiglitz. These suggest more social liberal policies. From such a viewpoint it is rather absurd that the European Central Bank has a shared currency, the Euro, without any shared monetary policy, to counter low conjunctures. Instead of keeping the European and Greek elites responsible of their irresponsible money lending policies, the Greek tax payers are forced to pay. Drinking water is a basic human right, but the Greek government has been forced to sell this public service to private corporations based in Germany. Thus, the drinking water is no longer under democratic control. The policy making is left to a social darwinist principle of the survival-of-the-strongest – completely against the visions of Adam Smith, a founder of economic liberalism, who believed that the state should ensure equal opportunities for everyone. When the rule of the financial oligarchy is called “neoliberal”, then the language is counter-factual, and diverts attention away from the actual violence of the regime. Why could not minister Varoufakis and the IMF together turn the tide? Did they under-estimate the extremism of all the Schäubles who follow in the footsteps of Reagan and Thatcher – and Pinochet? When someone say “there is no alternative” to financial capitalism, then they actually refer to the Diktat of financial capital.
Is this a coup?
When the baby sleeps, his mother tells me that the solidarity movement talks positively about Merkel, it is not her, but Schäuble, that is seen as the enemy. When I ask her where the class struggle within Greece has gone, after the new government, she is positive about keeping the nation together. The young mother talks about civic “patriotism”, like the historical Republican movement in Latin Europe. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, a reformist Republican government was elected into power in Spain, but failed dramatically. Armed reaction from the nationalist bloc, combined with passive acceptance from liberal states, led to the Spanish Civil War. Of course, Greece in 2016 is a specific place and period, different from Spain in 1936. Nevertheless, one similarity is that in contemporary Greece, the reform movement gained governing position through a coalition between socialist parties and anarchist movements, similarly to the Republicans in Spain. However, one of the differences is that in contemporary Greece, the reformist socialist party chose to form a coalition government with a conservative nationalist party, whereas in historical Spain, the entire nationalist bloc became part of an armed reaction. Thus, with Spain during the Great Depression, the neighbouring liberal governments could sit passively and watch the Spanish Civil War. But in contemporary Greece, the reformist prime minister was forced by neighbouring liberal governments to sign “the third memorandum” – which implied that the Greek reform government had to surrender to all demands from the counterpart, even giving up democratic control over drinking water. “This is a coup!” was the shout from the socialist and anarchist movements. “The only progressive action today is to bleed”, prime minister Alexis Tsipras said recently. The good news is that even though the Syriza Party has failed, it nevertheless failed much less dramatically than others.
Helge Hiram Jensen