In Athens, the beginning of autumn coincides with the return of an all too familiar scene: inside Parliament, politicians are quarrelling over details of the austerity requested of them by the Troika; outside, protesters are shouting their anger at what they see as unfair, unsuccessful and unsustainable policies.
Nikos Charalampopoulos, an Athenian teacher and trained political scientist in his early thirties, normally would be looking forward to the birth of his son, due any day now. Instead he worries about the uncertain future. He sees his countrymen isolated and abandoned, as they come back from the summer: "The kids are back in schools that lack basic necessary books; they will be taught by teachers whose salaries have been slashed. University students know that they have to work hard for a diploma, which still won’t find them a job. And the only answer the government can come up with is to cut even more, to deploy even more layoffs, to break up strikes and round up immigrants.”
Six rounds of austerity measures in February 2010 have left their profound mark, and there are an increasing number of voices suggesting that the limits of acceptability have long since been passed. But the Greek government is unable to come up with an alternative. It needs help in order to remain solvent, the troika promise assistance, demanding in return "reforms", i.e. austerity measures, which the government – despite all the protests- accepts as medicine without an alternative.
A generation without perspective
The Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis said in an interview with the British newspaper the Guardian,"it is inconceivable that the austerity measures would produce the desired results”. He compared them with someone who "flaps his arms up and down hoping to overcome gravity." Nevertheless, the government continues to force the population to collectively flap their arms about, and is in turn forced by the Troika to do so. Up to 150,000 civil servants are to be fired in 2015, more pay and pension cuts are expected.
The outlook for Nikos' generation is bleak: "If you are 30 years old, you are either unemployed or working in a company where your salary will be cut and your rights ignored, because you have to be lucky to have any work at all." Not to talk about buying an apartment or starting a family. "If you're 40 and have children, you are either unemployed or have a second or third job as a pizza delivery boy, cleaner, taxi driver or whatever you can find to keep your family afloat. You don’t even think about enjoying your life any more; you've long thrown overboard all scruples about working illegally."
Stelios (* name changed), also in his early thirties, can count himself lucky to have one of the few remaining well-paid jobs. He didn’t even suffer a pay cut because his employer is a foreign firm. This is why he would not want to cite his real name; he doesn’t want to attract envy. Some of his friends have lost their jobs; those still in training now have no chance of entering the labour market. "These are the worst off. When I meet with them, I am almost ashamed to say that I still have work and how much I earn."
There are different kinds of shame in Greece these days: those who have lost everything, are hiding their poverty and helplessness. Those who are still working and earning, feel guilty in front of their friends and acquaintances.
The cuts and austerity measures are not fair, thinks Stelios: "My father was a postman for 35 years and got a good pension of something like 1,700 €. Of these, the government took 30 per cent. He now gets only the 1,200. And from this, every year 1,500 € are due for the newly introduced taxes for home owners. It's illegal! He paid his pension contributions his whole life, and now, just because the Troika demands it, more than 40 percent is taken away from him. "
Many observers in Athens even blame the austerity measures, at least in part, for the electoral success of the far-right party Chrysi Avgi ("Golden Dawn"). They are akin to neo-Nazis, but won nearly seven per cent of the vote in the parliamentary elections in May and June 2012. The reason? There is a sharp increase in crime, caused by unemployment and poverty. The police are helpless. They were underpaid and understaffed even before the crisis, and have since been affected by cutbacks themselves. One commentator told me: "Nowadays, in rich neighbourhoods they hire private security to prevent break-ins. In working class areas, the neo-Nazis of Chrysi Avgi provide law and order as some kind of ultra-right Samaritans."
Xenophobia fanned by the crisis
In Athens, there is an urban legend trying to make sense of the rise of Chrysi Avgi. Nina, a young filmmaker, with not a grain of sympathy for the far right, tells me one variant. Her grandmother had rented a small apartment to a gentleman (who in most versions of the story is of course an immigrant). The tenant first brought seven other people into the apartment and then stopped paying rent. When the old lady turned to the police seeking help, they told her nothing could be done. In her desperation, a representative of ‘Golden Dawn’, with a few party members, offered his services; they kicked the tenants out, and promptly returned the flat cleaned and repainted to its rightful owner.
Despair makes people receptive to help they would have never accepted before the crisis. It prepares the fertile ground on which xenophobia flourishes, and eats away strength and dignity.
Cristina Patzou has been, for decades, editor of the prestigious newspaper Eleftherotypia, which a year ago slid into bankruptcy. The staff tried, and are still trying today to guarantee the survival of the newspaper. Cristina has fought with all her strength and warmth, but how long can one go on like this? "The government tells us that we should tighten the belt, cut some fat, but for many of us, to have less means we have nothing left at all. I'm ashamed to talk about how many things we can no longer afford. This is not a 'change' or a 'reform' anymore, it's a collapse! "
"We have to re-invent our life "
At the markets in the neighbourhoods of Athens, people now wait to do their shopping until the evening, when the prices are discounted. Parents with their children ask for vegetables or fruits that are rotten or would otherwise be thrown away.
Is there anything that helps us against all the difficulties and despair? "Family ties, solidarity and inventiveness. We have to reinvent our lives to preserve our dignity, "Cristina is not giving up, even if her prognosis is grim: "We haven’t reached the bottom yet. And we see how the new government submits itself, with destructive devotion, to the same neoliberal prescriptions that brought the country to the abyss and pushed the people into poverty. "