The Relentless Violence of Austerity
Samos Diary 10
Over recent days, the mainstream media in both Greece and Europe have been reporting that the troika is deeply concerned that Greece is failing to comply with the conditions of the bail out funds and is well off target in terms of its austerity strategy. The impression generated is that little has changed here and the Greeks are yet again showing their mastery in prevarication and cover-up.
The capitalist elites may well be dissatisfied at the lack of progress in areas which promise high rewards and profits, such as the privatization of state and public assets. There are still too many infrastructural problems especially at the level of state regulation which prevent serious and sustained capitalist plunder. With no authoritative land ownership registry investment in properties can be hazardous and shrouded in uncertainty. The over lapping responsibilities of ministries with their attendant mess of forms and regulations not only makes creating a business here extraordinarily complicated and time consuming but also precarious in that you can never be sure that you won’t be caught out by some new proposal.
But if progress in these areas is slow or non existent it is simply gross to imply that nothing has changed here. Wages have been slashed by 40% as have many benefits and pensions. Work has evapourated as the economy continues to diminish at rates not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. 7% is the projected reduction for this year alone and we are in the 5th year of recession. This is disaster time for ‘ordinary’ Greeks of whom we are told 1 in 3 is in severe financial difficulty.
Our friend Angela was incredulous that any sane person could possibly believed that nothing has changed here. She is 82 years old and recently widowed. Her pension is now 300 euros a month. Angela has a range of health problems and until recently was able to get her medicines paid for through her state insurance scheme. However, because the scheme has not paid the pharmacies they in turn have refused to supply medicines which means now that Angela has to pay up front for her supplies and then submit the bill to IKA her insurance scheme which at some distant point may or may not reimburse her expenses. When she last asked how long this might take she was told it could be between 2 to 3 years, by which time she might well be dead given her health. The cost of her medicines comes to 350 euros a month, which is more than her total monthly pension.
This is an increasingly common situation, especially for those with chronic and enduring health problems. For Angela it is her family that makes up the shortfall. It has also led to her 60 year old daughter moving in with her. This was not only due to Angela’s poverty but also because Marianna her daughter also faces acute financial problems and she hopes to reduce her costs by returning to live with her mum. Marianna retired from her local government job in October and has yet to receive any pension. She too has been told that because of the crisis she may have to wait up to 2 years before she will receive a regular pension. For Angela and Marianna, their world and their certainties have collapsed. Never did they envision that they would be subject to such arbitrary brutalities. Never did they imagine this kind of humiliation.
Of one thing we can be absolutely certain is that creditors of the Greek state such as Angela and her daughter are not included amongst those creditors for whom the bail out funds are intended.
Families and households are being daily transformed by austerity and poverty. We see families being compelled to join forces in order to survive and simultaneously being ripped apart. No longer is it just younger people staying in the family home for longer, or looking to migrate. We know at least 2 close friends in their mid 40s, both with families, who are now seriously considering work on 8 month construction contracts in South Africa. We know of households where the only income is that of their grand parents’ meagre pension. We have friends who are now unable to afford to see their parents as often as before because they can’t afford the price of petrol on an island where there is no public transport to the villages. We know of so many children whose parents can’t afford to drive them the 4 kms to the beach. Can you imagine what it is like to look over the sea and yet only being able to visit occasionally? It is relentless. And in the background there is the prospect of winter when our gardens won’t be full of tomatoes, aubergines and other vegetables and when we will face the challenge of staying warm.
No Let Up
Even moments of relief are conditional. We met our friend Georgos on Sunday by chance in the nearby tourist town. We had gone for a coffee to a harbourside bar to find him serving the drinks. He was so happy to see us and told us of his relief at finding paid work. He hadn’t had any regular paid work since his job for a local museum which finished last October. But what a job! He starts work at 8.00am and finishes at 4.30pm. He actually arrives at 7.30 rarely leaves before 5pm. He was told that his job would be to make the various coffees and juices (he has much experience and prides himself on the quality of his cappuccinos and frappes). He wasn’t told that he would also serve the drinks to the tables which stretch over a 100 metre harbourside. He has no breaks and he is given no food during the day, but out ‘of the goodness of his heart’ the owner allows Georgos to have a coffee on the house. On the issue of food, the law here requires employers to feed those restaurant and bar workers who have working days longer than 8 hours. Not in this case, as according to the owner, providing a meal requires time and expense which he cannot afford. The owners also take all the tips left by the customers and not one cent goes to the workers. Although he did say that he would consider paying an end of season bonus depending on how it went. Georgos has raised all these issues but with no positive result. But he will work under these conditions, 7 days a week for 30 euros a day and trusts that his boss will pay enough days’ insurance contributions to make sure that Georgos will qualify for unemployment benefits once the season is over.
Mara, the daughter of a friend, back for the summer from university has a similar story. On going to the bar where she has worked for the past few summers she was told that she would be paid 10 euros for 6 hours work during the evening. This is over 50% less than she received last year.
In both cases, Mara and Georgos were being employed in bars which were still doing a good enough summer business, unlike many other bars and restaurants which are clearly struggling. Many simply have no customers and a casual evening drive through the tourist hot spots on the island reveals place after place which are virtually empty and close up by 10 pm a time when they would expect to be at their busiest. 2 days ago we visited Manolates a well known ‘hot spot’ being a traditional mountain village that over the past 15 years has been transformed by an array of artisan craft shops ranging from ceramics to jewelry . Apart from the 4 of us we counted just 5 other visitors and this was lunch time in late July when we would have been expecting the village to be buzzing with visitors. The shop keepers we spoke to talked of a catastrophe.
Ekathimerini wrote this week that 50% of small businesses are reporting that on current trends they will be closing up by the end of the year. From the perspective of Samos this would seem a cautious assessment. In the struggling businesses, low pay, long hours, delays in paying wages and so forth are common place. Many are clearly caught in a debt spiral which will inevitably lead to their demise in much the same way as the Greek economy as a whole.
And simultaneously, those businesses which continue to survive, as in the case of the bars employing Mara and Georgos seem to have no qualms in exploiting the crisis to drive down wages and conditions knowing full well that desperation will ensure they experience no problem in filling their summer vacancies. This is what paid work – where it exists – increasingly looks like on Samos. Low wages, long hours and previously won concessions just ignored.
I would dearly love to be more up beat in these blog postings from Samos. To tell of new exciting initiatives and resistances. There are some active left groups on the island who have been actively involved in creating free clothing and food schemes and are now planning an anti-racist/fascist festival for September. There is no reason to think that these kinds of developments will not grow. But for the moment at least, they are not touching on the lives of the people in this village. One result is that as a regular Dutch summer visitor to the village observed, there is a ‘cloud of sadness over the place. It’s everywhere just beneath the surface’.
The emotions are tangled and confused. Anger and resignation stand side by side as does confusion and extraordinary insights. Feelings are raw and there is a pall of exhaustion which is not simply accounted for by the heat.
I feel increasingly convinced that amongst all the other challenges we face, we must do much more to lift the blanket of despair. We need to be bold in setting out a vision for the future where people can see that we don’t have to have a world like this which as each day passes is revealed ever more starkly as being only for a tiny fraction of its people. And when you listen and talk to the people in the village it is not hard to discern the bare outlines of what such a vision might be – a home which is not threatened by foreclosure, an income that allows you to live free of want, work that nourishes and is safe, government which is transparent, accountable and trusted, collective rather than individual effort and so on.
What you don’t hear is some endless rant about the necessity of economic growth. Nobody here is demanding the creation of call centres or giant hotel complexes where in both places they would be little more than slaves. I have heard nobody here say that we need a shopping mall or even more shops. People in the village are not so defined by their consumerism as they would appear to be in other parts of Western Europe.
Ah, but to believe in its possibility and realization is what we need here and indeed across the globe.
Samos Diary 10
The Relentless Violence of Austerity