Euro Anxieties and Drachma Phobia
I have been pondering a number of issues which arose following a very good social evening with about 10 friends on Saturday. As ever the crisis and the forthcoming elections were big issues for everyone there, all of whom were younger than Tony and I (mid 20s to mid 30s), all of whom have been to university, and all of whom were struggling in pretty dead end jobs, many in shops related to tourism, and on low wages- around about 30 euros a day. One of them had two jobs and she worked 16 hours a day – 8 hours in a furniture shop in Karlovassi and another 8 hours in a tourist shop in Pythagorio.
That they all just about get by on such low wages is due to the fact that they have places to live and pay no rent or loans for their housing.
I think what surprised me most was their deep anxiety about the consequences for their lives should Greece leave the euro either by choice or by being thrown out. With virtually no exception they considered that disaster would follow – chaos, increased hardship, economic and social catastrophe and so on. Not one of them expressed any appetite for the challenge of leaving the euro and defaulting on the bankers’ debt. No one said ‘bring it on’ and let’s get on with it. No one expressed any view that leaving the euro would offer any prospect for a new and better future.
All of them are bright, creative and socially engaged people. They know only too well that the austerity has brought a humanitarian crisis to Greece. They also realize that more of this will bring untold suffering. All expressed fear about what next winter will bring. Yet somehow they clearly thought that leaving the euro would be worse.
I was also surprised by their insularity. Not a single person present raised the possibilities of solidarities with people in other countries in similar positions or even in those countries which were not so badly battered by the current crises of capitalism. They assumed that they would be alone. They took no encouragement from the Argentinean experience even though they knew something of the ways in which the people occupied and took over factories and social enterprises. Although it is interesting to note that the neo-liberal elites are now giving more attention to rubbishing the Argentinean experience in case it encourages too many to follow the default route. The big lie they are spreading is that the Argentinean recovery was ‘export led’ which cannot apply to a country such as Greece which has nothing valuable to export whereas the truth of their recovery was to a far greater extent due to an internal shift in macro-economic policy which rejected brutal neo-liberalism and critically put more money in the pockets of the poor.
The simple answer as to why so many here seem fearful and paralyzed is of course the media’s endless portrayal of the disaster which awaits if Greece defaults and is forced out of the euro. And since the May election there is no doubt that the existing political elites have raised their game in this respect and reporting every so called expert both in Greece and elsewhere who is predicting disaster if the people reject austerity in the new elections called for June 17th. It is without doubt any extraordinarily vicious attack deliberately aimed at frightening the people and it is not surprising that its impact is being felt.
Yet it is not altogether convincing explanation either. Just a brief glimpse at the leaders of New Democracy and Pasok shows us people who have never stared at an empty plate, fridge or food cupboard, or had to wonder as our friends Mario and Monica did last week, how they were going to survive with only 7 euros between them. And the same applies to the endless stream of grey haired men in their sharp suits who hector the people on the TV about there being no alternative but the euro, the troika and austerity. It is enough to make you vomit. And all this crap is being broadcast against a backcloth of more and more suicides and people hunting in the rubbish bins for food and a profound understanding that this is what the future holds for more and more people as further austerity measures are introduced and the economy spirals downwards.
Take Agios Konstantinos our neighbouring sea side village. Last year it had 15 hotels, now it has 5 and of those that remain some are only opening at the end of May. The holiday season, the life blood for many is shrinking before our eyes.
I sent the above to my friend and comrade Dimitris and his response seemed to me very helpful. This is what he had to say:
“You describe the “Euro” contradiction (or Drachma-phobia if you see it from another perspective) and I can definitely tell you that this is also evident in almost every discussion I have with people who are concerned about Greece’s future these days. I agree with you that to some extend this is related to the current media offensive against the so-called “Europhobes”. There is an extraordinary effort from the media, dominant political parties even foreign governments to “warn” the Greek public of the post-apocalyptic consequences that a possible Eurozone exit will bring.
But I think that this is a contradiction which has its roots in the past. The younger generation, people in their 20s and 30’s like the ones you have spoken to, we have grown up in an environment within which there was no questioning about Euro and the EU. Not even a debate, let alone questioning. As you know when in 1991 Greece signed the Maastricht treaty, the actual text of the treaty was missing from all newspapers (but one-guess which!). No discussion at all. It was a given! It was our christening to the developed world.
A few years later, the circulation of Euro “confirmed” our position in the “European elite”. Despite the fact that the consequences on their household budget was immediate as a result of the rounding up of the prices, Greeks still kept having this “national pride” of being the Balkan superpower- whatever that meant. The Olympic Games and even the Euro cup in 2004 made many people think that we were not only in the elite group of Europe, we were the elite of Europe! Every voice that attempted to raise a concern or doubt was dismissed as a caricature or dinosaur, or even unpatriotic.
I don’t really want to psychologize social phenomena but in my recent visits in Eastern Europe (Slovakia, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Hungary) I witnessed a very similar attitude (although one that really reached the levels of hyperbole). People despite the fact that they recognized how much their lives have deteriorated since they joined the EU, they always spoke enthusiastically about how proud “Europeans” they were. Especially in public meetings blaming the EU was a mortal sin. It felt like they needed to rely on something an effort to disguise their agony and find hope for the future.
But it is not only PASOK- ND and their satellite parties that were involved in this. I do feel great disappointment about the U-turn SYRIZA have performed in recent weeks. As you remember from my last email, even though I do not think that SYRIZA will bring about change I believe that the collapse of the two main parties and growth of SYRIZA could be seen as a start of a further emancipation. However, I am so disappointed that SYRIZA has turned into a clear proponent of the Euro currency and an advocate of political realism. This restricts the opportunities to open a discussion about the structural problems in our society or that they are not ready or willing to speak up about the alternatives you mentioned.
There is little mention that peoples across Europe are so angry that even a spark can lead to a much needed explosion. And this spark could be ignited in Greece (such spark would be much more useful to the peoples of Europe than the circus that is called “Olympic flame”!)
This brain-washing about Greece “belonging to the west” (post- war declaration of Karamanlis which haunts Greek politics since then) and even the grotesque claim that development or even survival can be achieved through the euro has really had devastating effects in the way people think about the future. Sometimes I even catch my self thinking “do you really want to see what happens after a Euro-exit”?
And this leads to the second issue you have mentioned. The Euro is only one tool that ensures a certain kind of capitalist function. Exiting Euro alone will not help unless people move forward with building a different kind of society. Equally, it is a blatant lie that we can remain in the Eurozone and at the same time we can challenge capitalism.
The current situation in Greece offers a great opportunity to explore different alternatives. I am surprised by the fact that young people in Samos seem to be hesitant to by-pass the authorities! My experience is not such. The “can’t pay- won’t pay” movement grew very big in recent months and there is a constant flow of brilliant examples of people sabotaging the authorities across the country”.
Courage Comrades and Friends!
Let me now add another dimension to this. A small group of us in the village are planning/hoping to stage a ‘peoples’ festival’ in August bringing together at little or no cost musicians, artists, crafts people, entertainers and the like. Our current planning group of 5 includes 2 Brits, 1 Algerian, 1 Pole and 1 Greek. The response of out Greek friends is enthusiastic and we expect them to get involved but it is also tempered by the response that ‘this will be difficult’ to do. And when asked why we get told about the need to get this or that paper and permission from the authorities and how problematic this can be. Then they also add that there will be people against it like local shop keepers and restaurant owners who won’t like us selling cheap beer and food or that they are simply jealous and not happy at initiatives that by pass the usual suspects. And sadly we hear this all too often.
Our line is that we will do it and why do we need permission, what will or can the authorities do to us? Are they really going to stop us from having a good time together? I am sure they think we are naive and crazy. But then I ask what did the resistance do in the 2nd World War? Did they ask for permission and for the right sort of papers? Is our situation today really that different? Are we prepared to accept a state system that continues to operate as though there is no humanitarian crisis?
I am really not sure how to make sense of all this. What does it say about this society where on the one hand there are so many examples of solidarities and generosities amongst the people but on the other hand what seems to be a deep rooted suspicion of other peoples’ motivations ? And with it a lack of trust. Has recent history really created a set of social relationships where the majority think that the over riding motivation of any public action is narrow self-interest and self-enrichment?
As a non Greek living here I see a people with so many skills and capacities. A people who could make a paradise of Samos and Greece more generally. It is a country and a people that are firmly located within modern capitalism and yet one where capitalism in all its barbarities and distortions has not penetrated its inner core to the extent you find in so many north European societies. Samos is not defined by class specific spaces such as you would find in Britain where the rich and the poor live quite separate lives living in distinct districts and shopping and playing in different places. Here people spend great chunks of their lives in activities such as farming and gardening which never register on the capitalist’s indices such as GDP. In other words we do far better than such flawed measures suggest and offer real optimism for the future. There are endless examples which point clearly to better ways of living and working together and not only in Samos and Greece but across the globe. The popular committees that were created by Chavez in Venezuela to monitor the performance of ministers and ministries; the villages and communities created by the landless peoples’ movement in Brazil; the micro banks and financial systems created by the poor in India; the hundreds of factories without bosses in Argentina are but a mere fragment of actualities that work and could be so applicable to our situation here. And in virtually all of these activities, it is the people themselves who are driving the changes and making lives fit for humans. Here – on Samos – there is far too much talk about the need for new leaders – a kind of waiting for some messiah to lead us out of the darkness. This is not the answer and can never be. As Michael Mcgehee has so clearly argued in his Z net pieces:
‘The most radical thing we can today is to rebuild our communities; to re-establish bonds of solidarity, to realize that voting is the least of our struggles, and that we can triumph over the Have's, the so-called One Percent. But we have to look to ourselves. We have to develop our own social power, and we can't do that via the electoral system. One of the most inspirational quotes on this topic came from labor organizer and socialist, Eugene Debs:
I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the Promised Land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.
(From: http://www.zcomm.org/voting-is-still-the-least-of-our-struggles-by-michael-mcgehee April 5 2012)
At the Sharp End
Austerity has and is bringing disaster to Greece. The ongoing oppression of migrants and refugees here is completely disgusting and shameful. We are receiving stories daily from friends in Athens and Patras of an intensification of this onslaught with refugees and migrants being swept out of the city centre of Athens and sent off to new camps in the north, near Thessalonica to await deportation. And this is not just about the fascists either for the leaders of both New Democracy and Pasok have given legitimacy to such oppression in their statements that Athens has been occupied by an alien force that needs to be removed. For such statements alone they deserve to be dumped out of Greek politics for all time.
We are now getting news of migrants developing new overland routes out of Greece to the north travelling through Albania, Hungary, FYROM and so forth. These are routes of desperation. Some of the roads to the north are mined; being caught in some of these places means instant imprisonment; the journeys are long involving months of walking, hiding and surviving.
This is one of the sharpest points of austerity politics which is destroying thousands of our fellow human beings. Being in or out of the euro, the drachma or whatever is barely relevant unless it brings about the necessary transformation of society so that such things are stopped and never ever allowed to happen again. This is the reality we must grasp and work to change.