“You can use the 600 Euros that you will find on me to pay our health insurance. I paid the rent yesterday. I am sorry, my daughter, I could not take more suffering just to put a warm plate on the table – a bloody plate. Make sure that our daughter goes to college and never leave her alone. She should get the house that we have in the village.”
This is the suicide note of a 50-year-old woman to her husband. She jumped off a high wall in Crete, Greece, last week and is hospitalized in critical condition. She is one more victim of the deepening financial crisis that is trying the limits of Greek people since 2008. According to the Greek Census Bureau, there has been a 43 percent increase in suicides in austerity-chained Greece since the beginning of the crisis. Unofficial accounts bring the number to 4,000 deaths so far.
Greece is the most recent and historically unprecedented neoliberal experiment on a global scale. The neoliberal offensive is moving head on in the country and, if Chile “was the laboratory for the early phases, Greece has become the laboratory for an even more fierce implementation.”(1) What we have in place right now in Greece can be best described as the “downsizing of a country”(2) that brings profound changes in its social and economic fabric. Greece’s economy has shrunk by nearly one-third since 2007, and the debt has become unmanageable. Through cut-throat austerity measures, massive privatizations and cuts in the most sensitive sectors of public education and public health, the constant process of de-industrialization and the loss of sovereignty, it looks like “Greece will emerge as a poorer country, with a diminished productive base, with reduced sovereignty, [and] with a political class accustomed to almost neo-colonial forms of supervision.”(3)
I glance through snapshots in the news: grim faces, desperate eyes, angry gazes, frustration, and, most of all, fear. The city of Athens is slowly turning into a cemetery for the living. The transformation of the city, both as a physical and as a symbolic space, is shocking to the eye; as a public space and a habitat for its people, it now gets fragmented into deserted stores “for rent,” broken façades and abandonment apartment windows and balcony doors tightly locked behind iron bars for “extra safety,” carton beds and, along them, homeless people’s possessions: an old dirty blanket, oversized worn out sneakers, plastic flowers, empty water bottles, stale bread. Different parts of the city palpably illustrate a degenerating social fabric, as more Greeks are now joining the ranks of what Zygmunt Bauman has called “human waste”(4): unemployed, working poor, immigrants, all the outcasts, victims of “economic progress,” preys of rampant neoliberal policies, “casualties,” real victims to what the Greek prime minister has recently called a “success story” on the road to privatization and the wholesale of Greece’s national assets and sovereignty.
Greece is radically and violently transformed into the land field of “wasted lives” in the giant trashcan of global capitalism. Witnessing as I do this novel form of social necrophilia that eats alive every inch of human life, workspace and public space, I cringe at the sound of the words “sacrifice,” “rescue” and making Greece, according to the claims of Greek PM Antonis Samaras, a “success story.” Whose sacrifice and whose rescue? Who succeeds and who loses? Numbers are telling.
Unemployment rates are currently climbing to 30 percent, the same percentage Greece had in 1961. As a point of comparison, unemployment in the United States in 1929 was 25 percent, and in Argentina in 2001, it was 30 percent. More than 70 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than a year, leaving most to rely on charity after losing monthly benefit payments and health insurance. This percentage does not include young people seeking a job for the first time, employees without insurance and part-timers. Unemployment is up 41 percent from 2011, and for those 15-24, it has reached 51.1 percent, doubling in only three years (5) and setting a negative record for a Eurozone country.(6)
The IMF/European Central Bank recipe is generating wealth in the global financial casino, while 31 percent of Greeks live at risk of poverty, according to Eurostat (2012). These statistics put Greece in seventh place in poverty percentages among the 27 EU countries. More specifically, in Greece: 28.7 percent of children up to 17 years old; 27.7 percent of the population between ages 27-64; and 26.7 percent of Greeks older than 65 live in the poverty threshold.
There is an 11.8 percent increase in child poverty, raising the number of poor children to 465,000 in 2011.(7) The Greek social and welfare state has been collapsing through draconian cuts in wages and pensions, massive layoffs and the violation of vested rights, of labor laws and of collective bargaining rights. All collective bargaining expired on May 14, 2013, and it has been replaced by individual contracts where workers become hostages of their employers. Base salary went tumbling down to 500 Euros monthly (400 for young people) – not to mention a retroactive salary cut of 22 percent (32 percent for youth) in February 2012.
In March 2013, the government announced additional pension cuts of up to 20 percent. According to the Labor Institute of the National Confederation of Greek Workers (2012), new measures dictated by the Troika (the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund) will lead to at least a 35 percent deterioration of salaried employees’ and pensioners’ lives. As an example, since the beginning of 2011, 113,268 people have disconnected their telephone landlines to decrease expenses. With a 19 percent increase in the cost of electricity, 350,000 people now live without electricity in Athens. Additional taxes on property have ravaged the middle class that is now “paying rent” in their own houses through new taxes and fines imposed. Quality of life is radically deteriorating for Greek people.
This neoliberal experiment, as currently implemented in Greece, breeds destructiveness and death and resonates with forms of “social necrophilia.” By social necrophilia, I mean the blunt organized effort on the part of the domestic political system and foreign neoliberal centers to implement economic policies and austerity measures that result in the physical, material, social and financial destruction of human beings: policies that promote death, whether physical or symbolic. The goal of the ongoing capitalist offensive in the form of a neoliberal doctrine is to destroy symbolically and physically the most vulnerable strata of the population, to put the entire society in a moribund state to impose the most unprecedented austerity measures that generate profit for the most privileged classes internationally.
Erich Fromm, Frankfurt School philosopher, social psychologist and psychoanalyst, provides both a metaphor from the realm of psychiatry, as well as the tools to make the case for a reified market society that is being forced to start loving death: its own. In his seminal work on the Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), Fromm defines necrophilia as “the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures.”(8)
In the case of the Greek neoliberal experiment, however, beyond destroying for the sake of destruction, there are real economic interests at stake. There are bets and speculations in casino capitalism, and the game is on in Greece for banks and other large financial organizations. Social necrophilia here can be understood as the state of decay, the material and social degeneration of society, and the destruction of social fabric, where illness and death loom for the poor as a result of an economy dying through specific political choices while profit goes to big banks and multinational corporations. Love of death or the politics of social necrophilia can be illustrated in Greece in a) the rise of fascism and b) the shocking increase in illness, suicide, addiction and spread of infectious diseases since the beginning of the crisis.
In the Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (9) Fromm makes the case that necrophilia is a product of fascist thought, as he discusses the example of Spanish Falangists who used to shout, “long live death.” Fascism finds expression both in government discourses and policies as well as in the rise of neo-Nazi Party Golden Dawn. Love of death is currently manifested in Greece in that rise of Golden Dawn.
In the context of the Greek crisis, a new form of political domination has emerged, a renewed model of fascism, or another example of “proto-fascism.(10) The elected Greek coalition government has been systematically violating the Greek Constitution and shaking the foundations of parliamentary democracy by establishing a “side system” of legislation. Using “urgent legislative decrees” indiscriminately and regularly, the coalition government is bypassing Greek legislation to facilitate privatizations and sellouts. In addition, there is an institutionalized instability: Laws keep changing, and many laws are voted in and implemented with retroactive effect.
Beyond the constant constitutional violations, the disappearing public space is a central feature of Greek proto-fascism. The landscape taking shape since 2009 is not too far from the kind of totalitarianism Hannah Arendt wrote about: a “totalitarian government does not just curtail liberties or abolish essential freedoms; . . . It destroys the one essential prerequisite of all freedom, which is simply the capacity of motion which cannot exist without space.”(11)
Motion is not only inhibited and/or prohibited, as for example, in the case of prohibiting demonstrations in the center of Athens when Troika officials visit, a practice reminiscent of the curfews during the German occupation of the ’40s. Furthermore, what motion there is, is watched, with heightened surveillance and cameras installed throughout Athens. In a necrophilous state of affairs, the system in charge operates with the conviction that the only way to solve a problem or a conflict is by force and violence, both symbolic and material, usually failing to see other options. This also explains the increased exponential violence employed by the state the last five years as manifested in shutting down protests, criminalizing dissent and activism and torturing arrested protesters as well as pre-emptive arrests in every mobilization.
Alongside symbolic violence manifested in economic, political and discursive form, there is an intensified move toward militarization and authoritarianism. To this end, and while massive layoffs are taking place in the public sector, the Greek state spends more money on hiring and training law enforcement officers. More interestingly, there are close ties between the police and the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, whose members are nostalgic of Hitler and the 1967 Colonels’ Junta. Golden Dawn – now pronounced a criminal organization – is involved in running “paramilitary operations that systematically attacked migrants, leftists and gay people.”(12) Eighteen of its MPs are already incarcerated, and a number of its members have been involved in violent attacks, gun possession and even murder as in the fatal brutal beating of Pakistani immigrant Shehzad Luqman and the cold-blooded murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a young leftist anti-fascist activist and rapper.
The “public” is being abolished in favor of the private, through a process of devaluation, vilification and degradation. A case in point is the ongoing demonization of public functionaries, public school teachers and university professors, and doctors working in the public system of health as lazy, incompetent, in need of constant evaluation and with the Damocles sword of investigation should they dare to disagree. Everything “public” is left to decay, by cutting off funding, staff and support and creating a fertile space for corruption and violent competition.
Public schools lack books and other materials, and in many areas in the north of Greece, children stay at home on very cold days because schools cannot afford to heat the classrooms. Teachers are suffering terrible cuts in their salaries, and universities barely meet their minimum functional needs with cuts in laboratory and support staff that hinder the appropriate working of the departments.
The Decaying Body
“It’s simple. You get hungry, you get dizzy and you sleep it off,” said the mother of an 11-year old boy who has been suffering hunger pains at school.(13)
Necrophilia is further manifested in physical terms in the ways the human body is degenerating, ravaged by illness, malnutrition, drug abuse, HIV and suicide. People looking for food in the trash. There are homeless people in every corner; mini slum communities all over downtown Athens. Walking south, toward the center, thousands of people wait in line to be served food by soup kitchens that provide over 30,000 free meals a day. Plenty of people queue up for possibly the only meal of their day. Welcome to the “human waste” line.
The Greek governments that assumed the role of the executioners of IMF/EU directives since the beginning of the crisis in 2008 have demonstrated a particularly necrophilous character, and they have done so unapologetically. Αn increasing number of children have been passing out in schools because of malnutrition; there are embarrassing shortages in public hospitals, where patients often have to buy their own gauze and medication from an outside pharmacy while admitted. People without health insurance with severe illnesses do not have access to treatment. Malaria, a disease officially eliminated 40 years ago, also made a comeback in 2012, with cases being noted in eastern Attica and the Peloponnese.
There are increasing numbers of suicides (close to a 43 percent hike) that rank Greece number one worldwide in suicides the past five years. There are alarming new cases of depression and mental illnesses. A recent study conducted by the University of Ioannina found that one in five people facing financial problems presents psychopathological symptoms. There is also a 200 percent increase in HIV cases.(14) At the same time, significant funding is cut from psychiatric hospitals, public drug rehabilitation centers and other social and welfare provisions while the system tries to “abort” vulnerable social groups such as HIV-positive women, drug users and people with mental illness.
With the 40 percent surcharge the government has slapped on heating oil, thousands of households have remained cold during the winter while people are returning to wood stoves, the out-of-control use of which has generated poisonous toxic smog over the city of Athens. Bodily decay goes hand in hand with environmental destruction: Greek soil is ravaged as mineral resources are overexploited in the name of profit. Large forest areas, such as the Skouries forest in Halkidiki, are turning into vast mining sites, where private companies exploit the natural wealth of the country, while poisoning the soil, the air and the water.
It is a challenging and complicated task to try to explain Greek people’s lack of massive organized resistance the last five years given the radical deterioration of their living conditions. There is almost a reconciliation with death looming everywhere; people are slowly getting used to terror. The initial manifestations – gatherings in squares, protests and other acts of disobedience – did not acquire a more organized and consistent character, despite small local victories and the existence of a movement that daily struggles on many levels and sites. The power elites used the initial shock and paralysis to spread fear through what Naomi Klein has termed the “shock doctrine.” It is common practice for business interests and power elites to exploit shocks in the form of natural disasters, economic problems, or political turmoil, as an opportunity to aggressively restructure vulnerable countries’ economies. In this vein, popular resistance and dissent are squashed through symbolic and material fear and violence ranging from “catastrophic” discourses in the media to very real torture and repression.(15)
Shock helps the system implement antisocial and harmful policies that citizens would normally object to. Being in a state of shock as a country, says Klein, means losing your narrative, being unable to understand where you are in space and time. The state of shock is easy to exploit because people become vulnerable and confused. They are robbed of their vital tools for understanding themselves and their position in the sociopolitical context. People become unalive things and the market becomes alive. While people are slowly losing their humanity, with the government abandoning its social and welfare functions, “markets” become the new referent people should care and worry about, as if they were something alive.
Although lifeless things, markets acquire a soul and a character in the neoliberal discourse. One can observe an interesting phenomenon in the official government discourse, loyally reproduced by mainstream media: a continuous attempt to ascribe human properties to markets. The “market” as a noun, subject or object, is projected as the overarching authority, above and beyond everybody, the entity that should be kept happy and satisfied – another manifestation of necrophilia as people have to die to keep the market alive. The anthropomorphism of the market is illustrated when “markets” are used in the mainstream media in sentences such as “the markets showed satisfaction today” or “the market is struggling,” and “we need to convince the markets,” “we should appease the markets,” or “let’s wait and see how the markets respond.” The invisible market’s “reactions” give legitimacy to the “human sacrifices,” as all “market feelings” depend on increasing antisocial austerity measures that relegate a large part of Greek productive population to the unemployment trashcan. The more human qualities are attributed to the markets, the more real people are robbed of their own human substance. It seems as if the system needs to dehumanize people to “humanize” the market and then, possibly re-humanize them in the new market society, as a new kind of people robbed of any sense of agency.
In the Greek people’s quest to find their lost narrative, to “renarrativise” themselves in a collective way (16), the ability to consciously disobey and to fill the concept of hope with a real, feasible political project are two very important imperatives. To paraphrase Fromm, at this point in Greek history “the capacity to doubt, to criticize and to disobey”(17) may be all that stands between the future for this country and its end. In articulating a political project and a narrative against capitalist necrophilia, there is a need to put at the core critical and radical thought that, when blended with the love of life, may take the struggle to the next level. Instead of getting confined to reforming or amending the current situation, people need to strive to imagine that which is not, desire it and work hard to make it happen.
* This article draws on my forthcoming book chapter “Neoliberalism as Social Necrophilia: Erich Fromm and The Politics of Hopelessness in Greece” to appear in Miri, S., Lake, R. & Kress, T. Reclaiming the Sane Society: Essays on Erich Fromm’s Thought. Boston: Sense Publishers.
Panayota Gounari is associate professor of applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She holds a Ph.D. in Language and Literacy Education/Cultural Studies in Education from Pennsylvania State University. She has earned a BA in classics with a concentration in historical and comparative linguistics from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and an MA in Applied Linguistics from UMass Boston. Her research focus is on the role of language and discourse in education, in human agency and in social transformation, and the implications for critical pedagogy. She has co-authored “The Hegemony of English” (in 2003) and co-edited “The Globalization of Racism” (in 2005) with D. Macedo. Both books have been translated into many languages. More recently she has co-edited “Critical Pedagogy: A Reader” (in Greece with G. Grollios). She has published numerous articles and book chapters.
1. Hall, S., Massey, D. & Rustin, M. (2013). After Neoliberalism: Analyzing the Present. In Hall, S., Massey, D. & Rustin, M. (Eds.) After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto; London, UK: Soundings, p. 12.
2. Sotiris, P. (2012). The Downsizing of a Country.
6. Eurozone Unemployment Reaches New High (2013, January 8). BBC
12. The Guardian
14. Henley, J. (2013, May 15). Recessions can hurt but Austerity kills.
16. Edmonds, L. (2013, April 26) “Is Greece in Shock?” Naomi Klein tells Enet how her bestseller The Shock Doctrine relates to Greece. Eleytherotypia Online.
17. Fromm, 1981