Austerity in Athens

A report from the Greek capital.

We had many reasons for wanting to travel to Athens and to interview people there about the appalling effects of austerity's assault on services, jobs and aspirations. One was a concern about the brutal realities of cuts in Greece - Abi had visited Athens earlier this year, talked to a lot of people and was keen to meet with more. Another was an interest in comparing cuts stories from Greece with cuts stories in the UK. For several years, Kate has been interviewing people around the UK who were on the sharp end of this government's cuts – people who were losing care services, benefits, homes and any hope of rescue.

It seemed that comparisons could be made. It also seemed that comparisons should be made. Dead-eyed, austerity continues to march Europe deeper into poverty, shock, fascism and other forms of oblivion. Reporting that and the wider experience is a crucial part of the response of those of us who refuse to accept that most people exist to serve out as austerity's fodder. To put it another way – everyone everywhere needs to know when and where poverty and fascism are taking people out across Europe and anyone who is in a position to report that should be doing so. So, we went to Athens last week.
 
Right away, race was an issue. In fact, it was an issue before we went: friends in Greece warned Abi to take care and to stay out of Golden Dawn strongholds. Abi: “I spoke to Greeks in London who told of anarchist friends being beaten up alongside immigrants. Before we left, I'd heard that the American government issued a statement warning dark-skinned Americans in Athens to be careful when leaving their hotels at night. I assumed that as a dark-skinned British person, that probably applied to me as well.”
 
Kate is white and so, to put it bluntly, was a lot less likely to end up as a target. Nobody bothered with niceties on the subject. They simply told us that Abi was at risk and Kate wasn't. Abi: “I was surprised how many people said that I couldn’t go to certain places, although my white companion could. “Especially because you’re coloured” was something I heard a lot.”
 
“Don't you go,” surgeon Charalambos Farantos told Abi when, at the end of our interview with him, we said we said we would go to see Attica Square (Abi had seen this film) and several other areas. “They'll beat you up.”
 
“Is it dangerous here?” we asked antifascist activist Thanasis Kourkoulas when we were walking from Attiki station to his organisation's offices several streets away. We'd heard that Golden Dawn raids and attacks took place in the area at night, but the streets seemed benign during the day. People watched us and each other, but the sun was out and people in squares and cafes were talking and drinking coffee. But Kourkoulas seemed anxious. He took us to the burned-out ruins of a building that had recently been torched. He gave us a few minutes to take pictures of the site and the fascist graffiti that had been daubed on the surrounding walls and then he hurried us away.
 
“Come on,” he said. “Better go.”
 
“Is it dangerous?” we asked.
 
“It would be for you, because you're coloured,” he said to Abi.
 
Almost everyone we spoke to had a Golden Dawn story to tell, or seemed to expect to have one soon. Pavlos Antonopoulos, an Athens high school teacher, told us that just a few days earlier, three young Golden Dawn members – all ex-pupils – had turned up at his school to try and share the party's message with students. He told them to leave and they threatened to stab him. They took a different view of the security guard who let them in. “We will take care of you,” they told her.
 
We talked to doctors who treated immigrants without papers and people without insurance and said they would continue to do so, no matter who turned up to insist otherwise. “I think most doctors here would refuse if they were asked to behave like Mengele,” Farantos said. Doctors at his hospital had already taken pay cuts and were working hours of free overtime to treat people. Farantos told us that the evening before we met him, surgeons had worked into the night, unpaid, to operate on one person who had an appendicitis and another who needed emergency surgery for a stomach perforation.
 
We talked to three young men from Nigeria and Togo who'd come to Greece on the promise of further education. Two were were planning to leave as soon as they could. All said they were frightened of the police, all right. Explaining why, one of the young men pointed to an ugly lump over his eye – a day or two earlier, the police had thrown a bottle at him. We spoke to a teacher and students – all anti-fascist activists in Kallithea who were organising to leaflet against the party on the day we met them – who showed us obscene graffiti which had been sprayed on a school gate and signed with fascist insignia.
 
Not everyone was worried about fascism. Christos Mpampouras, 61, a man who ate regularly at an Omonoia municipal soup kitchen we visited, told us that he didn't have much problem with Golden Dawn because “they are young and they are Greek.” We spoke to a woman in her early thirties who voted Golden Dawn this year and said she'd vote for them again. She said she was proud to be Greek and needed hope.
 
Many of the Greek people we met wondered why the UK government was pursuing cuts with such passion off its own bat. A dentist we spoke to said: “In Greece the Troika is forcing us to implement these cuts. In the UK, your own government is doing it. Why?” Certainly, the evils being inflicted on people in the UK in the name of bank bailouts and corporate welfare - the Atos assessments, care cuts, bedroom taxes, council tax benefit cuts, housing benefit caps, rocketing rents, workfare, falling wages, the relying on foodbanks and all the rest - often came to mind while we were in Athens. The rise and rise of Golden Dawn may not be replicated here, but the heaping of cuts and blame on people who can least afford to shoulder those things sure as hell is.
Shops closed in Athens during a recent strike by transport workers (Photograph: Getty Images)
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty
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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.