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)
Getty
Show Hide image

New Times: Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

The mustering of Bernie’s and Donald’s armies, along with the Brexit vote, may signify the end of the neoliberal world order which has ruled since the 1980s. So what next?

The economic crisis of 2008 looks more and more like a pivot in world history. The worst possibilities of that moment did not materialise: global financial structures did not melt down, and a decade-long great depression did not ensue. But the consequences in Europe have been wrenching all the same: a severe recession followed by long stretches of achingly slow growth; billions of euros expended on bailouts of banks and national governments; a regime of barely relieved austerity imposed on all of Europe by a coalition of conservative ruling parties in Germany and Britain, the most powerful countries in Europe. And, worst of all, a sense within Europe that the EU and much of what it stood for – regimes of free trade and free movement of people orchestrated by only partially accountable governments in Brussels and Strasbourg – were no longer working well enough.

Since 2008, it has become clear that the EU has produced economic winners and losers, the lines running not only between different regions of Europe – north v south, Germans v Greeks – but between different regions of the same country. British citizens in England’s globally dynamic south—London writ large – voted in overwhelming numbers to remain, while those in the country’s left-behind north voted by equal margins to leave.

The sorting out of winners and losers in the globalisation process has been under way for a long time, of course: since the Thatcher revolution. But in the sunny Blairite days it was possible to believe that everyone would be a winner. That belief became unsustainable after 2008. The economic crash discredited the Blairites, and disoriented the Labour Party.

One of the most stunning features of the EU referendum campaign was the failure of a party of Europe to materialise in England, inside or outside the Labour Party. Where, south of the Scottish border, were the 100,000-person-strong marches for Europe, with EU flags flying? Where could one hear the soaring speeches articulating the principles of the EU and extolling its achievements? Why is it so impossible to imagine singing a European anthem with the capacity to arouse internationalist solidarity in the manner that the “Marseillaise” and “Internationale” once did?

This absence had partly to do with the peculiarities of British politics: Labour was led by a Eurosceptic, the Tories by a man in thrall to his party’s Brexit wing. The 2015 general election, meanwhile, had wiped the Liberal Democrats, the last true British believers (along with the Scottish National Party) in the European idea, off the electoral map. But these particularities are symptomatic in their own right of something more fundamental – a conviction that the EU regime was creating too many losers. This conviction has been convulsing politics not only in Britain but also across Europe.

Populisms of the left and right have been surging everywhere, imperilling mainstream parties perceived to be facilitators of the EU status quo. Similar forces have been roiling politics outside the EU, too. The emergence in the United States of the leftist Bernie Sanders and the reactionary Donald Trump, both animated by anti-globalisation politics, mirrors closely the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage in Britain.

Trump has received the lion’s share of attention in Britain, while Sanders has been largely ignored. But Sanders’s achievements were considerable: he won 23 of the 57 Democratic Party primaries and caucuses, attracted 13 million (43 per cent) of the 30 million Democratic votes cast, and raised $230m, almost entirely from small donations averaging a mere $27 apiece. None of these feats was enough to defeat Hillary Clinton, but Sanders’s impressive showing pulled the Democratic Party and Clinton to the left. Sanders has reintroduced the word “socialism” to US politics after a 70-year period when, in effect, it had been banned. His campaign rallies frequently drew more than 10,000 wildly enthusiastic fans, most of them young and white, eager to see, hear and touch this most unlikely of rock stars – a dishevelled, 74-year-old Brooklynite, awkwardly jabbing his finger in the air and calling for revolution. His charisma was as odd as it was unmistakable.

The same could be said of Trump, whose rallies were also large and passionate. Both men shared something beyond magnetism: fury at a regime of global free trade seen as undermining the American working man and woman while advantaging powerful corporations and the political parties that service their needs. Yet Sanders, unlike Trump, refuses to blame immigrants or minorities for America’s misfortune; and he loathes Trump’s strongman tendencies. In the 2016 election, left-wing and right-wing populists have been worlds apart. But they both espouse a belief that elites have rigged economics and politics in a manner that disadvantages ordinary Americans.

The mustering of Bernie’s and Donald’s armies, along with the Brexit vote, may signify that the neoliberal world order which has ruled since the 1980s and since the collapse of the Soviet Union is beginning to unravel. If this is indeed what is happening, there is no way that it is going to unfold in an orderly manner. Nor will its future be decided in Britain alone. The many national elections in European countries in the next year and a half, as well as the one in the US, are going to influence the process profoundly. A lot is at stake. If the left is going to play a role in this process, it must find its voice and develop a programme.

What is to be done?

First, in Britain, Tory-dominated plans for Brexit must be fought vigorously and on multiple fronts. The large demonstrations in London and other cities on 3 September were an encouraging sign. They should be repeated on the first Saturday of every month for the next two years.

This is not to challenge the legitimacy of the Brexit vote – too late for that – but to show the Tories how mobilised and determined the pro-European, pro-left voices in Britain are. A social movement of this sort can influence negotiations with the EU, and can shape the manner in which Brexit will occur.

So much about the EU itself is up in the air. In 12 months, after a bevy of European elections, even a modification of Schengen coming from the heart of Europe, in the form of emergency brakes on migration at times of stress, may become thinkable. There may well be a form of “Brexit” that a pro-European British left can accept and one that a British working class can embrace. All the more reason for a left to identify and promote it.

Second, the left must begin to imagine a different kind of world order, one in which equality has greater purchase than is common in the order in which we now live. The EU has excelled in promoting one kind of equality: an equality of human rights grounded in a commitment to the dignity of every person, irrespective of national origin, religion, or race. But it has not done nearly so well narrowing the economic inequality between classes, regions, or nations. This will not be accomplished easily, especially in an international polity transcending the nation state where the critical political institution that once enabled a broad redistribution of economic resources to occur – a parliament truly representative of the people – has yet to emerge. But developing this sort of vision, and devising a remedy for the EU’s democratic deficit, is precisely the kind of intellectual and political project that
a left worth its salt must engage with.

Third, Jeremy Corbyn is not the man to lead the British left to this future. He is a good man, steadfast in his principles. He deserves credit for bringing hundreds of thousands of new members into the Labour Party. But at this crucial juncture of British history – the most important since 1945 – he has repeatedly proved himself unable to move beyond positions he embraced in the 1980s, to rise above the infighting in his party, and to articulate a programme that can grasp the significance of this moment. 

Gary Gerstle is the Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times