Selective zero-tolerance: is Greece really a democracy anymore?

The abuse suffered by four young anarchists, arrested for a bank robbery, at the hands of the police proves it’s time to call Greece’s coalition government what it is – a far-right authoritarian group.

Earlier this year, the Greek Minister of Citizen Protection declared he would take up initiatives to restore law and order in the capital of the crisis-stricken country. Nikos Dendias spearheads an attempt by the coalition government produced in last June’s elections to show that while the public coffers are empty and people are seeing their quality of life reduced to shambles, the state is present and it can still provide them with a sense of safety at the very least. Xenios Zeus was one of those initiatives, a crackdown on “illegal immigrants”, its failure (from 73,100 people arrested, only 4,352 were charged with anything) a big problem for the government. The coalition is also now dealing with accusations of tolerating an increasingly authoritarian police force that is torturing people and colluding with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, alongside the Lagarde list scandal taking its toll and two very difficult parliamentary votes looming. The first is a new tax code that will find many Greeks unable to pay their tax bills in 2013 and the second an investigation into the names included in the Lagarde list (the list of around 2,000 potential Greek tax evaders with undeclared Swiss HSBC accounts passed to the Greek government by Christine Lagarde in 2010), with at least two senior members of the government involved in an attempt to bury the files before they were published three months ago.

Since the crackdown on immigration didn’t work as the ministry had expected, their next move was to attack occupations and spaces associated with the anarchist movement. This should not come as a surprise since it is exactly these political spaces that have moved to organise in many neighborhoods and stand against the neo-Nazi gangs now roaming the streets of Athens, often with very high cost. But the manner in which this agenda is pursued has revealed something more: this government now sees the anarchists, as well as SYRIZA, as its opponent on the political stage. By cracking down on squats like that of Villa Amalias a month ago, the government is doing a favour for the Golden Dawn thugs who attack people openly with no repercussions – it was squats like that which traditionally stood as an obstacle to the ever expanding activities of the neo-Nazis and which as many locals have stated, helped keep the area around it safe. The spin is to baptise anarchists as the tools of SYRIZA, terrorists who enjoy the support they get from the opposition party. They have gone on the record with this many times.

But it’s the arrest of four young anarchists (aged between 20 and 25) this weekend after a failed bank robbery that brings back the political nature of Dendias’ agenda and of the police’s fascist tendencies. Two of them already wanted as suspects in the “conspiracy of the cells of fire” terrorist group, they were arrested in Kozani after trying to flee the bank while chased by the police. Witnesses of the incident claim that when they realised they couldn't get away, they exited the car and surrendered peacefully. However, the pictures published by the police show them to have been extensively abused, their faces swollen to the point where the mother of one didn’t recognise her son when she was allowed to see him. His own testimony leaves no doubt as to what transpired. He claims they were fitted with hoods, tied up and beaten for hours after their arrest. That the police tried to crudely photoshop the bruises “to make them recognisable” as Dendias himself stated points to the extent of the abuse. The use of torture is straightforwardly forbidden by the Greek constitution and violates human rights, while reminding the Greeks of the Colonel’s Junta and their systematic torture of dissidents.

A video showing the four being transferred leaves no doubt as to their political alignment. In front of the cameras, they shouted defiance at a country that has pushed its youth to extremes with the apathy that now runs deep in our lives, making us afraid of losing the few things we have left. “We only lost a battle, not the war” and “Long live anarchy”, they shouted, not to the cameras, but to the faces of those who stand by idle. Dendias didn’t even bother to launch an inquiry into the conditions under which they were tortured despite stating that “there is no desire to cover up anyone or anything”. Prime ministerial advistor Failos Kranidiotis, in an exchange we had on Twitter, sided with the police and spoke of injuries that were caused during the arrest, despite the absence of evidence backing his claims. How could anyone disarm a “terrorist armed like a lobster” with his punches? That is his claim and that of Dendias. He said “the monopoly of violence belongs to the state” and spends more time being sarcastic towards journalists who called him out on his statements than actually providing a factual basis for them. The New Democracy government is trying to condemn an entire ideology and along with it, all righteous outrage.

But this is the sort of policy line the government currently walks. Thin on arguments, strong on propaganda, full of venom and revenge against all those who oppose their totalitarian plans in any way. That the four kids were arrested for armed robbery does not justify torture, because that only brings us one step away from legitimising the torturing of the fifteen anti-fascists last October. All this wears only one colour, and it’s the colour of hate against those who will not stand for members of far-right groups and think-tanks (as Dendias and Kranidiotis were in the Nineties) to crack down on their lives and their dreams.

One of the four arrestees was a friend and present in the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos by a police officer in 2008, which sparked two weeks of unrest in the Greek capital. That we already see a revisionist line in operation in the mainstream media that suggests Grigoropoulos would become a terrorist himself is indicative of the intentions of this government. It is our duty and Europe’s to expose and stop co-operating with those who won’t hesitate to ignore human rights, refuse to reform a clearly fascist police force, and who don’t see racist motives when supporters of the Golden Dawn murder immigrants in the street. It is time to ask for the resignation of Nikos Dendias and any like-minded cabinet members. If we don’t want to see more kids boiling with anger, taking up arms against a system intent on turning them into drones working for scraps, torturing them when they refuse to conform, then it is time to speak out and call this government what it is: a far-right authoritarian group, dressed in a thin-veil of pro-European liberalism. Refusing to recognise them as anything but that is now an obligation for each and every one of us.

 

Members of the Greek ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party wave Greek national flags during a gathering of Greek nationalists in central Athens on 2 February 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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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.