The Personal Cost and Lifestyle Adjustments of the Greek Financial Crisis

Thessaloniki     Reading the headlines about the fiscal crisis in Greece and following the protests by hundreds of thousands of people in Athens and other cities, it was hard to feel like we were all getting the whole story.  We were sold headlines about profligate governmental spending and debt and a population unwilling to pay taxes.  As Andrea Merkel and the Germans led hard bargaining by the European Union over the Greek fiscal crisis, the prevailing storyline painted them as hard, but not heartless, saviors of Europe.  Not surprisingly, the facts on the ground don’t match the headlines when I started talking to people in Thessaloniki.

The impact of the austerity program is the equivalent of the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s.  An estimated 700,000 people have left the country, almost 7% of the total population, seeing no hope for recovery.  Rents have fallen by half, but, if anything, wages have fallen even farther.  I heard a story about a university pension that fell from 3600 euros per month to only 1200, and another from a tenured professor whose pay had fallen from close to 4000 euros per month to hardly 1500 per month.  Watching smokers, it was more common to see cigarettes rolled than pulled from the pack.  It was carnival season while I was in Greece, because the Greek Orthodox calendar is one week behind the Roman Catholic calendars, and young people, as always, were adapting and seemed to be crowding the city squares and the waterfront, but friends told me their numbers were small compared to before the crisis.  Spending time at the city’s bus stations and on the streets, it was easy to see the impact.  I could see cartoneros picking up cardboard from street dumpsters, like I remembered from Argentina after their crisis, that Greeks told me they had never seen until recent years.

Those kinds of lifestyle adjustments are also attitude adjustments.  The resistance crops up in different ways everywhere.  One new friend described to me the lengths he goes to keep from supporting the austerity plan and its taxes.  Buying a couple of pieces of pizza on the street, he gave the receipt back to the shop owner, so it could be passed on later and the more than 20% tax not paid.  Anarchists have stepped up, organizing several social centers and food coops, where people of the left shop and socialize.  We went to one that housed a kitchen and bar, a library, a food coop and other services in a 4-story building in the city center that they were renting for only 2000 euros per month.  We could see “squats” near the city center that were left unmolested.

People adapt in their own ways, but the opposition and unhappiness are deep, and the recovery, when – and if – it comes, could take a generation or more to realize.


When Politics Becomes a Barrier, Rather than Leverage

Thessaloniki  I was lucky.  With little time and information, people we had met in Brussels with contacts back home in Greece were able to pull together ten or so activists of various stripes and persuasions agreed to come together to learn about ACORN and community organizing on a Saturday evening in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in the country with more than a million population.  We met on a main street, originally a Roman thoroughfare, in the city center, and after ashtrays were found and some got coffee, we launched right into discussions that turned into a vibrant give-and-take lasting for hours.

There’s some interesting things happening through pure pluck and sweat, since most of these efforts are spliced into the activists lives between work, family, the ongoing economic crisis, and their need to be engaged and part of the fight.

I heard about a self-managed workers’ factory that had been in business selling health and natural products for the last five or more years.  One of the leaders was there as well as a woman who was professionally a family therapist, but also organized assistance through a workers’ “clinic” there that included a doctor and others.  I asked if they were familiar with efforts after the crisis in Argentina, and it turned out that they had recently visited there as part of a conference that included others involved in similar, small worker-run enterprises.

I was taken by the stories of one man who was part of an organizing effort to resist foreclosures and stop evictions.  Others in the room gently joked with him about the number of court cases he had pending.  There was discussion of efforts to privatize water in Greece, which is a fight we know well from the US, Peru, and elsewhere.  There were labor activists, a radical journalist, a woman from a solidarity network, a radical professor at the local university, and several former or current trade union activists.

The one thing that seemed to unite them was politics in the sense that they were all alienated and angry at the way that the left party, SYRIZA, known by its abbreviation which stands for Coalition of the Radical Left, founded in 2004, that had won power in Greece in 2015 and through various crises, back and forth, continues as the governing party.  The left had come together to oppose austerity and the European Union’s conditions behind SYRIZA banner, and with SYRIZA’s eventual acceptance of the terms imposed by the EU, the left has splintered in opposition to the party, feeling betrayed.  The other thing that all of them had in common was their division, since though opposed to SYRIZA and more conservative parties, they are also divided among themselves.  Two women were there who had been in one case a former SYRIZA cabinet office who resigned when SYRIZA reneged on its pledges to fight austerity, and the other was a former parliamentarian.  Both are now active in Left Unity, one of the more active of the small parties of which there are fistful.

Some responded well to the ideas of ACORN and a different way of community and labor organizing.  Some were intrigued by the fights around housing, living wages, and banks.  Others, especially the politicos, seemed almost threatened by the notion that an independent, democratic, autonomous and mass-based organization could be built that was not aligned or attached to a party, and that confusion of politics versus power, and parties and politics as leverage rather than purpose was hard to reconcile.

Nonetheless, the dialogue and debate were scintillating.  It will be interesting to see what – if anything – develops among those who were most intrigued.