“Welcome to hell!” Stavros, my cousin’s husband, did not mince words as we embraced, surrounded by the swirling foot traffic at Athen’s central bus station. Stavros had years ago disavowed the Hellenic tradition of hyperbolic self-pity and I stood amused at his relapse, ignorant of the pre-Christian vision of hell that lacked fire, brimstone, or demons. The preferred damnation of the ancient Greek world was eternal frustration, tedium, repetition, and pointlessness. Enter the Greek economic crisis, which for over two years has approximated such infernal punishments. The Greek government, to secure loans and prevent their country’s bankruptcy and catastrophic exit from the single European currency, was faced with the Sisyphean task of shrinking the bloated Greek public sector and cutting salaries and pensions while simultaneously increasing tax revenue in a country whose citizens are infamous for their flagrant disdain towards central authority.
Of all this I had been made aware before arriving in Athens, from mainstream media sources exogenous to Greece. However, I was in the capital to learn from the ‘people’—from my relatives and their friends, from taxi drivers and corner storeowners—about the Greeks’ perspective on the crisis, on which the foreign press had been somewhat silent. Eleni, my cousin, sat in the front passenger seat of a grey Opel stuck in a snarl of hatchbacks and mopeds, while Stavros drove. My arrival a few weeks ago coincided with a taxi driver, bus driver, and metro operator strike, which amplified the numbers of private vehicles on the cities already congested roads—24 delightful rush hours, back-to-back. Traffic barely broke a stroller’s pace while my hosts turned in their seats, enthusiastically launching into an analysis of their country’s situation for the benefit of their Greek-American visitor. Obviously, the local interpretation of the economic crisis would differ from those of the Financial Times or the English language version of Der Spiegel, but as to the degree, I was surprised.
For my first meal in Greece, we dined in the anarchist neighborhood of Exarheia; but there were no burning storefronts or hoodie-clad layabouts. Instead, there were suspiciously student-like individuals sitting at coffee shops surrounding the main graffiti-clad square sipping coffee and tooling around on their MacBooks. My relatives, after explaining their own precarious financial situation, presented the context to their falling fortunes. They perceived the crisis as a gigantic social engineering experiment of unprecedented proportions disguised as a spontaneous and unavoidable calamity. Not wanting to point out the Hellenic tendency to see everything through a Greek-centric lens—more than 95 percent of the nightly news is devoted to local issues, reflecting the parochial tastes of its audience—I played the credulous listener while my hosts vented their frustrations.
According to Eleni and Stavros, it was unknown how developed countries would react to the introduction, overnight, of economic uncertainty, political instability, eroded purchasing power, and chronic unemployment on a massive scale; to find out, Greece was made prostrate. Details as to why anyone would do such a thing were omitted, save for ominous declaration that the country was to be a warning sign. To embrace anything except the ruthlessly efficient economic logic made universal by globalization was to meet a similar fate.
Although the euro zone crisis does highlight obvious hypocrisies in neo-liberal dogma, such as the questionable merits of making taxpayers responsible for the failings of unregulated aspects of the finance industry, to assume that the suffering of millions of people was caused by the machinations of a small cabal of powerful rational actors seemed to be a dressing-up of a more mundane reality—crises are precipitated by mass short-sightedness, not the Machiavellian skill of a covert few. Nevertheless, my pedestrian explanation was overshadowed as talk shifted between the Illuminati and the H.A.R.P.P. project, which used targeted earthquakes and controlled weather phenomenon to get recalcitrant governments in line. The blame laid at the feet of impossible culprits could go unmentioned if not for the prevalence of such views—sometimes less extreme, sometimes more—among other people I spoke with and what they say about Greeks’ worldview as a whole.
The initial exposure to the views of the Greek branch of my family surprised me. They are not paranoid village-dwellers; these are well-educated, well-traveled residents of a relatively cosmopolitan capitol city of 3 million and representative of the large Greek middle class. Their conspiratorial take on events indicates how powerless and anxious many Greeks feel, especially when—since the rise of rampant clientism in the 80s—maintaining a high standard of political awareness had not been asked of the current generation of working adults. While times were good, the satiated middle-class turned a blind eye to metastasizing corruption, often explained away as the invented accusations of foreign imperialists meant to discredit the dominant political party, PASOK, and its nepotistic, baloney-fisted leader, Andreas Papandreou. If Greeks are to be blamed for anything, it’s the human tendency to permit ruling-class excesses to go unchallenged as long as a rising tide is lifting all boats.
My cousin Eleni is a beneficiary of the pacifying Greek nanny state and had recently retired from the numbing drudgery of the public sector. To fulfill the Troika’s austerity demands and clear the payroll of excess civil servants, Eleni was allowed to retire early and still collect a partial pension. As an example of the daily uncertainty that many in Greece have to endure, Parliament has yet to determine at what rate these special pensions will be set and when exactly the delayed-onset pension payments will begin. In the meantime, her family has been living off of dwindling savings and rents from inherited property. One proposed austerity measure, a tax focused on second homes, will further erode the couple’s net income and does not account for whether the property is rented or not (most of their property is vacant, including the one bedroom apartment graciously afforded to your humble narrator). The thought that Greek hospitality norms would have them indefinitely footing my bill made me uneasy.
At the height of the Troika’s austerity push, before the first round of inconclusive elections, new legislation was being proposed daily, making it impossible to untangle the haphazard web of pronouncements. Many new laws seemed to depend on an individual civil servant’s understanding of statute, which amounted to institutionalized chaos and an ever-increasing potential for corruption (yes, there still was untapped potential). In this atmosphere, businesses and families could not budget for the coming weeks or months. It is no surprise that during the first round of elections, voters rejected the entrenched parties of PASOK and New Democracy (ND)—the same parties that had already bumbled the delicate task of economic restructuring, enraged the international community through persistent and flagrant bureaucratic inertia, and whose fortunes were—‘coincidentally’—not greatly impacted by the crisis. That they politically survived this long is a tribute to the unbroken continuity of their rule since the mid-1970s.
PASOK and ND—the same people whose profligacy spent the country into the ground—claim to be the thin edge keeping Greece from Euro zone exit (termed Grexit in policy shorthand) and its attendant calamities, and the results of Sunday’s election confirm the Greek electorate’s reluctant acceptance of this supposed fact. Much hand-wringing came out of the anti-bailout left’s gains during the first election but a media barrage harangued a frightened and insecure public into believing that the second election was a pseudo-referendum on staying in the euro zone; voting for anyone other than the old guard would be interpreted by the international community as declaration of a desire to exit.
Nevertheless, even now that a governing coalition has formed, it is just the beginning of Greece’s economic odyssey. The decisive moment is not as neat and tidy as a cliffhanger election, but will play out over a 100-day window bequeathed to Greece during which the country has to make a good faith effort and implement enough cuts, freezes, and hikes to satisfy the cynical German-dominated Troika. The narrow margin by which pro-bailout New Democracy won over anti-bailout Syriza highlights the divided nature of the Greek voting public, which even after the media’s fear blitz still craves punishing the old guard, even at the risk of economic calamity. These circumstances will precipitate a series of governments built like card houses, toppling at the slightest breeze and hamstrung in their ability to push through 150,000 job cuts by 2015 and a €11.7 billion reduction in government spending by 2013. This would be asking a lot of a stable and trusted governing elite.
During my first week in Athens, I had only been exposed the segment of Greek society who had something tangible to lose after Grexit. To get a different perspective on the crisis than that of my older, established relatives, I thought it best to speak with some younger Greeks—those who have lived with poor employment prospects for most of their entire adult lives. Responses to a Facebook announcement had friends volunteering to connect me with their acquaintances in Athens and it was not long before I found myself sipping whiskey and chatting with Yorgos, Ellie, and Clairie on the Friday night before the June 17 election.
“Is it unusual to speak about politics at a party,” I asked, accustomed to the American tendency to avoid such delicate subjects. Yorgos, a painter who for the first half of the crisis decided he was better off in an Indonesian slum renting an apartment for €25 per month and polishing his craft, told me that for the last two and a half years it has been impossible to avoid discussing politics, even in the most abbreviated of social encounters. Foremost on peoples’ lips was talk of jobs and money, followed by worries over immigration and crime, which were the primary concerns of the older generation. In this case, parties were no different from a trip to the dentist or a visit from a plumber. Ellie, the party’s DJ, fresh off the decks, told me how apocalyptic talk was overshadowing even the most idyllic moments—an island picnic, a walk past the Acropolis at sunset, or even christenings had become steeped in discussions of politicians, scandals, and interpretive conspiratorial debate meant to contextualize what to many seemed to be a irreversible spiral of economic and moral decline.