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Category Archives: Crisis

European dissolution

June 6th marked the 70th anniversary of the famous D-Day of World War II. It was the largest seaborne military operation in history and it marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.

Despite all the grand celebrations, though, despite the speeches and the moving stories of the last remaining veterans, one need to go no further than the results of the recent European Parliament elections to realise that something is wrong.

We might honour history, but we fail to learn from it.

As troops and ships from Great Britain and the Commonwealth, USA and many other countries gained the beaches of Normandy, the Red Army was marching from the East. The frantic race to Berlin, a race not only to end the most destructive conflict in the history of mankind, but to gain the prestige and possible technological spoils from the conquest of the German capital, would end almost a year later.

The World War was replaced by a Cold War, lines were drawn, walls were erected, curtains were raised, nuclear weapons were constructed and mankind came closer to extinction than ever before.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were no more enemies to be afraid of. As the spectre of another global conflict started to dissolve, political power shifted away from governments and into the hands of banks and financial institutions.

The same ills that brought about the Great Depression of the 1930s now threaten us again with a new financial crisis the remedy for which, we are told, is to be found into austerity for people of low to average income, while banks increase their profits and golden boys give themselves huge bonuses and pat each other on the back.

At the same time, however, extreme right parties gain more voters every day.

What we ought to remember is that Hitler was not some random madman who suddenly seized power and hypnotized an entire nation into Nazism. Adolph Hitler was elected into power. It was a slow process, that took both the defeat of Germany in World War I and the toxic financial environment of the late ’20s and early ’30s to grow into fascism.

In the end, slowly but surely, it drove several peoples into the hands of fanatics. Leaders in other countries seemed to worry about the situation in Germany and Italy, but they did little more than watch, until Nazi tanks crossed their borders.

Today, neo-nazi, racist and nationalist parties are growing all over Europe. In France, the United Kingdom and Denmark, anti-immigration parties have won the elections with 25, 27 and 26.6 percent respectively. Meanwhile, in Greece the neo-nazi party of Golden Dawn came very close to double digits, even though several of its MPs (including the party’s leader) have been imprisoned facing trial for planning and participation in various crimes and racist assaults up to and including murder. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a European country where the popularity of the far-right parties was reduced. Even in the generally more prosperous Scandinavian region.

If we do not wish for history to repeat itself, we ought to do more than deliver empty speeches on national holidays. Fascism is not some monster hiding under our beds, nor some kind of disease that you might catch while riding the train to work.

In fact, it is an idea that is most likely to take root where there is no work, where there is social inequality, where democracy is weakened and manipulated. Like the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. Like our democracies, today.

 

Intermission #20

rocktur_roger_waters_the_wall

I had the good fortune to be able to afford a front row ticket to what I think was the most important rock concert I will ever attend. Many in Greece couldn’t, and the company responsible for the event shamelessly denied Roger Waters’ request that people be allowed to attend with a low price ticket of 18 Euros.

If you are unemployed, like 1.6 million Greeks (or more) are right now, even 18 Euros is not a trivial amount.

After watching The Wall again all these years later, I can safely say that today it is more relevant than ever, more relevant than all the works of all other modern rock groups put together, at least in a political sense. It is as if the unmistakable rise of totalitarianism in the world today is accompanied by the steady muting of voices who argue, the dulling of modern music’s edge, the lapse of the collective artistic conciousness into an iStore-induced coma.

I am not talking about anger. Rage Against the Machine did that very well 20 years ago, but what did it amount to, when all is said and done? More on this later.

Darkness. A few eerie notes are heard in the distance and then the bass shatters the silence. Every notes strikes your chest, as if from inside. Somehow, the sound feels like it reverberates from your heart. Light, music, singing, screaming. A plane crashes above in a shower of sparks as a father dies and a baby is born.

And thus begins the journey of Pink into life. All the major actors in his life, his over-protective mother who guides and comforts, his teacher who punishes and conditions, his girlfriend which betrays (and is betrayed), all help him build the Wall.

The Teacher (Photo by S.M.)

The Teacher (Photo by S.M.)

Eventually, he becomes a rock star. By that time, however, the Wall has alienated him from everyone and everything around him, making him comfortably numb. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll try to fill in the gaping holes in his life, to no avail. Pink becomes violent and delusional. Finally, he loses all contact with reality, imagining that he is a dictator with absolute power over his audience, shooting anyone whom he finds unworthy.

Delusions of Fascism

Riddled with guilt, he puts himself on trial, with all the key figures in his life acting as witnesses against him. He is reduced from a man to a fleshy, faceless doll, waiting pathetically in a corner for his inescapable condemnation.

The human puppet (Photo by O.N.G.)

But the judge does not sentence him to death. Instead, he orders him to tear down the Wall and he does so, finally freeing himself as an eerily happy music fades in the distance.

The basics of the story are unchanged and still, 34 years later, they are all too relevant, as education deteriorates, people turn away from meaningful relationships, governments turn away from democracy, religious and racial hatred flourishes and war continues to thrive. The story is not just about one man, but also about the way each individual Wall becomes another brick in a huge structure representing our entire society.

The Wall

Waters enriched the original vision of Pink Floyd with modern elements, as the Wall is “painted” with graffiti inspired by Apple’s iDolizing marketing. iNeed, iBelieve, iTeach, iKill. Cleverly placed amongst them is iResist with the image of a protester tossing a molotov. In the end, this kind of resistance is another marketed product, aimed at the (rightfully) frustrated people but offering nothing more than a justification of violent suppression by the government. Experience has shown that massive, peaceful demonstrations are much more effective than setting the instruments of a government on fire.

The writing on The Wall

Other lines of graffiti on the Wall were no less insightful. “Enjoy Capitalism” styled as the Coca-Cola logo. And “if at first you don’t succeed, call an airstrike”.

Another striking image, shocking in its simplicity and truth, is that of the endless line of bombers dropping symbols: the dollar sign, the hammer-and-sickle, the Christian cross, the crescent moon and star of Islam, the star of David, the Mercedes sign, the McDonald’s logo and that of Shell falling like bombs and covering everything in red. All of them symbols used and misused to separate people with walls of greed, bigotry, fanaticism and hollow ambition.

And, of course, the image of the hammers doing the duck march in oppressively perfect rows of red and black. Today, 31 years after their appearance in the iconic film by Alan Parker they are reminding us not of the past, but of the possible and very likely future.

Another new concept was that of the wall depicting victims of war, terrorism and state violence from WWI to the Gezi park protests. Famous politicians, well-known activists together with largely “unknown”, but named soldiers of every war in between, civilian casualties, rescuers from the 9/11 Ground Zero, amongst them a Greek soldier who died in the Albanian mountains in 1940.

The Wall of the fallen

The Wall of the fallen

One could be tempted to turn criticism against the work itself, with all its special effects and high tech sound and imagery, the last g(r)asp of an ageing rock star for a few more dollars. Or Euros, as it were. But the essence of the work remains, regardless of any intention, selfish or not, of one of its main creators. I was reminded of my student years, when I used to mock my left-wing colleagues, most of whom had the latest cell phones of the time, while I still didn’t have one (and didn’t want one). Their half-serious answer was that “they used the system to fight the system”.

Well, “comrades”, if I ever saw anyone using the system to speak up against it, that would be Roger Waters.

Intermission #19

The intro

Bulgarian protesters

In Greece the only thing that stirs these days is the occasional ceremonial 24-hour strike or a continuous strike action in a particular sector, which is condemned by everyone (including even a large part of the media-addled population) and put down by the police and the abusive use of law by the state. Meanwhile, in neighboring Bulgaria there are political developments which should be of particular interest to the Greek people.

Assuming that us Greeks still have the ability to see beyond our nose and our TV screen, which bombards us daily with a lengthy “analysis” on the absolute necessity of the Memorandum and the endless austerity measures which support it.

Although Bulgaria has experienced unprecedented economic growth in recent years, the minimum wage remains at 159 Euros, the second lowest in Europe. In the second half of the last decade, it went through a period of intensive privatisation, in accordance with the mandates of the IMF and the principles of modern economy.

Unemployment is low (below 10%) in comparison to that of Greece, but wages are not sufficient, despite the fact that prices are also quite low.

The energy market is in private hands and is completely self-sufficient. Bulgaria produces all of its energy and does not import even a single TW of electricity from another country.

Apparently, these ideal conditions are not sufficient to make market competition work. So, following the recent increases in the price of electricity, people took to the streets en masse to protest, defying even the bitter cold.

The main demand is the re-nationalisation of the energy market. Does that sound backward? Absurd even? Let me tell you what absurdity really is: expecting a pensioner who receives 79 Euros per month  to pay a monthly electricity bill of 89 Euros.

“We are witnessing how the refrigerator overcame TV,” said political scientist and analyst, Arman Bamikian, referring to the fact that television bombards people with the macroeconomic achievements of the government on a daily basis, while at the same time the standard of living is low and fridges are empty.”

Hunger cannot be fooled. Obviously, then, the point where civil unrest is almost assured is the point where basic needs are threatened: electricity, water, food.

The example of Bulgaria shows us that it is not just the austerity policy that is ineffective. Apparently, so is the uncontrolled privatisation of everything. And especially that of basic utilities, such as water and electricity.

Neoliberalism threatens to smother every last bit of common sense left, and make us forget a basic fact. Water and electricity are NOT luxury goods, the distribution of which can be determined by profit.

Unless, of course, we have decided that in the name of “economic growth” the majority of the population must resort to using oil lamps (assuming oil is affordable) and wells (assuming that people are still allowed to dig).

And why not indeed? According to the Greek Minister of Finance, Mr. Stournaras, the recent equation of prices of heating oil with that of diesel was deemed successful. For just a moderate increase in tax revenues, many oil distributors went out of business (since heating oil consumption went down by 70%), smog covers the air of Athens at night from stoves and fireplaces and millions of Greeks went cold.

Fatalities due to use of coal heaters and wood stoves by people without any prior experience are not uncommon.

The macroeconomic picture of our neighboring country is excellent. The IMF is happy with the compliance of the Bulgarian government. Daily reality, however, is completely different. In Greece, although a similar course has been plotted, no one will admit what lies behind the promises of ‘growth’, simply because misery does not appear in the statistics which interest the Troika.

The government of Bulgaria resigned in the face of widespread public protests. Not only that, but their Prime Minister made the following statement regarding police beating of protesters: “Every drop of blood for us is a stain. I can’t look at a Parliament surrounded by barricades, that’s not our goal, neither our approach, if we have to protect ourselves from the people.”

Of course, this statement was made for the sake of keeping up a pretense of decency. But it was made, nonetheless. That is much more than what could be said about the Greek Prime Ministers of the past three years of crisis and escalating police violence. And the Greek Parliament has repeatedly been surrounded by barricades and even, on occasion, by the military.

The Bulgarian minister of finance was forced to resign after the first public demonstrations. And when this proved ineffective, the entire government resigned. In Greece, unreasonable and unpopular fiscal measures are a daily reality. Anger is simmering, but nothing yet stirs. And thus, Greek politicians have nothing to worry about.

It seems that in Bulgaria, where people call their own politicians “mafia”, there is still a little dignity among the “mobsters”.

 

Intermission #18

Nick Cave sings/recites about the modern Greek tragedy.

In Athens all the youths are crying from the gas […] and in the cradle of democracy the pigeons are wearing gas masks […] we are, I say, mostly lost.

“”It is well enough that the people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system for, if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”
-Henry Ford

This quote, attributed to Ford by Charles Binderup, reveals the most fundamental fact of life in the modern world. That it is governed by an economic system that is in no way fair to all parties involved. In fact, it is actually exploiting the majority of the population for the benefit of the few.

That, of course, has been the state of human affairs for most of our known history. However, it was thought that the abolition of monarchy and oligarchy in most modern states of the world, and the gradual adoption of democracy during the previous two centuries, would result in the diminishing of social and financial inequalities.

The struggle for human rights during the 20th century, particularly in its second half, made great progress on every level. Working conditions improved, gender and race discrimination was considerably reduced, freedom of expression and speech was solidified and the future seemed brighter. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, everyone in the developed world believed that we were heading towards a new, more enlightened age of peace and growth.

As we now know, that was very far from the truth. The truth is that while the economy has been globalized to an unprecedented extent, a number of political, legal, national, cultural and religious boundaries and differences have made a comparable progress impossible on an administrative level.

Take the EU for example. The monetary union was achieved before any kind of meaningful consensus could be reached on how the European Union could ever become a single entity politically, socially and, to an extent, culturally.

And since, as we all know, money makes the world go round, there are people and corporations now with the means of small countries who can move freely on a financial level with very little control.

Think of it this way: if the people play the role of a King, then banks, corporations and the rich are the barons. And these barons can now act as they please without really being accountable to the Crown. Because the King depends on them to keep his treasury running and because he has no effective way to control them.

If a King has no real power, then we are no longer talking about a monarchy. And if the “King” is actually the people and the people have no real power, then we are no longer talking about a democracy.

The dawn of the 21st century brought with it the promise of growth, equal opportunities for all, and a wealth of goods and services, all courtesy of the “free market”. Unfortunately, these hopes were quickly dashed by the spectre of a financial crisis with no apparent end.

In fact there is no crisis. Or rather, there would be no crisis if the global financial system was equipped with the proper safeguards against fraud, misuse and exploitation. Or, quite simply, if it was fair and sustainable. But that would entail more governmental control and that term alone is enough to send any economic liberalist screaming.

Because the “free market can regulate itself”. Only that it can’t. It is like thinking that you can put two death row prisoners in a cage to fight for their lives and expect them to play fair. They won’t. They will use any trick in their disposal to beat their opposition, no matter the cost.

Likewise, a corporation will do anything it can get away with in order to increase its advantage over the competition. If its customers or employees are hurt in the process, it’s fine as long as it is never proven or detected. Substandard equipment, processes and materials, abominable working conditions and practices, legal loopholes and tricks, literally anything will be employed in the fight.

Not all of them do it, but when most “players” do, then their competitive advantage either drives the rest out of business or into the same game.

Banks are no exception to this rule. Once considered one of the main structural pillars of any economy, they now operate solely and openly for their own profit, with any thought of promoting sustainable growth taking a back seat or getting kicked out of the car altogether.

If a prosperous country like Iceland can be effectively ruined financially by its own banks, then one easily understands how this could happen to any country in the world. All this happened with the government and the central bank of Iceland turning a blind eye to the incredibly irresponsible dealings of a handful of people.

Nevertheless, the first order of the day was not to arrest the persons responsible, but to hand the bill to the people of Iceland, as if they were somehow accountable for this mess.

The exact same thing is happening in most countries of the developed world right now. The people are asked to take the brunt of the cost for gross mismanagement on the part of bankers and corrupt politicians, even from other countries, all in the name of avoiding the deepening of a crisis which, by all accounts, is a bottomless pit.

The crisis will never end because we are trying to treat the symptoms, while the root causes remain unaddressed. The majority of people will see their incomes steadily decreasing, there will be steadily fewer and fewer jobs; work rights, which have been paid for in blood, will vanish.

This has been happening for two and a half years in Greece and in the poorer countries of Europe. Greece is on the verge of total collapse, socially and financially, the neo-Nazi party is on a meteoric rise and the troika is still demanding for more cuts and “reforms” which will be nothing short of disastrous.

But it will not end with Greece.

This system which kicks people out of their homes, jobs and deprives them of a future, which sends young people abroad as immigrants and which has replaced constitutional rights with violently enforced austerity measures will spread. Once the people of Greece and the other “PIGS” countries have been forced to work for wages comparable to those of China or starve, where do you think that most major corporations in Europe will move their manufacturing to?

And what will happen to their own workforce at home?

Fascism now wears a respectable face, a suit and carries a tablet. You may call it “austerity”, “reform”, “free market”, “economic rationalization” or however else you wish. I call it Finanscism.

I was touched by the sensitivity of Mme. Lagarde. You know, that eloquent, chic lady lawyer, ex minister of France and now Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. With her stylish suits and her serious hairstyle.

During her interview by The Guardian she stated that she thinks about “the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education.”

When confronted by the grim reality of Greece, where the national healthcare system and the pension funds are falling apart, threatening to send thousands to an early grave, she said that the little kids in Niger need more help.

Let’s not talk about Greece any more. It has become tedious. Let us talk about Niger instead. Niger is a landlocked, extremely poor African country. Since 2004, it has been plagued by locusts, drought and famine.

Niger has the misfortune of being directly below the Sahara and actually a large part of the famous desert falls within its borders. That is not a good thing for a country which is forced to rely on agriculture and livestock to support its starving population and struggling economy.

Without access to the sea and fishing, which is the only salvation from starvation for many other African countries, Niger is literally at the mercy of the subsaharan tropical climate. One can imagine that there is little mercy to be found there.

Mme. Lagarde’s comment was unfortunate, to say the least. You see, those children in Niger who actually make it to school are the lucky ones. According to the Save the Children organization, Niger has the highest mortality rate in the world for children below the age of 4.

Sophisticared Mme. Lagarde thinks of them all the time. I do too, madam. But I can do nothing for these children. You, however, who support the international financial system and all those who participate in it, what have you done about Niger, which seems to weigh so heavily in your thoughts?  Pretty much what you’ve done about Somalia and so many other poor countries of the so-called “Third World”.

The Third World which is constantly expanding instead of shrinking and is now slowly taking over Europe. Do you think that Bulgaria, which according to the troika is an economy competitive to that of Greece, is in a much better state? Have you considered that Greece with close to 1.5 million unemployed citizens and God-knows-how-many unpaid employees is rapidly heading the same way, thanks to your wonderful bailout plan?

You could say that Greece has not adopted your proposed reforms. And you would be mostly right. Apart from imposing even more taxes on those who cannot evade them, few measures have been applied by our esteemed governments. Yet Niger has adopted the IMF suggestions. The end result was that gas prices were driven through the roof, food prices skyrocketed and now the poor simply cannot afford to buy what food there is.

The civilized West thinks a lot about the Third World. It has dedicated most of that thinking to finding new ways to exploit it and deny it the means to develop properly. As if the millions of slaves which were moved to America and Europe during the 19th century were not enough, or the exploitation of natural resources, mineral wealth and oil, we have now reached the point of stealing even their fish!

Pardon my plural, I must accustom myself to the idea that Greece is no longer a part of the prosperous West, but belongs to the lazy, poor South and the hapless Near East. I forgot that the caring international financial system is doing its level best to turn Greece into a genuine Third World country, so that it can think of us too without feeling guilty in the future.

Besides, those responsible for the starving children in Greece, according to Mme. Lagarde, are their tax evading parents. I wonder, how do the unemployed and the underpaid manage to evade taxation? Those who are responsible for the lion’s share of unpaid taxes are also those whose children will NOT starve, madam. So, they don’t give a damn, nor for the children in Niger, nor for those of their neighbour.

Or perhaps the director of the IMF believes that reduced tax revenue is due to increased tax evasion. Yet even a child can understand that when businesses go bankrupt and unemployment is increasing every day, tax revenue will decrease. Is the former Trade Minister and Economic Affairs Minster of France truly unable to understand this basic fact?

Rather, Mme. Lagarde is unwilling to acknowledge that, becase by doing so she would have to admit that the financial model she is supporting is simply not working. The very same model is letting multinational corporations move their factories to China, where people work for almost nothing under extremely poor and dangerous conditions in order to produce high tech products for the West. Inevitably, this will force the competition to lower wages and working conditions in the rest of the world.

Competition, supposedly the driving force behind the economy, is driving companies who “lose” the game to bankruptcy, takeovers and mergers. The logic of competition is now being applied to countries too. The IMF and the troika tell us that we need to lower our wages to the levels of our competing countries. They neglect to mention, however, what will happen to the countries who “lose” the game.

Because someone has to lose. This is the way of modern economics. So, what will it be? Bankruptcy, takeover or merger?

I think about the little kids everywhere. For they are the losers in a game they never even played.

Intermission #12

We had high hopes about this world when we were little kids ourselves…

Pink Floyd – High Hopes

Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when we were young
In a world of magnets and miracles
Our thoughts strayed constantly and without boundary
The ringing of the division bell had begun

Along the long road and on down to the causeway
Do they still MEET there by the cut

There was a ragged band that followed in our footsteps
Running before time took our dreams away
Leaving the myriad small creatures trying to tie us to the ground
To a life consumed by slow decay

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
With friends surrounded
The nights of wonder

Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
Dragged by the force of some inner tide

At a higher altitude with flag unfurled
We reached the dizzy heights OF that dreamed of world

****

Encumbered forever by desire and ambition
There’s a hunger still unsatisfied
Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon
Though down this road we’ve been so many times

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
The taste was sweeter
The nights of wonder
With friends surrounded
The dawn mist glowing
The water flowing
The endless river

Forever and ever

As you may already know, May 6th was an election day in both Greece and France. In France it was a second round victory for François Hollande, while in Greece it was a first round defeat of the formerly bipolar, now bipartisan political system.

While May 7th left Greece without a government, something which has happened only once in the past 38 years, two things became abundantly clear:

Firstly, changing the entire political establishment which has ruled Greece for nearly four decades is not something than can be accomplished in a month’s time. Unless, of course, this is achieved through violent means, something which any reasonable person would consider only as an absolute last resort.

Secondly, when a society comes under such tremendous stress, especially one as complacent as the Greek society of the past generation, then inevitably it will turn to political extremes. And by that, I do not mean the parliamentary Left or the traditional Christian/nationalist LAOS party, but the neo-nazis.

The two major parties in Greece, PASOK and Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy) had been accustomed to pass the government between them for 40 years, without fail. Now, they realise that this is no longer going to be their private two player game, with lesser parties standing as spectators by the sidelines. They are going to the bench, and they will do everything in their power to prevent that. This resistance, predictably so, is causing political instability and uncertainty.

Democracy, however, will not stand for lifelong “protectors” or foreign overlords. Those who blackmail the people of Greece (or any other people for that matter) into voting anything should be automatically considered enemies of Democracy and be treated as such: with contempt in the interior and with a firm diplomatic stance abroad.

The two formerly major parties have suffered their first ever serious shock. It is now up to the Greek voters to deliver the “coup de grâce”. Not because we desire chaos and a lack of government, but because in all their history these two parties were acting arbitrarily, serving their own petty interests, armed with the certainty that they would rule again in the next term or the one after that.

No one can expect these two parties to save Greece. They are so deeply entangled with the outdated, dysfunctional and corrupt state system that they would be unable to implement any effective reforms, even if they wanted to.

As for the rise of the extreme right neo-nazi party called “Chryssi Avgi” (Golden Dawn), it was a predictable consequence of the rampant crisis. The pre-election “campaign” of the group included civilian patrols of poor districts with illegal immigrant and criminal activity problems. But that would never be enough to catapult an obscure party from 0.2% to 7%.

“Chryssi Avgi” was voted in every corner of Greece by more than 400.000 people, including the villages of Kalavryta and Distomo, where the occupying Nazi army commited unspeakable attrocities during World War II.  My initial reaction to that paradox, as a typical, sentimental Greek, was horror and disgust. But in the end the exact location matters little.

Do the residents of Distomo have a greater obligation to honour our history and our dead than other Greeks? Hundreds of thousands died from starvation in Athens alone. My grandfather fought against the fascists in the mountains of Albania and my mother was losing her nails as a child due to malnutrition.

Most of us have heard tales about the war and the Nazi occupation and have seen the scars they left behind. World War II did not take place in another reality, nor 500 years ago. How ironic then, that while we are accusing the German government of attempting to enforce a financial 4th Reich in Europe, we are witnessing in Greece the rise of an actual neo-Nazi party.

Despite their efforts to hide the swastikas and their clearly fascist ideals as documented in their official publications of the past, even their current “sanitized” views, including the role of women as breeding machines for the nation, the perceived superiority of the white male and the open admiration of their leader for Adolf Hitler as a “remarkable personality” is enough to make any sane person cringe.

Their inability to grasp the meaning of democracy became apparent when they demanded that  journalists should stand as a token of “respect” when their leader entered the room to deliver his post election speech. The Greek journalists refused and were consequently asked to leave.

Which they did, much to their credit. However, during the pre-election period most of them never devoted a single line or television minute to the presentation of this party and its views. One of those who did write about them was faced with thinly veiled threats and even advised by the police to stop writing about the neo-Nazis. Is that what we should do? Remain silent before the rise of racist, neo-Nazi terror?

I don’t think so.

If the demise of the Weimar Republic has taught the world anything it’s that silence never stops evil.

“Chryssi Avgi” plays the role of  the bogeyman perfectly, since the Left, even the die-hard Communist Party (KKE), is beginning to seem ever more appealing to the Greek voters, who are living in constant fear of losing their jobs, their homes and their dignity, and joining the swelling ranks of the newly poor.

Some might balk at the ideas of the Communist Party as backward and even dangerous, but at least their vision does not include obscene theories about white male supremacy and immigrant pogroms.

This new pre-election period will be dominated by the attempts of the faltering establishment and their controlled media to spread the fear of the exit from the Eurozone and the rise of the neo-Nazis, to stress the image of the “irresponsible” Left, to sow doubt using the eventuality of another fruitless election and play the role of the “repentant criminal”. They have already promised that, following the mandate of the people, they will attempt to ease the terms of the memorandums.

Something that two months ago was completely out of the question. The game is already on at full force. A few days ago, a statement of a member of the left-wing SYRIZA party, concerning the need for “tight public regulation” of Greek banks so that deposits are used to fund the economy and not just increase the share value of the banks was “translated” by the media as an intent to appropriate bank deposits. This has very nearly caused a bank run in the past few days and has demonstrated clearly who the truly irresponsible parties are.

The promises for renegotiation of the memorandum from those parties are null and void, as were all of their promises of the past four decades. The troika has made their intent to demand additional austerity measures abundantly clear, while there is still absolutely nothing on the table pointing towards restructuring the Greek economy apart from widespread cuts which will stall growth indefinitely.

The coming elections have to send a clear message to the corrupt political establishment, and our European partners who are all too keen to support banks and financial institutions at our expense: you cannot liquidate an entire country for the benefit of multinational companies and banks. It is a risk we have to take for Greece and for all the citizens of Europe.

Intermission #11

Greeks, like a surreal housewife with a moustache, woke up one day and decided to demand a divorce from the past. Our abusive husband will say anything to bring us back, but we know that those promises are empty. Should we go back, the old habits will return, worse than ever. We have to break free.

The following is a suicide note written by a 77-year old retired pharmacist. He left this then went to stand beneath a tree in Syntagma Square, Athens and shot himself in the head with a gun.

Suicide note

It reads: “The collaborationist Tsolakoglou government has literally annihilated my ability to survive, which was dependent on a decent pension for which I alone (without aid from the state) have been paying, for 35 years.

Since I am at an age which does not allow me to resist forcefully (without, of course, ruling out the possibility that I might follow the first Greek who took up arms), I can find no solution other than a dignified end before I start looking in the trash for my food.

I believe that young people with no future will some day take up arms and will hang the traitors of the Nation upside down in Syntagma square, like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945 (Piazzale Loreto in Milan).

A well-known Greek journalist commented in a tweet that journalists and citizens should calm down, since committing a suicide in Syntagma Square does not make it more tragic than others.

Agreed. It does, however, make it symbolic. And there is no one, I think, who can doubt the importance of symbolism in politics. Because there is no question that the suicide of the 77-year old pensioner was a political act.

Perhaps you may have forgotten or may be unaware of the fact that the “Arab Spring” events were triggered by the self-immolation of a protester in Tunisia. It is, however, certain that those who fear a similar uprising in Greece are well aware of this.

And that is the reason why a former Minister and a deputy Minister, both belonging to one of the ruling parties (PASOK), reacted in the only way they know how: by slandering their adversaries and shirking any shred of responsibility, no matter how indirect.

 Mr. Beglitis in an outrageously disrespectful comment, attempted to disassociate the suicide with the economic crisis, and implied that perhaps it was the pensioner himself who wasted all his money, or perhaps his children did!

The possibility that this man might have been unfortunate or that the pension he received (which has been severely cut back, like almost all other pensions in Greece) was simply not enough to support him any longer was never mentioned, not even for appearances’ sake. It is as if we suddenly live in another country, where we don’t hear about suicides on a daily basis.

But what can one expect from Greek politicians, particularly those of the two parties who have been trading power between them for the past three decades? In their minds the words “money” and “waste” are inextricably connected. Always “waste”, never “earn”, “struggle”, “strive” or “sacrifice”. Just “waste”. Which member of our Parliament has ever paid dues for 35 years in order to earn their pension?

Beglitis and his kind choose to ignore the fact that working people have paid for their pensions with THEIR OWN money. And our politicians cut those pensions back without even blinking. In effect they are guilty of mismanagement and theft. At the same time the wages and pensions of the members of Parliament are paid for with OUR money. And those have barely been reduced, still remaining amongst the highest in Europe.

But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that those accusations were right and that this man indeed wasted all his money. Was he so obsessed with his posthumous fame, that he decided to take his own life in order to become a hero? Let us suppose that it was his children who wasted his money. How callous can one be to level such accusations against them even before their father’s corpse grows cold?

Even if they were right, the only thing that they achieved was to demonstrate the magnitude of their pettiness and obsession.  In order to serve their political agendas those politicians respected neither the deceased nor his family.

When someone reaches the point where they decide to take their own lives, either because of psychological problems or because of  strong feelings of guilt or despair, they usually do it alone, at home, at work or at a secluded spot. Away from loved ones or people that might stop them or pity them.

Suicide as a form of political protest is completely different. A protest takes place in public, in plain view, where no one can ignore you. You do it in front of everyone because you are not ashamed of your act, because your aim is to give it meaning, to shock people into realizing the truth.

To become a symbol for your cause, even after death.

It’s no wonder then, that people were moved. When someone commits suicide in the privacy of their home it is easier for us to pretend we didn’t hear or read about it, to bury it in the back yards of our minds, where we hide everything that saddens or troubles us. It is a clearly personal choice.

When one commits suicide in public, particularly in a square with political meaning, right across the Parliament, you cannot ignore it. You know that the act aimed to deliver a message. Besides, the note that the pensioner left behind him leaves no room for misunderstanding.

It is no wonder, then, that people left flowers, notes and candles at the tree. It is not because they cared less about the other 1700-3000 people who committed suicide because of the financial crisis. It is because they felt the need to do something, as human beings. A need which politicians are incapable of comprehending. It is because by paying homage to that pensioner they also paid homage to all the others, something that would be impossible to do otherwise.

Where would people leave flowers? At homes, offices or cliffs?

This suicide which Mr. Beglitis had the audacity to mention in the mechanical way which most politicians deliver their hollow speeches, without ever realizing the meaning of their words, is the ultimate form of protest. No one can lie in the face of death.

Mr. Beglitis said that he stands “respectfully” in view of this tragic event. He said that we have to “keep silent” in order to demonstrate our grief. He was neither respectful nor silent about it. Therefore, he has lost both our respect and our silence.

Intermission #9

April 5 marked the 18th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. It seems fitting that I should dedicate “Heart Shaped Box” to the wonderful, warm-hearted people which govern us and “stand respectfully” over our corpses, just like a killer admiring his handiwork.

And on the tenth day after the Greek Parliament voted for the new memorandum, the second “bailout” plan for Greece was approved by the Eurogroup. And today by the Bundestag. And there was much rejoicing.

Hold on a second. Why all this joy and relief by the foreign and domestic press alike? Why are those who voted for the new memorandum –the prerequisite for the new bailout plan- patting themselves on the back? Because they claim that bankruptcy was averted? Do we have any idea what they approved? Do those who approved the plan know the “specifics”?

I seriously doubt it. Just a few short weeks ago, both former and active Ministers and MPs admitted that they had in fact NOT read the first memorandum, even though they approved it! Now we know for a fact that this new agreement was a badly translated rendition of an already shady original.

Full of omissions and vague wordings, especially concerning the definition of “mandatory law” which governs the enforcement of the agreement’s terms, this loan agreement is practically begging to be abused.

Because, in essence, the memorandum is exactly that: a loan agreement.

Let us suppose now that the Greek MPs were common people who wished to sign a mortgage agreement in order to pay off their debts. Would anyone in their right mind sign a paper with empty spaces where numbers were supposed to be and with vague phrasings, easily twisted by greedy bankers looking to steal their home?

If they were just a tiny bit practical, wouldn’t they ask questions?  Wouldn’t they read the agreement more thoroughly?

And yet 199 of 300 MPs agreed to mortgage our home on these uncertain and unrealistic terms, conceding the right to any of our creditors to make claims against Greece before the courts of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

Ignorance, negligence, and the intention to deceive the Greek people are evident from the statements of all those who approved the new memorandum. One of them stands out above the rest, however, and comes from the very architect of political unaccountability in Greece.

Evangelos Venizelos, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, stated, “…we are pleased to inform the Greek people that we have just lifted 100 billion Euros off their back, more than 50% of our GNP.”

The grand deception lies in the lifting of the “100 billion”. Quite simply, 63 billion of this total is in Greek hands, mostly owned by banks of Greece and Cyprus. These banks will require “direct hair implantation” by the Greek state right after the PSI haircut, if they are to avoid collapse.

The cost of bank bailout is estimated at 30-40 billion Euros, which will be drawn, unsurprisingly from the 130 billion which we just borrowed. The largest part of the remaining 100 billion will be used to pay off our previous loans and interests.

Mr. Venizelos further stated that “our country has been granted a new opportunity, one which we must grasp, primarily on the level of financial and social psychology.” This was probably the only speck of truth in his entire statement, if “primarily” is replaced with “solely”, since there is no other benefit to be found.

The only purpose of this agreement is to reassure the Greek people, give time to our EU partners to prepare for the all but inevitable formal declaration of bankruptcy of Greece and, of course, add even more debt on our backs.

Theoretically, the goal of our debt reaching 120% of our GNP by 2020 is achievable. About as achievable as the development of FTL propulsion technology by Greece by the same date, given the monumental inadequacy of our current administration.

And that’s because all estimates claiming that such a thing is possible, blissfully disregard the fact that the recession in Greece is not slowing, but increasing at the rate of an avalanche. 60000 businesses are expected to shut down in 2012, according to a National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce report. Unemployment is skyrocketing, with an estimated 1 million unemployed people in Greece and growing, and the internal market is grinding to a halt.

The GNP of Greece is state-dependent to an excessive degree, a sad but undeniable fact. As public funding and expenditure is limited, the GNP will inevitably shrink. The Greek public sector must be restructured and businesses must find ways to support themselves without the help of the state, but such a change would take time. The repercussions of an abrupt change cannot be ignored for the sake of ill-conceived bailout plans.

Unfortunately, estimates putting the Greek debt close to 160% of its GNP by 2020 (or even higher) are probably much more realistic.

The greatest problem of Greece, however, is neither the new memorandum, nor the troika, nor Angela Merkel and her ilk. The greatest problem of this country is us Greeks. As long as we continue to support or tolerate our corrupt political system, no amount of rescuing, either honest or guided by ulterior motives, is going to save us.

An excellent example of this corruption is the recent ruling of the Greek Council of State, claiming that the first memorandum was not in violation of our Constitution. Among other outrageous claims, the Greek Council of State deemed that the agreement was not in fact an international treaty.

So an agreement, originally drafted in English, between the Greek state, 14 other countries, the KfW development bank, and two international organizations is NOT an international treaty.

I did not include the IMF along with the other two organizations (ECB and EC), as it has not signed the initial agreement and furthermore has recently expressed doubts about the new one. Members of the IMF are expressing concerns about OUR rights. Not our government, but members of an international organization are opposing a revision of the Greek Constitution.

A revision which, after all, benefits them.

The image of a starving dog comes to mind. One that looks so pathetic, that even the dog catcher is reluctant to euthanize it. Even if that is exactly what he does for a living.

And that’s because Greece is not seen as a “mutt”, it is not (usually considered) a third-world country. It is not even Argentina which, even when it was very prosperous, was still part of Latin America, seen as “lesser” part of the world by unscrupulous “civilized” Westerners. And thus considered “fair game” for the rich and powerful.

Deep inside, every international banker, economist, politician knows that Greece is the cradle of Western civilization, the birthplace of art, democracy and science. Even Mrs. Merkel’s name (Angela Dorothea), is Greek. But neither she, nor anyone else can truly respect us, when we do not respect ourselves.

When we do nothing to stop these power-mongering puppets we call politicians from driving our country to ruin.

Our EU partners and international creditors can only pity us, just a bit, before putting us out of our misery. Or into it.

Intermission #5

I am angry. I am angry with myself, first and foremost, because I was naïve. On the huge demonstration last Sunday in Athens, at Syntagma Square, there were two great Greeks, one of whom you might actually have heard of, who still fight for freedom and justice in this country despite their combined 177 years of age.

One of these Greeks is Mikis Theodorakis, made famous for putting Odysseas Elytis’ immortal words into music and turning them into weapons of spiritual resistance against the military junta of Greece (1967-1974). The other is Manolis Glezos, who as a young man on May 1941 tore down the Nazi swastika flag from the sacred mound of Acropolis, together with Apostolos Santas. It had barely been flying for a month.

I was naïve enough to believe that, because they were there, the police would refrain from wanton use of tear gas. I thought that the powers that be would wait before unleashing their well-known agent provocateurs, who are always used to cause riots and break up peaceful demonstrations. I thought that the authorities would have the decency to let these two honoured Greeks depart before they set their plans into motion.

My naiveté was dispelled early and brutally upon reaching the rear side of the Parliament and found the first of many riot police blocks. The first of many tear gas bombs also went off at that time. The protest on the square was peaceful. Allegedly, the riot police started launching tear gas once a small group of people threw some fruit at the Parliament building.

I could not see all that, of course. There was no way through. I only heard Mikis’ music that was being played over loudspeakers cut short once the first bangs were heard. The mass of people was unbelievable. It quickly became hard to breathe. For the next 2 ½ hours, even as much as a kilometer away from Syntagma, there was barely a spot with clean air.

I found out, the hard way, the reason why protesters set garbage bins on fire during times such as these. Up to now, I thought it was just vandalism. At the tender age of 37, I learnt that fire drives the tear gas away. It was one bit of knowledge I could have lived without. But our precious politicians have made it their life’s goal to teach us many things.

Such as how to live on a 400 Euro pension, pay taxes from it, pay your rent or additional property tax, and buy your medicine and food. Despite the fact that we pay for our bare necessities as much, or more, than Germans do. Very few pensioners in Greece can afford petrol for central heating these days. Unless, of course, they’ve served two terms as MPs.

I saw a young girl shouting at the police. “Why do you stand up for them? Your wages too will be cut to nothing next month!” She might as well be screaming at the Unknown soldier statue in front of the Parliament. I believe firmly that once the riot police don their armour, their higher brain functions altogether cease.

How else could anyone spray tear gas right on the face of a 90 year old man? Regardless if the victim is a hero of the Resistance or an Unknown pensioner fighting to survive the new Greco-German occupation.

I had to lift my turtle neck, the only protection measure I had brought with me, all the way up to my ears. Looking like that, like many of the protesters wrapped in scarves or wearing medical masks, it was difficult to tell if I was part of the usual hooded rioters or not.

It matters little. I don’t believe in violence, unless as a last resort. I have the feeling, though, that more and more of my fellow Greeks are thinking that this “last resort” time is fast approaching. If you have children and/or mortgages to pay this latest (but not last) batch of brutal measures will almost surely throw you on the ropes.

Many people, well-to-do people with jobs and good homes, are now losing everything. At the same time, the MPs voting for the new memorandum were sitting leisurely during the protest watching football in the Parliament cafeteria. You see, the voting was a lengthy process and many of the 199 who voted “aye” had no time to hear about how the people, whom they are supposed to serve, will starve.

Athens went up in flames last Sunday. There was looting, and clashes with the police went on for hours. However, all that cannot be blamed on the 800.000 – 1.000.000 citizens who participated in what was meant to be a peaceful protest, but was drowned in tear gas canisters and flames.

Some arson and looting targets were almost certainly planned beforehand. There are reports of people casing jewellery stores and blackmailing shop owners earlier in the same week. Several buildings, banks and department stores mostly, were torched by others as symbols of capitalism and the debt crisis. When total chaos reigns, it is impossible to tell who burned what and for what reason.

The truth is, however, that the extensive police blockades seriously hindered access of the Fire Department vehicles into the area of the city centre. Many news outlets, of course, blamed the protesters instead.

It is a great shame when historic buildings and properties burn. It is even more shameful that people who have been working all their lives and have paid for their pensions are now unable to sustain themselves, that real-life Greek heroes are brutalized because they dare to fight for their ideals, even in their twilight years.

The silver lining in these dark clouds is that people are rediscovering their solidarity. Total strangers would rub cream around your eyes or spray them with water to drive the tears away. When you fill your life with consumer goods, there is little room for that sentiment. But it is the only thing that will see us through. And it is the main thing, apart from honesty, that our politicians sorely lack.

Mind you, we are not done here. We are only just beginning.

Intermission #3

 

Odysseas Elytis is, without doubt, one of the most important poets of the 20th century and when Mikis Theodorakis put his words to music he imprinted them indelibly onto the Greek consciousness during the hard years of the military junta. The original, definitive version sung by the great Grigoris Bithikotsis might sound dated to those not familiar with the song, so I picked this version by our greatest rock singer, Vassilis Papakonstantinou. Bear in mind that Elytis’ poems are notoriously hard to translate and this translation does in no way do justice to the original.

Lone is the swallow and costly is the Spring,

For the sun to turn it takes a lot of toil,

It takes thousands dying at the wheels,

It takes the living to shed their own blood.

God my Master Crafter, You built me into the mountains,

God my Master Crafter, You enclosed me in the sea!

The body of May by mages it was stolen,

They buried it in a tomb of the sea,

In a deep well they have sealed it,

Its scent fills the darkness and all of the Abyss.

God my Master Crafter, You too among the Easter lilacs,

God my Master Crafter, You smelled the Resurrection.

Or apples and oranges. While the EU partners of Greece and the IMF are putting the pressure on our government to reduce our (already low) wages in order to “increase our competitiveness” I’ve been trying to make sense of this demand. Do they really believe that this move will help improve the deplorable state of our economy?

I think not. But that is another matter. The real question is: how can our undoubtedly low wages result in a high salary cost? So high, in fact, that it rivals that of Germany? Since I am no economist, I decided to look for hard data on the Internet. And there I found about the term “unit labour costs“. I also found that these costs include factors which have little to do with actual salaries.

Most importantly, they include productivity. And how can one measure productivity? Generally speaking, by the value of the goods produced or of services rendered. And then I stumbled upon a key factor which many analysts conveniently ignore: quite simply, for the EU the measure of comparison is… Germany.

So what these “experts” are doing is comparing the world’s second most complex economy and second largest exporter with Greece, which is in the 51st and 65th place respectively. Our main exports include food and beverages, manufactured goods, textiles, chemicals and petroleum products (with mostly imported oil). Germany, on the other hand, exports several of the most complex products in the world.

Including  photon beam process machine tools. Don’t ask. Effectively, they are comparing the output of a factory building stealth bombers to that of a factory producing apple juice. Not that I have anything against apple juice. It doesn’t kill people (as much).

Regardless, the comparison is moot and you don’t need to be an economist to understand that. Greece is being compared to a country with which it could not possibly compete, because our products are entirely different. China would be a much more valid comparison.

But we can’t compete with China either, because we could never lower our wages that much and survive. In fact, the 20% wage decrease (part of the additional measures demanded now in exchange for the next bailout package) is probably the death sentence of the Greek economy.

Lowering wages would diminish tax returns, which means even less money for the already struggling social security system, public services and government spending. Reduced tax income would trigger more cuts and more taxes. It’s a spiral leading straight to total collapse.

To quote a very interesting working paper of the Levy Economics Institute our problem is that we “are stuck at middle levels of technology and we are trapped”. It would take several years of careful planning and restructuring to truly make our economy competitive again.

Killing the twin monsters of Greek bureaucracy and rampant corruption would go a long way towards that goal. So would exploiting our (so far inexplicably) untapped natural resources. But nobody trusts our corrupt politicians to carry out these tasks. And with good reason.

Today, our Parliament is supposed to approve the new memorandum of brutal austerity measures, which will only serve to plunge Greece deeper into recession. If they do approve it, it would probably stave off bankruptcy for a few months. In the meantime, there is no provision for any measures that would help promote economic growth.

Unless the Greek government takes urgent steps to truly reduce corruption, tax evasion and the insurmountable non-salary costs for businesses, no one will invest in Greece. No one in their right minds builds on a swamp.

Inevitably, we will be asked to take even harsher measures by summer. And as anyone living in Greece can see right now, that is not a viable option.

The bottom line is this: statistics (such as the unit labour costs) are a tool. And just like any tool, they are not inherently useful. It all depends on the manner of their use. You can use a hammer to drive a nail into a wall. You can also smash your thumb with it or use it to crack open someone’s skull.

In our case, statistics are being used to set goals that Greece cannot hope to achieve. Whether the EC/ECB/IMF troika are unaware of this fact or actually betting on it is a matter of debate. Personally, I don’t believe they are naive.

The real irony is that we are desperately trying to once again become part of a system that ultimately does not work. But that is a story for another time.

Intermission #2

What can one possibly say about Pink Floyd and not sound trite? Rock music (or music in general for that matter) would not be the same without them.

But if you ask for a raise /It’s no surprise that they’re giving none away