Misunderstandings of Greek Austerity
Come my Pasha, come my Agha
slaughter me to become a Saint,
because of what is happening
I want to be sick.
Now they vote for laws
for us to go to prison,
and they want us to cover them in gold
even if we cry and starve.
And more money they snatch
and they become richer,
and us the black sheep
they sell to the foreigners.
Éla Pashiá m’, éla Agá m’
sfákse me gia n’ agiáso,
giatí m’ autá pou gínontai
mou ’rxetai na kseráso.
Nómous tóra psifízoune
sti filakí na páme,
ki autoús na tous xrisósoume
ki as klaíme ki as peináme.
Ki álla leftá n’ arpáksoune
ki állo gia na ploutísoun,
ki emás ta mávra próvata
stous ksénous na poulísoun.
—Excerpt from poem by Nikos Kotsalis, Cabinetmaker, Trikala, April 2013, translation by author
Greece has received 240 billion euros of bailout money, with another 32 billion on the horizon. In 2012 government debt hit 170% of GDP and is expected to surpass 190% in 2014. Although economists insist that some of their graphs indicate improving fiscal circumstances (see The Economist, May 4, 2013), many continue to complain that Greeks have not embraced austerity. The government is portrayed as dragging its feet over the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) reforms and bureaucrats grumble that people are resisting “logical” lifestyle changes.
On the ground, early 2013 witnessed a marked escalation in material poverty and social suffering. Increased hunger, homelessness and suicide are now part of everyday life in all sectors of Greek society and offer sobering critiques of the future. Unemployment has surpassed 27%, youth unemployment is at 60%, and soup kitchens are common in the urban centers. As Greece enters a fifth year of severe economic crisis there is little light at the end of the tunnel.
Troika austerity measures are based solely on criteria of Eurozone membership, disregarding cultural and historical difference. Nevertheless, bureaucrats and economists alike remain perplexed as to why austerity policy is failing in the face of hostile local resistance. Austerity measures are based on the notion that European fiscal unity implies social, economic, and historical cohesion, systematically ignoring local modes of political and economic relations.
In western Thessaly, central Greece, where I have conducted ethnographic research since 2003, 30 years of uneven neoliberal penetration operates alongside, yet not interchangeably with, traditional modes of relations such as patronage and clientelism. Likewise, economic policy devised in the corridors of Brussels and Berlin overlooks the complex historical consciousness that informs economic behavior in times of crisis. Historically-endorsed accounts of famine, suicide and colonization are the three most prominent means to discuss contemporary life in western Thessaly. Informants regularly frame Troika intervention as neo-colonialism and occupation, emphasizing the temporal proximity of specific moments of the past, giving meaning to their own crisis experience (Knight 2012). Austerity is discussed in terms of Ottoman and Axis occupations, the Great Famine of 1941–43 and the 1967–74 dictatorship. For this short piece, one could present the impact of any number of measures—privatization, public sector restructuring, replacement of civil servants, education, health, tax and pension reforms, or attempts to dismantle the infamous patronage culture (cf Campbell 1964). I have chosen to focus on energy initiatives.
Occupation: Energy Colonialism
Known as the Bread Basket of Greece, the vast plains of Thessaly were once ruled by powerful landlords, the infamous tsiflikádes. The great estates (tsiflíkia) were only divided into private property during the agrarian reforms of the early 1900s. Today, people in western Thessaly temporally condense the period of the tsiflikádes with the Axis occupation of World War Two, producing a combined narrative of occupation which they compare to the suppression experienced in Troika-occupied Greece. Notions of neo-colonialism are exacerbated by recent European Union advocated land diversification programs towards renewable energy. Photovoltaic parks are now abundant on the fertile agricultural plains as farmers feel there is no alternative but to use their land for energy generation in return for a (supposedly) stable monthly income (Knight 2013). Although the renewable energy initiative is not a direct Troika measure, the reasons for changes in livelihood strategy are deeply entwined with consequences of austerity. With the breakdown of agricultural markets due to the bankruptcy of wholesalers, increased fuel prices for haulage and low consumer spending, the diversification is justified by the need to put food on the table for tomorrow. There is a tangible fear of returning to times of famine, last experienced in Greece in 1941–43 when 500,000 people died in Athens alone (cf Hionidou 2006), and “growing photovoltaics” (fitrónoun fotovoltaiká) is considered undesirable but necessary.
Since the solar program was introduced in 2006 there has been a dramatic rise in the number of farmers taking major loans and signing 25-year contracts to install photovoltaics, only curtailed by the recent announcement that the initiative has been frozen until the end of 2013. The energy generated by the parks rarely contributes to the local network. Producing energy for international export has been heralded by Europe as a means to repay government debt and decrease national deficit in accordance with Troika demands. Often the panels are produced in Germany or China and German investors have shown significant interest in recent plans to privatize the Greek energy sector. Industry experts are cynical about the long-term sustainability of photovoltaics in Greece and admit that the solar drive is little more than a fad to make quick and easy money for foreign private investment companies. The bubble has already begun to burst with the Greek Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change (YPEKA) announcing a 40 to 50% cut in feed-in tariffs, with the possibility for further retrospective reductions. Due to the endemic inefficiency of European policy dissemination, locals often act upon a deadly cocktail of misinformation and desperation. I am constantly told that “These people are the new tsiflikádes, the new occupying forces.”
Despite the significant uptake of the solar program, winter 2012–13 witnessed a return en-masse to wood-burning open-fires (tzákia) and stoves (ksilósompes) last popular during the 1960s and 1970s. With the price of fuel for petrol-generated central heating beyond the reach of the majority of families, people burn whatever they have to hand in order to keep warm—with disastrous consequences for the environment and public health. Two seemingly contrasting energy sources—high-tech photovoltaic panels and open wood-burning fires—have become highly visible material symbols of the economic crisis and the consequences of Troika austerity. Photovoltaics are associated with clean-green energy, futuristic sustainability, ground-breaking technology, ultra-modernity and international political energy consensus. Nonetheless, in western Thessaly they conjure up notions of occupation, dispossession and hunger. For local people, open-fires invoke images of pre-modern unsustainability, pollution, poverty, a return to village life and peasantry status. Both energy solutions are symptomatic of how people negotiate the Troika-enforced fiscal austerity. Furthermore, both solar panels and open-fires have raised questions of future environmental impact and food sustainability and represent the paradoxes initiated by socioeconomic turmoil. The manner people talk about energy, as with most aspects of crisis experience, represents complex historical consciousness and perceptions of time and temporality that do not conform to northern European models (Stewart 2012, Hirschon 2013) and reignite questions about modern European belonging (cf Herzfeld 1987).
Crisis of Communication
Anthropologists have the potential to bridge the communication chasm between European policy makers, economists and local people. In the Greek case this challenge is complicated due to cultural miscommunication between all parties involved and an overt intolerance of different socioeconomic perspectives. The often impenetrably narrow focus of international media rhetoric poses another barrier. Images of rioting on the streets of Athens and the prominence of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn are highly essentialized. Both Troika and the international media continuously seek to make clear cuts in opaque global flows and discuss accountability on the basis of well-defined units, which are attributed a particular cultural character that essentializes the complexity of crisis experience.
More subtle, more nuanced and more intricate examples of crisis experience are fundamentally important. In the schoolyard opposite an informant’s house in Trikala, a prefabricated monstrosity is taking shape. With the closure of seven local schools as part of Troika reforms, a new schoolhouse is being built to accommodate the displaced students. Most of the teachers from the closed schools have lost their jobs; one has since committed suicide. There is a strong feeling that a gun is being held to the heads of everyday Greeks: money will be repaid or they will perish. This lack of humanitarian concern does not induce positive attitudes towards reform.
Working in an interdisciplinary context, it is a complex and often infuriating task to communicate people’s experiences of crisis to those that work with numbers and graphs. Occasionally I have been told that such research is nonsense, unhelpful, irrelevant—or stronger unpublishable words to that effect. The appropriate dissemination of research is therefore imperative. I advocate a combination of scholarly journals, online blogs and forums, newspaper and magazine entries, public lectures, direct meetings and official reports. Through enhanced communication between fellow professionals and diverse publics we can slowly move towards a middle ground between policy and practice. Five years of failing economic policy may actually begin to make a tangible difference and people will not be faced with the direct choice between “your money or your life.”
Daniel M Knight is the National Bank of Greece postdoctoral research fellow at the Hellenic Observatory, London School of Economics and Political Science. He holds a PhD in anthropology from Durham University and has conducted ethnographic research in Greece on history and economy, crisis, temporality and renewable energy initiatives. email@example.com