By Bosoletti in Bergamo, Italy.
The trailer for the new Steve Jobs biopic has just been released, and it looks like the movie could be formidable, maybe one of the films of the year. Despite changes in cast and director, the matching of director Danny Boyle with actor Michael Fassbender (along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) could summon serious dramatic firepower.
The movie seems to make explicit something that’s been swirling for a while now: That engineers, software jockeys, and product designers are the capital-A Artists of our age. They are what painters and sculptors were to the Renaissance, what composers and poets were to the 19th century, what novelists and, later, auteur film directors, were to the 20th.
The metaphor becomes quite clear in “Steve Jobs,” which is based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography. In the trailer, Fassbender’s Jobs announces that he is not a musician – he is the conductor. “Musicians play their instruments,” he says. “I play the orchestra.” Stirring orchestral music – with stabbing violins – plays through the trailer. “Artists lead,” the Jobs character rants to a meeting at a particularly fraught time, and “hacks ask for a show of hands.”
But how many Americans – including those who can tell you the difference between every generation of iPhone – can name a single living conductor? What about a real visual artist? (That is, someone besides Lady Gaga.) As a recent CNN article asks, what about a famous living poet? (“No, not Maya Angelou. She died last year.”)
So how did we get here, where technology designers claiming the mantle of the Artist have replaced – in both the media and in the public’s esteem — the actual working, living, breathing artist?
The reason is not just the weird technological fetishism that has gripped American culture since the ‘80s. It also comes from how we as a society have spent our resources, and it goes way back.
While Americans, on the whole, didn’t worship culture with the same dedication as Europeans, the whole West saw the arts as something central, even a replacement for religion: After Nietzsche told us God was dead, theaters and concerts halls that looked like churches sprouted up not just in Britain and the continent, but in the wealthier and more settled cities in the States as well. Conductors like Toscanini became cultural heroes. Nations and plutocrats alike spent money to spread the gospel.
For all the difference between their politics, generations, and backgrounds, the president who followed Eisenhower did not abandon the religion of culture: Kennedy had Robert Frost read at his inauguration. JFK spoke often, publicly and privately, about the importance of culture, writing that “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.” Lyndon Johnson followed him by founding the National Endowment for the Arts. Nixon made war on a lot of the previous administration’s achievements, but not this.
Even more important, public schools offered music and arts education that gave at least some students a sense that this stuff mattered and was a basic part of being an educated, informed citizen.
How did all of this edifice collapse, so that music, poetry, theater, painting and everything else would be just another part of mix of commerce and “content”? That’s hard to make sense of, but let’s just say that the culture wars of the Bush I years, the demonization of artists and other subversives as a “cultural elite,” and the attacks on the canon by the academic left didn’t help. Nor did the conquest of neoliberalism, waged by Reagan and Thatcher and their respective brain trusts, which told us that markets are supreme and more important than musty old ideas like society or culture. And the globalization that came after gave narrow-minded utilitarians reason to slice and dice arts education. It’s still happening.
In the simplest sense: When you use state funding to help develop computer technology and what would become the Internet, and cut support for arts and culture, what do you think is gonna happen?
So what’s wrong with making Steve Jobs and others who came up with cool gadgets and efficient apps for getting pizza to people in San Francisco into the artists of our age? Doesn’t culture change over the decades and centuries?
Well, sort of, but here’s the key difference. The whole idea of poetry or a symphony or a novel is to get past daily life. It’s not just about cool or efficiency or even entertainment but an aspect of – to mangle the title of Geoff Dyer’s excellent essay collection – what was previously known as the human condition. We used to see culture as something that could be deeper than a really fast computer or a cordless mouse.
The literary essayist Richard Rodriguez has said that we live in “the age of the engineer.” If so, something really has died inside us. The Jobs movie looks great, but if this guys is our John Lennon or Nina Simone or Bernstein or Beethoven, we really are cooked.
Image: Protesters in Athens rally against austerity and for a ‘NO’ vote in next Sunday’s referendum (Monday, June 29).
Tuesday marked the deadline for Greece to transfer a 1.6 billion euro debt repayment to the IMF. The country’s Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis had already announced that his government could not — and would not — pay. And so, at 6pm Washington-time, 1am locally, Greece officially defaulted on the IMF.
The default is an unprecedented event in the history of finance: never before has a developed country fallen into arrears on a loan from the Fund. Unsurprisingly, the international press is already conjuring up unflattering comparisons with notorious failed states like Zimbabwe and Somalia, which are among the few countries to have gone down the same path of utter financial ignominy. With all due respect for Zimbabwe and Somalia, the implication of this media narrative is clear: Greece is about to become a hopeless basket case.
In truth, superficial parallels like these are dangerously misleading. Not only do they compare apples and oranges; they also end up obscuring the IMF’s own role in the decimation of the Greek economy, which basically made an eventual Greek default inevitable. By uncritically reproducing narratives of Greece’s “failure” to repay the Fund, many in the international media are directly overlooking the fierce internal criticism that top IMF officials have expressed about their ownresponsibility for the utter disaster of the Troika’s bailout programs.
Yes, it’s true: never before has a developed country failed to repay the IMF on time. But, then again, never before has a developed country experienced such a catastrophic economic collapse in peacetime — and never before have official creditors been so criminally complicit in producing the collapse (although the brutal structural adjustment programs in Latin America, Africa and East-Asia were in many ways even more inhumane).
Greece has by now lost a quarter of its total economic output since the start of the crisis. Unemployment is still higher than it was in the United States during the Great Depression. Public health and other public services have completely imploded. Almost 1 million Greeks are without health insurance; 11.000 people are estimated to have committed suicide as a result of economic hardship. The depth of this crisis is absolutely unprecedented, and the creditors themselves (including the IMF) owe a great deal of the responsibility.
Interestingly, the IMF itself has long since recognized this. Just consider what the Fund wrote in its ex-post evaluation of the first Greek bailout of 2010. The program, the IMF blatantly states, “only served to delay debt restructuring and allowed many private creditors to escape … leaving taxpayers and the official sector on the hook” (p. 28). Moreover, the Fund admits that “earlier debt restructuring could have eased the burden of adjustment on Greece and contributed to a less dramatic contraction in output” (p. 33).
In the same report, the IMF also conceded that “the burden of adjustment was not shared evenly across society” (p. 24); that “ownership of the program was limited” (p. 24); that “the program was based on a number of ambitious assumptions” (p. 26); that “the risks were explicitly flagged” (p.27); and that “ex-ante debt restructuring was not attempted” (p. 27).
“An upfront debt restructuring would have been better for Greece,” the Fund concludes, “although this was not acceptable to the euro partners. A delayed debt restructuring … provided a window for private creditors to reduce exposures and shift debt into official hands.” Or to put that in ordinary language: the IMF basically admits that it should have canceled a large chunk of Greece’s debt at the very start, but decided not to do so because the Europeans needed them to help save their private banks. There you have it, from the horse’s mouth.
Miranda Xafa, a former member on the IMF executive board, has reached the same conclusion. Noting that the reason for delaying a much-needed debt restructuring was simply to allow private banks to reduce their exposure to Greece, she penned a highly critical paper in which she confirms that “The exposure of core euro area banks, especially French and German banks, was a key reason why a debt restructuring was not attempted sooner.”
By early 2011 it was already clear that the first bailout would not be enough to keep Greece afloat. Unsurprisingly, given the ferocity of the austerity measures demanded by the IMF and the European creditors, the Greek economy was contracting much faster than the wildly optimistic IMF prognoses had foreseen (see the graph below). In a widely disseminated mea culpa, IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard later acknowledged that the Fund’s unrealistic (and ultimately false) prognoses hinged on a set of assumptions that massively underestimated the contractionary effects of the Troika’s austerity measures.
This was no mere methodological error. According to Susan Schadler, former deputy director of the IMF’s European Department, the Fund’s notoriously inadequate multipliers were the direct outcome of a set of “fundamental political pressures” that compelled IMF staff to paint a much rosier picture of the Greek bailout program than reality merited.
The Fund’s scheme was obvious for everyone to see. As Martin Wolf of theFinancial Timesnoted: “instead of making the debt sustainable, the programme merely let many private creditors escape unscathed. All this tells us depressing things about the politicisation of the IMF and the inability of the eurozone to act in the best interests of its weaker members.”
It was not all about the money, however. After 2012, the European banks had basically divested themselves of Greek debt and a Greek default no longer appeared to be a systemic risk. Still, the debt provided the Europeans with a powerful instrument to exert long-term fiscal control over Greece. Schadler:
Several interviewees suggested that apart from domestic political considerations, one reason the Europeans did not want to commit openly to absorbing the costs of the crisis and establishing an endgame [i.e., granting Greece debt relief] was that they felt it necessary to perpetuate uncertainty as a method of holding the feet of the Greek government to the fire.
Last Saturday, hours after Tsipras announced the Greek referendum, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn decided to weigh in on the matter too. In ashort paper entitled “Learning from one’s mistakes”, Strauss-Kahn (who was in charge of the Fund at the time of the first Greek bailout, until he resigned following a sex scandal involving rape allegations) said he was willing to “take responsibility” for his part in forcing an “asymmetrical” and overly “counter-cyclical” adjustment upon Greece.
The evidence for the IMF’s criminal complicity in the collapse of the Greek economy is simply overwhelming. Yes, the officials at the Fund bear direct responsibility for the years of untold suffering they have inflicted upon millions, including the tens of thousands who died because they could not obtain adequate medical treatment or who, driven to despair by the lack of economic prospects, took their own lives. In any civilized country, those responsible for such vast suffering and loss of life would have been sentenced to prison years ago.
In its review of the 2010 bailout, the IMF itself admitted that “in retrospect, the program served as a holding operation” to allow private creditors and domestic elites to escape the crisis without having to share in the burden of adjustment. This can only lead us to one possible conclusion: Greece may have defaulted on the IMF tonight, but the IMF itself defaulted on the Greeks a long, long time ago. It is high time for the creditors to pay their dues and return the immense moral and material debt they owe to the people of Greece.
It is time to cancel the debt.
The way in which financial parasitism, fed by the ultra-cheap money policies of the US Federal Reserve and other central banks, is creating conditions for another crisis is revealed in figures on takeovers and mergers in the first half of this year.
According to a report published in the Financial Times on Tuesday, a “heady cocktail of ultra-low financing costs” lifted US merger and acquisition activity to almost $1 trillion in the first six months of the year, an increase of 60 percent over the same period in 2014 and the highest level since records started to be kept in 1980. The price paid to purchase companies has reached new highs, averaging 16 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation. This compares to 14.3 times in 2007. In one major takeover, the ratio was 20.
The feeding frenzy is now greater than that which preceded the financial crisis of 2008, and it is not confined to the US. Global merger and acquisition activity has risen by 38 percent in the first half of 2015 compared to a year ago, reaching $2.18 trillion, its highest level since 2007.
These figures are another expression of the fact that parasitic activity—purchasing a company, often with borrowed money obtained at very low rates, and carving up its assets—is increasingly replacing productive investment as a source of profits.
But there is a sense, even among participants, that this orgy cannot continue indefinitely. One “senior banker” told the Financial Times that this year “feels like the last days of Pompeii: everyone is wondering when will the volcano erupt.”
Warnings of another financial explosion and the incapacity of central banks and financial authorities to deal with it were at the centre of the annual report of the Bank for International Settlements issued on Sunday.
The BIS, which is sometimes called the central bankers’ bank, has been severely critical of the low-interest regime established by the pouring of money into financial markets by central banks. It was one of the few official institutions to warn of the build-up of conditions for a crisis in the years preceding 2008, and has been critical of the policies pursued since then.
According to the BIS, “In some jurisdictions, monetary policy is already testing its outer limits, to the point of stretching the boundaries to the unthinkable.”
Its report points out that the roots of the crisis are to be found in the steady decline in real interest rates starting in the 1980s. The fall in interest rates gave rise to an increase in debt, meaning it was increasingly difficult to increase rates lest this set off a crisis. When a crisis did emerge, the response was to lower interest rates still further.
In his comments on the report, the head of the BIS monetary and economic department, Claudio Borio, said that real interest rates in the major economies had never been so low for so long. “Rather than reflecting the current weakness,” Borio said, “they [low interest rates] may in part have contributed to it by fuelling costly financial booms and busts and delaying adjustments. The result is too much debt, too little growth and too low interest rates.”
Puncturing the myth that central bankers and monetary authorities are somehow in control of the global financial system and have a clear idea about what they are doing, the BIS report notes that “there is great uncertainty about how the economy works.” It says “risk-taking in financial markets has gone for too long,” and the “illusion that markets will remain liquid when under stress has been too pervasive.”
Fear about the “illusion” of liquidity refers to a situation where investors and speculators all want to sell and suddenly there are no buyers to be found.
The BIS warned that the flooding of the markets, giving rise to record low interest rates, is creating the conditions for a crisis which central bankers may not be able to control because of their previous policies. “The more one stretches an elastic band, the more violently it snaps back,” the report said.
Therefore, there should be a move to normalise monetary policy to meet the situation when the next recession comes, “which will no doubt materialise at some point.” Central banks would not be able to meet that situation by lowering rates because they are already at or near zero. “Of what use is a gun with no bullets left?” the report asks.
The basic thrust of the BIS report is that while financial bubbles, fuelling inflated share buybacks and merger and acquisition deals, may provide solutions in the short term, in the long run they simply create the conditions for another crisis.
While it is not spelt out directly, the BIS critique of the present policies is an expression of the fact that, in the final analysis, the source of all forms of profit is the surplus value extracted from the working class. Therefore, the only way for capital to overcome its crisis and restore stability is a massive increase in exploitation.
Thus, the central policy recommendation in the report is for a shift away from reliance on monetary policy and the imposition of “initiatives that are more structural in character.”
The bitter experiences of the past decade have already underscored what this means—the destruction of working conditions and cuts to vital social services and other government funding, coupled with “flexibility” of labour markets. An environment conducive to “innovation and entrepreneurship”—that is, a free rein for business—must be established, according to the BIS.
It also calls for measures aimed at “boosting labour force participation.” This means making available new sources of cheap labour by forcing those on disability or other forms of pensions back into the workforce as their entitlements are slashed.
The report does not spell out how such measures—which are already being implemented in all the major economies—are to be intensified, other than saying that it will be “politically difficult.” The difficulties refer to the fact that their imposition is fundamentally incompatible with the maintenance of any kind of democratic regime.
The BIS chose to keep silent on what its prescriptions meant politically. But a report issued by the American banking and investment giant JPMorgan Chase two years ago spoke out very clearly on what it saw as the major problems in the political systems of a number of countries in Europe, including Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
The constitutions of those countries, it said, had been drawn up after the defeat of fascism and incorporated features inimical to a resolution of the problems for capital created by the financial crisis. These included “weak executives, weak central states relative to regions, constitutional protection of labour rights; consensus-building systems which favour political clientalism, and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the status quo.”
In other words, the kind of political, economic and social conditions that prevailed in fascist regimes, where capital had unrestricted freedom of operation, should be restored.
Two years on, this agenda is being carried out in Greece through the dictates of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, which insist that any expression of the interests of the mass of the people, even within the limited framework of bourgeois democracy, must be overridden and trampled on in the interests of the profit system. But it is not confined to Greece.
The economic and social devastation in Greece does not arise from conditions peculiar to that country, but from the breakdown of the global capitalist system. Greece is the testing ground for the kind of measures to be carried out in every country, which, as the BIS report makes clear, are assuming ever-greater urgency for the financial and corporate elites.
Fracking. Could there be a more perfect model for how we’re getting rinsed by this current conspiracy of government and commerce? In a world turned upside down, “conservative” now means the absolute opposite of “leaving things as they are”. Conservative means changing everything. It means dismantling things and selling off the bits. It means drilling into our lives and extracting the marrow.
Conservatism and conservation are now about as far apart as it’s possible to get. Friends of Conservation are the ones protecting the countryside. The ones who stand around self-consciously in terrible fancy dress, holding passive-aggressive placards in praise of the noble, selfless badger. Or basically any mammal that looks good in a waistcoat.
Friends of Conservatism, on the other hand, are the ones who roll up on heavy machinery like a pissed Ukrainian militia. The ones who drill deep beneath that area of local countryside whose only “use” so far has been as a picnic site. And who then pump into the ground powerful jets of high-pressure hydrogunk, splintering rock as easily as a walnut. And who, having sucked up a sky’s worth of valuable gas through a massive crack pipe, then pack up and lumber off to fracture and steal someone else’s underground treasure.
Welcome to capitalism’s late late show. If you can power-hose the last drop of value out of something, you now have an amoral imperative to do it. Fracking is the chief inspiration for today’s entrepreneurs, those “heroic wealth creators” so admired by Andy Pandery Burnham and half the Labour party. Everything is up for grabs now. The age of the racketeer is over. It’s all about fracketeering now.
Here is a recent example. A gang of London estate agents has invented something called a “client progression fee”. Yeah, ha ha, the cheeky peaky blinders are leeching an extra grand and a half out of buyers just for accepting their offer on a property. Imagine that. Charging people for agreeing to sell them something. Arbitrarily monetising something that customers are obliged to do anyway.
It’s almost as if the property industry is a pirate economy serviced by unscrupulous thieving bastards drenched in melancholy duty-free fragrances. Let’s face it, estate agents have pretty much perfected the art of taking the piss with a straight face. One former estate agent told me the other day he was always instructed to make admin fees “whatever you think you can get away with … go high, then drop as a favour”. Classic surcharge frackery.
I had decided that of all the agents – sports, double, biological – estate agents were definitely the worst. Then I asked people on Twitter how they had been fracked over lately and they reminded me about letting agents. And about how every single person I’ve ever known who has had any dealings with a letting agent has had to recalibrate their view of the human race as a result. Has anyone ever got their exorbitant deposit back in full without an exhausting argument pointing out that three years of normal wear and tear can’t be classed as catastrophic damage? I’ve been hearing about people being charged a £90-per-person “reference fee” when moving between two properties run by the same agent, “so that’s £180 to ask themselves how we were as tenants”. Or being charged £50 for printing six pages of a rental contract. “I asked them to email it so I could print it. They said no.”
The world of fracketeering is infinitely flexible and contradictory. Buy tickets online and you could be charged an admin fee for an attachment that requires you to print them at home. The original online booking fee – you’ve come this far in the buying process, hand over an extra 12 quid now or write off the previous 20 minutes of your life – has mutated into exotic versions of itself.
The confirmation fee. The convenience fee. Someone who bought tickets for a tennis event at the O2 sent me this pithy tweet: “4 tickets. 4 Facility Fees + 4 Service Charge + 1 Standard Mail £2.75 = 15% of overall £!”. Definitely a grand slam.
It’s amazing to think of a world that existed before the admin charge. It almost makes you nostalgic for a simpler and more innocent time, when racketeers would work out what it was we wanted and then supply it at an inflated price. You remember racketeers. Snappy dressers, little moustaches, connections to organised crime. Some of them did very well and went on to become successful publishers or peers of the realm. Quite a few old-school racketeers went into the “hospitality and leisure” business, where these days fracking is in full effect.
Restaurants charging “cakeage” fees of up to £9 a person if diners want to bring their own birthday cake. A “blockbuster” surcharge on cinema tickets for popular films. The “tray charge” on a room service dinner that already costs as much as the room. And a particular favourite of mine – any hotel that charges for internet access, as if WiFi were some fancy extra like a massage chair, or clown therapy. “Congratulations, you may now surf the world wide web,” says the drop-down box from 1996. It might as well add: “We would ask that you keep your visit to the internet as brief as possible as reception may require the telephone line for incoming calls.”
The problem for fracking capitalism is finding new territory. It is an immutable law of economics that the rich have to keep getting richer, otherwise the whole system collapses and then what happens? Nobody knows, but the rich drop hints from time to time that if their margins are eroded we might all find ourselves in some Riddley Walker dystopia where humans have to hunt food again and keep wild dogs at bay and it’s raining all the time and people tell wistful stories about the old days when there were ships in the sky and pictures on the wind, so to stop this happening keep making us richer.
But once you’ve mined the earth and milked the service industries, what is there left to frack? Us, that’s what. Heard of Kwasi Kwarteng? He’s a rising star in the Tory party. Always a danger signal, this. To qualify as a rising star in this context you have to make Judge Dredd look like the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Kwarteng’s suggestion, which has gone down very well with literally everyone I hate, is that a young person who hasn’t got a job and therefore hasn’t paid any national insurance contributions should get their unemployment benefit in the form of a repayable loan. Even if someone was out of work for the entire seven years between 18 and 25, he says, “the total sum repayable would be £20,475 – considerably less than the tuition fees loan repayable by many of his or her peers”. The clincher, there. You might be unemployed, but think yourself lucky you’re not going to university.
Redefining citizens as frackable units is precisely where all this current terrifying unpleasantness with the NHS is leading. Once you apply the laws of fracketeering to the NHS it’s a short step from monetising cataract operations to privatising them. Procedures that are highly profitable for shareholders, however, may be out of reach for the poor. Perhaps we can come to some arrangement. You owe us for restoring your eyesight, but you can’t seriously expect to seeand get a full state pension …
Nearly everyone had an NHS dentist once. God, it’s been years since you were in with a shout for one. What did they look like, can anyone remember? I’ve got this image of a Victorian gentleman, top hat and cape.
Nowadays the poor just put up with bad teeth. It’s the same with physio. GPs round my way now simply advise you to book privately to avoid a months-long waiting list, but even a short course of sessions costs over a ton. It might as well be a grand if you’re on a tight family budget.
I’ve been getting free prescriptions for years. Of course I’m incredibly grateful. The meds are keeping me going. Indeed, they’ve kept me going for longer than was originally anticipated. I’ve paid in all my life; now I’m being looked after. It was always taken for granted, this arrangement. NHS. Free for all, paid for by everyone, from each according to their means to each according to their needs, let’s have a knees-up, God bless us all, boom bang-a-wap diddly bosh.
But I can’t be the only one on regular meds thinking, “how much would they cost me without an NHS?” and Googling the market price.
I don’t want to sound overdramatic but fracketeers are faceless evil wizards and algorithms are their flying monkeys, dispatched from the anonymous castles of corporate service providers. You can’t tell me the people frackers aren’t looking at the meds people are on, too. And wondering how quickly the UK can be shunted into an American reality, where “unpaid medical bills” is now the number one cause of bankruptcy.
We are already living in a capitalist sci-fi horror story, where masters of the universe are trading stuff that doesn’t even exist yet. Future grain harvests in Canada, milk yields in Wisconsin, next year’s batch of Japanese whisky. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has a wide variety of “weather derivatives” available for trade if you’re interested including “temperature ranges, snowfall amounts and frost”. If fracketeers can think it, they can monetise it. There are no moral boundaries. The only limit to fracketeering is imagination.
For all I know, there’s a cabal of trillionaires sitting in a Jacobean library somewhere discussing how they might trade futures in trading futures. Or trying to fix the odds on farmed stem cells, or fat-burning nebulisers. Whatever’s round the corner, though, you can be sure humanity will be the harvest. People are the basic material of an economic world. Of course the frackers will drill into us.
Aspects of our physical existence will be divided as spoils. One day there will be a giant respiratory multinational that will own all new lungs. Babies will be born with their pulmonary systems on a lifetime leasehold. When they grow up they’ll face severe penalties for breathing polluted air. The manufacturers of cigarettes and vaping devices aren’t going to like that much, so maybe it’s Big Tobacco that sees where the future’s going and cleverly snaps up all the lungs in advance.
Sex, sunshine, sleep, singing. The best things in life are currently free. We’d better make the most of them, because in a frackable future they’ll all be metered and chargeable. Libido International or whoever would be alerted to any sexual activity via, I don’t know, some sort of monitored hormonal “thinkernet” and would shut it down after 60 seconds unless you authorised a debit or had a prepaid sex account.
Maybe people will be fitted with retinal paywalls to allow in sunshine, which will be owned by a solar consortium based somewhere tax-efficient and warm. Sleep would be traded on the international sleep exchange – imagine the premium new parents would pay for an hour of ultra-deep oblivion. And all human singing would be automatically Shazammed to a central licensing bureau for billing, the days of “out of copyright” having long gone. Everything out of copyright will be automatically the copyright of Singinc, who own “trad” and “anon” now, too. And your vocal cords.
In the future it will probably be best to stay celibate, in the dark, awake for as long as possible and quiet. So let’s live a little now, before we’re all fracked.
Image: Anti-austerity protest at Syntagma Square in June 2011.
The then-Prime Minister Giorgakis Papandreou (son of Andreas and grandson of Giorgos) appeared on state television to send his televised message to the Greek people from the harbor of Kastelorizo: “Our ship is sinking,” he said, “and we have to turn to our partners, the IMF and the EU, who will provide us with a safe harbor where we can rebuild it.”
As the saying has it: “a ship is safe in harbor — but that’s not what ships are for.” However, this is how Greece’s self-destructive dance with the Troika began. At the time, the country’s public debt was at 120% of GDP, the unemployment rate at 12%, the youth unemployment rate at around 30%, and suicide rates were an unfamiliar concept.
All I can remember is my friends’ faces covered in Maalox, teargas grenades and Molotov cocktails all over the place, even inside the Metro, the riot police going on a frenzy and beating up people, and — above all — the repetition of those “Yes to all!” statements on the radio, expressed by the majority of deputies inside the Greek Parliament.
It was the day Parliament would vote on the so-called mid-term agreement, a new round of austerity measures that included the shrinking of the Greek public sector and welfare state and the privatization of key state assets. It was also during the heyday of the Movement of the Squares, whose activists had called for a 48-hour general strike starting on June 28.
For the day after — the day of the vote — the plan was to “besiege” the Parliament so deputies wouldn’t be able to enter and vote, or if they did so at least they would feel the pressure from outside and vote no. Ambitious plan, you may say, Quixotic even, but that was what the Syntagma Assembly had decided.
It didn’t work.
“Yes to all,” the deputies said… gas grenades were falling… Maalox for those affected… chemicals… “Say no, for god’s sake!” … people fainting in the metro… beatings… arrests… the cops in the square destroying the camp… and yet again: “Yes to all…” I think those “Yeses to all” hurt us more than any of the chemicals or the beatings of the cops.
Like many of my friends, a generation of well-educated young people (owing to the fact that education in Greece is free), I don’t live in the country anymore. Still, I follow the political and economic developments and I try to spread the word of the economic and social destruction Greece is going through as much as I can.
You know, when we were finishing our university studies we were known as the “Generation of 700 euros”: a generation of well-educated young people who were obliged to live on 700 euros per month, the lowest salary in Greece at the time, which was considered far too little for anyone to survive in dignity in Athens, Thessaloniki, or any other of the big cities in the country.
Little did we know back then that, five years later, under the austerity measures dictated by the economists of the Troika and imposed by a series of slavish Greek governments, the lowest salary would have fallen to 500 euros, our parents’ salaries and grandparents’ pensions (which were not that generous either) would have been slashed by 30-40%, that the unemployment rate would reach 28%, the youth unemployment rate 50%, that suicide rates would quadruple, and that a neo-Nazi party would be in Parliament.
At the same time, the public debt skyrocketed to 180% of GDP, the rich (who would obviously benefit from the 40% reduction in worker salaries) kept becoming richer, and many of us (200.000, to be more specific, or roughly 2% of the population) would be forced to emigrate as a result of the crisis. The world’s biggest brain drain, as The Guardiancalled it.
None of the above is a coincidence. All of this is the direct result of the social and economic policies imposed by the Troika with the help of Greece’s “Yes to all” governments. Exactly the same policies that they are trying to blackmail Greece into continuing today.
However, this time we are being asked by the government — that of Alexis Tsipras — what we really want it to do. And for once, we will be able to say a proud and dignified ‘NO!’, as we had always wanted the deputies who were supposed to be representing us to say! We owe it to our friends who migrated, our parents and grandparents who saw their salaries and pensions being slashed, our comrades who were beaten up and arrested by the cops, and to our dead: to Pavlos and Shehzad Luqman, who were assassinated by Golden Dawn, and to the thousands who committed suicide over the course of the past five years.
It is a matter of dignity — something that can not be measured and cannot fit into the Troika’s economic statistics, but that can give strength to the humiliated to rise up against those who have humiliated them for so long.
Leonidas Oikonomakis is a PhD researcher in Social Movement Studies at the European University Institute, a rapper with the Greek hip-hop formation Social Waste, and an editor for ROAR Magazine.