By Panagiotis Sotiris from The Press Project *
Social disaster comes in large numbers and small details. On 8 March the Greek Statistical Authority announced that the official unemployment rate reached 21% and that the total number of unemployed exceeded 1 million. A close look offers an even more devastating image of the consequences of the austerity packages imposed upon Greece by the EU – IMF – ECB troika. Not only has youth unemployment reached 51.1%, creating conditions for a ‘lost generation’ and imminent danger of a ‘brain drain’, but also unemployment of those at more productive ages (28.7% for those aged 25-34, 17.9% for those aged 35-44) has already reached levels that can lead to a social crisis. And this is only the official rate of unemployment. The rise of the economically inactive population is also an indication of forms of unemployment that do not fall within the official definition.
At the same time Greek economy is contracting for the 5th consecutive year. Provisional data show a -7.5% recession rate in the third quarter of 2011 and estimates for a return to growth in 2013 should be considered as over-optimistic. Mass wage reductions will also lead to further contraction. A survey commissioned by the Ministry of Labour indicated a -25% reduction in total labour cost and that before the current wage reduction in the public sector (-25% to -40%) and private sector (-22% in the minimum wage, -32% for young workers, plus a complete overhaul of the collective contract system that will lead to wage cuts of even 40-50% in most sectors) that were put to law in February 2012. Wage cuts have also been accompanied by increases in direct and indirect taxation and property taxes, leading to extra reduction to the real income of wage earners. The consequent decline in total demand is evident in the mass wave of closures of small businesses all over Greece.
The sharp reduction in pensions, decided in the end of February 2012 will not only contribute to the decline of total income and total demand, it will also endanger social cohesion. In a country where the family traditionally covers for an incomplete welfare state and inter-generational solidarity is crucial, this loss of income for pensioners will also affect working families. The Greek family is reaching its limit as an informal barrier against poverty and social exclusion and one can estimate that we are going to see more cases of people being unable deal with their basic needs. Moreover, the unemployment benefit, which has been one of the lowest in the EU and with a shorter duration, was reduced by 22% (the reason offered was that it was indexed to the minimum wage) and is now only 361 euros per month, despite the fact that the cost of living has continued to rise. That is why scenes unseen before in Greece, such as soup kitchens or cases of homelessness, are becoming more common.
This sense of an imminent social crisis is also the result of the sharp reduction in public spending and investment. The signs of a deterioration of public infrastructure are already evident. More than 1000 schools were closed and the number of available hospital beds was reduced by 11,000. In September 2011 the school year started without most textbooks for primary and secondary schools. In the name of the reduction of health costs the government is imposing new regulations concerning both the number and the type of medication prescribed per physician that will surely lead to a deterioration of health coverage. Drastic budget cuts in the Ministry of Culture, including the funds for security systems for museums, endanger the Greek cultural heritage, exemplified in recent events such as the burglary in the National Gallery and the armed robbery in the museum of Olympia. Universities are being run at reduced budgets leading to sharp reductions in adjunct faculty, extremely long delays in the appointment of lecturers and professors and everyday problems such as lack of central heating. State agencies such as the ones responsible for public housing and social tourism have been closed, leading to the suspension of the respective programs. And things will only get worse if the government goes ahead with the planned reduction in state employees and further closures of state agencies. Everyday life is already worse. Delays in metropolitan bus services and long queues at public services are becoming the norm because of the forced retirement of public sector employees.
In the next months social conditions and everyday life in Greece will certainly get worse. It is like watching, in real time, the slow and agonizing death of a country. One can see it in the faces of citizens trying to get to the end of month and the growing feeling of insecurity. It is obvious that the EU-IMF-ECB troika and the political elites are betting on individualized despair and sense of defeat leading to passivity and acceptance of the measures as inevitable, but this bet is far from sure. We have already witnessed in the past two years more cases of mass protest than any other European country. One can expect more social explosions in the next months. Hopefully, it will not be the stress limits of society but the ability of the political system to deal with social unrest that will be tested. And then no one will be able to deny that there were many warning signs…
*Panagiotis Sotiris teaches modern social theory, social and political philosophy at the Department of Sociology of the University of the Aegean in Mytilene.