Austerity Land

Puppies and ice cream



The Greek reality


by journalist and science writer Leigh Phillips

Phillips was a reporter and deputy editor with EUobserver until 2012 covering economic affairs, the environment and digital rights. He has also written for the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, Nature, Scientific American, Red Pepper and Jacobin.

Let’s say you’re the prime minister of a country that’s being forced to impose some seriously strict-ass austerian shock therapy. Every day, it’s all puppies and ice cream, am I right?

Okay, not so much.

Now, if you’re lucky enough to have a population who are as demoralised as Marvin the Paranoid Android and they just emigrate like the Irish (highest emigration rate in 25 years last year) or the Latvians (13% drop in population since 2000, most of which since the crisis and 80% of whom are under 35), then you don’t have to worry about rolling general strikes, low-level terrorism and neo-Nazi MPs beating up women on TV.

Sure, with all those hyper-educated working-age kids skedaddling off to Australia or Brazil or, erm,Angola, you’ll have a bitch of a brain-drain on your hands, not to mention a wallop of a drop in economic demand, but hey, isn’t that better than having your office shot at?

But not every prime minister is as lucky as Ireland’s ol’ Blueshirt Enda Kenny. Much of the rest of the EU periphery is nowhere near as docile as his flock. At a conference I attended last summer, one German analyst placed the number of general strikes in Europe’s southern flank since the start of the crisis at over 30. Historically unheard of. Even the tumult between the World Wars didn’t see this number of general strikes.

And all that’s going to happen is your economy is going to tank, unemployment will rise to 30% (to almost 60% for young people), pensioners will shoot themselves in public squares and mothers and sons will jump off the roofs of their building while holding hands when they can’t pay the bills, and your people will despise you. You won’t even be able to go to your favourite restaurant without having eggs thrown at you.

Then come elections, the other guys are certain to get in. Of course, they’ll impose exactly the same measures, but come on, they’re the other tribe! They may be ideologically identical to you, but they’re still the other team, man!

So what are you to do? How the hell are you going to boost your popularity in such hairy times? It’s a stubborn pickled octopus of a quandary.

Now, I’m no James Carville, the infamously Machiavellian political strategist who delivered Bill Clinton’s long-shot Democratic nomination and presidential election victory in 1992, but I’ve nevertheless come up with a handy little playbook with some lessons taken from the remarkable – if very likely only temporary – turn-around in opinion-poll fortunes of Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

In many respects it does come down to a bit of a Hail-Mary pass – the last best hope of a democratic government before it turns into something else, so it’s not recommended in anything but the most extreme circumstances. Still, other European leaders should at least familiarise themselves with these tactics should the economic and political stability of their countries ever, Heaven forfend, take a similar turn to that of the Hellenic Republic.


Step One: Distract attention from the cuts

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 23.33.02

Greek tourism revenues declined 15%
in 2012 for some reason.


First, and most important, initiate something along the lines of Samaras’ Operation Target Darkie.

Okay, so the undertaking is not actually called Operation Target Darkie. It’s called Operation Xenios Zeus, which is still quite a bit of a chucklesome border-patrol in-joke.

You see, since the launch last August of Operation Xenios Zeus, 60,000 (yes that’s not a typo. There are five zeroes after that six) people who don’t look Greek enough have been rounded up and detained, and 4,200 arrested. But ‘Xenios Zeus’ was in fact one of the Greek god Zeus’s many titles, and it meant ‘patron of guests and hospitality’, quick to avenge any wrong done to a stranger.

Ha! Rib-tickling! Side-splitting! (Actually, quite literally side-splitting in some cases) Do you get it? Amnesty International, those po-faced goody-goodies, clearly didn’t. They issued a 12-page report last month denouncing the government’s attacks on migrants, the extended detention in filthy, appalling conditions and its routine breaking of international and EU law.

But what you have to understand is that it’s been tremendously successful in restoring Samaras’s fortunes after his party spent months in the wilderness, trailing well behind the radical left Syriza in polls since the election. The most recent polls out this week now puts his New Democracy party even-Steven (even-Stefanos?) with Syriza – perhaps even actually pipping their main opponents. And a slim majority believe Samaras to be a better prime minister than Syriza’s Alex Tsipras would be.

Now, I know what you’re gonna say. “Leigh, won’t this sort of strategy just normalise attacks on immigrants and open the door for the neo-nazi thugs who will be emboldened to assault or even murder anyone who doesn’t look or sound ‘Greek’?”

And I see where you’re coming from. That could indeed be a problem. Why, just last week, a young Pakistani man riding his bicycle in Athens was stabbed by two men on motorcycles, later dying of his wounds. In August, a 19-year-old Iraqi was fatally stabbed by a gang, also on motorcycles. The city’s mayor describes knife attacks happening on an almost daily basis.

There has been an increase in racist attacks since 2010, but human rights groups say that incidents of racially motivated violence last year just skyrocketed. Golden Dawn thugs break up market stalls with baseball bats while the police stand by and watch. They climb aboard buses and drag people out and beat them with crow bars and chains. They throw molotov cocktails at barbershops and when the police come and investigate, they arrest the barber.

But remember, we’re all in this together. We’ve all got to do our part. Sure, it’ll be a bit uneven. Some of these measures will fall unfairly on some people. I recognise that. But what other option does Samaras have? How else is going to be able to distract attention from his EU-ordered gutting of social protections and services? Sure, children are being kept in concentration camps with no clean bedding or warm water, but where’s the sympathy for poor old Sammy?


Step Two: Use arcane laws to break strikes


Remember to respect workers rights, or a committee of the
UN International Labour Organisation will write you a very stern letter indeed!


Next, you’ve got to figure out a way to deal with bolshy workers who saw household disposable income drop by 10.6% in the third quarter of 2012 compared with the previous year, as data released by the government stats agency last week showed.

One-day general strikes you can handle. It’s normal that unions should march on parliament. There’s the odd scuffle with riot police, then people go home. So what? As Swedish finance minister Anders Borg joked about Hungarian unions protesting austerity in 2011, “Isn’t that what unions always do?”

But indefinite strikes, particularly in strategic sectors that the rest of the economy depends upon, such as transport, ports, oil refineries and airports – that’s a real nuisance. People like to say that unionsaren’t as powerful as they once were. Many union leaders, particularly in the European Trades Union Congress, may even believe it themselves. But t’s remarkable how just a few strategically placed strikers can paralyse an entire economy.

The solution to this persnickety little problem here does require breaching international conventions against forced labour dating back to the 1930s, but don’t worry, you’re not going to get any trouble from Brussels on that front.

So when Athens Metro workers go on strike for eight days to oppose an EU-demanded 25% cut in wages – a demand being imposed in breach of contract with the workers – all you have to do is enact a ‘civil mobilisation’ order, enforced by riot cops armed with the threat of five-year prison sentences.

“What on earth is a ‘civil mobilisation’ order?” I hear you say. And indeed, it is an obscure power that governments have. There’s no Wikipedia entry for it, and if you Google the term, you’ll only find clippings from newspapers from the First and Second World Wars. It’s a tightly bounded form of martial law, restricted to a particular sector, that requisitions workers’ services for an indefinite duration and bans strikes. Essentially, it’s labour conscription or military labour.

But just like the return of avocado-green kitchen appliances, after a long time unconscionably démodé, civil mobilisation is deffo back in fashion.

In 2010, then-French-President Nicolas Sarkozy used ‘requisitioned labour’ to break strikes at occupied refineries and oil depots and defeat the widespread movement against his planned pension cuts. The requisition order declared that continuance of the strike could cause “serious disruptions of public order” including “riots”, and threatened the workers with six months’ imprisonment and a €10,000 fine. A judge may have subsequently declared the requisition order illegal, but the government just issued another, less general requisition.

The same year, Spain’s Zapatero militarised labour in the country’s airspace in order to break a strike by air traffic controllers over similar European orchestrated public sector cuts and privatisation. The Defence Ministry was put in charge, sending military police to disrupt a union meeting and force them back to work. Soldiers took over air traffic control towers across the country and army units were given the power to conscript air traffic controllers from their homes and order them to work under military authority. Workers faced prison sentences of up to six years for disobeying military orders. In effect, they had become military personnel.

So basically, everybody’s doing it, so why not Greece?

In keeping with the UN International Labour Organisation’s Forced Labour Convention (Convention No. 29) and according to Greek law, the requisition of labour is only permitted in cases of a “sudden situation requiring the taking of immediate measures to face the country’s defensive needs or a social emergency against any type of imminent natural disaster or emergency that might endanger the public health”.

After an investigation by the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association in 2009 into a controversial use that year of a 1974 decree (thus dating back to the last year of the Colonels’ junta) on ‘Civil Emergency Planning’ to issue a civil mobilisation order against striking seamen, the Greek government committed to ensuring that such use “will from now on only apply in times of war.”

But really, who cares about the ILO? It’s not like they’re international lenders who need a signal showing how tough you are at forcing through the cuts and privatisation they’re demanding. Political leaders across the EU periphery have desperately been trying to figure out a way to show the markets and European power-brokers they mean business. And now, Eureka, they have found a way! Is there any bigger big-cock manoeuvre than the militarisation of labour?

Samaras’s civil mobilisation was denounced by unions as authoritarian and “tantamount to dictatorship”. “Let them [the government] come and collect dead bodies. Let them send in the army,” bellowed transport union leader Antonis Stamatopoulos.

But after riot police stormed a train depot in the diddly tiny hours of Friday morning and served mobilisation notices to 2,500 employees, normal service was resumed by the afternoon.

There is of course the danger that the use of such unorthodox tactics will itself produce still an escalation in militant activity from furious citizens and unionists, shocked that you are using a mechanism normally reserved for times of war, but then all you have to do is escalate the repression! Simples!


Step Three: Accuse your opponents of terrorism


Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras consorting with a vicious Slovenian terrorist.

Third in the clutch of clever strategems aimed at boosting your popularity in an age of austerity is the tried-and-true gambit of all desperate pols: slander your opponents by accusing them of terrorism.

If you’ve got a fragile governing coalition, it’s pretty inconvenient to have to a major corruption scandal on your hands directly connected to the current crisis. If some meddling little journalist publishes a list of some 2,000 wealthy tax-dodging Greeks with Swiss bank accounts your government knows about but does nothing to investigate, including one of your advisors and finance-ministry officials, and to top it off, a finance minister removes evidence relating to three of his family members, it’s pretty awkward. I mean, when you’ve been saying that everyone has to tighten their belts for a few years until the crisis is over, you don’t want everyone to find out that you just meant everyone except the wealthy and well-connected.

Well, one option is that you can have the journalist arrested, and why not? It’s only one more episode in the cavalcade of assaults on freedom of the press in the country such as threats from neo-Nazis andriot police attacking journalists covering demonstrations. Who cares if your country drops to 84thplace (out of 179) in the annual press freedom rankings of Reporters Without Borders to just between Kosovo and Togo?

But an even better option is to exploit the petty terrorism from anarcho-nihilist quarters that has intensified in recent weeks and accuse your political opponents of being “terrorist-friendly”.

On 14 January, gunmen strafed the headquarters of the New Democracy party with bullets, and in recent weeks, canister bombs have exploded at government offices, banks and the homes of high-profile journalists. The streak of low-level petty terrorism escalated however with the bombing of a shopping mall owned by shipping magnate Spiros Latsis, the second richest Greek in the world and a student mate of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, on 20 January.

When Syriza MP Vangelis Diamantopoulos warned that austerity was producing a despair that was so wrenching that it was leading to people “either committing suicide or picking up the gun”, and encouraged them instead to join Syriza, New Democracy government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou accused the “hoodlums of Syriza” of being “terrorist friendly” and Diamantopoulos of making the shopping mall a target. The party also produced a heavily edited 90-second video of Diamantopoulos, making it look as though the MP was issuing a call to arms, and said that it reveals a “justification of violence and understanding for the use of weapons”.

Now, sure, accusing another party of fomenting terrorism may further undermine political stability by casting your democratic opponents in the role of enemy within, but who’s paying attention to the corruption scandal anymore? See? Magic!


Step Four: Who doesn’t love a police crackdown on dissidents?


Villa Amalia is beautiful, moving 2009 film starring Isabelle Huppert.
It’s also the name of a Greek squat and cultural centre raided by police last December


But if the right side of the political spectrum is splintering, with New Democracy having lost its nationalist right to the anti-memorandum Independent Greeks, and yet another new right-wing movement being formed this past week out of refugees from the governing coalition and the remnants of the hard-right Greek Orthodox party Laos – and of course, famously, an openly neo-Nazi party has swollen to third place in opinion polls, you still have to do something to hold the right together against a radical left that is on the cusp of power. After all, Sammy was picked as leader precisely because he was thought most likely to be able to hold the right together.

What you’ve got to do is find that thing that can both unite conservatives and is popular amongst a populace frightened by a growing crime wave: a good old law-and-order crusade.

And while you’re making yourself look good to certain traditional quarters by getting tough on crime, why not mount a crackdown on squatters and anti-authoritarian youth and launch mass arrests of left-wing trade unionists including a number of union chiefs – and call it putting an end to “lawlessness”?

You can set in motion police raids and evictions of long-standing cultural centres with their dangerouscafes and free concerts, child-minding and left-wing literature. Above all, have the minister of public order, Nikos Dendias, issue a dog-whistle message that the democratic era after the end of military rule was too lax with those of certain political philosophies, a situation that needs to be corrected: “The country must finally settle its accounts with the post-1974 era.”

Be careful of course to do essentially nothing to track down the murderers of Golden Dawn, who brazenly usurp the state’s monopoly on violence, openly engage in racist assaults in public places such as squares or public transport while the police look on or even participate, beat journalists in front of them as well, attempt to enter parliament with guns, issue death threats, distribute white nationalist literature in schools, intimidate theatres that produce plays with gay content, maintain caches of weapons and train militias. Even if every day is a Greek Kristallnacht,

I admit that all of this may seem like a high-risk strategy – the immigrant round-ups, the use of arcane junta-era laws intended to be used in times of foreign invasion or viral haemorrhagic pandemic in order to break strikes, accusing opponents of terrorist sympathies, and the police crackdowns on dissidents.

But when the state has surrendered all its economic authority to international organisations, and handed much of its civil authority over to black-shirted thugs, how else do you prove to your people that you’re still there?

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