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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 23 July 2016
20 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 23 JULY 2016 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM MATTHEW SHARPE A PERFECT STORM 'Perfect storm' and 'endless crisis' are not phrases that easily come to mind as you sit atop the Areopagus Hill, just west of the Acropolis, and watch the orange sun disappear improbably beneath the Saronic gulf. It is a spectacle of such aching beauty that, each night from April to October, tourists from around the world and canoodling locals gather on the marble rocks, with their backs turned to the Parthenon. It is a view that I had remembered and come to see—except that you can never really remember such extravagance, only hope to return to the well. This is the Athens I have come to love over the last decade, with its ancient history and its arid hills, its fierce daylight and soft summer evenings filled with the floating sounds of bazoukis: a new antiquity to explore around every corner, and each sunset its own revelation. But I found myself, this time around, having to pinch myself. I wanted to remind myself that beneath the expanse of white roofs tinged with the purple of the dusk − beneath the entire greater sprawl of post-war Athens, laid out like a carpet beyond the agora beneath us − one in every four eligible Greeks in this city is unemployed. One in every two Athenian youths has no prospect of work. The health and education systems are suffering from crippling underfunding and endemic cronyism. By some accounts, more than 40 per cent of all Greeks now live below the poverty line. Hundreds of thousands of educated Greeks have fled their homeland, especially younger Greeks (the 'brain drain'). Well over half of the population register deeply pessimistic appraisals of what is to come. And, despite six long years of internationallybrokered economic adjustments, there is still no end in sight. FEET ON THE GROUND It is hard to gather too much 'on the ground' when you are only in a place for a week, spending your days at a conference, with a limited functional command of the native language. The young Greeks I have spoken to, it has to be said, remain refreshingly optimistic. “Greeks will always find a way,” one told me. “What else can you do? Greeks have always found a way.” “I do not want to talk about the crisis,” another reflected. She had for some years previously run a tour around the ancient sites. Everyone seemed more interested in the Greece of today. “It is better we are optimistic, isn't it?” We nodded. The taxi drivers are, as ever, a more interesting sample. I pressed one about Greek President Alexis Tsipras, who had come to power so dramatically in January 2015 promising a “better deal” for Greece from its EU creditors. “Tsipras is a great actress,” he laughed quietly, although he clearly did not find the situation amusing. “Tsipras deserves an Oscar,” a second cabby rejoined, unbidden. “He deserves some reward for all the lies he has told.” Moving around the tourist areas at the feet of the Acropolis, with young and old reclining on the endless café chairs, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing could ever change in old Greece. The young people are still fashionably attired. They move around with the same insouciance as ever. The young men, especially, engage in heated, laughing exchanges. But at Monastiraki, it seemed to me that one in every three shops is closed in the touristic 'Flea Market' that I remember being a hive of activity less than 10 years ago. There seemed to me to be many fewer tourists than I remember from 2007 or even 2010. The Plaka still bustles at noon. Monastiraki chokes with celebrants in the evening. But on one park bench near the Thesion, I saw a man lying asleep, uncovered in the rising morning heat. The previous night I almost fell over another homeless man huddled in a doorway, his eyes opened wide. Beggars are another new presence I don't recall from previous trips. Some − as in India − have gross deformities (one man's arm was almost wholly scarred with burning). Each asks − as in India − for any charity that might be passing by. But then again, since I had first come here with a friend in 2007 pursuing the Greece of Socrates, Pericles and Thucydides, a good deal has changed in the Hellada of the 'troika', austerity, the memoranda and the referendum. After 2009, caught in the wake of the global financial crisis, Greece's GDP has shrunk from over €240 billion to under €180 billion. GDP per capita has fallen nearly 25 per cent from €22,500 to around €17,000. The public debt that caused the storm has not shrunk. It has now grown to an estimated (conservatively) 180 per cent of GDP. Indirect taxes have multiplied, with all that implies for social equity. Pub- lic assets have been privatised: at the moment, even the Piraeus is up for sale. The health and education systems have been 'defunded', triggering humanitarian concerns and tales that sound like they come from the third world. Then, in 2014, refugees from the Middle East began to come in their boats. At first to pass through Greece northwards. But then −when fences arose and the borders closed − awaiting a decision on their fate in this half-impoverished land. In the 1930s, the Philhellenist Albert Camus used the title 'Greece in Rags' to describe the impoverishment of the indigenous populations of the Kabylie region in the Algerian highlands. Today, he might have used the same term to evoke the original he passionately loved. DOMESTICS Much has been written on the causes of the Greece 'sovereign debt crisis'. Even the most ardent Graecophile would be hard pressed to deny that there are not domestic, as well as international causes to today's imbroglio. Greece's successive social democratic (PASOK) and liberal-conservative (New Democracy) governments all ran budget deficits since the emergence of the democracy from authoritarian control in 1974, until SYRIZA’s advent in 2015. The deficits were under three per cent before 1980. They were over three per cent since then, culminating in about nine per cent per annum in the 2001-2009 period when other economic indices were still heralding Greece's 'Olympian' four per cent growth. Since the reign of PASOK in the 1980s (if not before), clientilism has become an accepted part of Greek politicking. In a way that makes Australian politics look mild, the parties here have competed in offering largesse to particular electoral groups. Budget deficits have regularly increased in election years as the public's purse strings were advertised and opened. Philosophy in the real world 416, 2016 — is there no alternative?
16 July 2016
30 July 2016