Austerity and a Greek island

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Our view of austerity in Greece is usually shaped by events on the mainland. Chris Jones, who lives on the island of Samos, looks at the impact of the crisis on people living in the Greek periphery

Stories in the mainstream media, both abroad and in Greece, say that the Greek government is not cutting hard enough or quickly enough. In reality, wages have been slashed by 40 percent as have all benefits and pensions. Work has evaporated. Seven percent is the projected reduction for this year alone and we are in the fifth year of recession. This is disaster time for ordinary Greeks.

Our friend Angela was incredulous that any sane person could possibly believe that nothing has changed here. She is 82 years old and recently widowed. Her pension is now 300 euros a month. Angela has a range of health problems and until recently had her medicines paid for through her state insurance scheme.

However, because the scheme has not paid the pharmacies they in turn have refused to supply medicines which now means that Angela has to pay up front for her supplies and hope that at some point her insurance scheme will reimburse her.

She was told this could take between two and three years, by which time she might well be dead given her health. This is an increasingly common situation, especially for those with chronic and enduring health problems.

For Angela it is her family that makes up the shortfall. It has also led to her 60 year old daughter moving in with her. This was not only due to Angela's poverty but because Marianna, her daughter, also faces acute financial problems. She is yet to receive any pension. Of one thing we can be absolutely certain - creditors of the Greek state such as Angela and her daughter will not receive a cent of bail-out fund money.

But no longer is it just younger people staying in the family home for longer, or looking to migrate. We have two close friends in their mid-40s, both with families, who are now considering work on eight-month construction contracts in South Africa. We know of households where the only income is that of their grandparents' pension. We know of so many children whose parents can't afford to drive them the four kilometres to the beach. Can you imagine what it is like to look over the sea (with daily temperatures in the mid-30s) and yet only being able to visit occasionally? It is relentless.

Low expectations
Nobody here expects anything from the government. Indeed, all the news from Athens at the moment promises further hardship as the Greek government looks to cut 11 billion euros from its budget to meet the demands of the Troika. Even moments of relief are conditional. We met our friend Georgos on Sunday by chance in the nearby tourist town. We had gone for a coffee to a harbourside bar to find him serving the drinks. He was so happy to see us and told of his relief at finding paid work.

While he begins at 8am and finishes at 4.30pm, he actually arrives at 7.30am and rarely leaves before 5pm. He has no breaks and he is given no food during the day, but "out of the goodness of his heart" the owner allows Georgos to have one free coffee. The owners of this bar take all the tips left by the customers and nothing goes to the workers. Georgos has raised all these issues but with no positive result.

Georgos is being employed in a bar which is still doing a good enough summer business, unlike many other bars and restaurants which are clearly struggling. A couple of weeks ago we visited Manolates, a well known tourist hot spot. Apart from the four of us we counted just five other visitors, and this was lunch in late July! The shopkeepers we spoke to talked of a catastrophe.

One newspaper wrote recently that 50 percent of small businesses predict they will have closed by the end of the year. Our friend's cookshop in Karlovassi which has supplied restaurants with crockery and glasses for over 30 years is just one typical case. Dora tells us that it is inevitable she will be closed this autumn. In the struggling businesses, low pay, long hours, delays in paying wages and so forth are commonplace.

And yet those businesses which do survive have no qualms in exploiting the crisis to drive down wages and conditions knowing full well that desperation will ensure they fill their summer vacancies. This is what paid work, where it exists, increasingly looks like on Samos with low wages, long hours and previously won concessions just ignored.

A regular Dutch summer visitor to the village observed that there is a tangible "cloud of sadness over the place. It's everywhere just beneath the surface." The emotions here are tangled and confused. Feelings are raw. Anger and resignation stand side by side. Our friend Maria was devastated to discover that some of the people she considered friends in the village voted for the fascist Golden Dawn in the last election. Sixteen people in this village voted for Golden Dawn in June which was just under 10 percent of the village vote. Her feelings for the village have changed. It's a small place with fewer than 200 people living here through the year. It makes a big impact when you now no longer want to sit with "friends" who you played with, went to school with and drank coffee with.

A dark shadow over Samos
Golden Dawn is not just a dark shadow over Samos, but a poisonous cloud over the whole of Greece. For someone like Maria it is simply unbelievable that Greece with its heroic history of anti-fascism has spawned such a monster. The crisis has enormous implications for how you feel about yourself and society. Certainties crumble, the world becomes bizarre and inexplicable to many, and a sense of being abandoned deepens.

From sunrise at 6am a group of 20 young refugees gather outside a furniture shop on the edge of Karlovassi waiting to be picked up for a day's work. You simply know that the oldest - a thin and frail 50 year old from the Ivory Coast - will never get picked for work. Yet every day he is there.

But for the fascists and conservative elites in government these refugees have become demonised as one of the fundamental causes of the crisis. The following report published on 7 August is just the latest typical and horrifying example: "Two days after a massive sweep operation in which Greek police netted over 1,000 clandestine immigrants in central Athens, the Citizens' Protection Minister said, ‘Our social fabric is in danger of unravelling. The immigration problem is perhaps even bigger than the financial one'." The operation was controversially codenamed Xenios Zeus after the ancient Greek patron of hospitality and guests.

And the background beat is amply provided by Golden Dawn which is using all the so-called legitimacy of being a "party in parliament" to insult and humiliate in racist language. Please take a look at the YouTube clip (bit.ly/N54RwI) where the Golden Dawn member is given full licence in parliament to pour out the most despicable bile.
But in Ambelos, Samos, we are not in the middle of the maelstrom which is overwhelming so many in Athens in particular and the other large cities of Thessalonica and Patras. All the Athenian summer visitors to the village make this point without fail, pointing to our gardens and our nature (which provide both food and most importantly fuel for the winter).

Endless cycles of emigration
Yet at the same time, being on the periphery, on an island where workers are fragmented in tourism or agriculture, there is little to lift the sense of hopelessness. The endless cycles of emigration leave behind a largely elderly vulnerable population. Of course, the great irony here is that for decades the slow death of rural Greece has been significantly slowed down by the highly exploited labour of migrants - first the Albanians and now the refugees. It is they who pick the majority of the grapes and olives and tend the mountainside farms.

Some of the basic resources for resistance and progressive political activity are limited on Samos. There is no equivalent to the movement of the squares to be found in Athens, for example. Nevertheless there are some fine comrades here. Their work in support of the refugees and in combating the hardship of many has been exemplary and tireless.

The discussion I had with Dimitri about why 50 percent of the police supported Golden Dawn in the last election was typical of many such conversations as he detailed the trajectory of the local police from the time of the Colonels' Junta through to today. None of the police implicated in the Junta on Samos were ever held to account; there were no prosecutions and not only did they hold on to their jobs but they passed them on to their children.

Nobody (at least in my experience in the village) disagrees with the view that what is needed in Greece is some form of revolution and that the state is rotten to the core. These are now issues of broad consensus. Good thinking, but no action.

An Algerian friend living here argues that the lack of open rebellion is due to the fact that most people's energies are now solely directed at physical and mental survival and that these wider questions of social transformation are only of interest to those who know where their next meal and pay cheques are coming from. There is, in my view, much truth in this observation but there is something else as well.

Greece is full of people who will tell you in great detail about its problems and those of capitalism more generally. This has been the education provided by the Troika. But what is so weak here is any vision of how it could be different; of what a decent, fair and humane society might look like - and moreover, how rapidly we could achieve this. Promises of socialist revolution have limited appeal in a humanitarian crisis if they don't address immediate issues of survival.

Never before have I felt such an urgency to provide tangible examples of struggle. From living on Samos, I am more clear than ever about the need to organise and teach one another about the kind of action that can end this torture. This is the challenge.

Chris Jones runs the blog Samos Diary which details the changing times of austerity in Samos and can be found at www.zcommunications.org/blog/Chris%20Jones