A looming showdown

When the Troika came back to Athens last week, parliament was deadlocked over the brutal austerity package, but outside sporadic protests had already begun. Angry pensioners stormed the health ministry over the loss of their pharmaceutical benefits, while industrial action was being planned by journalists, teachers, doctors, transport workers and even judges, who are expected to shut down the courts for a week.

The other night we found ourselves in Syntagma Square where the traffic was cut off by a demonstration of police furious at the proposed cuts to their pay. They’re no leftists – half of them support the appalling racist Golden Dawn party – but they’re looking like a shaky support for the bankers’ government.

There’s a sense of mounting crisis here, and it’s driven by the depth of the proposed cuts. There are pensioners who’ll be left with no more than 100 euros a month once they’ve paid their rent. “What am I, an animal?” one elderly woman asked when interviewed on TV.

Business is shrinking catastrophically. The latest figures show that GDP, already down 17% in the last four years, fell by a further 6.2% in the second quarter of 2012 alone. Not far from the centre of Athens we’ve seen streets of empty shops to let, many of them boarded up and covered in graffiti. “F*** the banks” is a common slogan.

From Australia it may be hard to grasp the sense of impending showdown between the Greek people and their government, but make no mistake, it is coming. Over the summer there has been a hiatus as people wait to see how the showdown with the Troika will work out. The coalition, committed in principle to an austerity plan, is straining at the seams. All three parties in government know that they’re unelectable if they go all the way with the banks. Meanwhile the leftist Syriza, which got a huge vote in the June elections, is still sitting on about 25% in the polls and, menacingly, Golden Dawn has risen to 10.5% and is now ahead of PASOK, the discredited social democrats.

If the Samaras government goes along with the Troika, there will be mass opposition on the streets, but if they fail to comply and Greece is forced out of the euro zone, the plunge in living standards will produce a similar response. It’s Catch-22.

Greece encapsulates in concentrated form the crisis bearing down on the whole of Europe. Inexorably, it is becoming impossible for peoples to live as before, and for governments to rule as before.


Throughout Europe, under the rule of the banks, the old parliamentary parties are paralysed but among the people things are stirring, with fervent discussions of the kind that go on beneath the radar in times of crisis and change.

In James Robertson’s Scottish novel And the Land Lay Still, there’s a section where he’s writing about the Thatcher years, when the Scots were effectively disenfranchised. Add the internet to what he says about magazines, and you have a picture of what is happening across the continent today:
“For generations a kind of balance has been maintained. There has been give and take, and yes, there have arguments about how much give and how much take, but now something has changed. There is a sense of injustice, of neglect, of vague or real oppression. Nobody is being shot, there are no political prisoners, but still that sense persists: this is wrong. It grows. It demands to be addressed. The situation needs to be fixed.
“So there are gatherings and debates … There are lines people will not cross, but which, on reflection, they will. There are conversations and compromises. People learn how to talk to each other and how to listen, because the alternative is endless defeat…
“There were magazines recording and encouraging this process of self-exploration. They were small-scale, low-budget, sporadic affairs, and their sales were tiny – a few hundred, a very few thousand – but the people running them weren’t doing it for the sales. They were doing it to address that pervasive sense of wrongness. And the people who read them – culturally aware, politically active people – were hungry for what they provided. More than anything, perhaps, the magazines said: you are not alone.”

From all this, surely, new movements and new leaderships must emerge.


CJ Chivers is the New York Times correspondent, much awarded for reports from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, whose recent “exclusive” involved following a Syrian rebel militia led by Abdul Hakim Yasin to the point where they used a prisoner as a human bomb. Questions have been raised about the ethics of that story.

Chivers, it turns out, is a former US Marine. He told Esquire magazine last year that he decided to become an NYT reporter because “I thought it would be kind of like going into the infantry”.

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