There are so many ways of reading Athens – walk along Plaka and see all the tourists following flag bearing guides, the selfie stick-wielding, ice cream eating throng, and it’s a thriving holiday destination, where the rubbish carts clear the streets, the yellow taxis stream past and people sit drinking ices coffees in the cafes.
Or you can walk towards Syntagma Square and see the hordes of working people, waiting for the traffic lights to change and allow them to cross, or sitting chatting by the fountain. And then you spot someone like the woman who can just be made out in the photograph. I first saw her during the day, dressed quaintly as if she was going to church, with her bags stacked up in the doorway of an office block. Later that night I saw her again, slumped asleep in the same area. Then you see a young man, who at first looks like anyone else his age, until you see him begging and trying to reach into a bin to get at some food. Then you see a woman leaning her head against a tree, emaciated and frail looking – is she ill, or on drugs, or both? In a moment she’s wandering among the people in the square, asking for money.
In Syntagma Square at night you might see a people’s assembly talking about the need to kickstart the 2011 grassroots movement that was so evident in 2011. But most of what’s going on as a result of the crisis in Greece is difficult to gauge, easy to miss if you just focus on the things that you might expect to see in any city. Since I started coming to Athens two years ago, I’ve heard about women and girls being trafficked here and forced into prostitution, about cases of domestic violence increasing, of women eating in soup kitchens in the hope that if their husbands are fed they won’t be violent. I’ve heard about primarily African women who were thrown out onto the streets by employers who could no longer afford to pay their wages as maids, and I’ve heard desperate tales about women who were rounded up on the streets of Athens, forcibly tested and denounced as HIV whores in a witch hunt that was thought to be an attempt to avert an outcry over soaring rates of HIV as a result of services being shut down. Feminists have told me that everything they thought was established with regard to women’s status in Greek society had been swept away in this new climate. I’ve written about reports published that show that in just about every measure, the health and well-being of the Greek people is in decline. Far from being the easy-living people who retire early and don’t pay taxes, most people I know who have a job are living precariously, overworked and exhausted.
So much of what is happening takes place in the minds and hearts of Greek people, talk to anyone and they are like to tell you that they are anxious, depressed, hopeless, weary, frightened, exhausted, past caring.
“Economic violence” was a phrase I heard today to describe the impact on the Greek people of the past five years, and of the policies the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and European Commission want to impose. So when EU council president Donald Tusk quipped that “the game is over” the Greeks could at least cheer Greek PM Alexis Tsipras’ response that “1.5 million unemployed, three million poor and thousands of families without income, living only with grandparents’ pensions, is not a game.”
In a recent interview, RafCorrea president of Ecuador, said:
Let’s talk about Greece for instance. Let’s talk about all the conditions the country is submitted to: IMF packages, we Latinos we’ve been there. All those measures are not meant to overcome the crisis, they are just to liquidate the debt. On one hand they give money and funds to you, on the other hand they impose you some harsh measures: low salaries, no allowances, mass dismissals in the public sector…it is to find the money to pay a private debt.
So, at the end of the day countries are indebted with multilateral treaties. All this just to guarantee a private debt. The common people get nothing. They are not out of the crisis. We see that all this is being repeated in Europe. It means the absolute supremacy of capital over human beings on behalf politics.
As I’ve written before, Simone Weil argues that deeper than the demand for rights is the desire we all have not to be harmed, and that those who are ‘afflicted’ in such a way struggle to “find the words which express the truth of their affliction, the words which can give resonance, through the crust of external circumstances, to the cry, which is always inaudible: ‘Why am I being hurt?’”
A few years ago, stories were being reported showing the impact of the crisis on the Greek people, but now much of what we get to hear is to do with the economics, while the voices of those suffering the effects of austerity go mostly unheard. What Weil writes about truth being rendered inarticulate seems relevant when an economic narrative has become so dominant, the human cost disregarded, and the cold logic applied that there’s no other option, that all the Greek people can do is fall in line:
“Truth,” Weil writes, “stands before an intelligence which is concerned with the elegant manipulation of opinions” in the same way that a “vagrant” accused of stealing a carrot being brought before a “comfortably seated judge who keeps up an elegant flow of queries, comments and witticisms while the accused is unable to stammer a word”.
Greece matters – it matters in the UK where leaders who harrumph over the EU interfering in our human rights seem to have no qualms about unwanted economic and political ideology being imposed on another country. It matters in Spain, where there is a movement to the Left underway, and it matters for people who don’t want to just live under the rules of capitalist realism.
As Channel 4 News economics editor Paul Mason wrote in a recent blog post:
the younger radical generation in Greece cares more about social issues: it want higher wages, more secure jobs, the right to civil partnerships and citizenship for second generation migrants. It wants the police cleared of fascists and the state cleared of corruption.
How do those of us who want the same thing show support for the Greek people? What can we do to challenge the actions of such big power as the IMF, the ECB and European Commission? Maybe the first step is at least really paying attention to what the Greek people are saying.