By: Anna Karpathakis, PhD
The horrific death of a fifteen year old child brought the political corruptness of Greek governments over the last few decades to the foreground in naked ways. Videos on Youtube, videos on various blogs, personal blogs of eyewitness accounts all speak of chaos that was unleashed on the streets of Greeceʼs major cities and towns. Journalists, trying to make sense of the unfolding events, at times created more confusion for us living outside of Greece. One thing is for sure: the street protests and riots were and are a complex phenomenon, peopled by groups and individuals from all sectors of society. These were riots. Greeks were rioting against the governments that ruled them over the last two decades. Greeks were rioting against a corrupt police force that was seen to lack respect for basic human rights and civil liberties. Greeks were rioting against an economy which created more inequalities and poverty than wealth and comfort as was promised.
Riots are the tools used by the powerless and indignant when other modes/means of “representation” of their interests are cut off. What is in the background of riots in general and more specifically in the case of Greece?
First, we find a deteriorating quality of life in the private sphere of consumer goods; in other words, consumers were finding it more difficult to afford basic necessities. The rate of poverty in Greece in the most recent Census stood at nearly 21%. It is important to note that the rates of poverty in the rural areas did not exceed those of urban areas, where poverty becomes especially problematic because of the lack of alternative sources of food procurement.
Second, there has been deterioration in the quality of life in “public spaces”. There has been a disinvestment in public spaces urban residents use. Athens, like other major cities, is filthier now than it was three or four years ago.
Third, predatory lenders in Greece left Greeks in heavy debt, owing more on predatory lending terms than the principal itself. This new phenomenon of personal debt that befell a society unaccustomed to credit markets was combined with scandals in the financial sector which emptied the public coffers and enriched private sellers and investors along with multi-nationals.
Fourth, the multi-nationals brought with them deteriorating working conditions & wages. They created a growing gap between the high salaried managers and the low paid workers, thereby reproducing the polarization of income groups in other industrial societies. Greek owned companies reproduced the wage structure of multinationals for their unskilled and low-skilled workers. While workersʼ purchasing power and thereby quality of life declined, managersʼ wealth increased at levels before unseen in Greek society. Cultural expectations, the eyes that are set upon such events are important. While the U.S. may be accustomed to managers earning ten and twenty or a hundredfold of what workers earn, this has not been the case in Greece. Also, culturally Greece is different from the U.S. For Greeks, wealth is a social endeavor, a group process and product and there is the expectation that it be dealt with as such. Multi-nationals, arriving in Greece from capitalist cultures which have well established patterns ensuring the safety of private property, failed to see this dynamic. Greece has a populist political culture of the left interspersed with elements of humanism and freedom that are simply incomprehensible to multi-nationals opening shop in the country; as multi-nationals made “a killing” in profits in Greece, Greek owned businesses of course established their own administrations along similar lines. In short, with the exception of the increasingly scarce jobs in the public sector, private sector employment was eroding in conditions and wages relative to the consumer price index.
Fifth, housing costs became comparable to those of major U.S. cities like New York. Housing, which till a few years ago was affordable even in a city like Athens, became artificially over-valued like in the U.S. Need we say anything more about the 700euro a month wages to go towards 600 euro per month rents in the cities? Two bedroom apartments in Athens are now very much like New York rental prices without the parallel income values of workers.
Sixth, we have a clear case of the rich getting richer and amassing more of the societyʼs wealth and income while the rest of the population was and is experiencing a decrease in absolute purchase and consumer power. Wealth amassed in such a way, i.e., wealth produced by the majority of the society, as wealth is always produced this way, and directed up and towards a few, is always enabled through laws and policies and/or corruption. In the case of Greece, new laws governing global financial relations in combination with corruption in government and business, was more the norm than the exception. New Democracy was voted in to solve and correct problems of corruption under PASOK, but corruption became just as rampant with them.
Seventh, the euro brought with it a decrease in consumer purchasing power. As Greeceʼs economy was being articulated and integrated with that of Europe through the adoption of the Euro as the countryʼs currency, the issues of which groups benefited and which did not, still remains to be analyzed by economists. One thing is for sure: a bottle of water which sold for 100 drachmas (33 Euro cents) was sold for 1 Euro (345 drachmas) the next day of the switch to the Euro. As the government failed to regulate consumer pricing with the new currency, businesses of course did what would be expected of them to do when not regulated: they priced as they liked and consumers had little power to affect these prices.
Eight, the privatization of public services lead to decreasing quality of the services in the public sector, the two most important being health and education. Health care, once an important component of the stateʼs responsibility to its citizens, came under attack and is being increasingly privatized. As private insurance companies proliferated, soon scandals erupted about their not fulfilling what consumers thought were part of the companyʼs responsibilities; i.e., Greeks were not accustomed to reading the fine print in two hundred page documents which negated what was written in bold letters in the first twenty pages of contracts they signed; Greeks were not accustomed to the hand-shake and promissory word of the salesmen who ended up working for multi-national insurance companies; another case of money literally stolen legally and the government did not protect its citizens. Public insurance agencies, I.K.A., O.G.A. were plagued with serious financial scandals and problems. In the meantime, doctors in public institutions were receiving among the lowest salaries of doctors in the E.U., their basic salaries (before over-time) ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 Euros, while public investments in the hospitals decreased. Stories of decreasing quality medical care in large city hospitals abound among both Greeks and tourists. Health care, once a guarantee of Greek citizens and visitors alike, now became a service that had to be purchased at exorbitant prices—40Euros for a visit in a doctorʼs private office.
Ninth, corruption on all levels of government, from the most local to the national levels, plagued the country and depleted the country of wealth and resources. Government corruption, i.e., millions of euros earmarked by the EU for fire fighting and forestry disappeared, leading to deaths in the fires of the summer of 2007; the picture of the mother and four children burned in last yearʼs fires, made the rounds of the world and Greeksʼ hearts. Because ultimately, one thing that none of the governments have acknowledged till now is Greeksʼ deep sense of justice and respect for human life—it was and is incomprehensible to Greeks how money overrides human life and social relations.
Ninth, we have an abusive police, harassing and disrespecting basic civil and human rights of members of that society. Youtube abounds of personal videos of police brutality of both citizens and immigrants. Citizens walking along the streets of Athens would capture moments of power abuse and record on their cell phones. Immigrants beaten when being questioned. University and high school students beaten by police. In other words, the police force which citizens would normally rely on to protect them from the “bad guy” was the “bad guy” in many cases. The police administration more often than not failed to sanction abuses by the officers.
Tenth, is the issue of education in Greece. As educators in Greece point out, a university degree these days guarantees that the graduate will be begging to at least get a minimum wage job. The norm is now that university graduates earn 600-750 Euros a month—doctors, the most highly paid, begin their residency with just under 1,000 Euros a month. In the meantime, the parents have invested thousand of euros in their childrenʼs private lessons, “frontistiria”, to improve their chances of entering the university. Those high school and university students walking the streets in protest were protesting precisely this, questioning the governmentʼs plans, responsibilities in the Greek economy and of course educational institution.
These are just some of the background causes of riots in the 21st century, all against the backdrop of globalization, i.e., multinationals going in and imposing new working and wage structures and conditions, policies of “liberalization”, i.e., privatization, corruption in government on all levels, police brutality on a regular basis, and overall a quality of life in Greece which forced Greeks to view each other in strictly economic terms: capitalism, in other words, was brought to Greece under corruption and greed.
**** Anna Karpathakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at Kingsborough C.C., CUNY.