Drink and women – it’s a culture thang

dijsselbloem

Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem is facing calls to resign after making what will perhaps come to be his most memorable statement, if not his political epitaph. In an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he had the following to say on the subject of the EU’s response to the financial crisis in the southern European member states: “You cannot spend all the money on drinks and women and then ask for help.” Representatives of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even Bulgaria were quick to object. And although there has been no official response from Greece, there has been plenty of unofficial commentary, ranging from bemusement to outrage. It is fair to say that up until this point, Dijsselbloem has run a pretty close second to his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble as a hate figure in Greece, where he is seen as representing the hard line against any sympathetic treatment of Greece’s debt. But the statement wasn’t just a sexist, xenophobic and financially illiterate brain fart – it was also strikingly culturally inappropriate for a high level official serving in an international institution. By this I mean not so much politically incorrect (although it is that too), but way off-target, as any connoisseur of cultural stereotypes will tell you.

Why, only last week our own Finance Minister responded to opposition criticism of his negotiating prowess by confessing to his own, much more genteel, drink-and-women fantasy: “Mitsotakis said that he wants a primary surplus target of 2%. I, too, would like to go for cocktails with Scarlett Johansson, but…”, his point being that you can’t always get what you want. Euclid Tsakalotos, privately educated in the UK, foreign resident for most of his life and with heavily accented and halting Greek, is not your archetypal modern Hellene, and thus his comment was greeted with much hilarity by his fellow countrymen.

So what would be a more appropriate cultural stereotype to deploy against the Greeks, one that would actually make them feel the sting of reproach? It’s not that we are strangers to the evils of boozing and whoring. There is indeed a strain of popular song that laments how “cigarettes, drinks and late nights have closed the best homes”. It’s just that by being sung in the very disreputable establishments that it purports to deride, this self-reproach by definition ironic. So where did we blow our kitty? We undoubtedly spent some of it on status symbols like cars, with a particular penchant for German marques – though not as many, and not as luxurious as the tabloid myth would have it (that catchy line about “more Porsche Cayenne owners than taxpayers” proved fairly easy to debunk but harder to kill off, like most of the persistent myths of the Greek crisis). Some of us spent it on holidays and designer bling and even more of us on unwittingly inflating a real estate bubble. Much of it was financed by loans from European banks, ultimately paying interest to northern European savers.

When it comes to consumables, though, blowing it on drink is not such a southern European thing. On old professor of mine, an expert in the history of booze (among other substances) often observed that Europe is divided into north and south by distinct cultures of intoxication rooted in our prehistory – the grape in the south, the grain in the north, originally the function of geography and climate which in turn determined access to different sources of plant sugar. It is the grain-fermenting northerners who have traditionally drunk themselves to oblivion, and it is them that felt the teetotal backlash of the protestant reformation, whereas the Mediterranean world used their fermented grape juice more sparingly and even made it “taboo” by ghoulishly turning it into blood in the Christian sacrament. It is said that you can still observe this divide by walking down the main street of any Mediterranean town hosting a Club 18-30 resort in high tourist season. Some might say, therefore, that Jeroen is merely projecting his own cultural inclinations. They don’t call it Dutch courage for nothing.

No, when it comes to consumables, another famous one-line aetiology of the Greek crisis comes to mind: “We ate it together” (“μαζί τα φάγαμε”,”Mazí ta fágame”), is what PASOK grandee Theodoros Pangalos poffered in 2010 in response to the question “where did the money go?”. A succinct description of the workings of clientelism, delivered by a true master of the art. The saying survives and thrives, in large part because it had a grotesque, evocative appeal in light of the speaker’s own well-fed physique, an apparent embodiment of gluttony openly admitting to the sin and beckoning us to join him at the trough. In the popular imagination it conjured up images of the Greek political class, bloated with greed both physical and metaphorical, sharing a well-furnished table with their clients, the ordinary voters. And although we, too, like to accuse our elites of eating Marie Antoinette’s cake and caviar (or perhaps the Greek pre-crisis equivalent, lobster spaghetti), the most appropriate fare loading down the table would be a cholesterol feast, most likely at Baïraktaris, the legendary Athens kebab house and political hangout. Not the starched white tablecloths of Washington’s Palm Grill, London’s private clubs, or the Michelin-starred chateaux of Gallic political intrigue, but oilcloth and stacks of paper napkins, the great equaliser, where we do indeed tuck in together in large, boisterous groups. You may recall Baïraktaris as the scene of another famous apophthegm, by another regular, former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, to the effect that “five pimps run this country”. And that is as far as I will go with the “women” element. Yes, we all ate a lot of souvlaki, most of it made with imported European meat, topped with yoghurt, more than likely made with European milk.

You see, even the culturally appropriate stereotypes of southern loucheness contain an element of northern complicity. But Dijsselbloem may have more in common with Pangalos than he would like to acknowledge. Politically, Dijsselbloem was already a “dead man walking” before he shot his mouth off so spectacularly. In last week’s elections in the Netherlands, the Labour Party of which he is a member and by whose election he serves as Finance Minister at home and President of the EU’s informal but influential group of Finance Ministers, suffered what has come to be termed “Pasokification”: the term used to describe the annihilation of once powerful centre-left parties in European national politics. His days in office (both offices) are numbered, the timing of his departure determined only by the uncertainties around Dutch coalition forming. Ironically, had he released his populist bon mot a few days earlier, it may have won him a few more votes at home – now it is as irrelevant as it is embarrassing.

One final thought though, for those in Greece who are eager to see the back of the smug, hair-gelled wonder. Be careful what you wish for. In the horse-trading the follows his departure, the front-runner to succeed him is Slovakia’s Peter Kažimír, a man routinely described as “one of the most hawkish ministers on the Greek crisis”. After a particularly gruelling round of negotiations in July 2015, he had this to tweet: “#Greece compromise we reached this morning is tough for Athens because it’s the results of their ‘Greek Spring’ #eurozone”. If his prior record is any indication, there will be plenty more inflammatory statements (if not more grave outcomes) to look forward to.

 

 

 

 

Drink and women – it’s a culture thang

Trolling for Business

startup

ATHENS, 9 March 2017. The Trump campaign team and its affiliated media groups are thought to be considering a major expansion of their operations in the Balkans as part of their coverage of upcoming national elections in several key European countries. The move follows the success of their early stage investment in so-called “troll farms” in the region on eve of the November 2016 US presidential elections. A cluster of tech firms run by young entrepreneurs based in the small town of Veles in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are known to have been behind the mass production of “fake news”, believed to be instrumental to the securing the Trump victory. Now, neighbouring Greece is believed to the location for the next phase of growth in the region.

It is believed that a recent poll of Greek attitudes has been doing the rounds in President Trump’s “war room” after strategic advisor and Breibart news boss Steve Bannon flagged it up as his favourite bedtime reading. A campaign insider refused to give details of the plans, but spoke extensively of the competitive advantages offered by Greece: “You leaf through this report and you start to form a picture of the typical Greek, he is your typical Trump voter. The women too. All our core values are there, and we value that bigly.”

The survey (summarised here) highlights great unease in Greece over the scale and effects of migration: over 80 percent of Greeks believe that the number of migrants in Greece over the past decade is excessive, 64.4 percent said migrants contribute to rising crime rates and 58 percent hold them responsible for growing unemployment. Less than 20 percent of Greeks surveyed would like to see undocumented migrants integrated into Greek society, with the remainder disagreeing only as to the means and speed of deportation. Although it is understood to be technically challenging to build a wall around the country’s predominantly maritime borders, campaign insiders have been keen to acknowledge that Greece was the first country in Europe to erect a fence along its land border with Turkey as early as 2011, and local leaders have made “all the right noises” in response to the recent refugee crisis. A sceptical attitude towards foreigners extends to many nationalities and ethnic groups, with the exception of Russians who score a whopping 77.4 percent approval rating.

The survey shows further evidence of alignment between the values of the Trump campaign and the attitudes of “Joe Greek”. “These guys are seriously smart,” remarked our source. “Over 80 percent have figured out that secret organisations are pulling the strings, even though three in four apparently still don’t believe chemtrails.” The enormous potential of the Greek conspiracy industry has been hinted at in many earlier studies, and has even begun to make its mark through promising local tourism and hospitality initiatives, as well as becoming increasingly influential in national politics. “Greeks have really shown the way in terms of recruiting their political talent from outside the mainstream, we learned a lot from them.”

“Initially we had some misgivings,” admitted our source, “because we had been led to believe that Greeks were fans of Big Government. But here they tell us that they are crying out for low tax, a smaller welfare state and less government meddling. They are pro-capitalism but anti-globalisation, and are coming around to the idea that the EU is an instrument of German domination. We couldn’t agree more.” Moreover, it was noted that 71.3 percent agreed with the statement that “contemporary Greek culture can influence the Western world in ways that many other countries can not.” Confidence in their brand’s global outreach is seen as a great selling point within the campaign, according to our source.

There are also more pragmatic reasons for seeking to establish a base of operations in Greece. Among the country’s competitive advantages are large and well-established informal economy sector dominated by cash and cash-like transactions, offering obvious advantages in terms of traceability of funds. In addition, experts point to an enormous untapped talent pool, in the form of idle computer-literate millennials, a product of the mass youth unemployment which has been one of the deepest effects of the financial crisis now entering its eighth year. “These kids are flying. Not only are they addicted to social networking, hate the mainstream media, they also have an inventive way with profanity which makes them ideal trolls – I mean, passionate advocates for alternative truth.”

Talent scouts are already believed to scouring the Greek internet for recruits to the new venture. A lot of excitement was generated by a youtube video released in recent days. The video features a young “troll” at work, generating a stream of personal invective on social media (“they’re on the take, the f*gg*ts, the liberals, foreign tools, slaves of the system”).

Many in Greece hastened to interpret the clip as part of a desperate political campaign by shrinking centre-left party “To Potami”, while others took it to be a clumsy ad hominem attack on actual social media activists. However, the Trump representatives on the ground have read it as a very effective pitch for business and are actively seeking to recruit the team behind it.

The internet is seen as a key battleground in upcoming electoral contests in Europe, where Eurosceptic candidates like the Front National’s Marine Le Pen in France are already being accused of recruiting Russian-inspired “internet armies” as a platform for negative campaigning and disinformation. Meanwhile, cyber experts and intelligence agencies are on the alert for Russian hacking interference in the French and German elections, as well as the upcoming Dutch polls, “as practice.” At the time of writing, Breibart News has yet to establish a base in continental Europe, in part because of robust competition from native far-right media.

IMAGE via Businesswire


DISCLAIMER: All external links are genuine, the story is entirely fabricated. If it appears on any fake news sites like last time, the joke’s on you.

 

 

Trolling for Business

A Night at the Opera

The plush crimson seating, subdued lighting and formal monochrome attire frame a pregnant moment, reminiscent of a Francis Ford Coppola epic, in which dynastic ties, political power, money and religious authority weave a rich tapestry of intrigue. Among Greeks and Greece-watchers who have seen it, this photo seems to have provoked an instant gut reaction. As we have warned before, a picture, however eloquent, rarely tells “the whole story”. So, for the benefit of the uninitiated, what is going on here and why the reaction?

Background

The setting is the main auditorium of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC) in Athens, a Renzo Piano-designed state-of-the-art cultural venue built to house the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. In 2007, the Greek state and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation signed an agreement which was voted into Greek law: the state provided the land – the disused site of the old horse-racing track near the seafront in Faliro – and the charitable foundation managed by the family of the legendary shipping magnate funded and managed the construction of the building and the landscaped park around it. On the 23rd February, a ceremony marked the delivery of the venue to its new owners, the Greek people – at which the photo in question was taken (the webcast of the ceremony can be watched here).

Foreground

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (standing) shakes the hand of Konstantinos Karamanlis, the last pre-crisis Greek PM (2004-2009). Karamanlis’s Nea Demokratia government was succeeded by PASOK in autumn 2009, followed within weeks by the discovery of a black hole in Greek government finances which marked the beginning of the financial crisis, now well into its seventh year. Since losing power, Karamanlis has kept a low profile; while still holding a seat in Parliament, he is understood to spend most of his time at his family home in the seaside town of Rafina, which reclusive arrangement, combined with his placidity and rotund physique, has earned him the nickname “the Buddha of Rafina”. In this rare public appearance, he is attending in his capacity as the signatory of the original agreement with the Niarchos Foundation. Within his own party, which was founded by his uncle and namesake, Karamanlis retains a near-inexplicable (but for blood-loyalty) hold on a distinct faction, which is rumoured to be more active behind the scenes than his own disengaged exterior suggests. In particular, some political observers suggest an underground, borderline-treasonous, rapprochement is taking place, between the Karamanlis wing of the Nea Demokratia and the current government, with the ultimate aim of providing a back-stop to the Syriza-ANEL coalition’s flimsy three-seat majority. An unlikely pairing, one might think, between the embodiment of the nepotistic political establishment and young firebrand who promised to wipe the slate clean of all that. Proponents of the rapprochement theory note the PM’s reluctance to attack the Karamanlis government’s notable contribution to ballooning government debt, Tsipras’s proposal of Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a former Interior Minister in the Karamanlis government, for his current post as the country’s president, and (more controversially) the government’s alleged support for the criminal prosecution of the former head of the Greek Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) who restated the state finances to reveal the black hole. Viewed against this backdrop, this handshake is loaded with symbolism.

In the second row, a full two seats away from Karamanlis, current leader of Nea Demokratia and scion of the Karamanlises’ rival bloodline in the party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, sits with Ieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. Ostensibly a reformist, Mitsotakis has come to resemble a groom courting the daughter of a particularly god-fearing family in his eagerness to kiss icons and cozy up to senior clergy – a reflection of the continuing hold of the Church and traditional right-wingers on the levers of party power and its voting base’s values (Mitsotakis’s actual wife is seen sitting one row behind him, entertaining another church official). Ordinarily, an opening ceremony would be accompanied by a religious blessing complete with incense, basil and holy water (as is the opening of Parliament), however this was not part of the public ceremony in this case, possibly in deference to the non-smoking rules and brand new upholstery. However, the heavy clerical presence in the front row of a shipowner-funded asset is a potentially awkward reminder that both the Orthodox Church and the shipping industry have come under intensified fire for their preferential tax arrangements, which have shielded them considerably from the austerity policies that afflict the new “owners” of the Cultural Centre.

Out of frame

The aforementioned President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, aka. the missing link in the putative rapprochement, who was seen later seated next to Tsipras, and delivering an uncharacteristically brief address; former PM Antonis Samaras, and an assortment of the Great and the Good of Athenian society, seldom seen out together on social occasions these days. Of course, the handshake captured in this photo was one of a series of unstaged greetings (more photos and observations here), a sign of courteous and civil relations among the Greek political class, even those studiously presenting themselves as untainted outsiders. Even Mitsotakis, looking excluded in our frame, is captured in other photos having an extended cordial exchange with Tsipras. Thus, the picture is potentially less sinister and simultaneously more depressing as a reflection of the political realities of Greece in 2017. It is a Rorschach test of sorts, but none of the associations are positive.

The shipping money. In his address, the Director of the Niarchos Foundation and great-nephew of Stavros Niarchos, after delivering a hopeful message about the power of cultural renewal and reinvigorated national confidence, engaged in some barely concealed live trolling. Reading aloud from what he claimed were electronic messages he had received from nameless members of the public, he voiced (in third person) an alarming level of concern for the fate of the Cultural Centre in the hands of the Greek government (examples included: “The beginning of the end,” and “Why, my good people? Is this your first time in Greece?”), before returning graciously to his own stated message of hope and confidence. Embarrassingly for the representatives of the Greek governments past and present in the auditorium, there was as much applause for the anonymised messages as for the official one – a deafening vote of no-confidence in their ability to manage for the public good. Despite the remarkable success of the building’s completion on time and on budget (all the more notable when compared to similar cultural mega-projects the world over) the moment reflects pervasive public unease around the future running of the SNFCC and the institutions housed in it by a Greek government, and a cash-strapped one at that.

The Greek people. Aside from the seating gaps in the dignitaries’ section, the auditorium was liberally dotted with pockets of empty seats, despite this being a free public event. In typical Greek fashion, the day of the ceremony coincided with a strike on all public transport, leaving only the SNFCC’s limited shuttle bus service and private transport as a means of access to the Centre. “Soft-opening” events held at the Centre have, by contrast, been extremely well attended and the park has been well-used on a daily basis. But alongside the mistrust of political authority, there is a more quiet acknowledgement of mutual mistrust among the public. Will people pick up their own rubbish? How long will it take for the first piece of playground equipment to break? Will the Greek people embrace the opera and the library? What will happen when the inevitable graffiti tags start to appear? Will people rally, volunteer and protect the place or will they rail at the authorities?

Beyond the political handshakes, it will be instructive to see how it evolves, a high-tech laboratory for a political (with a small p) experiment of sorts.

PHOTO: intimenews.gr via protagon.gr.

A Night at the Opera

“Good bye, Andrea!”

syntagma85

Crime writer Petros Markaris’s latest novel, Offshore, starts on an imaginary premise: after six years of hardship the Greek crisis is finally over. The money is flowing, and Greeks are reverting to their old habits. The restaurants are packed, the streets of Athens are clogged with Mercs and Jeeps, the government is handing out pay rises, and people are talking about taking out mortgages from a new generation of banks that are lending generously. Nobody can explain precisely where the money came from. Some credit the latest government, a fresh-faced bunch who were elected promising precisely nothing and went on to implement a combination of tax reform, business incentives and privatisations. Others are more skeptical, but aren’t equipped to ask the right questions. Inspector Haritos’s wife, a Greek housewife straight out of central casting, puts it down to her prayers and fasting. Most are able to rationalise the miraculous recovery sufficiently in order to go back to spending like the crisis never happened.

As a counterfactual narrative, the miracle recovery is quite telling about Greece’s collective state of mind. What is interesting is that the picture it paints is not of a utopian future, as a much as a nostalgic return to the pre-crisis bubble days. It is a theme that seems to be emerging with increasing prominence, finding different variations in different areas of popular culture, even as Greece sinks further into depression and uncertainty, and the dreaded ‘Grexit’ re-enters the media vocabulary.

Markaris doesn’t have much truck with social media in his books. His central character is of a generation that uses an assistant to interface with a computer, for whom the world wide web is a cabinet of wonders, and Facebook and Twitter, apparently so central to modern life and politics, don’t seem to exist. It is on Facebook (real, not fictional) that another burst of nostalgia has been erupting. At the turn of the year, a Facebook community calling itself “Old PASOK The Orthodox” (“Παλιό ΠΑΣΟΚ το Ορθόδοξο”, let’s call it “Palió PASOK” for short) overtook the official page of the PASOK party in “likes”. The real PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement), which governed Greece, alone or in coalition, for 24 out of the last 42 years, now languishes in fourth place in the Greek parliament. It scraped together a humiliating 6.3% of the vote in the last general elections, its reputation in tatters, having taken the brunt of popular anger for the crisis and lost both supporters and candidates to other parties, most notably Syriza. The “Palio PASOK” organisers promptly wrote an open letter to actual party leader Fofi Gennimata, calling on her to revive the old Movement by returning to “the pure values that led it to greatness”, inviting back all of its its “Great Old comrades”, and agreeing to have its Facebook page absorbed by theirs, which was “galloping ahead” and aiming to “overtake the accursed Right within 2017”. Gennimata demurred, but within a matter of hours she was very publicly mending bridges with her predecessor, George Papandreou, and convening a gathering of the PASOK tribes (or most of them). For some, this was too much of a coincidence; for others, it merely confirmed the party as a legitimate target for subversion.

Once you grasp the concept, “Palio PASOK” is as far from the po-faced seriousness of “official” Greek politics as you can possibly get. Its spokespeople never break character. Their posts, comments and press interviews show an impressive grasp of vintage PASOK-ese – a characteristic mix of self-consciously Demotic Greek and pompous left-wing political jargon – and they respond to any attempt at un-ironic commentary with profanity-laden accusations of treason (or worse). The page commemorates “great moments of Socialism” – primarily photos of various “Titans of the Movement” and party loyalists giving it their all in nightclubs and strip joints, and genuine moments of extreme popular adulation culminating in the cult of personality of party founder, Andreas Papandreou (“this is the church of Andreas”). They present themselves as the true guardians of the faith, while Gennimata, Papandreou and the current generation of self-proclaimed modernisers are unworthy inheritors; Syriza is a cheap knock-off of the Old PASOK, and Alexis Tsipras is the populist sorcerer’s apprentice, ruining it for the true believers. They organise parties where crowds wave faithful replicas of the old plastic flags with the party’s green rising sun logo and throw around 5000-drachma notes, kiss posters of Andreas and sing along to the old PASOK anthems: Manos Loizos’s rousing “Kalimera Ilie” (“Καλημέρα Ήλιε” – “Good Morning, Sun”) and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. At a recent exhibition themed around the 1980s (the nostalgia again) they inspired a Playmobil diorama of the “historic” moment in 1988 when Andreas Papandreou, greeted by crowds at the airport on his return from a triple bypass operation in London, motioned to his new partner, the pneumatic former air hostess Dimitra Liani for whom he left his wife of 37 years, to join him on the steps (within a year, his government was collapsing under the weight of corruption scandals).

Some commentators criticise “Palio PASOK” as an apotheosis of trash culture (or just “trass” in the Greek vernacular). This is hard-core method spoofing, and even those close to the organisers can’t swear that everyone present enjoys it 100% ironically. There is certainly no shortage of people who believe that a return to the “good old days” is desirable and even possible, that there is a spigot of prosperity that was turned off and can somehow be turned back on again. The chant of “Férte píso ta klemména” (“Φέρτε πίσω τα κλεμμένα” – “bring back what was stolen”) was a rallying cry of the early anti-austerity movement that still haunts the popular consciousness. It implies that someone (corrupt public officials, tax-evaders, bankers) stole the peoples’ money and that if only their loot can be recovered the economy will miraculously revive (sadly the numbers don’t stack up – see for example our earlier discussion of the “Lagarde list” which still holds).  A small but significant group of our compatriots are so desperate to turn back the clock by wiping out their own debts, that they are prepared to believe even more dubious claims. Thousands of them are thought to have joined a secretive cult-like organisation led by self-proclaimed multi-billionaire Artemis Sorras, swearing a “warrior oath” and paying a substantial “administrative fee” on the promise that he will underwrite their debts. With elections rumoured once again, and Sorras’s organisation seen as a credible political threat, court action is being pursued against him.

This is the dark side of Greece’s nostalgic turn. I won’t ruin the ending of Markaris’s thriller for anyone who intends to read it (unfortunately it is currently only available in Greek), but the seeds of doubt are sown from the outset. Regular readers will be familiar with the overarching narrative that dominates the Markaris canon. Before the Greek crisis was even a twinkle in the public eye, Markaris focussed on the dark underbelly of Greek prosperity. The crimes that Inspector Haritos solves take place on the fringes of wealth and political power. In a world of ordinary people struggling with everyday bureaucracy and low-level corruption, the villains are inevitably to be found in the inexplicably opulent homes of politicians and their “businessmen” cronies. In the Markaris narrative, the original sin of the metapolítefsi – the transition from military dictatorship to democracy in 1974 – was the corruption that the coming to power wrought in its champions. The networks of power and corruption created in the 70s and 80s, strengthened by EU subsidies, Olympic spending and easy credit of the 90s and 2000s, turned the idealistic students of the anti-junta struggle into shady plutocrats, abusing public funds and/or running people-trafficking, extortion, racketeering and money-laundering networks, sometimes cheek-by-jowl with their junta torturers. The real “old PASOK”, together with their tag team in Nea Demokratia and the rest of the political establishment of the metapolítefsi, are the real villains of the piece. The ordinary citizens have been taken for a ride, and the weakest in society, often immigrants, pay the biggest price. This is no rose-tinted flash-back.

Markaris and the jokers behind “Palio PASOK” both know that there is no going back (though the latter would no doubt contest the characterisation and the imputed ambivalence). It is going forward that is the problem – because the grip of nostalgia extends well beyond popular fiction and social media. Every government that has been elected since the beginning of the crisis essentially campaigned on a time-machine platform: ripping up the creditor memoranda, repealing austerity measures, restoring prior order. Their promises were not that far removed from those recycled by “Palio PASOK”, and no better explained than the source of the money in Offshore. Like the post-communist East-Berliners in the 2003 film “Good bye, Lenin!”, politicians on all sides have been trying to shield the electorate, as if it were their mother waking from a coma, from confronting the need for change. Meanwhile, advertisers appeal to an even more distant past, when children wore school smocks (a reliable chronological marker of the pre-PASOK era) and Greeks were happier with less, with dry biscuits, instant dessert mix and domestic-brand white goods – a vision shared, incidentally, by the more cavalier domestic advocates of Grexit. What do you do when you know that the future has to be different but you aren’t equipped to imagine it? I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer. Greece and the Greeks clearly lack funds, but even more debilitating is the lack of forward vision across all areas of public life. I am not a fan of fantasy fiction, but the situation seems to call for a healthy dose of it – a counterfactual, however whacky, that ignites a light at the other end of the tunnel, and drowns out the voices beckoning back down the wormhole.


IMAGE: Athens’s Syntagma Square in happier times (allegedly): PASOK pre-election rally, 1985.

“Good bye, Andrea!”

The polykatoikia-dweller’s dilemma

pelly1

Greece is in the grip of a severe cold snap, which has brought snow and sub-zero temperatures even to urban areas. This is an extreme event, but not entirely unexpected – winters in Greece can be cold, particularly going into spring. With a mean minimum temperature of 10°C in winter, some form of indoor heating is necessary by most peoples’ standards. Two years ago I spent the winter months in Athens in slightly less severe weather conditions, living in an uninsulated, barely heated apartment and house-hunting. I spent a lot of time thinking about heating, not just about the practicalities of generating physical warmth as the wind whistled through the single-glazed windows, but about the way peoples’ decisions around heating were already starting to leave permanent marks on the physical and social fabric of the city.

(Not) Hot in City

The standard dwelling in Athens is an apartment in a polykatoikía (πολυκατοικἰα) – a multi-storey apartment block; literally, a multi-residence. The majority of the housing stock in Athens (around 80% of dwellings in the central municipality of Athens) dates to before the 1980s. Buildings of this age were fitted with oil-fired central heating which is centrally controlled, meaning that there is one central boiler that comes on at set times during the day, and all tenants contribute to buying the fuel through a service charge known as κοινόχρηστα, koinóchrista, meaning a common (facility) charge. A polykatoikía is governed by an homeowners’ council according to a set of rules that owners sign up to when they purchase the property. The owners (or their delegates) take it in turns to chair the meetings, which decide, among other things, on the purchase of heating oil and on operating the heating system. This means that the basic decisions about heating are not individual but collective. Under normal conditions, individual decision making is limited to whether or not to turn on the radiators and how high.

But of course these are not normal conditions. As family budgets have been shrinking and energy prices have been increasing, people have been pushed to take more drastic choices, choices that tell us a lot about the limits of collective decision-making under these stressed conditions.

The concept of ‘fuel poverty’ or ‘energy poverty’, which describes the condition of being unable to afford to keep one’s home adequately heated, has only recently gained currency in Greece (for a European perspective, see here). It has not been reliably tracked, and there is still no agreed metric used by the Greek government, but every conceivable form of measurement testifies to the increasingly inability of households to pay for heating in the years since the financial crisis took hold in 2010. There is an abundance of statistics for this period, many of which are collected in this recent survey (an interesting read which is, however, marred by sloppy referencing). Among them, we can see that between 2008 and 2013, domestic heating oil orders in Athens dropped by an astounding 70%. A survey carried out at the start of winter of 2013-4 showed that over one in three households did not intend to turn their central heating on at all. Indeed, between 2008 and 2014, the percentage of households using central heating has more than halved, from 76% to 35.5%.

Since 2010 household disposable income in Greece has shrunk by more than a third, due to the poor economic environment and increases in taxes and other contributions; but income is only one term in the fuel poverty equation. In addition to losing income, Greeks have also seen the price of heating fuel rise, primarily due to increased fuel taxes. In a monumentally short-sighted policy, successive Greek governments have increased the special consumption tax on heating oil to bring it in line with automotive diesel, ostensibly in order to discourage fuel fraud (the two products can be used almost interchangeably in some engines, and filling up on the cheaper ‘red’ heating oil has been a common money-saving trick among professional drivers for some time). The result was that between 2010-2013, the price of heating oil more than doubled (a 119% increase compared to a European average increase of 57%), making it far and away the most expensive heating option available to Greek households.

Opting out of central heating is made easier by the availability of alternatives. Plug-in heaters, electric inverters which double as air conditioning, fireplaces (where available), wood-pellet stoves and an expanding natural gas network offer options that are, or appear to be, cheaper on an individual household basis. Most of the decline in the use of oil central heating is accounted for by a shift to other heating modes. Most households also cut back on heating compared to past habits: surveys show that around three out of four report have been using less heating, and measured declines in consumption of electricity seem to bear this out. A small minority of households stop heating altogether – in 2014, 1.8% households in a nationwide survey declared that they had no form of heating at all, up from 0.5% in 2010.

Households have simply opted out of the built-in central heating, either because they can’t pay the fuel bills or because they have chosen other solutions. But because they are part of a collective process, their individual choices have wider and potentially long-lasting consequences.

… which brings us to the dilemma of the title.

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The Dilemma

The ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is a scenario which is used to model shared decision making. It belongs to the branch of economics known as ‘game theory’, which is also used to model decision making in other areas of life such as politics and international relations (it gained notoriety recently as the specialism of former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who clearly chose the wrong ‘game’ on which to model his negotiating tactics). The prisoner’s dilemma predicts that if two or more parties who don’t have a relationship of trust are forced to make a collective decision, they will make choices that appear rational to each of them individually, but result in a poorer outcome for all of them compared to a cooperative decision. The prisoners in the eponymous scenario will turn one another in, assuming that their partner will do the same. The cold war nuclear powers will continue to arm themselves to the teeth, assuming that the other party will be doing likewise, taking away resources from areas like education and health, and decreasing national security. It doesn’t matter what their ideologies or their political systems are: mutual disarmament would result in more prosperous nations, but unilateral disarmament is too risky an option to contemplate when you don’t trust your opponent to do the same.

When you have more than two ‘players’, the prisoner’s dilemma results in what is known as ‘free riding’. When a public transport relies on an ‘honour system’, a certain number of users won’t buy tickets, resulting in fare rises for honest users. If the public transport system goes bankrupt, travel becomes more expensive for everyone (does that ring a bell?). The result is what has been termed ‘the tragedy of the commons’: rational self-interest combined with mutual mistrust results in widespread shirking (because it is assumed that ‘everyone does it’). As long as individuals feel that they are getting something for free (or without significant penalty), common resources are degraded to the point where everyone suffers.

A frequent criticism of ‘game theory’ is that it requires us to assume that people act out of pure self-interest, and as such it dehumanises decision making, ignoring factors such as culture, emotion or the potential for altruism. It is therefore always slightly disheartening to come across clear-cut real-world examples. I am by no means an expert and it this is not a piece of systematic analysis, but there is a pattern here. In the crisis-era polykatoikía, the extent to which collective decisions on heating conform to the predictions of the prisoner’s dilemma suggests that any inherent altruism is too weak to overcome household self-interest. We can all point to instances of neighbourly support and solidarity, but the combination of a failing economy and a toxic policy framework seem to have reduced household decisions as close as it comes to pure self-interest (or, as we say in Greek, καθἐνας για την πάρτη του, kathénas gia tin párti tou: ‘each for himself’).

If the occupier of a single apartment choses not to use the central heating, they can get a free ride (or an almost-free ride), in the form of what could be called a ‘heat dividend’ – a small uplift in the temperature thanks to the heat loss between apartments. This is anticipated by the standard terms of building rules. To ensure that no one gets an entirely free ride, most associations impose a nominal heating charge even on apartments where the occupant opts to ‘seal’ their radiators permanently, and that includes vacant properties. Clearly many households have decided that this is a penalty worth paying – either that, or they have decided (or been forced by circumstances) to start ignoring their maintenance bills, at which point their neighbours have to cover the shortfall. Either way, if enough occupants decide to opt out of central heating, the benefit of the ‘heat dividend’ is lost to all, at first gradually and eventually completely. It is now not uncommon for polykatoikía council to vote not to purchase heating oil at all, meaning no-one gets penalised by the standing charge, but that each household must find its own way to heat their space and the walls around them. But the penalty is more far-reaching that loss of shared heat.

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The tragedy of the koinóchrista

Many of us who grew up in a polykatoikía genuinely find it alien not to live cheek by jowl, smelling the neighbours’ cooking and overhearing their arguments and more intimate moments. In architectural and town planning circles there is a new found appreciation for the form and the practical function that the polykatoikía fulfilled in the post-war growth of Athens. People can get quite misty-eyed about an ideal; no-one misses the decision-making process and the petty micro-politics associated with it, the disputes over parking, garbage disposal, balcony watering and noise.Indeed, critics of the polykatoikia say that its basic design, with a single-minded focus on maximising private space and a lack of usable shared spaces like gardens or courtyards, encourages radical individualism and makes it easy to retreat into self-interest.  It does not take much for neighbours to fall out, and the stresses of the financial crisis were the last straw in many cases.

In the predominantly middle-class neighbourhoods where I grew up and where I went house-hunting, the signs were clear. Many buildings were part-vacant. With the first signs of the crisis, many apartments that were previously rented emptied out, as tenants moved to cheaper alternatives, or moved back in with parents, or displaced them to an early retirement in the village or the holiday home. This was clear from the shuttered exteriors, and the desolation of the communal spaces. Even in nicer apartment blocks, it was not unusual to see final demands and threatening notes pinned to the notice boards. Peeling paint in the stairwells, dust balls, a penetrating chill, silence, the absence of the tell-tale smell of oil fumes and the hum of the boiler, testified to a breakdown in neighbourly relations, or at best a consensual suspension: a ‘tragedy of the koinóchrista’.

In one of our more memorable visits, we were shown a charming top floor apartment listed at a bargain price, the last push before a bank foreclosure. Predictably, there was no operational central heating in the building – we had learned to ask the question – ‘the polykatoikía’ had voted against it. We asked ourselves whether it was worth insulating the walls or installing a heat pump or a gas supply, only to end up footing the maintenance bill as the sole users of the elevator that would transport us past the empty, cold, slowly decaying floors below to the rooftop haven.

While the majority of apartment owners have opted for the most expedient solutions (electrical heaters and/or fireplaces where available), others have invested in insulation, autonomous natural gas connections or more exotic options like heat pumps, for which support schemes are periodically made available from European Funds. These are solutions that require a certain amount of cash upfront, and by definition are only available to the better off. However, what in normal circumstances would be a sensible investment is now of more questionable value. Even the relatively affluent home-owners are ultimately hostages to the building fabric and the circumstances of their less fortunate neighbours for other amenities, quality of life, and ultimately the value of their property. No one wants to live in a ghost building without a prospect of recovery. To the extent that there is a functioning property market in Greece, everyone is in the same boat, even the better-off, as the shared fabric of the building deteriorates and the desirability of everyone’s slice of it decreases. By ‘defecting’ from the collective solution, they have also penalised themselves.

The longer the crisis drags on, and the longer successive governments persist down the same policy cul-de-sac, the harder it will be to reverse these effects. Studies show quite starkly how the heating divide is sharpening social inequality and carving out social divides within the city. There is no discussion of reversing energy taxes – the advocates of the original policy argue that it has had a positive impact (albeit limited) on public revenues and on combating fuel fraud, and they view the social effects as collateral damage. The policy response has been to introduce social tariffs and fuel supplements for the groups designated as vulnerable, however the most vulnerable (for example those not able to supply the appropriate paperwork) usually fall through the holes in the safety net. Environmental groups see fuel poverty as an opportunity to promote ‘green’ solutions such as energy efficiency; however making such solutions available to those most in need requires proactive policy intervention, for which the Greek state is chronically ill-equipped. For example, up to 80% of the housing stock in some of the most disadvantaged Athenian neighbourhoods is entirely uninsulated. Insulation is the most cost-effective way to reduce heating needs, and therefore heating bills – yet a household that struggles to pay its bills by definition can’t make the outlay. Unless a body with access to funds is able to intervene, they are stuck in a Catch-22 situation. Happily some local authorities are starting to act on this front, identifying households in need and offering targeted funding, but it remains to be seen how effective the implementation will be.

It would seem that only the wealthiest, those who can afford to live in single family homes, escape the penalties of the polykatoikía-dweller’s dilemma. But even this is not entirely true. Among the first symptoms of the heating crisis were a rapid deterioration in air quality in Athens and other urban centres, with choking smog hanging over the city on the coldest days of the year, and an increase in illegal logging for firewood. The environment is the ultimate ‘commons’: everyone with lungs breathes in the carcinogens released by the copious and indiscriminate burning of wood (even in the leafy suburbs), and current and future generations will suffer the loss of valuable atmospheric cleansers in the surrounding forests.

Polykatoikía-dwellers often joke that the self-managed apartment block is a microcosm of the country, with all is dysfunctionalities; perhaps this is true in the most literal sense.

 

POSTSCRIPT: Another environmental effect of the fuel switch became clear as the cold weather continued to affect Greece: as people turned to gas and electrical heating, the country’s energy networks were overwhelmed by the demand, particularly during peak evening hours. This lead to emergency measures, and the Energy Ministry called on consumers to avoid using energy for any “non-essential activities”. Electricity generation in Greece is heavily reliant on burning lignite (brown coal). On average lignite accounts for around half the electricity generated, but at peak times, the ageing lignite plants bear the brunt of demand, meaning that the power generated at these times is the most polluting. Lignite is cheap, but it is also one of the ‘dirtiest’ forms of fuel, and due to their age the Greek plants are some of the most polluting in Europe. The immediate health effects of thousands of households switching on their electric heaters in Athens are ‘exported’ the neighbourhood of electricity plants in Ptolemaïda in west Macedonia and Megalopolis in the Peloponnese, increasing the risk of cancer and a variety of chronic respiratory, cardiovascular and other diseases in the surrounding population. In addition, the spike in lignite use releases more greenhouse gases, that have a much wider impact by contributing to climate change.


PHOTOS: Athens cityscape courtesy of pelly*made; back lot from 3-narrate.blogspot.com/; Athens by night, winter 2012, from ecotimes.gr.

 

The polykatoikia-dweller’s dilemma

Your meta-post-truth 2016

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The year 2016 was so “post-” (or “meta-“, to insist on the Greek) that it is closing quite literally with the very last Last Christmas*. As an end-of-year salute we proudly present the 10 most read blog posts of 2016 on Dateline: Atlantis, recalling some of its weirdest moments from a Greek perspective.

#10: In April we eavesdropped on the IMF in Athens: 7 takeaways from that Wikileaks IMF transcript

#9: In March we read the media images of refugees in Greece: This is not a refugee camp

#8: In February we compiled some choice quotes by Greek politicians on the refugee crisis: My big fat Greek refugee crisis quiz

#7: On April 1st we advertised the cruise from hell (and my own personal favourite): Live your (urban) myth in Greece

#6: In December we secretly transcribed the congratulatory call between Alexis Tsipras and PEOTUS Donald Trump – an in our post-truth world some readers believed us: You’re hired.

#5: In April we got a crash course on contemporary Greek culture by watching an Easter toy shop ad: Jumbo nation

#4: In May we looked back on the material culture of the Greek beach bar from the distant future: “Our piece of Paradise”: Patterns of human activity in coastal zones of the Aegean basin in the Middle Anthropocene (late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD)

#3: In February we got frustrated with the Greek culture of victimhood and its naÏve foreign enablers: The good, the bad and the ugly – travels in Greek hyperreality

#2: In April a papal visit prompted us to issue a brief explainer on the Orthodox-Catholic schism for beginners: Get your Schism on!

#1: In April, a grisly find prompted some timely ruminations on the perils of democracy: Fear and loathing in Athens

Now gird your loins and sharpen your wits for 2017. Rumour has it that Pangloss and Polyanna are preparing to co-author a coping guide (foreword by F. Fukuyama). It must be true, ’cause I read it on Facebook.


* One suspects quite the opposite.

IMAGE: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, right panel, detail (painted between 1490-1510).

Your meta-post-truth 2016

Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels

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I have heard this informal transaction described independently by more than one person, leading me to believe that it is not apocryphal:

Around late October/early November you are trying to progress some business with a government office – it could be a tax registration or a planning application, or something along these lines. You have the name of the official responsible for your application, but they are proving very hard to get hold of. Each time you call the office, you will get the same response: “Mr Táde (So-and-so) is not in the office today. He is at his village gathering the olives. I’m sorry but we don’t know when he will be back.”

To the uninitiated, this is an annoyance, but not a deterrent. They will keep trying, hitting their head against a brick wall, cursing all the way at the [expletive] civil service culture of absenteeism.

However, those in the know recognise this line as a coded invitation to tender, to which there is a proper response: “Oh, that is so nice. I hear Mr Táde’s trees produce very good oil. Would you be so kind as to ask him to reserve some for me?” And very soon they will find that Mr Táde has returned from leave, and can be found promptly behind his desk with a couple of five-litre tins of olive oil. They will pay Mr Táde a highly inflated price for the oil (which may be good, but not that good) submit their application, and find it dealt with with great efficiency – the efficiency of a well-oiled machine…

The transaction described above is an inventive riff on the twin themes of the family olive grove as hobby for city-dwellers, and olive oil as a buffer against hardship, which we alluded to in a previous post.

When the Greek government recently looked into the impact of withdrawing some of the generous tax breaks for farmers, one of the patterns that emerged was that, according to one newspaper report,

Only about 350,000 of the 850,000 Greeks involved in farming are full-time farmers, said an agriculture ministry official, adding that a third of agricultural output is sold or traded illegally without receipts.

Olive farming in Greece is largely a family business, with small units predominating. Greek agricultural units overall are roughly one fifth the size of the European average. What they do with their output often blurs the lines between different types of economic activity, several of which are not tracked by EUROSTAT or the OECD.

While the ‘grey’ market for olive oil may be thriving, Greece finds it harder to make a success of the ‘white’ market. In the case of olive oil, although the oil produced is very high quality (80% of Greek olive oil is extra virgin, compared to 65% of that produced in Italy and 30% in Spain), those countries have a much more valuable export market because they tend to standardise and package their product themselves, rather than loading it into tankers and exporting it in bulk (Greece only standardises 27% of its oil, compared to 80% in Italy and 50% in Spain). 60% of Greek olive oil is shipped to Italy, where it is bottled as Italian, and the Italian middle-men pocket an extra 50% premium on the price.

The theme of this story is a familiar one – a true Greek paradox. We seem to be blessed with some enviable natural resources (there is no other elegant word for it without resorting to statistical jargon, since their presence is clearly down to luck, not skill or hard work). We are clearly not lacking in the ingenuity to make a market in them. And yet, it is not a market that connects well with the wider world, and it is questionable whether it benefits anyone beyond the atomistic units that practice it (the individual, the family). Trying to imagine what might happen if that ingenuity were channeled from the ‘grey’ or ‘black’ economy into the ‘white’ is a an exercise at once hopeful and depressing. Figuring out how to achieve it is surely the €100 billion challenge behind the resurrection of the Greek economy.

Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels