Alternative brain drain, alternative science

Rojava

EXARCHIA, 6 June 2017. Reports from Athens suggest that a new “brain drain” is threatening wide-ranging and unanticipated consequences across the fabric of Greek society. While the first groups to emigrate from the crisis-stricken country were highly educated young professionals such as doctors and engineers in search of jobs overseas, the latest sector to be struck by a “brain drain” is the “anarchist” movement. Familiar to followers of the Greek crisis from iconic news footage of riots and urban graffiti, the self-organised anti-authoritarian sector has been a fixture of Greek society for decades. But the indications are that its presence can no longer be taken for granted, thanks to the increasing draw of foreign causes.

One recent report profiled a Greek leftist volunteer working in support of the Russian-sponsored “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in eastern Ukraine out of a representative office in the downtown Athenian neighbourhood of Exarchia, an area known as the avaton” or “ghetto” of “Exarchistan” in typically understated Greek media parlance.  Describing the Ukraine government as a “puppet for some parts of the U.S. regime” installed by a NATO-organised coup, he is quoted as saying, “It’s like the Spanish civil war” […]. “We see this struggle as similar to the fight against Franco. Donbass is the Spain of our lifetime.” Another story centred on a series of photos, claiming to feature an armed “Greek contingent” of anarchists fighting alongside the Kurdish militias against ISIS in a location identified from artlessly spray-painted graffiti as Rojava, near the Syrian-Turkish border. Such tales of Greek “anarchists” leaving the country to fight for foreign causes are beginning to stir fears of an “anarchist brain drain” among experts in Athens and beyond.

The potential impact of an anarchist brain drain could be far-reaching. As recently as last month, the New York Times reported that such was the failure of the Greek welfare state, that citizens had become reliant on dreadlocked and tattooed anarchist volunteers to plug the gaps in healthcare, education and migration policy. Many now fear that the latest wave of emigration will cripple this nascent social care system.

Among those concerned are, somewhat surprisingly, the drivers of Athens’s ageing bus fleet, who are becoming increasingly worried about the potential health effects of radiation from new “telematics” systems installed to track bus movements in real time. The bus drivers are alarmed at the potential effects of new technologies being deployed on buses, also including contact-free ticketing systems, with a number are already complaining of headaches and dizziness. “These machines are dangerous, they give off invisible radiation, I heard that they can give you cancer and impotence,” said Mr Makis, a veteran of twenty years driving the streets of downtown Athens, as he drew deeply on a filterless Camel and jammed his mobile phone against his ear to take an urgent call from a colleague regarding a hot betting tip. “Plus, my priest says they all have a 666 in their serial number, so you can draw your own conclusions from that.”

akyrotiko
DIY instructions for sabotaging contactless ticket scanner (unverified, https://twitter.com/Conclavios/status/830858596846018560

Until now, drivers could rely on the self-appointed guardians of the public interest in the loosely-termed anarchist community to dismantle or deactivate the offending equipment – but with their numbers dwindling, bus drivers fear for their health and their future. “Yes, they burn the occasional bus as well, but they’re good kids, they’re on our side,” nods Mr Makis.

However, as is often the case in Greece, necessity has given birth to invention, and new initiatives are springing up which promise to counteract this latest blow to the crisis-hit population. One of the more ambitious schemes involves the establishment of an Alternative Science Research Centre. Professor Charalambos Psekasmenos, the centre’s founder, says that the threat posed by radioactive tracking devices will be one of their first research priorities. “We already have a prototype shielding device for the cranial area involving ultra-thin sheets of aluminium, but the details are too top secret to disclose.”

Also on the cards is a climate research centre aimed at rebutting the “fake news” that is being disseminated by “mainstream science” relating to the myth of anthropogenic climate change. “We hope to get a grant from the corporate social responsibility budget of the power unions, who take a very enlightened view on this subject, and then apply for matching funding from the centre of Climate Excellence at Trump University,” reveals Psekasmenos.  A recent press release by Greece’s public sector power workers’ union pondered whether “Perhaps the US’s recent departure from the Paris Accord lifts the lid on the ‘fabrication’ known as ‘climate change’?” The research centre will definitely not be concerning itself with any shade of gender studies, as it is well known among “experts” that this is just a means of “experimentating on children’s souls” as a means of  “enslavement to foreign interests” and “illuminati bankers,” that must be resisted at all costs.

“In every crisis there is opportunity,” comments Professor Psekasmenos. “We Greeks are an ingenious race.”


THE USUAL DISCLAIMER: All links are 100% genuine Greek news stories from the last two weeks, strung together with an only slightly exaggerated tissue of fabrication.

MAIN IMAGE: Eleftheros Typos

Alternative brain drain, alternative science

NYC (1975) to Athens (2016): an inspiration and a warning

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An upcoming visit to Athens as Atlantis Host’s chaperone puts Koutofrangos in a nostalgic frame of mind as he casts back to his formative teen years in New York City and environs. On a late June weekend, we will have to toss a coin to decide whether we go to see Laurie Anderson curate an evening of multimedia performance, or Patti Smith give a track-by-track concert performance of her classic 1975 album “Horses”. During the many extended trips to Athens in recent years to visit AH’s Aunt Cassandra and tour the family estates aboard the late Uncle Aristo’s yacht, the Bucephalas, I have been struck, squinting through the privacy glass onto litter-strewn streets, by the apparent similarities between Athens of the Crisis Era (2009 – present) and the New York of the 1970s. I often ponder on this, as the marina’s brand new courtesy Porsche Cayenne whisks us through the smog-choked air of central Athens south to leafy Vouliagmeni and a simpler way of life.

The timing is apt for such a comparison as 1970s New York City is having “a moment”. People too young to have experienced it, and others too old or brain-damaged by their youthful habits to actually remember it, have come together in a celebration of the “City” (as anyone raised within a fifty-mile radius of the place refers to NYC) and its iconic age of collapse, filth, graffiti, dank, fetid subways crawling with gangs of muggers, Bowery panhandlers, Con-Ed summer “brown-outs”, and abandoned tenements.

So let’s set the scene. In the mid-1970s, when Gerald Ford was president (“Who?” I hear you ask) and Abe Beame the height-challenged mayor, New York City teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and default. So dire was the state of the City’s finances that many (including, famously and misquotingly, President Ford himself) pronounced it doomed, a decaying, corrupt heap of poverty, crime and filth that was beyond salvation. The classic New York Daily News article “Ford to City: Drop Dead”, is worth reading in full to appreciate the depth of the center-periphery animus (for extra thrills, try replacing “Ford” with “Schäuble”, and”Beame” with the name of any recent Greek Prime Minister). Those businesses that didn’t go broke, fled, as did almost one in eight residents. Entire office buildings and tenements, not to mention storefronts, sat vacant. Whole blocks were commandeered by squatters. By the end of the decade, the streets teemed with the homeless. Buildings were abandoned by their owners because of high taxes and low rents. Many burned to the ground. The problem was compounded by misguided efforts to rationalize fire-fighting resources confronted with shrinking budgets. Building-by-building, the Bronx disappeared.

Police, firefighters and sanitation workers walked off their jobs with Swiss train-like regularity. Indeed strikes by the the sanitation department stand as bookends to the decade, commencing with a nine-day strike in February 1968 that left the City buried under tons of rubbish, to be repeated again in December of 1981 ending only days before Christmas. The intervening decade was dotted with wildcat work stoppages whenever the City attempted to freeze or cut wages and pensions. In places the uncollected refuse climbed to the second floor of buildings, swirling down streets in the winter winds. In January 1971, 20,000 NYC police officers phoned in sick with a case of what was dubbed “blue flu”. On 6 November 1973, 10,900 NYC firefighters refused to leave their stations for five and a half hours while 80 fires burned in the city, chanting “Scab! Scab!” at volunteer crews of trainees and administrators hastily drafted in to respond to alarms. A coalition of police, firefighters and others went so far as to print a scaremongering handout for distribution to tourists entitled “Welcome to Fear City”.

My senior year of high school, living on the Queens – Nassau border (I am part of what Manhattanites derisively refer to as the “bridge and tunnel crowd”) , neatly coincided with the Son of Sam murders of 1976 and 1977 that paralyzed New York and the ‘outer boroughs’ as every part of the City that isn’t Manhattan is known – amplified through the now-classic prose of Daily News columnist and poet – hack laureate of those same outer boroughs Jimmy Breslin. David Berkowitz, the psychopath convicted of the murders, was eventually arrested at his home in the Bronx.

On 13 July 1977, in the midst of a heatwave of historic proportions where temperatures  approached 100° F, the worst blackout to hit the City since 1965 plunged the entire region into darkness for 24 hours. Looting and arson began almost immediately, and the chaos and wanton destruction wrought in those few hours – particularly in the poorest neighborhoods like now-fashionable Bed-Stuy – was plainly visible the next day. More than 3,000 were arrested and the prisons were bursting at the seams. Inmates set mattresses alight.

In the midst of all this, the fabled New York Yankees played in a near-empty baseball stadium in the smoldering Bronx , where pieces of concrete routinely fell into the stands during games while long-suffering New Yorkers were being attacked by packs of rats within sight of City Hall. No one was thinking, much less talking, regeneration. Even so, that summer marked a turning point, at least in hindsight. The Yankees went on to win the World Series. A complete unknown, Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post in late 1976, the liberal tabloid rival to the New York Daily News, and proceeded to reinvent it as a right wing New York spin on a British red top with its screaming, hysterical headlines (the most famous came in 1983, “Headless Body in Topless Bar”). In many ways, the aggrieved, polarized, violent and dysfunctional public discourse that is today the hallmark of American politics – leading inexorably to our current Trump moment – was born in the violence and destruction of that year.

Let’s be clear about something that New York had that Athens does not (yet) possess in anywhere near equal measure: fear. NYC of the the ’70s was a place of palpable anxiety and paranoia. No lesser a personage than composer Philip Glass, recently recalled in an interview for the BBC how the City in the 1970s was a scary place (he drove a cab to earn extra money, at a time when cabbies were routinely robbed, or worse still, murdered).  In hindsight, there could not have been a more apt soundtrack to the decade than the Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever hit Stayin’ Alive.  Random murders and muggings were the norm, and the print, radio and television news of the day gave it wall-to-wall coverage (though thankfully, back then we didn’t have rolling 24-hour news or the internet). Violent crime rates hit a plateau in the ’70s and stayed there until the late ’90s, when nation-wide demographic changes already at work combined with more intelligent policing (not supposedly ‘get-tough on crime’ policies as former mayor and self-mythologizer extraordinaire Rudy Giuliani would have you believe) finally resulted in a startling decline. The appallingly-awful Death Wish was released in 1974, a cartoon-ish celebration of urban vigilantism that made Charles Bronson’s career, and confirmed everyone’s suspicions that New York should be left to go to Hell on its own.

And yet every trip into the City as my teenage self felt akin to boarding Apollo 11 and heading to the moon. It was scary, edgy, but exciting. I attended poetry readings in the Village and bought Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares at the long-closed Eighth Street Bookshop. I searched out obscure classical recordings at Record Hunter on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets (’42nd Street’ itself a shorthand for sleaze and debauchery) . Beer was cheap at the White Horse Tavern, a favorite watering hole of Jack Kerouac and Dylan Thomas during his reading tours in the US. The myth is that he downed a large number of whiskey shots (18? 36?) at the bar and died the following day at St. Vincent’s Hospital down the block, more likely of misdiagnosis than alcohol poisoning per se. The hospital, a more than century old Catholic institution dedicated to serving the poor, who no longer [can afford to] live in this part of Manhattan, has closed and now is home to luxury high-rise condos that were selling last year for $3500/sq ft. This was a heady environment in which to engage in discreet underage drinking, a dog-eared copy of the Collected Poems in hand.

The beauty of all this decay was that notwithstanding the sleaze and grime, New York City became a magnet for creativity. As Glass points out, the City had something that made it a beacon for artists: cheap housing.Thanks to affordable housing (or simply sleeping rough in Central Park), the result was a critical mass of talent and cross-fertilization between the disciplines: performance art at The Kitchen, The Wooster Group’s Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe, A R Gurney and Christopher Durang at Playwrights Horizons, La Mama, PS1, Mary Boone and Julian Schnable, Arto Lindsey, Elliot Sharpe, John Zorn, the aforementioned Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kool Herc and Hip Hop’s emergence in the South Bronx, CBGB, the Mudd Club, the Talking Heads (and of course the short-lived palaces of cocaine-fueled sexual ambiguity, flammable fashion and disco glamour that were Studio 54 and its dry ice fog-filled rival Xenon …but we don’t really want talk about that). All of this was made possible because rent was cheap (or better, free) and performance spaces plentiful. Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee were cutting their teeth at NYU Film School. French avant garde composer Pierre Boulez was at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. The city was broke, falling apart at the seams, rife with crime and social problems, and had never been more culturally vibrant, perhaps because as one recent commentator observed“there was no need to pretend that everything was all right.” 

In the midst of all of this, savvy investors like William Ponsoldt (late of Panama Papers fame) and the well-connected (a certain scion of property development wealth named Trump comes to mind) snapped up empty well-located, future landmark properties for next to nothing, fixed them up and flipped them for a fortune in the ensuing, more prosperous decades. With hindsight, this was a bet that you couldn’t lose. At the time, as you stepped over piles of rotting garbage, avoided newspapers swirling at eye-level in the wind and rats nipping at ankles, dodged junkies in the doorways of empty storefronts and vainly tried to shake off panhandlers who would follow you for blocks haranguing you for a handout, such an investment looked pretty foolhardy. Insane even. But who knew?

All that has transpired in New York since the ’70s has its roots in this fantastically fertile soil. First SoHo was colonized, then the East Village. By the early ’80s even distant outposts like Park Slope in Brooklyn were becoming desirable and as a result, unaffordable. As the economy improved, the City recovered. By the ’80s, when prime rates began their gradual, stuttering climb-down from a staggering 21.5% in December 1980, there seemed like there was a Gap on nearly every corner. Money was now visible, just like the homeless. Wall Street chancers like the Boeskys and the Milkens became the models for Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe”.  An artist or performer arriving in the City had to seek shelter in obscure, freaky and quite frankly dangerous corners of the outer boroughs like Williamsburg.

Now, a mere decade after the terror attacks of 9/11  and barely pausing for breath in the latest recession, the City is largely a museum to these lost times while Williamsburg’s property market outpaces Manhattan’s. The City remains a draw for the creative class, but mostly for wannabes with money from expensive private universities, subsidized by their double-income professional parents. They are overwhelmingly white and upper middle class, happy to drop thirteen bucks on a jar of artisan pickles.

In other words, be careful what you wish for. Behind all the nostalgia surrounding 1970s NYC is the simple truth that no one can afford to live there anymore who doesn’t work for a hedge fund, a law firm with a healthy client list of, er, hedge funds, or is a rich kid aching to open the next artisanal mayonnaise cum yarn-and-saketini-bar  in Bed-Stuy where Uma Thurman’s brother can’t even afford a home. Or perhaps a porridge restaurant in less-hip Park Slope. Although there is hope for the “old” New York, as the homeless return. Today’s NYC is cleaner, safer, more prosperous and desirable, but also much more unequal and unaffordable for the vast majority of working people, let alone the creative revolutionaries who still flock there to starve, even as their ’70s pioneers like Patti Smith are leaving.

In conservative circles, the resurgent NYC has become the poster child for the view that, in today’s parlance, “austerity works”, and the blueprint for the “tough love” remedies applied more recently to cities like Detroit and countries like Greece. In truth, it was the gravitational pull of the world’s then financial capital combined with the global economic pendulum swinging the other way. There floated in the air a general Reagan-era perception that things were getting better (perception, mind you, not reality for most people).  In the late ’80s and ’90s Wall Street and the investment banks came back in a big way. And at least when the good times returned and the tax coffers recovered, money was ploughed back into infrastructure, policing, and the scrubbing clean of those subway cars. New York was no longer the city of the Ramones; it now was the metropolis of Bright Lights, Big City and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Yes, New York was pulled back from the brink, but the underlying changes wrought tilted the board heavily in favor of wealth. This wasn’t the result of bootstrapping capitalism so much as it was a willingness to hand the city over to the finance industry and turn its housing stock into, in the words of my midtown dentist whose office looks out at one of the more egregious examples of oligarch chic, “a safe deposit box for the world’s super rich“.  Most of the time these billionaire warehouses sit empty. The economic and cultural contributions to the City of these peripatetic plutocrats, like their counterparts in central London, is almost zero.

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Flicking through the complimentary glossies as I peer out the Cayenne’s windows at the gritty urban homesteaders in Gazi, Psyri and Metaxourgeio (our driver is lost), I nearly choke on my freddo to see that already, according to this month’s Vogue, “Downtown Athens is Basically Brooklyn by the Sea”. According to the guide, “you’ll find local brews, grain bowls, flea markets, brunches, fine delicatessens, and beard balms.” They are of course referring to Brooklyn, circa 2016. The city, and the country, are already colonized by the artisan-mayonnaise-and-thirteen-buck-jar-of-pickles crowd. They’ve been here all along, dancing into the wee hours on the ashes of the 2004 Olympic dream.

Athens and Greece remain in a state of decline unparalleled since the Great Depression; real unemployment rates for the population as a whole remain suspended at a gravity-defying 24.1% and the rate of unemployment for 15 – 24 year olds currently a jaw-slackening 51.4%. Unemployment in NYC in 1975 stood at 10.7%. To put that in perspective, the UK unemployment rate for January – March of this year stands at 5.1% for the population overall; in the US, it was a mere 4.7% in May. Even allowing for the undercounting of the long-term unemployed in the US, the picture in Greece is profoundly troubling.

Yet throughout the crisis the dense cluster of craft cocktail lounges, hip cafes, trendy wine bars and bleeding edge foodie havens around places such as Agia Irini and elsewhere in downtown Athens are heaving with a crowd of local hipsters seemingly flush with cash. Even as the whiff of tear gas lingers in the air above the wide boulevard of Panepistimiou from the latest dust-up between koukolofori and the batsi, the party barely skipped a beat. Businesses close and soup kitchens proliferate, and through it all a disconnected population of shallow trendsters stare unblinking at their shiny new iPhones. It’s urban blight, Jim, but not as we know it.

Long time observers will note that many of these symptoms predate the crisis and were there even below the gleaming facade of noughties prosperity. There is no doubt that homelessness has got worse over the past five years, swelled by the newly jobless and evicted; but as the Greek crisis meme took hold many a lazy European photo editor eager to sate the appetite for crisis porn used more easily obtainable photos of marginal groups that have unfortunately inhabited the darker corners of the city for years: Roma scrap metal collectors and intravenous drug users labelled as newly impoverished Athenians. The riots? Some of the worst took place in 2008, when the coming crisis was barely a glimmer in a doom-merchant’s eye. Similarly, urban blight-as-opportunity was already blossoming nicely in downtown Athens when the crisis hit, in the hangover of the half-assed Olympic regeneration.

Relaxing over an artisanal raki and obscure regional delicacies with Athenians, one often hears the rumour repeated of prominent Greek families and politicians snapping up pieces of the neglected “historic centre” for a song, even busing in illegal migrants and drug dealers to drive out long-time residents and drive down real estate prices. Some sizeable property deals have been transacted more transparently. And you don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain why. Middle class Athenians started moving to the suburbs in droves as soon as the new metro, suburban railway and tram system made commuting feasible; the economic migrants who provided cheap labour in the pre-crisis years also left when jobs dried up, leaving a hollowed-out city centre. If anything, the first years of the crisis brought a mini-regeneration of sorts, increasing the density of hipster bars and trendy food joints, as the first wave of redundancy packages and early retirement bonuses was re-deployed as seed capital for small-scale gastronomical entrepreneurship in cheap storefronts.

Contrast this with New York in the 1970s. Having experienced Manhattan and New York up close in that decade, I can assure you even the “nice” bits of the City were grim. It beggars belief nowadays if you tell a visitor that festive, manicured Bryant Park behind the grand and lustrously-restored New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, in the shadow of the gleaming glass and steel Bank of America tower, was an absolute, you-gotta-be-kidding-me no-go area in its day, the inspiration for the 1971 Pacino crime-and-drug terror vehicle, “The Panic in Needle Park”.

These days, when New Yorkers  gather to overcome collective trauma, there is one song that keeps recurring on the playlist. It’s not the self congratulatory “New York, New York” or the schmaltzy “New York State of Mind” (although they are also part of the cannon);  it is Billy Joel’s eerily titled “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway”, written in 1976. The lyrics describe residents fleeing an apocalyptic New York (“They burned the churches up in Harlem/Like in the Spanish civil war/The flames were ev’rywhere/But no one really cared/It always burned up there before”), told from the perspective of a survivor in Florida forty years later. It was sung at the memorial for the victims of 9/11 and at the relief concerts after Hurricane Sandy, as a reminder of the City’s collective near-death experience and triumphant rebound. It is a reminder that the City didn’t die in the ’70s, like everyone expected. Indeed, the city described in the song bears little resemblance to the City that emerged from the ashes a mere decade later, and the re-make of Escape From New York will be pure science fiction as compared to the only slightly heightened reality of the City-as-prison-camp ’80s quasi-documentary original. That is, unless the new version features corporate lawyers and private equity types fleeing the unspeakable horrors of the insane housing market for Buffalo. In many ways, the post-’70s recovery puts the City’s post-9/11 resurrection in the shade. New Yorkers in 2001 had already stared down the dark barrel of the gun and knew at once that there was not going to be any return to those days. And there hasn’t.

For better or worse, despite the deprivation, Athens hasn’t had this kind of collective near-death experience (yet). Even without the courtesy Cayenne, it is still possible to live in a bubble where the worst thing that can happen is your posh hairdresser strategically defaulting; it is certainly possible as a visitor to avoid any contact with anything more terrifying than a long line at an ATM, and thank goodness for that, given the city’s heavy reliance on tourism. Athens, and perhaps Greece as a whole, have managed to muddle along. With each day, week and month that passes of half-hearted reform, blatant cronyism, and political dysfunction from every quarter, a certain comfort has been found in misery. Indeed, in all of this, some see the only glimmer of hope for urban renewal in another crisis, that which has left a new wave of migrants and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and a host of other troubled regions trapped in Greece in the past year.

I do wonder what Patti and Laurie will make of it, if they get a chance to hang out in Athens, 2016. Our choice of concert venues next weekend are the recently opened Piraeus Academy which models itself on London’s Brixton Academy, and the Metamorphosis gala opening weekend at the new Renzo Piano-designed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Faliro. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Athens spirits away the city’s public art for safekeeping from theft and vandalism, and the world continues to turn. Indeed, in all of this, some see the only glimmer of hope for renewal in another crisis, that which has led refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and a host of other troubled regions trapped in Greece.

Image credits: NEW YORK: New York subway photo: Danny Lyon via ohbythewayblog.blogspot.com; “SKIPPED, 1977″ photo: Susan Lorkid Katz, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York via 6sqft.com; photo of CBGB by David Godlis via medium.com; photo of Xenon by Bill Burnstein via midcenturymodernmag.comATHENS: New Hotel via Vogue.com; “Hipstorical” by @atlantis_host (artful blur, photographer’s own); Metaxourgeio owl/elephant graffiti by Koutofrangos; Baba au Rum via iefimerida.com; homeless graffiti via metaxourgeio.wordpress.com.

 

NYC (1975) to Athens (2016): an inspiration and a warning

The good, the bad and the ugly – travels in Greek hyperreality*

wearewithyougreece

Michael Herzfeld’s “Welcome to Greece (but not to Europe)” is a case of “great article, lousy editing”. When I read the strapline, Europe’s efforts to exclude Athens aren’t about migration or debt, they’re about the continent’s deep-seated racism toward its southern frontier state,” a tabloid version instinctively flashed before my eyes: “Harvard prof says, racist Europeans are bullying the Greeks (again)”.

Despite my gut reaction, the article is well worth reading. But reading it set me on a stream-of-consciousness journey through recent cultural experiences, which I’d like to take you on to illustrate a real phenomenon: well-meaning attempts to sway European opinion in favour of Greece are unintentionally cultivating their own version of this “racism” outside Greece, while arming a strand of political rhetoric within Greece that is un-European in its values, anti-European in its orientation and profoundly disempowering. If this worldview is allowed to prevail (and arguably it is too late to stop it) it could bring about its own dire results for Greece without “Europe” having to dirty its hands.

But let’s start by restoring to the Foreign Policy article its original intent. Herzfeld, a Professor of Anthropology, argues that the EU countries might be tempted to exclude Greece from the Schengen free movement zone because historically they have never considered Greeks to be fully European. Herzfeld’s argument is directed primarily at the readers in the European “core”, urging them to overcome this bias and keep Greece “in” for everyone’s benefit.

Herzfeld’s scholarly writing is rich and nuanced, informed by years of study and anthropological fieldwork in Greece, and this short opinion piece does not really do it justice. While his main is thrust is to “call out” the Europeans on their “racism”, he knows enough about how Greece works not to treat the Greeks like helpless victims. It is a question of emphasis, but one that is easily missed in a hasty reading.

So how did I get from this to the imaginary tabloid version?

When I read the article I was reminded of a BBC travel programme that I had watched just a few days before. The premise of “Greece with Simon Reeve” is that an “avuncular herbert” (as the host is aptly described in one review) goes on a gap-year-style exploration of Greece, “one of the most beautiful and troubled countries in Europe”. You get the idea: spectacular scenery, picturesque locals, with a smattering of current affairs and a social conscience. Entertaining, but perhaps more enjoyable if you’re not that familiar with the subject matter.

simonreevefatherandreas

In one memorable segment, a group of bearded gun-toting Cretan shepherds
are emboldened after a stint of target shooting and a few shots of raki to expound on their belief that “what (the Germans) didn’t achieve by killing millions of people in World War II, they’re trying to achieve now by financial warfare”. Those crazy Cretans, eh! The voiceover has already informed us that due to the island’s strategic position in the Mediterranean the Cretan worldview has been shaped by centuries of conflict against would-be invaders. Maybe the hirsute noble savages were speaking truth to power? So the script left us thinking, at any rate, as their statements were left hanging in the air.

“Greece with… ” has not yet been broadcast in Greece. But coincidentally, within a couple of days of watching it, I also happened to witness on Greek TV Lakis Lazopoulos, a popular comedian and self-proclaimed “modern Aristophanes”, walk his audience through a very similar scenario to that espoused by the Cretan mountain men. With the aid of a Fox-News-style 3-D rendering of Greece as a concentration camp overseen by Kommandant (German Finance Minister) Schäuble and his local Quislings, Lazopoulos proceeded to tell us that he knew for a fact from “two well informed sources” that Germany had threatened to cut off Greece’s water supplies during the fraught bailout negotiations in July 2015 “just like they did to the prisoners in the camps”. The programme attracted 40% of the TV audience on the evening it was broadcast – the episode generated plenty of complaints, but not about that segment.

lazopoulos

So there we go – from the sublime to the ridiculous in two easy steps.

I found myself wondering, as I watched “Greece with…”, whether those Cretan noble savages were in any way related to the fierce rebels who, when European farming subsidies were flowing plentiful, were filing applications for fictional olive groves, that, if real, would have stretched across the wine-dark sea all the way to Santorini? Or those who were ploughing the same subsidies into building narco-cartels in the uplands and stockpiling the extraordinary numbers of unlicensed guns described in the programme (modern AK-47s in this case, rather than the heirloom Luger that the Cretan host claimed was taken from the fleeing WWII occupiers)? Would they say the Germans were trying to destroy them then too, I wondered? Would they ever question the flow of money and patronage from Europe via the local political grandees – or were they just happy to be compliant and complicit political clients?

None of this entered into the script, where the bearded mountain men along with the other colourful character vignettes went largely unchallenged in their assertions. One was left with an image of the Greek people as latter-day Zorbas, lovable rogues perhaps, but fleeced by their corrupt elites and embattled by the austerity-loving Europeans. Now, Michael Herzfeld literally wrote the book on Cretan mountain men (The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village), and the issues of complicity and patronage in EU-Greek relations are precisely the ones he raises his article, albeit focussing on the European side of the equation. (Our comedian friend of course, asks only the kind of leading questions that advance him along his conspiratorial narrative – “Coincidence?”).

I swing between the sublime and the ridiculous to illustrate a number of points. First, that the “racism” described in the Foreign Policy article is a much more subtle beast than the one that we can comfortably disown by associating it with a swastika tattoo on a snarling skinhead. The image of Greece at home and abroad is shaped as much by seemingly benign and well-intentioned popular entertainment products as it is by any European politician’s pronouncements – and arguably more so. I would hazard a guess that many more people watched “Greece with Simon Reeve” and talked about it round the watercooler than are ever likely to read the article in Foreign Policy beyond the strapline – even influential people. When the BBC informs us through the grinning floppy haired medium of Simon Reeve (or the husky Home Counties empathy of Joanna Lumley a couple of years ago) that Greece is a land of impulsive naïfs humiliated by the oppression of the phlegmatic Eurocrats and/or the Ottoman corruption of their own political masters, we tend to take it on authority – especially when it comes garnished with a smattering of quotable statistics on youth unemployment, road casualties and pollution.

This kind of representation can make everyone a “racist” of sorts, even if a “sympathetic” racist – it paints Greece as an exotic hinterland where “civilised” western norms don’t apply. Consider another moment in the programme, when Reeve casually mentions that, “a few rich people control almost all of Greece’s media”. Fair cop guv! But how about some context? One could perhaps state that in the host’s own country the media are largely dominated by an Australian/American tycoon with a bulldozer approach to journalistic ethics who once famously boasted of swinging an election, a porn baron, the “non-dom” (i.e. non-taxpaying) descendant of a Nazi sympathizer, a pair of reclusive twins living in their own private tax haven, and a hereditary Russian oligarch among others. This might allow the viewer to see a more familiar, less exotic picture – one that might encourage more critical thinking, the European and the Greek on an equal footing.

Second, this is a two-way street. Out of this surreal array of representations, I can state pretty categorically that many more Greek people will have watched the idiot’s version of Greco-German relations than are likely to consume either Herzfeld or Reeve without some form of mediation (translation, abridgement or most likely paraphrase – and I am only focusing on the English-language media, if my German were better I’m sure I would be having a field day). But foreign commentary does not go unnoticed in Greece; it is monitored obsessively and is often used in the media to stir up popular sentiment, so it doesn’t take much of a logical leap to arrive at my imaginary tabloid headline. It is not unusual to find statements originating in Greece returning like a mangled boomerang through the crisis porn news cycle (remember “sex for a tyropita”?). A gently paternalistic view of Greece informs a defensive self-image, while the Greek sense of persecution feeds back into “racist” stereotypes of the Greeks.

The motif of national humiliation and victimhood, that idea that Greece is prevented for achieving its rightful destiny by malicious foreign interference (“we are special, that’s why they hate us”) is not new, nor is it the preserve of fringe groups like the Golden Dawn party. It is a dark aspect of our modern historical identity to which Greeks turn reflexively, regardless of individual political beliefs, particularly in times of crisis (a rich topic in itself, deserving of a separate discussion). A recent survey suggested that “competitive victimhood” (“my suffering is bigger than yours”) explains why casual anti-Semitism is so widespread – hence, using the Holocaust as a prop in a heavy-handed “satire” to illustrate the persecution of the Greeks is broadly tolerated. Lazopoulos himself is not just a household name, he is a friend of the government: he was personally introduced to François Hollande on a state visit to Athens, and half the cabinet attended the premiere of his last stage show in December.

In the political mainstream, consider the emotive language used by Alexis Tsipras in his referendum address last July: “the aim of some of our Partners and the Institutions… is, perhaps, the humiliation of an entire people” through “punishing and humiliating austerity”; and his right-wing nationalist coalition partner Panos Kammenos in the aftermath of the negotiations which followed, describing the result in terms of a “coup” by Germany and its allies, and repeated and persistent “blackmail” (which we observed at the time sounds in Greek very much like “rape”); or of Yanis Varoufakis’s favourite trope, “fiscal waterboarding” – the Greek people always at the sharp end of a transitive verb. Then reflect on how this sense of victimhood was fuelled by the Keynsian sympathy of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz (example: “Greece, the Sacificial Lamb”), and the “imported” social media meme of #thisisacoup.

Now, as Greece finds itself once again threatened with exclusion from Europe, this time with more than 20,000 people (and counting) corralled within its borders in truly desperate conditions, the victim reflex re-engages. The Prime Minister rallied the domestic audience with the same familiar motif: “[w]e cannot have any responsibility-shirking bureaucrat or xenophobic government wagging the finger at us. No attack will be left unanswered and no action will be without consequences”. It’s a great populist message, because it deflects attention onto Europe’s failings and away from our own government’s mishandling and political manoeuvring. But it is also self-limiting: the best outcome we can expect from this narrative is a poor compromise after an “honest struggle”; and worse outcomes are also possible. Push us, and we may be “driven to act unilaterally,” our Immigration Minister warned. Whatever that is intended to mean, it does not sound pleasant, and given the realities of the situation it is hard to imagine Greece coming out the winner.

Let’s be clear: pointing out the dangers in our own national discourse in no way absolves anyone in Europe of their own un-European parochialism. Nor does it mean that Greece could or should be expected to contain a human migration on such a historical scale from encroaching on its neighbours’ manicured backyards. But once you start to ask the difficult questions, you realise that there are not always clear victims and perpetrators, and no one owns to moral high ground, not even the “birthplace of democracy”. Herzfeld again:

If Greece remains solidly within EU structures, it can more easily probe that history. It can ask disturbing questions [about its treatment by the Europeans]. Inside Schengen, moreover, Greece can directly answer charges that it is not doing enough to stem the refugee tide, rather than be treated as a lost cause.”

This is why it is worth reading his article in full and being wary of some of the more misty-eyed portrayals of Greece. European “racism” does not give Greece a free pass, but nor will staying “in” be an easy option. But we (Greeks, Europeans) must resist the temptation to let a politically expedient notion of victimhood become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

*with apologies again to the late Umberto Eco.

Images: “We are with you Greece” via commondreams.org; photo of Simon Reeve with Father Andreas at the shooting range, from bbc.co.uk

The good, the bad and the ugly – travels in Greek hyperreality*

A song for Greece

paparizou

A group of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have started a petition to enter a song in this year’s Eurovision song contest. They say they they want to pay tribute in song to the noble people of Greece, whose suffering touched them deeply as they passed through the country on their route from the war-torn Middle East to Northern Europe.

The initiative was the idea of a brother and sister, aged 22 and 25, who left their home in Homs, Syria, under heavy shelling eight months ago to travel to Europe. They were excited at the prospect of passing through Greece, say the pair who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardising their asylum applications in Sweden, because it was Elena Paparizou’s glorious Eurovision win in 2005 with the dance anthem “My Number One” that first kindled the love of music in them. But what the found when they arrived shocked them. “Greece was not as we expected it,” they now say. “Instead of a prosperous, fun-loving, lip-synching, partying people we found a nation oppressed by austerity, enduring a true humanitarian crisis.”

As they travelled through the country, they were touched by the devastation that they encountered. Spending a night in a mothballed Olympic facility in Athens, they mused about the circumstances that might have led to its abandonment, and half-recalled with tears in their eyes the lines of Shelley’s Ozymandias that they had learned in high school:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

On their way north to Greece’s border with the land that some call Macedonia but the Greeks refer to by the mystical acronym FYROM, the refugee group were shocked to encounter caravans moving southward, their meagre belongings loaded onto farm machinery. “It was clear that the were fleeing something terrible. But these humble people did not hesitate to share with us their few provisions.” When the farmers explained that they may have to seal Greece’s borders to defend their pensions from raids by the country’s creditors, some of the refugee group initially protested. However, in the end they agreed that a couple more nights sleeping on the cold tarmac was a small sacrifice to make for such a noble cause. The group also expressed their gratitude to the citizens protesting against the establishment of registration “hotspots” for refugees in “unsuitable” locations, saying that that they were truly moved by the concern for their welfare, hygiene and religious sensitivities in such trying times. Meanwhile, they spoke in glowing terms of the selfless and constructive attitude adopted by Greek politicians of all parties, so different from that of their European colleagues.

“We hear that the suffering is bad in Denmark especially after the Eurovision 2014 disaster, and our cousins over there have donated their iPads and wedding rings to help, but it is hard to imagine something worse than this.” The refugee group recall walking across the scorched earth of a once powerful and united continent to reach their destination, pondering how it had come to this: “It’s as if the region is being torn apart by a sectarian proxy war, brother turning against brother, collapsing into a post-colonial mess. Is this how Europe ends? Oh, hang on…

Throughout their travails, the refugee group never stopped believing in the power of music to teach humanity and help life’s victims back onto their feet. They hope to be granted entry into the ever-expanding brotherhood of Eurovision nations (“Israel is in there,” they note pointedly, “and how do you explain Australia?”). “We don’t care about winning, we just want to draw the world’s attention to the atrocities that are being perpetuated here.” Asked to describe the style of their entry, they said, “We are aiming for We Are the World” meets Lebanese pop, with a catchy electronic dance beat. And belly dancers”

Meanwhile, in the real news, Greece announced that its entry in Eurovision 2016 would feature a song on the twin themes of the refugee crisis and the Greek financial crisis. The President of the recently-resurrected Greek state broadcaster ERT explained that “we are planning on choosing an optimistic, upbeat song that will have a Greek sound and verse, which will touch the subject of the harsh economic measures that have been imposed on Greek people and the struggle of the refugees, in order to teach people across the world a lesson on humanity.” Giving a further preview of the Greek offering, he stated that there will be no dancers and provocative appearances and effects during the finals, and that the performer would be chosen without a contest. Some commentators discern in this pronouncement the influence of the recent strengthening of ties between Greece and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There were rumours in Athens earlier this week that a group of Central European nations including Austria and Hungary were lobbying to get Greece excluded from the Eurovision contest, fearing that a flood of phone voters from the Middle East could create a new voting bloc in an already fragmented and divisive European institution. It was later clarified that the threat related to the Schengen open borders zone, not the august musical event.

 


All hyperlinked sources are actual.  Most of the stuff in between is fabricated, with the exception of the bits about Greece’s 2016 Eurovision entry and the putative suspension of the Schengen agreement. 

View the Greek Eurovision song, “Utopian Land” by Argo.

Some useful numbers: Reliable up-to-date economic data on Syria are hard to obtain for obvious reasons, but it is estimated that its GDP has plummeted 62% below 2010 levels, while agricultural production has halved from a combination of drought and conflict. Its unemployment rate is close to 60%. More than half its pre-war population are refugees or internally displaced. Prior to the war it had a literacy rate of 90%.

Image via gossip-tv.gr

A song for Greece

Christmas ‘Crisis’ – as reported locally

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Reproduced in antifasi.gr, kitrinos-typos.gr, clickbomb.gr and assorted other Greek “news” sources (English translation follows).

ΞΕΝΑ ΔΗΜΟΣΙΕΥΜΑΤΑ ΣΥΝΔΕΟΥΝ ΤΑ ΚΑΛΑΝΤΑ ΜΕ ΤΗΝ ΕΓΚΛΗΜΑΤΙΚΟΤΗΤΑ

Τα ξένα μέσα οργιάζουν και πάλι σε βάρος της Ελλάδας. Αγγλόφωνος ιστότοπος δημοσίευσε πρόσφατα άρθρο στο οποίο περιγράφει με… ευφάνταστο τρόπο τα κάλαντα στην Ελλάδα της ανθρωπιστικής κρίσης.

Σύμφωνα με το ρεπορτάζ που φιλοξενείται στο blog datelineatlantis, η Αθήνα βρίσκεται στο έλεος οργανωμένων συμμοριών που απαρτίζονται απο ανήλικα παιδιά που δρουν υπό την κατεύθυνση… νονών του οργανωμένου εγκλήματος. Με όπλο τα τρίγωνα, τα παιδιά ξεμοναχιάζουν ευάλωτους ηλικιωμένος που περνούν τις άγιες μέρες μόνοι και εγκαταλελειμμένοι απο τις οικογένειες τους και τους αποσπούν με απειλές χρήματα και τιμαλφή. Ο ξένος ρεπόρτερ παρατηρεί με εμφανή ειρωνία οτι τα παιδιά και οι… προστάτες τους βλασφημούν κατά της αγιότητας των ημερών καθώς εκτελούν το εγκληματικό τους έργο ντυμένοι Άγιοι Βασίληδες.

Δε λείπει η αναφορά στην προειδοποίηςη του Βουλευτή της Χρυςής Αυγής Ιωάννη Λαγού περί παράτυπων μεταναστών και κτηνοβασίας, ενώ ο ρεπόρτερ παρατηρεί επίσης την πλήρη έλλειψη αστυνόμευσης στην πρωτεύουσα.

Θυμίζουμε οτι ο ίδιος ιστότοπος έχει φιλοξενήσει κατά καιρούς προκλητικά δημοσιεύματα, στα οποία η Ελλάδα παρομοιάζεται με μπανανία, η μαθητική παρέλαση της 28ης Οκτωβριου περιγράφεται με χλευαστικό και απαξιωτικό τρόπο, ενώ προωθούνται συνομωσιολογίες για το πρόσωπο του Έλληνα Πρωθυπουργού.

Εκτιμάται οτι αυτό το τελευταίο… κρούσμα εντάσσεται σε μια ευρύτερη προσπάθεια αποσταθερποίησης της Ελλάδας απο τα ξένα μέσα. Πρόσφατα πολλά μήντια αναπαρήγαγαν φήμες ότι Ελληνίδες φοιτήτριες εκδίδονται για μια τυρόπιτα λόγω της κρίσης, ενώ ο ιστότοπος του BBC δημοσίευσε ρεπορτάζ όπου εικαζόταν ότι «η κρίση ωθεί τους Έλληνες να ξεθάψουν τους γονείς τους».

Ως γνωστόν ο εκταφιασμός των νεκρών συνδέεται με σχέδιο εκποίησης των οστών απο Κινεζικό όμιλο παραδοσιακής ιατρικής στα πλαίσια του προγράμματος ιδιωτικοποιήσεων που έχουν επιβάλλει οι θεσμοί.

 


“FOREIGN REPORTS LINK THE KALANTA TO CRIME

Foreign media are once again indulging in an orgy of anti-Greek sentiment. An English-language website recently published an article with an “imaginative” description of the kalanta in the Greece of the humanitarian crisis.

According to the report which is hosted on the blog datelineatlantis, Athens is at the mercy of organised gangs made up of underage children acting under the direction of godfathers of organised crime. Armed with triangles, the children accost vulnerable elders who pass the holy days alone and abandoned by their families, and use threats to extract money and valuables. The foreign reporter observes with obvious irony that the children and their “protectors” blaspheme against the holy days by carrying out their criminal acts dressed as Santa Claus.

The report is complete with a reference to the warning by Golden Dawn MP Ioannis Lagos concerning illegal immigrants and bestiality, while the writer also notes the total lack of policing in the capital.

We remind you that the same website has hosted at times provocative publications in which Greece is likened to a banana republic, the school parade of the 28th October is described in a mocking and degrading fashion, while the blog also promotes conspiracy theories concerning the person of the Greek Prime Minister.

It is believed that this latest outbreak is part of a broader attempt by the foreign media to destabilise Greece. Recently many foreign media reproduced rumours that Greek students were selling themselves for a tyropita, while the BBC website published a report speculating that “the crisis is driving the Greeks to dig up their parents”.

As is well known, the disinterment of the dead is related to a bid to exploit the bones by a Chinese traditional medicine group, as part of the privatisation programme imposed by the lender institutions.”

All of the above is of course imagined, apart from the external links which are 100% genuine.

 

 

Christmas ‘Crisis’ – as reported locally

Putting the ‘Crisis’ Back in Christmas

WP_20151224_15_31_53_Pro

Inspired by the example of actress and humanitarian Susan Sarandon, Koutofrangos drove through the night, braving fog and the vagaries of long-haul lorry drivers on the Italian Autostrada, to board the last Igoumenitsa-bound ferry from Ancona to ‘bear witness’ to Greece’s ignominious ongoing decline into depravity.

Already horrified by reports from my informants that a member of Parliament spoke authoritatively about recently-arrived migrants from Pakistan having an unusual attachment to their goats, I was braced for the worst as I entered Athens.

Nothing, however, could prepare me for the shock of seeing gangs of street youth – boys and girls alike – going from door-to-door in a brazen shake-down of the elderly. This on Christmas Eve, no less. The streets have been crawling with urchins since dawn, clearly working under duress by foreign organised crime bosses, wielding menacing metal triangles and iron rods, pounding on doors and demanding cash from the already-depleted unemployed and beleaguered pensioners. Even casual observation revealed the elderly – those abandoned or forgotten by family – being accosted on street corners and in modest kafeneios.

This pitiful spectacle was made all the more horrifying by the fact that many of the youth – doubtless kidnapped and press-ganged into common criminality – wore red and white Santa hats, in a perverse and sickening show of blasphemy towards the holiday. The degree of organisation entailed by this mass extortion racket was evidenced by pick-up trucks cruising the streets, Christmas carols blaring from loudhailers to drown out the cries for help of victims, an adult ‘Santa’ directing the street gangs to their next victim. With no police visible anywhere, the streets of Athens have at long last truly become a jungle.

[You may want to read this before going to press – Ed.]

All of the above is of course imagined, apart from the external links which are 100% genuine.

Image: photo by Koutofrangos, somewhere in Athens, 24 December 2015.

Putting the ‘Crisis’ Back in Christmas

Crisis porn vs. the news – November 2015 edition

453173Don't date a girl who reads the news

The last couple of weeks would have had Aunt Cassandra reaching for her smelling salts, had she not given up the extreme sport of “reading the papers” long ago. If the reputable English-language media are to be believed, young Greek girls are selling favours for the price of a sandwich, before going to the cemetery to dig up their parents because they can’t afford the burial plot (according to the Greek press, the biggest domestic stories are the various shades of name-calling within the official opposition and between current and former ministers in the coalition government).

The foreign stories brought back memories of the heady days when the Greek crisis was at the top of the news cycle and every day served up dozens of column inches of crisis porn in the global media. Remember, before the refugees restored the phrase “humanitarian crisis” to its correct usage, before ISIS turned Europe into their sectarian backyard? On closer reading, one of these stories turned out to be hyperbole heaped upon a real problem (there has been an increase in Greek women entering the sex trade, but the main source for the story distanced himself from some the more sensationalist claims); the other was a perfectly good human interest story probably given an editorial crisis angle for “relevance” (exhumation has been the default solution to cemetery over-crowding going back decades before the crisis, but people are increasingly looking for alternative solutions because their priorities have changed.

The problem is that while we are distracted by this “news”, there is a whole herd of restless elephants in the room. The real issues are not terribly exotic, they are technical and boring. They simply wouldn’t sell as much copy, or attract enough clicks in our out of Greece, so they have received almost nil coverage. To illustrate my point, I have picked two vitally important stories about Greece that were sidelined, and one exception that proves the rule.

IMG_0760

Story the First: The real “sale of the century” this week was not an anecdotal €2 hand-job from a possibly invented starving Greek student, but the recapitalisation of the Greek banks. I am not a banking insider so I have spent the last two weeks scouring both the Greek and foreign media to find a clear explanation of the story in layman’s terms. I thought I would share with you what I managed to find – hardly any of it from mainstream media sources, mostly published in Greek.

It has long been known that the Greek banks would need to raise new capital in order to come off life support and become at least part-functioning zombies that will (a) not threaten to appropriate depositors’ funds in order to survive, (b) allow customers to access their money and perform transactions without capital controls, and (c) possibly even return to performing their core function of lending again. In order to meet some of the capital requirements without relying wholly on Eurozone lenders, it was agreed that the banks could first seek to raise the money from the markets. Somehow in this process, the four systemic Greek banks, which are in poor shape but between them still hold assets in excess of €300 billion, were reduced to penny stocks (quite literally: €0.02 for National Bank of Greece, €0.0003 for Piraeus Bank, €0.04 for Alpha Bank and €0.01 for Eurobank). At these prices, Piraeus Bank, with €80 billion in assets, almost 20,000 employees in over 1,000 branches and 5.7 million customers could be acquired with €177 million (millions, not billions!). This deal effectively wiped out the banks’ existing shareholders who had paid much dearer for their shares: they effectively now hold a much thinner slice of a much smaller pie, with little chance of recouping their losses even if the banks bounce back to health.

While this process was unfolding, the political debate focussed narrowly on one term on the other side of the banking equation, namely the protection from foreclosure of homeowners who are in danger of defaulting on their mortgage payments to these very same banks. “Not a single home in a banker’s hands” had been an election promise of the governing parties, and indeed the 25% of mortgage holders deemed to be most vulnerable were fully protected by a compromise reached on the “red loans”.

“Hurrah!” you might exclaim. “A minor triumph for the little man, at the expense of the fat cat bankers and their capitalist masters!” Right? Wrong! Major and minor shareholders lost out from the recapitalisation deal, but the biggest loser by far is the Greek public who had bailed out the banks originally by taking majority stakes in them, TARP-style, in 2013. Those stakes, originally purchased for €25 billion (plus €19 billion in deferred taxes), reduced in value to between €12-18 billion by 2014, are now worth almost nothing (around €0.5 billion to be precise). This represents a loss to the public purse of tens of billions of Euros at a time when it has been frantically searching frantically behind the sofa cushions to find €0.4 billion a year from VAT (first schools, then wine, then gambling). What’s more, it is a loss that it is unlikely to recoup in the event of a recovery, because its ownership share has been drastically diluted (at 24% for NBG, 2.4% for Eurobank, 11% for Alpha and 22% for Piraeus, it is now a minority shareholder). The gains for bank customers (improved deposit protection, partial foreclosure protection) are in no way commensurate with the cost to Greek society.

How was this allowed to happen? Firstly , it is unclear whether any other options were seriously considered, other than to offer private investors first dibs; the bailout deal signed in July already provided for funds of up to €25 billion to refloat the banks if required. With markets being the chosen path, the share offering didn’t take place in the best of conditions; but even so, the prices resulting from the deal are way out of line with the market price for the banks’ shares. As an example, NBG shares were trading on the Athens Stock market at €0.32 on the eve of the recapitalisation deal (much lower than the €4.29 that the state paid for them in 2013, and also reflecting a near-halving in prices through November while the capital raising was being negotiated). Even so, the €0.02 price agreed represents a whopping 93% discount on the market valuation.

The new share price was agreed not on the open market, but using an opaque process called “book-building”, typically used in hard-to-value IPOs like Facebook, where investors are invited to bid privately for large blocks of shares. The precise terms of this process were agreed by the Greek government with the creditors, and passed into legislation by the Greek parliament. Critics point out that they were entirely one-sided and effectively gave all power to the bidders to determine the price: there was no minimum or back-stop; the Greek state agreed to accept the “book-building prices” even if they did not reflect market value; Greek investors were excluded from bidding, as was the Greek state (this by a “midnight amendment” to the governing legislation). The Greek state therefore not only had to stand by and watch the lowest bidder erase the value of its holdings, but was also unable to buy in at the low price to prevent the dilution of its ownership stake. Rewind to the last capital-raising exercise by the banks in April 2014, when the state was again excluded but banks were able to name their asking price at discounts of (only!) 15% and 35%. This deal was hailed at the time as a success, but there were critics on left and right, one branding it a “big fat Greek privatisation scandal” – it is clear from this latest development that no lessons were learned. The irony of this happening under a majority left-wing coalition who had spent their time in opposition railing against the selling-off of Greek assets to “vultures” and “speculators” is not lost.

The deal was further sweetened for potential buyers by government’s insistence on homeowner protection, as the state (i.e. the taxpayer) has agreed to part-guarantee the protected 25% of “red loans”, so that they wouldn’t have to be entirely written off at a loss to the banks and their new owners. Ultimately, it can only be described as a big transfer of wealth from the Greek state to foreign (as yet unnamed) private investors, in the course of which the creditors and the bankers were allowed to promote their own agendas, the Greek government proved woefully inadequate at negotiating for the public interest both as a borrower and as a majority shareholder, and parliament dropped the ball, too distracted by posturing not note the fine print.

Bottom line? Last week €2 could have bought you an expensive tyropita (a cheese pie, not a sandwich – the real measure of debasement used in the article), a few moments of miserable sexual relief – or it could have bought you 100 shares in the National Bank of Greece, if you knew the right people. On the other hand, if you’re one of those (possibly fictional) students who has gone on the game to pay your rent, you are also effectively subsidising someone’s mortgage so they don’t have to. The banks, meanwhile, are already running TV ads celebrating the “confidence” that foreign investors have shown in them.

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Story the Second: The real intergenerational strife story is not exhumation, but pension reform. Pension reform is the next big bill that needs to pass through parliament to satisfy Greece’s commitments to the creditors, and it may yet be this government’s undoing. But the politically unpalatable truth that won’t get much of an airing is that the pension system needs to reform not just because of the crisis, or because our arm has been twisted by unscrupulous lenders in a moment of weakness, but because despite numerous piecemeal reforms over the yearsit simply isn’t viable, and hasn’t been for decades. It is therefore tragic that once again it has been turned into a political football, as the government is belatedly asking for consensus, while the opposition parties smell blood in a paper-thin majority and are digging their heels in.

There will no doubt be a lot of hot air about plundering and mismanagement of reserves, and particularly the losses from PSI, the debt restructuring programme which imposed a 50% haircut on government bonds held by the state pension funds. A brief but very informative exercise published recently (unfortunately only in Greek) demonstrates why this populist blamestorming is completely bogus. Firstly, because most of the 90+ separate pension funds that comprise the state-run system have been operating a deficit since the 1980s: they not only lack reserves, but need to be propped up on an annual basis by substantial public funds in order to be able to pay out pensions. Where reserves exist, their returns on investment only contribute between 3-5% of inflows to the funds’ operating budget to supplement workers’ contributions (as is the norm) and state contributions. Therefore, even the 50% reduction brought about by PSI has had a negligible effect on current pension payments, and is definitely not the reason for any pension cuts that have or will come into effect. The same study also estimated that the last two decades of rollercoaster investment of reserves in risky assets – including the inflation and bursting of the Athens stock market bubble, the purchase of dodgy structured bonds and the effects of the infamous PSI “haircut” – have brought reserves to approximately the same level that they would have been had they been invested in safe but low-yielding German government bonds!

So, aside from the correcting the obvious distortions in the system (e.g. hairdressers retiring at 50) and flushing out the abuses (e.g. deceased claimants), the pension system is still far from self-supporting and needs substantial overhaul. This was the unequivocal conclusion of the “committee of wise men” which reported to the government last month, and whose recommendations are already being cherry-picked for political expediency. A brief critical unpicking of the larger structural issues behind the Greek pensions crisis can be read here (in English). This year the country counts 1.3 workers (pension contributors) for every one pensioner, because of a combination of high unemployment, increased emigration and a surge in voluntary pension applications driven by the anticipation of reform. Even if employment were to rebound to pre-crisis levels, Greece is brewing one of the more extreme versions of the “demographic time-bomb” which is forcing much healthier economies worldwide to rethink their pension system (by 2020, 20% of the total population of Greece will be over 65, rising to 30% in 2030 according a recent report by the European Commission). All of this means that workers will have to work longer and contribute more for less generous pensions. In the immediate future, despite political grandstanding to the contrary, some pensions will have to be cut to meet a reduction in state spending of 1% GDP that Greece has already committed to.

Bottom line? You may want to be mean to your parents after reading this, but please reserve your ire for the politicians for stalling and promising the stars once again, and the media for not holding them to account.

Story the Third: The Greek shipping myth may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Reuters deserves an honourable mention for getting the coals out of the fire once again, on at least the second occasion I have noted in my non-scientific survey (the first being its 2012 report on Greece’s “triangle of power” which licensed us all to use the pimping metaphor in public discourse). This latest report questions the statistics used to calculate the value of shipping to the Greek economy, and offers some support to voices calling for a rethink of the exceptional tax breaks given to the industry.

Maybe Aunt Cassandra is right, the coffee cup is your best counsel, and at least saves money on healthcare. But I hope this has been informative.

Images: thecitizen.inlarissanet.gr (yes, that image again), BBC

 

Crisis porn vs. the news – November 2015 edition