A German trauma therapist journeys to Greece. What he sees there surpasses his worst fears. Greek society is crumbling under the pressure of the crisis. Excerpts.
Trauma is Georg Pieper’s business. Whenever a disaster hits Germany, the traumatologist is on the spot. Following the attacks in Oslo and Utøya, Pieper travelled to Norway and supervised his colleagues there. He knows what it means to look closely study and measure the scale of a disaster.
In October Pieper, spent a few days in Athens, where he gave continuing education courses for psychologists, psychiatrists and doctors on trauma therapy. Although he had prepared himself for some shocks, the reality was even worse than he had gloomily expected.
For Germans who watch the news, the crisis is very remote. It encroaches on us first and foremost in hearing terms like “rescue fund” or “billion-euro holes”. Instead of understanding the global context, we see Angela Merkel in Berlin, Brussels or somewhere else, stepping out of dark limousines with a grave expression on her face.
We don’t learn the whole truth, not about Greece, not Germany, not about Europe. Pieper calls what is happening right before our very eyes a “massive displacement effort.” The defence mechanism of politicians in particular functions superbly.
Begging and scavanging
In October 2012 he saw a Greece where heavily pregnant women were rushing around, going from from hospital to hospital begging, but because they had neither health insurance nor enough money, nobody wanted to help them bring their child into the world. In a suburb of Athens, people who were until recently middle class, were gathering fruit and vegetable scraps from the street.
An old man said that he could no longer afford the medication for his heart condition. His pension had been slashed by half. He had worked for more than forty years, and he thought he had done everything right. Now he no longer understands the world.
People who go to a hospital must bring their own bedding, and even their food. Since the cleaning staff was fired, doctors and nurses, who have not been paid for months, have been cleaning the wards. There aren’t enough disposable gloves and catheters, and the EU is warning of the danger of the spread of infectious diseases.
Whole blocks of flats have in the meantime had their oil supplies cut off for lack of money. In spring a 77 year old man shot himself in front of the Parliament in Athens. Shortly before his act, he is said to have cried out: “This is how I leave my children with no debts.” In the past three years the suicide rate in Greece has doubled.
Whirlwind of helplessness
A trauma is an event that shakes the world of the individual to its foundations. The experience is so overwhelming that it pulls the victim into a whirlwind of absolute helplessness. Only a cynic speaking about Greece talks about its “social decline”. What we are living through now is a collective trauma.
“The Greek men have been particularly hard hit by the crisis,” says Pieper. Much more than women do, men derive their identity from their work – in other words, their value to the labour market. But the value to the market of the vast majority of them keeps falling. That’s also an attack on their masculinity. Mental illnesses such as depression are spreading in an epidemic across Greece. No one will be surprised that three quarters of all suicides are men.
One doesn’t have to be either a pessimist or an expert to grasp what that means for the social relationships among people and for the bonds holding Greek society together.
The anger at a corrupt and perverted domestic system and at the international political system that spends the tranches of aid money to bail out the banks, but not to save people, is terrible. And it is growing. The men bring this anger home to their families, and their sons take it out to the street. The number of violent gangs that attack minorities is increasing.
That was why in November the United States issued a travel warning for Greece, advising that people with dark skin were particularly vulnerable. That, says Pieper, shocked him – that such a warning should be issued for a country like Greece, which sees itself as a hospitable land.
Even the most devastating blow need not bring an individual to his knees, says Pieper, because each of us has a tremendous will to survive. So much for the good news. The bad news is that a social safety net needs a functioning society. What power such a society can have was shown by Utøya. All of Norway stood behind the victims of the massacre, as if someone had rung out a bell of solidarity across the country.
In Greece the functioning society has been undermined for so long that it has finally collapsed: the crisis has wiped out the welfare state. “In such dramatic situations,” says Pieper, “man turns into a kind of predator.” Sheer necessity drives him into casting off his reasonableness, and selfishness displaces solidarity.
A few days ago Transparency International published its Corruption Index. Greece holds bottom ranking in the EU, rubbing elbows with Colombia and Djibouti. News like that is pure poison.
Georg Pieper says, “I wonder how much longer this society can hold out before it explodes.” Greece is on the brink of civil war. That affects us all.
The Greek government has hailed the eurozone finance ministers’ latest decision on Greece, requiring the country to lower its debt in return for bailout funds, as yet another political victory. This was not surprising at all to Greeks, who have often seen their government celebrating decisions that have made life miserable for its citizens.
But this time, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras went so far as to call the agreement a “landmark for the country’s rebirth”, releasing a video on YouTube entitled “Greece starts now”.
Viewers of the video pointed out the irony of propagating national unity and hope to Greeks, who have meanwhile been devastated by the government’s harsh austerity measures. This simplistic piece of propaganda elicited comments reflecting the genuine bitterness and disenchantment of the Greek people.
A boy aged 14 wrote: “The present is uncertain, the future looks nonexistent. When a country dies, so do its inhabitants.” A low-income woman then asked: “What will you do for those who have to live on 5,000 and 10,000 euro per year? Thank you for your valuable time and your earnest contribution in the common affairs of our occupied land”.
Dazed and confused
Greeks know well that calls for “national unity” are nothing but dust in the eyes of a dazed and confused people. They are represented by a weak government that has endorsed all its lenders’ claims, leaving its population practically undefended at the negotiating table.
|Counting the Cost – In debt but building the future|
According to the latest data from Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, about 30 percent of the Greek population now lives below the poverty line – with 15 percent living in conditions of extreme poverty. These figures are for the first time comparable to those of former Soviet-bloc countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Latvia.
Austerity is shredding the social fabric of Greece. About 1,000 more people lose their jobs every day, and long-term poverty is knocking at the door of a new class of low-paid workers. According to Greece’s Institute of Labour, the average salary in the country is just 74 percent of the European average – and, what’s more, Greeks’ purchasing power has fallen by half since 2010. Many workers now have to live on as little as 4,500 euro per year, while the poverty line is set at 7,100 euro per year.
Although wages and pensions have been slashed, the public healthcare system is being destroyed and spending on public education has fallen to levels last seen in the 1980s, the cost of living in the country remains high – confirming the words of one Greek housewife who said that Greeks are “going to have to live on a Bulgarian salary with London prices”.
But there is no such thing as “national unity” in despair. According to a recent bank report, despite the recession (25 percent of Greek GDP has vanished since 2009), the wealthiest 500 Greek companies saw their profits increase by 18.2 percent in 2011.Several reports have found that Greece’s shipping industry, traditionally part of the country’s political and economic elite, who hold 16 percent of the world’s maritime fleet, pay very little in taxes.
But Greece’s problems are not only economic in nature. Political malfunctions have reinforced the country’s economic woes, which in turn have exacerbated social decay. Greeks term it a death spiral.
At the latest meeting of European finance ministers in Brussels, the interest rates Greece has to pay on its debt were lowered, the maturities of these loans were extended, and a plan was made for Greece to buy back some of its discounted bonds. If Greece follows this path consistently, then by 2020 public debt will be about 124 percent of its GDP, which the troika says is a sustainable figure.
But the deal comes with one condition: that Greece remain on the same route of austerity for at least the next 10 years.
This will cause the country’s social and economic situation to rapidly deteriorate in the near future. The recession will continue, new austerity measures will be introduced and debt repayments will become even more difficult to maintain, while another recapitalisation of the Greek banks will probably be needed shortly. As the leader of the opposition party SYRIZA said in a recent interview with the Guardian, if these policies continue then in ten years, Greece “will have become a no-man’s land”.
|“It is not an exaggeration to claim that Greece is a debt colony now, shackled to its lenders.“|
In order to impose austerity measures, the government is already using undemocratic methods like legislative ordinances that bypass parliamentary control. But even that is not enough for Greece’s saviours, who demand a further narrowing of democracy.
The Greek government has agreed not only to transfer all of the revenues from privatising public assets to a special account for servicing its debt. It has also agreed to transfer all of its budget surpluses up to 4.5 percent of GDP, and an additional 30 percent of any surplus beyond that! So even in the best-case scenario, in which Greece would have the fiscal resources to raise pensions and boost funding for the public healthcare system and public education, it will simply not be permitted to do so. There is no room for political decisions anymore.
It is not an exaggeration to claim that Greece is a debt colony now, shackled to its lenders. It is subservient to a trust of bankers, bureaucrats and neoliberal fundamentalist politicians in northern Europe (and within Greece, too) who aim to impose their doctrine regardless of its apparent failure and the will of the Greek people.
By accepting all of these demands, the Greek government will not only hurt its own people, but also destabilise Greece’s position within the eurozone – and put forth a dangerous model for other countries in similar situations.
German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble was right to characterise Greece’s situation as similar to that which eastern Europe went through during the 1990s in his recent speech at the German parliament. Just as some countries in eastern Europe never reached western European standards of living, so a similar process is happening now in the south.
But “the enemy” now is not a state-planned economy. Rather, “the enemy” is – in the eyes of the Greek government and its lenders – the very social welfare system Europe has guaranteed to its people for almost a century.
Matthaios Tsimitakis is a journalist based in Athens.
Today I came across this article on the Newtown shootings, and I got stuck in one particular paragraph that seemed to bear a transcendental meaning way beyond geographical, cultural, or issue boundaries.
“Historians have documented a long decline in violence as societies have adopted the ideals and qualities that bring harmony in relationships. This does not mean simply being nice. It requires a commitment to seeking justice when someone has been wronged, being contrite when we have done wrong, and offering forgiveness to those who admit their wrongs.”
In Greece the rise in violence and hate stem from the flip side of these virtues: refusal to embrace ideals of harmony, lack of justice where millions have been wronged and a handful of smart, powerful individuals continue to prosper at their expense. It means that no one ever stepped up to admit they have done wrong and ask for forgiveness and offer to rectify.
They will probably all die before they do that. Catharsis however comes not only by admission of guilt, but also by what goes down in history and seals these people’s record of deeds, rights and wrongs. Nothing escapes the neutral eye of history-telling as it becomes more and more disengaged with time.
Whatever happens, we will see how the values of humanitarianism deeply engraved in the Greek DNA become salient, how people can move ahead from the space of denial, depression and hate where they are currently trapped, to a place where they can establish visual contact with a better future.
Δημοσιεύτηκε στα ΕΠΙΚΑΙΡΑ της 13/12/2012
«Μια κοινωνία στο κενό» είναι ο τίτλος του εκτενούς άρθρου της Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Το δημοσίευμα αναφέρεται στην επίσκεψη του Γκέοργκ Πίπερ, ψυχολόγου ειδικευμένου στην αντιμετώπιση τραυματικών καταστάσεων, ο οποίος διαπιστώνει πως «η ελληνική κοινωνία ασφυκτιά κάτω από την πίεση της κρίσης».
Το άρθρο ξεκινά αναφέροντας πως η αντιμετώπιση των τραυμάτων είναι η ειδικότητα του Γκέοργκ Πίπερ. Ήταν παρόν το 1998 όταν έγινε το μεγάλο δυστύχημα με το τρένο στο Έσεντε της Γερμανίας, αλλά και όταν έγιναν τα τρομοκρατικά χτυπήματα στο Όσλο και στο νησί Ουτόγια. Στην Αθήνα βρέθηκε με αφορμή ένα εκπαιδευτικό σεμινάριο ψυχολόγων και ψυχιάτρων. Το άρθρο αναφέρει «Για τον Γερμανό καταναλωτή ειδήσεων, η κρίση είναι πολύ μακριά, μια μακρινή απειλή κάπου στον ορίζοντα. Περιλαμβάνει ειδήσεις που αφορούν τον Μόνιμο Μηχανισμό Στήριξης, το «κούρεμα», «τρύπες στην οικονομία», την τρόικα, την επαναγορά ομολόγων, χωρίς πραγματικά να καταλαβαίνουμε τι σημαίνουν όλα αυτά».
Και η εφημερίδα παρατηρεί λίγο παρακάτω: «Την αλήθεια όμως δεν την μαθαίνουμε, ούτε για την Ελλάδα, ούτε για την Ευρώπη. Προφανώς κανείς δεν τολμάει να μας την πει. Ο Πίπερ κάνει λόγο για μια «τεράστια προσπάθεια απώθησης της πραγματικότητας. Κυρίως ο αμυντικός μηχανισμός των πολιτικών λειτουργεί θαυμάσια σε αυτόν τον τομέα. Ο ίδιος ο Πίπερ όμως δεν απωθεί την πραγματικότητα. Η κατάσταση στην Ελλάδα τον Οκτώβριο του 2012 είχε ως εξής: έγκυες που ζητιάνευαν από νοσοκομείο σε νοσοκομείο, επειδή δεν έχουν κοινωνική ασφάλεια πλέον και κανείς δεν θέλει να τις βοηθήσει να γεννήσουν. Άνθρωποι που μέχρι πρόσφατα ανήκαν στη μεσαία τάξη, νέοι, ηλικιωμένοι, παιδιά, μαζεύουν από τις λαϊκές φρούτα και λαχανικά πεταμένα στους δρόμους. Ένας ηλικιωμένος διηγείται πως δεν μπορεί να αγοράσει τα φάρμακα της καρδιάς γιατί του έκοψαν τη σύνταξη στο μισό. Ολόκληρα οικοδομικά τετράγωνα δεν έχουν πετρέλαιο θέρμανσης». Και ο Γερμανός ψυχολόγος διερωτάται στο τέλος, πόσο ακόμα θα αντέξει η ελληνική κοινωνία πριν εκραγεί.
Poverty and exclusion have exploded in Greece, while the government continues to assault workers. The question that arises is very simple: who benefits?
A couple of years ago I participated in a research project on poverty and social exclusion in several EU member states. I was responsible for writing the part on Greece. Although I do not believe that poverty can be described only in economic terms, for reasons of measurability I used in that research — and also in this article — the definition of poverty as employed by the Eurobarometer: “living on an income below 60% of the median household income of a given country.”
At the time, in 2008, I remember that I was surprised to find out that, at 20%, poverty in Greece was one of the highest in the European Union, putting Greece in a league with (guess whom?) Portugal, Ireland, and Spain. At a 21% poverty rate, only Latvia and Poland showed higher records. That meant that one in five Greek citizens were living on an income below 60% of that of the median household, which at the time was calculated at 6.480 euros per annum (540 per month) for a single person, and 13.608 per annum (1.134 per month) for a family with two dependent children. All this at a time when unemployment was between 10 and 11% — as high as it in Italy today — and Greece had not yet entered its “safe harbor”, as Giorgos Papandreou metaphorically presented the arrival of the Troika.
What was also striking was the inequality of income distribution in the country, again one of the highest in the EU, at a rate of 5.9. That meant that the richest 20% of Greeks were earning 5.9 times what the poorest 20% did, while the EU-27 average was 5. At the same time, what was also particularly worrying and indicative of what would follow, was that the poverty risk for the people in employment was 14.1%, while the share of the employed amongst the poor was 31.7%. In other words, 14.1% of the people in employment were poor, and 31.7% of the poor actually still had jobs — precarious and underpaid, of course.
And I repeat: all of the above was already the case before the austerity measures were imposed.
A few days ago, I came across the latest research by the National Statistical Agency on the same topic. According to this data, two years later, in 2010, the figures were as follows: the poverty rate had reached 21.4% (2.3 million people!), while the poverty threshold remained roughly the same at 6.591 euros per annum (549.25 per month) for a single person, and 13.842 euros per annum (1.153 per month) for a family with two dependent children. Income inequality reached 6, meaning that the richest of the Greeks are earned 6 times more than the poorest Greeks do.
Note that these poverty rates are based on official data. A previous survey conducted by Kapa Research and the London School of Economics in 2007 found even higher poverty rates, noting that one third of Greeks lived in poverty even before the global recession of 2008-’09 struck. What is even more worrying, alarming actually, is the fact that even the latest formal statistics of the National Statistical Agency concern the year 2010, when unemployment stood at a “meagre” 14%. Today it has reached 25%, and even the thought of how many people may be living at risk of poverty today in Greece profoundly scares me.
At the same time, Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras insists in his interviews that Greece has “the most costly welfare state in the Eurozone” and we need to cut down on around 11-13 billion euros from social services if we want to satisfy the Troika and stay in the Eurozone. A few points:
What Stournaras claims is simply not true. According to the OECD’s Social Expenditure Statistics, Greece currently spends 23.1% of its GDP on social services, a percentage that has been rather stable throughout the 2000s. At the same, the EU21 average lies at 24% of GDP, while countries like Germany and France, for example, spend 26% and 32% of GDP accordingly. Therefore, Greece’s social expenditure is below EU21 average, while its welfare state – belonging to what is called the “Southern model” — is one of the weakest in the EU, characterized by a very important family role in the provision of social services (elderly and child-care is considered to be a family duty, usually resting on the shoulders of the female members of the family) and a general ineffectiveness of state institutions. Yet, this country’s Finance Minister dares to lie publicly in order to justify the cuts in social spending his government is trying to push through.
Even if Greece’s welfare state was “the most costly in the Eurozone” as Mr. Stournaras claims, it certainly is inefficient. With 21.4% of the population (which means 2.3 million people!) living at the risk of poverty. Therefore, what the Greek government should be doing is to increase social expenditure in order to assist its suffering citizens, instead of – for instance — prioritizing the payment of the country’s foreign debt at the expense of the well-being of the Greek people.
Yet, what the Greek government chose to do under the conditionalities imposed by the Troika and embedded in the memorandum that passed through parliament is, to give you an example, to cut from the 2013 budget a grand total of 82 million euros in social expenditure for disabled people. At the same time, and under the new memorandum, the government also announced that it will (finally) impose taxes on Greece’s multi-billionaire ship-owners — taxes worth a grand total of 80 million euros.
So, for you to get it straight, I repeat: the disabled will “contribute to the salvation of the Greek economy” 82 million euros that they absolutely need for their decent and dignified survival, while the ship-owners, who constitute 0.7% of the Greek population while controlling 60% of the nation’s total wealth, will “contribute” a grand total of 80 million. This gives you a clear idea of who is paying the price of austerity measures imposed by the Troika and executed by the Greek government.
In Greece, we know well who is paying for the crisis. A good question to ask would be: who gains? Apart from Greece’s private creditors, could it be the multinational corporations, which are now swooping in to benefit from the country’s dramatically reduced labor rights and privatization schemes? Again, I will give you an example that I recently read in the press. Kostis Hatzidakis, the Minister of Development, announced proudly that Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch multinational consumer goods company, will from now on produce 110 of its products that it used to produce abroad, in Greece. He also mentioned that this will boost employment and that his government wants to create a business-friendly environment in Greece in order to attract “investments” for “development”.
What Hatzidakis did not mention are the conditions under which the future employees of Unilever — and whatever other multinational decides to “invest” in Greece bringing its production facilities or, maybe, buying its state owned enterprises — will have to work. Let me present them to you: Unilever’s Greek employees will be paid slave salaries (586 euros is the minimum wage today, down from 751 euros before the crisis, while for young workers under the age of 25 it stands at 510 euros: below the poverty threshold!). They will only have minimum labor rights. They will have to work 6 and maybe 7 days a week. They will only have a minimum of 11 hours rest before getting back to work (from 13 that it was so far). And they will be extremely easy to fire without compensation — as the government effectively rid itself of pesky labor rights.
All the above is a direct result of the austerity measures and structural reforms the Greek government has taken so far to create a “business-friendly environment” and bring in “investments” and “development”, as they like to say. And the question remains: for whom?