Impressions of Athens by Julia Heslop, UK artist and writer, republished with kind permission from https://unofficialculture.wordpress.com
The first of some reflections I am writing about a recent trip to Athens. This article goes through feelings of hope, disillusionment, and then (tentative) hope again for a country at the hard end of extreme austerity. I hope that I have managed to illuminate the state of things over there for folks in the UK. Thanks to everyone that helped me out, everyone who was so welcoming, honest and open when I was there.
The Myopic old optician couldn’t see how he would fail
The baker stayed too long and ended moulderin’ and stale
The vet’s been put to sleep, it’s sad, they’re empty for a year
The barbers’ blades are blunted now but we’re still here.
We’re still here.
We watched the florist wilt and wane and wither into dust
The bank was in the red, lost all its savin’s and went bust
At the bookies all the bets are off, the winner is unclear
And the pharmacy has overdosed but we’re still here.
We’re still here.
The street ran out of charity so Oxfam’s doors are closed
The surgery was euthanised as soon as diagnosed
The letting agents lost their lease their rent was in arrears
And the jewellers’ lost its sparkles now but we’re still here.
We’re still here.
They used to sell cool trainers but their custom ran away
The travel agent’s taken an extended holiday
Even the old Job Centre now seeks a new career
The greengrocer decayed and spoiled but we’re still here.
We’re still here.
We’re Still Here – Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat
It seems that everything, every place is merging into one.
I got off the Metro in Athens four weeks ago. It was a Friday night. I don’t know what I was expecting to see, but I had seen it before. The small, cracked pavements, the cafes protruding onto the street, the piles of rubbish blocking my way. In my mind’s eye I could see Albania, I could see that beautiful, chaotic place merging into this new place.
Over the course of a week my ears throbbed in recognition. The stories mirrored others. Conversations twinned across time and space. Stories of hope and hopelessness, of the destruction that abstracted economic forces wreck on the minutia of daily existence. A suicide in Teesside mirrors a suicide in Athens. Experiences of this whole big economic game, this ‘experiment’ in austerity, is shared across vast space at the same time. In both places it only offers lack. Lack and endless hours of nothing.
But the depth of this nothingness is worse in Athens. Without the safety net of a fraying, threadbare welfare state, only people can aid people, and so often this happens through family ties, family doing the work of a welfare state. I believed that in Athens I would see the ‘resilience’ of people in the face of a tragic situation, people coming together, aiding each other, civil society blooming to reimagine politics, economics and more in the face of austerity. I believed that a politics of the ‘common’ had emerged (however vague that might be), that city life had become repoliticised through bottom-up social organisation – neighbourhood associations, food co-operatives, DIY medical centres.
I was naïve. My first six days in Athens, meeting people involved in various struggles, various forms of social organisation, were marred. People spoke to me through a haze of tiredness, disillusionment and hopelessness. Sick of doing nothing with nothing, tired of cleaning up the mess left by austerity. The proportion of Greeks living below the limits of poverty is now 34.6%, whilst unemployment levels in August 2015 for under 25s was 47.9% and overall unemployment was 24.6%. Vast and repressive austerity measures ranging from huge state privatisations, wage cuts, mass lay offs and pension decreases, has only managed to delve the country deeper and deeper into debt, which now stands at over 150% of gross domestic product (and still growing). Relieving debt by piling on more debt is a sure loser. As Mark Blyth wrote in his book ‘Austerity’ (2013: 73): “Banking bubbles and busts cause sovereign debt crises”.
Dealing and making deals
The Greek state has effectively been backed into a corner over the last 7 years. The crisis has been described as an attempted coup by Troika technocrats, who, since 2010, have lent over €252 billion to the Greek government through a series of Memorandums, in return for the shock therapy measures mentioned above. The vast majority of this money has been used to bailout banks, pay off the private sector to accept restructuring and repay old debts. Less than 10% has actually reached the people who need it most. Greece effectively gave up control over their national policy in exchange for this supranational bailout, all in the face of worsening social conditions and vociferous protests from the Greek public. Thus what should have been an issue of political and social policy within Greece was turned into a mere technicality of figures. The “functions of the nation-state are [therefore] devalued”, as we witness a “permanent shift in the governance of western Europe” (Vradis: 2014: A1-A2). And so Greece has been made an example of – but not a sitting example, a working example. During my time in Athens I heard from many people that over the past few years the Greek people felt they had been ‘guinea PIIGS’ in a neoliberal lab.
On top of these measures the ‘No’ vote in the referendum in July this year shone a light on the big lie – that of actually existing democracy in the debt-ridden EU. The referendum was a red herring – there was only to be one right answer, and that was to be ‘yes’ to austerity. Whilst still under the control of the Troika, new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attempted to offer an illusion of democracy for the Greek people through the referendum. But this re-enfranchisement of the Greek people only served to shatter an illusion that democracy could be practiced in Greece – this was to be cruel hope after the election of Syriza in January.
Many informal neighbourhood associations and (more formal) NGOs were created in the early months and years of the crisis to help deal locally and on the ground with the crisis, to pick up where the state left and to support the vulnerable. Greek NGOs have been active in setting up medical groups (which seem to have been some of the most effective, well organised and networked organisations), food co-operatives, vegetable allotments, tuition centres and more. Many of the most robust organisations have been heavily politicised, not only providing help and aid to people in need but also generating alternative forms of political engagement – subverting traditional forms of politics through merging grassroots work with direct action (see Day, 2005; Amin, 2015). Civic associations seem to operate longer and more effectively if they are not merely ‘doing a job’ operating in the sphere of self-help, but also in the political sphere by offering an alternative and pushing back against the state – actually expanding the scope of the political.
However questions arise as to what their limits are? What services should they be delivering? And might they actually do this outside of the state? This leads us to question their supposed autonomy, as Afouxenidis (2015: 2) states: “The autonomy of civil society associations… is not clearly identifiable. In most cases these associations are deeply penetrated by the state, international donor organizations, or private financial backing”. Claims about operating outside of the state or formal institutions of power are therefore rarely wholly true.
Furthermore, many organisations have now closed, reaching a point of burn out. Many have found it increasingly difficult to scale up (or sometimes even carry on) their activities due to economic deprivation or a lack of human resources. As Simiti (forthcoming: 1) has found, despite a significant rise in associationism and voluntarism, the rapid deterioration of the quality of citizenship during the crisis (due to poverty, social marginalisation, the rise of the extreme right (Golden Dawn) and a lack of democratic accountability in formal politics) has seriously undermined the strength of civil society. She states that although “‘civil society’ has re-surfaced as a guised viable option to the politics of impoverishment” (p. 6), the strength of civil society may not be sufficient in such extreme times because inevitably the state cannot be dispensed with, and any negative changes within the state (due to austerity) will ultimately become obstacles to an active civil society. There is thus a difference between a “dense and vibrant civil society” (p. 6) in times of economic security and in times of economic crisis, when civil society must respond to urgent social needs. So the strength and use of civil society must be connected to the strength of citizenship at a given time and place.
But the dangerous aspect of austerity is not only this collective burnout that is felt and then lived, it is when this collective burden becomes individualised, when economic pain becomes segregated and compartmentalised. And when this happens, for some, this pain becomes normalised and life goes back to normal, albeit a new normal.
In a conversation on the roof of a bar overlooking the Acropolis, the ruins lit up in the night, drinking 9 euro cocktails, I could be forgiven for forgetting where I was, but for the conversation. I was drinking with an Albanian-Greek friend who had left Albania at the end of communism and grew up in Athens (a common story – Albanians were the first wave of immigrants in modern day Greece). Speaking to my friend it was becoming increasingly clear that many people had returned to ‘business as usual’, yet her frustration at this was tangible. But I wondered, and asked her, how long you can go on in a state of ‘hanging’, in a place (and a world) where there can no longer be certainties? Perhaps you always need small coping mechanisms, small optimisms, no matter how tough the situation?
Dalakoglou and Kallianos (2014) talk about this new and perpetual moment of crisis – a sort of extended limbo which the financial crisis has thrust us all into. That the old certainties, the lack of a sure future is passed. The realisation that history will not progress in a linear fashion, that future security cannot be propped up by ideas of a welfarist past or of future security through the extension of this (Raynor, 2015). And ultimately, how do you deal with that, with these immense truths? Maybe eventually we do need to just ‘get on’ and understand that the old normality will not return, but that a new normality in the new, lean state now exists? When precarious work is normal, homelessness is normal, food banks, normal, endless hours of nothingness, normal. The imposed shock conditions eventually remove your personal shock from the growing poverty all around.
In the UK these struggles have come and will come. The closing down of a Teesside steel works, the £191 million cuts my city has been burdened by and another £100 million over the next four years. This leaves me wondering, at what critical point does the back break, does the roof fall in? I guess some fall between the cracks, others struggle on for longer. I remember one winter in Moscow, shocked by the amount of old women on the streets, in the subways, babushkas selling tobacco, homemade socks, old communist badges, and having a conversation with some friends on the top floor of an old Stalinist building, looking out at the lights flickering, the glow, of one of the most expensive and polarised cities in Europe. I asked about these people, whose pensions had withered away, been lost, been rendered worthless after the fall of communism. I was told: ‘They won’t be here after Christmas’. So yes, some people do fall through the cracks, the old, the vulnerable, those less able to cope. But others wake up every day and go through the motions. I witnessed both in Athens, those falling through fast, others slowly.
And one of the most difficult aspects of this ‘crisis’ is that there’s no-one to blame. The state, the banks, the economic system, they aren’t an ‘individual’. John Steinbeck’s narrative in the book ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (1939: Chapter 5), written about the depression and dustbowl in 1930s America, beautifully evokes the frustration felt by tenants at who to blame when their farmland was taken over by the banks. They asked, “Where will be go? What will we eat?”, and the man from the bank said, “We know all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man… It’s the monster.” To which the tenants reply, “Yes, but the bank is only made of men”, but the man says, “No, you’re wrong there, wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in the bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it”.
And so if we can’t control it, then will the whole cycle go back round? Economic commentators are already predicting a bigger crisis. An economy can only expand to the available space, so ‘returning to growth’, and the old ‘sureties’ of market economics is dangerous. Some in Athens are already talking about the re-emergence of capital and the physical and social impact of this in the city. ‘Gentrification’ is already tentatively on the tips of people’s tongues. Some foreign investors are taking advantage of low real estate prices and are buying up swathes of land and buildings – sitting and waiting for what people believe will be the inevitable emergence of capital, eventually (see Hadjimichalis, 2014).
I observed the same process in Detroit earlier this year. Dan Gilbert a billionaire who made his money selling mortgages through his company Quicken Loans (now the US’s second-largest mortgage lender), is now termed the ‘unofficial mayor of Detroit’. He has amassed a huge collection of prime buildings in downtown Detroit and has a so-called ‘placemaking plan’ for the area. And so private capital waits in the wings hungry like a vulture, then feeds on the rot of crisis – the fallout of the property market and the huge mass of empty and decaying buildings left in its wake. So swathes of land and properties that were once in public ownership become privatised – this huge privatisation process being replicated in cities around the world, with Athens being no exception. And so the cycle of investment, boom and bust, decline and renewal goes back round again and again in our urban centres.
Some people are leaving Athens and moving back home to the rural areas or to the islands. There are stories of people setting up small businesses on the islands, bringing life back to these areas and allowing them to flourish all year round. Whilst some Albanian friends have moved back to Albania, something they probably never imagined they would have to do.
But as the song at the start of the article goes, most people are still here. Whilst grocery shops, restaurants, barbers, libraries, leisure centres close or leave, we’re still here. ‘The People’ of the Polis can’t close, can’t expire, can’t wind-up and in most cases can’t leave. And so the city follows you everywhere as C.P. Cavafy wrote in his poem ‘The Polis’:
You said: ‘I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
Find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
And my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
The city will always pursue you. You will walk
The same streets, grown old in the same neighbourhoods,
will turn grey in these same houses.
You will always end up this city.
The experience of this city and the extreme economy within it will stay. And the irony (something that’s been commented on by various commentators) that the birthplace of democracy and the idea of the ‘polis’ as a political space, is now the poster boy for such an unfathomable crisis first of economics and ultimately of democracy and hope, is glaring and hard to comprehend. On my last day in Athens, a few hours before taking the night bus to Tirana, I walked in a trance-like state around the ruins of this first democratic state, around the Agora and the Acropolis. I stared down at the white city, marble reflecting the sun, at the sprawl, the haze of pollution sitting heavily over it all and felt the weight of a whole nation bound up in this history and the disappointment of it all. And there’s no escape. As the poem goes, “The city will always pursue you”.
But after everything, after all the painful conversations, the opening handshakes and the closing hugs, and after the weight of my own naivety was fully felt, I fell back on something so honest – the realisation of how social, economic and political shock can open up an ethics of collective care. On my last night I visited a squat that was housing refugees from Afghanistan and Iran and witnessed the extent of what people were doing for each other. Walking into the squat there were piles of babies nappies, food stuffs, clothes, toiletries, all donated by local people, organised beautifully in the various spaces of a huge, ex-municipal building. Volunteers had created a small crèche, and a medical centre where a doctor comes every day for an hour. The squat was connected to a large social centre which provides free meals for refugees in a huge soup kitchen. The openness and care that Greeks have been offering the many thousands of refugees passing through their shores was palpable. It is, as Bob Catterall (2014) said when writing about the crisis, the need to retain a certain authenticism in the face of accounts of crisis that are two economicist, too theoretical, which fail to get to grips with the matter in hand. Antonis Vradis (2013) also speaks about “the absolute separation between the lived and the articulated – instead of being twisted around, it is as if words are ripped apart from the experience they are meant to convey”. It is thus the distance between the economic facts presented and the lived experience of people living in and through austerity.
Yet Catterall also argues that what we have exposed through this crisis is the “dead social roots beneath the green economic roots” (2014: 587), saying that what we need is “Not only resistance… but also actual physical restoration and growth and regrowth, a ‘self-organised allotment’” (2014: 588) – meaning that we need to use periods of crisis to reclaim citizenship and to reknow each other and our shared humanity. I think I witnessed these green social roots, tentatively poking through the Athenian night in the refugee squat.
 The ‘group of three’ – the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank who offered the bailout packages in return for stringent austerity measures. A full list of these can be found here
 PIIGS being a reference to the five countries that have been ‘bailed out’ by the Troika – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain.
 The origins of ‘civil society’ can be traced back to Aristotle’s ‘political society’ which referred to a broad group ranging from the state to the family. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke described civil society as a separate entity, distinct from the state, the private sphere of the family, and the market (Pietrzyk, 2001). Though in practice, the boundaries between civil society, the state, family and market are often blurred and complex and negotiated.
Afouxenidis, A. ‘Organised civil society and political discourse in Greece: patterns and dynamics’
Amin, A. (2015) Lecture at Newcastle University, Architecture, Landscape and Planning department, November
Blyth, M. (2013) Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Catterall, B. (2014) ‘What is to the done? Redefining, re-asserting, reclaiming and re-shaping land, labour and the city’, City, 18: 4-5, 583-8
Dalakoglou, D. and Kallianos, Y. (2014) Infrastructural flows, interruptions and stasis in Athens of the crisis, City, 18:4-5, 526-532
Day, R. (2005) Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, London: Pluto Press
Hadjimichalis, C. (2014), ‘Crisis and land dispossession in Greece as part of the global ‘land fever’’, City, 18:4-5, 502-8
Raynor, R. (2015) Paper presentation at the Royal Geographical Society, September
Simiti, M. (forthcoming) ‘‘Social Need’ or ‘Choice’? Greek Civil Society during the Economic Crisis’, GreeSEE Papers
Steinbeck, J. (1939) The Grapes of Wrath, The Viking Press
Vradis, A. (2013) ‘A crisis of presence: the war on Greek cities’, Open Democracy, 29 July 2013, https://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/antonis-vradis/crisis-of-presence-war-on-greek-cities [Accessed 29/12/15]
Vradis, A. (2014) ‘From Crisis to Gentrination’, Political Geography, 40, A1-A2
Vradis, A. (2014) ‘Crisis-scapes suspended: Introduction’, City, 18:4-5, 498-501