Growing Up In The Country Of The Crisis – Nikos-Pavlos Kotzias, Greece

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It might sound cliché, but I genuinely cannot remember my life before the crisis. Since 2008, it is all I see and experience every single day. I was just ten back then, and it somehow feels as if I didn’t have a life before that. My formative and “most valuable” years and experiences which marked me – my entry into adulthood, my exams, friendships, possessions – have taken place over the consequent period. It is as if my being has been scarred by this situation so much that I see it as the status quo.

Obviously, I am not alone. “Generation X” is a casual reference nowadays. However, in the case of Greece, my peers and I belong to a different generation: “Generation Crisis” – and, sadly, a “Crisis” that we had nothing to do with.

I don’t find much point in just writing about everything that went wrong, what led us here, all the while using a melodramatic tone seeping self-pity and anger. It seems more logical, instead, to give an insight into how my life was turned upside down, and how different this world seems to that of the past.

A sincere account of the Crisis, as I live it every day.

All The Roads Lead To Debt

No matter what you do in this country, it somehow always comes back to the Crisis. You’re in higher education because you hope you’ll be able to find a job and escape poverty. You’re learning multiple foreign languages because you hope you’ll be able to work abroad, or even someday leave the country. You are willing to do anything just to lengthen and adorn your CV.

Maybe you have always wanted to get that super nice phone that’s on TV, yet you can’t afford it. So, what do you do? Option A: just give up and settle for a “lesser” model, or Option B: make it your life’s goal to one day get it. Without realising it, you are silently fighting against the Crisis itself, with the phone being just a facade for your growing ego. And I sincerely cannot blame you. You have been deprived of so many things that maybe your older siblings or parents had, no doubt you deserve that miniscule amount of joy, even if it comes from pointless consumption.

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Keeping that in mind, Greece has entered a phase of social Darwinism. Only those who make the most sacrifices, adapt and work extremely hard will make it – until they do not. Competition is at an all time high and perhaps that can be seen as a positive thing, since more people are being increasingly serious with their education and employment. But at the same time, it comes with dramatic consequences that cannot be as easily brushed aside.

With an unemployment rate of 23,4% (August 2016) and with youth unemployment reaching 48,3% (July 2016), people are going to great lengths to find a job. The unofficial unemployment rate is around 30% and that is not counting part-time, unregistered, or black market labour. 58,1% (December 2016) of people aged 15-24 are working part time and many others are working without social security or below the minimum wage (which, incidentally, only amounts to 495,25EU, full-time, taxed) and for an average of 8.9 hours a day, all of which are illegal.

Now, here is what all of these numbers boil down to. People are working for more than 8 hours a day, for less money than the legal minimum, and without social security, because they have no other option. If you make further demands, your employer can just as easily – and indeed legally, since the majority of employees are under short-term contracts – hire the next in line. You have no other choice but to accept, regardless of the humiliation this may cause. It is “just the way things are”: my generation has accepted that survival comes above dignity, since the competition is too great to think otherwise.

Reestablishing Our Lives

As much as all of the above is true and shocking, we must also keep in mind that “Generation Crisis” has reestablished its priorities and grew up much earlier than it would -or frankly, should- have.

The value of money is something that we recently re-discovered. After the “Olympic era” when euros were spent as if there was no tomorrow, I sincerely believe that my generation is more responsible with how they spend their limited resources. A couple of years ago, there were more SUVs that conventional vehicles, restaurants were full, and expensive clothing brands were the norm, all because people felt that they genuinely needed these “ordinary” things in their life. This is now a thing of the past. The older generation might still be reminiscent of the Golden Days, but youth has stubbornly turned its back to that extravagant lifestyle.

Youth is starting to cherish the limited resources it has. A night-out with friends is something to long for, not a habit. Even a regular cup of coffee means more when it will impact your limited budget, let alone an expensive pair of jeans. We are progressively living with less and less and as much as this is frustrating, we are definitely both more appreciative of the things we have, and more sceptical of the things we “need”.

A perfect example would be heating or food. Despite Greece being relatively warm during the winter, heating is considered an absolute priority. Switching the radiator off before you go to sleep is seen as primitive, or unconventional at the minimum, and will unquestionably result in disastrous consequences. Younger generations do not have this mentality. Whilst  they surely do appreciate the warmth, they have accepted that they can live with less of it. Same with food. In a country with a massive food waste, a lingering trauma of the Nazi occupation some 70 years ago, many are trying to cut the costs by following a diet and buying mostly essential, fresh, and cheaper food items, instead of just having the fridge filled to the brim all the time.

This newfound mentality does not only relate to consumption, but extends our lifestyle in general. From using public transport instead of cars, scouting for the best offers in all different products, even regularly attending classes in university – we are sharing, cooperating and trying to maximise profit in any way possible. The times of wastage are gone. For my generation, it is all about making everything cost-effective and achieving more with less, most often successfully.    

The Totalitarianism Of ”Anti”

Perhaps one of the strangest and possibly worrying consequences of the Crisis is probably the re-emergence of  anti-ideology. You are nothing in this country, you have no identity and purpose unless you are anti-something. Anti-establishment, anti-immigration, anti-feminist, anti-discrimination, and the list never ends. It’s as if your entire being is defined by this anti. No matter what you define yourself as, you are always against something and that is always perceived as a mistake one way or another. Are you a communist? Then you are against the EU. Rich? Against the poor. Religious? Against change. Countless identities and roles, but every single time you would be anti-something: an identity by negation.

A few years ago, scholars like A. Heywood claimed that we were on the era of meta-ideology, where individual ideologies and identities were left behind, in the prospect of a better life for everyone in this post-modern society. He could not have been more wrong. Ideologies are coming back to life and as much as we would like to pretend that they are a thing of the past, they are omnipresent. Religious fundamentalism, fascism, feminism, conservatism have suddenly emerged from the cracks in the fabric of our society, aiming to aggressively fix the ill deeds that led to this economic and social demise.

And here is where we come back to the whole theory of anti. Greece -and much of the world- is slowly entering the era of anti-ideology, where everyone is defined by their disagreements and the unrelentless will to do justice. Tensions are rising, people are growing apart, after failing to reconcile their differences; no one can escape. Much like I cannot imagine myself being friends with a fascist, someone else might not be able to stand the old, the poor, the gay, the foreigners or anyone else that does not meet their criteria of what is socially acceptable. And the truth of the matter is: can you really blame them for that choice? Do you find it illogical if a poor guy from a working class neighbourhood who cannot fend for his family, fails to find common ground and work with the rich lady who splurges in shopping every day? The worlds they are both living in are diametrically opposite, yet we pretend as if there are no barriers.

This anti-ideology is obviously not that easy to condemn. At the same time as Golden Dawn is gaining popular support, so are the people against it who are eager to stand up to fascism and violence. When they assaulted a public school for attempting to offer lessons to refugee children, there was massive public outcry, to the degree of going so far as to support a rather unpopular TV presenter who condemned the action, and who was previously dismissed due to her lavish and pretentious lifestyle. People are now more willing to defend and fight for what they believe is right for society, not themselves, hoping to make it better one way or another.

The aforementioned presenter attacking Golden Dawn on air Source: EpsilonTV

However, at the same time this anti-ideology is taking a very unpleasant shape – that of conflict. Not long ago, parents -who incidentally, were not politically affiliated with Golden Dawn – prevented refugee children from going to school in a small border town, on the grounds of ”carrying contagious diseases”. The matter left the sphere of legality and thus, instead of allowing the justice system to resolve the conflict, it escalated into a massive dialogue all over social media, where the two sides aggressively supported their opinion, each with valid arguments. But if this scenario is to specific to be convincing as a reflection of the overall picture, let’s look no further than our parliament, when after all this political upheaval resultant from conflicting views amongst them, MPs still spend most of their time in rather unnecessary debates where they persistently unnecessarily defend their position (or rather the position of their party), instead of actually legislating or ”working together to save the country”. Conflict seems to be the dominant force within the building that embodies modern representative democracy.

Golden Dawn assaulting the public school, Source: xryshaygh.com

Or so we foolishly think. The idea of ”working together to save the country” sounds definitely alluring, but I sincerely doubt most people would wish to see ”their” party cooperating with all the ”anti-parties” on equal grounds – for wouldn’t that be betraying their position? Even now, we believe that our ideology has every right to be forced on others. Going back to the previous example with the TV presenter – in that instance, I cannot help but feel that the majority was right to defend her; but at the same time the notion of a “majority” is used as a facade for turning the country upside down. The majority voted for SYRIZA and is now complaining. The majority took out loans they could not repay. And the majority decided to swallow the impending collapse go down with a glass of ouzo. And yet – the majority still receives the blame for what goes wrong.

New Divides – New Challenges

Radicalism, in any form, does not come without its toll. In Greece, it has taken the shape of gargantuan divides and spiraling tensions. The country is becoming more and more divided in any way possible. Euro or Drachma? Austerity or a Keynesian approach? Refugees or borders? Healthcare or Education? Private or Public? Everything has turned into an endless dilemma, with the truth becoming more and more difficult to unravel than ever before.

A perfect example is the current media situation. Media outlets are shutting down, either because of enormous debt, poor readership, or pure government policy. On the 30th of January a historic publishing house with two of the oldest newspapers in circulation, unable to pay its employees, decided to shut down all operations due to being forced to meet the demands of its creditors. You might assume that Greeks would be angry at this censorship of free speech and expression – but are they really? Certainly, limiting the range of potential information sources is not something widely appreciated, but the situation had reached a turning point, not only because of the number of outlets being practically unsustainable, but mostly because media, and TV stations in particular, were widely perceived to be biased, unreliable, and parts of “the system”. Political parties are usually the main source of funding for the positions and interests they are propagandising.

The publishing house, Source: protothema.gr

This was quite evident during the degraded period before the crucial referendum of 2015. The media did not have any hesitations to actively support one side or the other, to the point where they would publish fake opinion polls or downplay the participation in both the demonstration and anti-demonstration campaigns. Besides, many have criticised the quality of TV programs for being sketchy, low-budget or downright ridiculous, with the viewership of certain stations at an all-time low. So, are Greeks wrong to show disdain before their collapse, in light of the availability of alternative, and possibly more impartial, sources of information elsewhere, notably online?

The media situation is only one miniscule example of such a divide. Another one would easily be the avalanche effect of the “Sorras Gate” scandal. Artemis Sorras, a rather “dubious” businessman, claimed to be in possession of 3 trillion (yes, trillion) USD, of which he was willing to offer 600 billion to the government to “repay the debt and save the Greek nation”. Sorras managed to fool thousands, even creating his own organisation with thousands of followers, not only painting his picture as a saviour, but also engulfing the entire organisation under a veil of mysticism, rituals, oaths and other paraphernalia. When asked on TV why he was only willing to offer 600 billion, he replied “because you only needed 600”. A tiny detail, however, would be that his “Greek Assembly” required a monthly participation fee – one which many were more than eager to pay, in light of the billions that their messiah promised to give them in the long-run.

A. Sorras on TV, Source: ANT1 TV

It does not really matter how they fell for this outrageous story; the point of interest here is no other than the followers themselves. They were mostly poor and rather old people of the rural areas, the same that -allegedly- spent EU subsidies in casinos and expensive cars, and Sorras was cunning enough to turn to them for support. For many, this only fueled the existing hatred between urban centers, like Athens and Thessaloniki, and the countryside.   

The Misery of Nothing

During an Economics class, I recall my teacher asking, ”Which of you are pleased with our healthcare?” No hands were raised. Every single young student was displeased. He then continued, ”So, if no one is pleased, then who do you blame and what do you think can be fixed?” No answer. And here I am, wondering why. Why have we entered this condition, this misery of nothingness, stagnation, and endless anticipation for change?

According to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the University of Macedonia (January 2017), 72% of Greek citizens believe that 2017 will be “worse” than 2016, 44% do not believe in any of the current political leaders, and every single political leader has a negative popularity rate that reaches at least 66%, meaning that 2/3 thirds of the country will not support any possible future prime minister. Simultaneously, only 1.5% believe that their financial situation will definitely improve within the year, in contrast to 64% who find it likely to worsen.

This is the irony of our times. In a period when one would expect that political participation would increase, more and more people -in particular between the ages of 30 and 50- are abstaining, illustrating their complete distrust in the system. Essentially, radicalism is increasing exponentially while interest in everyday politics is slowly fading. Citizens have been engulfed by politics in every aspect of their lives, yet choose to stay inert, instead of making their voice heard. For them – it will not matter, anyway.

Assuming, however, that Greeks have given up would be an oversimplification. In fact, only in 2015, there was a grand total of 4.110 demonstrations and protests, some peaceful some far from so. Who could forget the 2008, 2011, and 2016 riots during which the historic Athens centre was so heavily damaged that the cost of repairs amounted to to millions, and which cost the life of three bank employees? The real issue in this case (and in general) is that every strike or demonstration is met with serious backlash, both from government forces and the public as well. This characteristic norm observed in protests has undeniably undermined their importance, as shown by protests in the transport or agriculture sector which have only managed to cause havoc and distress amongst citizens trying to reach their workplace, instead of initiating an actual force of change or civil dialogue.

Protests in the neighbourhood of Exarchia in the center of Athens, 2014, Source: Ethnos.gr

This rather peculiar situation is probably the main reason behind this almost deterministic stagnation, with the country entering its ninth consecutive year of economic recession. It has little to do with whether the government listens to the voice of the people, because in any case the main goal of any government so far was to remain stable and push on with the austerity measures – a very logical endeavour, since instability and resetting the whole system will not do much good. Rather, it is heavily concentrated on the fact that such a divided society is unable to change significantly, both because there is a distinct lack of ideas and interest, but also due to the need to remain within the familiar comfort zone, hoping that one day, slowly, things will start to improve.

Epilogue

Trying to find a panacea, that being foreign investment, bail-outs, budget cuts, fighting tax evasion and so on, is a pointless pursuit. A huge foreign investment will not be efficient in a country still struggling with miles of red tape, corruption, and general distrust in the economy. How does one expect the economy to recover if both consumers and investors have no faith in the market? Faith is the missing ingredient  – and could consequently be the way out. Not simply faith in the government, or faith that your savings are safe from another round of capital controls, but rather faith in every other aspect. Faith in yourself that tomorrow will be somewhat better.

And above all, faith that divisions will not be an ordeal we cannot overcome.

People celebrating the “No Vote” in the referendum in Syntagma Square, Athens 2015, Source: ABC

It all comes down to change. Are Greeks, and especially the younger generations, willing to not only embrace, but also initiate change, make further sacrifices, and shape a different future? Or is the illusion of past glory the anchor that will make us hit rock bottom?

No one knows. Only time will tell.

 

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