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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2021

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APRIL 2021 Issue
Field Notes

Governing the Ungovernable

Credit: Marios Lolos (@lolosmarios)
Credit: Marios Lolos (@lolosmarios)

“Your days are over.” This is what Greek policemen shouted at a group of lawyers who were being (illegally) prevented from getting access to their clients, who had themselves been (illegally) detained for attempting to start a demonstration which, in a typical indication of the government’s recent disregard for its own authoritarian laws, had not been officially declared illegal. This particular exchange, which took place outside the central headquarters of the police in Athens, on March 6, 2021, could have passed unnoticed. The structural role of the police is such, after all, that a wide spectrum of similar attitudes diachronically accompanies the exercise of the “monopoly of legitimate violence.” If there is something that renders it noteworthy, however, it is the fact that in the contemporary context, such moments perfectly capture an increasingly common form of governance of an ungovernable world.

Many have already noted how the increasing stagnation of capitalism in the last decades has, among other things, generated the radical weakening of European social democracy, a process exacerbated by the economic crisis of 2008. This development has occasionally been described using the umbrella term “pasokification,”1 a term denoting the disappearance of a historical form of governance and state apparatus, chiefly characterized by the attempt to integrate, rather than repress, forms of social antagonism. In 2015, the Syriza government represented an ahistorical attempt to revive this zombie. That this venture failed was not simply the result, as many on the left like to think, of some exogenous pressure (in this case, the Troika’s invariance). The material conditions that had provided the ground of this historical compromise are no longer here. Accordingly, Syriza’s supervision of the austerity process accelerated this realization, further fueling the representation crisis this produces.

As elsewhere, the combination of this political crisis and the continued stagnation of the capitalist economy has powered the rise of a specific form of governance, often described as right-populism, authoritarian liberalism, or illiberalism. Regardless of the term one uses to denote it, a key characteristic of this contemporary mode of rule is that politics, “in the classical form of enmity and schism—comes back with a vengeance”.2 The common aim, expressed in different ways but with remarkable consistency across the world, is to be “done with” the politics of compromise. In Greece, this has discursively and practically been expressed in the desire to “liberate” Greece from the post-dictatorship consensus (metapolitefsi), identified as the unfortunate and destructive predominance of the “Left.”3 If, economically speaking, this results in what often appears as a visibly corrupt but also irrational management of a diminishing share of available resources, its accompanying Staatsvernunft (“state rationality”) relies on an aggravated use of police violence, with the police increasingly and inevitably taking the form of a racket.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic threw such developments into overdrive. If struggles over dwindling resources were already centered around issues of reproductive labor (from wages to health care), the pandemic has forcefully inserted a directly biological aspect into the generalized uncertainty. In response, obsessively tied to the orthodox mentality of seeking market-based solutions to social catastrophe, governments around the world have placed all their bets for a reversal of the consequences of the virus on the competitive, and therefore inhuman, framework of vaccines. The explosion point of such a development is staring us in the face.

In 2008, some rioters described their rebellion against police brutality in Greece as an image of the future. More than a decade later, but this time negatively, the truth of that insight continues to haunt.



A new political mainstream

Elected in July 2019, after the defeat of Syriza, the New Democracy government was heralded by the mainstream press as an opportunity for Greece to “return to the political mainstream.”4 The idea that Syriza’s whole-hearted embrace of austerity was somehow not in the “political mainstream” remains mysterious; the notion that the so-called distinctive features of New Democracy (pro-European, pro-reform, economically mainstream) distinguish it from Syriza is laughable.

If the capitulation of the Syriza government offered a way out from the polarization and instability of its early months, it also allowed a minimal space of experimentation with policies of recuperation. The breathing space afforded by the withdrawal of an imminent threat of collapse facilitated both the continuation of austerity and the integration of those elements of the Left that had remained after the defeat of the social movements, for whom job opportunities appeared. And although there is no reason to exaggerate the significance of such cases, they continue to represent a wider social-democratic approach that can no longer sustain itself in the long run or resolve the contradictions that arise from its co-existence with austerity.

Stubborn residues of such visions and (to a certain extent) practices, have survived in countries such as Greece and France. They take the form of weakened but still visible organized labor, anachronistic legislation around collective rights, open access education systems, cultural attachments, a marginal yet vocal radical milieu that tends to multiply during social explosions. If Macron’s model of management can be seen as an attempt to settle accounts with this world, the New Democracy government sees itself as its partner in crime. Exploiting the opportunity provided by the coronavirus, but firmly guided by right-wing ideology and authoritarian conviction, the government has set out to exorcise a series of post-dictatorship ghosts.



The COVID-19 framework

During the first months of the pandemic, Greece avoided the apocalyptic consequences that were emerging in places like Italy. Naturally, the government did its best to claim responsibility for this, but in reality it played little role in it. Greece was not only protected by its disconnection from the hubs of global trading and transport routes, but by the accidental fact that the outbreak came in the tourist off-season. A widespread sense of panic facilitated the government’s early lockdown measures,5 a decision aided by the fact that most people followed practices such as social distancing or avoiding large indoor gatherings due to the absence of any trust towards the government. Awareness that the health system had already been decimated after 10 years of austerity made people less willing to take risks.6

While lockdown measures in Italy and France were initiated after the virus had spread widely, apparently undermining any potential effectiveness, Greece’s early lockdown took place before any significant spreading, making it easier to isolate cases. At the same time, Greece lacks the highly populated workplaces and industries that seem to have played an important role in the early spread of the pandemic in other countries and whose economic significance made it inconceivable to shut them down. As was mentioned at the time, the “structural ‘defect’ of a country based on tourism, services and small-medium entrepreneurship was, for the first (and perhaps) last time, an actual advantage.”7

Given those conditions, the actual record of the government’s preparatory actions is far from flattering. The notion of strengthening the health-care system was, as elsewhere, rejected from the outset on the basis of it being a long-term commitment and an unnecessary cost; as the Greek Ministry of Health announced in April 2020, hiring 381 health-care personnel on temporary contracts was “more than enough.” An OECD report published in November 2020, which sought to evaluate the resilience of health-care systems in Europe during the pandemic, exposed the concrete consequences of this choice.8 In it, Greece scored second from last in terms of additional COVID-19 health spending commitments, and even this expenditure was directed towards adjunct positions. Further compounded by the consequences of the austerity process, which the OECD report represents in the dismal percentage of practicing health-care personnel per population, the amount of available ICU units (Greece was again second from last) and, finally, in the number of tests per capita conducted (less than 53 tests per 100,000 population), here was a recipe for disaster. If the government can claim any responsibility in relation to the management of the pandemic, it is for the deterioration that followed.

The positive results of the first months disappeared after the summer of 2020, during which the government did its best to reverse the advantages its relative isolation had provided. Opening up the borders to flocks of tourists, it refrained from implementing any serious testing, quarantine, or tracking procedures, lest these prove a burden to those who came to “live their mythos in Greece.” Starting gradually in August 2020, by late October daily infections had skyrocketed, with the already under-staffed public health-care workers desperately warning of the rapid reduction of ICU units. From that point onwards, the unavoidable dangers that accompany an easily spread virus that go beyond any centralized government control were worsened by a series of contradictory (if not, at times, criminally irresponsible) policies that culminated in the re-imposition of a lockdown in November.

The government’s attempt to impose remote work, by reducing physical attendance in the public and private sector to 50 percent, was undermined by a lack of rigorous controls (especially in the private sector), as well as the exclusion of temporary contract workers from the statistical calculations. For months, visible overcrowding in public means of transport was brushed off as carrying no dangers. Lastly, the further decision to implement the additional (and irrational) measure of a daily curfew (originally set at 6 p.m., recently extended to 9 p.m.), proved to be disastrous.9 As some had already pointed out at the time, the combination of a lockdown of semi-regulated workplaces, overcrowded means of public transport, and supermarkets increased infection clusters, while the curfew ensured that infections would spread through households. There is no doubt that the search for the most effective measures against the pandemic continues to be hotly debated, even among scientists. But there is little space for debate around the consistent refusal to strengthen the health-care system.

On March 17, 2021, the day when the highest number (3,465) of infections was recorded since the start of the pandemic, there were no more available ICU units in the whole of Greece, while many coronavirus patients had already been placed in hospital corridors and health-care workers were claiming that a form of triage was already taking place. Meanwhile, the government demanded the cancellation of 80 percent of non-COVID related surgeries, creating a horrifying situation for patients with cancer, heart-related issues, or road accident injuries. The persistent demand of public health-care workers to requisition private hospitals and clinics to accommodate all patients has also been rejected as too costly.10 Within this terrifying context, and adding insult to injury, Prime Minister Mitsotakis announced a gradual re-opening and easing of measures from March 22, and gave an interview on CNN proudly announcing that “Greece will be open this summer” as “Europeans will feel the real need to travel and we need to make that easy for them to travel as possible.”11

Credit: Marios Lolos (@lolosmarios)
Credit: Marios Lolos (@lolosmarios)



Demonstrating force

In July 2020, the government of New Democracy passed a law that sought to regulate the right to assembly and demonstrate, in accordance with similar Europe-wide legislation supported by decisions of the European Court of Justice. Based on the argument that Greece sees too many disruptive demonstrations, the law stipulated that demonstrations are no longer allowed without prior notice and official permission, while their organizers are required to assign someone as legally responsible for its conduct. The law did provide for spontaneous demonstrations, but the police have the right to demand that someone be identified as a legal representative on the spot. Otherwise, the police can declare the demonstration illegal, break it up, and proceed with arrests.

The Greek state has made attempts along the same lines in the past, though with little success. This is in part because of the historical significance of demonstrations in Greece. The experience of postwar right-wing authoritarianism and, more specifically, of the military dictatorship, had created a social and political landscape in which demonstrations were conceived as an inalienable right, their non-obstruction a sign of freedom. In the contemporary predicament, this right has been “abused” and should be radically curtailed. In conditions of democratic rule, the argument goes, there are less reasons to demonstrate. As the prime minister declared in a recent interview, “the right to demonstrate is not as important as the right to work.”

In such a historical context, the political decision and legal framework of restricting the right to assemble remains dependent on a certain balance of forces. As a result, the implementation of the new law has been selective and contradictory. Moreover, given that the COVID-19 pandemic remains the overall framework within which these transformations are taking place, there has been a certain mix of excuses for declaring demonstrations illegal in the last months. Thus, for example, New Democracy MPs (successfully) demanded a ban on the annual demonstration of November 17, celebrating the 1973 revolt against the dictatorship, using the excuses of both the coronavirus pandemic and the new law. Some student demonstrations have been violently broken up by the police, appealing to the violation of social distancing measures, while others (usually larger) were reluctantly allowed to take place. With the simmering conflict around the new higher education law on the brink of exploding, the future and potential non-implementation of the new demonstration law will be decided in the streets.



University law

If there is a historical parallel that best describes the situation of Greek universities today, in relation to the social role of higher education and the confluence between student life and the overall political landscape, it is probably that of Italy in the 1970s or France in the late 1960s. As was the case in Italy and France at the time, universities as physical locations and students as subjects continue to act as bridges between social and political movements and to represent a locus of resistance whenever social antagonism reaches explosive levels. Parliamentary parties continue to have active youth sections within universities, coming into direct contact or conflict with wider political tendencies and/or organizations that have, however, mostly disappeared from workplaces. The extra-parliamentary Left retains a sizeable presence, while anarchist and radical groups continue to be active within the same spaces, often establishing social centers by occupying abandoned spaces. In moments of heightened social tension, as was the revolt of December 2008 or during the anti-austerity movements, centrally located universities become centers of struggle and of pitched battles with the police.

Given, however, that these instances are, despite their dynamism, few and far between, the official portrayal of such politicization as “disruptive” to the everyday function of the university as a “learning space” is beyond exaggerated. It remains, nonetheless, a key justification of the new University Law passed in January 2021. Identifying such forms of political activities as expressions of anomie and placing them under the same category as drug trafficking or theft, the law explicitly aims to “sterilize” higher education and university spaces from any link to wider society beyond that of the labor market. To achieve this practically, a central aspect of the new law is the introduction of a permanent police unit inside universities, tasked among other things with ensuring that only registered students and staff can have access to university grounds. Any non-university related groups, organizations or activities, it is hoped, will be criminalized and excluded. The post-dictatorship legislation that designated university spaces as sanctuaries from police forces was swiftly abolished.

From another perspective, the notion that the major “disruption” of university life concerns the presence and political activities of non-students, fails to explain why the new law also aims at curtailing the political activities of (specifically left-wing) students themselves.12 Alongside the permanent police presence in campuses, and the electronically controlled entrances to exclude non-students, the new law introduces a panopticon surveillance system, with cameras inside and outside lecture halls coined as “preventive measures against delinquency.” Given that “delinquency” is more of a socio-political concept than a legal one, handing that duty to the police is a clear sign of the attempt to essentially criminalize a set of behaviors and activities. This is at the same time accompanied by a disciplinary legal framework aimed at students, which bundles together examples of “misconduct” as distant from each other as “copying in exams” (already penalized, of course), drug trafficking and (previously non-criminalized activities as) “obstructing the smooth functioning of the institution” and/or making “unauthorized use of closed or open spaces … for purposes not concomitant with the tasks of the institution.”

If destroying the conditions that allow for such an unacceptable level of politicization is one crucial aspect of the new law, another key concern is the attempt to provide a solution for what can be described as a permanent crisis of higher education. This concerns the role of higher education as a mechanism for efficient allocation within the overall division of labor and the contradiction between its conceptualization (especially in Greece) as a path towards better working conditions and the increased inability of the capitalist economy to absorb a growing number of university graduates in an environment of scarce, low-paid, and low-skilled jobs.

To deal with this, the new law drastically reduces the number of students entering higher education (calculations predict that there will be approximately 20,000 fewer students next year), while also introducing strict rules limiting the length of university studies. Zeroing in on the category of “eternal students” (namely, those who exceed the “normal” length of studies) and presenting their existence as a hindrance, there is little doubt that the aim is to reduce the total amount of students by effectively excluding those forced to work while studying—i.e. the highest percentage of those who “exceed” the official running time for studies.

Within the overall context described above, a crucial way to implement such far-reaching reforms relies on the fact that universities remain (and will remain until September 2021) closed due to the coronavirus. Not coincidentally, the week that the law was being passed in parliament was also chosen as the week to test the ban on the right to assemble and demonstrate. Nonetheless, student mobilizations have already taken place, with thousands joining demonstrations and hundreds occupying university spaces in protest. And even though the government tried to make use of its new legal instruments to break up demonstrations, evict occupations, and arrest students, resistance to the law is continuing and will certainly increase in the coming months. Given that a sizeable portion of university administrators, professors, and staff reject the new law (the cost of the permanent police force is equivalent to almost 50 percent of the total education budget)13 by emphasizing that the key problem of higher education is under-funding and not “lawlessness,” its successful implementation remains ambiguous.

Credit: Marios Lolos (@lolosmarios)
Credit: Marios Lolos (@lolosmarios)



Hunger strike

One of those detained on March 6 was Ektoras Koufodinas. His father, Dimitris, has been in prison since 2002, serving multiple life sentences as a member of the armed group November 17, a left-wing anti-imperialist organization active from 1975 until the arrest of its members in 2002.

Having already spent approximately 16 years in a specially designed underground cell in Athens, Koufodinas had been transferred to a rural minimum security prison in August 2018. This was on the basis of the 4322/15 law passed by the Syriza government, which allowed prisoners with heavy sentences to be transferred to rural prisons in an attempt, among other things, to decompress over-populated urban prisons. In its pre-election campaign in 2019, New Democracy promised to abolish law 4322/15, explicitly using the example of Koufodinas as a trigger for such a decision.14 After its election, New Democracy delivered on its promise and voted law 4760/20, which forbid the transfer of prisoners held for specific crimes to rural prisons. As the government repeatedly claimed at the time, those convicted of terrorism should not enjoy such “privileges.” In December 2020, Koufodinas was taken away from the rural prison.

However, and in another indication that the party of “law and order” appears to be only formally concerned with legal matters, his transfer did not even follow law 4760/20. In its official formulation, the law explicitly states that prisoners should be returned to the jail from which they were originally transferred. In this particular case, however, after the Central Committee of Prison Transfers (KEM) had made its official decision to return Koufodinas to the underground cell of Korydallos, the president of the Committee personally intervened and ordered his transfer to a maximum-security prison in Central Greece, hours away from Athens. In response to this arbitrary decision, Koufodinas decided to go on hunger strike.

In its early days, the hunger strike went largely unnoticed, except by a small number of political activists whose attempts to demonstrate in support were met with immediate police repression. As the hunger strike proceeded, however, and fears related to the health of the prisoner began to circulate (mostly through social media, as the mainstream media ignored it), the situation started to change. Prompted by the circumvention of the due legal process, which was seen by many as yet another indication of the increasingly authoritarian attitude of the government, demonstrations grew in size, eventually reaching thousands of participants on an almost daily basis.

The intransigence of the government further intensified the conflict. Sending out its representatives in various favorably-inclined mainstream media, New Democracy politicized the conflict by constantly referring to Koufodinas as a convicted murderer and terrorist, by evoking the suffering of the victims’ families, and by stressing his lack of remorse. Within this framework, they accused all those supporting his demand as “sympathizers of terrorism,” making sure to include Syriza every time such an accusation was proclaimed. When pressed by lawyers, the Ombudsman’s office, and the association of Judges and Prosecutors, who declared that the particular crimes of a prisoner, or one’s “lack of remorse”, do not constitute a legal basis for circumventing prisoner rights as spelled out by the Correctional Code of Conduct, the government adopted a new strategy. Claiming that Koufodinas had not exhausted available legal paths to challenge the decision, they endlessly portrayed his struggle as a form of “blackmail” against the legal system and the government in order to achieve “preferable treatment.” As the days advanced and the hunger strike was visibly taking its toll on the prisoner’s health, it became apparent that even that argument was blatantly untrue. In reality, any potential legal path to challenge the decision was obstructed by the KEM Committee itself, which was refusing to issue the formal documents that would allow the prisoner’s lawyers to legally challenge the transfer.

It soon became clear that the government was not willing to back down in the slightest, despite the persistent disregard for due process. And this meant they were either prepared to allow Koufodinas to die or that they proceed with force feeding him (an action classified as torture by World Medical Association). In the end, and after 63 days on hunger strike (expanded into a thirst strike after day 46) which had already caused a number of worrying health-related problems, Koufodinas decided to end his struggle. Nonetheless, if the government wished to treat this outcome as a form of victory, with numerous implications about the potential of any future use of the (legally granted) right of hunger strike, it never got the chance. By that time, its legitimacy was further undermined by a series of widely publicized cases of police brutality—accompanied by massive protests against them.



Police brutality

In the context of experimenting with new forms of repression and disciplining mechanisms provided by the COVID-19 pandemic, a crucial part of the Greek government’s lockdown measures consists of the obligation to request state permission to leave one’s house. This is regulated by the obligation to send an SMS message to a government agency stating the specific reason for leaving the house.15 The lack of such an official permit (as well as not wearing a mask in public) carries an immediate penalty of 300 euros.16 The idea that such fines could even be conceived as a state revenue-generating measure might appear bizarre, but a look at the official statistics published by the state on a daily basis, as well as recent revelations that cops are being forced to issue as many fines as possible, shows that the government takes it very seriously. Initially started in June 2020 but quickly abandoned after the tourist season opened up, the increase of controls and the issuing of fines was accelerated towards the end of November 2020, coinciding with an increase in the number of infections. Ever since that date, official statistics show an average of 500,000 euros worth of fines issued daily all over Greece, more than 90 percent of which concern being outside without proper permit or not wearing a mask.17

Originally a military law forbidding soldiers from leaving camp without permission, the ban on free movement was extended to punish conscientious objectors who refused to join the (obligatory) conscript-based Greek army. In the early days of the economic crisis of 2010, this violation became punishable through an administrative fine, replacing the previous disciplining mechanism of doubling the time served in the army. Since then, conscientious objectors have been routinely fined at 6,000 euros (with a monthly interest rate of one percent) that is processed through the tax office. Given that conscientious objection is legally considered a continuous offence, many objectors have amassed multiple such fines, resulting in thousands of euros.

If an administrative fine is not immediately paid, it gets passed on to the tax office, where it is treated as debt owed to the state. As a consequence, the tax office has the right to block bank accounts, to stop the use of tax clearance certificates and to appropriate individual assets. Money that enters a bank account which cannot be justified as a wage, benefit, or pension is liable to be immediately seized, while self-employed workers cannot issue receipts. Inheritances or tax returns are also seized, while debtors cannot apply for a loan or for a passport. The same exact mechanism has been applied to the fines issued in relation to the coronavirus, though the measure has been challenged as unconstitutional.

What further exacerbates the sense of injustice in relation to these fines is their arbitrary and abusive use by the police who, pressured to fulfill daily quotas, have been reported to issue fines even when people possess the proper documentation or are wearing their face masks. Nonetheless, and even if certain police officers are reluctant to carry out this order, as a recent complaint by their representatives indicates, the amounts officially registered on a daily basis tell a different story. What is definitely clear is that specific units of the police (in particular the motorized unit “DRASIS”)18 have consistently abused their powers, handing out fines irrespective of violations are actual or not. On March 8, 2021, this tactic reached a crescendo.

While patrolling in a square in a middle-class suburb near the center of Athens, a unit of these motorized thugs approached a family with three young children and proceeded to fine them despite the fact that they were in possession of both a permit and proper face masks. When other people in the park reacted to this abuse, the police called for back-up and proceeded to violently attack and beat whoever was challenging their behavior. Inspired by an increased sense of impunity that translates into complete indifference towards the fact that dozens of people were filming them with their mobile phones, the incident ended with the arrest of 11 people.

The footage of a young man being ruthlessly beaten simply for questioning whether they had a right to issue the fine was quickly spread through social media, gathering a lot of attention. To make things worse, the police issued an official statement claiming (falsely) that the cops had been attacked by a “group of 30 people,” while government MPs appeared on mainstream television channels to defend the actions of the police by attaching a political identity to those beaten and arrested. Blatantly violating the presumption of innocence as well as any law on personal data, a New Democracy MP gave the full name of the young man beaten, adding that he was a member of an anarchist organization and had taken part in demonstrations and “violent actions” in support of Koufodinas. None of that was true.

Mesmerized by its own echo chamber of no opposition and friendly media, it took a while for the government to realize that their strategy had actually backfired. Fed up with the months-long, harsh and yet inefficient lockdown, and seeing something of themselves in the victims of police abuse or violence (either because they had fallen victim to similar incidents or had heard about them), thousands of people went into the streets to declare that enough was enough. Two days after the incident, more than 15,000 people descended to this otherwise sleepy middle-class suburb to demonstrate their accumulated anger. The government reacted by sending hundreds of riot cops and motorized units, provoking even further anger. When that anger exploded into a riot, a motorized cops unit, accustomed to abusing people without any consequences, tried to ram into the crowd from behind. Empowered by a sense of collective strength, the crowd fought back and managed to drag one policeman away from his motorbike, chasing the rest of his unit away.

The footage of the crowd attacking the cop was widely broadcast that night, with corresponding indignation and exclamations of shock by those who had treated all previous images of police brutality as either justified or simply a legitimate show of force by the state. In reality, due to both the protective uniform of the cop, as well as the fact that many demonstrators jumped in to prevent any serious injuries, the cop was rescued by his colleagues practically unscathed (he received two stitches in hospital and was released the next day). This was hardly relevant, however. While the riot was still taking place, the Prime Minister made an urgent television broadcast in which he doubled down on the pre-existing rhetoric, deploring those who had “threatened the life” of the policeman and accusing the “Left” of trying to divide the country. The message from the remaining police forces was received.

In the following hours, the cops went on a veritable rampage throughout the area, ruthlessly beating any man or woman they could get their hands on, dragging people from shops or even their houses, attacking journalists and photographers. All this in full view of everyone and in the knowledge that almost every inhabitant of the area was, if not in the street, on their balconies, filming the numerous incidents of brutality and posting them on social media. As was expected, none of these made it to the mainstream media the next day, who were still concerned about the health of the policeman and were busy relaying police reports that the perpetrators of the attack on the cop had been arrested and were being charged with attempted murder.19 The horrifying story of an 18 year-old girl who was arrested trying to save her friend, and was eventually beaten and sexually assaulted at the police station for four days, without being given access to medical care, was simply not news.



Epilogue

It has become almost common sense in the last decade to view Greece as a country constantly on the brink of economic collapse. Since the onset of the economic crisis in 2010, the tremendous social and political transformations that have taken place there have been portrayed in terms of such a predicament, a pretended justification for the harsh (but necessary) restructuring. What the current situation shows, however, is that the “state of emergency” of continuous austerity was not a temporary fix. It is here to stay.

For the first time since 2010, the Greek state has gained access to EU funds without the typical conditionalities attached to them in the past. Since October 2020, the Greek state has been issuing government bonds bought by the European Central Bank (ECB). Under the auspices of the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP), the Greek state has received injections of liquidity that amount, so far, to more than 10 percent of its GDP.20 Most of these come in the form of 10-year maturity bonds, with zero or negative interest rates, and with no accompanying austerity requirements. 

At the same time the Greek state is also receiving funds from the European Commission and its own coronavirus-related Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), designed to “mitigate the economic and social impact of the coronavirus pandemic” by offering “financial support to public investments and reforms.” With a total firepower of 672.5 billion euros split between grants and loans, the RRF was initially announced as a funding facility for “protecting jobs” and “strengthening the health system,” but it has since morphed into a funding source centered around renewable energy investments and digitalization schemes. 

There was little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic would take a heavy toll on the Greek economy, as it did everywhere else. According to the Winter 2021 Economic Forecast of the European Commission, for example, the recession of the Greek economy for 2021 is expected to reach 10 percent, compared to an average 6.8 percent in the Euro Area. Considering the dependence of the Greek economy on tourism and the toll that the pandemic has taken on this industry, any potential recovery (optimistically predicted by the Commission at an average of 3.8 percent for 2021) will be much weaker. Nonetheless, embracing the Commission’s optimistic outlook for the future, the Greek Finance Ministry went as far as to claim that from 2022 onwards, the recovery in Greece will exceed the Euro Area average (approaching 5 percent), a miraculous recovery attributed to the stabilization of unemployment (at 16.7 percent!) and the provision of liquidity to businesses.21

Given that similar predictions of economic recovery have consistently been proven wrong in the last decade, it is prudent to treat these with extreme suspicion. The crucial point, however, is the fact that despite access to funds without conditionalities, the Greek government’s political economy continues to be embedded in the framework of austerity, with the devastating consequences of such a perspective exacerbated by the reality of a global pandemic. The stubborn rejection of strengthening the health-care system, despite the horrifying human cost, overshadows all other correct, false, or just contradictory decisions the government has made. 

Quite clearly, the permanent character of such an expansion of health care, comes into conflict with the predominant economic orthodoxy and the supposedly temporary character of the pandemic. This framework of thinking is visible across Europe and beyond. If something distinguishes the Greek state at this moment, it can be summed up in the conscious decision to utilize access to these EU funds not merely to provide liquidity to businesses (as elsewhere) but to prematurely, and thus unnecessarily, repay older debt obligations; to make massive purchases of military equipment (mostly from France); and to initiate a hiring spree in the only public sector whose expansion and permanence is seen as a necessary investment for an ungovernable future: the police. 

  1. “Pasokification” is a term used to express the decline of electoral support for center-left, social-democratic turned neoliberal parties in European and other countries since 2010. The name originates from the Greek party of Pasok, created in 1974 and transformed, similarly to parties such as Labour in the UK or SPD in Germany, into a “Third Way” pro-neoliberal party in the 1990s.
  2. “Onward Barbarians” by Endnotes https://endnotes.org.uk/other_texts/en/endnotes-onward-barbarians
  3. In recent years, and under the influence of Trumpist/alt-right ideological gibberish, this has also been described as a “struggle against cultural Marxism”
  4. Financial Times, July 9, 2019
  5. Though even that has been exaggerated: Belgium imposed its first lockdown on March 17, whereas Italy and France had already started in late February. Greece’s first lockdown was imposed on March 22.
  6. The OECD report confirms that Greece’s inhabitants drastically reduced their social mobility between March and May, despite the fact that at that time Greece had fewer cases and deaths than most in Europe.
  7. https://www.antapocrisis.gr/η-αβάσταχτη-ελαφρότητα-του-να-μην-ξεχω/ (in Greek)
  8. https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/state/docs/2020_healthatglance_rep_en.pdf
  9. The minimal time span between finishing work and the curfew resulted, among other things, to overcrowded supermarkets.
  10. On March 22nd, the government requisitioned the services of a number of doctors and health care staff from private clinics. Many public health-care workers responded by reminding the government that the priority should be in requisitioning ICU units, not personnel of varying specialties that would require extra training.
  11. Interview with Julia Chatterley on CNN, March 17th 2021.
  12. The youth section of New Democracy (DAP) also has a sizeable (and usually majoritarian, in student elections) presence. DAP is mostly involved in organizing student parties and excursions, often advertised with disgustingly sexist posters, maintaining close relations to sympathetic professors and providing test questions to its members, and only occasionally getting involved in violent scuffles (sometimes alongside fascists) during student elections or when attempting to evict occupied spaces.
  13. Wages come from the General Government budget.
  14. One of the victims of November 17 was the current Prime Minister’s brother in law. For this reason, the singling out of Koufodinas has often been seen as guided by personal revenge.
  15. Acceptable reasons are divided into six categories that include visiting a doctor, going shopping or taking an individual walk near the house. For the purpose of facilitating those unaccustomed with mobile phone technologies, the possibility of a printed permission document is also provided.
  16. On January 20th 2021, the Greek Prime Minister announced in parliament his decision to raise the fine from 300 to 500 euros, calling this increase an attempt to “revive the economy”. It is worth keeping in mind that the minimum wage in Greece is at 550 euros. Eventually, and after mounting reactions, the increase was abandoned and the fine remains at 300 euros.
  17. The data is available here (in Greek)
  18. Originally called “DELTA”, these motorized units were created in 2009 and tasked with dealing with demonstrations. Placed under the direct command of the Ministry of Public Order, instead of the Police Directorate, the DELTA unit became notorious for its recklessly violent behaviour and its members’ affinities to far-right ideology and organisations. In 2015, the Syriza government abolished the unit but New Democracy reinstated it in 2019, renaming it DRASIS and increasing its numbers.
  19. So far, three people have been arrested and put in custody in relation to the attack. One of them was in fact in a different part of Athens at the time (there is video footage that proves that beyond doubt), the other was arrested because his wallet was found on the street where the riot took place. The “evidence” for the third one is an intercepted video call that happened the next day. The police got their hands on that because they have had the person to whom the call was made under surveillance for months. He is a 23 year-old anarchist who was also brought in for questioning and physically and psychologically abused for three days. He is now suing the police for torture.
  20. Greek GDP for 2020 stands, according to the latest calculations of the Greek Statistical Office, at 168.5 billion euros. At the same time, the debt of the General Government is expected to reach 338.5 billion euros, equivalent to 200.8 percent of GDP. In the ECB’s own reports, cumulative net purchases of Greek bonds at the end of January 2021 were equal to 18.9 billion euros. 
  21. The positive outlook on unemployment figures was challenged by opposition parties which claimed that the Greek statistical office transferred officially registered unemployed people to the category of those “not currently seeking employment,” thus altering (and reducing) the actual statistical depiction of unemployment. 

Contributor

Pavlos Roufos

Pavlos Roufos lives and writes in Berlin. His book, A Happy Future is a Thing of the Past, was published by Reaktion Books last year in the Field Notes series.

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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2021

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