Sunday, March 18, 2012

Has Greece been hung out to dry?

'To hang someone out to dry: to get them into trouble, especially by making them take the blame for a bad situation' ( 
I've been thinking quite a lot about Greece recently. We are told every day that the country is facing a ‘meltdown’ or that it is in a death spiral that it can’t pull out of in time. The public health system is in crisis, HIV rates are skyrocketing, people haven’t been paid for months, malaria is returning to some areas and four skeletal looking men on black horses have been spotted gazing down on Athenians from atop the Acropolis.

Actually the last one isn’t true but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it in a news report some day soon.

It strikes me that the Greeks have got a bad deal in all this. Amidst all the doomer porn which is surging around the Internet these days, could it be that Greece is the inkblot nation onto which others project their own fantasies of collapse? The narrative is as familiar as it is blinkered and it goes something like: ‘Those crazy/lazy Greeks (or Spanish or Italians or Portuguese) borrowed far beyond their means and spent it all in an orgy of consumerism and now they are getting their comeuppance and threaten to bring us all down with their fecklessness.’

If you subscribe to this narrative it goes without saying that you will think the opposite of the sinful south is the virtuous north. While Stelios, the part time fisherman in Corfu, was spending his days lazing around drinking Ouzo and polishing his new Mercedes Benz (bought on credit, of course) Fritz in Stuttgart was busily actually making new Mercedes Benzes on a production line and dreaming about his upcoming family holiday in Corfu (paid for from his savings, of course).

This, in my opinion, is total rot, and is not borne out by the actual figures, which show that southern Europeans work longer than their northern counterparts. But apart from getting into a bind about who works hardest perhaps it would be more instructive to understand who is responsible for getting Greece into the situation it is in now – and in any discussion about that it is impossible not to mention the EU.

Now, I’ve always been a fan of European union. I liked the idea of all of us Europeans sharing a common identity and being able to go and live and work in one another’s countries with only minimal red tape. I was also a cheerleader of the euro currency – no longer did we need to stuff our money belts with wads of francs, drachmas, deutschmarks or whatever whenever we went abroad. I moaned out loud about the pound not being part of it, but was always secure in the opinion that it would just be a matter of time before it was.

I liked less the grey bureaucracy in Brussels, and hated the Common Agricultural Policy, which rode roughshod over the environment and probably caused starvation in other countries – but these could be reformed, I reasoned.

But if I had truly understood the economic situation as it unfolded from the early 1990s onwards I would certainly have changed my mind, for what was happening was a form of economic colonialism. Banks with too much capital, mostly from northern Europe, were permitted – nay encouraged – to push this liquidity onto southern Europe. It was a bit like offering a suitcase full of cash to the less well off people who lived down the end of the road – and it would have been a no-brainer not to take it.

The money, of course, was intended for infrastructure projects and came with strings attached – usually in the form of demanding ‘reforms’. What is a reform? A reform is where you lower the barriers to entry to your national industries, allow venture capitalists to run riot and then proclaim everything to be much more efficient and transparent than it used to be in the bad old days.

But something went wrong. Corruption and tax avoidance became endemic (that tends to happen when you pump a lot of money into a previously poor country but the suits in Brussels hadn’t factored that in) and the mind-warping advertising industry encouraged Greeks to spend way beyond their ability to pay back debt – something they took to with gusto just like, well, just like everywhere else in the world.

Crash! The tidal wave that formed as the Greek Colossus fell into the sea swept across the front pages of the world. Greece now ‘stared into the abyss’ or was facing ‘Armageddon’. Greece was doomed!

Or was it?

Iceland faced something very similar a couple of years earlier and, instead of being wiped off the face of the Earth by the wrath of the gods of finance, it is now doing remarkably well and getting back to normal. Argentina too, which basically told the IMF to ‘go swivel’ is now the place that most Spaniards want to emigrate to.  You don’t hear about this too much, of course – it’s the economic equivalent of believing in ghosts or the afterlife.

But enough of talking about countries as if they were monolithic abstractions of economic units – what about the, you know, people who live there? I’ve been following Jon Henley’s blog ‘Greece on the Breadline’ in the Guardian, which focuses on the effect on people’s everyday lives that the economic problems are causing. What shines though is the fact that people, as people will do when left to themselves, are muddling through as best as they can. Many are turning off the office lights and returning to their ancestral villages, forming cooperatives and living vastly improved lives outside of their cubicles. Others have set up small businesses that are doing well selling their wares locally and people have formed their own support groups despite having very few resources to do so. These, then, are the real Greek heroes.

In fact the last thing the Greeks want is to be labeled as victims by others. One teenager, Tetty, in Jon Henley’s latest dispatch says:

"As you can see, things are bad in our country and it won't be easy for us to get out of this crisis. However, sometimes people exaggerate and talk about Greece as if it is completely ruined and there's no way we can be saved. That is not true and unfair towards us. I'd like the rest of the world to know that we Greeks are proud of our nation. I'm sure that we will overcome this crisis since we are hard-working and persistent and we don't give up easily."

Max, who is 13 but more tuned in than most news editors, added:

"Have you ever thought about the big nations and the advice they gave Greece in the first place that led this country into the state it is now? And we are still taking advice from the 'Good advisers', for no other reason except we have nowhere else to turn. We have not got the choice to recede from the big international forces. So please, consider my advice, and choose not to demote my fellow citizens but help people understand the situation that really exists. Even though I am a 13-year-old I believe I know better about my fellow citizens than the media that change the real story into a tragedy."

Greece, for those who are unaware, is a very ancient country. I have to admit an interest here: I fell in love with Greece as a teenager, a love that endures to this day. Perhaps it’s because of my name, but I was enthralled by the story of Jason and the Argonauts from a very early age (the 1963 film version features a fight with realistic looking skeletons, which was right up my street). I read about the Greek myths and went on to study Classics at ‘A’ Level, which culminated in my first ever trip away from my parents with my girlfriend, whom I was very much in love with. We slept in a filthy hotel in Athens, revelling in the exotic sights and sounds of this strange country. The stultifying heat, the exotic food, the incomprehensible language, the astonishing ruins of the Parthenon (which I had drawn so many times in exercise books) – I felt as if I had landed on another planet. We sailed in ships across Homer’s ‘wine dark sea’ and when we came back to England via a very long train journey it was this taste of Greece that made me decide that I wanted to spend as much of my life as possible seeking out the richly exotic before it disappeared beneath a tide of concrete, fast food chains and Disney films.

Later, I read Herodotus’s Histories (something I’d recommend everyone to do if you’re interested in men with dog’s heads and giant ants that dig up nuggets of gold) – the first attempt at mapping out human history. I have returned to Greece several times since, including Crete, Corfu and Rhodes, and each time I am awestruck by the layers of history, the natural beauty and the civility of the people.

Beauty, civility and history, of course, don’t appear on accountants’ balance sheets, but they do at least form the basis for some optimism about the Greek ‘situation’. Because what the Greeks are learning now is that when the safety blanket of easy credit and consumer culture is taken away you are faced with a very different reality to the one presented on our television screens. The fact that despite the difficulties they face many people in Greece are adapting should be a cause for optimism. It should also be an opportunity for learning. I can quite easily imagine ‘education retreats’ run by ex civil servants and assorted office workers, where groups of us ‘descenders’ learn of ways to make our communities more resilient against economic shocks – taking place in some dreamy island destination of course.

The Greeks, in fact, are ideally placed because they have, at most, only one generation of experience of hyper capitalism, against northern Europe’s (or America’s) several. Enough old peasants are still knocking around who know how to yoke an ox or tease nourishment out of the soils, and the opportunities for re-learning these skills are immense.

‘We are all Greek now,’ goes the rallying cry of the anti-financial movement.Take comfort from the fact that Greece is rising to the challenge, and that we can too.

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