Nick Dearden, Jubilee Debt Campaign UK
We woke up to find the Bulgarian Government had fallen, after trying to impose exactly the sort of austerity programmes being witnessed right across Europe. In a country with the lowest wages in Europe, the recent privatisation of energy caused prices to rocket, leaving some families spending the majority of their wages on heating. International institutions applauded loudly. Bulgaria’s people felt differently.
More extraordinary than the collapse of the Government was the statement of the outgoing Prime Minister, that he couldn’t bear to preside over bloodshed on the streets, saying ‘every drop of blood brings shame on us’. As a general strike got under way in Greece, and military-attired special police lined the streets of Athens, many people here wanted to adopt him as their own leader.
Around 100,000 protesters joined Greece’s general strike protest – the first that’s been called since November 2012. Despite many hundreds of police, resembling something out of Star Wars in their gas masks, the protest passed off with only a couple of tear gas cannisters being thrown – something of a first for a police force that once complained to the interior ministry that the excessive use of tear gas was damaging their health. We did, however, count six shiny new water cannon vans ready to be deployed – clearly the austerity has not effected police spending.
The protest was lively. We spoke to a famous Greek actor, Giorgios Kimoulis, who told us “shame was the real enemy in Greece” referring to the pernicious way that the debt crisis has made people really believe that they “all partied”, even if many can’t remember it. I told him about David Graeber’s book ‘Debt: the First 5000 Years’, which argues that the repayment of debts is so central to our morality in the West that it does indeed inhibit collective action. Understanding the way that debt redistributes wealth and power in society, is an essential first step towards fighting for a better and fairer society.
We met a number of MPs from Syriza – the main opposition party now, which has a radical position on debt. A few weeks ago, two Syriza MPs were beaten-up by the ever more repressive Greek police after protesting in a Government Minister’s office, when said Minister suggested further reducing the minimum wage.
There is a sense of tiredness, and a belief that demonstrations have failed to change things. Many people say that the collapse of society ‘happened so quickly’, recalling Naomi Klein’s theory of the ‘shock doctrine’, in which a society is restructured while its citizens are still reeling from the impact of a shock. By the time they ‘come round’, it is too late. One women told me ‘we are marching not for ourselves but other countries’, explaining it is too little and too late to save her own society.
Greece is not the first country to feel this – it shares the experience with dozens of countries. Many Greeks are aware of the comparison between their situation and that of Ecuador and Argentina in the past, and have learnt lessons from those countries. In the same way, we must make the comparison with Greece and our own societies. In that sense Greece is indeed marching for the people of Europe, giving us a warning of what is to come unless we wake up.