Nick Dearden, Jubilee Debt Campaign UK
In the centre of Athens, the depth of the crisis can now be measured by the number of homeless people sitting and sleeping on every block. These are the victims of the financiers and politicians of Europe; the ‘collateral damage’, as they are undoubtedly seen, of the policies of austerity.
The homeless are just the surface of a sea of suffering, shock and anger. We met a public sector trade unionist – an archaeologist by profession – who told us that two of her friends had already killed themselves.
Despina Koutsoumpa’s own life is being decided by the policies being pushed by far-away economists intent on experimenting with Greece. Although in full-time work, it’s a struggle to keep one child healthy, so there is no way she can afford the second child she would like.
“I am not an experiment – I am a person. Neither do I feel guilty. We didn’t spend more money than we produced. Rather we were paid less money than we produced. The cleaning lady who brought up two children on €800 a month, has more understanding of the economy than our finance minister, or Christine Lagarde or Poul Thomsen (the IMF representative)”.
There should be no doubt as to the cause of the crisis, in spite of the barrage of propaganda about profligate public spending extending a life of luxury to lazy public sector workers. We are joined on part of the delegation by financial whistle-blower Jonathan Sugarman who told us: “RBS – a bank owned 80% by the UK taxpayer – has been implicated in Libor rigging. This is the equivalent of rigging a horse race or a football game. It’s illegal. But no-one goes to jail. In fact, the banks get to negotiate the fine they will pay.
The consequences of putting bankers above the law is pretty clear in Greece. Some have benefited – expensive shops still sell designer clothes to the few. But deep cuts have been imposed on the public sector, with large reductions in wages for those still in work. Now more cuts are threatened.
We’ve seen all week that people are resisting. Despina tells us that things would have been worse still if it wasn’t for the massive protests and strikes initiated by workers in Greece: “We haven’t had victory but neither has the government”.
At a local level, public sector unions have been involved in solidarity actions, for instance allowing free entry into hospitals for those who can’t afford it, organising summer schools for the kids of workers who’ve had their pay cut, running a voluntary restaurant with cheap or free food for those experiencing a particularly hard time, and maintaining ‘free entry’ days into archaeological sites, with the clear understanding that ‘without access to culture we descend into barbarism’.
There is hope that self-help initiatives will create a better society in the long-term, one less obsessed with money, characterised by inequality and selfishness.
But the tiredness and fear is not concealed. “A journalist asked me recently ‘where will you be in five years’. No-one else has asked me that for this period of the crisis. It made me realise that I can’t plan my life at all. I’m optimistic because I’m always optimistic. But for the long-term. For now, I just survive, with my friends and the people I work with.”
If we want to build a better society, where the poorest do not continually pay the price for massive profits made in unsustainable and unethical ways, then standing with the people of Greece against the policies of austerity and privatisation is vital. What happens here will decide the future direction of Europe – whether we have a Europe of corporate freedom, widespread impoverishment, violence and racism, or a Europe of peace, equality, dignity and genuine democracy.
We’ve seen what can be achieved – across Latin America – when the rule of the banks has been overthrown; poverty and inequality fall dramatically and people begin to feel they have some control over their lives. We’ve seen it on a smaller scale in Iceland. Several people we met cited the President of Iceland’s recent quote:
“Why do they consider banks to be the holy churches of the modern economy? Why are private banks…not allowed to go bankrupt?… Allowing the banks to fail is one of the fundamental reasons Iceland is now in a strong recovery with respect to other European countries.”
As I board the plane, HSBC’s latest advertising campaign is intended to suggest the bank will remain profitable whichever earthly powers rise and fall. I think we should take it as a challenge: “The future is emerging.”