Friday, December 12, 2008

The Situation in Greece

The unrest in Greece (which has included peaceful protests and strikes as well as the highly publicized street fights) is a week old now, and the event itself is increasingly internationalized. A new Reuters article, "Angry young Greeks give wake-up call to Europe"-incidentally, the most comprehensive piece on these events that I have seen so far-describes "sympathy protests from Moscow to Madrid, some quickly organised over the Internet or by SMS message, as many young people feel leaders are ignoring their frustrations." Some were violent, the article citing incidents in Spain, Italy, Denmark and even Russia, as well as the setting afire of two cars outside a Greek consulate in France.

While the Reuters article goes into the issue in somewhat more depth, the journalistic coverage in general increasingly acknowledges the economic factors in these events, echoing much of what I blogged about on Wednesday. These include high youth unemployment (Generation 700 Euros describes "Young Greeks, even those up to the age of 35, make up a silent majority of overworked, underpaid, debt-ridden and insecure citizens," 56 percent of Greeks under 30 earning less than that amount per month), high levels of poverty (20% of households living on less than $7,300 a year), an exceptionally ineffective (mismanaged?) welfare system (highlighted by the government's inadequate poor relief this winter), and inflation that has been worse than the "faked reported values" used by the country's leaders to meet the criteria for accession to the eurozone. The government's combo of a neoliberal hard line and generous corporate welfare (in particular a highly controversial financial bail-out (relative to the size of the Greek economy, equivalent to a $1.5 trillion package in the U.S.)) has not exactly increased the confidence of a public which already views the nation's leadership as corrupt and incompetent (its handling of last year's wildfires a particular sore point).

When I first looked at the situation, I thought of the anomalousness of Greek politics (its radicalization by the junta years of 1967-74, etc.), but given the economic context it occurred to me that if Greece is vulnerable, then a lot of other countries are too. It now seems others are saying the same thing, as the Reuters article shows. Check out this excerpt from it about Nicolas Sarkozy's reaction:

"Look what is going on in Greece!" French President Nicolas Sarkozy told members of his UMP party, rejecting budget proposals which would have cushioned the wealthy from losses.

With memories fresh of weeks of suburban rioting in 2005, Sarkozy expressed concern the anti-government backlash could spread to France: "The French love it when I'm in a carriage with Carla, but at the same time they've guillotined a king."

The man's pretensions to being a latter-day Sun King never cease to amaze me, emerging even in this attempt to sound conciliatory, but I am even more amazed at the imagery he evokes in this comment. Especially when one considers that much of Europe is in roughly the same position as Greece with regard to slowing growth, high unemployment (in general, but particularly among the young) and unpopular neoliberal reforms, it is clear that the potential for such outbursts has been underestimated in the media's preoccupation with immigration and culture wars.

Yet, there is also a danger of overreaction. This is not the French Revolution, and it would be highly regrettable if governments across the continent were to use this as an excuse to engage in repressive measures (hinted at in the anxiety expressed by the authorities in this Wall Street Journal article), rather than considering and addressing their pressing domestic problems.

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