Not long after the election victory, in late January, of the Greek anti-austerity party Syriza, I visited a crowded café in central Athens. The new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, was unveiling his party’s program that day, and the café’s owners had wheeled in a television so that patrons could watch. A crowd of ill-shaven, chain-smoking men wedged themselves around the screen. As Tsipras reeled off one reform after another—from rehiring laid-off public-sector workers to raising the minimum wage—they broke into wild applause.
For many, Syriza represented the first real hope in years that Greece could climb out of economic crisis. Most of the patrons, including Panos Alexopolous, a welder by trade, had long been out of work. “You wait and wait for something to change,” he told me, “but those previous governments were all the same.” He was laid off in 2009; a year later, Greece, which had racked up enormous debt, agreed to a bailout from international creditors on the condition that it impose a harsh regimen of spending cuts and other economic reforms. His pension dwindled to about four hundred and fifty dollars a month and, following a cut of forty per cent to the country’s health budget, his medical costs soared. Soon, his family was on bread lines. Sometimes, he would set up on a street corner with a sign asking for spare change, but always in a neighborhood far from home so that no one would see. “Syriza,” he said, “is the first government that will give us our pride back.”
Two months on from the election, the government’s pledge to address what Tsipras has repeatedly called a “humanitarian catastrophe” is colliding with the stipulations of Greece’s creditors, who continue to say that austerity measures are necessary for the country to regain solvency. Last week, the European Commission, one of the “troika” of institutions that oversee the bailout and austerity program, warned against putting forward a Syriza bill intended to provide free electricity and food stamps for cash-strapped households. (Under the terms of the bailout, which was extended by four months in a deal signed in February, Athens must get approval for any anti-austerity measures.)
For Syriza to stick to its campaign promises, it would have to contravene the rules of its bailout, which could catalyze a series of reactions that would ultimately force Greece out of the euro. Despite growing dissent in the party’s hard-left wing and its activist base, most Syriza leaders, as well as most of the public, oppose an exit because of the economic troubles it would provoke, at least in the short term. So the impasse won’t be solved anytime soon. For the time being, though, the wave of ebullience brought about by the election has yet to subside. Athens hums with optimism, and the belief that an escape from the crisis is finally possible. Ask around in the city’s crowded cafés, and you’ll hear what has become something of an unofficial mantra about Syriza: “Even if they do ten per cent of what they say,” Alexopolous told me, “they’ll change Greece forever.”
It’s not clear, however, that ten per cent would be enough to rescue Greece from its woes. Around a quarter of the workforce is officially unemployed—a twofold increase from pre-austerity levels—and for those under twenty-four years old, unemployment rate hovers around half. The average family income has plunged to 2003 levels, and forty percent of Greek children now live below the poverty line.
Syriza’s proposed solution is to dramatically increase social spending, to create “effective demand, to pump the economy” as Nikos Theocharakis, the chair of the economics department at the University of Athens, put it. We met in a cinder-block-walled office in downtown Athens, in a bleak building that is home to the country’s premier economics program. The department has undergone multiple rounds of funding cuts—some professors have gone a year without pay. Like other economists I met, Theocharakis called Syriza’s rescue program “pure Keynesian policies.” That naturally raises the question: where will the money come from?
According to Theocharakis, part of the solution will be to raise revenue by tackling corruption and tax evasion—a step espoused by both Syriza and its creditors. Long before Greece’s economic crisis spawned portmanteaus such as “grexit” and “grecovery,” the country had its own intricate vocabulary of venality. Fakelaki refers to envelopes fattened with cash, which have long been used to insure priority in services such as health care. Rousfeti means something akin to patronage, particularly the political connections used to land contracts and civil-service jobs.
Tax evasion is especially widespread among the country’s upper-middle class and rich—the top-most bracket of households and businesses is responsible for eighty per cent of the total tax debt owed to the government. The higher up the ladder you look, the greater the scale of graft becomes. Antonis Kantas, a former deputy minster of defense, testified in court last year that he had taken so many bribes, mostly from multinational weapons manufacturers, that he couldn’t recall them all. The German corporation Siemens, meanwhile, funnelled millions in payoffs to Greek officials over the years, drawing the money from an annual slush fund worth as much as fifteen million euros. The finance ministry estimates that ultra-wealthy Greeks have tens of billions in undeclared offshore accounts, a fraction of which have come to light through the so-called Lagarde list, a spreadsheet naming potential tax evaders that was passed to the Greek government by former the French finance minister Christine Lagarde. (After then Greek finance minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou got hold of the list, the names of members of his family disappeared from it; he was charged with falsifying documents, but the charges were dropped.)
Years of such corruption and tax evasion, coupled with reckless expenditure—as a share of G.D.P., for instance, Athens spent almost twice the E.U. average on military purchases—pushed the Greek state into massive budget shortfalls, prompting the government to borrow heavily. In late 2009, the government announced that it had racked up enough debt to be running a deficit of almost thirteen per cent of G.D.P., sparking fears of a default. Greece’s creditors were mostly European banks, which had, in part, used public bailout money following the 2008 credit crunch to scoop up Greek bonds. For example, French and German banks were on the books for thirty-one and twenty-three billion euros, respectively. The troika stepped in during the spring of 2010, and again in 2012, to orchestrate bailouts of the Greek government, offering two hundred and forty billion euros in loans in exchange for a drastic reduction in government spending and other measures to make the Greek economy more competitive. “Understand that this debt is symbolic,” Theocharakis said. “It’s simply too much to ever be paid back fully.”
Across the hall from his office, there is a poster announcing a lecture on the bailout that bears a depiction of the famous con artist Charles Ponzi. The implication is not subtle: the troika and other creditors raised most of the bailout tranche from capital markets through low-interest bond issues, and then loaned the money to Greece at much higher rates. Close to ninety per cent of the money returns directly to the original creditors, or goes to recapitalize Greek banks; most of the funds don’t even touch the Greek government’s hands, landing instead for a few days in an escrow account, until they are transferred to bond holders.
Eurogroup officials say that, in the short term, this circular flow is simply a way of avoiding a Greek default, and the political and economic fallout that would attend it, while the country creates the conditions for long-term financial health. From the perspective of many Greeks, though, it appears as if Germany and other euro-zone states are effectively bailing out their own banks, thereby rewarding poor lending decisions and speculation, and using the terms of the Greek bailout to enforce market liberalization. “Essentially,” said Theocharakis, “they are piling loans onto a country that’s already in so much debt.” Indeed, since the 2010 bailout, Greece’s debt-to-G.D.P. ratio has grown by fifty per cent.
On April 4, 2012, outside the Greek parliament building, which stands not far from Theocharakis’s office, Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist whose pension had been cut drastically, shot himself during the morning rush hour. “The government has annihilated all traces of my survival,” his suicide note explained. “I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.” The spectacle was part of a larger trend: according to a recent study, there have been “significant, abrupt, and sustained increases” in the Greek suicide rate following the onset of austerity measures.
“In the beginning, I had patients who’d been living on the margins of society,” Maria Rota, a psychologist, told me. “But now we see everyday people. These are people who had jobs, who were well off.” We met at the Metropolitan Clinic, in the leafy suburb of Elliniko, where Rota volunteers to help those who have been hit the hardest by austerity. Metropolitan was founded as part of a growing movement of Greeks who have begun filling the breach left by the absence of government funds. The clinic was the brainchild of a doctor named Georgios Vichas, who, in 2011, as the public-health system began to collapse, appealed to Elliniko’s leftist mayor for help in setting up a free health center. It is now staffed by about two hundred volunteers, many of whom are unemployed themselves. They run the clinic democratically, putting major decisions to a vote. The shelves are stocked with donated medicines, usually leftovers brought in by people whose relatives have died.
With the number of uninsured soaring, the clinic has become a vital distribution network. When I visited, unemployed men and women were busy sorting drugs and checking expiration dates. Maritta Corley, one of the volunteers, told me that she had been laid off from an import-export company. She began working at the clinic because she missed feeling useful. “You lose your dignity, when you want to work and no one will hire you,” she said.
Metropolitan is part of a web of citizen-led assemblies that operate collectively run clinics, factories, soup kitchens, and produce markets that have popped up across the country—more than four hundred, now, according to Solidarity For All, which helps to coördinate the movement. In Thessaloniki, workers occupied the Viomichaniki Metallevtiki factory, which produced building materials before it was abandoned by its owners, in 2011. The factory has now resumed operation, with a democratically elected assembly making decisions on everything from employee pay to production schedules. In Ano Liosia, an immigrant-heavy town north of Athens, I visited an assembly that arranges for farmers to sell produce directly to the community, circumventing middlemen and grocery markups—creating, in effect, a farmers’ market for the very poor. Other initiatives veer into the quixotic: in the city of Volos, in central Greece, an alternative currency is in circulation. Most solidarity-group members I met acknowledged that some of these initiatives might not be sustainable in the long run. “Think of them instead,” said Solidarity For All’s Christos Giavanopoulos, “as laboratories for reimagining how to meet people’s needs.”
To see one of these laboratories in action, I visited the port city of Perama, about an hour outside of Athens. It was a darker city than any I’d seen in Greece, with few streetlights, few storefronts, many unlit homes. Some buildings were only frames, with slabs of granite piled to the side and pulleys covered in dirt, as if the construction crew had taken sudden flight. The harbor was all abandoned buildings and rusting hulls. Perama was once a major hub in Greece’s ship-building industry, but it had been losing business to the cheaper, less-regulated labor markets of Turkey and China even before the 2008 financial crisis provoked a downturn in international trade. In the ensuing years, unemployment reached eighty per cent, and you can now see sights long unimaginable in most of Europe: bread lines, women picking through trash for food, children turning up at clinics malnourished.
Perama’s social assembly is housed in a crumbling building near the harbor. When I visited, tired-looking men sat inside, smoking and sipping wine, and a few women were in a corner talking among themselves. Three years ago, they had been welders, cooks, drivers, and cleaners. Now they are activists; once a week, they meet to vote on the assembly’s activities. Nikos Panagos, for example, worked in construction for forty-five years. When businesses and the housing market began to crash, he lost his job. In short order, his six grown children lost theirs as well. For a while, his pension kept the family above water, but by last year his payments were trimmed to four hundred euros a month, and food expenses became a struggle. Soon, the family was lining up outside a local church for handouts. The low point came when he began rifling through trash bins for food. “Austerity has taken my dignity,” he said.
When I spoke to him, Panagos was receiving aid from the social assembly in exchange for helping to cook and distribute food. This, members told me, is what differentiates the assemblies from charity: they enshrine the principle of community solidarity. And, unlike charities, they are avowedly political. Anti-fascist posters and leaflets from rallies covered the walls of the Perama center, and almost everyone I met was a Syriza supporter. For many, the goal is not necessarily to replace vital (if corrupt) state services such as health care, but to rethink them, democratize them, invigorate them from below—even if they are unsure, at this early stage, of how exactly this might be accomplished.
The activists participating in these social-solidarity networks are Syriza’s true believers, the backbone of the party’s support. (Syriza, in turn, provides the groups with seed money and coördination assistance.) It is from these activists that Tsipras will face perhaps the harshest criticism if his government fails to end austerity. Already some quarters of the party see the bailout extension as a major capitulation. (And as kolotouba, a flip-flop: in February, a few weeks before signing the deal, Greece’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, said that wanting more bailout funds would be like “drug addicts craving the next dose.”) The activists are also the constituency most in favor of the grexit from the euro zone, to which the public at large is opposed.
If Syriza fails to end the worst effects of austerity, though, still bigger problems may emerge from the millions of Greeks who cast aside years of mistrust of the left to vote for the party. For the moment, the party continues to ride an enormous wave of popularity—polls carried out after the bailout extension put the government’s approval rating at seventy per cent. But the deal suggests, too, that ending austerity and remaining in the euro zone might be irreconcilable goals.
It’s hard to say what will happen in the event that Syriza fails, but these days it has become fashionable in Greece to invoke a bit of European history: in debt-saddled Weimar Germany, humiliation and dispossession festered until they gave rise to something truly grotesque. In the working-class districts of Perama, Syriza easily won the January polls, but coming in third, with eleven per cent of the vote, was Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-Nazi party. And Golden Dawn won the third greatest number parliament seats in the last election, even though thirteen M.P.s are serving from behind bars as they await trial for participating in what the state considers a criminal group. Panagos knows that, in his neighborhood, where there’s near-full unemployment, a life without dignity can take dangerous turns. “If Syriza fails,” he said, “we all lose.”
For these activists, success means confronting the troika head-on and standing firm, mirroring the small acts of defiance that a growing number of Greeks have taken against their own creditors. In Galatsi, near central Athens, I visited a social assembly based in a soap factory run by the unemployed. One of its members, Stergis Theodoridis, an accountant who lost most of his clients in the wake of the crisis, told me that after he’d fallen into arrears on his electricity payments, representatives of the utility company showed up to cut his service, with eight police officers in tow. He phoned a friend in the social assembly, and soon his front yard was crowded with supporters, some linking arms. After a tense standoff, Theodoridis agreed to pay a portion of what he owed, and the company reps backed off. They never returned.