Greece: Heading for the rocks

I have visited Greece many times in the past but this was my first visit for a long time, to attend the very successful congress of Xekinima, the Greek section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). Would I find a changed country? Would the class demons, which in the past haunted the Greek and international capitalists, have been conjured away by a new era of economic, social and political stability? To read the English press, particularly a recent special survey on Greece by The Economist, ‘Prometheus Unbound’ this would appear to be so. While "some problems remain" – the famed militancy of the Greek working class – the era of mass demonstrations and political convulsions are according to them "a distant memory". Nothing could be further from the truth.

Superficial impressions – Athens appears to be the same old bustling city only more ‘prosperous’ – seem to confirm The Economist’s prognosis. The Greek capitalists are basking in the glow of the highest official growth rate in the EU (four per cent). The main reason for this is the substantial aid from the EU to Greece as the poorest country, of the 15 current EU states, and the extra expenditure, again partly financed by the EU, on preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games. Newspapers are full of foreboding of what will take place after this aid ends or is severely curtailed between 2004 and 2006: "EU donor states (10 out of the 15) have become increasingly stingy, especially Germany" [Kathimerini, English edition].

EU aid

Greece is currently the EU country most dependent on aid. In 2001 the net inflow of EU funds into Greece was equal to 3.5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. The second most dependent country, Portugal, benefits from net EU inflows equal to 1.53 per cent of its GDP. The Greek ship of state has been buoyed up until now by a ‘generous’ Europe. Now, however, beset by their own grave difficulties the ‘stingies’ have holed the Greek boat below the water line. More water will be taken on by the waves of economic recession emanating from the crisis of US and world capitalism.

I found amongst ordinary Greeks in all levels of society deep worry as to what the future holds. A middle class woman on the train to Salonika responded to my question on future economic prospects for Greece with an answer that was less than Delphic: "I only see dark colours in the future." To my enquiries about the conditions of the middle class, came the terse comment: "There is no middle class in Greece now." This is an overstatement but it is one indication of the straitened economic circumstances of even the middle layers in Greek society.

Of course, the main burden is carried by working class people. Rolandos, a leading member of Xekinima, told me: "Unemployment is around ten per cent officially and, despite an alleged investment boom, has remained ‘stable’ at this level for a few years. These figures do not include the one million immigrants (between seven and ten per cent of the population)." It also does not include a substantial number of young people who are students. When I enquired of one student what financial help he received, he fell about laughing. There is no grant or ‘safety net’ as we understand it in Britain, even for the poorest students. This is one of the reasons why the Greek family still retains a greater allegiance than in most of Western Europe, as an economic reservoir, particularly in difficult economic circumstances.

Takis, another leader of Xekinima, explained the other side of the Greek ‘boom’ as seeing "one of the biggest increases in working hours" in Greek history. "Debt has piled up, where it is now 107 per cent of GDP". Another comrade, Kyriakos pointed out that, "The Greek workers have the lowest wages in the EU" today. Moreover, the Greek workers have paid a terrible price for the weakening of their organisations, particularly the trade unions, which in turn has meant the dismantling and undermining of conditions in the factories. This has resulted in what the Greek Marxists correctly describe as a form of ‘capitalist terrorism’ with a dramatic rise in accidents at work; 3,500 people were killed in accidents from 1975 to today.

In the 1990s the right-wing ‘New Democracy’ government of Mitsotakis pursued the same sort of mad deindustrialisation policy as Thatcher in Britain. Thatcher’s alternative to the shattered industrial base of Britain was the promotion of the City of London and ‘financial services’. Mitsotakis’s alternative was even less justified. Greece, he maintained, could not compete with the industrial giants of northern Europe and should therefore settle for being one big tourist resort! Tourism accounts for just 15 per cent of Greek GDP.

Greece’s regional role

The Greek capitalists believe that a way out of their difficulties can be found in the greater economic penetration – which is already considerable – of the neighbouring region, the Balkans. It already plays a mini-imperialist role, particularly in its exploitation of the ruined economies of Eastern Europe. For over a decade, beginning with Romania, Greek capital has seeped into Eastern Europe: into Romania, ‘Macedonia’ (Skopje), Bulgaria and other countries. Greek companies now control cement factories in Florida, bakeries in Russia and mines in China. However, they compose a "smallish sliver of national income". The dream, therefore, that Greece can provide the economic locomotive to drag some of the countries, particularly in the Balkans, out of the deep slump they are mired in at the present time is a pipe dream.

On the contrary, on a capitalist basis, particularly given the world economic stagnation, Greece faces a return to the cycle of economic backwardness, decline and with it social and political convulsions of the past. The economic upswing of the 1970s appeared to promise to the Greek people that they would ascend step by step out of the economic pit to which they had been condemned in the past. But even during this period the Greek working class, in a series of magnificent movements between 1975 and 1985 in particular, battered at the foundations of the enfeebled Greek bosses, demanded improvements in their living standards and challenged the very foundations of capitalism.

They also raised on their shoulders mighty mass parties, particularly PASOK, which initially stood on the ‘extreme left’ of the political spectrum, even compared to other left parties in Europe. Led by the at times charismatic Andreas Papandreou, it promised socialism in words, but in action proved to be a bulwark of the system, which it had come into being to eliminate. The process of moving to the right was evident even before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But the ideological counter-revolution of the 1990s which followed in its wake shifted the centre of gravity of this party and all ‘official’ parties in Greece dramatically to the right. There is now nothing to choose in fundamentals between PASOK, which has been in power for 18 out of the last 21 years, and the traditional right-wing party of New Democracy.

On top of the weakening in the workplace, the low wages, has come the extra burden of the introduction of the euro. I witnessed myself the high cost of living, with many food prices roughly equivalent to those in London, one of the most expensive cities in Europe. Yet wages are considerably below those of Britain, actually half or even less. I asked Rolandos why, despite this situation, there has not been an explosion on the part of the working class, through strikes, protests, etc. He commented: "The main reason is because of the attitude of the right-wing trade union leadership. However, we should not forget that in Spring 2001 there were a series of magnificent strikes, unprecedented for many years, which brought back into struggle many who had been out of action for a long time, some of them since the 1970s. This could be repeated in the next period if the government provokes the working class with the kind of measures it has imposed in the last period."

Anti-capitalist movement

Undoubtedly, Greece’s presidency of the EU in the six months to June of this year, during which it will be hosting a series of summits, has become a focal point for the Greek working class and particularly the growing anti-capitalist globalisation movement. This will culminate in a mass all-Europe demonstration in Salonika in June. Already, a trial run for June was staged while I was present in Greece at a very successful demo in Nafplion, at an ‘informal meeting’ of EU officials where an estimated 20,000 took part. At the same time, scenes of a remarkable demonstration were carried on the main TV news, of more than 500 police officers and firefighters demanding higher wages and better working conditions: "They fought their way through the cordon set up by their riot squad colleagues and took their protest to the foot of the hill where the luxury hotel hosted the meeting" [Kathimerini].

Unfortunately, also on the main demonstration the disunity of the Greek labour movement and the anticapitalist movement was once more on display. There are five competing anti-capitalist committees in existence: those of the Communist Party, the SWP involving nobody but themselves until recently, one Stalinist/Maoist committee, one anarchist committee and the Social Forum, in which the supporters of Xekinima participate. Despite the efforts of Xekinima and others to unite, at least in one unified demonstration for the June demo for instance, and similarly against the war, these efforts have been stillborn until now.

Despite these sectarian barriers, it will not stop the Greek working class and the youth from moving into action in the next period under the whip of the attacks of the bosses and their governments. In this situation the Greek Marxists are making gains. Xekinima supporters play key roles in leading the struggles in some of the universities and amongst the school students who, as one student commented, with a "working-study day of 14 or 15 hours" must be some of the hardest working youth in Europe, and in the factories and workplaces.

As Rolandos commented: "After the strikes of Spring 2001 the confidence of the working class rose and this has led to frictions within the union. Whenever there is a pole of attraction such developments have led to more persistent local strike action or activities, and a growth of votes for the left in trade union elections. For example, a Xekinima supporter in Sismanoglio hospital, the second biggest in Athens and therefore in the country, only started working there two years ago. Through consistent work he played a leading role in bringing hospital workers out on strike. This was reflected in an election victory of the left opposition formation in the union in the hospital, which he had taken the initiative to form. Initially, three seats on the union committee were won by this grouping against the majority PASOK trade union leadership. Ultimately, because the right-wing trade union officialdom did nothing to fight for workers’ demands in the hospital they were forced to resign and new elections were held, which led to an increase in the vote of the grouping led by our comrade by 44 per cent. He is now the president of the union representing 1500 workers. This is an indication of the underlying mood for struggle amongst all layers of the working class at the moment." Xekinima comrades also stood as part of an independent left coalition in local elections, in which they made a significant impact.

Heading for the rocks

Greek capitalism is heading for the rocks. The fear that this will drag the working class and the middle class back to their pre-1970s position is more than enough motive for the resurgence of the mass movement. This will be compounded by the war with Iraq, where Greece will be compelled to pay probably one of the biggest prices, with a massive influx of refugees. This situation will set the scene for a massive collision between the classes in Greek society. In the course of this movement, the new generation, who form the overwhelming majority of the ranks of Xekinima, will play a decisive role, particularly in the Marxist-Trotskyist movement.

An edited version of this article will shortly appear in The Socialist, newspaper of the Socialist Party, the CWI’s affiliate in England and Wales

12 February 2003

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February 2003