[WILL THE ARAB LEFT EVER LEARN??]
Jon Henley in Athens
“A long time ago, when I was a student,” said Olga Kesidou, sunk low in the single, somewhat clapped-out sofa of the waiting room at the Peristeri Solidarity Clinic, “I’d see myself volunteering. You know, in Africa somewhere, treating sick people in a poor developing country. I never once imagined I’d be doing it in a suburb of Athens.”
Few in Greece, even five years ago, would have imagined their recession- and austerity-ravaged country as it is now: 1.3 million people – 26% of the workforce – without a job (and most of them without benefits); wages down by 38% on 2009, pensions by 45%, GDP by a quarter; 18% of the country’s population unable to meet their food needs; 32% below the poverty line.
And just under 3.1 million people, 33% of the population, without national health insurance.
So, along with a dozen other medics including a GP, a brace of pharmacists, a paediatrician, a psychologist, an orthopaedic surgeon, a gynaecologist, a cardiologist and a dentist or two, Kesidou, an ear, nose and throat specialist, spends a day a week at this busy but cheerful clinic half an hour’s drive from central Athens, treating patients who otherwise would not get to see a doctor. Others in the group accept uninsured patients in their private surgeries.
“We couldn’t just stand by and watch so many people, whole families, being excluded from public healthcare,” Kesidou said. “In Greece now, if you’re out of work for a year you lose your social security. That’s an awful lot of people without access to what should be a basic right. If we didn’t react we couldn’t look at ourselves in the mirror. It’s solidarity.”
The Peristeri health centre is one of 40 that have sprung up around Greece since the end of mass anti-austerity protests in 2011. Using donated drugs – state medicine reimbursements have been slashed by half, so even patients with insurance are now paying 70% more for their drugs – and medical equipment (Peristeri’s ultrasound scanner came from a German aid group, its children’s vaccines from France), the 16 clinics in the Greater Athens area alone treat more than 30,000 patients a month.
The clinics in turn are part of a far larger and avowedly political movement of well over 400 citizen-run groups – food solidarity centres, social kitchens, cooperatives, “without middlemen” distribution networks for fresh produce, legal aid hubs, education classes – that has emerged in response to the near-collapse of Greece’s welfare state, and has more than doubled in size in the past three years.
“Because in the end, you know,” said Christos Giovanopoulos in the scruffy, poster-strewn seventh-floor central Athens offices of Solidarity for All, which provides logistical and administrative support to the movement, “politics comes down to individual people’s stories. Does this family have enough to eat? Has this child got the right book he needs for school? Are this couple about to be evicted?”
As well as helping people in difficulty, Giovanopoulos said, Greece’s solidarity movement was fostering “almost a different sense of what politics should be – a politics from the bottom up, that starts with real people’s needs. It’s a practical critique of the empty, top-down, representational politics our traditional parties practise. It’s kind of a whole new model, actually. And it’s working.”
It also looks set to play a more formalised role in Greece’s future under what polls predict will be a Syriza-led government from next week. When they were first elected in 2012 the radical left party’s 72 MPs voted to give 20% of their monthly salary to a solidarity fund that would help finance Solidarity for All. (Many help further; several have transferred their entitlement to free telephone calls to a local project.) The party says the movement can serve as an example and a platform for the social change it wants to bring about.
In the sleek open plan, blonde-wood office she used when she was a successful architect, Theano Fotiou, a member of Syriza’s central committee, was packing leaflets for the last day of campaigning, with the help of a dozen or so exceedingly enthusiastic young volunteers. She is seeking re-election in the capital’s second electoral district. “The only real way out of this crisis is people doing it for themselves,” she said. “If people don’t participate, we will be lost as a country. This is practice, not theory, a new social ideology, a new paradigm – the opposite of the old passive, dependent, consumerist, individualist model. And the solidarity projects we have now are its incubators.”
Fotiou said a large part of the first stage of a Syriza’s government’s programme – ensuring no family is without water or electricity (in nine months of 2013, 240,000 households had their power cut because of unpaid bills); that no one can be made homeless; that the very lowest pensions are raised and that urgent steps are taken to relieve child poverty, now standing at 40% in Greece – was largely inspired by what the party had learned from its involvement in the solidarity movement.
“We’ve gained so much from people’s innovation,” she said. “We’ve acquired a knowhow of poverty, actually. We know more about people’s real needs, about the distribution of affordable food, about how not to waste things like medicines. We’ve gained a huge amount of information about how to work in a country in a state of humanitarian crisis and economic collapse. Greece is poor; this is vital knowhow.”
If the first instinct of many involved in the movement was simply to help, most also believe it has done much to politicise Greece’s crisis. In Egalio, west of Athens, Flora Toutountzi, a housekeeper, Antonis Mavronikolas, a packager, and Theofilos Moustakas, a primary school teacher, are part of a group that collects food donations from shoppers outside supermarkets and delivers basic survival packages – rice, sugar, long-life milk, dried beans – to 50 local families twice a month.
“One family, there are six people surviving on the grandmother’s pension of €400 a month,” said Mavronikolas. “Another, they’ve lived without running water for two months. We help them, yes, but now they are also involved in our campaign, helping others. People have become activated in this crisis. They are less isolated.”
In the central Athens district of Exarchia, Tonia Katerina, another now largely unemployed architect (“There’s not a lot of work for architects right now,” she said), is one of 15 people running a cooperative social grocery that opened a year ago and now sells 300 products, from flour to oranges, olive oil to bread, pasta to dried herbs. The business has grown rapidly and the collective’s members can now pay themselves an hourly wage of €3
The local “without middlemen” market, one of 30-odd to have sprouted in Athens and several hundred around Greece, where farmers sell their produce for 25% more than they would get from the supermarkets and consumers pay 25% less, takes place only once a month, and the group wanted to set up a small neighbourhood grocery offering similarly good value, high quality foodstuffs directly from small producers.
Ninety per cent of the products the store sold were “without middlemen”, Katerini said, and about 60% were significantly cheaper than in the supermarket. Several come from other solidarity projects – the store’s soap, for example, is made by a collective of 10 unemployed people in Galatsi.
“All these projects, it’s very important to me, are not just helping people who need it, but they represent almost the start of a new kind of society,” Katerini said. “They are run as direct democracies, with no hierarchy. They are about people taking responsibility for their lives, putting their skills to use, becoming productive again.”
Katerina Knitou has devoted the past few years to preventing people from losing their homes. Part of a group of lawyers formed to fight a much hated “emergency house tax”, her focus has switched to the one in three Greek households fearing repossession or eviction – either because they are among the 320,000 families behind on mortgage or other debt repayments to their bank, or one of the 2.45 million Greeks who have been unable to pay a recent tax bill.
Knitou, a Syriza member like almost all those involved in the movement, gives free legal advice on how to avoid foreclosure and eviction. In the first half of last year 700 homes were either repossessed by the banks or foreclosed on by the Greek state over unpaid tax or social security bills. (With colleagues, Knitou also occasionally takes more direct action, disrupting – and preventing – planned auctions of repossessed and foreclosed homes.)
“This whole thing,” she said, “has made a lot of people very aware, not just of what they face, but also of what they can – and must – do. Expectations are going to be high after Sunday, but there are of course limits to what even a Syriza government will be able to do. It’s up to us, all of us, to change things. And honestly? This feels like a good start.”