No 418 Posted by fw, February 22, 2012
“What makes the headlines are, of course, the riots. What doesn’t make so many headlines is what is happening to real people… We are living in a time where the world has, in the last couple of years, erupted in a way that many people thought they would never see again since the 1960s… The underpinnings of this new global unrest are that…people are sick of seeing the rich get richer during a crisis.” —Paul Mason
The above passage is from a Democracy Now interview with Paul Mason, economics editor of BBC Newsnight. He has just returned from Greece. His latest book is called Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions.
A 20:16-minute video of the interview is embedded below along with my abridged transcript featuring abundant sub-headings to facilitate browsing and selective reading of this lengthy post. Alternatively, to view the video and access the complete transcript on Democracy Now, click on the linked title.
(Note: all the following passages were spoken by Paul Mason unless otherwise noted)
What doesn’t make so many headlines is what is happening to real people. I was able to visit a clinic in the Piraeus port. It had been set up to deal with people who fall through the social security net, which is mainly undocumented migrants. So it was volunteer doctors and free healthcare and free food. That’s about as basic as it gets. In the last six months, they’ve been swamped by Greek citizens, because they—Greek citizens are falling through the safety net in a Europe that is supposed to be—well, what Americans think of it as quasi-socialist. It has a welfare state. And yet, we’re seeing those starving people and homeless people, huge numbers of drug addicts and homeless people on the streets. It looks and begins to look really almost borderline developing world, parts of Greece now.
Well, look, you would like to believe that they could win, they could beat all odds and stay in the euro and avoid default. But up to now, every one of the failed bailout packages was signed off by the IMF and the E.U., and they all involved meeting, you know, the Greek problem with austerity. So you cut spending, you raise taxes, you impoverish people. Leave aside the minimum wage, wages in general are going to have to fall 15 to 20 percent to meet—in the private sector. This is no longer just a public sector thing. Now, I think, and most analysts think, that they are on a route to default and that the last week’s—or this week’s deal has basically been about ring-fencing the rest of the eurozone for if and when that happens. Having been there, I think it’s when.
And then there’s, on top of that, the whole question of political instability. You mentioned left-wing groups in your introduction. I think there’s a bit—in the mainstream media, there’s a bit of a “does not compute” going on. The combined vote, for the communists, Trotskyists and ecologists—so these are left-wing parties with hammer and sickle on their flags—is 43 percent right now in the polls. That dwarfs the equivalent of the GOP and the Democrats. And I think there’s an element of “We don’t want to see that.” But that is what you get when people are told, you know, “Your life is—your future is over.” There’s no way, I think, from any early election, that a stable government can emerge that can do this thing they have agreed to do.
On the question of the parliament, I think, certainly, they’ll pass the measures. What’s happening, though, is the two parties—because these two parties are there from the last election three years ago, so they have a majority right now, even though their popularity is slumping. I think, as they pass them, more and more MPs are chipped off. And these two parties in power splitting is not great, if they then stand for elections, and their own members get to ask them, “Well, what are you going to do about this?” During an election, pressure goes on the mainstream parties as well as the ones at the extreme. And, of course, the right as well as the left is growing as a result of this crisis. And remember, this is a country that had a civil war between the right and left after World War II. So, I think that that’s that on that situation. I think it’s—they’re just not going to be able to make it work. The instability is going to bring down the plan. Or it’s 90 percent certain, in my mind, that the instability in Greece will just—you can’t push through this level of austerity with a weak government.
<START VIDEO CLIP OF MASON’S INTERVIEWS IN GREECE>
PAUL MASON: As the crisis deepens, the weakest and the poorest suffer, nowhere more so than those who are not supposed to be in Greece at all. This is Patras, the ferry port that links Greece to Western Europe. Right on the seafront, hundreds of illegal migrants live in this shattered factory. I am taken in by an activist from a local NGO. The migrants got here because government cutbacks have made the Greek border highly porous.
PAUL MASON — How easy is it to get into Greece?
WASSIM — How easy? It’s too easy.
PAUL MASON — It’s too easy?
WASSIM — Too easy.
PAUL MASON — Why?
WASSIM — Why? Because, you know, the borders are not closed; the borders are open.
PAUL MASON — They survive on charity. They receive no assistance at all from the Greek state. But as the economy has collapsed, so too has sympathy for the migrants.
WASSIM — You know, this is no Europe. Believe me. This no Europe.
PAUL MASON — It doesn’t feel like Europe?
WASSIM — No, no.
PAUL MASON — Why?
WASSIM — No, I used to live London. This no Europe. Believe me, this no look like Europe. The police can hit you. The people can swear you, for no reason. The people hit us like animal. What’s the life there?
PAUL MASON — <Turns to another man> This man, a graduate from Darfur, is headed for London. He can’t wait to see the back of Greece. How long have you been in this factory place?
ABDUL AZEEM — In the [abandoned] factory here, I have six months, and three months in the train there.
PAUL MASON — Yeah, you lived in the train.
ABDUL AZEEM — Yeah, before we came here, because the police forced us to leave the train. Then we came here in the abandoned factory. I have six months here.
PAUL MASON — Do you think the economic crisis has made the situation for migrants worse?
ABDUL AZEEM — Yes.
PAUL MASON — Why? Tell me.
ABDUL AZEEM — We are going to the market, so I think that—
PAUL MASON — They give you some food at the end.
ABDUL AZEEM — Some food, some—also there’s some money, you know.
PAUL MASON — And less. There’s less now.
ABDUL AZEEM — Yeah. Now the situation is changing, because of the economic crisis.
PAUL MASON: They drink from a pipe in the ground. Some have died from fires lit to keep warm. It’s shocking to see this in a continent that once prided itself on a social model. But the crisis has turned so much of Greece upside-down. For Greek youth, the situation too looks dire. Fifty percent of those under 24 are unemployed. And among them, the extremes of politics are growing.
KATIA ZAGORITOU — There’s no future for us. Generally, there’s no future. We can’t dream. We can’t live. For us, this is a disaster.
PAUL MASON — But I’ve been hearing young Greek people say that to me for three years now. What do you do about it?
KATIA ZAGORITOU — We’re fighting. We’re trying to convince other people and to make them understand that all this crisis is a result of the capitalist system.
PAUL MASON — Do you seriously think there could be a left-wing government in Greece?
ANTONIS DIAMANTOPOULOS — I don’t think it’s going to be a nonviolent government from the left. It’s going to be a civil war.
PAUL MASON — The carpenter, the teacher, the engineer, the social worker—these are professional people. But the ideas they’re espousing have become commonplace. And what it’s about is work. There isn’t any.
EIRINI PAPADOPOULOU — If there’s no work, there is a revolution against the government.
We are—you know, we are living in a time where the world has, in the last couple of years, erupted in a way that many people thought they would never see again since the 1960s. And I think the Greek events—I mean, Greece isn’t all riots. It’s Occupy camps. There you had one of the first ones, called the indignados camp, in their main square. In Europe, across southern Europe—you know, I think only me and Glenn Beck have been talking about this, in a way. I have seen the crossover, the potential crossover, from North Africa to southern Europe to the United States, and the similarities between what is happening. I take a more—a sort of more sort of standing above it standpoint than Glenn does.
But it’s—there are links. There are common factors. And the most important one, everywhere, is what you saw in that bar, what I call the graduate without a future. You find them on Tahrir Square. You find them in Syntagma Square, Greece. You’ll find them outside—you know, in Zuccotti Park, New York. Once the economic crisis switched off that narrative that things are going to get better, you’ll have a better life than your parents, I think people in the Middle East lost their fear, people in Europe and America have lost their apathy. And there’s a lot to be sort of angry about once you look at real life.
In my book, I’ve—one of the chapters in it is where I drive from Oklahoma to L.A., following the route that Steinbeck’s Joad family took. There was a drought in Oklahoma last summer. I thought, well, let’s just drive along 66, or parallel to 66, and see what it’s like now. It’s stunning, what you find. I think much of the mainstream media misses this. One of the most amazing things was to find a homeless encampment in Albuquerque, which, of course, was set up—again, there’s always this parallel—for people who maybe had drug and alcohol problems. But now, what do the people running it say? The people coming in are the American middle class, people who have been running a branch of McDonald’s, holding down a decent managerial job, two weeks later, homeless, jobless and sleeping on the floor with 80-odd people they don’t know.
<START VIDEO CLIP OF MASON AT HOMELESS ENCAMPMENT>
PAUL MASON — Normally, the families who come here are coping with drink, drugs, domestic violence. But now there’s a new kind of customer: the American middle class.
LARRY ANTISTA — I’m Larry Antista. This is my daughter Michelle. We’re here because of the economic times. My spouse took off on us, and that cut our income in half, and we lost our place. And here we are.
PAUL MASON — They’ve been living like this for three months. He’s a truck driver by trade, but he can’t find work. So he works for his welfare payments: $300 a month. Michelle, aged 14, is still at school.
Do the people at school know where you sleep every night?
MICHELLE ANTISTA — No, not really.
PAUL MASON — You don’t tell them?
MICHELLE ANTISTA — No.
PAUL MASON — Why?
MICHELLE ANTISTA — They didn’t ask, so I figure, don’t tell them.
PAUL MASON — So you don’t show up as homeless even in the school statistics?
LARRY ANTISTA — No.
MICHELLE ANTISTA — No.
PAUL MASON — Do the sort of rich of America, really—and the media, really understand that every night thousands of people are bedding down like this?
LARRY ANTISTA — No.
MICHELLE ANTISTA — No.
PAUL MASON — What would you say to them, if you could speak to them right now?
MICHELLE ANTISTA — If they could live just like one day of, like, our lives, they’d see how hard it is and, like, how good they have it. Because a lot of them complain about what they got, which is really dumb.
It’s hard not to see the Greek bailout as a way of protecting the European banking system. It’s hard not to read that report as, yet again, a decision to bail out banks and bankrupt countries, because don’t forget this: the financial markets at the moment are focused on Greece and Europe.
At the moment that is solved, they will focus on your country, because you are $14 trillion in debt, and there are—there is doubt about whether your institutions can one day deliver the austerity that those financial markets will demand to make that debt stable.
So I think, look, that the underpinnings of this new global unrest are that from Cairo to Greece to New York to Albuquerque, people are sick of seeing the rich get richer during a crisis. That’s what they’re sick of. And until we start hearing solutions, both at the grassroots level and at the top level in politics, that go beyond that, that explain to us what the new story is about capitalism, these unrests, these revolutions, the unrest, the protests, I think, will go on, because it is about a generation that doesn’t know what the story is anymore. What is the story about how my life is going to get better? Once you do that, and then you add in networking and technology and the ability to express oneself and move around the mainstream media, you’re in for years, I think, of discontent.
Nobody believes the most optimistic scenario. I mean, look, they’re in what economists call a death spiral. So, the economy is shrinking, and the debt is getting bigger. Of course, Greece has had a big debt write-off, and that is tangible. That’s real and material, and it will be welcome. But as they try to implement the austerity, I think most observers think they can’t do it. And if they did, it will produce a deep recession that will make the lives of the people I saw on those streets very angry, very dislocated from politics, even more harsh, and they will get even angrier, if not despairing. Some are already beyond the anger stage. Some are in a state of just individual despair. Greece is an extreme, an outlier, but it does—of course, it does show what happens if you let your debt get out of control. It also shows what happens if you think—if you only see austerity as the solution to indebtedness.