Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Is Something Happening in Greece?

As I said in an earlier post, it’s fascinating to me that Greece, the wellspring of what we call Western culture (as distinct from the orientalism of the Middle East and Asia), is ground zero for the meltdown of Western civilization, and perhaps the birth of what comes after. Scholars have for many years maintained that there is a “Western Idea” that is unique and distinct from the rest of the world – an idea that originally flourished in Europe and has now influenced the world (Oswald Spengler comes to mind). From Classical Greece through the Enlightenment was the flourishing of this idea. Now, it is undergoing transformation.

Earlier we documented the trend of Greeks leaving the big cities and returning to their home villages Here, the BBC looks at what that village life entails:

Roger Jinkinson, a British writer who lives in a remote village on the Greek island of Karpathos, reflects on how the profound economic crisis is affecting his small rural community more than 400km from Athens.

Although times are hard, he believes that a long tradition of thriftiness, a thriving barter economy and the return of young people to work on the land will help the village weather the crisis.

The older generation in the village are thrifty and hard working; they are used to a frugal existence and times of extreme hardship.

Hundreds of thousands of Greeks died of starvation and the complications of severe malnutrition during World War Two and the Civil War that followed.

Memories of those times can be seen etched in the faces of the old people and the habits handed down to their children.

Women are in charge of the home, a loaf of bread is kept until it is used and, if you could see the effort it takes to produce, you would understand why.

Hand-sowing wheat and barley, reaping, winnowing and grinding the grain is back-breaking work, and kneading dough for the huge loaves baked in outside wood ovens is not light work either, so it is easy to sympathise with the women as they carefully store a week-old loaf back in its bag.

In Britain we throw away millions of tonnes of food a year. In the village they throw away nothing.
The article is fascinating throughout:

Very different from America, no? In his book Reinventing Collapse, Dmitry Orlov talks about how Russians lived in generational villages because mobility was so limited and because dwellings were assigned to people and it was very difficult for them to change hands. People’s roots went back very far and they knew their neighbors. He contrasts this with America’s “mobile” society where nobody knows there neighbors and all relationships are commercial only.

This article is fascinating: Battered by Economic Crisis, Greeks Turn To Barter Networks:
VOLOS, Greece — The first time he bought eggs, milk and jam at an outdoor market using not euros but an informal barter currency, Theodoros Mavridis, an unemployed electrician, was thrilled.

“I felt liberated, I felt free for the first time,” Mr. Mavridis said in a recent interview at a cafe in this port city in central Greece. “I instinctively reached into my pocket, but there was no need to.”

Mr. Mavridis is a co-founder of a growing network here in Volos that uses a so-called Local Alternative Unit, or TEM in Greek, to exchange goods and services — language classes, baby-sitting, computer support, home-cooked meals — and to receive discounts at some local businesses.

Part alternative currency, part barter system, part open-air market, the Volos network has grown exponentially in the past year, from 50 to 400 members. It is one of several such groups cropping up around the country, as Greeks squeezed by large wage cuts, tax increases and growing fears about whether they will continue to use the euro have looked for creative ways to cope with a radically changing economic landscape.

“Ever since the crisis there’s been a boom in such networks all over Greece,” said George Stathakis, a professor of political economy and vice chancellor of the University of Crete. In spite of the large public sector in Greece, which employs one in five workers, the country’s social services often are not up to the task of helping people in need, he added. “There are so many huge gaps that have to be filled by new kinds of networks,” he said.

The group’s concept is simple. People sign up online and get access to a database that is kind of like a members-only Craigslist. One unit of TEM is equal in value to one euro, and it can be used to exchange good and services. Members start their accounts with zero, and they accrue credit by offering goods and services. They can borrow up to 300 TEMs, but they are expected to repay the loan within a fixed period of time.

Members also receive books of vouchers of the alternative currency itself, which look like gift certificates and are printed with a special seal that makes it difficult to counterfeit. Those vouchers can be used like checks. Several businesspeople in Volos, including a veterinarian, an optician and a seamstress, accept the alternative currency in exchange for a discount on the price in euros.

A recent glimpse of the database revealed people offering guitar and English lessons, bookkeeping services, computer technical support, discounts at hairdressers and the use of their yards for parties. There is a system of ratings so that people can describe their experiences, in order to keep transparent quality control.

The group also holds a monthly open-air market that is like a cross between a garage sale and a farmers’ market, where Mr. Mavridis used his TEM credit to buy the milk, eggs and jam. Those goods came from local farmers who are also involved in the project.

After years of rampant consumerism and easy credit, such nascent initiatives speak to the new mood in Greece, where imposed austerity has caused people to come together — not only to protest en masse, but also to help one another.

Similar initiatives have been cropping up elsewhere in Greece. In Patras, in the Peloponnese, a network called Ovolos, named after an ancient Greek means of currency, was founded in 2009 and includes a local exchange currency, a barter system and a so-called time bank, in which members swap services like medical care and language classes. The group has about 100 transactions a week, and volunteers monitor for illegal services, said Nikos Bogonikolos, the president and a founding member.

Greece has long had other exchange networks, particularly among farmers. Since 1995, a group called Peliti has collected, preserved and distributed seeds from local varietals to growers free, and since 2002 it has operated as an exchange network throughout the country.

Beyond exchanges, there are newer signs of cooperation from the ground up. When bus and subway workers in Athens went on strike two weeks ago, Athenians flooded Twitter looking for carpools, using an account founded in 2009 to raise awareness of transportation issues in Athens. The outpouring made headlines, as a sign of something unthinkable before the crisis hit.

With unemployment rising above 16 percent and the economy still shrinking, many Greeks are preparing for the worst. “Things will turn very bad in the next year,” said Mr. Stathakis, the political economics professor.

Christos Papaioannou, 37, who runs the Web site for the network in Volos, said, “We’re in an uncharted area,” and hopes the group expands. “There’s going to be a lot of change. Maybe it’s the beginning of the future.”

Unfortunatley, Greece may be on the leading edge of a much more unfortunate trend: violence and suicide:

Last month the Greek Minister for Health, Andreas Loverdos, reported that suicides may have increased by as much as 40% in the first few months of 2011.

"In reality it is very likely that those figures are much higher," says psychologist Dr Eleni Bekiari, who works at Klimaka.

The social stigma surrounding suicide in Greece is enormous, she explains, and is further compounded by the Greek Orthodox Church's refusal to carry out burial ceremonies for anyone who has taken their own life.

"Many callers tell us that they plan to drive their car off a cliff or into a rock to make it seem like an accident so that their family and community will never know it was suicide," says Dr Bekiari.

For others, the strain is just too much and their mental anguish makes a very public appearance.

That was the case with Thessaloniki businessman Apostolos Polyzonis, who last month set fire to himself outside his bank.

The bank had recalled the loan it had given his company forcing him into bankruptcy and leaving him penniless.

Unable to pay for his daughter to continue her university education and fearing the bank would seize his home he went to beg for a loan.

"When they refused to see me I felt so desperate that I just lost it," he says.

He stood outside the bank, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight.
He was taken to hospital and treated for burns but the biggest scars he has suffered, he says, are on the inside.

"My son has just finished his military service and he cannot find a job, my wife and I are both unemployed, and often we have to go without the basics," says Mr Polyzonis.

"We hardly leave the house any more; it has destroyed my family's self respect."

"But I am not alone; millions of Greeks are suffering because a few thousand thieves have squeezed this country dry with their corruption," he says.
Confronting Suicide as Greek Social Problems Mount
Certainly I have never seen here in Athens such crowds in the streets. The electricity workers were still trying to reach Parliament Square - four hours after the protests started.

One lawyer told me that she was not prepared to accept it any more. She had friends whose salaries have been cut by 35%.

And with the marchers came young men and women in black hoods and masks. They began tearing at a wire fence that the police had slung across the road at the side of the parliament.

When eventually the police lost patience and fired the first tear gas grenade, the sound echoed across Syntagma Square and the crowd cheered.

There is a sense here that this is the key battle if spending cuts and wage increases are to be defeated.

Then skirmishes became running battles. Some of the anarchists had petrol bombs that snaked through the air falling around the riot police.

They replied with volleys of tear gas and stun grenades. But the numbers involved in the fighting was greater than before.

In the front of the parliament the police had withdrawn to the steps. The crowd pushed forward to the spot where the honour guard usually high steps. One of their guard posts was set alight.
Athens Erupts Over Austerity Cuts

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