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Living through the Greek crisis: an anthropologist reports from Thessaly

Living through the Greek crisis: an anthropologist reports from Thessaly

The prospect of another Greek crisis could be back on the cards if things do not go to plan at an upcoming meeting of European finance ministers on February 20. With a €10.3 billion loan repayment due in July, the meeting is seen as critical for once again preventing the possibility of a Greek default and potential exit from the eurozone.

But while the international media returns its lens to Greece, it’s worth considering that for people in Greece the crisis has never subsided. In fact, the consequences of austerity are getting more painful by the day. My work in the central mainland captures local experiences of this national and international crisis.

Since 2003, I have conducted field research in Trikala, a town of 80,000 inhabitants located on the agricultural plains of Thessaly in mainland Greece. Famous for the great landed estates of the Ottoman era, the region was incorporated into the modern Greek state in 1881 and is still known as the country’s “bread basket”.

Trikala Old Town. Daniel M Knight, CC BY-ND

Before the financial crisis struck, you could breathe the overwhelming air of prosperity on the bustling streets of Trikala. The expanding construction industry, a buoyant public sector, and secure agricultural markets supported by EU initiatives and eurozone membership represented 30 years of almost uninterrupted socioeconomic prosperity. Nobody could have imagined the horrendous consequences of the full-blown economic meltdown that would explode onto the scene in 2009.

It was in October 2009, in the context of global economic recession, that the government “discovered” unsustainable levels of debt and an insurmountable budget deficit. Since then, Greece has received €326 billion of bailout money from the European Central Bank, European Commission and the International Monetary Fund in return for stringent austerity measures.

An everyday crisis

Athens-centric media coverage has portrayed the consequences of austerity primarily through images of mass protests, the rise of the far-right Golden Dawn party, and the struggle to accommodate refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. Athens is the centre of political and economic power and home to approximately half of Greece’s population so this focus on the metropolis is understandable.

But it means that the subtleties of living with crisis everyday have been overlooked in favour of dramatic headlines. In Trikala, people grapple with the everyday tasks of heating their homes, putting food on the table, supporting their families, and maintaining social status. They poignantly discuss their fears of history repeating itself, of neo-colonialism, occupation, and poisoned futures.

Most media coverage has been Athens-centric. EPA/Orestis Panagiotou

Witnessing an array of new taxes, pension cuts and soaring unemployment, the dozens of people I’ve interviewed often delve straight into the vaults of history to make sense of life in austerity Greece. The fear of returning to times of hunger, as experienced in the Great Famine during World War II, for example, is common. And an EU scheme aimed at decreasing national debt by placing solar panels on agricultural land is locally perceived as a return to an era of German or Ottoman occupation.

I am regularly told that “history is repeating itself”, “time is standing still”, and “we are being thrown back to previous times of suffering and poverty”. This all adds to the sense of temporal vertigo experienced in Trikala today – confusion as to where and when people belong on the timeline of social progress that was once promised as a birthright in neoliberal Europe. People describe feeling “dizzy” and “nauseous” with the crisis.

Feelings of occupation

The way that energy policy has been managed since the economic crisis is a key area that people feel particularly vexed about. Since 2011, solar energy has been heralded by the Greek government and the European Union as a means to repay national debt. From home installations to developments on agricultural land and large solar parks, a solar program has been rolled out across the region.

But, despite its significant uptake, the energy produced rarely services the local community. Instead it is used in Greek urban centres, with long-term plans to export to Germany. This means it is little more than a new extractive economy.

Solar panels are a sign of the economic dysfunction. Daniel M Knight, CC BY-ND

Because people could no longer afford high petrol prices to fuel their central heating systems and there is no mains gas in the town, the winters of 2012–2016 witnessed a return en-masse to wood-burning open fires and stoves last popular during the 1970s. Thick smog now engulfs Greek towns in this region, as people burn whatever they can, including old varnished furniture, shoes and clothes, and unsuitable firewood. Open fires have turned into a national health and environmental hazard, resulting in repeated government appeals for people to revert to petrol heating.

Thus, two starkly different energy sources – high-tech solar panels and open wood-burning fires – have become highly visible symbols of the economic crisis. One is associated with clean, green energy, futuristic sustainability, ultra-modernity, and international political energy consensus. The other conjures images of pre-modern unsustainability, pollution, poverty, and a return to peasantry status. Both are symptomatic of how people negotiate the fiscal austerity measures, arousing notions of neo-colonialism and occupation.

What future?

One question I am often asked by locals is: “When will it end?” It is difficult for people to see beyond ever-increasing taxes, pay cuts and government failures. Exhaustion after seven years of crisis, apparently without respite anytime soon, has defeated their ability to imagine a better future. Feelings of resignation and helplessness are expressed by both younger and older generations. But while the older ones know they will not be around to live the post-crisis future, exhausted young people are full of distrust, contempt and apathy.

Successive governments have promised growth and emergence from crisis – promises that have turned out to be hollow. My friend Stella, a shopkeeper and mother of two teenage boys in Trikala, sums up the mood: “Bureaucrats and politicians in Berlin and Brussels will decide whether I have a future or not. They will decide if I live or die.” That’s what is on the cards at the meeting of European finance ministers, not simply a matter of negotiating debt repayments – their decisions will bring us one step closer to knowing where the future lies.

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