Fear and Loathing in Athens

The corruption and incompetence of Greece is real. So is the crushing indifference of its European overlords.

Journalist James Angelos’s The Full Catastrophe, a book of seven vignettes, recounts the author’s experiences as a visitor to Greece from 2011 through 2014, the years of economic collapse. They sketch, as vignettes do, a portrait of the country; the picture is not pretty.

Jan-16-Angelos-Book Review
The Full Catastrophe: Travels
Among the New Greek Ruins

by James Angelos
Crown Publishers, 294 pp.

Angelos, a Greek American, traveled first to Zakynthos, an Ionian island, to report on the sale, by an ophthalmologist and island prefect, of blindness benefits to hundreds of sighted residents. He went on to explore tax evasion (“a national preoccupation”) and corruption in military procurement; a village mayor’s murder by two local treasurers who continued, even in prison, to receive salaries; the zealots of the Orthodox Church; the plight of immigrants; and the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn party. Apart from the story of Manolis Glezos, the nonagenarian Syriza member of the European Parliament (MEP) who as a boy in 1941 scaled the Acropolis to pull down the Nazi flag, there is little to admire here, and even in the case of Glezos, Angelos is scathing: “I found Glezos’s energy and passion admirable, and I wanted to admire him.… But this desire ran up against the reality that I often found Glezos to be wrong, if not actively misleading, and populist.”

The mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, comes off well here for rejecting anti-Turk xenophobia and for facing the reality of that city’s ambivalence toward its lost Jews, 50,000 of whom were deported by the occupying German army to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943-44. So does one Father Prokopios, the former pastor in an Athens neighborhood torn by battles over immigration and infested by right-wing thugs. But these are the exceptions. Angelos’s Greece is populated, for the most part, by petty, ignorant, corrupt, and brutal types, by bullies, perps, and frauds. They are caught up in a national mythos, a self-pitying and self-serving view of themselves constructed from a mishmash of classical heritage, nineteenth-century revolutionary romance, religious claptrap, and resistance propaganda.

It makes for great reading. Angelos has the advantage of the Greek language, an eye for colorful detail, and the patience to draw out his interviewees. Thus, a conversation with a grandmother who took the blindness benefit:

 

“Few people are honest, neither your mother, nor your child. But me, there’s nobody like me. Because I’m honest. You should know well. I don’t like lies.”
“But if you’re honest,” I said, “how …”
“I am!” she said, slapping the table again. “One thing I’ll tell you. If I say something, my word is a contract. I’m a pure Greek. I’m not a bastard! I’m not PASOK. And I’m not the devil’s!”
“Why are you saying this?” I asked, confused about her reference to the political party, which was by then fighting for survival after signing on to the first bailout agreement.
“Because you’re writing it down.”

 

When Angelos asked this lady why she did not wear black like other widows of her generation, she replied that it was because she had never liked her husband.

On Greece’s northeastern frontier, Angelos reports on the immigrants who made it across the Evros River from Turkey. They came from Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Sudan, as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh; many had walked a very long way. Angelos befriended several and tells their stories, against the backdrop of racist local attitudes, bad conditions in the police stations, and harsh behavior by the authorities—including, on January 20, 2014, when a coast guard boat allegedly attempted to drag a migrant raft back to Turkey. The raft capsized and eleven Afghans drowned, eight of them children. In the aftermath, Angelos writes, “Greek authorities, as if to show how well the survivors were being treated, released a video of men who had just lost their entire families being provided sandwiches by a woman wearing a surgical mask and gloves.”

These grim notes naturally raise the question of whether these flaws of character, education, attitude, corruption, and incompetence bear on what is right and proper for the European Union to permit to the Greek state. On this point, Angelos, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, appears to have a gut-level sympathy for Greece’s creditors. He writes, for instance, of the 2010 memorandum of understanding that dictated terms to the Greeks, that the “specificity of the required measures—the simplification of customs procedures for feta cheese exports, or the creation of a nationwide system of cadastral offices— underscored the Troika’s lack of faith that Greece could reform itself without strict oversight. To ensure compliance, Troika experts visited quarterly to check up on Greece’s progress.”

Reform? Experts? Progress? These are the overlords’ words. Yet, for instance, the point of lengthening the shelf life of milk in Greece from three to seven days was not “reform.” It was plainly to permit Dutch milk producers to get their product into Greek markets. And the International Monetary Fund’s obsession with the ownership of Greek pharmacies had nothing to do with competitiveness or the (actually, low) prices Greeks pay for drugs. It was, rather, at the behest of North European chains who wanted in. Lobbying, in other words, can easily pass for reform when the creditors hold all the cards.

Were the troika’s bureaucrats experts? Nothing I saw during my five months of close association with the Greek finance ministry, from February through June 2015, suggested that the troika team contained bona fide experts on Greek conditions. They were, at best, mid-level bureaucrats assigned to the task by their various agencies—the IMF, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the European Commission. Their job was to collect facts, insist on terms, dicker over phrasing, and report upward. The language of interaction with the Greeks was, for the most part, English. As for progress, Angelos notes, during the first years of the memorandum there was none: “[T]he recipe did not work out very well, and Greece’s economic collapse would begin to deepen to Great Depression-like levels, necessitating, less than two years after the first bailout, a second one.” Of course, the second bailout was just as fruitless as the first, and the depression only deepened for two more years.

In a brief epilogue, Angelos describes the scene in late January 2015 when the Greek people finally threw out their prior leaders in favor of a ragtag coalition of ex-communists, unionists, eco-activists, and expatriate college professors—the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza—under the leadership of a young firebrand, Alexis Tsipras. Here, he describes the German disdain for Greece’s elected government. “The austerity and reform regimen had put Greece on the right path,” Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told a German radio interviewer, “until SYRIZA came along to derail the progress.” That word again.

Yet in the depths of disaster it was a miracle that the Greeks turned to a party that was progressive, pro-European, relatively clean, and with a coherent critique—unique in Europe—of European economic policy. It was even more remarkable that the Greeks stood behind Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, through the five hard months of negotiation that ended in capitulation in July—even reelecting Tsipras in September of 2015. In so doing, Greeks went a long way toward weakening their oligarchs (the two dozen or so wealthy families who controlled the Greek economy and politics and who helped drive the country to financial ruin), while keeping the paramilitary thugs of Golden Dawn more or less down. With luck and a bit of money, this could have been the beginning of economic and political renewal—except for the fact that Europe’s leaders would not make concessions, not a single one, to a government of the Greek left.

The relationship between the Greek and German governments in this period was not especially harsh or hostile; at the level of personal interactions it was highly interesting and more subtle than widely reported. It is true that Schäuble’s public vision of Greek progress-under-austerity was deluded, as Angelos does not quite say. But Schäuble in private was candid and professional with Varoufakis, admitting flatly that the memorandum was not good for Greece. And Greek strategy, understanding Schäuble but not entirely sure of Chancellor Merkel’s ultimate intentions, turned on the chance that larger considerations—such as Ukraine, such as pressure from the United States—might open a path for her to cut the Greeks some slack. That hope was not irrational. Yet it proved futile in the face of Schäuble’s authority and the hostility of right-wing governments from Lisbon to Riga, the intransigence of the IMF and the ECB, and the toxic tone of German politics and the German press.

Angelos, we are told, lives in Berlin. Having given us the foibles and delusions of the Greeks, in his next book, The Fuller Catastrophe, he could do worse than to turn his talents of observation and narrative to the people there. And to those in Brussels, Frankfurt, Paris, and other citadels of right-thinking financial power.

James K. Galbraith

James K. Galbraith is the author of Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and and Future of Europe, forthcoming from Yale University Press.