The year is ending with a barrage of transport strikes and with Athenian neighborhoods piled high with garbage. But that is not what makes this Christmas like no other in living memory – because transport and garbage strikes are a fixed feature of our holidays, whether they be Christmas, Easter or the mid-August Dormition of the Virgin. The difference this time is the intensity and persistence of the protests, and the sense that Greece is being tested at every level. We are all part of a stress test. On the one side, an ambivalent and frightened government, under the beady eye of our creditors at the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, is trying to introduce radical changes to our economic and social life; on the other, those affected by the changes (all of us, to a greater or lesser extent) are worried about the future, either in solitary silence or in dynamic protests. Everyone fears everyone else while they pull in opposite directions.
This may be the most significant cause for optimism. We have begun to understand that the country is at its limits. Indeed, if we had not managed to get the 110-billion-euro bailout, Greece would have been bankrupt already. The fact that we got the loan, and are able to pay public sector salaries and pensions, albeit it with severe cuts, allows us the luxury of debating who is more to blame for our reaching this impasse: New Democracy or PASOK? This argument will never end, because the two parties that alternated in government over the past decades tried to outdo each other in providing benefits to various groups of voters.
As long as the country borrowed without limits, all the problems were swept under a golden rug. Whenever garbage collectors waged their seasonal walkout, the municipality and the government would cave in and pay. When workers at public utilities held the people hostage by threatening to withhold their services, the government caved in and paid. When farmers blockaded roads, ports and border posts, the government caved in and paid. The damage that each group caused the others was ignored, because in the end more money landed up sloshing about and everyone hoped to get some.
Today, reality has pulled the rug from under our feet and we are facing the problems that we tried to ignore. Today we see where this national reductio ad absurdum has led us, what monsters were born of the irresponsible tendency toward excessive demands and absurd behavior. Among the most important consequences are the economic impasse, the dearth of solutions to each sector?s real problems and society?s tolerance toward extreme modes of behavior by special interest groups. This applies not only to public sector workers and farmers, but to most sectors. What, for example, did journalists, pharmacists and truckers do to solve their problems, to prepare for the future? They did not look at the dangers to their sectors, choosing only to demand the most that they could get, acting as if all they needed to do was force the government to give them some of its inexhaustible supply of funds. We were pouring water into a sieve – and now we are deprived and angry. For the first time, we are not striking in order to get even more benefits; we are battling to hold on to what we have.
We don?t know when we will hit the bottom, nor how much our lives will change during the years of privation. Most likely, things will get worse before they get better. When we see the simplistic arguments in our public debate leading to division, and this, in turn, leading to violence, we know there are no guarantees that the darkness will be brief. But when we let our gaze wonder over others – our colleagues, our friends and relatives, some public figure who states a position clearly and honestly, a civil servant who helps us efficiently and seriously – we see that in the midst of the garbage, the people?s strength is based on each thinking citizen. In the dark, we can see the flame – however faint.