Lords of trash

No society can survive long under the blows that ours is enduring. After successive governments kept putting off all tough decisions, we came to this dead end, where the PASOK government is in a war of survival against the forces that supported it from its foundation in 1974. It has no more time to waste: Either it will keep fighting the unions and other organized groups or it will surrender and Greece will be handed over to the chaos of clashing interest groups.

The scene is familiar: All too often we have seen our streets filled with trash, transportation paralyzed, public services malfunctioning, bullies and idiots closing schools and universities, organized groups holding hostage the apathetic whole, governments improvising policy and fleeing battle, parties interested only in their own domination and not the country?s progress, and the citizens hoping only that when the trouble is over they will be able to survive in the ruins. But this time the setting is different and things are much more serious: We continue to act out the same roles that we did all these years, but we understand that today?s developments will determine our future.

No one knows if the protests — which are coming to a head with an unprecedented barrage of strikes this week — are the death rattle of the system of extortionate balances and anarchy of the last few years or whether they are the start of a new era in which (with no more balances) each group does what it thinks is in its best interests. In the past, these groups pressed to gain more and more benefits, today they are trying to save what they can. The sense of deprivation (whether real, relative or imaginary) inspires their aggression, their war cries. ?If the government gets private companies to collect garbage, there will be bloodshed in the streets,? the president of Athens Municipality workers, Vassilis Polymeropoylos, said on Friday. ?We are determined to overturn the law and even sacrifice our lives and those of our families,? declared Thymios Liberopoulos, chairman of the taxi owners? union. ?We will not go to the cemetery on our own.?

On another issue, Lyberopoulos threatened to ?smash? the governor of the IKA social security fund, who had the temerity to decree that taxi owners should pay their drivers? social security fees for the days owners are on strike. Meanwhile, the government?s deputy leader, Evangelos Venizelos, said in Parliament on Friday that ?the future of the country, the security and salvation of our country is at stake.?

For the government, this contest demands social harmony, so Greece can meet the challenges of the harsh reforms our creditors demand; for interest groups and citizens who don?t accept or can?t endure the changes, it entails the government and troika?s retreat. The government is afraid of bankruptcy, while everyone else fears government policies.

Some will win and some will lose. People go to war either because they believe that they will win or because they cannot endure the thought of defeat without a fight. The long-term lack of faith in institutions and the selective enforcement of laws have cultivated a mentality in which violence and anarchy are acceptable as long as they have a ?political? justification, where stubbornness and bullying are tolerated. That is why today no one knows whether the battles have any hope of victory or whether they are just a display of flagwaving. Aggression is joined with despair, ruling out all hopes of dialogue and compromise. Expressions of hate are becoming normal.

In this way, the government, parties, unions and various interest groups cannot agree on the day after. And there will be a day after. Whatever happens, the country will continue to exist and its citizens will have to find a way to get on together and not exhaust themselves with pointless disputes. Whether or not we are bankrupt, with this government or another, someone will have to govern and someone will have to pick up the garbage. The fact that we have learned to live with our garbage for so many years is the clearest signal of the magnitude of our defeat.

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