They chanted, “We. Are. The 99 percent” with Greek accents in Zuccotti Park on Saturday. Greek-Americans, nationals and immigrants were joined by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters in a show of solidarity with the people of Greece, thousands of whom took to the streets to protest the latest round of International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity cuts. A week earlier, Greeks had rioted, setting dozens of Athenian buildings ablaze.
One of the Zuccotti Park protesters, Costas Panayotakis, is an associate professor of sociology at City College of Technology and author of “Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy.” “Greece is just a more extreme example of what's going on around Europe and around the world,” he said in an interview with Truthout, explaining the impetus behind the solidarity demonstration.
Christa Calbos, a student activist who goes to Manhattanville College and who has spent time in Greece, agreed that the solidarity stems from people worldwide seeing their own situation in the Greeks'. “It is important for Americans,” she said, “and all citizens of the world fighting against austerity to show solidarity because the challenges Greece now faces are not unique to Greece.”
“There is a growing global consciousness that has resulted from the crisis,” Panayotakis elaborated. “There are global movements. The Occupy movement itself is part of the global movement going back to the occupations in Spain and Athens and even before that, of course, in Tahrir Square in Egypt. There is a global growth in solidarity, because what we have is the failure of global neo-liberalism has become manifest during the crisis and so has the failure of the political and economic elites that have been administering this neo-liberal project.”
The Greek government, in order to shore up its fiscal health – its debt to private foreign banks is expected to reach 129 percent of the country's gross domestic product in 2020 – has repeatedly had to accept bailouts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the German-run European Central Bank (ECB). The austerity the IMF and ECB insist on imposing as a condition of the bailouts resembles similar measures imposed throughout the global South in recent decades – privatization of the commons, deep cuts to social services, dismemberment of labor unions, the imposition of a greatly lowered standard of living on the average Greek citizen. Calbos noted this similarity. “These words that have become so common after the start of OWS such as 'austerity,' 'free market,' 'bail-outs,' 'debt relief.' The true meaning and impact of these words have been understood and felt within the developing world for decades. Countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia have been bailed out – or bought out rather – by the IMF, World Bank, and other international financial institutions. When this happens, of course, it does away with a truly democratic government and any form of public social services.”
Panayotakis indicated that these phenomena are closer to home than the third world, saying, “There is a very brutal assault on people's living standards. There is a liquidation of labor rights that go back more than 50 years. And of course we've seen similar kinds of things going on even in the U.S., with the attack on labor rights of the public sector workers in Wisconsin and other parts of the country.”
This bringing-home of third-world conditions has ignited a radical spirit here, said Calbos. “It was easy for the west and the 1% to stomach this happening in the developing world,” she said. “They could paternalistically blame it on lack of education. However, Greece has suddenly now shown us that the white, western, middle class is not immune to the damaging effects of the neo-liberal economic system. This should be a wake up call, a call to action, a perfect example of how capitalism and democracy are not inextricably intertwined but rather at odds with each other.”
Almost no one in Greek society has suffered during the past few years as desperately as students. Said Calbos, “Students in Greece are at the heart of resistance, and I believe this is also important to the Occupy movement here in the U.S. In Greece, 50% of the population under 25 is currently unemployed. With incredible student debt, tuition hikes, and an ever-difficult job market, we in the U.S are facing many of the same obstacles.”
Rather than defaulting on the banks, the Greek government has decided to default on its people. “Basically there is an effort to push the cost of the crisis on the people least responsible for it,” said Panayotakis. “The priority in responding to the crisis has been to protect the banks and the financial sector. This is what we see in Greece and in Europe and the people who get penalized the most are ordinary workers and ordinary citizens.”
Greece, where democracy originated, was thrust into so deep a crisis by the financial crash that it abandoned democracy, turning its government over to a “technocrat” (read: banker), Lucas Papademos, formerly an ECB vice president. The result of this bloodless coup (i.e. whether Papademos' government can bring Greece back from the precipice of collapse) will reverberate worldwide, said Panayotakis. “What happens in Greece, of course, has great repercussions obviously for the European economy and, via the European economy, on the American economy and therefore the global economy.” This largely depends on the willingness of the German government, the economy of which is still strong, to help out, he explained. “There is a joke that the most dangerous opponent of President Obama is Angela Merkel. Her policies are threatening to basically throw the European economy into a meltdown, which of course would affect the rest of the world.”
And the whole world, they say, is watching.