Grandfathers, Fathers, Sons

Three Generations of Greek Workers

James Petras

The European Union and its Greek collaborators pillage the treasury, slash employment, salaries and pensions, foreclose on home mortgages and raise taxes. Household budgets shrink to one half or one third of their previous levels.

In a growing number of households, three generations are living under one roof, barely surviving on their grandparents' shrinking pensions; some households on the brink of destitution. The prolonged—never ending and worsening—capitalist depression has caused a deep rupture in the life cycle and living experiences of grandparents, parents and children.

The intergenerational rupture can best be understood in the context of the contrasting 'life experiences' of the three generations: The focus will be on work, political, family and leisure experiences.

The grandfathers' families in most cases migrated from rural areas or small towns during the post-civil war period (1946-49) and many settled in the poor suburbs of Athens. Most barely finished secondary school and found poorly paid employment in textile, construction and public enterprises. Trade unions were non-existent, 'semi-clandestine' and subject to harsh repression by the US-backed rightist regimes into the early 1960's. By the mid to late 1960's the grandfathers gravitated toward the 'center-left' parties and the revival of trade union activity. This was especially the case among the growing assembly plant and public sector workers in the electrical, telecommunication, seaports and transport industries. The US-backed coup in 1967 and the resulting military junta (1967-1973) had a dual impact: Outlawing trade unions and collective bargaining, on the one hand, and stimulating foreign investment-led economic growth and corporate style clientelism on the other.

The clandestine anti-dictatorial struggle, the student uprising and infamous massacre at the Polytechnic University (1973) and the collapse of the military dictatorship following its abortive coup in Cyprus, radicalized the grandfathers. Legalization of political parties and trade unions led to a surge of trade union organizations, struggles and social advances. Wage increases accompanied the fall of junta. Entry into the European Union and the large-scale influx of'social cohesion funds' led to an expansion of public sector employment and increased political party clientelism extending well beyond the traditional right-wing regimes.

Job security, pensions and increases in severance pay created a relatively secure and stable labor force except in the manufacturing sectors, which were harmed by imports from the more industrialized EU 'partners'.
With the election of the Pan Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) in 1981, populist welfare legislation and wage increases served as a substitute for any consequential socialization of the economy. The economic and social security gains were steady, cumulative and led to rising living standards. The grandfathers joined trade unions, their leaders negotiated wage and workplace improvements and they faced the future with relative optimism: A comfortable retirement, better educated children and a modest paid-up apartment and small automobile. They looked forward to enjoying leisure time with family, friends and neighbors. Or so it seemed in the run-up to the Greek Catastrophe of 2008.

Greece's economic progress was built on rotten foundations—on EU loans that were secured through fraudulent accounts, a public treasury pillaged by bipartisan kleptocrats and public 'investments' in large-scale unproductive clientelistic activities with corrupt business 'partners'. In a word, the 'golden years' of the grandfathers' comfortable retirement was based on the illusion that a half-century of work and social advances would translate into a respectable dignified life.

The fathers were urban born, better educated than the grandparents and highly influenced by the consumer ethos that permeated Greece. They entered the labor market in the early 1990's. They saw themselves as more 'European', less nationalist, less class conscious and less involved in social struggles than the previous generation. Interest in sports and celebrities and their own social advancement precluded any engagement in the great social struggles of the grandfathers. They experienced rising salaries through top-down negotiations. They paid no attention to the grotesque enrichment of the kleptocratic socialist political elite and they ignored the growing debts, both personal and public, which 'funded' their overseas vacations, the second home and the imported German cars. They paid handsomely for tutors to prepare their children for the University entry exams. Their future was assured by ever more optimistic (falsified) government data and the positive assessments by EU experts. Trade unions and business associations focused exclusively on current increases in salaries, revenues, cheap credit and access to the latest techno toys.

The fathers spoke English, welcomed ever-greater European integration and discarded the doubts and criticism that the grandfathers directed at NATO and Israeli wars, inequalities within the EU and the effects of economic liberalization. They ignored the criticism of the close ties between the PASOK kleptocrats, local and overseas bankers, ship owners and millionaire plutocrats.

Cynicism was their 'modernist response' to pervasive corruption and growing indebtedness. As long as they got theirs why challenge the status quo? With the onset of the Greek Catastrophe, the fathers lost it all jobs, social security, homes, cars and vacations. The 'Europeanists' among them suddenly became virulent critics of the Euro bankers—'the Troika', which mandated that the fathers should sacrifice everything they possessed in order to save the kleptocratic rulers, the millionaire tax evaders and the indebted bankers. The economic catastrophe gradually eroded and finally shattered the 'modern European' consumerist consciousness of the upwardly mobile middle and working class fathers.

First they suffered successive salary cuts and then they lost their job security, followed by massive firings with and without severance pay.

Dismay, fear and uncertainty were followed by the recognition that they were facing the financial firing squad. They realized they were trapped in an unending free fall. They took to the streets and discovered that their entire generation and their entire class was uprooted and discarded. The fathers discovered they were worthless and they had to march and struggle to reaffirm their self-worth.

The vast majority of sons are unemployed: Over 55%, by the beginning of 2013, have never had a job. Each day and each week their numbers grow as entire families are impoverished and households disintegrate. School attendance has fallen off, as the prospects of employment disappear and the specter of long-term large-scale unemployment haunts everyday life. The prospects of establishing stable couples and new families among the young are non-existent.

'Street culture' has multiplied and the video arcades are more often places to meet rather than to play. Attendance at 'pop concerts' has fallen while the sons now turn out in greater numbers at mass protest marches. The growing politicization and radicalization of the sons now begins in the middle school and deepens in secondary and technical schools and the university.

Many, by their late 20's, have never had a job, never moved out of their parents or grandparents home and cannot envision a future marriage or family. The lack of work experience means a lack of workplace comradeship and union membership. In its place is the centrality of informal, peer group solidarity. Perspectives for work focus on emigration, hustling for a miserable odd job or joining the struggle. Today they wander the streets in anger, despair and deep frustration. As the years pass, the sons increasingly vote for the Left (Syrian) but are fed-up with the ineffectual parliamentary opposition, the ritual marches and the inconsequential social forums, featuring local and overseas radical lecturers who spin theories about the crisis but who have never lacked a job or missed a paycheck. The vast majority of the young unemployed feel that 'words are cheap'. The intellectuals, new-left politicians and overseas Greeks do not resonate with their day-to-day experience and offer no tangible solutions. Sons have joined with anarchist street fighters. So far few of the unemployed sons have responded favorably to the neo-Nazi appeal of the Golden Dawn. But they are hardly enthusiastic over the Left's embrace of immigrant job seekers, especially when their neighborhoods are victimized by Albanian, Middle Eastern and Balkan drug dealers and pimps.

The grandfathers' political trajectory differs sharply from their progeny. Many of their own parents were partisans in the Communist-led million-member national liberation movement (ELAS-BAM). They fought the Italian fascists and the German Nazi occupation army and took an active part n the civil war. Following the Anglo-American intervention and defeat of the insurgents, hundreds of thousands of Greeks were sent to slave labor/concentration camps, where many died. Villagers and farmers were savagely repressed and driven off their land. Property was confiscated and millions migrated to the cities in search of anonymity and employment. When the Communist Party was outlawed, many members and ex-members joined 'progressive parties', the United Democratic Left (EDA) in search of an alternative.

The grandfathers came to political age with the revival of 'populist politics' in the early 1960's, promoted by the Center Union Party. After the 1967 coup, they faced six years of US-backed military rule (1967-73). Under junta rule, some grandfathers engaged in clandestine political and trade union activity. With the collapse of the junta, most grandfathers joined the newly formed Socialist Party led by a radicalized Andreas Papandreou. The post-junta 1970's were a period of intense political debate and the proliferation of previously suppressed Marxist books, lectures, journals, forums and popular cultural events. Mikis Theodorakis, the great Communist composer, drew tens of thousands to his concerts, many of them workers, evoking scenes similar to Pablo Neruda's poetry readings to the thousands of workers and peasants in Chile. In the election of 1981, the grandfathers voted overwhelmingly for the Left: PASOK won over 50% of the vote and the Communists received close to 15%. Almost two-thirds of Greeks, and over 80% of Greek workers, voted for socialism (or so they thought!). The grandfathers celebrated the defeat of the far right and over a half century of Nazi, US and right-wing military rule. The grandfathers had great hopes that Papandreou would fulfill his promise to 'socialize' the economy. They saw the electoral ascendancy of the Left as a prelude to a break with NATO and as a transition to an independent socialist welfare state. Despite several massive socialist and trade union conferences on 'worker self-management of a socialized economy' and the bankruptcy of scores of indebted private firms, Papandreou argued that 'the crisis' precluded an 'immediate transition to socialism'. He argued the right wing's capitalist recovery and only afterward could 'socialist' policies be implemented. He ignored the fact that it was the very capitalist crisis, which led to his election! Many grandfathers were disappointed but, Papandreou, with the skilled speeches of a populist balcony demagogue, proposed a series of substantial wage increases legalized and expanded labor rights and implemented and increased social welfare and pension payments. The grandfathers settled for the populist reforms and the de-radicalization of the political process. From mid-1980 onward, the grandfathers continued to vote Socialist, but now exclusively with the goals of economic gain and expanding social coverage in health and pension benefits.

Under Papandreou, PASOK degenerated into an inconsequential 'gadfly' within NATO. Its enthusiastic entry into the EEC and its maintenance of US military bases eroded the last vestiges of anti-imperialist activity among the grandfathers. They narrowed their focus and looked toward PASOK as a clientelistic political machine, necessary to secure employment and guarantee their pensions.

With the onset of the Economic Catastrophe in 2008 and the savage social cutbacks implemented by the utterly inept, corrupt and reactionary George Papandreou, Jr., the grandfathers felt the first Shockwaves of instability and the threat of losing their secure and living pensions. By 2010, the grandfathers totally abandoned their support for PASOK. Revelations of corruption and the slashing of pensions by 35% drove the grandfathers into the streets in massive protests. Later, a majority voted for the new leftist SYRIZA Party.

The grandfathers have come full circle: Re-radicalization has accompanied the return of authoritarian rightwing rule under the colonial dictates of the European Troika.

But now the grandfathers' pensions have to support three generations. Once again, the search for a new political party is as urgent as during the period immediately after the fall of the military junta.

The timid, playful or fearful sons are growing up fast. Maturity begins at fifteen. The marches started earlier. Radical political loyalties followed. What next, 'little man'?

The sons are a growing army of unemployed and maturing quickly. Today they are dispersed. Some want out—leave Greece ... But most will stay ... Will they organize and move beyond the current electoral opposition and fashion a new radical movement breaking with the rotten repressive electoral system? Can they become the militants for a new heroic resistance movement? Whose grandson will climb the walls of the Parliament and defy the colonial collaborators and their Troika masters. Who will raise the flag of a free, independent and socialist Greece?

Vol. 46, No. 8, Sep 1-7, 2013

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