Professor of Greek history worries about his homeland’s future

The Greek Parliament votes Sunday (Feb. 12) whether to accept the latest deficit-cutting terms and conditions accompanying offers of $207 billion in financial help from the European Union and International Monetary Fund. The austerity measures are designed to avert further economic calamity for the bankrupt country.

The Greek government already has slashed spending and agreed to cut 15,000 public-sector jobs, loosen labor laws, lower the minimum wage by 22 percent and negotiate with banks for debt write-offs.  Thousands of Greeks are protesting, some violently, and holding strikes. Sunday’s vote includes the unpopular prospect of pension cuts.

University of Athens

Nikolaos Papazarkadas, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of classics and a native of Greece, earned his B.A. at the University of Athens in 1999. Watching from American shores, he says he is apprehensive about Greece’s conditions improving anytime soon.

Q:  What is your biggest fear about the new austerity measures the Greek government has been asked to approve?

A: They seem to continue the same dangerous recipe of unmitigated neoliberalism that has patently failed in Greece over the last couple of years. Even those Greeks who originally supported austerity as a possible way out of the financial woes have by now grown disillusioned. The country has entered a long period of recession, manifest in the increasing numbers of unemployed, in the dwindling salaries, and in an almost non-existent level of productivity. Many a trustworthy economist has pointed out the absence of any prospect of financial growth in the measures imposed on Greece. We’ve reached a point where the lenders behave as if they are trying to squeeze as much as they can out of Greece ahead of its inevitable collapse. And if this occurs, social disintegration, which is already happening, will result in social unrest of unimaginable proportions.

Q:  How have steps to deal with the Greek debt crisis affected higher education there, in terms of student access, cost and/or academic scholarship?

A: That’s a tough one! One of the few good things about Greek higher education is that it is publicly funded. There are no private universities, and undergraduate students don’t have to pay fees (and rightly so). But university degrees can no longer secure an easy way into the job market, for the simple reason that there are almost no jobs! Just yesterday, it was reported that the unemployment rate in Greece reached an unprecedented 20.9 percent in November; I can only guess that right now, in early February, this percentage is even higher. I therefore wonder how many young men and women will even bother entering the university system. Of course, as a result of the overall cuts in public spending, funding for higher education has been reduced dramatically. And to preempt another possible query, private sources of funding are not available, both because Greece lacks a tradition of private support and, simply, because the private sector has also been severely affected by the crisis. As far as I know, appointments of new faculty have practically frozen, and some preposterous situations have arisen. There are many stories of academics who have applied for and been offered posts at Greek universities and who have subsequently found themselves waiting for years for official approval of their appointment.

Q:  How would you describe Greek higher education up until the recent debt crisis?

A: Highly politicized. In terms of human resources, the level was rather high, at least during my own passage through the system in the 1990s. Yet, there was a feeling that PASOK and New Democracy, the two major political parties that have monopolized power since the fall of the Greek junta in 1974, had penetrated and manipulated the system in their efforts to tighten control of power. From an academic point of view, I have the impression that the humanities and even the social sciences were faring much better than the sciences. Greek higher education was neither particularly research-oriented nor at the forefront of technological developments, and this was certainly a failure of the system.

Q:  How are friends and colleagues in Greece coping with the financial upheaval and pressures?

A: With enormous difficulty. They have all seen their salaries and other sources of income being slashed to record low levels. And they are the lucky ones: Others have lost their jobs. Friends, family and colleagues all draw a picture of psychological and emotional depression and uncertainty. Even people who used to have a rather pronounced interest in politics appear much more resigned than I could possibly imagine.

Historically, the last time Greece saw such widespread phenomena of desperation and helplessness was in the 1940s during the German-Italian-Bulgarian Occupation of the country and the subsequent civil war.

Q:  Do you think that resistance from organized labor in Greece to the latest austerity steps could derail the latest bailout effort?

A: Quite frankly, no, although much depends on what one means by “organized labor.” Just as with higher education, the Greek unions had for years been largely exploited by the two major Greek parties. This led to a widespread dismissal of their role by the general public, which to some extent was manipulated to its dislike of the unions by the media. It is true that organized unions have been trying to resist the neoliberal onslaught for almost three years now. Yet, they have consistently failed.

The only substantial labor resistance seems to come from unions belonging to the Greek Communist Party, a party with elected members in the Greek Parliament, which, however, has such an old-fashioned and entrenched idea of politics that it has been unable to appeal to wider segments of the Greek population. Other less traditional political and social formations may offer a more realistic hope of resistance, though there is no panacea: Last summer, it temporarily looked as if the movement of the Greek “Indignados,” a movement similar to the Occupy movements here, was gathering momentum, but it ultimately failed to effect any change.

Q:  You’re a Greek historian, but what is your most fervent hope for modern Greece?

A: Simply, I can only wish Greece gets out of this endless nightmare as soon as possible, yet I don’t see it happening any time soon. In any case, I don’t think the Greeks can walk this way alone.

Greece is a long-standing member of the European Union, yet this union has long stopped caring for the interests of its people. I very much hope that the peoples of Europe will try to fight for a world where the pursuit of profit does not wreak havoc the way it does right now.