A struggle to save Europe’s soul from privatization
As the EU sells its soul by pushing Greece to privatize its natural and cultural heritage, ordinary citizens are mobilizing to save their common wealth.
Image: the historic Stoa of Attalos, recently rented out for a private event.
When news of the Greek debt crisis first broke in 2010, a number of German tabloids called on the country to pawn its cultural and natural heritage to pay off its debts. “Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks!” ran a headline of the ever tasteless Bild. “And sell the Acropolis too!” With the bailout of May 2010 in the making, the populist editors of the right-wing magazine, apparently oblivious to the historical sensitivities around the German annexation of foreign territories, stubbornly insisted: “We give you cash, you give us Corfu.”
Today, more than four years since the signing of the first memorandum of understanding, it seems that Germany’s nationalist media — along with the European investor class and the oligarchic Greek elite — are finally getting their way. Greece’s subservient government is now pushing hard to open up new frontiers for privatization, with some 77.000 state assets slated for sale, including a host of historic marinas and idyllic islands, a number of ancient palaces, and large stretches of the country’s spectacular and unspoilt coastline.
Pawning Greece’s Heritage
Earlier this year, the government announced that it would move ahead with its plans to sell off a number of beautiful buildings of great historic value at the foot of the Acropolis. The Guardian reported that “among the properties are refugee tenement blocks built to put up Greeks fleeing the Asia Minor disaster in 1922 and culture ministry offices housed in neo-classical buildings in the picturesque Plaka district … that were erected shortly after the establishment of the modern Greek state. Both are widely viewed as architectural gems.”
The announcement came on the heels of a controversial decision to rent out two of the most important archeological sites in Athens — the Stoa of Attalos, which sits in the ancient agora, and the Panathenaic Stadium — to companies for private events. Earlier, similar plans had been mooted by leading politicians of the ruling conservative party to lease out the Acropolis for photoshoots and other commercial and promotional activities.
Then, in May, the government upped the ante by proposing a bill that would effectively overturn decades-old constitutional protections of the country’s coastline that restrict development and guarantee open access to the beach. The Greek privatization fund TAIPED subsequently marked 110 beaches for privatization, including such gems as Elafonisos, home to the valuable marine archeological site Pavlopetri. Under the coastal bill, ownership of the seashore — along with any architectural structures and the surrounding natural environment — will fall exclusively unto the buyer, who will be able to “develop” their property and restrict access to non-owners.
The consequences of this privatization drive would be disastrous and largely irreversible. Thanks to its constitutional protections, the Greek coastline has so far managed to avoid the kind of mass development that has befallen the Spanish coastline — leaving it intact as one of Europe’s last-remaining unspoilt seashores. As The Press Project points out, however, the proposed coastal bill “would make it possible for even large beaches in Greece to be carpeted from end to end with umbrellas and beach bars,” while the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has warned of a Spanish-style construction boom of holiday apartments that could cover the Greek coastline in concrete.
Needless to say, the privatization drive goes hand-in-hand with the strangulation of Greece’s public sector — under direct orders of the Troika of foreign lenders — which renders the crisis of the country’s archeological heritage all the more acute. The budget of the Culture Ministry has been slashed by a savage 52% since 2010, putting at risk some of Europe’s most valuable cultural treasures by greatly reducing the available funds to maintain and protect archeological sites and run public museums. Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry has overtly shifted its attention from preserving the country’s natural heritage to opening up new spaces for oil exploration.
A Scandalous Logic of Dispossession
While the sheer size of the privatization program and the aggressiveness with which it is being pursued are unprecedented in European history — eclipsing even the disastrous fire-sale privatizations in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union — the moves follow a well-established ideological script that has long been tested and perfected in the developing world, under the guise of the infamous Washington Consensus. As Harvard economist Dani Rodrik put it, in the 1980s and 1990s, “‘stabilize, privatize, and liberalize’ became the mantra of a generation of technocrats who cut their teeth in the developing world and of the political leaders they counseled.”
The script is not merely ideological, however: it has long since become the very modus operandi of the neoliberal state and the globalized world economy. The influential Marxist geographer David Harvey has referred to these processes as “accumulation by dispossession,” emphasizing how the “primitive” practices of enclosure that expropriated smallholder farmers and commodified the commons of pre-industrial England do not only continue today but constitute the very logic of the system. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein furthermore showed how economic and political elites often strategically exploit the temporary paralysis wrought by natural disasters and economic crises in order to privatize public property and common wealth that would otherwise be impossible to expropriate.
With the brutalities of disaster capitalism on full display in Greece today, and with the European Union and the IMF resorting to outright expropriation in order to claw back their own irresponsible loans to the Greek state, it is perhaps no surprise that the privatization process itself has been marred by scandals throughout. It recently emerged that the government secretly granted total tax exemption to the consortium that bought up the rights to exploit the old Hellenikon airport, one of the most valuable pieces of land in the Mediterranean. Even as a Kafkaesque array of fees and taxes is being imposed on ordinary Greeks surviving off less than 500 euros per month, the owners of Lamda Development, as sole bidder for the site, “shall be exempt from any tax, duty or fee, including income tax in respect of any form of income derived from its business, of transfer tax for any reason, [or] capital accumulation tax.”
To make matters worse, it soon emerged that Lamda Development, which is owned by the Latsis family of shipping and banking tycoons, paid a mere $1.2 billion for the old airport, even though independent pre-crisis valuations estimated it to be worth at least $6.8 billion. Calculations by the Greek newspaper To Vima furthermore show that the state will have to make at least another $3.4 billion in administrative and infrastructural expenses before it can deliver the property to its new owner — thus effectively subsidizing the multi-billionnaire Latsis family for its “purchase.” In the process, the public debt accumulates even further.
In fact, the corruption of public officials and the collusion between state and capital is so extreme and so deeply entrenched that it has inevitably infected the top echelons of both government and business. Last year, Stelios Stavridis, head of the TAIPED privatization fund, himself a former construction mogul who made a fortune building swimming pools for Greece’s tax-evading business elite, was fired after a newspaper revealed that he had been offered a trip to the island of Kefalonia on the private jet of the infamous Greek oligarch and shipowner Dimitris Melissanidis, to whom he had — just hours before — sold a 33% share of the recently privatized state gambling monopoly OPAP. Stavridis was the second TAIPED head to be dismissed on allegations of improper conduct within a year. Of course, the deals themselves have not been in the least affected by any of these scandals. Whatever the cost, the fire-sale must go on.
Europe, Selling its Soul
Ultimately, however, we need to face up to the real powers behind these endless scandals — the ones who have so far managed to keep their hands clean of any overt cases of corruption but who are nevertheless ultimately responsible for the expropriation and exploitation of Greece’s immense natural and cultural wealth, not to mention the unspeakable humanitarian tragedy that has been inflicted upon its ailing society in the past four years.
It should be clear by now that the privatization process, in all its scandalous ugliness, is little more than an attempt to enclose the commons and extract as much value as possible from a country whose population has already been sucked dry by the European banking elite amidst a catastrophic four-year-old depression. Completing the privatizations is a prerequisite for the release of Greece’s bailout funds, and it is common knowledge that Troika officials have been playing a leading role in drafting up many of the plans in great detail. This, also, is no surprise, as European investors stand to benefit lavishly from future sell-offs, with the Germans already eying the waste disposal industry and the healthcare sector (which their austerity measures have already reduced to shambles), and the French set on Greece’s public water utilities.
It is safe to say, then, that Europe has now fallen to the lowest of lows: having already abolished Greek democracy (insofar as such a thing could still be said to exist), European leaders and EU institutions are now selling off Greece’s invaluable natural and cultural heritage at cutthroat prices in order to “reduce” the country’s debt, which only ends up growing in the process. If Greece is indeed the cradle of European civilization, as the EU’s Hellenophile leaders — European Commision President Jean-Claude Juncker first among them — still like to maintain, then Europe obviously stands accused of selling its own soul, for a nickel and dime, to redeem a debt that everyone knows cannot be repaid.
The Resistance Builds Up
Still, if recent years have shown anything, it is that wherever there is great injustice and indignity, there will be resistance — and even the paralysis wrought by the neoliberal shock doctrine cannot last forever. In fact, the social and political opposition to the Troika’s privatization drive has been so fierce that the Greek government has already had to scale back its projected proceeds from 50 billion euros by 2015 to a “mere” 11 billion euros by 2016. While this hardly constitutes a victory, it does reveal the hostile social and political terrain on which the Troika and the Greek government currently have to navigate.
In fact, some early signs of hope are already starting to emerge. In recent months, the grassroots campaign against the privatization of the public water utilities in Athens and Thessaloniki, spearheaded by veteran activists from the 2011 Movement of the Squares, has made major strides in rousing public opinion. In late May, the movement was aided by a favorable court ruling that blocked the privatization of the Athens water utility. The ruling marks the first significant victory in a collective push-back — operating on multiple fronts, both institutional and extra-institutional — that may yet set a precedent and make the EU/IMF-enforced privatization drive come undone at the seams.
Meanwhile, as the government prepares to relaunch its deeply unpopular coastal bill — which had been briefly shelved ahead of the European elections in late May and which it now hopes to push through during summer recess, when only 100 out of 300 MPs will be in session — the resistance to the enclosure of Greece’s ecological commons is also taking off anew. While the outcome of this struggle remains uncertain, it is clear that the government’s room for maneuver is rapidly closing down. SYRIZA, the left opposition party which actively resists the bill and openly commits itself to re-nationalizing all privatized assets, now leads the polls — further increasing pressure on the last-remaining “Socialist” MPs of PASOK to defect from the government in future privatization votes.
At the same time, it is clear that simply re-nationalizing privatized state assets and returning to the status quo ante will not suffice. With the direct democratic legacy of 2011 still freshly in mind, ordinary citizens are increasingly pushing for Greece’s immense natural and cultural wealth to be democratically self-managed and held in common. Beyond a sclerotic and capitalist-controlled state apparatus and a thoroughly polarized and depressed economy, Greece’s dynamic grassroots movements provide a vision of what a truly radicalized society could look like — reclaiming the common from the rapacious claws of an elite gone mad and helping Europe redeem its privatized soul in the process.
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. This article was written as part of his weekly column for TeleSUR English.
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