Why Greeks Are Protesting Bailouts Designed To Help Them

It might seem crazy to protest a bailout meant to help your country out of its self-imposed mess, but, for many Greeks, there's more than just money at stake

A student is visible through a hole in a banner during a protest in Athens last Wednesday / AP

To critics, Greece is the petulant child of the European Union. After joining the European Monetary Union in 2001 mostly by fudging its budget numbers to appear to have a sustainable economy, as financial journalist Michael Lewis writes in his new book, Boomerang, Greece then completely failed to keep government budget deficits below 3 percent of GDP, as was required. In fact, Lewis argues, the government wasn't even making much of an effort to keep track of how much money it was handing out. Government expenditures and income were nowhere close to matching up. Ordinary Greek citizens gladly took the extra government cash -- expensive social services, early retirements, overpaying public sector jobs -- while baldly lying about their incomes at tax-time.

Now, European politicians like German Chancellor Angela Merkel are risking their own careers at home to bail Greece out and avoid a default, which could ripple across the already-fragile eurozone. In response, Athenians have taken to the streets, outraged at the austerity measures tied to the bailout. Some protesters have portrayed Merkel dancing with Hitler. Meanwhile, trying to pressure the Greek government into rejecting further cuts, Athens' trash collectors have gone on strike, leaving garbage to rot in the streets.

Is the country as a whole really this immature? It depends whom you ask. The Greek perspective looks a bit different.

First, as Lewis notes, and as those close to the Greek government are even quicker to point out, the current government led by Prime Minister George Papandreou really isn't at fault. In fact, officials in the new government, which assumed office in late 2009, were the ones who discovered the mess left by predecessors and decided to come clean.

Papandreou's whole platform during his campaign was "vigorous reform of the public sector," Richard Parker, personal adviser to the prime minister on economics, told me. "He [Papandreou] was basically blindsided by the size of the government deficits, but I think actually thought in some sense it was a blessing in disguised because it would help drive forward the reform agenda."

Parker argued that the Greek government has been "aggressive" in addressing financial problems. "They knocked down their deficit-to-GDP ratio by six percentage points of GDP in 2010," he said. "No other country in the midst of this recession has gotten that sized reduction out of government," and "they're not getting many points on the board for it." Parker acknowledged, however, that he's pretty close to the government's process.

It may be the very dynamism of the government's response, though, that is driving Greek society to such anger.

"If a person hasn't lost their job or had their pension cut, then one of their family members has--or more accurately several family members and friends have," one anthropologist doing field work in modern Greek political culture wrote me in an email.

"Everyone I've talked to understands that tax evasion, for example, has contributed to the situation," he adds. "But these individuals also realize that the economic crash isn't one-dimensional, simple, or isolated to Greece." Furthermore, "many of the people I've spoken with don't see how their country can ever pay back the bailout money," and thus believe that "this is all a waste of time and that the people are being made to suffer needlessly since Greece will, sooner or later, having received the bailouts or not, default."

Parker agreed. The cuts "could take a fifth of the public sector workforce out," he said, "so you can understand why they'd be upset." From a macro perspective, though, is that expectation that they be saved today so everyone can sink tomorrow really fair? "These people are being asked to bear an enormous burden," Parker responded. "There's a way in which financial crises start far away but then come to tear down your house and your neighbor's house when in fact you weren't doing anything that was related."

Tax evasion would be qualify as "related," presumably, but Parker said he doesn't think the evasion has been as widespread as Michael Lewis has argued. And, he points out, the taxes were pretty high to begin with.

Insofar as there's any kind of national spirit at work here, the political anthropologist notes a "subtext" to the protests involving questions about government aims and "who is really in charge." He pointed out, "the question of sovereignty comes up--a thorny issue for many Greeks." Insofar as Angela Merkel is being targeted by outraged Athenians, it's because she is "portrayed as leading the push for austerity in Greece. Certain comments by her representatives and by the German media and 'the Greek character' have not helped her either."

Then there's the whole psychology of protest, and it's not clear it varies that much between downtown Manhattan and Athens, where ethnographic fieldwork suggests "the youth have felt disenfranchised and disconnected for a long time." Some, the anthropologist writes, "have expressed to me that by protesting, they're creating a 'space of alternate morality' (again, not unlike the 'occupying' protesters). Within this space, anti-austerity is merely the register used to express a desire for jobs, security, stability, and social equality." Whether the protests will actually help them get any of these things may be a separate matter.