7 Ιανουαρίου 2020

Repression, eviction and dispossession in New Democracy’s Greece

The latest attack on the squatting movement in Greece is the preamble for a massive operation of housing dispossession by the right-wing government.

Theodoros Karyotis
First published in ROAR Magazine

Dimitris Indares was still in his pyjamas when the police knocked on his door in the neighborhood of Koukaki, in Athens, in the early hours of Wednesday, December 18. Not long after that, he was lying down on the floor of his home’s terrace, with a Special Operations policeman’s boot on his head. He and his two adult sons were beaten up, handcuffed, blindfolded and taken under police custody. What was Indares’ crime? He had refused to let the police go through his home without a warrant in its operation to evict the squat that was right next door.

Indares’ profile is not that of a squatter. A 55-year old film director and film school teacher, a homeowner, politically moderate with conservative views, working hard to get his sons through university. One could say he is a typical member of the Greek educated middle class and a typical voter of the governing New Democracy party. This fact didn’t stop the police from pressing fabricated criminal charges against him, accompanied by an operation of false accusations and defamation.

The Minister of Citizens’ Protection himself unashamedly lied that the police had a warrant, that Indares resisted arrest and tried to snatch the gun off a police officer, that his two sons were inside the squat next door and had attacked the police. Despite many testimonies to the contrary and a leaked audio recording of the moment Indares was being detained which disproves the accusations, the minister’s fabrications were repeated at full force by the government’s propaganda machine: the mass media owned by a handful of oligarchs allied with the governing party.

Even when Nikos Alivizatos, the Ombudsman for Police Violence appointed a few months earlier by the minister himself, threatened to resign in light of the evidence of police brutality, the mainstream press was quick to dismiss the Constitutional Law professor as a leftist who sides with squatters.

Indares’ case got a lot of publicity, with many denouncing the fabrications. Meanwhile, the government and its opinion makers refused to back down. What is of concern here is that this massive wave of support came only when an “average family man” had his civil liberties violated.

Since New Democracy was elected with a “law and order” agenda last July, the police have been acting like an occupation army in Greek cities, routinely violating human rights and dignity. Arbitrary detentions, torture, beatings, teargas attacks, raids in cinemas and nightclubs, public humiliation, verbal abuse, have been the order of the day.

Even so, as long as the arbitrary violence of the police was directed towards protesters, youth, students, squatters, homosexuals, immigrants or the marginalized, the reaction of the public opinion to daily gross human rights violations was at best timid. Sadly, such abhorrent practices are made possible by the active or passive support of a part of Greek society who have been convinced that in the battle against the internal enemy all means are legitimate, even the violation of constitutional rights and human dignity.

Indares himself, in press statements after he was released pending trial, appeared confused as to what really hit him. He is obviously appalled by the campaign of defamation against him, but he seems to consider himself the innocent victim of a just war. In the leaked audio recording of the moment of his arrest, he is heard reproaching the police of “acting like anarchists,” even though the possibility that anarchists break into his home, beat him up and kidnap him is non-existent. In his desire to remain equidistant, Indares does not acknowledge the arbitrary nature of police repression nor the reality-distorting function of the mass media, as long as peace-loving, hard-working, everyday people like him remain immune from this violence.

But it is precisely peace-loving everyday citizens like him who have most to lose in this new cycle of dispossession in Greece.

Nowadays in Greece, nothing reminds us anymore of the multitudinous and diverse mobilizations of 2010–15 against the structural adjustment program. However, material conditions have not improved for the majority of the population, nor have the austerity policies been reversed. Rather, austerity has been “naturalized”: it is no longer seen for what it is — a massive operation of wealth transfer from the popular classes to national and international capital — but as a natural disaster, much like a flood that sweeps everything away and leaves one to rebuild from scratch.

Syriza’s tenure in government has contributed greatly to this condition. Notwithstanding its overdue socially progressive reforms in matters of individual rights, Syriza’s inability to challenge austerity and its continuation of dispossessive policies have had a “TINA effect” — convincing the population that there is no alternative to austerity. The only possible course of action, they are led to believe, is to elect the political force that can best manage it; and the mass media, shifting the agenda to the familiar tropes of security, immigration and nationalism, have convinced most voters that the best manager of austerity is the right-wing New Democracy of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which won the July elections by a landslide.

Mitsotakis, stemming from a long line of politicians, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. In 1999, fresh out of his studies at Harvard and Stanford, he got a job as an investment fund manager in Athens using his father’s connections, earning the equivalent of €10,000 a month. In the past decade, he has gained publicity as the heir apparent who comes to invigorate the discredited old regime. What others would call privilege and nepotism, he has marketed as “excellence”: this was the rallying cry of his electoral campaign, along with the promise of enforcing law and order.

The present incarnation of the New Democracy party is an alliance between its neoliberal and extreme right currents, marginalizing the center-right current that was dominant in the 2000s. Mitsotakis and his troupe of entitled aristocratic technocrats have surrounded themselves with ultra-conservative, fear-mongering, moralizing, flag-waving television personalities.

It should be noted that this is not a temporary alliance around power sharing, but one based on a solid joint project. The common ground of the two factions is a kind of social Darwinism, in which appeals to economic rationality are alternated in the government’s discourse with racist and sexist truisms to justify and naturalize its repressive and exclusionary policies. Moreover, both factions agree on the reinforcement of conservative values and the traditional family structure as the institution that will absorb the permanent social shocks of the post-memorandum era.

Besides its technocratic discourse and its promise of economic growth, New Democracy has employed a divisive anti-communist rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, along with a historical revisionism that seeks to write popular resistance out of the country’s recent history. Through nationalist, xenophobic and homophobic narratives they have managed to poach voters from neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which, cornered by the actions of the anti-fascist movement, an ongoing trial, internal division and the rise of new political formations in the extreme right, failed to enter the parliament in July, for the first time since 2012.

On that account, the “law and order” doctrine is a vital part of the government’s strategy. Like with previous governments, its capacity to exercise its own policy is extremely limited, as, despite the formal end of the bailout “memoranda,” economic and foreign policies are still dictated by the country’s “partners” and “allies,” and there is constant monitoring and assessment of legislation and fiscal outcomes by foreign externally appointed bodies. “Internal security,” then, is the only field where the government can actually apply its energies and legitimize its power in the eyes of their increasingly conservative electoral clientele.

The deployment of police forces in urban areas has therefore been made into a great spectacle, with the anarchist movement identified as the primary adversary. The notoriously heavy-handed Minister of Citizen’s Protection Michalis Chrisohoidis gave a 15-day ultimatum to all squatters to voluntarily vacate their buildings or face forceful eviction.

The ultimatum was calculated to expire on December 6, the anniversary of the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos by the police in 2008, a date that regularly attracts crowds of protesters in city centers. However, the plan backfired after the Koukaki evictions; faced with increased mobilization and widespread criticism of police violence, the minister had to put the plan on hold to redefine his repressive tactics.

Incidentally, it were the 2008 riots that incubated Greece’s squatters movement; squatting has persisted as a practice of popular self-organization in the years of mobilization that followed. Today there are hundreds of squats in Greece, among them housing for locals and immigrants, social centers, urban farms and factories.

Squats are an important part of the social infrastructure put in place by contestational movements that seek to liberate human activity and sociality from commercialization and consumerism, and try out structures of plural decision making and coexistence. Despite their experimental and incomplete character, squats are a living reminder that there can be social spaces and relations outside the rule of capital, outside the cycle of work-consumption-sleep.

Squats have also been places where locals and immigrants coexist and asylum seekers create their own structures of self-support, as a hands-on response to the inhumane conditions imposed on newcomers in refugee camps. The consensus among all memorandum-era governments is that social alternatives should be repressed. The present campaign of evictions, therefore, is an intensification of the tactics of previous governments, including that of Syriza.

Even though the vast majority of squatted spaces are abandoned and neglected buildings belonging to the state, private foundations, rich heirs or the church, small property owners have come to see squatting as an affront to their own interests. This may be due to the fact that small real estate property is foundational in Greek society. After the Second World War, in contrast to the social housing policies of northern Europe, the Greek state actively promoted self-construction, viewing real estate property as the equalizing factor that would guarantee national reconciliation among a people deeply divided and scarred by the Civil War.

As a result, Greece is characterized by the dispersion of small ownership and one of the highest rates of owner occupancy in Europe, even when one-fourth of the population is propertyless and condemned to a very volatile rental sector with no housing policies in place as a safety net. Although the austerity measures have turned real estate property from an asset into a liability through overtaxation and the decrease of real estate prices, property is still a major signification in the imaginary of progress for a majority of Greeks.

Real estate property, then, signifies much more than a home. It is a family’s measure of success, their means of social mobility, the asset to transfer to the next generation, and, in the absence of adequate state welfare policies, their hedging against an uncertain future. This may go a long way in explaining the principled opposition of most Greeks to the practice of squatting, despite the fact that small family property is never the target of squatters. But it may also help explain the fact that since the beginning of the crisis, a special insolvency law protects the mortgaged primary residence of low-income debtors in arrears from foreclosure and liquidation by banks.

Although in many cases foreclosures still have gone through, this arrangement has helped maintain social peace by preventing mass evictions of working and middle-class families. Since the family has such a prominent position in Greece and has borne the weight of the structural adjustment, all governments so far, regardless of political orientation, have respected this arrangement. Things, however, are about to change.

The preeminence of the family on the Greek socioeconomic plane is not due to a supposedly family-centric Greek “psyche”, but it is the product of a historical “familistic” mode of economic development, in which the extended family unit was made responsible for the protection and welfare of its members and took on reproductive tasks that in northern European countries were carried out by the welfare state.

In the second half of the 20th century, this carefully designed and implemented model of development allowed Greece to achieve high rates of economic growth based on cheap labor with a minimal cost for the state and employers. In this context, clientelism, tax evasion, corruption, laxity in the enforcement of regulations, and other Greek “peculiarities” were not pathological behaviors, as economic manuals would have us believe, but perfectly rational, state-sanctioned adaptive behaviors of the family, which sought to compete and maximize its wealth in order to provide welfare to its members, in the absence of any other mechanism of redistribution.

The unhealthy side effects of such an arrangement came to light in the late 2000s, with a great volume of theoretical and artistic works criticizing the oppressive patriarchal structure of the Greek family. The epitome of such criticism can be found in the filmmaking movement known as “Greek weird wave,” kickstarted by Giorgos Lanthimos’ award-winning film Dogtooth, a parable for the claustrophobic and reality-bending complications of the co-dependent patriarchal family. A will to criticize and overcome the traditional family formation and celebrate new identities and social arrangements was evident in the mobilization and experimentation of the social movements in the following decade.

This criticism, however, was short-lived. For the alliance of neoliberals and extreme right-wingers that is currently ruling the country, the recomposition of the traditional family is a central piece. The extreme right’s reasons for this are clear: the patriarchal family is the basic biopolitical laboratory of the nation, reinforcing the reproductive tasks of women, policing the aspirations and behaviors of its members, enforcing the “correct” gender and sexual orientation, the one language and religion.

For neoliberals, the reasons are slightly more profound: despite neoliberalism’s discursive emphasis on the rational self-made individual, the family is still the structure that is entrusted with facilitating its designs of privatization and eradication of all welfare provisions. On top of the gendered unpaid care work, the family, through investment, indebtedness and internal redistribution, will yet again absorb the shocks of structural adjustment and shield its members in the all-out war that is the privatized economy, thus mitigating the social reproduction crisis that is synonymous with neoliberal expansion. In the society of self-serving isolated individuals envisioned by neoliberalism, the traditional family is the ultimate safety net; thus its authority over its members is actively reinforced.

Austerity has already paved the way for such a revival of conservative family values. Shrinking incomes and high unemployment rates have condemned an entire generation of young people to remain economically dependent on their parents; they are often forced to live with them until well into their thirties. This reinforces the moral authority of the patriarchal family over the dependent family members.

However, the revival of traditional family values has also required external reinforcement: throughout the times of crisis, the mass media have kept the Greek people on a steady diet of nationalism, religion and moral panic. Reactionary homophobic, anti-abortion or misogynistic narratives have made their way into every crevice of mass culture and hordes of extreme-right social media influencers have been promoting the fable that traditional patriarchal culture is the object of political persecution by the left wing.

This was the substrate for a continuous process of constructing the “internal enemy” as anyone who does not contribute to the cultural and physical reproduction of the nation: social movements, immigrants, anarchists, LGBTQ persons, people battling with mental illness, drug addicts and the Roma. Along with the biopolitics of the traditional family cell, run the thanatopolitics — a politics of death — of the state and the neo-Nazis. To the well-publicized murders of antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas and queer rights activist Zak/Zackie Kostopoulos, one should add the thousands of locals and immigrants who are deemed undeserving to live and are denied basic rights and assistance, often with fatal consequences.

Like in many other countries, austerity in Greece has not led to forward-looking positive solutions, but to an accelerated conservative retrogression. Despite the appearance of a wide social consensus around conservative values, the ruling class knows that this new equilibrium is very delicate, since the politics of dispossession of the social majority by local and international capital is far from over. And the next round of dispossession in Greece concentrates on what Greeks hold most dear: housing.

The net effect of austerity policies in Greece has been a large-scale upwards redistribution of wealth. According to UN data, between 2007 and 2017, despite mostly negative GDP growth rates, the top 1 percent of the population has seen its income increase by 6 percent, while the bottom 40 percent lost 44 percent.

Owing to shrinking incomes, as well as to the banks’ frivolous lending practices in pre-crisis times, Greeks started missing payments. Non-performing mortgages went through the roof, from 5 percent of all mortgages in 2008 to 45 percent in 2019. Social tragedy was averted by the above mentioned legal framework of protection of the primary residence, which allowed for a moderate haircut, a renegotiation and a subsidy of mortgages for low-income overindebted homeowners. Despite this measure, however, in late 2019, 350.000 mortgages, worth €25 billion, were still in arrears, jeopardizing housing security for a great part of the population.

Protecting homeowners, however, was not the only motivation behind the primary residence protection framework; this arrangement served to also protect the interests of the banking sector. At the height of the debt crisis, real estate prices had plummeted, and therefore liquidation of the mortgaged assets would have come at a great loss. Banks needed to buy time until real estate prices rose again. And this condition was met in 2018, when, despite low domestic demand, prices were pushed up by rising pressures on the real estate market: the deployment of Real Estate Investment Trusts following significant tax breaks, a “Golden Visa” program offering residence to non-EU citizens who invest more than €250,000 in real estate, and, importantly, a sharp rise in short-term rentals, especially through Airbnb.

With prices rapidly rising again, banks have been hard at work accelerating foreclosures and auctions of mortgaged homes, as well as selling “packages” of already foreclosed assets to foreign funds. Under pressure by Greece’s international “partners,” the government is abolishing the first residence protection framework this May. Up to 200,000 homes are threatened with foreclosure over the next year.

This represents an intensification of the trend of housing dispossession that has already changed the face of Greek cities over the past few years. Koukaki, Dimitris Indares’ neighborhood, exemplifies this trend. In the absence of renters’ protection, Koukaki has seen many renters thrown out, their homes bought by foreign or local investors and turned into tourist flats. Exorbitant rents — often higher than the average wage — drive locals out of the neighborhood, thus sucking the life out of a once lively area, now increasingly oriented to servicing tourists seeking out the “authentic Athenian experience.”

At an anti-Airbnb demonstration in July 2019, peaceful neighbors were met with unprovoked police violence. The eviction of three squats in the early morning of December 18 using rubber bullets — the operation that ended up with the raid at Indares’ home — has been integral to the government’s effort to quell all resistance against violent touristification. Other neighborhoods, such as social movement hub Exarchia, have similar stories to tell.

Last December the parliament approved the “Hercules” plan to sell €30 billion worth of non-performing loans to funds, with the state acting as the guarantor. Loans will be sold at a fraction of the nominal price, and the funds will be given free rein to demand repayment in full, which will result in foreclosures and auctions of real estate collateral, including both commercial and residential properties.

The symbolism of the name is clear: as the mythical Hercules diverted two rivers to clean the stable of Augeas of tons of manure, similarly the government is diverting up to €12 billion of its reserves to guarantee these bad loans and clean up the banks’ accounts. This is not simply “taxpayer’s money”: this is blood money extracted from the Greek people through extreme austerity measures.

The paradox is that while banks are prohibited by law to offer generous haircuts and renegotiations to debtors, they are now allowed to sell the bad loans at even 7 or 10 percent of the nominal value to get them off their books, and the state uses its reserves to guarantee this cut-rate transfer of wealth to foreign funds specialized in “distressed assets”. The “Hercules” plan, then, constitutes an indirect recapitalization of Greek banks, the fourth since the beginning of the crisis, again using the taxpayer’s money.

This plan — along with the impending abolition of primary residence protection, the big wave of housing foreclosures that is already underway, and the fire sale of “packages” of already foreclosed real estate by banks to funds — constitutes a well-orchestrated operation of housing dispossession in Greece. Thousands of families are threatened with eviction, with their homes ultimately possessed by foreign corporations for prices well below their market value.

As real estate players are preparing to attack, the Greek housing model — characterized by widespread small property ownership and a high percentage of owner occupancy — will begin to falter. This is certain to generate human suffering, as the context is one of skyrocketing rental prices and a complete absence of effective housing policies to absorb the shock.

Throughout the world, wherever neoliberalism takes hold, social solidarities break down, inequality intensifies and governments deploy a militarized, brutal and unaccountable police force to contain popular discontent. 2019 has been replete with such examples, from Chile and Ecuador to Lebanon and France. In the Greek context, the ongoing attack of the government on the squatting movement has a dual function: on the one hand, they aim to neutralize the “internal enemy” and eliminate one of the few bastions of criticism and resistance to dispossession, gentrification and “urban renewal.” On the other hand, they are rehearsing the repressive tactics they are going to employ in the impending wave of housing foreclosures, testing society’s reflexes to extreme and arbitrary violence, and sending a positive message to potential “investors” that no effort will be spared in protecting their “investment.”

Paradoxically, if the current trend of housing dispossession continues, Dimitris Indares and many peace-loving citizens like him are going to realize that, despite their desires and aspirations, their fates are linked more to those of the squatters next door than to those of the Greek government and the international financial organizations it serves.