“Insanity,” Albert Einstein is said to have once remarked, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
In debt-ridden Greece, government after government has tried to cut its way out of a brutal recession and balance its budget in the process. But the austerity experiment has been an unmitigated disaster; the country is now a symbol of economic insanity.
Consider just three numbers: 53, 20 and 40.
The first number refers to the youth unemployment rate: 53 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds in Greece are out of work.
The second refers to the loss of growth: the Greek economy has contracted by 20 per cent since 2008 – and continues to contract in 2012.
The third figure refers to the suicide rate: there has been an astonishing 40 per cent increase in the number of Greeks taking their own lives since the start of the crisis.
Crisis of austerity
The country has gone from having one of the lowest suicide rates in Europe to one of the highest. Austerity is not just killing growth, it is killing people.
Nonetheless, upon arriving in sunny Athens you cannot help but notice the busy streets and bustling cafes. At first sight, it does not look like a nation in the midst of its own Great Depression.
But appearances can be deceptive, says Nikitas Kanakis, Greece director of the charity Doctors of the World.
Greece, he argues, is suffering from an African-style “humanitarian crisis”.
Kanakis’s charity used to be focused on the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers from the developing world; it now spends much of its time and resources trying to help ordinary Greeks, both middle-class and working-class, who have lost everything in the crisis – their jobs, their homes and, above all else, their hope.
These are the members of what is being called Greece’s “new poor”.
Locked into a common currency and economically uncompetitive, the Greek government is unable to devalue its currency or print its own money (as, for example, recession-hit Britain has done since the start of the financial crisis in 2008).
Economist Costas Lapavitsas, author of the new book Crisis in the Eurozone, tells me it is a matter of when, not if, Greece defaults on its debts and exits from the eurozone. Why not, he asks, start preparing for the inevitable?
Few seem to be listening to him.
Problems with neighbours
The ‘troika’ – the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission – has insisted that the Greek government continue to make savage cuts to public spending, regardless of the consequences; the birthplace of Western democracy seems to have become an obedient ward of the international community.
The sense of powerlessness, of being bossed around by bigger, stronger, richer neighbours – including Germany, which occupied Greece during the Second World War – has helped embolden the country’s far right: the neo-Nazi thugs of Golden Dawn won 7 per cent of the vote and an impressive 21 seats in parliament in last month’s re-run of May’s inconclusive general election.
Can Greece escape the austerity death spiral, or is it forever cursed with being the economic basket case of Europe? Does it have a future inside the eurozone, or is it on its way out of the currency union?
And how worried should the rest of us be by the rise of the Greek fascists?
Mehdi Hasan is political director at the Huffington Post and the host of The Cafe on Al Jazeera. Watch the first episode airing on July 13 to hear a discussion about the rise of the far right in Greece.