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Snapshots of Austerity: Depair

Dimitris Christoulas memorial When 77-year-old Greek pensioner Dimitris Christoulas sat down under a tree in Athens’ busiest public square and committed suicide — shooting himself in the head not far from Parliament, and leaving behind a letter blaming the government’s austerity policies for driving him to it — his act launched protests in Greece, and became another example of the price austerity exacts from those least responsible for and least able to pay the debts that austerity policies are intended to help the country pay. Christloulas’s story offers a snapshot of austerity’s consequences for the elderly, the young, the middle- and working classes, and just about everyone outside of the one percent — and not just in Greece, but right here at home too.


He was a retired pharmacist, who left behind a wife and daughter when he died. That one man, whose name no one outside of his family and friends had reason to know, could spark attacks on police and yet another round of protests in Greece speaks to how many Greeks identified with his plight. Perhaps only the location Dimitris Christoulas chose for his final act, and his decision to leave behind a final message set him apart from countless anonymous Greeks for whom austerity yielded nothing but despair.

Despair was not Christoulas’s first response to austerity. First, he got mad. According to friends, Christoulas joined in protests against the government’s austerity policies. He joined a citizens’ movement against austerity, called “Den Plirono — which translates to “I won’t pay.” Yet, Christoulas did pay. The reality life under unyielding austerity took the fight out of him, and he gave up. Christoulas went out with a bang and one last gesture of outrage at Greece’s government. But ultimately he decided that life under austerity was not worth living.

The letter found on Christoulas makes is clear how he came to despair living under austerity.

Dimitris Christoulas, the man who took his own life using a pistol on Syntagma Square, in central Athens, on Wednesday morning, left a suicide note, state media has reported.

The Tsolakoglou government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years with no help from the state. And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945″ the note said.

Christoulas’s reference to the “Tsolakoglou government” was a not-so thinly veiled slap at Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, comparing him to Georgio Tsolakoglou — first prime minister of Greece’s collaborationist government, during Germany’s WW II occupation of Greece. No doubt Papademos — an economist who was appointed prime minister in November, after democratically elected prime minister George Papandreous was shown the door for having the temerity to his intention to hold a referendum on the terms of the proposed Eurozone bailout. Papandreous was brought to heel and quickly scrapped the referendum.

But it would not do to have a prime minister with the temerity to suggest that Greeks have any say in their economic fate. So Greece, the cradle of democracy, was deprived of a vote. The appointment of a new prime minister, more amendable to the concerns of Greece’s creditors and the providers of its bailout. (Germany, ironically enough, called the shots again.) In less than two weeks, Papandreous was gone, Papademos was in, and eventually the Greeks got austerity policies that satisfied the banks, but meant lower pensions, reduced wages and increased taxes for middle- and working-class Greeks.

Austerity has left Greece with a shrunken economy. Bringing down Greece’s deficit comes at a cost mostly absorbed by middle- and working-class Greeks, in the form of a fifth year of recession, and an unemployment rate of 21% — more than double what it was two years ago. For young people, between the ages of 15 and 24, the unemployment rate is now now 51%.

Imagine for a moment, then, what Greece’s austerity policies and their consequences did to the lives of ordinary Greeks inside of two years. Christoulas wrote of “young people with no future,” and his words are echoes by Mary Nassi, a 20-year-old architecture student in Athens. Her friend Chryssanthi Mourti hints that it’s not only Greece’s young people who see no future.

“You’ve heard it before, but young people do not see a future,” says Mary Nassi, who’s 20 years old and studying architecture at the University of Athens. “It’s so depressing and disappointing.” She was also at Syntagma on Wednesday evening with her friend, Chryssanthi Mourti, also 20 and an architecture student. Mourti’s parents lost their jobs several months ago. “My family has no income,” she said. “Nothing.”

Austerity has brought another change to Greece. Prior to 2007, suicides among Greeks under 65 fell sharply. In face, Greece had the lowest rate of suicides. Not surprising since suicide is so deeply stigmatized in Greece that the Greek Orthodox Church rejects the bodies of suicides for burial.

The economic downturn reversed that trend, as suicides among people under 65 increased between 2007 and 2009. The increase coincided with a 35% increase in suicides across the EU, with the sharpest increases in Greece, Ireland and Latvia — three countries in which people live under severe austerity policies. Of the three, Greece leads the pack with the fastest rising suicide rate in the EU — a 20% increase from 2007 to 2009.

Austerity has added its impact to the that of the economic crisis, to overcome the cultural stigma against suicide. Greece’s suicide rate has increased 40% since 2009. Perhaps what made Dimitris Christoulas different from so many others was that he chose to meet his end, not in some quiet room, but practically on the doorstep of Greece’s government.

American Style

America is not Greece. Progressives have said it over and over again, in response to conservatives and deficit hawks who warn that America will end up like Greece (and soon!) if we don’t take up the yoke of austerity that’s been foisted upon Greek citizens. While Americans have yet to experience the kind of soul-crushing austerity people are forced to live with in countries like Greece and Ireland. Instead, we’ve had what Paul Krugman called “passive austerity,” as the stimulus faded to its end, Republicans in Congress obstructed even the most modest attempts to stimulate the economy and/or raise revenue, and cash-starved state and local governments were forced into painful budget cuts.

That’s not to say there’s no chance of Greek-style austerity in our future. This, after all, is an election year. Republicans could make significant gains in 2012. Perhaps enough to have a shot at passing the kinds of austerity policies they’ve only dreamed of for the last four years. Right now, their hatchet is poised to make deep cuts in vital programs that serve low-income and working-class families.

Yesterday, the House Agriculture Committee approved $33 billion in cuts to food stamp benefits over the next ten years, in order to avoid defense cuts that even the Pentagon supports. They were just getting started. Those cuts are just part of a whole pack of cuts that would also cut social service programs and transform them into block grants to states, and reduce child tax credit refunds for working class parents. The only things stopping them is the Democratic majority in the Senate, and the Democrat in the White House. For now.

But even without the Ryan budget becoming the real budget, American does resemble Greece in some disturbing ways. No one yet knows how many suicides are associated with the current recession. Statistics lag about three years. Studies suggest a clear connection between unemployment and suicide. The unemployed commit suicide at a rate that’s two or three times the national average. Long periods of unemployment increase the likelihood of suicide. There’s also a clear correlation between economic difficulties and suicide among young and middle-age adults.

We’ll have to wait for national statistics specific to this recession, but looking at other numbers indicates a trend that, with the right stimulus, could rival Greece’s increase in suicides. Take the available stats for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for example.

The suicide prevention hotlines also show signs of stress. In Jan. 2007, as the recession started, there were 13,423 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a nationwide toll-free hotline. A year later, there were 39,467. In Aug. 2009, the call volume peaked at 57,625. Last year, the government granted the group an extra $1 million to increase programs in places with high unemployment rates.

State and local statistics are another potential indicator. Nevada, one of the states hardest it by the recession, has always had a higher suicide rate than the rest of the country, but the recession has made it worse, especially in counties where unemployment has hovered at 14% for years, and underwater homeowners still wait for relief.

“Political Murder”

Among the Greek citizens to have taken to the streets to protest austerity in honor of his memory, many have no doubt seen their loved ones bearing the brunt of the government’s austerity policies fall into despair and ultimately lose hope, even as they themselves continue to struggle. It’s no wonder that so many of them have called Dimitris Christoulas death a “political murder,” rather than a suicide.

After all, you need not have you finger on the trigger to cause a man’s death. All you have to do is kill his hope for the future, and wait for him to do the rest.

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