Cultural anthropologist Aimee Placas moved to Athens in the early 2000s, where she studied the anthropology of money and consumerism in Greek society. Placas is a professor at DIKEMES, a non-profit educational institution based in Athens that provides study abroad programs for English-speaking undergraduates, and teaches courses related to anthropology, political science and international relations. Her most recent project documents the lived experiences of Greeks during the financial crisis, including those individuals who were threatened by bankruptcy. As a resident of the multicultural, middle-class neighborhood of Pangrati, Placas sheds a light on the everyday struggles faced by small business owners in her community and their response to the country’s debt crisis.
Greece has a long history of bankruptcy and debt. So, what makes the sovereign debt crisis of 2009 any different and why is it still such as surprise to the Greek people?
The problem for many Greeks with the narrative of events is that this idea that you come into power and say that the previous government had been lying about the debt is something that happened all the time. That had already happened two other times since the year 2000. The fact that this created a crisis that time but did not create a crisis the other times suggested to people, ‘Why now?’
When you say the word ‘crisis,’ it creates what social theorists call a state of exception. When you are in crisis mode, suddenly things can happen non-democratically that you would never accept in a moment of non-crisis. All those things that they had not wanted now are emergency so they all happen without any debate. People experience that as a trick.
One of the aftershocks of the global financial crisis of 2008 was this restriction of credit that eventually made its way to Greece. How did this affect business owners and their day-to-day operations?
What happens with the sovereign debt crisis is that Greek banks suddenly have red loans, which means that their accounts are full of loans that are not being serviced at all. They have nothing to lend. There is a trickle-down effect of this in terms of small businesses.
There are also a lot of small businesses taking out proper business loans and utilizing personal lines of credit, which is really bad for them because those tend to have higher interest rates. But this is what they were doing because it is what was available to them in terms of products. Those also start to disappear.
Pangrati is a residential neighborhood that is home to both family-run businesses that have been around for generations. But there is also a rise in the number of shops that opened during the peak of the crisis in 2009 and in the years following. How have these newer shops managed to maintain their businesses amidst the country’s crisis?
Rent went down after the first few years so people were able to start businesses with less startup cost. My theory was that there was a lot of used equipment that went on the market so it made it less capital intensive to go into business. People were able to start their own businesses, breaking off from working at someone else’s hair salon to start their own because rents dropped so much. It was feasible to do it in a way that was not before.
You see a lot of the shops that do not require a lot of inventory, like planning for an entire season, just daily inventory that you are dealing with taking place of the shops that you buy for a season ahead of time. It is both difficult and you have to come up with a lot of money at once if you cannot get credit.
As Greece continues to rebuild itself, there is speculation of the country leaving the EU in a step that some call “Grexit.” How would this step affect the future of Greece?
The moment for Greece to do that was in 2009 when all of our debt was in drachma. The debt has been rewritten so that if Greece were to go into another currency, it is still owed in euros in a different way.
The economy has already suffered. It has already done damage. It would have been really catastrophic to leave the Eurozone, but after 15 years, we probably would have been better. But to do it now after all of that does not seem reasonable. It has been used as a fear tactic so much that it has lost the ability to be used as a threat.