Sunday, December 04, 2011

Civil disobedience

An important part of the EU-mandated recovery plan for Greece is the imposition of a swingeing properly tax, this one with the unique characteristic of being collected by utility companies via domestic electricity bills.

The New York Times recently offered an example of its impact, citing Ioannis Chatzis, an 86-year-old who lives in a tiny, single room, surviving on a pension that is just enough to pay for food and care for his bedridden wife.

Mr Chatzis has been sent a $372 property tax demand – in addition to the $133 he would normally have to pay - incorporated into his October electric statement. He says he is being asked to choose between lights and paying for his wife's medicines, since he cannot afford both on his $720-a-month pension. "This is how we are treated", he says, "I have nothing left to give. I will not be paying it".

Chatzis is very far from being alone in his refusal, in what is rapidly turning into a trial of strength between the Greek people and their government and, by proxy, a war between the people and the European Union.

Two weeks ago, there were reports of resistance springing up all over Athens, not least to counter the government's tactic of insisting that the utility companies disconnect users if they fail to pay the tax.

Groups of volunteer electricians have sprung up who move in after the utilities have done their deeds, and reconnect the refusniks. Some union members, working for the utilities, have told their employers they will not disconnect anyone for reasons of non-payment of tax.

For the government, in a country where paying tax is very much a lifestyle choice, and something of an optional extra, the property tax aims to collect about €2 billion from people normally outside the system. But so far, with only 86,000 of the tax bills issued – a tiny fraction of the 5.5 million due – only 73 percent have paid.

With prime minister Lucas Papademos unmoving on this issue, groups of citizens are also mounting legal challenges in the supreme administrative court, claiming that the tax is unconstitutional, mounting protests outside the court as the case was heard (pictured), chanting "We won't pay!". The court has yet to deliver a verdict.

Protests are now coalescing into an all-embracing "I won't pay" group, which is encouraging people to refuse payment of road tolls and fares on the public transport system, a recognition that "starving the beast" is perhaps the most potent weapon in the citizen armoury.

Organisers are now confident that the tax will deliver less than half of its predicted yield, with other protesters bogging down the collection system with individual appeals against the amounts charged, challenging what are claimed to be mistakes in the calculations.

Ironically – according to the unions – government operations are themselves in default on their electricity bills, with €180 million owed to the state electricity company. Some unionists are urging immediate recovery of this sum, or mass disconnection of government buildings.

Few now doubt that Papademos has bitten off more than he can chew. With his plans lacking any democratic legitimacy, the people have rejected calls for co-operation and a Cameron-style "we're all in this together" plea would not play terribly well.

The hubris of the élites, therefore, is finally rebounding on them. After decades of ignoring the people, in the belief that their consent to government was not needed, the rulers are finally discovering that they do need that consent after all, just at a point when it is being withdrawn.

That may be the model for the future – not open confrontation but mounting disobedience. And there are more of us than there are of them.