Monday, February 08, 2010


If Hesiod is to be believed, the farming life is one of ill-rewarded, dreary drudgery. In his "Works and Days," a poem written in 700BC, he describes life in the small, agricultural community of Ascra, a "sorry place...bad in winter, hard in summer, never good." The context for him establishing a precedent that holds farmers to be perennial whingers, was the premise that a gulf exists between man's unending dreams and desires and the existing resources on earth required to make them a reality. The first half of Works and Days is thus devoted to the fundamental economic problem of the scarcity of resources for the pursuit of all human needs and desires. Hesiod characterizes society as one where "men never rest from labor and sorrow by day and from perishing by night." He notes that because of scarcity; time, labour, and production goods must be efficiently allocated, while pointing to basic need, social condemnation of indolence, and rising consumption standards as moving man towards economic development and growth. Fascinatingly, Hesiod mentions a spirit of competition of "good conflict" that tends to reduce the problems of scarcity.
Funnily enough, as a manual on farming, "Works and Days" fails miserably. His selection of tasks is spotty, omitting most of the important tasks on a farm, while emphasizing tasks and seasons of relatively little importance. The advice he does give is often elementary and his organisation is erratic. Yet Hesiod's anomalies each serve a distinct end, contributing in their way, to a dramatic re-enactment of the farmer's year. Examined in this way, the aberrations of Hesiod's account of farming lend Hesiod more, rather than less, credit as a poet.
One of the more dramatic highlights of the Modern Greek farmer's year is the annual blockade of important transport arteries, notably, the «κόμβος» of «Βιοκαρπέτ,» a major crossroads. Given that «κόμβος,» literally means "knot," it could well be said that the strangulation of Greece's transport network by farmers, represents a veritable modern day Gordian knot, the only difference being that the Greek expression «Γόρδιος δεσμός» also carries with it, connotations of bondage.
The reason for thousands of Greek farmers placing the entire country in the thralldom of paralysis with their winter wrath? A demand for compensation for low commodity prices and slashed subsidies. Using tractors and trailers, the farmers have blockade around seventy main roads, cutting Athens off from Thessaloniki and closing border crossings with neighbouring states. Even more alarmingly, they leave tonnes of fruit and meat rotting in trucks.
"Tractors are our weapon and we are determined to use them until our demands are met," Christos Sideropoulos, a farmer and one of the leaders of the protests, stated this week. "Let them say what they like. We are not going to give in." All this comes as Greece faces grave financial challenges, exposing the frustrations of Greece's underdeveloped agricultural regions. Despite EU subsidies, successive governments have failed to modernise a farming industry that remains dependent on state handouts. Dimitris Keridis, a political scientist explained: "It's an industry that depends on government handouts and is incompatible with the demands of modern societies. They produce produce that nobody buys."
Such subsidies are few and far between for other industries. Yet for some reason, farmers have been pampered and pandered to over the last three decades to such an extent that they cannot survive without forcing governments - and the rest of the population - to keep acceding to their demands for assistance. The farmers did not complain when successive governments went to bat for them in Brussels and came back loudly proclaiming victory in achieving high subsidies for their products, or when those same governments neglected to tell them that they should use the subsidies wisely, not as a bonus to be spent in a frenzy but as assistance to become more productive, to adopt new techniques and to make the leap to crops and products that would sell well on the international markets. Even if they did see the clouds on the horizon, farmers, farm unionists and government officials all pretended that farm subsidies were such an important part of the country's political culture that no one would accede to any demands - whether from the EU or the World Trade Association - for their abolition.
The over-indulgence of farmers is not a new phenomenon or indeed one particularly restricted to the Hellenic world. Significant constructs that comprise Australian identity myths continue to emphasise the country's agrarian roots and values. The bush, the harsh climate and their consequences - a tough, adaptable, pioneering, battling people, thoroughly individualistic but also united in adversity - as well as their icons: the swagman, drover, shearer etc attest to the intrinsic importance of the farming life to Australians, regardless of the fact that the majority are totally urbanised. The national poets and authors, such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson all extol rural life. It is for this reason that natural disasters that blight rural regions capture the sympathy of and galvanise the nation. We revere farmers because subconsciously, their bucolic way of life is considered laudable and 'natural,' even when it is considered that the majority of the first transportees to this country were urban petty criminals. Quite simply, the farmers, in the common conscience, have not compromised or surrendered to modernity. Their symbolic presence as the last repository of mankind's innocence, inspires feelings of awe and reverence, along with enormous affection.
Rusticity in Greece is however, more bi-polar. While demotic songs and dances hearken back to a time where most Greeks lived in villages, massive urbanisation only occurred a generation ago. The common memory, (save in the diaspora where the rural lifestyle is idealised by the process of nostalgia for the homeland and lovingly re-created in Greek backyards all around Australia), thus evokes a not so distant time of illiteracy, deprivation, physical hardship and claustrophobic social restriction. As such, it is difficult for Modern Greeks to see them in the same light as Australians. For they safeguard a time and way of life that most Greeks have put behind them or consider quaint. Nonetheless, in a resource poor country where agriculture has only been supplanted as the mainstay of the economy thirty or so years ago, farmers are still a political force to be reckoned with, as the tsiflikades, or large land owners were in the renascent Greek state, and as it turns out, a liability.
It should be obvious to farmers that the Greek government has no more money to give them and that even if it did, at a time when markets and EU officials doubt that it has the political will to curb Greece's deficit and public debt, conceding to any financial demands would prove the cynics right. It is not without irony that the PASOK government, which instituted the mass-subsidy policy for farmers, causing them to become inefficient and non-competitive in an effort to buy votes, now has to deal with their further demands. Perhaps in this doom and gloom time, Hesiod, the archetypal farmer, provides away out for all parties: "Observe due measure, for right timing is in all things the most important factor." For he is right. We all want a piece of the pie but in Greece at the moment, the pie is particularly small. If the livelihood of Greek farmers is to be protected, they need to be guided towards, not shielded from the modern economy. Successive governments have not done this. Farmers in turn are not creating sympathy for their cause by holding the rest of society to ransom. Top of the economic pop charts for this week then: «Μια βοσκοπούλα αγάπησα,» followed by «Μπήκαν ορέ πήκαν, τα γίδια στο μαντρί.» Got to get those farmers moving somehow.


First published in NKEE on 8 February 2010