Greece: Spearing the 'octopus'
On the shelf behind George Papaconstantinou's desk in the Greek finance ministry I noticed two books in English amid the heavy wedge of Greek language finance documents - Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail and Costas Kataras Nice Capitalism.
Well, Greece has had all it is going to have of "nice capitalism" for some time and the Greek finance minister is about to discover if his country is, like the book says, too big to fail.
For Mr Papaconstantinou, an urbane, young, Western-oriented technocrat, is the first finance minister in the developed world to have the gun of austerity pointed at his head by a coalition of credit rating agencies, derivatives traders, Ecofin, the German media and a pack of foreign press hacks who scarcely know what credit default swaps are, but are convinced they are signal Armageddon.
The key question is, assuming Monday night's European Union finance ministers meeting comes up with the offer of financial backing in return for greater austerity, can the Greeks bear it?
Can they stomach a level of austerity that no developed country has, until now, been asked to bear?
Mr Papaconstantinou is denouncing the EU tonight for its lack of solidarity. We will see on Tuesday whether a deal can be done that maintains Greek social cohesion, but satisfies the readers of Bild and Spiegel with tough conditions.
Last week I travelled across Greece in an attempt to find out. Or I tried to.
Halfway between Athens and Thessalonika, on a long, straight and deserted motorway, I was stopped by 150 tractors lined neatly along the hard shoulder, together with some police tape and a small dog.
There was nobody around - no police, no traffic and even the owners of the tractors were not to be seen.
Then a man hailed me from the distance. Stumbling along with a sandwich and a cup of beer, he immediately fired at my translator a stream of invective that, she later confirmed, had libelled every public dignitary within 100 miles.
Thanks to my restaurant-level command of the Greek language I picked up one recurrent word - "octopus".
"It's the octopus," said the farmer, flexing his fingers like tentacles. "It's the mayor, the president, the factories, the euro; it's you, the British, the Americans. Take, take, take."
The farmers are in their third week of blockading all routes from northern Greece to the Balkans - 75% of trade has been stopped and fruit is rotting in its containers.
The problem is not, at first sight, Greek-specific. As in Britain their single farm payments have been lost inside a new IT system. The difference is that in Greece the government has no money to tide the farmers over until the subsidies arrive.
So the farmers have blocked the highway.
'Quietly dead' villages
"Does it make you popular with other Greeks?" I asked the farmers' spokesman, Sakis Karaiscos.
He smiled: "It makes us popular with our families and with our villages. I don't want to be popular with a camera, a newspaper."
The villages, he added, are "quietly dead" because of lack of income. When I asked why they have not been paid, he shook his head:
"We don't know and they don't know. The government. And the problem is that they don't know - don't know, or don't want to know."
It is a microcosm of the problems that afflicted Greece long before it became the test bed for EU crisis management and one that the current finance minister readily admits to:
"Greek people don't feel they are getting the services appropriate to a modern democracy," Mr Papaconstantinou told me. They have to pay under the table to get an operation, for example. They see graft going on unchecked.
It is, he accepts, a problem that goes beyond economics and to the heart of the issue of political trust.
In a country where not paying your taxes is, as my Greek barber says "a national sport" the low-income sections resent the shipping magnates and agri-bosses who they believe pay no tax.
There is a culture of tax evasion among professions even as noble as the law and medicine.
The political system is more or less totally patronage-based - you win, you sack your enemies and bring in your mates to work for you.
Mr Papaconstantinou did not stoop to the metaphor of the octopus, but he said: "The relationship between business and politics is not healthy." And he has brought in a bill to reform it.
Who will be hit?
So the Greek austerity crunch is going to be hard. The question is - who on?
So far the government has cut public sector wages by 10% and raised the pension age from 48 to 60. But this may not be enough.
Between 2006 and 2009 public sector wages rose 30%. Even last year the government hired more civil servants than retired.
There are obvious further measures that can be taken: a 1-2% rise in VAT looks on the cards. And Mr Papaconstantinou's tax evasion crackdown should raise 1.2bn euros.
But with the black economy accounting for 25% of GDP, economists at Kepler University, have calculated Greece could raise euros 15bn a year simply by collecting taxes properly.
The problem is, Greece's fiscal black hole is not yet properly measured. A Eurostat team has been in there since the new government revealed that instead of 3.7% of GDP the budget was 13%.
Now there are further teams of statisticians pouring in. If this crisis plays out to the same form as Enron and Lehman, they will most likely find an even bigger problem somewhere in the books.
But the problem is not measuring - it is collecting tax and ripping up the essential social contract between the middle class and the state. Basically, it involves spearing "the octopus".
On the dockside at Piraeus, Athens's seaport, the tower cranes and container transporters zip around - but not as fast as they used to. Trade has fallen back sharply as the economy contracted - minus 2.5% GDP last year.
I went there because, if anybody can stop the new austerity package it is the organised workers, and they do not come more organised than the stevedores at Piraeus.
As they sit around waiting to go on shift the men fill their canteen with smoke and the air with invective against their bosses.
On the wall is the communist party daily: headline "Workers Uprising!" On a nearby crane there is graffiti with the hammer and sickle of the KKE (which has 21 MPs) and some phrases inviting Cosco Pacific, the new Chinese owners of the port, among other things, to "go to hell".
The cargo terminal was privatised under the previous government. The holding company is registered in Bermuda and is a 50/50 JV between Cosco and private investors. They believe the new owners have been given "colonial style tax exemptions" and fear they will bring in new men on reduced conditions once a new terminal is built next door.
But on the day I met the stevedores, though the customs officials they work with were on strike, they were not. They have already staged a month-long strike already and gone back pending negotiations with the Pasok government.
"There was a social explosion before, in 2008, by the young people," said Giorgos Gogos, one of the dockers' leaders. "I would like a social explosion just to shake this building. But of course there is no point in things becoming chaotic. The problem is one third of Greek people can't pay their bills."
The dockers will strike on 24 February, with many others, but they still bemoan the lack of unity among the unions.
Here, as on the motorway with the farmers, there was a sense of resignation. And a feeling that - if not the workers it is more likely to be the unorganised youth who fight back.
Everyone in Greece remembers the "social explosion" of December 2008, after Athenian police killed a school student.
Resignation among students
I went to the university district, where the streets are plastered with leftist posters and drug dealers linger at dusk beneath a statue of former British foreign secretary George Canning.
I met activists from the youth group of another leftist opposition party, Synaspismós(Coalition of the Left). The party has 14 MPs and traces its roots to the Euro-communist tradition that was once influential within Labour in the Kinnock years.
But here too there was a mood of resignation. "Most young people I know are thinking about leaving Greece," said one. Youth unemployment is 27% and many graduates do casual work, juggling two or three jobs to take home 700 euros a month with no social insurance or benefits.
"Greek youth feel betrayed," said another, not just by the current government or the old, but by the political system.
He described the education system as "like yours 50 years ago" - beset by bureaucracy and tradition, susceptible to graft and - at the end of it - leaving you with a degree but no possibility of employment.
Instead of "the octopus" the students talked of global capitalism - they tend to see the main cause of the crisis as Wall Street banks and foreign powers, against which the local system of graft and mis-measurement is just a symptom.
There was talk here too of a social explosion from the youth - but it is not one the Synaspismós feels it can either summon or control.
All mainstream politicians I met in Greece said the same thing off the record - it's the youth, not the organised workforce, that will probably explode first if there are further austerity measures.
So what is the likely outcome? Barring some major financial crisis and the breakdown of the euro deal tomorrow, I think it is manageable.
The Pasok government is social democratic and has designed the austerity package to protect its voting base.
It points to the fact that 60-70% of Greeks for now accept, in opinion polls, that the austerity measures have to work.
Likewise the organised labour movement is not as strong as in Spain or Italy - indeed across southern Europe it has been weakened during the post-Maastricht years. And though youth riots can force reforms they have never brought down a European government.
However all this changes if a Greek government can suddenly point to an external financial "aggressor" - be it the IMF or the ECB or Ecofin.
In Greece there is no Fawlty Towers rule - the older generation "mentions the war" all the time: the German occupation; the British clash with the communist resistance; the civil war.
Any idea of Britain or Germany or the US telling Greeks that the austerity plan they have - for now - accepted is not enough; any attempt to redesign it to cut services rather than raise taxes and cut pay for example, may be the spark that causes a political and social crisis here.
If it happens then make no mistake - this is not some crisis on the periphery of the European social model. It will run to the heart of it because Greek people evolved a southern European version of the Euro-dream. Nice Capitalism, if you like.
They had a welfare state and a culture of rampant entrepreneurship; their city centres are now full of Gucci clothes shops and Swiss watch emporia and the SUV-per-head count, as in all newly enriched countries of Europe, is high.
They lived the dream in their own way, without bothering to pay taxes and in total contempt for the "octopus" and its political tentacles; pretty much in contempt of mainstream politics too.
They bunged money at the GP to jump the hospital queue, salted away money from cash jobs on the side, wheeled and dealt.
And you know what? The rest of us loved it. North Europeans flocked there on our holidays; we paid cash in the restaurants and never asked for a receipt; we rode Greek mopeds, helmetless and in flip flop sandals.
We revelled in the nightlife where there are no measuring taps on the spirit bottles and where - as Damon Runyon once said of Las Vegas - "everyone has nice teeth and no last names".
Our finest statisticians - from cold, humourless Brussels no less - failed to spot the systematic mis-reporting of fiscal deficits.
Our dour, Protestant finance ministers sat side by side with successive Greek counterparts and raised no objections. How come? If Greece really does slide out of the euro, the searching questions will be asked in Brussels and Berlin as well as Athens.
Tonight may put the lid on the Greek fiscal crisis as a euro-problem. But tomorrow morning it will still be a Greek problem.
Anybody who's ever tried to catch an octopus knows how hard they are to spear - and even harder to finish off.
Watch Paul Mason's latest report on the Greek crisis