Money Talk

From the Series: Greece is Burning

Photo by murplejane, licensed under CC BY SA.

During my first stays in Athens in 2000 and 2001, I came to learn the various taboos surrounding talk about prices, about the costs of things. I wish I could say it was my finely tuned ethnographic acumen that first picked up on this, but honestly it was gentle corrections from my friends.

“Aimee, you don’t have to tell everybody your jacket was 50 percent off.”

“Why not?”

“You just . . . don’t.”

This doesn’t mean that talk about price itself was taboo. On the contrary, questions about money, from wages to rents to the cost of recent purchases, were on the table—much to my relief as someone doing economic research. You could talk about money, absolutely. You just weren’t meant to talk about it in a way that made it seem like you were too careful about it, too worried about spending too much, or too cheap. Although Greek social class was incredibly opaque to me at first, the habitual tendencies regarding money talk (what was acceptable, what was crass, what was embarrassing) were one of my first entrées into understanding their vague outlines.

In the first months of 2002, that taboo suddenly seemed to be demolished. Talk about high prices, about how expensive things were, was everywhere you turned. Shared outrage with strangers in the bakery at the price of a snack. Comments between neighbors in the farmer’s market about sudden increases in the cost of vegetables. Evaluation of rising beer prices with friends in a bar. Discussions about the menu at a fine-dining restaurant during a business dinner. Across the board, the increase in prices was a continuous topic of conversation. The trigger for this radical shift in social norms? The changeover from the drachma to the euro. Talking about price was no longer a practice that indicated economic background and taste; it was compelling talk between both strangers and friends.

There are many reasons why talking about prices was so arresting and fascinating during those first years of the currency changeover. There are two that I’ll argue for here. First, that a sharp, sudden increase in the prices of small consumables, combined with a new currency vastly different in shape, size, and denominator amounts, disrupted the experiential connection between price and value. National inflation indicators did not rise, and the European Union denied a significant hike in the cost of living. Yet such money talk was a way to discuss the everyday experience of a deregulating market, an attempt to locate the cause of the wrongness in this new world of prices that was collectively being negotiated. Complaining about high prices shifted from a suspect practice (signaling anything from coarseness to parsimony) to a practice that demonstrated an awareness of value and an attention to the risk of being taken advantage of.

Second, money talk was a conversation that explored what the experience of the European Common Market would be for someone located in Greece. In 2003, I interviewed a news-programming director at one of Greece’s television channels, who told me he could lead with price-comparison stories daily. How many euros does a cup of coffee cost in different European cities? His viewers could not get enough of charts and graphics showing various cost comparisons between Greece and other EU countries. “Athens wages, Brussels prices” was the truism of the day. What did this mean, and why was it happening? Data produced by the state, such as cost-of-living indexes, were understood to be politicized and irrelevant to lived experience. But personal narratives about the increased prices of goods could be discussed and compared, providing the true, hard data on what participating in an open market in the European Union would mean.

I might seem to have started this story nine years earlier than I’m supposed to, if I’m meant to be reflecting on the Greek crisis. The early 2000s are the crazy growth-and-spending years in the traditional narratives of twenty-first-century Greece—an era of cause in relation to the effect of debt that comes later. But from my position, 2009 marks not a change but an intensification of the need to discuss the everyday experience of financial matters with friends and strangers. As the language of crisis has privileged economic regimes of knowledge above all other interpretive and investigative discourses, everyday life became saturated with the technical language of economic expertise. There clearly existed a gap, however, between the performative economic language of the Troika and crumbling of the Greek economy as it translated into everyday life: the closing of small shops and businesses, plummeting personal resources, rising personal expenses, and so on.

If conversations about the economic details of everyday life were ever present after the introduction of the euro, they became crushingly so after 2009. By then I lived and worked in Greece, teaching full time. Even though I wasn’t doing much research, in another sense I was never not doing research. Was there a way to exist in that space and not be engaged with talk about how people’s lives were transforming economically? And how they were struggling to make sense of the experience, caught between nondemocratic international financial institutions and untrusted national politics? There wasn’t. Overwhelmingly, despairingly, there wasn’t. It was inescapable: talk on the sidewalk, on the bus, at my job, in my kitchen. It seemed like there were few words given to anything that wasn’t about making sense of this situation, particularly in the first years of it. Even the greeting “how are you?” could no longer be answered with the previously acceptable “good” or “okay.” Instead: “what can we do?,” or “eh,” or an evocatively ambivalent movement of the head or hand. Comparing experiences—exactly how much a wage had been cut, a pension had been slashed, a medicine cost had increased—and theorizing as to why this was happening to us and who was benefiting from it all. I learned the intimate economic details of so many lives during those first crisis years, as people talked to me about their money. These weren’t research interviews; they were conversations with strangers, acquaintances, and friends, in the communitas of shared suffering. They happened every single day. (I went home and cried, often.)

In the gap between expert prescription of the economy and its lived effect, local interpretations bloom. Alternative understandings of economy that rigorously interrogate the realm of political-economic decision for intent, morality, prejudice, and punitive action were shared and shouted. Explanatory narratives of capitalism, Europeanization, and neoliberalism were worked through as people grounded them in euro-detailed conversations about how much money they had, and didn’t have, and where it was going—conversations in which these forces become both embodied and financially calculated economic experiences with emic explanatory power. Today neoliberalism (νεοφιλελευθερισμός) isn’t an analytical or descriptive term to be used by academics discussing the Troika’s economic ideology; it’s an everyday word in Greece, one that gives name to the diverse but very specific local changes that have occurred in the socioeconomic realm over the past two decades.

I have come to understand austerity as punitive and pedagogical, because strangers give me their firsthand accounts of how they are being punished, as we talk about money. I see how it intends to radically restructure the economy, because the business owners on my street tell me in detail about their increased costs and expenses. Intimate financial details of the household have become moments of shared cultural intimacy at the level of the nation. I interpret these things not simply as an anthropologist, but as a fellow subject of this experience; we are all coming to these understandings through moments of mutual evaluation of financial data.

This casual sharing of personal financial information—my pension was €900 a month; now it’s €500, and this is what I can’t afford anymore—is hard to study. It is a conversation that has an effect, creating and understanding the emotional, embodied, enumerated (financially explicit? monetized?) subject of crisis. I point to it as a nontrivial change in the norms of how money can be talked about in Greece, and a change in the valence of what it means to care about small financial concerns. Perhaps, beyond punishment, this is one of the pedagogies that austerity is meant to enact.