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Published on 13 April 2012
News from Italy and Greece in recent weeks illustrates the expanding toll of capitalist “austerity” measures on cultural heritage sites. Not only has the austerity agenda continued to feed enormous wealth into the hands of the wealthy while workers are crushed under the weight of new taxes, slashed wages, fewer rights, and disappearing social services, austerity is also contributing to the decay and disappearance of the remnants of ancient cultures.
Greece is Ground Zero of the austerity onslaught, a massive, global re-engineering of capitalist societies designed to roll back workers’ gains of the past century into a neo-feudal state of debt peonage. In Greece, public sector wages have been cut by 20 to 30 per cent, while tens of thousands of civil servants have been put on partial pay. Pensions have been cut by 20 to 40 per cent. Health and education spending have been slashed as well.
Last week, a 77-year-old retired pharmacist, Dimitris Christoulas, in despair over what international bankers have done to his country, shot himself in the head in front the Greek parliament. Many Greeks believe his death was not a suicide but a murder by capitalism. His death prompted mass mourning and protest.
Austerity is not only killing the future, it is also killing the past. A new law passed as part of the austerity measures requires the Greek Ministry of Culture to cut 30 to 50 per cent of its personnel.
In recent months, there have been burglaries at National and Municipal Galleries, and an armed robbery at the Museum of Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games.
Despina Koutsouba, president of the Association of Greek Archaeologists (SEA), says treasure dating back to the Classical, Hellenistic and Byzantine periods has disappeared from the museum, including “a golden ring stamp, copper sculptures from the eighth century BC, coins and clay vases.”
In Italy, a similar fate is befalling ancient artifacts because of austerity cuts. According to an April 9 report,
Italy, like Greece, is now turning to privitization schemes to keep its cultural heritage sites standing. Greece has offered the Acropolis to “advertising firms, movie companies and other ventures.” And even though Italy, the fourth biggest tourism destination in the world, devotes only 0.21 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product to culture, austerity measures have seen cuts of 17 million euros to the La Scala opera house and Piccolo Teatro in Milan.
The latest victim of capitalist austerity, the ancient past in Italy and Greece, echoes the destruction of ancient cultural sites and artifacts in Afghanistan and Iraq following US-led invasions.
An estimated 400,000 to 600,000 artifacts were looted from Iraqi archeological sites between 2003 and 2005, and at least 25 per cent of the Iraqi National Library’s holdings were destroyed in the fires of April 2003.
The imperialist wars for oil and other resources, as well as strategic military positioning in the region, wiped out artifacts and sites of cultures that were over 5,000 years old, in the so-called “cradle of civilization.” Now the ancient cultures of Italy and Greece are facing the same capitalist pillaging.
The Italian Autonomist Franco Berardi once said, “The future now seems imaginable only as the intersection of catastrophic tendencies. Paradoxically, only from the interference between the various planes of catastrophe does it seem possible to imagine a salvation.” When the catastrophic history of the austerity agenda is finally written, one wonders what other histories will remain?