Capitalist Austerity Destroying Ancient Cultural Heritages

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.

Today 66 administrative departments of antiquities throughout the country handle the workload and law enforcement pertaining to Greece’s cultural heritage, including permits for use of land where archaeological treasures are thought to be buried, the organisation and running of archaeological sites and museums, excavations and archaeological surveys, and archaeological scientific research.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is comprised of 7000 employees, including 950 archaeologists, civil servants, and 2000 guards and night-guards. Moreover, each year 3500 extra employees are hired on short term contracts. In November 2011, 10 percent of the total workforce of the Ministry of Culture that represented the most experienced employees (with more than 33 years of experience) was forced to leave the service and retire, as part of plans to reduce the total number of public sector employees in Greece.

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,

Fragments of the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheatre — now at the centre of a busy road junction and blackened with pollution — have begun falling down and the restoration project’s start date of March is looking increasingly unlikely.

Meanwhile, at the archaeological site of Pompeii near Naples, which has also been hit by a series of alarming collapses in recent months, the long-mooted prospect of bringing in private investors is still a distant prospect.

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.

Following the entry of US forces into Baghdad in April 2003, a wave of looting broke out that targeted the country’s cultural institutions, with the National Museum of Iraq, which holds one of the world’s most important collections of Mesopotamian antiquities, being looted, the National Library and Archives burned and other institutions up and down the country, including museums, archaeological sites, schools and universities looted or destroyed.

In an interview that appeared in this newspaper at the time, Mounir Bouchenaki, then assistant director-general for culture at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, in Paris, spoke of his shock at crunching through the 20cm of ash covering the floors of the burned-out Iraqi National Library on a fact-finding mission to Baghdad.

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.

Some 60 percent of the country’s Ottoman and Hashemite archives were destroyed. While some 600-700 Islamic manuscripts were apparently destroyed in the fires that destroyed the library of the Ministry of Awqaf on 13-14 April 2003, a further 5,250 had been moved off site, though their whereabouts is unknown. The Ministry’s collection of 45,000 printed books, including rare Ottoman Turkish works, was destroyed.

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?

Michael Truscello, Ph.D., is an associate professor in English and General Education at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. Read other articles by Michael.