Yesterday, as an act of protest against austerity measures and the economic crisis, Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old Greek pensioner, shot himself in the middle of Syntagma Square, outside the nation’s parliament. On him was found a suicide note encouraging Greeks to rise up. By the evening a crowd of thousands had grown in the park chanting “this was no suicide, it was a state-perpetrated murder”, with some battling riot cops. His action wasn’t unique, recent data shows a 18 percent increase in Greek suicides in 2010, and a 25 percent increase in Athens last year. Italy, too, has been witnessing this horrifying trend, with three high-profile suicides this week over personal financial nightmares, following two people who set themselves on fire last week.

These tragedies give a glimpse into the hellish personal conditions spawned by recent cuts, and the anger that’s brewing as a result. Youth unemployment has passed 50% in Spain and Greece, the highest numbers seen in over a decade. With welfare and other safety nets the axe, many are left with nowhere to turn.

Many have mused Mr. Christoulas’ death or one like it will have effects like that of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit-seller who set himself ablaze in front of government offices last January, sparking a revolution in Tunisia and arguably the Arab Spring itself. More protests are planned today in Syntagma Square.

Yesterday also marked a grim day of financial self-destruction as worldwide markets suffered their second-worst day this year so far, especially Europe. Since the lows of late last year most markets have been rebounding with a vengeance since then, with some gaining around 30% or more in value. This has had many analysts shaking their heads, arguing that nothing’s really changed underneath all the newly found enthusiasm and hype. Governments and central banks have been pumping the economy with printed money (“liquidity”, bailouts etc) for years now, and selloffs yesterday were sparked on both sides of the Atlantic when hints were dropped that they might not keep doing it. While it’s true that some economies (particularly on this side of the Atlantic) are seeing some signs of cautious improvement, there’s still a lot to be worried about in Europe and Asia, as well as again-rising oil prices, one of the main catalysts for the last collapse. Beneath all this are a few scary trends, like record-low volatility, a rise in insider-selling (corporate leaders selling their own stock) and the recent rapid fall of results vs. expectations (“the economic surprise index“). Of course predicting and analysing markets will always be a bit like astrology, but there are more than enough reasons to be concerned here. Another crash right now could spell disaster for many.

Austerity is only beginning, but it’s already proving to be a social and economic nightmare. It’s one thing to impose cuts on a populace which holds rallies and marches in opposition. It’s another to keep doing it when people start killing themselves in public squares as acts of protest. This is the worst crisis Southern Europe has suffered since the wake of WWII, and many elderly folks are now drawing parallels to the fascist dictatorships which they lived through in their youth. The region is a powder-keg, and if its rulers don’t change course it’s going to explode.

“The Tsolakoglou government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years with no help from the state. And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945.”
Dimitris Christoulas’ Suicide Note

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