History teaches us, that when the power of capital is confronted by popular democracy, it is democracy that is overwhelmed. Still in the face of defeat, the vanquished will always find ways to remind us that as long as there is life, resistance and struggle will never be extinguished.
On July the 15th, led by left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the Greek government did the unthinkable: they surrendered the war on austerity and took steps toward a third bailout with their creditors.
Days after the Greek people resoundingly rejected austerity in a referendum vote, and with the nation’s banking system in a state of collapse precipitated by an onslaught of harsh measures by its European “partners,” Tsipras bowed before the absolute power of international finance capital. The Troika’s latest set of demands toward Greece constitute financialized neo-barbarism and Tsipras has agreed to them. Thus, the so-called compromise Tsipras returned to Athens with is one of total subjugation: one in which Greece relinquishes national sovereignty, one in which the prospects for the future are grimmer than the already-depressing present.
We cannot debate that Tsipras failed in delivering on his mandate to end austerity; this is a fact. He may have delivered on the promise to keep Greece in the Eurozone, but only as an indentured debt colony and barren wasteland.
This third bailout program will severely increase taxes on consumer goods, slash pensions, and transfer 50 billion euros worth of public assets to a private fund, presumably based in Athens (although Luxembourg was proposed) with the purpose of paying back the odious debt. Should Greece fail in meeting creditor-mandated budget goals, automatic spending cuts will kick in, further crippling the Greek state and society. Inevitably, Greece’s only remaining major industry, tourism, will be dominated by German investors. Irish economist David McWilliams posits a scenario where the tourist sector (hotels and resorts) will likely become foreign-owned, consumer goods will be imported, and all profits will be subject to foreign (German) repatriation, leaving Greece without a cent. From there on, the Greek people will be relegated to laboring in the tourist sector or elsewhere, earning just enough to keep the wheels of their cage turning.
For Greeks who already live in profound turmoil, surrounded by extreme unemployment, record-high suicide rates, a crumbling healthcare system, and pervasive homelessness, the deal Tsipras brought before the Greek parliament reads like economic sadism. Those who voted “yes” will be viewed as masochists, but also, by many exhausted from the daily struggles of austerity, as realists.
Many on the left are horrified and appalled by what is perceived as abject surrender or worse — the betrayal of the people by Tsipras. Still, those of us writing about Greece from abroad, Greeks or otherwise, must be mindful of our place in the discussion. Most of us do not suffer the consequences of these political decisions. We must not fetishize the plight of Greece’s poor and wearied populace, we should not project our hopes for a socially and economically just society on people running out food or prescription medication. We simply cannot question the courage of those fighting battles we do not have to face.
But we can help critique and evaluate the strategies enacted by the politicians that brought them to this point. Tsipras’ fought amicably and fiercely; he assembled a motley crew of experts and took the fight to the public. His government challenged both the Greek oligarchy and the logic of international finance capital. He made the lack of German WWII war reparations an issue. And when cornered with an untenable ultimatum, he took it to the people and called a plebiscite. He thumbed his nose at the creditors and spoke clearly to the Greek people in a televised address, calling for them to vote “oxi” (no). Then later, at a rally, seemingly invigorated by the popular display, he roared before tens of thousands of Athenians about “democracy…hope…and overcoming fear and blackmail.” On the day of the referendum, Greeks filled the streets and voted oxi in an overwhelming fashion. And yet, less than a week later, he agreed to the untenable, succumbing to fear and blackmail, he agreed to a future of unrelenting austerity.
Almost fatalistically, Tsipras was doomed to fail from the start. His unwavering commitment to the eurozone became a kind of strategic paralysis. To appear as honest in the face of frequent, ethnically-charged accusations of dishonesty, he never convened a formidable committee to explore or lay the groundwork for a Greek exit from the currency union. This desire to remain within the currency union cornered Greece throughout the cyclical and often farcical negotiations process.
But even if an exit had been planned, the process would have been daunting and the outcome impossible to gauge. As former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis mentioned in a recent interview, leaving a currency union is a tremendous task that requires detailed and intricate planning by expert economists, working on the task for years. Instead, most of the work on the potentialities surrounding a “Grexit” was done by members of Syriza’s left wing, and most of it was theoretical. And while their team was comprised of talented economists and political theorists, neither enough time nor enough brainpower was allotted to the endeavor.
So if a comprehensive plan to leave the monetary union was formed, there was no way to guarantee its success. As history has shown us, those who oppose the dictates of international capital can quickly be brought to their knees. It happened in Chile in 1973 and in South Africa in the 1990s, when democratically-elected governments with redistributive aims were quickly disciplined by financiers hiding behind the cloak of a “neutral” market.
In the case of Chile, U.S. President Richard Nixon aimed to “make the economy scream” so as to prevent the election of and later unseat the democratically-elected president of the country, Salvador Allende. The U.S. helped coordinate efforts to strangle Chile’s government funds and increase the country’s unemployment. In the midst of an economic meltdown, and with Allende’s popularity waning as he was forced to reel in social programs, Nixon would back a violent coup that would destroy the Chilean government and replace it with a 27-year military dictatorship.
Decades later, in post-apartheid South Africa the world witnessed the coercive force of international capital, despite the fact that the apartheid-era Freedom Charter of 1955 included many redistributive and anti-capitalist measures, such as rights to land, housing and the right to unionize. The post-apartheid era saw new limitations in spite of the political power gained by many of the Freedom Charter’s drafters. By 1994, the pressures of the banking sector and international capital constrained the ability of the country’s recently-elected leaders, including Nelson Mandela, to seek economic justice. As the country’s constitution was limited with provision after provision for sake of foreign private interests, South Africa’s new officials lost the kind of sovereignty required to enact the kind of legislation imagined in their days as rebels fighting the apartheid government.
In this instance, the lesson to be learned from history is that the so-called neutral markets will get their way. No amount of sloganeering, no political maneuvering, no election, no referendum, no negotiations will change the fact that the powerful people and the financial interests that constitute the “neutral” markets must always emerge victorious. And yet time and time again, the left is confounded, shocked, and dismayed when it is outflanked by the forces of capital.
The demos elected Syriza to prevent this outcome; the demos answered the referendum loudly to prevent such a result. And still, austerity washes over the Greek countryside like acid rain, eroding what is left of the nation. Year after year, Europe discredits the possibilities of democracy, as cynics weep in their smugness and fascists wait in the wings, while wide-eyed parliamentarians fight immovable objects and argue irreconcilable logics.
Faced with continued despair, the people in Greece will do as people have done all over the world when faced with such inhumane treatment: they will live, they will organize, they will protest, they will survive and carry the burden of humanity. The burden is heavy, but as the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos once put it: “freedom carries at least half the burden.”