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Eurocapital Vanquishes Greece: A “Hard, Dark, Painful” Future

People are hurting in Greece, not everyone, for those well-off and tourists still frequent the open-air cafes past midnight, but the unemployed, the poor, the elderly, having suffered already under the political-economic regime of austerity since the 2008 financial crisis, who make of today’s nation an example of unrelieved social misery reminiscent of the Great Depression (less because of bank closings than because of soup kitchens, people homeless, sleeping in the parks, private charities working full-time to serve the hungry). I speak of right now, as eurozone finance ministers bicker in Brussels over the details of the Tsipras Government’s proposals to satisfy its creditors, proposals on taxes and pensions which were resoundingly defeated in last week’s referendum, and now put forward as a last-ditch effort for Greece to remain solvent and not face utter financial collapse. After writing in the weekend edition of CounterPunch, “Austerity as Class Warfare of World Capitalism,” praising Tsipras’s resistance to the EU-ECB-IMF (troika) demands, which, to punish its Left government, would have crippled Greece’s own efforts at recovery and forced its categorical submission, as favored by Germany, Finland, and the Baltic countries, to the creditor-dominated orthodoxy of European haute capitalism, I began to have partial doubts about both the wisdom of the proposals and Tsipras’s own socialist convictions.

Why? Toughening out the stance toward the troika might have succeeded, when it might have become recognized that standing behind the purely economic considerations (and the absolutist mental-set that guided its enforcement) were the more decisive reasons for maintaining EU unity, that the political shell covered the military underpinning or core—NATO, as protector of Europe against Russian expansionism and vehicle for Europe’s own, the US standing solidly behind and militarily-financially facilitating it, move to expand eastward, in confrontational mode to contain, isolate, and dismember Russia. Unity uber alles, Greece sticking out like a sore thumb (particularly with Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland facing the same debt pressures, and liable to EU moral rejection and financial ejection, themselves taking courage from Greece’s resistance) and hence mucking up the works of military preparedness, as right now going on at the Russian border. This, in addition to the obvious advantages of supporting unity on economic ground rules, which favors Germany at the expense of Europe’s South and East. (It should be mentioned that German amnesia about debt reduction, its own, and now with respect to Greece, reveals cynicism and opportunism of the first water; for by the London Debt Agreement of 1953, 60% of Germany’s foreign debt was cancelled, along with the restructuring of its internal debt. Ah, the wonders of the Cold War and open sesame to anticommunism! If only Tsipras was leading a right-wing government, all would be well.)

So much for the wisdom of the proposals (i.e., concessions), a mixed picture that could be argued both ways as to whether survival and thence independence and prosperity could be maintained outside the union. I think yes (with assistance from the BRICS as one example to keep in mind), but, second, what of Tsipras’s socialist convictions? Until yesterday I had no doubts, and still would not pass judgment (we’ve seen enough unfortunate backbiting in Left circles), yet I was surprised in reading the text of the actual proposals that more than taxes and pension cuts were involved in the austerity measures. The press and public discussion seemed truly amiss and shortsighted here, for I think he crossed the line and did incalculable harm to Greece’s position, austerity or no austerity. Let me explain with first the immediate background, a clear betrayal of socialist principles (and possibly what Germany had in mind all along).

***

The operative (and hateful) term is, privatization, to be excluded from any schema for democratizing the social structure and political economy, yet included in the Tsipras government’s recommendations. The proposals have received widespread commendation, including that by some EU and IMF officials, and where not commendation at least encouragement, helped by support of the French government (which helped draft them) and handily passed—with, it is true, Syriza defections—by the Greek Parliament as prelude to their presentation to the finance ministers. Yes, the government capitulated to the troika on key demands which had been voted down by the Greek people—with Tsipras’s leadership on behalf of the No vote—in last Sunday’s referendum, a turnaround on his part that should not be ignored. Before that, he identified austerity as the arch villain of human freedom, designed and intended to crush and humiliate Greece, forcing it back into the eurozone mold and abandoning any thought of an alternative developmental course with emphasis on social-welfare planning and execution. Austerity in practice is the degradation of working people and a heinous crime against humanity.

What has changed? What remains unstated? Of course, privatization. If Tsipras’s concessions have continued to meet with skepticism among leaders in Germany and Eastern Europe, they have also met with opposition in his own party, Syriza, from the Left, as well as popular demonstrations in the streets, although in the former case, perfectly straightforward, debt reduction or forgiveness was foremost, in the latter, we do not know if privatization figured prominently in the dissent. If not, I must reluctantly criticize Tsipras and his party, he for offering, it for overlooking, this provision. Here Marx’s distinction between quantitative and qualitative matters arises: the reported provisions, e.g., cutting pensions and raising the retirement age to 67, would hurt mightily, yet they could be painfully absorbed, while what has been neglected and only just now reported as part of the bailout package, the privatization of major government properties, strikes a mortal blow at Greek professions of democracy. We thus enter the qualitative realm of no return, for beyond its symbolic value as violating the principle of the people’s property under socialism (even under capitalism the public sector when complementing the private has been accepted), this compromise on privatization is a stark betrayal of principle for a party and in a country struggling to realize its independence from vested private wealth and upper-classes’ societal dominance.

Regional airports, the ports of Pireaus, Thessaloniki, and Hellinikon, and other public properties, are explicitly mentioned, to be opened to bidding, an ideological retreat on Tsipras’s part negating any claim to resisting creditor demands, much less to articulating a socialist vision. What next? If Greece succeeds in gaining troika approval, the proposals taken as a whole become tantamount to rejoining the eurozone stripped of any pride, crawling back on its knees, testifying to the power of international capitalism, the United States in the saddle, and all this portends for a unified European bloc prepared to intensify the Cold War against Russia. If, on the other hand, Tsipras had remained true to his announced principles, and Greece was forced out of the eurozone, a chain reaction might ensue in which the aforementioned countries, all similarly disadvantaged by EU membership, would be forced to leave when their moment of potential default arose, thereby weakening the alliance, with its heavy military implications, and forestalling a head-on collision with Russia. Staying forthrightly independent, Greece could have played a significant role in easing Cold War tensions, resisting the global tide toward privatization (which gives new life to monopoly capitalism), and giving hope to other countries similarly disadvantaged through the machinations of international capitalism.

***

The story is familiar, where advanced capitalism sinks its claws into the soul of a nation, Greece only the latest, most conspicuous example because of financial crisis and gathering global tensions. New York Times reporter Anemona Hartocollis’s article, “Greece Financial Crisis Hits Poorest and Hungriest the Hardest,” (July 11), is a grim reminder of what privilege brings in its wake, and often at its behest. She begins: “Behind the lace curtains of a soup kitchen run by a parish in the humble Athens neighborhood of Kerameikos, the needy and hungry sit down to a plate of sliced cucumbers, three hunks of bread, a shallow china bowl of chickpea soup and often a piece of meat. Sometimes there is even ice cream, a special treat.” She adds, “People prize the refrectory, run by a priest, for its homeyness, and they travel long distances to fill their empty stomachs at least once a day.” Yet Father Ignatios Maschos worries there will not be enough food “if the country’s economic paralysis continues,” as appears likely even if “a last-minute deal [with creditors is struck] to avert a Greek exit from the euro.” Which is why he says, “’It will be hard, dark, painful,’” while he watches “a long line of people wait[ing] for their turn to eat at the communal tables,” then observing sadly, “’We will have trouble receiving food.’”

It is the same elsewhere. “Poverty in Greece,” she writes, “has been deepening since the financial crisis began more than five years ago. Now, aid groups and local governments say they are beginning to feel the effects … f bank closings, as Greece struggles to keep its financial system from failing and to break out of years of economic hardship. And any deal with creditors this weekend will bring further cuts in government spending. It will also bring higher taxes and, as a consequence, more short-term pressure on the economy.” These are shrewd observation, not only that the Tsipras government cannot be held responsible for the current crisis and plight of the people, but also that austerity feeds a downward spiral of neglect, with social-welfare spending cut to the bone. She notes, “By some accounts, lines for food, clothing and medicine have grown fivefold in parts of the capital in the last two weeks alone.”

One further example of several: “Since July 3, after the cash controls began, the Venetis chain of about 80 bakeries has expanded its charity program and has been giving away about 10,000 loaves of bread a day—a third of total production—to the destitute, families with many children, the unemployed and retirees.” Panayiotis Monemvasiotis, the company’s general manager, said: “’In the third round of austerity measures, which is beginning now, it is certain that in Greece there will be no consumers—there will be only beggars.’” In neighborhoods where tourists don’t venture, e.g., Omonia Square, “people in ragged clothes can be found sleeping on sidewalks and in public parks.” Another large soup kitchen in Athens “is run by the city government in collaboration with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Athens, near Omonia on Pireos Street,” serving “600 to 1,000 people a day,” Athens itself “helping support 20,000 people a day with groceries, hot meals and other basics.”

Eurozone governments, leaders, and largely unsympathetic citizens, in the better-off countries, merely look on; there must be no budging from the absolute rules of austerity, Germany in particular, as Alison Smale and Melissa Eddy, in their NYT article, “Greek Debt Crisis Pits Greeks Against Germans,” (July 11), bring out, missing though that Germany’s alleged fixation on the anal stage of development is really a ploy for the promulgation and enforcement of the rules from which they enjoy undisputed leadership of Europe. Their rules, austerity, market fundamentalism, etc., establish a power relationship in politics and economics difficult for Greece and other financially weaker countries to counter. They observe: “In insisting that Greece can stay in the euro only if everyone sticks to the rules, Germany has acted almost classically to stereotype. Close enough, but they see order as an end in itself, rather than the means to dominance: “Its fondness for orderly procedure—the foundation of its post-1945 democracy—has prevailed even over its desire to lead 21st century Europe.” The meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Brussels (extended to Sunday) showed Germany was not alone “with reservations about extending negotiations to keep Greece and its banks afloat. But as Europe’s de facto leader, Germany has been the most visible and influential, its penchant for process standing in sharp contrast to the chaotic sequence of decisions and reversals emanating from Athens.” So much for the reporters’ objectivity; yet they do make of “order” a less than desirable national trait (to which I would append hierarchy as one of its logical derivatives). “Those questioning the Germans’ obsession with rules,” they write, “have only to look at what Berlin calls ‘the black zero,’ meaning a balanced budget.” Rules, reified to cement power relations, have a way of freezing into place societal domination. I think this is what Julia Klockner, from Merkel’s Christian Democrats, intends: “’There are clear rules, and anybody who doesn’t stick to the rules cannot be an example for others.’”

***

Tsipras’s proposals passed an important hurdle, but not without damage to his domestic credibility. Liz Alderman and Andrew Higgins’s NYT article, “Greece’s Parliament Approves Prime Minister’s Bailout Plan,” (July 10), shows, despite an overwhelming vote in favor, defections which muddy the picture of uncompromising resistance, his own, but Syriza’s also. They describe the scene: “And crowds gathered outside the Parliament building in Athens on Friday evening to protest Mr. Tsipras’s abrupt U-turn, with many saying they felt betrayed after he had urged them to reject the bailout in the referendum last Sunday.” Parliamentary approval, however, was only a first and mandatory step to bringing the package before the collected finance ministers, who were claiming that universal acceptance alone would do (“Germany’s longstanding insistence that all 19 countries that use the euro must follow the rules”). Tsipras soldiered on, Merkel, the Margaret Thatcher of Central Europe, was not fazed by parliamentary passage of the proposals; in the words of her spokesperson: “’We will wait until the institutions examine them and express their opinion.’” The procedure was followed, no agreement reached by the ministers, whose deliberations continued on Sunday. And even if that hurdle were crossed, there was still the heads of state of the eurozone countries, with the larger EU leadership’s attendance abruptly cancelled.

For Greece, the situation, even with the compromises offered, was not bright. NYT reporter James Kanter’s article, “Meeting on Greece Debt Breaks Up With No Deal,” (July 12), refers to the mistrust that is directed to Greece about repayment, thus “leaving the Continent hours from what could be a historic rupture.” Perhaps the EU-ECB-IMF people are finally getting serious, the issue to be decided by the heads of state (if it gets that far) being, “whether the country can remain in the euro currency union.” More of course is at stake than that, the defection or forcible withdrawal from the union of others and the viability of NATO as the militaristic foundations of the EU’s political expression, supporting NATO’s interventionist role in aiding the US in furtherance of its own wars and interventions suitably disguised as an internationalized effort (the much bruited “friends and allies”). By Sunday, things, as expected, were getting ugly. The German finance ministry circulated a paper calling for Greece’s removal from the eurozone for five years, then “reapply[ing] for membership,” one surmises suitably purged of radicalism. Conditions dire? Kanter writes, “Greece’s banks are teetering on insolvency, the government is running out of cash to meet its day-to-day obligations, and without an infusion of aid, additional payments to international creditors will be missed in coming weeks.” Whatever the outcome of this long, darkened weekend, insofar as actions are taken favorable to Greece (should that occur), the animus to the Tsipras government will remain, as will soup kitchens, people sleeping in parks or on sidewalks, as austerity grinds down the spirit of a heretofore free people.

***

It’s over; if the sun is shining, it’s a false light. Eurocapital (including the US, still power behind the local throne, satisfied that unity ensures confrontation with Russia, and the IMF, providing the technocratic turning the screws, also satisfied, having transformed austerity into an engine for privatization) has won, the Greek people more firmly incarcerated in the political-financial prison ordained for them by forces of capitalist ORDER, have lost—dramatically so. I cannot fault Tsipras. He tried. But in my fantasy world I am reminded of the closing years of World War II when ELAS put up resistance to the Nazi occupation (to the hostile response of the US and Britain) followed in 1947 by the Marshall Plan to eradicate all Left social movements in Europe. EU-ECB-IMF symbolically represents a new Marshall Plan, Greece, the same locale, Russia, the same enemy. One hoped the outcome would be different. Varoufakis was right that Greece was up against financial terrorists—terrorists swathed in the legitimacy of capitalist market fundamentalism.

This Monday morning, after the late-night session of eurozone leaders in Brussels, we learn nothing about the details of the settlement (themselves probably not worked out yet, to determine how much further the screws can be tightened), except that negotiations toward a solution have started. As NYT reporters Kanter and Higgins, in their article, “European Leaders Reach Agreement to Resolve Greek Debt Crisis,” (July 13), make clear, quoting Tusk of the European Council, “’serious reforms’” are to be demanded, the atmosphere one of “distrust” because Germany among others fears Greece will not carry out its side of the “deal”—some deal, when Merkel, recommending acceptance by the German Parliament, could say (gloat?) at the news conference, “’The country which we help has shown a willingness and readiness to carry out reforms.’” And the reporters note, apropos of my emphasis above on privatization as integral to the settlement: “As part of Greece’s commitments, Ms. Merkel said, a fund will be created to use the proceeds from selling off assets owned by the Greek government to help pay down the country’s debt.” Greece surrenders public property to soften its misery through compensating those who’ve brought it on in the first place.

More humiliation/dependence: “Greece will be required to also seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund and agree to let the organization continue to monitor the country’s adherence to its bailout commitments,” this despite the Greek government’s resentment of the IMF’s “continued role” and viewing “the fund’s involvement as unwanted meddling.” The more things change, the more they remain the same. The Greek Parliament must act quickly to ratify the settlement, this, as I pointed out, before funds are forthcoming to stave off national bankruptcy. I give “a bleary-eyed” Tsipras the last word: “’We gave a tough battle for six months and fought until the end in order to achieve the best we could, a deal that would allow Greece to stand on its feet. We faced hard decisions, tough dilemmas, [and Greek authorities finally] assumed the responsibility of averting the extremist ambitions of the most conservative circles in Europe.’” He here captures the flavor of World War II (my paraphrase for modern times, Never underestimate the power of capitalism). No ELAS, however, or other guerilla force stands in the shadows; perhaps in the circumstances Syriza will radicalize further.

My New York Times Comment on the Kanter-Higgins article, same date, follows:

Events played out as expected. The troika was too powerful for Greece to achieve dignity and independence. I regret that Greece did not do the seeming unthinkable: exit the eurozone, as Germany, Finland, and the Baltics wished and strove for, rather than accept austerity measures deeply injurious to the Greek people. Merkel won; Germany confirmed its power and leadership in the Union. Now Italy, Spain, etc., will also be forced to toe the mark–or experience the same pain that Greece is going through.

But, for the US, the EU-ECB-IMF can do no wrong, for behind the jockeying and call for unity lies NATO, the militarized foundation of the EU. With Greece a disruptive force, the West cannot get down to the serious business intended all along: confrontation with Russia aimed at its ultimate isolation and dismemberment.

The leaders’ decision in Brussels will be a milestone, marking acceleration of the Cold War. And at bottom, a clarion call for privatization, directly implemented in the agreement. For Greece must now sell its regional airports and ports themselves to provide a fund for repayment of debt. Market fundamentalism plus militarism make for a heady brew. I call it fascism, others may call it freedom or democracy. Fittingly, after two world wars Germany once again is a prime mover in world history. This time it has the full backing of America, itself busily creating a similar context via the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now China as well as Russia the target.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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