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We are Citizens, Not Politicians: Reflections on Greece

“We who protest the [Iraq] war,” the late radical American historian Howard Zinn wrote in 2007, “are not politicians. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable, in a shamefully timorous Congress. It is not easy, in the corrupting atmosphere of Washington, D.C., to hold on firmly to the truth, to resist the temptation of capitulation that presents itself as compromise…Except for the rare few…our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth.”

I am reminded of Zinn’s words by the ongoing tragedy and farce in Greece. Could there be a more graphic lesson in the wisdom of his counsel? Nine days ago, in a historic referendum vote, 61 percent of the Greek public voted against capitulation to the brutal demands of the neoliberal “Troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). They hurled a resounding NO at the European elite’s demand that they agree to deepen their long finance-imposed austerity by slashing 8 billion Euros worth of public funds (including major pension cuts) so their nation’s banks to keep receiving enough “bailout” money to keep paying off the outrageous “debt” that Greece “owes” its “creditors.” The referendum was called in what seemed like a bold act of democracy by Greece’s Prime Minister Alexander Tsipras, whose “radical left” (the Western media claims) Syriza Party swept into office last January on a promise to reject austerity and fight back against economic blackmail. The vote occurred with widespread understanding that rejecting the Eurogroup’s latest austerian “bailout” could lead to Greece’s exit from the Eurozone – a potentially positive development since (among other things) for Greeks since “Grexit” might permit the country to increase exports and thereby shrink its deficits by devaluing its currency.

A mere four days after this historic vote, Tsipras went back to the Troika, hat in hand, and made a beggar’s offer. In return for a three-year bailout of 50 billion euros, Greece would accept a 50 percent increase in pensioners’ health care costs, a major gashing of public sector wages, the complete privatization of numerous key public facilities, and paulstreetan increase in the nation’s consumption’s tax. The new proposal gave the Eurogroup 13 billion Euros, a 62 percent increase over the “deal” the Greek people had just rejected. It was a shocking U-Turn, an egregious and even grotesque capitulation, granted in the name of (what else?) “realism” and reflecting the triumph of “winnable” over right. It is guaranteed to prolong the deep economic depression that has plagued Greece for many years.

Just today (I am writing on Monday, July 13), the Eurozone ministers signed off on the humiliating sell-out, a stark betrayal of the Greek popular will expressed last Sunday and in the Greek election last January. The champions of the neoliberal mantra “there is no alternative” (TINA) have broken out the champagne. Tsipras hailed the “agreement” for “prevent[ing] the financial asphyxiation and the collapse of the [Greek] financial system” and exulted that a European Union “growth package” (bridge loan) will – get this – “create market confidence, so that investors realize that fears of a Grexit are a thing of the past – thereby fueling investment.” How’s that for some fake-left neoliberal razzle-dazzle? It’s enough to make Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama blush.

There are any number of excuses (citing difficult circumstances) that can and will be made for Tsipras’s surrender. The deeper truth, nicely captured by the Left commentator John Pilger, is that Tsipras and his recently fired finance minister Yanis Varoufakis have been running with austerity offerings to Europe’s neoliberal masters ever since they were elected on a pledge to fight austerity and odious debt. As Pilger notes:

“The leaders of Syriza are revolutionaries of a kind – but their revolution is the perverse, familiar appropriation of social democratic and parliamentary movements by liberals groomed to comply with neo-liberal drivel and a social engineering whose authentic face is that of Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s finance minister, an imperial thug. Like the Labour Party in Britain and its equivalents among those former social democratic parties still describing themselves as ‘liberal’ or even ‘left.’ Syriza is the product of an affluent, highly privileged, educated middle class, ‘schooled in postmodernism.’”

What would an actually radical and democratic Greek government genuinely committed to popular sovereignty have done after gaining office last January 25th? “The day after,” Pilger writes, such a government “would have stopped every euro leaving the country, repudiated the ‘illegal and odious’ debt – as Argentina did successfully – and expedited a plan to leave the crippling Eurozone. But there was no plan. There was only a willingness to be ‘at the table’ seeking ‘better terms.’”

But moving out from under the rule of odious debt and the financial class that imposes austerity on Greece and other nations raises the question of taking steps beyond capitalism – an ambition that Tsipras’ “radical” former finance minister Varoufakis explicitly rejected two years ago in a Guardian essay titled “How I Became an Erratic Marxist.”

The Tsipras surrender takes us back to an old truth: we are citizens, not politicians. Politicians dissemble, pose, hedge, play-act, and capitulate the popular will in the name of “realism.” They rarely escape the corrupting atmosphere of money and power, the inducements to forfeit their honor at the altar of concentrated wealth and power.

At the same time, the Greek drama reminds us in its own way that (as I argue in a forthcoming essay titled “Beneath the Billionaire Class”) the 1% does not rule alone. We must never forget the critical hierarchical role and position of the technical, managerial, and professional elites – those Mike Albert and Robin Hahnel have dubbed “the coordinator class” – in the maintenance and justification of inequality and oppression. The point holds even when the coordinators in question call themselves Marxist (“erratic” or not). Academically certified middle class technocrats who have approvingly read Capital, the Grundrisse, and Theories of Surplus Value will not save us.

What is most required in Greece right now is not so much more and better Left politicians but grassroots bottom-up popular organization, activism, and education to counter the depressing hegemony of capital and neoliberal politics. “For a liberatory and feasible alternative to develop in Greece,” Pete Bohmer notes, “it is necessary for Greek social movements, for grass roots activists and for the left inside of Syriza to challenge and confront austerity and austerity policies and to be involved in popular education about the meaning of leaving the Eurozone and possible economic alternatives.”

The Zinnian lesson applies (naturally enough) to the United States as well, where tens of thousands of white middle class progressives are flocking to hear the “socialist” Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ fulminations against the savage class inequalities and abject plutocracy of New Gilded Age America. Anyone who thinks that Sanders is some kind of white knight riding into miraculously deliver us from capitalist or even neoliberal evil and misery is living in a candidate-/election-mad and politician-centered dream world. As Sanders has been saying (to his credit), corporate and financial rule is so deeply entrenched in the U.S. today that it wouldn’t matter all that much who the next U.S. President was without a mass grassroots movement for social and economic justice, democracy, and ecological sustainability. We are citizens (and workers), not politicians.

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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