Lessons From a Modern Greek Tragedy

Photo by Ninian Reid | CC BY 2.0

Trump has just inked a deal for $110 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia. The first installment of a longer term $350 billion deal. No sane person can believe that this will lead to anything but an escalation of violence in a region that is already in flames. In Yemen as a result of relentless Saudi bombing 17 million people are faced with famine and there is an incipient cholera epidemic. Lybia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, are all in economic tatters resulting in untold deaths from violence and poverty and the creation of millions of refugees. In the U.S. the heart of “Russiagate” beats to the sound of the drums of war between the two pre-eminent nuclear powers. While all of this goes on the only thing heating up faster than this new cold war is the planet itself.

It seems all but impossible amid so much suffering and peril to find indications that we are doing anything but heading in the wrong direction at an ever increasing speed. However in the hopes of keeping at least some of us in the rock rolling mood that these times necessitate, I will argue that this is not the case or at the very least not the whole story. To make this Sysyphean case it is only proper that we look to Greece and the Greek tragedy that is the Syriza party.

The first thing one needs to know in order to understand the rise of Syriza is that Greece has a system of proportional representation. Such a system allows two things not seen in ‘first past the post’ countries like the U.S. and Canada where I am a citizen. It allows small parties to win parliamentary seats, and it also allows for the possibility of coalitions that can in theory at least radically transform the political landscape. Syriza is a classic example of this beginning as it did in 2004 polling at less than 4%. The party began as a coalition of five groups. Two of them expressly dedicated to the proposition for the need of an ecological revolution in politics and economics, and four of the five with the adjective ‘left’ in their party name. It is a testament to the vibrancy of the Greek democracy that such a group could be formed at all much less win. Imagining the political fortunes of such a grouping in the U.S. is worthwhile if only for the dark chuckle that it occasions.

At every step of their political progress they were attacked and derided by the mainstream press and the financial elites. Despite this a mere ten years later they won the general election and formed their first government. Most people outside Europe – if they have heard of Syriza at all – know them as the government that won a referendum and lost its soul. This summation arising from their refusal to abide by the results of the referendum to stand up to the ‘Troika’. (European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund) Instead agreeing to the imposition of structural adjustments and austerity economics. Some have even gone so far as to describe them as a Trojan horse put in place for that express purpose. A charge to my mind that requires the imputing of an almost godlike prescience to the elites of a country that hasn’t managed to sidestep many missteps in its very long history. Syriza gained support not from being a brilliant long term subterfuge by the elites, but rather from a populace that saw through an unrelenting barrage of propaganda. A hard earned insight for which they deserve much credit and from which I believe some hope is to be gained for the rest of us.

Syriza was/is a government stuck between a rock and a hard place. Scylla and Charybdis as the Greeks would have it. Their finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, counseled picking up the rock that they had been given by the referendum result and using it to break the shackles being imposed on them by the Troika. Their President, Alexis Tsipras, and much of the rest of his Cabinet chose instead the hard place of accepting the EU’s structural adjustment program and the daily liver transplant this implied. (see legend of Prometheus)

The ugly truth that faces Greece and us all is that the financial elites have engineered a political sphere where there are no good choices. If Syriza had chosen the route preferred by their finance minister there can be no doubt that the suffering of the Greek people would have been accelerated. The attack on their banking system would have been unrelenting. Leading to the government’s inability to pay any salaries or pensions with all the attendant suffering that this entails. It also certain to my mind that this would have occasioned a marked increase of violence in the streets and yet another iteration of the kinds of anti-government protests and destabilization of civil society that we see today in Venezuela, and saw in the run up to the coup in Ukraine.

That Syriza instead chose to defer at least some of this pain and chose the path they viewed as giving them the best chance at staying in power is not greatly surprising given the nature of electoral politics. Politicians are after all like everyone else in at least one respect, they care about their careers. It bears noting for those wishing to work towards a better world that Syriza was re-elected in 2016. The portion of the party that broke away over the choice to sign instead of fight – 25 seats – was literally wiped off the electoral map gaining not enough votes for even a single seat in parliament.

These electoral facts would seem to vindicate the choice by the PM, the truth is alarmingly more complex and brutal. As a result of austerity economics Greece is in the throes of an economic meltdown that is in many ways unprecedented in Europe for its length and depth. Worse than that suffered by the U.S. during the ‘Great Depression’. Worse unemployment rates. Worse ‘brain drain’. Worse health outcomes. Worse suicide rates. Worse absolute hunger. Some 15% of the population suffers from food insecurity. Some have even described it as the worst sustained economic record by any country in Europe for the last three hundred years. Whatever the truth of these historical comparisons what is not in doubt is the suffering of the Greek people. Why? How? These are of course the questions that must be answered. There is fortunately a simple answer if not a simple solution. Finance. It is exceptionally important that every progressive, nay, every citizen understands that this is the battlefield on which the future of the modern world will be determined. What will be decided on this battle field is whether money will be allowed to triumph over democracy. Whether the advances in technology and the wealth of nations will be used to used to improve well being and service human and ecological needs or be used simply to increase private profit irrespective of social outcomes. Will Thatcher finally be proved right, “There is no such thing as society.”? During the Great Depression the citizens of the U.S. decided that people were more important than bank profits. F.D.R. proclaimed of the banksters, “I welcome their hatred.” No banker was allowed to be present at the Bretton Woods conference. Not one. Glass-Steagall was implemented. Democracy triumphed over finance and this victory resulted in a golden age in economics with not one financial crisis. In addition substantive progressive ideals were advanced one after another. Women’s rights. Earth Day and the EPA. The end of the Vietnam war. A burgeoning middle class in the U.S. and Europe, unprecedented gains in Latin America and Africa. There were of course failures. None greater than the creation of a permanent war time economy in the U.S. Hand and hand with that decision was the decision to treat Russia as an enemy instead of the ally most responsible for winning WWII. How much better our world could have been.

Nonetheless until the abrogation of Bretton Woods much of the world enjoyed the greatest advances in human well being in history. All thanks to the decision to reign in the bankers and stop having world wars. After the crash of 2008 a very different path was chosen. Instead of using this crisis as was done in 1929 to reign in finance, to restore the primacy of democracy, a bi-partisan effort was made to further entrench the primacy of finance over all. On the order of $14 trillion dollars was made available in loans, subsidies and guarantees from the U.S. government and the U.S. Federal Reserve to make the bankers whole again. It is very difficult to understand what such sums mean. Suffice to say that every electrical utility and water works in the world was estimated by expert Greg Palast to be worth between $4 and $5 trillion. The Greeks in 2011 received a 130 billion Euro ‘bail out’. The largest loan to any country in the history of economics according to Yanis Varoufakis. How is it possible that such a small country could receive the equivalent of $17,000 per person and not recover? Very far from recovering they have instead fallen farther and longer than any European country in memory. Every year sees a further contraction of the economy and ever larger numbers of people reduced to penury.

Again there is a simple answer. This money was not for the Greek people or even the Greek economy. As in the U.S. this money instead went to the banks. The money bailed out the banks and was put on the balance sheet of the Greek people. Imagine if you will that you are underemployed and $40,000 in debt and the government says that they are going to help you out. Their ‘help’ however is paying the bank who owns your debt and then telling you that you are now $57,000 in debt. As Varoufakis has said on more than one occasion, “Even a ten year old can tell you that this is not going to end well.” For the Greeks it most decidedly has not.

We can and of course should criticize the PM of Syriza and his cabinet for denying the will of the Greek people as expressed in the referendum. We can of course debate whether choosing to refuse to buckle under the power of the Troika would have been better for the people of Greece in the long run. I have no doubt that it would and felt so at the time. Events are proving that projection accurate. Though it must be said it is easy for those far removed from the immediate pain, suffering and civil unrest this would have caused to make this assessment. This truism does not change the fact that Syriza has been able to do less than nothing to help the Greek people to date. Instead the situation has continued to deteriorate. For now at least finance is winning the battle over democracy and the rest of Europe had better beware. Greece is very much the sacrificial canary and this warning had best send the French and everyone else back to the barricades.

What however should never be lost sight of is the courage shown by the people of Greece during the referendum and beyond and take from this the message of hope that this courage affords. The breaking of the economic shackles being imposed on every government across the world by unelected technocrats in the service of international capital will unfortunately take time to break. For us to have the courage and resilience required for this Herculean task it is important that we understand that the coming to power of governments like Syriza despite all their failures is a step in the right direction. Syriza is not failing because they are the wrong party they are failing because the game is rigged. Syriza is not failing because their policies for the economy and the environment are wrong they are failing because austerity makes it impossible to implement them. We need to take from the outraged reaction of the elites to Corbyn, Sanders and Syriza that we are on the right track. The only way forward and out of the trap that has been set by finance is by greater democracy. What that means today is no different than what it meant in 1929, people and their needs must take precedence over banks and their profits.

Corbyn, Sanders, Melenchon, Syriza, Podemos are all signs that people are waking up to the trap that has been set for democracy and the planet. Sanders as President would have been better for the people of the U.S. and the environment of the world than Trump. Corbyn better than May for the Brits. But as Syriza shows all too clearly even this choice would be but the first step in the number of changes that are required. The road is long but it would seem at even longer last that after forty years of somnambulism in North America and Europe wakefulness has at least begun.