No more Herr Nice Guy
Only the presence of strong international solidarity can be the basis for opposing capitalism, writes Paul Demarty
Having barely been in office two weeks, the Syriza government of Greece is wasting no time in forcing the issue that got it there.
That issue is, naturally, the punitive bailout terms under which the country suffers. And ‘suffers’ is the right word: there are countries hit by economic sanctions, the modern form of siege warfare, which have not suffered so much as Greece has these last few years. It is in hock to international institutions and it is simply unable to pay. And attempting to meet the demands involves ever greater acts of social violence: all money raised by slashing public expenditure is hoovered up greedily by the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Commission - Greece has an unsustainable debt-to-GDP ratio of 175%. It is difficult to imagine it ever being able to service such huge debts.
So the representatives of Syriza and the Independent Greeks (Anel) are attempting to convince the powers over them to acknowledge that which, to any reasonable observer, is merely obvious. The IMF, ECB and above all the German government - all must see sense, and come to the negotiating table in good faith. They may yet see some of the money; but if they insist on asset-stripping every last inch of Greek society, they will see almost none of it. A country held in a permanent state of utter penury does not have money to spare on servicing odious debts.
In those terms, it is reasonable to say that Greece is not entirely internationally isolated. Calls to loosen the fiscal chokehold have already come from the likes of Mark Carney of the Bank of England; on Tuesday, as the countdown to euro zone finance ministers’ negotiations on the Greek question rolled by, US treasury secretary Jack Lew weighed in, criticising “casual talk” about forcing Greece out of the euro, and suggesting that euro zone fiscal policy should be more generous.
The target of these barbs is the German government, unsurprisingly - the fiscal brick wall at the heart of Europe. In particular, finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble is cutting an intransigent figure. “The reasons,” he said after a meeting with Syriza’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, last Thursday, “for the difficult journey to be undertaken by Greece … is to be found in Greece, and not outside Greece, and definitely not in Germany.” There would be no compromise at the euro zone meeting: Greece must meet its obligations.
Varoufakis had raised the spectre of the 1930s in his appeals to the German government: “No-one understands better than the people of this land how a severely depressed economy, combined with a ritual national humiliation and unending hopelessness, can hatch the serpent’s egg within its society. When I return home tonight, I will find a country where the third-largest party is … a Nazi party.” Schäuble was not moved.
Indeed, he and his colleagues are in no mood for moving at all. They had already interpreted Mario Draghi’s €1 trillion quantitative easing programme as a snub; one can only imagine the anger at hearing Jack Lew’s comments. Are the Germans the last people alive to believe in old-fashioned fiscal responsibility? The doctrine of ‘moral hazard’ looms large for the euro zone’s largest and most politically dominant country: if the EU relents to the (in absolute terms, modest) demands of Greece, who will be next with the begging bowl? Every euro zone country south of the Alps, by the looks of it - and Ireland to boot. Even the French would prefer a little more fiscal latitude than Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble are prepared to countenance.
Dig your own hole
It barely needs to be said that Schäuble is talking horseshit: the notion that Greece’s present predicament has endogenous causes is as risible and self-serving as, in the British context, Tories blaming Labour’s ‘overspending’ for our own. This was a global crisis from the outset. The question for the state regimes of the world was how to deal with it: a question more sharply posed for the relatively more hegemonic of those states. Germany may be dominated by the United States, but it was in a good position to stamp its authority on any European response to the financial chaos unleashed in 2007.
Greece epitomises the Germans’ choices in the years since. The electoral victory of the self-styled radical left coalition, Syriza, is partly an index of the population’s inability to take much more of that kind of brutality; but also that, by imposing such programmes on the ‘responsible’ parties in Greece, the troika have effectively strangled the political mainstream. The parties with which they could do business have been brushed aside by others who, when Lehman Brothers fell seven years ago, were fringe concerns: Syriza most dramatically, and Golden Dawn most worryingly.
However one wants to parcel out the blame on the ‘purely economic’ front, the present political situation - that Greece has a government that is not only unable, but unwilling, to pay its debts in their present form - is as German a product as a Volkswagen. Berlin’s hard-line approach to trouble at its periphery led, first of all, to the destruction of the last Pasok government, and the replacement of George Papandreou with an unelected ‘technocrat’, supported by both main parties. The Samaras government which followed tried repeatedly to get some relief from the troika and the northern European powers, pointing in the vague direction of Syriza as a warning, but to no avail.
Now, Samaras is out; Alexis Tsipras and Varoufakis are in. There was much talk in advance of the election - from Syriza and Anel alike - about destroying the corrupt, clientelist political establishment. We wonder if Syriza will keep to its words here. Or have they already fallen for the temptation of handing out lucrative jobs to their supporters, now they are in government? In other words, will Syriza merely replace Pasok when it comes to crony politics?
Certainly Tsipras and Varoufakis, are concerned to appear reasonable, to reconsider privatisations they have vetoed, and make other concessions. It may not mean much, however, if they stick on the crucial point: Greece cannot service its present debts, and should not do so, and will not do so without substantial modifications of the terms. It is difficult to see the troika and the Germans acceding to this, and indeed pressure is piling on: QE or no QE, the ECB has ruled that Greek government bonds are no longer accepted as collateral for loans, and credit agency Standard and Poor’s has downgraded those bonds to B-, just one notch above ‘junk’.
If anything, the coming showdown emphasises the immediately European dimension to Greece’s crisis. The economic tumult is spread across the euro zone, however trivial Greece’s GDP is compared to larger EU economies. The concomitant political deadlock is affecting many discrete polities, from Spain to Finland. Most crucially, however nakedly desperate the situation in Greece is, resolution cannot come within its borders alone.
Varoufakis is coming in for leftwing criticism for his willingness to junk Syriza’s election promises for the sake of getting a deal on the debt; but his merry jaunt around Europe, meeting up with fellow finance ministers, reflects above all the need for an international perspective here. It happens that this soi-disant “erratic Marxist”1 is happier cutting deals; but what alternative does he have?
Syriza’s left critics have only the most myopic of answers, encapsulated in the advice of Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party: “The strength of the left in Greece depends on the revival and further expansion of the mass movement that developed so explosively 2009-12.”2 In other words, more strikes, more protests, more action! Except that action does not feed the starving or shelter the homeless; it does not offer employment to those on the dole queue; it does not, in short, offer a positive alternative to a decaying status quo.
Comrade Callinicos quite hilariously includes the Antarsya coalition his Greek allies have foolishly backed in a total “radical left vote” of 42.5%: after all, without the essential contribution of Antarsya, that vote would have been a paltry 41.9%! There is a reason why the party of ‘protest, protest, protest’ got such derisory support: because they have nothing to offer except … protest. By contrast, Syriza has a programme, of a sort, and a plan - however desperate - to use the reins of government to alleviate the Greek crisis.
A genuine alternative to Syriza’s approach would face facts squarely: taking power in Greece alone is no stronger a position than taking power in the Cotswolds. The struggle of the working class is an international one at its very core, and quite plainly so in the situation that obtains in contemporary Europe. A million mass demonstrations in Athens are not worth five that spread across borders; and all the protests in the world will not suffice to achieve the tasks before us. We need a revolutionary political alternative to capitalist decay.
2. Socialist Worker February 3.