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Forgive Us Of Our Debts, But Not When It Comes to the Greeks

The total capitulation last week of the once defiant Syriza government in Greece to the EU loan sharks has been compared in the press to the reverse engineering of the David and Goliath story.

But a more appropriate solecism in this instance might actually be a take-off on an old rock ‘n roll song – “I fought the banks, and the banks won.”

The surprising about-face of Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras one week after winning an overwhelming referendum from the electorate to resist the brutal austerity measures, which are now coming down on the population of the Peloponnese like the hammer of Thor, offers a somewhat sad, cautionary tale for academic and armchair revolutionaries as well as progressively minded political theologians.

As one leading Greek publication opined, despite all his heroism and bravado, Tsipras really didn’t have any choice.   The logic of “Grexit” made overwhelming sense.   However, as Greek minister of culture Aristides Baltas put it, given the “blackmail” of the EU creditors, “it would be total catastrophe” to let the Grexit commence.

Renowned British leftist writer and intellectual Tariq Ali, however, had some ironic and not so exculpatory observations in The London Review of Books about his visit to Athens in conjunction with the international conference “Democracy Rising” sponsored by the Global Center for Advanced Studies (what one of its sponsors Counterpunch magazine dubbed the “Woodstock of the International Left”).

Like Nobel-prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Ali regards Tspiras in the end as a motley fool, who sold out the budding anti-austerity movement that Syriza and its supporters mobilized.

It is often in times of crisis that radical politicians discover how useless they are. Paralysed by the discovery that those they thought were friends are not their friends at all, they worry about outrunning their voters and lose their nerve.

According to Ali, Tspiras had wrongly calculated that the referendum would actually result in a “yes” vote, or that if the result were oxi or “no,” at least the margin would have been sufficiently narrow to count as a de facto affirmative outcome.   When over 60 percent of the electorate resoundingly reaffirmed why they had voted for Syriza in the first place, the Syriza leadership panicked.  “He thought the ‘Yes’ camp would win, and planned to resign and let EU stooges run the government.”

The object lesson in this Greek tragedy turned farce – or what has more bitingly described as a coup enforced with banks rather than tanks – is that moralizing and sloganeering against “neoliberalism”, especially when the posturing comes from the climate-controlled comfort of the American belly of the neoliberal beast itself, is a zero-sum game.

And in this case the negative sign to balance out all things  falls entirely on the Greek side of the equation.

The Eurozone, and ultimately the United States, if not the rest of the major global economic players, were headed toward an apocalyptic reckoning if Greece had defaulted (or “grexited” as the fulsome neologism went).   The financial markets will be calm now until it becomes obvious that the “deal” between Greece and the EU was only a temporary bandaid on a fast-spreading gangrene.  That could be in a few weeks or a few months, but it will happen.

A lot of verbiage has already spewed forth from the commentariat about who is really at bottom to be faulted in this grand fiasco.

Before Syriza was elected, the reigning narrative centered on the “unrealistic” benefits granted to average Greeks by its profligate government.  Austerity, including raising the retirement age and so on, was taken to be the vital medicine to make the Greek economy more productive.

Once the medicine proved to have toxic side effects, the Greeks elected the Syriza coalition, who promised to resist any further demands for austerity.  So “austerity” itself became the bugaboo, and radical Keynesian Krugman, who has created an entire brand in recent years lambasting the idea that sovereign debt needs to be repaid, rapidly and spectacularly ascended in the firmament of international political theory.

As it slowly became obvious that there was nothing not any Greek government could do about digging out from under the Himalayan mountain range of debt which had by now buried not only the tiny Greek economy, but the famed libertarian spirit of its own people,  the fall guy became the European Union itself.

And now at last it has become the lowering specter of a malevolent, resurgent German Reich (not to worry that Angela Merkel just a few months ago was considered the most admired world leader) marching with financial jackboots all over hapless little Hellas.

The wildly shifting narratives and policies,  combined with a sense of bewilderment and confusion they have engendered among Greeks and non-Greeks alike, highlight the increasingly severe, pathological contradictions of the global economic system itself.  More specifically, they underscore the contradictions of a global political economy in which the economic and the political are severed at the joint.

The critique of neoliberalism in the context of the Greek crisis has been founded on a clear conviction of a righteous cause that illuminates the squalid history of economic exploitation and political chicanery going all the way to the inception of the “European project” in the late 1950s with the signing of the Treaty of Rome and the establishment of a customs union (the framework for the later monetary union).

Just as the fledgling EU was starting to beget genuine prosperity for millions of Western European citizens in the late 1960s, Greece itself was body-slammed by the military junta that ruthlessly seized power in 1967, dismantled democratic institutions, and ruled with an iron fist for seven years, much to the embarrassment of the rest of the continent.

After the collapse of the regime in the mid-1970s, European political leaders guiltily went out of their way to re-enfranchise Greece and perhaps encourage the adoption of social welfare programs which, combined with the country’s indigenous corruption among its elites as well as their collusion with international financial sharks such as Goldman-Sachs (which many now think precipitated the current disaster), were not ultimately sustainable.

Germany has been routinely portrayed as the villain in  recent negotiations over Greek debt, even though, as Ali notes, the Germans did offer Tspiras a face-saving way out).  But it is nevertheless the EU members of the former Soviet bloc that have been the shrillest in demanding that Greece not be given a pass.  The reasons for this resistance are complex, but it largely has to do with Eastern Europe’s distrust of Syriza’s avowed Marxist ideology.

Eastern Europe for good historical reasons tends to be hostile toward the prospect of conjuring up any kind of old-style command economy with its apparatachiks and police-state mentality, even though both the Syriza program and its rhetoric are in reality more like communism with an anarchist face.

The real crisis lies in the fact that it is not “capitalism” per se that is destroying Greece, but the fact that someone somewhere eventually has to pay off debts.   After the worldwide financial collapse of 2008, the wizards of financial capitalism quickly learned how to game the political system and to alchemize the private debts of big-time investors into sovereign debts of nations, all in the name of protecting everyone from the horrors of systemic economic collapse.

But the note-bearers of sovereign debts are electorates, not individuals or corporations, and the Greek debt crisis has exposed the brutal fact that political constituencies, as opposed to economic entities, would much rather beggar their neighbors than sign on to redistributionist economic policies that might foster a larger sense of global, or even regional, commonwealth that currently does not exist anywhere in the popular mindset.  “Populism” is really about my group getting what it wants at someone else’s expense.

The magic of global finance capitalism with its high speed trading networks, structured investment vehicles, and the capacity for creating money out of thin air is that it can for a little while promise people all sorts of things and conjure up illusory consumerist paradises.  Theologians are constantly reminding us that the kingdom of God is debtless, but earthly kingdoms are often weighted down with debt burdens that are apt to promote confusing the heavenly realm with the kingdom of desire.

Greece has been rescued for a little while as well, but the political union known as the EU to which it remains tethered is likely to unravel far more rapidly now.  Tsipras had no choice but to surrender once again to the grim regime of austerity, but oddly neither did Merkel, or likeminded European finance ministers, have any other choice but to impose it.

The crisis of global capitalism will not be averted by the politics of one nation, or even a select consortia of wealthy nations, but only by a new global, visionary politics in which we are willing no longer to spend more than we can expect others to pay for, or to impose burdens on others than we are not ultimately willing to bear.

Such a political economy of future is neither utopian nor other worldly.  It derives from the very logic of the global economy itself.  But we will probably not come to our senses and do what needs to be done until there is as much suffering worldwide as the Greek people are currently gearing up for.

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