Directed by Katerina Kitidi and Aris Hatzistefanou
2011, 75 min., Creative Commons/Online
Debt crisis engulfs Greece. The Euro edges towards collapse. Stock markets plunge.
“You may ask yourself, well…how did [it] get here?” to paraphrase the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime.”
The online movie Debtocracy provides straightforward and relatively short analysis of that question.
Written and directed by two Greek journalists Katerina Kitidi and Aris Hatzistefanou, Debtocracy was produced by small, online donations, and is distributed under Creative Commons license. That allows anybody to distribute the work with certain conditions.
The one hour and 15 min. movie is available online. It’s mostly in Greek with subtitles in Italian, Spanish, German, French, English and Portugese. (Review continues after video.)
It opens with Costas Lapavitsas, professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, explaining the two parts of the post-World War II economies in leading capitalist countries. The first 25 years after the war, he says, were marked by income growth, consumption and relative stability.
This kind of stability was “novel in the history of capitalism,” he says as the interview is over-laid with a U.S. Chamber of Commerce propaganda cartoon in Technicolor called, “It’s Everybody’s Business.”
The second period, he says, began in the mid-1970s and was marked by low growth, recurrent crises, depressed wages and high unemployment.
British Marxist and social scientist David Harvey further explains that mid-1970s period as being focused on “disciplining” labor, politically and wage-wise, and the huge growth of the financial system.
With wages stagnant, Harvey says, the answer was to give everyone credit to keep buying.
“The way we got out of the crises of the 1970s prepared the ground for the current crisis,” he says.
“There is no such thing as crisis-free capitalism.”
The U.S. housing market collapse of 2008, fueled by Wall Street manipulations and racism, led to a meltdown of the global financial system.
Interviews, news clips and other sources make the case that the European Union was fatally flawed for two basic reasons. There is no political entity, no country, that backs Europe’s currency, the Euro. And the integration of European countries exacerbated the already existing inequities and race-to-the-bottom (for workers) competition. It pits “poor relatives,” mainly southern European states like Greece, Spain, Portugal and even the G-8’s Italy, against the richer, stronger ones, most notably Germany and France.
“It’s like putting in the ring Muhammed Ali, the World Heavyweight Champion, with a featherweight boxer, telling them, ‘Start fighting and let’s see who wins,'” says a Belgian activist on Third World debt.
Debtocracy rejects the push towards austerity: slashing public services, pensions, wages, and placing the current economic crisis -caused by capital/banks/corporations – square on the backs of Greece’s workers, pensioners and people.
It documents the build up of debt in Greece through shady deals and predatory loans involving German-based Siemens, American financial giant Goldman Sachs and unnecessary military spending. The Athens Olympics also proved to be a bust and added enormously to Greece’s debt.
On top of that, the moviemakers say, there was a small group of elected and nonelected leaders, composed of ruling Greek families and elites, making the decisions on these loans for their own personal political and financial gain.
So what to do, they ask?
And their answers lie in a concept called, “odious debt.” And for political inspiration they look towards South America: Ecuador to be exact.
Briefly, odious debt means a country can repudiate a debt if the loan to a government was made without the knowledge and approval of the people, nor in their interests, and if the lenders of the predatory loans know what’s going on.
Perhaps the most recent use of odious debt comes from the Bush administration when it repudiated Iraq’s debt as part of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
After fierce political struggles that wound up with the election of Rafael Correa to the presidency of Ecuador, his administration used the concept of odious debt to review the loans and renegotiate the terms without sacrificing investment in the nation’s public education, health care and other social security spending.
The moviemakers offer this as an alternative to the sever austerity policies now facing Greece.
However effective or flawed this alternative may be, Debtocracy succeeds in contextualizing the debt crisis, including at its systemic root, and offers a way out.
Careful viewers can see the parallels to the European struggles against austerity, and the unfolding budget fights here in the United States.
The policies of slashing spending, refusing to raise taxes on billionaires, attacks on unions, clean air and water laws may euphemistically be called deficit reduction, but its America’s austerity plan; a way to get families, retirees, students and workers to pay for the irresponsibility and drive for maximum private profit of Wall Street banksters and corporations.