In preparing for anti-austerity negotiations with the European Central Bank (ECB) the new Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, of the left-wing Syriza party, made the following political characterization of his government’s position:
the European crisis is not just another cyclical slump … the question that arises for radicals is this: Should we welcome this wholesale subsidence [fragmentation] of European capitalism, as an opportunity to replace capitalism with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism? My answer has been unequivocal … Europe’s crisis is, as I see it, pregnant not with a progressive alternative but with radically regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.
Rising inequality across the world, expressed internationally as imperialism, led to the cataclysmic era of 1914-1945. Who thinks it will not have similar consequences again? To those conservatives who make fun of the Greek position by characterizing it as “Forgive my debt or I will shoot myself [leave the European Union and return to its own currency, and maybe become an EU “suicide bomb”], the Syriza leaders say: “Austerity will kill us, and the whole EU project.” The European Central Bank position can also be ridiculed as “If you don’t pay off your debts, we won’t give you the ability to pay off your debts.” ECB declarations that “prudence” [read-austerity] will “promote growth” have been painfully exposed as lies, as Greece’s economy has shrunk nearly one-third since it began following these “pro-growth” policies.
Debt relief could take many forms. For example debt-for-equity swaps, as in Greece gives Germany the Parthenon in exchange for debt forgiveness (I’m kidding, but you get the idea); an EU-wide unemployment fund; and EU-wide investment and development funds to expand employment; or, simply allowing Greece to invest and leverage its current surpluses (yes, it currently has a small budget surplus but ECB rules will not allow it to spend it) toward relief for its people’s suffering – nearly 25 percent are unemployed. Greece imports both food and fuel, payments for which, like payments on debt, are made to foreign firms and governments through the ECB, and subject to its approval.
In its first joust with the ECB, Greece’s Syriza-led government has prevailed against a threatened ECB credit cut-off, and also released funds from its small surplus to invest in helping the suffering of its people. The just-announced temporary deal will last four months, with other provisions of the ECB “memorandum” from the previous Greek administration also in place for that long. As economist Paul Krugman writes, “The next step will come four months from now, when Greece makes its serious pitch for lower surpluses in future years. We don’t know how that will go. But nothing that just happened weakens the Greek position in that future round.”
The Syriza-led struggle shows that realistic working class and democratic politics can force the “iron positions” of finance capital centers to retreat. Mountains remain to be climbed – a determined struggle remains – but Syriza gives hope those mountains can be not only climbed, but moved! In contrast, recall Ireland’s financial crisis and how opposition to austerity a few years ago collapsed almost immediately following ECB threats. As Greek Finance Minister Varoufakis put it:
“We are determined to clash with mighty vested interests in order to reboot Greece and gain our partners’ trust. We are also determined not to be treated as a debt colony that should suffer what it must.”
As the Greek drama plays out, how can one help but observe how much closer U.S. workers’ situation today is to that of Greek workers. Until recently, our troubles seemed far less threatening. Thanks to the stimulus efforts of the Obama administration and its allies to counter the 2008 austerity program promoted by US banksters and billionaires, we did not incur a society-destroying, 25 percent official unemployment rate. However, the 2014 billionaire-led Republican sweep of the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures was a con job of historic magnitude, and promises to “fix” that.
Inside Trojan horses of various racist, anti-women, anti-democracy, gun insanity movements, mostly bankrolled by billionaires, including fascist and pro-Confederate political organizations masquerading as Christian churches, a vicious anti-worker austerity program, equaling what the German-led banks imposed on Greece, is already plainly exposed. The very first Republican initiatives range from direct payoffs to the banksters, to ultra-right political control over the Republican Party, and to outright wage-cutting assaults in every Republican-led state. Cut taxes for the rich. Raise them on the poor. Cut people’s health care. Kill prevailing wage. Kill unions. Stop raises in the minimum wage. Kill health and safety. Kill the EPA. Kill public education. Kill reproductive choice. Kill voting rights. Return to military domination of foreign policy and global conflict. Nullify democracy.
The Greek economy is $250 billion. The US is $14 trillion. The Greek population is 11 million. The U.S. population is 300 million. When the next downturn – and it IS coming, and before any full recovery – comes, especially if Republicans take the White House in 2016, U.S. workers will face enemies no less implacable than the German banks in their attitude toward Greece. However, the scale of this human bloodbath could drown the whole world. And we may ultimately be confronted, as are the Greeks, by a similar existential challenge: If you are going to take us down, we are going to take you with us. Greece is showing that challenge, if sincere and genuinely reflected in the hearts of the Greek people, can be the key to turning away from barbarism, and towards civilization.
Photo: Supporters of the left-wing Syriza-led government gather in front of Greece’s parliament to back its demands for a bailout debt renegotiation, central Athens, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Yorgos Karahalis/AP