by Jay Monaco
Strange Rumblings in Democracy-land
Normally, world leaders don’t suddenly appear without warning on television at one in the morning to make major announcements. Then again, absolutely nothing about the situation unfolding in Greece right now is normal – and that’s a good thing.
If only I could have seen Angela Merkel’s face when she took the call from Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece, and was informed that actual people would get to decide their own futures in a vote. I wonder if it looked like that time Vladimir Putin brought his dog in the room just to freak her out.
I sure hope so.
Alexis Tsipras shocked the world (not just Chancellor Merkel) over the weekend by announcing, at one AM on Saturday morning, that (gasp!) the Greek people would be given the chance to vote on whether to accept the cruel and merciless austerity regime being forced upon them by the European Union and their patron banks. Mincing no words in calling out his opponents in negotiation for their un-European, undemocratic values, he issued a challenge to his people:
“Fellow Greeks, to the blackmailing of the ultimatum that asks us to accept a severe and degrading austerity without end and without any prospect for a social and economic recovery, I ask you to respond in a sovereign and proud way, as the history of the Greek people commands.
To authoritarianism and harsh austerity, we will respond with democracy, calmly and decisively.
Greece, the birthplace of democracy will send a resounding democratic response to Europe and the world.”
Naturally, the world – unaccustomed and ill-disposed to surprises – wasted no time freaking out. If the Greek people vote no in this Sunday’s vote, the most likely result will be the country’s ultimate exit from the European Union. A chaotic run on the Greek banks began on Monday as people scrambled to withdraw cash from ATMs, and the government declared a bank holiday, strictly limiting machine withdrawals and all but halting financial activity leading up to the big vote.
You’ll find no shortage of hand-wringing prognosticators declaring Tsipras, his party SYRIZA, and every Greek who ever lived to be corrupt, crazy, lazy, and irresponsible. Greece owes the money and now they must deal with the payments! And don’t they know what this kind of instability does to the stocks owned by wealthy westerners? For gosh sakes already.
But while it may presently and indeed throughout history be an unfashionable trait among rulers, elected or otherwise, Tsipras is merely doing what his citizens explicitly elected him to do. SYRIZA won its surprise victory in January on a brazen leftist, anti-austerity platform. The Greek people, to paraphrase the Prime Minister, is tired of being suffocated by the “Troika” of creditors – the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
So in a justice contest, what wins the war of fairness: the need to pay one’s debts or the democratic self-determination of eleven million people?
That Depends on What Kind of Monster You Are
Reeling from utter economic collapse ultimately resulting from the 2008 worldwide crash, Greece found itself desperate enough to accept a bailout from the Troika that proved no less predatory than a giant global payday loan. In exchange, Greece had to submit to crushing budget cuts and tax schemes imposed by the creditors. As is always the result of economic austerity, the nation’s economy has rapidly shrunk, making each scheduled loan repayment ever further out of reach. Because of the increased difficulty in making the loan payments, the rest of the Villains of Europe have demanded even more horrible and inhumane economic strangulation.
Here, it is worth pointing out that the IMF – only one of Greece’s main creditors – has already made a nifty 2.5 billion Euro profit from the debt of Greece and currently stands to make 4.3 billion Euros in the next nine years if Greece continues paying. So while they immiserate a country, these financial institutions (who turn around and give the cash to private European megabanks, btw) rake in the dough. In order that the payments continue, they demand further misery which will make the payments even more difficult, which will require more misery.
So what’s this about, then? Is it fair payment for debt incurred – a notion I’ve noticed some take to be sacred – or the payday lender’s depraved instinct toward preying on the vulnerable? I’ve heard plenty who say it’s the Greeks’ own fault for having such a great pension system, high wages, and strong social welfare programs. How dare they run a budget deficit in order to, like, take care of their citizens? They wanna mess with that kind of fire, they’re gonna get burned – and the dudes with the moneybags will form a line with their torches.
When it comes to this stage of finger-pointing and cluck-clucking, however, I can only return to a single underlying question: what kind of craven monster believes the payment of a debt to creditors who don’t need the money is so important as to require the immiseration of an entire country?
The Stakes are High – No Blinking, and No More Jokes
What’s at stake for the people of Greece is not a finite and temporary tightening of the belt. It’s not a matter of sucking it up and biting the bullet for a few years before mystical prosperity can somehow return once the right pockets in the rest of Europe are adequately lined. No. Few would question that an exit from the Eurozone will lead to a sharp economic crisis, as economist Joseph Stiglitz put it in the Guardian, acquiescence to the demands of the Troika will mean a “depression almost without end.” And while SYRIZA did not rise to power out of a Greek desire to leave the European Union, it did rise to power on a promise to deliver the Greek people from the prospects of a multi-generation-long Great Depression.
SYRIZA is commonly described as a socialist party but given that it’s Europe we’re talking about, it bears clarifying that these are no social democrats. This is a radical socialist party dedicated to the destruction of capitalism. True to true-blue Marxist form, they do not believe socialism can be voted into existence; their aim is instead to use electoral politics to destabilize the system through reforms the system itself cannot bear, and to engage the population in the kind of mass mobilization without which no revolution can ever be possible. Having actually won control of the country by majority vote, something we can all recognize hardly ever happens to leftists, these principles were put to the test.
It hasn’t been fun – from day one, Tsipas has faced the scrutiny of the world’s capital-l Left, been mercilessly browbeaten by negotiations with the uncompromising Troika, and even had to deal with the wavering confidence of his skeptical party, some of whom seemed just as nervous about him caving under the pressure as the rest of us.
But Alexis Tsipras and his ministers are the real deal. Perhaps none of us – not SYRIZA, not the Troika, nobody – knew it before this weekend, but we know it now. Not only is he delivering on his political promises, but by bringing the question of further austerity directly to the people themselves to decide in a free and open vote, with everything laid out on the table, he’s being true to fundamental leftist principles. Like Samson tied to the pillars, he’s pulling on the chains and shaking the whole temple. He may well bring the whole thing down on everybody, and I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.
Even the New York Times describes him as having “tossed a grenade.” When the Times gets honest about world affairs, you never really know if it’s an accidental slip or if they actually don’t realize how shocking the revelations they’re printing really are. The Times profile frets again and again (like many of the rest of us) over just what sort of game Tsipras is playing here, even as it is clear from the facts laid out in the article that, once creditors presented Tsipras with laughably unacceptable demands after months of Greek accommodation, he knew it was time to call their bluff and let the people decide their own fate, regardless of the political consequences for his own career. In the eyes of the world’s shot-callers, this blaze of democracy is a dangerously radical campfire.
An unnamed party official is quoted as saying in reference to the Troika, “They thought he was willing to do whatever that was needed to stay in power.” Turns out they were wrong and they really don’t know what to do. The truth turns out to be more shocking than any fiction and nobody knows how to handle it. As the Times quotes Greek pundit Stavros Lygeros, who knows Tsipras personally, “For better or worse, the things he was saying when he got elected were things he genuinely believed in.”
It’s no wonder everybody’s shocked. When does that happen? Who does that?
Neither Alexis Tsipras nor his party are perfect; as with the rest of us, none of them pass the Perfect Leftist Purity Test. But his actions this past weekend, backed by his party’s commitment to ground-level popular mobilization over parliamentary politics, represent a shining example of the People being given all the power to stand up against the monied interests of the entire world.
That’s not hyperbole. That’s what’s happening here, to the letter. So let’s all hold high the example of Premier Tsipras and know the enemy can be opposed boldly, can be made to flinch – and let’s stand in solidarity with the Greek people in advance of Sunday’s vote.
All power to the people, after all, in Greece as in everywhere else.