Weeks after it began, the world’s press has started to pay attention to the real story in Greece — not the wrangling in Luxembourg over the terms of a second bailout for the cash-starved nation, but the continued refusal of the people of Greece to accept the conditions going with it.
For close to a month now, Syntagma Square at the centre of Athens, in the front of the Greek Parliament, has been occupied by an insistent crowd, who have been dubbed the “aganaktismenoi” (outraged) , a term similar to that applied to the “indignados” in Spain and Portugal.
Originating from one of the mass protests organised by the powerful Greek Communist party (KKE), and its trade union formation, the “Indignant Ones” has become an autonomous event — a multitude of people acquiring an identity beyond party or narrow formation, and positively asserting their existence separate to the state, or the client parties dependent on it.
This is the real story of the Greek, and European, financial crisis, because it is clearly the process that is driving the crisis — the insistent refusal of the Greek people to liquidate their social life and their shared assets to serve the global financial markets.
Though the crisis is being presented as an economic one — with breathless financial commentators following every move of the bond markets, as if it were somehow a living being — it is nothing of the sort. It is political through and through.
Had the Greeks accepted the sort of deal the Irish accepted — where the government buys the private sector’s bad assets, i.e. the banks, through nationalisation, and sells off the public sector’s good assets through privatisation — there would be no Greek financial crisis.
The ruling PASOK party would have had the political clout to bring in an austere budget, its credit rating would not have dropped to CCC, the bond markets would have eased up a little, and the huge costs of maintaining its debt would have lowered.
That would have offered neither genuine economic improvement — it would simply have plunged the country into an austerity-driven recession deeper than that which it is currently experiencing — nor liberation; the opposite in fact. The country would have been laced into the logic of financial capital for good, its politics traded upwards to the empyrean realm of EU and IMF administrators by common consent.
But that was never likely to happen, for Greece is — as the KKE and PM Papandreou noted — the “weak link” in the EU project, and, indeed, thereby in the world financial system. The KKE said it about Greece in the way Lenin said it about Russia — the contradictions were at their utmost there.
Papandreou stripped the sentiment of its assertive political rhetoric, and conveyed it to the apprehensive leaders of the EU as a scare-story: if you don’t bail me out, I won’t be able to control my crazy people. The son of a former Prime Minister, he had grown up in exile; he found it easy to represent himself to the EU as a governor of a wayward province, rather than as the head of an independent state.
There was more than a touch of orientalism in his pitch, scaring starchy Germans with wild thoughts of mad Greeks.
Yet the problem for Papandreou and the EU is that the Greeks failed to live up to the stereotype. They were neither passive like the Irish, nor aleatoric and ad hoc (but effective) like the Icelandics. Submission had been averted and crisis brought on because their resistance has been disciplined and relentless.
The anarchist black bloc and the kokoulofori (hooded ones — the unorganised alienated youth who turn up for mayhem at large protests) may grab the headlines, but they have been the “left” margin of what have always been much larger and non-violent, though assertive, protests. Week after week they’ve come out, relentless.
Now such resilience is starting to pay off. Eighteen months ago, most Greeks were convinced by Papandreou to follow an austerity lead. The centre-Right New Democracy party had been in power for a decade, having come in on a promise to sweep away the corruption and clientelism of the earlier PASOK era.
But it had merely entrenched it, with different clients, and its failure had given PASOK — Papandreou’s new modernised version — a rare, single-party victory in the elections, taking 156 seats of 300. Since then he has spent all his political capital trying to solve the problems of finance capital, and people are starting to see what the austerity programs look like.
For Papandreou, the financial crisis has become a very political crisis — losing him the confidence of the old nationalist part of PASOK, and forcing him to seek support from other parties, and, most recently, a unity government with the New Democrats — which might prompt a wholesale realignment of Greek politics
Furthermore the Left’s slogan — “we won’t pay for their crisis” — has started to take hold. Narratives of fecklessness and a degree of guilt about failure to reform, appear to have been superseded by an understanding that the financial crisis is an auto-generated one.
It is not deficit spending, per se, that has pushed Greece towards bankruptcy, but the price of borrowing, escalated steadily by talk of Greece’s possible bankruptcy. Now most people understand that they are being asked to sell off real assets and cut down real lives, to service imaginary entities.
Europe-wide, the Greek crisis is laying bare the nature of the EU: that it is not an expression of collective development, but an anti-democratic entity, serving financial markets through an inflexible currency, and creating a monopoly on sources of development capital.
Now that the final part of the first bailout has been agreed to pay through, and a second one guaranteed, the crisis may ease off a little (though not for Angela Merkel and the German Christian Democrats — acceding to the second bailout will finish them politically).
But it will return, since the terms of the second bailout demand yet more austerity from a country that has already shown its unwillingness to cop to existing impositions — and the amazing announcement from the markets that the country’s credit rating won’t lift, even if the total austerity package is implemented! Snide remarks by Germans that the country should sell off a few of its islands, and serious suggestions of privatising everything up to and including the Parthenon, will only double the resolve.
You would think, when people talk about privatising the Parthenon, that the nihilistic nature of capitalism would become visible to all. Apparently not. Last year, this publication was almost alone in noting the importance of the crisis, your correspondent observing:
“It is also possible that Papandreou’s remark about Greece as the “weak link” is more telling than he knows — that the last place in Europe with a living militant, solidarity tradition, when intersecting with a technocratic post-politics, may produce something else entirely. Looking at the bright streets surrounding Syntagma, with its global chain stores — Costa coffee, H & M, Marks and frikkin Spencers — you can see why so many people are keen to stay with the smooth euro-vision of the central parties. But those streets lead into other streets, where there is less in the windows, and loose tiles beneath the feet, and the red flags are still flying there.”
That has clearly come to pass. The EU, the euro, and through the euro, the world financial system, is having its future fought out in Syntagma square. Still, the financial journalists have not got it.
Like the shepherds outside the ancient city, watching the stars for portents, the financerati watch the changing figures on the screens to divine the future. Inside the city walls, people look to the Acropolis to remind themselves to stand for something more, and to fight for what cannot be traded away. ’tain’t no coincidence, as we say, that Europe comes face to face with itself in Athens once more.