By Robert Zaller
Professor at Drexel University
This summer marked the fortieth anniversary of the fall of the military junta that had ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974. The parliamentary democracy it had overthrown was restored, minus the monarchy whose meddling in politics was widely blamed for destabilizing the country. A former prime minister, the conservative politician Constantine Karamanlis, returned from exile to lead the government under a reorganized party of the right, which called itself New Democracy. Andreas Papandreou, the son of another former prime minister, George Papandreou, also came home to form an opposition party of the left, the Panhellenic Socialist Union (PASOK). Smaller parties were gradually revived, including Communist splinter groups, and even, from the mid-1980s, a quasi-fascist party, Golden Dawn, which expressed sympathy for the Junta and its imprisoned leaders. But New Democracy and PASOK dominated the political scene as the “responsible” center parties that assured the country’s stability. Papandreou peacefully succeeded to power in 1981, and, despite his populist rhetoric, did nothing to disturb the governing consensus. Whether on their own or as the dominant party in coalitions, the two center parties have ruled Greece since 1974, although PASOK, after a crushing defeat at the polls, has been replaced by a new, nominal party of the left, Syriza. This party, which caused initial alarm in some quarters by threatening to leave the Eurozone, is currently being domesticated in opposition. When its turn in office comes, it appears unlikely to rock the boat.
This is, for the most part, the modern democratic model in the West: two large establishment parties that alternate in power and administer the socioeconomic system, everywhere now a capitalist one, distributing the spoils of power to its cadres and, occasionally, crumbs of favor to the political base. “Regulated democracy” might be a good term to describe this arrangement, just as the term “guided democracy” is sometimes applied (with appropriate cynicism) to Third World governments such as Egypt where only a single party governs. The great virtue of regulated democracy is its ability to contain social tensions, or to defuse them by occasional reforms when they reach critical levels, while leaving the underlying system intact. This is sometimes referred to as the social contract, the implied agreement that the government will act as a capitalist of last resort to assure a passable standard of living for the majority of the population. Such a contract assumes that the government is willing and able to enforce it, and that if one of the major parties fails or shirks the task, the other can be brought in by the ballot box to carry it out.
This modern, mass form of democracy is not what the ancient Greeks would have understood by the democratic experiment instituted in Athens in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. The Athenians had no political parties, and their government was not a representative one—rather, it worked by excluding the majority of the population (women, resident aliens, slaves) from the political process. Nonetheless, it offered a voice to members of the male citizen base across the board, rather than confining the exercise of power to a wealthy or priestly elite. This idea was sufficiently innovative to impress the Athenians themselves, who bragged about it to the world in Pericles’ Funeral Oration, and it was duly registered by Aristotle as one of the forms of government. It appeared only fitfully in practice, however, notably in the small city-states of medieval Italy and Renaissance Switzerland, until it was startlingly revived in late eighteenth-century America, complete with the Athenian exclusions—no women, no aliens, no slaves.
America did not declare itself a democracy but, with a nod to ancient Rome, a republic. The actual style by which its government is known today was given it by a sympathetic if skeptical foreigner, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote a book called Democracy in America in the 1830s. Since then, the democratic ideal has swept the globe, and even where it is furthest from actual practice it is still paid lip service. The only major country in the world that explicitly repudiates it is China, and the tides are shifting there too.
The fortieth anniversary of the restoration of democracy in its ancestral homeland this summer should thus have been an occasion of celebration not only for Greece but for the world generally. There were no celebrations, however—no flags on display, no parades, no public ceremonies. Not even speeches. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras made a few remarks to accompany an exhibit in Parliament on the 1974 revolution—the only building in Greece where the facade of a national democracy is still kept up. Samaras’ remarks themselves were a defensive retort to those of the country’s President, Karolos Papoulias, who had earlier taken the occasion to declare that Greek democracy was “suffering” and “severely damaged.” This was a politic way of stating the obvious: Greek democracy has failed. And that is a matter not for Greece alone. Greece is the canary in the coalmine for worldwide democracy. Its fate carries the fate of democracy with it, just as it did 2500 years ago.
The problem with Greek democracy is not that it fails to observe the forms of democratic procedure: regular elections, majority votes, and the right of political organization (except, now, in the case of Golden Dawn). It is rather that it fails the first test not only of democratic government but of any other form: it is not sovereign. Like Vichy France under Nazi rule, it has a president, a prime minister, and a paid bureaucracy, all of native provenance. It has police and security forces, too, to enforce its edicts. The only problem is that those edicts are dictated from abroad. Greece, like Vichy France, is an occupied country. It is occupied, not by a jackbooted army, but by an international financial cartel at whose center, like a spider at the heart of an elaborate web, once again sits Germany.
Greek democracy was ailing long before it died. Its political parties were clientelist, its leaders were corrupt, and its bureaucracy was stifling. But, with baited largesse from the European Union and cheap credit, a spurious prosperity created a temporary middle class. If scandals came and went as regularly as the phases of the moon—the long-running soap opera of Siemens and the bonanza of the 2004 Olympics being the most notable—the “contract” seemed to hold: Greeks would tolerate dysfunction and corruption on every level of government, so long as the television sets and washing machines kept coming.
This was not a situation unique to Greece. Credit, pumped up by financial bubbles, abetted by deregulation and backstopped by taxpayer bailouts, had masked a slow decline in income for the great majority of workers in Western countries over several decades. The reckoning that came with the crash of 2007 was too big for the customary palliatives, however. Social confiscation was necessary to protect the profits of investors and banks—of private homes and property; of jobs, salaries, benefits, and pensions; and finally of state assets themselves. In the United States, this was partially mitigated by the necessity to prop up the world’s largest economy: unemployment reached depression levels, but overall demand could not be dampened to the point at which the global system might enter the death spiral it had experienced in the 1930s. In Europe, the dominant power, Germany, dictated policy through its control of the euro. The poorer Mediterranean south was made to pay for the bankers’ holiday. Greece was to be a special example—perhaps as the one country that had defied the Nazi juggernaut on the Continent seventy years earlier. This time it was to be occupied not by tanks but bondsmen.
The Greek crisis was deliberately precipitated by a credit cutoff that threatened sovereign bankruptcy. The net result was forced wealth extraction from a helpless population that contracted the Greek economy by 25% and pushed the official unemployment rate to 28%, not counting the far larger number of those underemployed or working for reduced wages while paying steep new taxes. This was a policy meant not only to squeeze an entire people dry, but, quite deliberately, to crush and enslave them.
These policies, dictated from Berlin and Brussels, were obediently carried out successively by PASOK and New Democracy governments. They were not helpless in the face of them; either government could have called the EU’s bluff by withdrawing from the Eurozone, reinstating a devalued drachma, and declaring the bankruptcy imposed on them. These were strong cards; serious commentators believed that if Greece had played them at the moment of crisis, the Eurozone might have collapsed, and the European Union with it. There was never a chance of this occurring, however. The politicians of both parties, and the plutocratic elites they served, were not about to risk their personal fortunes, safely ensconced in Swiss banks and international bonds denominated, of course, in euros. These were sweetened in the customary manner. Greece was sold out; sold, in fact, pure and simple.
Lest it be thought that the ruin of Greece is merely an extreme example of the gospel of austerity imposed on Europe’s southern tier, let us remember that the economy of Greek Cyprus, too, was crushed like a gnat because of the supposed undercapitalization of its banks (read: their use as a safe haven for Russian money). In short, there is as much political as economic reprisal in the supposedly “objective” policies imposed on the targets of Berlin. The connection between the economic war being waged on southern Europe and the one being drummed up in Ukraine should not be overlooked, either. If Germany is refighting World War II by other means, Russia is inevitably its major target.
What is overlooked in the crisis that began in 2007 and has been deliberately protracted into its eighth year is that European democracy as a whole has ceased to exist. The European Union has an elected parliament, but its actual policies are dictated by an unelected political and bureaucratic directorate that dances to Germany’s tune. This is not a federal system as in Germany itself or in the United States, where a certain regional autonomy still exists. It is a top-down administration where the conditions of life are foisted on member “states” which have surrendered large elements of their sovereignty. This applies not only to smaller and poorer ones; in Italy, a so-called technocratic government, headed by a banker, was imposed on Europe’s fourth largest economy, while in France, Arnaud Montebourg, the finance minister of the “socialist” government of Francois Hollande, was recently sacked for daring to state the obvious, that the economic policy of a nominally French government was being dictated by the prime minister of a right-wing German political party.
This is a problem for Europe as a whole to reckon with, if it can disenthrall itself from the illusion that the European Union, as currently constituted, is anything but a front for German domination, backed by the aggressive expansion of NATO. But the crisis of democracy is wider than that. In the United States, too, although it has been spared the worst effects of austerity, the social contract (never signed, alas, by Wall Street and Silicon Valley), is being shredded too. The middle class has been steadily eroded by rising economic “inequality” (an obfuscatory term for systemic wealth extraction), abetted by the mechanism of gridlock, which is usually described in terms of a puzzling failure of democratic process but should rightly be seen as a mechanism deployed to prevent redistributive reform. The shock treatment used to destroy the Greek middle class and turn Greek workers into a docile underclass is thus only a particularly radical example of the de-democratization of the developed world generally. As in Greece, the formal mechanisms of democratic procedure are left in place, just as the institutions of Republican Rome were under the Empire, while the substance of democracy itself—the self-government of a free citizen body—has been drained dry.
The question is whether, under capitalism, a genuine middle class has ever existed and stabilized itself. Aristotle, in examining the forms of government in his Politics, suggested that the key to a successful polity was a broad, that is a majoritarian middle class. Except for the brief and exceptional postwar period between 1945 and 1970, nothing approaching this has ever been achieved in capitalist democracy. That period was born of a confluence of unique circumstances: a capital surplus in the United States funneled into rebuilding Europe and Japan and fueled by cheap energy from the Middle East; the temporary compromises with labor enforced by the specter of Soviet Communism; and the militarization of Western economies justified by the Cold War. As these circumstances changed, the old downward pressures on labor resumed, with consequences that are now apparent to all. The pre-war middle class was never more than about 15% of the population, and it is being steadily shrunk back to those levels with the virtual disappearance of labor unions, the dismantling of the welfare state, and the deprofessionalization of the upper middle class. We are back to the conundrum posed by Aristotle, namely how a just and stable social order can be achieved without a broad distribution of wealth. The solution proposed by Marx has been, for the moment, rejected, and no other one has appeared. The illusion that capitalism can produce a just society under some ideal laboratory conditions is now a fiction peddled only by hired think tanks which, like the Federal Reserve Bank, exist chiefly to blow bubbles.
In Greece, at least, the blinders are off. The term I have heard most commonly used to describe the Greek political class in recent years is “traitor.” Cabdrivers use it; so do computer engineers. A traitor is someone who betrays his country. When an entire political process is rigged to serve the interest of a foreign power or powers (including a comprador class of native plutocrats), the correct term is occupation. It is a shameful moment for the country that not only gave the world its conception of democracy, but much of its civilization as well.
The moment that stays with me from a summer month in Greece is that of the joint press conference in early August held by Samaras and the EU’s emissary, Jean-Claude Juncker. Juncker, in a jovial mood designed to reassure the Greek public that it had pleased its masters for the time being and would receive the next tranche of its debt slavery, cracked frequent jokes. Samaras, his eyes taking their cue from Juncker’s face and body language, laughed when he laughed, and stopped when he stopped. When Juncker tapped his velvet whip instead, Samaras’ face registered alarm and submission. I have never seen a puppet so exquisitely worked. It was the nadir of a forty-year transition from dictatorship to servitude. The country that gave the world its ideal of political freedom must now work to reclaim its own.