By Professor Robert Zaller
Special to the Hellenic News of America
The eyes of the world have been on Greece before.
They were there at the Battle of Marathon, when Athens preserved the idea of freedom—an idea only decades old in the great city itself—from extinction by the Persian Empire. They were there in 1821, when the Greeks rose to reclaim the birthright they had given Europe for themselves against another mighty Asian empire. They were there in 1940, when the nation stood, alone of all the states of Continental Europe, against another great tyranny, that of fascism. And they are there now, when Greece has rebelled against a subtler, more diffuse, but, for that very reason, an even more encompassing menace to freedom: that of capital. It is still too early to say how this rebellion will fare, or to what it will lead. Such rebellions have failed before, including one here in the United States, where the new birth of freedom evoked 150 years ago by Abraham Lincoln has congealed into a society ruled by wealth.
But this rebellion is being led by Greeks.
It is a rebellion for the Greeks themselves, one against the “Europe” created by the disastrous experiment of the European Union, but also one for a Europe that is free of the unholy alliance of Germany and the banks. That Europe, like Greece itself, lies bleeding. It, too, awaits deliverance—a deliverance that can only come from itself.
How did it all get this way?
World War II began as a struggle between fascist Germany and the liberal democracies of Britain and France. It emerged as one between two rival despotisms, that of Germany and Russia, with France taken out early and Britain struggling for survival. Russia prevailed, and colonized Eastern Europe. The West was obliged to take shelter under the wing of American power. It was nonetheless clear that “free” Europe needed an economic and political center of its own. That center was, inevitably, the newly proclaimed Federal Republic of West Germany, a Germany whose good behavior was to be founded in denazification and democratization, and guaranteed by American supervision.
These terms were dictated by the United States, which saw in a revived Germany the only practical deterrent to Soviet expansion. France, whatever its qualms, had to accept them. Its farsighted statesman Robert Schuman, chafing at the prospect of his country being reduced to a bit player in the German-American alliance, proposed a rapprochement between France and Germany based on economic cooperation and consolidation. This was the germ of the European Union. It suited Germany, giving it a track independent of American power and a means of reestablishing itself as a legitimate European player in its own right. The Franco-German duopoly, gradually extended to the rest of Western Europe (including a reluctant Britain), gave the Continent a blueprint for a future beyond the Cold War.
That future arrived suddenly with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Overnight, West and East Germany were reunited, while a vacuum of power opened up in Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed. The dangers of this were illustrated by the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. The First World War had begun with troubles in the Balkans, and conflict there could not be risked again.
The European Union, which had evolved out of the Franco-German rapprochement of the 1950s, was the logical guarantor of stability in the former Soviet bloc. It moved toward the final stage of its own development by adopting a common currency, the euro, and a banking system to operate and oversee it. What it did not develop was a democratic political structure that would appropriately represent the interests of its member states, particularly its smaller and less prosperous ones. Most especially, it did not represent the interests of Greece, the only Western nation to have had a quasi-fascist military tyranny imposed on it in the postwar era—in the name, of course, of “stability.”
It is difficult to say whether the European Union could have proceeded differently, and impossible to know whether a genuinely democratic federation of nations could have worked—it is an experiment that has never been tried before. The United States is not a precedent, because the thirteen colonies, never before freestanding sovereign entities with their own separate histories and cultures, were banded together from the beginning. People once spoke of a “United States of Europe” on the Old World’s battered continent. But that was never in the cards. The thirteen colonies had, it is true, their own sharp differences—chiefly the institution of slavery, which nearly destroyed the American Union—but the problems of European unification were vastly more daunting, and would probably never have been attempted in the absence of the unique circumstances of the Cold War. This should be borne clearly in mind. The narrative that has developed in Europe, at least until now, is that the European Union was an inevitable solution to the anarchy that had unleashed two world wars. But this is false. It was by no means inevitable. And, as it stands, it is no solution. It is only a problem itself.
What’s wrong with the European Union is, in large measure, what ails the world as a whole: the domination of finance capital, which divides up the globe into a small number of winners and a multitude of losers, which rides roughshod over human values and even elementary decency, and which imperils our planetary future through the reckless plunder and consumption of the world’s resources. Europe is not, taken together, its worst offender: it still pays some lip service to social welfare; it has actually taken the lead in environmental protection; and it has embraced some core human values—for example, in abolishing the death penalty. In all these respects, it has a far better record than the United States, now a deeply self-wounded country. But, by concentrating political power in an unaccountable bureaucracy that (accordingly) serves international financial interests and takes its marching orders from a regional hegemon, Germany, it has simultaneously created the conditions both for destabilization and tyranny—the worst of all possible worlds. Since the European Union can neither significantly control nor isolate itself from the effects of an anarchic international marketplace, it is vulnerable to the systemic economic crises that occur with increasing frequency in the global economy. At the same time, German dominion within the EU has enabled Germany to offload the costs of these crises onto others, in effect treating smaller members as economic vassals, not to say treasuries to be looted.
What is good for Germany has to be good for the EU, and, if it is not, Germany must become the EU—but not, of course, the reverse. It is the definition of colonization: all for one, but never one for all.
This is an astonishing result: that the loser of two world wars fought to contain its aggressive power should now have been handed the reins of the Continent in peacetime without resistance or constraint. Robert Schuman’s sight, unfortunately, did not extend far enough: the partner whose appetites he wished to domesticate by attaching it to France’s side has become the monster that has devoured the greater polity he dreamed of.
That agents of financial interests such as the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—the infamous Troika—should have the power to push member states of the EU around like banana republics is bad enough. But Germany’s interests are not merely economic. German meddling helped provoke the disastrous Bosnian secession from the Yugoslav Federation that led to the bloodiest conflict on European soil since 1945. The Germans have revived their old dream of colonizing Eastern Europe, the Drang nach Osten, precipitating (with American support) a proxy war in Ukraine that is spinning rapidly out of control and has left thousands dead already. The combination of German imperial ambition with the regime of international capital has created a monstrous hybrid whose implications for the newly captive states of Europe—and Greece’s condition, for one, can only be described over the past five years as captive—are dire in the extreme. The European Union, let it be said clearly and categorically, is not a democracy, whatever the residual institutions of its member states. If there is a term for it, it is fiscal autocracy. It is the reign of capital—a reign centered in Berlin—grafted onto the vision of a revived German imperium. Angela Merkel, to be sure, is no Hitler. But she fits nicely into the Kaiser’s boots. And that is more than bad enough, even without considering that German policies have revived Nazi –style parties and demonstrations throughout Europe, including Germany itself.
There is more to the story than this; the new duopoly in Europe, at least in political and military terms, is between Germany and the United States. A consideration of this, however, would take us too far from our present focus. That is Greece.
The election that brought Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza Party to power on January 25 is a watershed for Greece. Two-party systems are not easily shaken, and Syriza’s victory marked the first time in the forty years since the restoration of Greek democracy that neither New Democracy nor PASOK will govern Greece or even participate as a junior partner in the government. Tsipras, falling two seats short of a majority in Parliament, spurned the advances of both wings of PASOK and other centrist groupings (the small Communist Party preemptively rejected any alliance) to reach across the aisle to the rightist Greek Independent Party, with which he shares only one policy position: a rejection of the current terms of the Troika-imposed “bailout” (read: looting) of Greece. Tsipras announced that he would no longer deal with the Troika but only on a ministerial level with the EU. He further repudiated the recent German-led call for tighter sanctions against Russia in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, on the grounds that Greece had not been consulted as required by the EU charter.
This last point was significant. Ukraine is the spear-point of the German-American drive into Eastern Europe, whose twin goal is the extension of hegemonic power in the region and the redefinition of Russia as, in Barack Obama’s term, a “regional,” i.e., a fringe entity. Although Tsipras is a professed atheist who became the first Greek prime minister to take a civil oath of office, there is a strong commonality between Greece and Russia in a shared Orthodox tradition, as was demonstrated in the sympathies of the Greek public for Orthodox Serbia in the Bosnian civil war. The broader signal Tsipras was sending in the present context is that Greece has other long-range options for meeting its credit, energy, and security needs than the EU. Note, I am sure, has been duly taken in Washington and Berlin.
At the same time, the Greek Right has taken a carefully calculated gamble in staging elections that, as all opinion polls showed, were likely to produce a Syriza victory. The precipitating event was the failure to secure the necessary votes for New Democracy’s candidate, Stavros Dimas, to succeed the 85-year-old Karolos Papoulias as Greece’s ceremonial president. That this would result was all but guaranteed, since a two-thirds majority was required, and the opposition parties, including Syriza, had more than enough votes to block the New Democracy nominee. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called for a second round of voting, thus making the now certain defeat of Dimas a vote of confidence in the government. In short, he brought about its fall.
The equally unpopular George Papandreou had similarly forced an election in 2011 that resulted not only in a crushing defeat but the destruction of PASOK as a major party. Papandreou’s gamble failed, but Samaras and his associates calculated that New Democracy would remain the major opposition party even in defeat. This is what occurred. Syriza emerged with a clear plurality—36.3% of the vote—but New Democracy retained its base of support as the conservative opposition.
The strategy involved here is that of the so-called “left parenthesis”: that the Greek public, allowed to vent its frustration by bringing Syriza to power, would soon be disenchanted as it failed to gain better terms from the EU than New Democracy had been able to win, but only forfeited the goodwill won by its previous willingness to abide by its international commitments. New Democracy would then be poised to return to power with a fresh mandate from a suitably chastened electorate.
This is not a wholly implausible scenario. Germany has already signaled that it is not prepared to countenance any modification of what Merkel has described as its “generous” bailout of Greece. Tsipras has longed since backed off his threat in 2012 to take Greece out of the Eurozone and even the EU, although this is a nuclear option he cannot lay aside. But, at a minimum, he must get sufficient resources and abatements to restart what his Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has called Greece’s “waterboarded” economy, and restore essential public jobs and services. Few abroad, indeed, have fully grasped the extent of the country’s devastation. The official unemployment remains above 25%, GDP has fallen by 30%, and wages, for those still employed, by 38%. Worst hit of all have been retirees, whose pensions have been slashed by an average of 45%. Nor do these grim numbers take account of the relentless rise of taxes and the gutting of public services. If they are plugged into the equation, the total income-value of Greeks still working has fallen by a good half since 2009, and that of retirees by perhaps two-thirds. To this must be added the unreckoned burden for families in caring for the unemployed, the ill, and the aged. “Waterboarded” is perhaps too mild a term to describe this pitiless and systematic pauperization of an entire country. No modern nation has undergone this degree of suffering and privation in modern times, with the exception of Russia in the 1990s under the regime of do-called ‘savage capitalism.’ A BBC journalist, surveying the terms imposed on Greece in 2010, described them as simply “savage.”
It would take only a modest relaxation of the whip to give Tsipras what he needs to survive electorally. The problem is not an economic adjustment, but a political one. Merkel wants no concessions for Greece lest the other Southern Tier countries of Europe demand a similar renegotiation of austerity. That would be a check on German power she and her party colleagues would be very loath to accept. On the other hand, Tsipras is not alone. Not only is he in close contact with other European parties of the left, notably Spain’s Podemos, but he has received support from the French, who, given their own taste of austerity, are taking a newly independent stance. A united front including France, Italy, and Spain—each of which has suffered its own economic wounds—would be far more difficult for the Germans to brush off than an isolated Greece. If Tsipras would not be the leader of such a front, he could well prove its catalyst.
In the longer term, Yanis Valoufakis has proposed that the sovereign debt of EU member states be consolidated as a collective responsibility. This would bring the EU closer to an American model. The U.S. federal government provides a de facto guarantee for the indebtedness of individual states, as it demonstrated during the 2008 financial crisis by providing funds to avert defaults (as well, of course, as bailing out private entities allegedly too big to fail). In ordinary times, Washington redistributes income from wealthy states to poorer ones through a variety of contracts and subsidies; military spending, for example, is heavily concentrated in the South. This does not mean there are not glaring inequities and desperate pockets of poverty in the United States. It does mean that the Union will not founder because of the insolvency of state governments. That is exactly where German intransigence has put the European Union today.
Varoufakis’ proposal, which has attracted some support, would not solve the central problems of the EU, namely its opaque and undemocratic nature, the wide economic and cultural disparity of its member states, and above all the arrogant and increasingly insufferable power of Germany, which, in tandem with the United States, has provoked an explosive confrontation with Russia. The political aspect of these problems is fully as significant as the economic ones, if not ultimately more so. It is not easy to see a satisfactory general solution, and it may not be possible to preserve the EU—or to justify doing so—in the absence of one.
In the meantime, a page has been turned in Greece. Alexis Tsipras, I note, was born on July 28, 1974. That not only makes him the youngest Greek leader in 150 years, but the first one born after the fall of the Junta, an event that occurred three days before his birth. Greece was celebrating then, and it is celebrating now. If not yet freedom, hope at least has been reborn.