In 2016, Greece begins its first full year as a post-democracy, a fiscal ward of the European Union whose leaders take their orders from Berlin and Brussels, and whose opposition figures are prepared to serve under the same terms. This is a new era, and a new experience.
Following the election of a government pledged to combat the austerity policies that have wrecked Greece over the past seven years, electorates in Spain and Portugal veered sharply to the left, although in neither case have producing governments committed, as Syriza was, to curtailing austerity. It remains to be seen whether such governments will emerge there. Elsewhere in Europe, voters are turning to nationalist parties of the right as the refugee crisis deepens. The current economic contraction, which could be a harbinger of a repeat of the meltdown of 2008 (some are already predicting it), will make elite pressure to double down on austerity all the greater. There are many factors contributing to this, including the end of the speculative binge in China. But the underlying problem remains, in conventional economic terms, depressed demand. This is a fancy word for consumers without the money to buy the things they not only want but in many cases need. In the 1930s, the belated response to such conditions was to stimulate demand through government spending. That playbook was thrown out in Europe in the 2008 economic crisis. To those who had much but stood to lose some of it through their own greed and peculation, more was to be given by those who lacked enough in the first place. That, in a word, was austerity. Essentially, the same policy was followed in the United States, with just enough “stimulus” offered to avert state bankruptcies that might have crashed the federal banking system. In the United States, jobless benefits were cut in the midst of depression, and millions were disappeared from the unemployment rolls by fancy accounting. Millions were thrown out of their homes, and the citizens of Flint, Michigan were invited to drink the lead-poisoned waters of their local river as a cost-cutting measure.
Why, then, is the Greek story so different?
When the creditors came down hard on the government of George Papandreou in 2009, it capitulated in a panic at the prospect of default and bankruptcy, and no less at the exposure of the corrupt machinations and bribe-taking of the Greek political class. The electorate turned Papandreou out, reducing his party, PASOK, to the status of a fringe group. The establishment party of the right, New Democracy, was handed the reins of government by default. Its leader, Antonis Samaras, was no less the docile puppet of Greece’s Eurobank masters. To all intents and purposes, Greece was a nation in receivership, with a token polity. In this it did not greatly differ from its Mediterranean counterparts, whose governments were also frog-marched to the scaffold of austerity. Democracy is often smothered behind the appearance of a false consensus, whether imposed from within or without. It is not until such a state of affairs is challenged by the demand for choice that the crisis of democracy is made manifest. In Greece, this occurred in January 2015 when the New Democracy coalition government collapsed of its own weight, and the newly risen opposition party, Syriza, was swept into power on a program of debt renegotiation and a refusal to accept further austerity as a condition of remaining in the Eurozone.
Syriza’s platform was actually quite modest in terms of Greece’s devastated condition, with official unemployment rates approaching 30%, wages and pensions for those still working slashed by up to half and more, and taxes raised to confiscatory levels on what remained. Austerity had been presented as a painful but necessary process to restore the country’s creditworthiness, at which point it would be once again attractive to outside investors and eligible, perhaps, for Eurobank relief. Both Papandreou and Samaras had made such a case, and so, with an attempt at a straight face, did the European bankers. But that had been precisely the experiment tried in the Great Depression of the 1930s, with consequences including the rise of the Third Reich and the elimination, within a decade, of every democracy on the Continent by revolution or conquest. This time around, the new Reich was already in place in advance, and the policy of brutal extortion and seizure was transparent: a credit crisis caused by the fraud of global conglomerates and banking interests was to be the pretext for beggaring subject populations whose hapless leaders were faced with the threat of economic strangulation if they did not submit.
Samaras dutifully produced what Greece’s predators demanded: a primary budget surplus in which, by draconian tax increases and spending cuts, the government had notionally balanced its books. Instead of winning significantly eased terms or partial debt forgiveness, however, it was simply presented with fresh demands for cuts and the forced sale of state assets: i.e., the permanent loss of economic sovereignty by the forced transfer of public lands, utilities, and services into the unaccountable hands of foreign institutions and investors. Some private creditors took a haircut, and the schedule for debt repayment was extended, which reduced interest payments. But the sovereign debt remained unchanged, and the interest payments were still, with shriveled revenues from a broken economy, beyond the government’s capacity to make.
Greeks had a classical story for their dilemma: the myth of Tantalus, whom the gods required to stand in a pool of water from which he could never drink while branches of fruit hung above him that he could never reach. Interest payments could only be met, even at nominally reduced rates, only by further loans which added to the debt mountain and extended economic servitude into the indefinite, if not the forever future. This spelled the end of Greece as a sovereign state, managing its own affairs under a popularly elected government. It made the country a permanent debt colony of the European Union, which is to say of Germany and its more favored satellites. It was done on pain of expulsion from the Eurozone, or, de facto, from the EU itself, a course openly favored by Germany’s hardline Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. In reality, colonization was in fact expulsion: Greece was no longer to be a member and equal partner of the EU, but the conquered province of a new Germanic imperium. Its resources were to be plundered at will, its citizens reduced to the penury of a reserve army of cheap labor, to be exploited or left on the scrapheap as required, and its best minds and talents—the hope of its future—driven abroad.
Greece was not alone in this quandary; its neighbors, Italy, Spain, and Portugal had all to a greater or lesser extent been driven to the wall by austerity, although none was in a condition as desperate as that of Greece. Those countries submitted to the austerity regime, as Greece did, for fear of a credit shutdown, and center-right governments dutifully drove up unemployment and dehousing at the demand of Berlin and Brussels. But only in Greece, to date, has a popular backlash produced a government committed to defying the austerity regime. This occurred in January 2015 Greece with the election of Syriza.
Syriza’s rise to power suggested a seismic shift not only in Greek but European electoral politics—the equivalent, it may be suggested, of a peaceful revolution. As in most European states, Greece had been dominated by two major political parties since the restoration of its democracy in 1974, the center-right New Democracy that represented establishment Cold War politics, and an at-first populist party of the left, PASOK. With time, the two parties drew closer together, a phenomenon common in two-party systems, until what separated them was chiefly their client base. PASOK was no longer a meaningful party of the left by the time the financial crisis struck in 2008, just as the Labour Party had ceased to be oneunder Tony Blair in Britain, the Socialist Party under François Mitterrand and François Hollande in France, and the Democratic Party under Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama in the United States. As long as a spurious prosperity was propped up by the gyrations of casino capitalism, underwritten in Greece by the seeming largesse of the E.U., most voters were content with what was essentially a consensus politics in which the major parties were divided by personalities rather than policies. When the crash came, the response of both parties was the same: abject capitulation to the demands that international banks and corporations be bailed out, and populations thrown over the side.
It was at this point that Greek voters understood at last the perils of a democracy without choice and without genuine representation for the vulnerable majority. In the 2010 election, they repudiated PASOK and made the hitherto obscure left coalition known as Syriza the chief opposition party in the country—and very nearly the governing one, as New Democracy barely eked out a victory over it. So sudden was this shift that Syriza’s youthful leader, Alexis Tsipras, confessed that his party would not have been prepared to govern if elected. By 2015, however, the Greek electorate was not only ready to embrace a novice government, but to follow it in defying if need be all of Europe.
In the event, this was the position Greece soon actually found itself in. Although Syriza pledged to fulfill the austerity promises made by its predecessors, its refusal to accept further cuts in wages, pensions, and spending was treated as rank insubordination if not outright rebellion, and dealt with accordingly. What Greece’s paymasters feared was not any economic fallout—the country represented only 2%of the EU’s gross domestic product—but the possibility that its political defiance might spread to Italy and Spain, and possibly even France. The wagons were circled. Greece found itself completely isolated among the twenty-seven other nations of the EU. To be sure, popular sympathy for the Greek position was manifested; rallies were held. But not a single government offered a shred of support. The EU defined itself in that moment: Europe was its banks, and its banks rested on the will of Germany.
In this crisis, the Greek electorate was again asked by Tsipras for a vote of confidence, and, despite a rolling shutdown of credit that brought the country to virtual paralysis, he got it. There is no greater moment in the history of a nation than when it asserts its determination to be free, and the July 2015 referendum was such a moment. I believe the country would have followed Tsipras had he grasped his mandate, but he almost instantly repudiated it, and in a flurry of backdoor negotiation, accepted terms far more punitive than those he had only the week before called upon his fellow citizens to reject. The Greek people had lived up to their history; their leader, and most of his party, did not. About thirty dissident Syriza MPs were expelled, but the majority followed him in capitulation.
Approval by Parliament was part of the ritual of humiliation imposed on the Greeks. The sovereign representative was forced to assent not only to terms explicitly rejected by the sovereign people two weeks earlier, but to do so as an affirmation of its constitutional processes. As Schäuble said, the Greek people had spoken in choosing Syriza to govern them; and, having thus defied their financial masters, they were to be broken for their temerity with their own enforced consent.
This charade required another: a hastily called national election by Tsipras, so that the referendum of July could be undone by the Greek people themselves, and Tsipras himself exonerated for his betrayal of the popular will. To assure the result, Tsipras staged the election in advance of the first installment of new cuts, and before any serious grouping of resistance could form. A new splinter party did emerge, the so-called Left Platform, which consisted of the dissidents who had been expelled from Syriza. But they had no time to forge a leadership group or program, and, as noted, they failed to meet the electoral threshold for a single seat in the new assembly.
Tsipras claimed a fresh mandate from the balloting, whose results essentially replicated those of the January election. It was duly presented with new cuts to approve. Fresh defections cut Tsipras’ parliamentary majority to three, but he could count on opposition votes: no one wanted another election, and no other leader was anxious to expose himself as the public face of national humiliation.
The September election was the first of Greece’s post-democratic future, and it is important for that alone. Its results, as we have noted, were about the same as the one for the one in January that was the occasion for the country’s brief season of hope. The only significant differences were the sharp decline in popular participation—from 63% to 56% of the electorate—and the implicit ratification of Tsipras’ expulsion of his party’s left. The country had tried to make a choice in January, one that endorsing the leaders of either PASOK or New Democracy had not offered it. It now knew that that choice had been a false one, and Tsipras took his place beside Papandreou and Samaras as the lackey of the European Union.
An election with the illusion of a choice, such as America has become accustomed to, at least gives the appearance of a sovereign event. An election from which all sense of choice has been removed is a submission to external power, whether from an internal dictator or, as in Greece’s case, an external one. It is the difference between self-deception and self-mockery. The difference may not seem substantive, but it is. It is the difference between the hope, however delusive, that democracy is still possible, and the knowledge that it is not.
For this reason, we must now call Greece a post-democracy.
Was there ever, in fact, a choice? Tsipras, in attempting to explain his capitulation in Brussels, contended that the voters had originally given him not one mandate but two: to resist further austerity, but at the same time to remain in the Eurozone, a part of Europe itself. When it became clear that both conditions could not be met, he made, he argued, the only choice possible. The alternative would have been a complete shutdown of credit, the collapse of the country’s banking system, and, in consequence, of its other economic sectors as well: as the EU grimly warned Greece, a humanitarian disaster. Like a general at the end of a lost war, like Lee at Richmond or Marshal Pétain at the fall of France, Tsipras was faced with two alternatives: surrender or destruction.
The flaw in Tsipras’ apologia was, however, not that he had lost a war gallantly waged, but that he had never fought it in the first place. A credible threat to withdraw from the Eurozone and to return to a national currency—a difficult path, and made far more difficult by seven years of economic hemorrhaging, but one adjudged feasible by responsible economists—would have been a potent weapon, carrying as it did the risk of a general weakening of the euro, not to say of a chain reaction that might have shattered the European monetary union and, perhaps, the EU itself. Certainly, given the parallel crisis of Syrian and other refugees streaming across Europe’s borders at the same time, a so-called Grexit from the Eurozone would have been a destabilizing shock rather than the tidy severance envisioned by Schäuble.
Tsipras could have played this card, and the left wing of his party urged him to do so. He chose not to, however, and this left his posturing over austerity an insubstantial bluff, as European leaders quickly recognized. His failure of leadership exposed Greece to the humiliations of July, and the fate that now awaits it. In an ultimate act of cowardice, Tsipras then blamed the Greek people for his own failure of nerve.
What, then, of the next chapter for Greece? The present situation leaves the country more deeply mired in ruin than ever. Each tranche of the 86 billion euro loan package approved in July comes at the cost of further economic cuts and bargain basement sell-offs of state assets, and each piles further debt peonage on the country. More than half a million refugees entered Greece in 2015, a staggering burden under a collapsed economy. Very few have wanted to stay, for obvious reasons: where there is no future for the residents, there is none for refugees. With Europe shutting down its borders, however, more and more of the refugees may find themselves marooned in Greece, a desperate population doing what it must to survive. This is a problem that can only worsen.
It is likely, too, that the wide-scale strikes of this past autumn will continue and grow. These strikes are simply political demonstrations, since they are not addressed to specific employers but to the public at large, and, of course, the government. The public has no redress to offer, and the government has deprived itself of any. The social contract of the liberal capitalist state, as it had evolved in Europe, provided parties at least nominally of the left that claimed to represent the working (and workless) majority, on which claims might be made and to which protests might be addressed. PASOK had presented itself as such a party, and Syriza as its replacement. But the Syriza of Alexis Tsipras represents only itself, and it services only the Diktat of Brussels. The sole remaining catchment of discontent is Golden Dawn, Greece’s growing fascist party. Golden Dawn did not reap the immediate benefit of last summer’s events; it gained only a percentage point or so in the September balloting, and its leaders remain under indictment. But the rightward political shift in Europe as a whole, most notably in the recent French elections, suggests that its fortunes may grow. There is certainly a constituency open in Greece for a rightist populist insurgent on the order of a Donald Trump. As for the left, it has at least temporarily bankrupted itself in Syriza. The failure of Left Platform to win a single seat in Parliament shows which segment of the political spectrum Greek voters chose to punish for the debacle of July.
The formula for Greece to regain its political and economic sovereignty remains the same: debt postponement or repudiation, and a return to the drachma. It is clear that no centrist party will adopt such a program, and Syriza has demonstrated that a party of the left will not either. In fact, the idea that there is actually a political “left” in the parliamentary system is one that should long ago have been scrapped. Left parties once espoused a revolution that, peacefully or otherwise, would usher in the new dispensation of socialism: public ownership of capital, a guarantee of material sufficiency and welfare for all, and a politics based not on the maximization of wealth and advantage but of social justice. With the crackdown of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet Communism, left parties quietly shelved the goal of revolution and joined the free market merry-go-round. This has left only parties of the extreme right as agents of revolution, with their xenophobia, their contempt for democratic politics and the processes of law, and their combination of social reaction and faux-populism.
What you get after democracy, in short, is fascism. It is to be hoped that Greece will avoid it. The policies of the European Union have set it up for that, and the prospect is not for Greece alone. If the EU does come apart—anti-democratic as it has been itself—it will have been the forces of the right that have shattered it, and they that will benefit. A return to the era of nationally-based European conflict and warfare seemed unthinkable not long ago. It is getting very thinkable now.
As I have argued in these pages before, the EU itself has now evolved into a front for a new German hegemony in Europe. In Germany itself, though, a sense of popular grievance is rising too. Coincidentally, a new edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf has just been published there, the first in seventy years. I’m betting it will have a lot of readers.