According to reports, Greece will face a new, artificially-generated “crisis” this summer as more debt repayments loom, and with them another round of so-called bailouts, a.k.a. blackmail demands. This time, the pressure is coming less from the European Union than from the International Monetary Fund, which, as Simon Nixon writes in The Wall Street Journal, “is proving impervious to political pressure” (from whom?) to approve another round of debt slavery for Athens. From the Greek point of view, it can’t matter much who is applying the chokehold; your windpipe is still being crushed.
In the last go-around, it was the EU that brought the government of Alexis Tsipras to its knees with a credit shutdown that paralyzed the national economy and threatened a bank run that would have closed it down completely. Then, it was the IMF whose analysts pointed out that the Greek debt was unsustainable and suggested that payment on it be suspended for twenty years. It wasn’t clear at the time whether the anonymous analysts were speaking for the heads of the IMF themselves, or whether they were leaking their reports in an attempt to inject a bit of sanity (and, perhaps, even compassion) into the spectacle of the nation that had given the world democracy, philosophy, and science being reduced to Third World pauperdom and worse.
We know now those analysts were definitely not speaking for their bosses, or for the country that stands behind the IMF, namely, the United States. Greece will certainly not be able to meet its coming payments, and this time the EU is anxious to cut it a little more slack while the IMF is demanding further ‘discipline.’ It is not enough that Tsipras has produced a 2% budget surplus by slashing wages and pensions and raising taxes in the midst of the worst depression any European nation has endured within living memory. The IMF wants him to meet a target of 3.5% through further wage and pension cuts and administrative “efficiencies.” Starved, in short, of capital, and in many respects starving, period, Greece is being ordered to immiserate itself further under penalty of forced bankruptcy. Seven biblically lean years have not been enough for the IMF and its clients; it wants seven times seven to come. The formula for Greece, then, is permanent receivership, with its assets, its governance, and its future hostage to international creditors, lending agencies, and the especially tender mercies of the Fourth Reich, popularly known as the European Union.
If the EU has allowed the IMF to play the bad cop this time around, it is only for fear of triggering a further political crisis for itself. Britain’s stunning decision last June to leave the EU, of which it was one of the sustaining members as well as the financial hub, will be playing out uncertainly over the next several years. The hope among elites is that, with sufficient foot-dragging, the whole thing can be finessed into a series of rolling adjustments that will leave the overall structure of the EU intact, with the UK itself a kind of shadow member. British Prime Minister Theresa May had promised prompt action on Britain’s withdrawal, no doubt to contain the political damage at home to the Conservative Party, but, after nine months, concrete steps have so far been lacking. Instead of a process to be completed within a year or eighteen months, we now hear of negotiations that may drag on for a decade, with no clear outcome agreed upon. Do not be surprised if a further referendum is required down the road that will give British voters a chance to repent their folly.
You might call this strategy anti-shock therapy, giving the system a chance to right and renormalize itself, perhaps with token adjustments. The problem is, partly, that British voters have spoken, and that any attempt to reverse their decision will strip the last fig-leaf of democracy from the EU’s permanent and forever-to-be-German-dominated bureaucratic and banking systems. If the British were outliers and the publics of other EU member states were content with the Union, the damage might be contained. But the rise of right-wing nationalist movements in France, the Netherlands, Austria (the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, where a neo-fascist party came within a whisker of winning power last year), Poland, and elsewhere, has made ignoring populist sentiment a dodgy affair. The fact is that Britain, far from being an isolated case, appears more and more the common one. This means that any attempt to frustrate the will of voters there risks an explosion on the Continent that could take the EU down, and rather quickly too. On the other hand, if EU leaders make what are regarded as generous concessions to Britain, for example on the Schengen principle of open borders, other member states are likely to demand the same. So the EU finds itself between a rock and a hard place: treating Britain too harshly will drive it away from Europe, while treating it too leniently will stoke resentment on the Continent. This explains the vacillation of the Brussels bureaucrats between a desire to punish British voters for the Brexit and an attempt to contain the damage by accommodation or at least delay.
Greece has, of course, seen the rise of its own neo-fascist party in Golden Dawn, but that threat has been temporarily contained by designating it a criminal organization and subjecting its leaders to prosecution. No other European country has dared take the step of outlawing a political party that has demonstrated its popular appeal—Golden Dawn remains the third-largest voting bloc in the Greek Parliament—but, then, no other EU state has had its sovereignty taken away. The country’s nominal prime minister but de facto puppet acted to ban Golden Dawn not on his own initiative but on orders from Brussels. In any other member state, such an action would almost certainly have led to protest and perhaps rioting. In Greece, there was virtually no response at all. All political parties and all political life in Greece exist at the sufferance of Brussels, which can paralyze the national economy at will.
I shed no tears for Golden Dawn, but the point is that banning one political party is to make every party subject to similar treatment. Mussolini and Hitler both created one-party, totalitarian states by outlawing their political rivals, and Greece has in effect become a one-party state—more accurately, a rotating Quisling regime—since none of its parties are allowed to do anything but Brussels’ (i.e., Berlin’s) bidding on any issue of substance. Golden Dawn attracted voters by proposing to restore the drachma and leave the EU, and Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza won election by flirting with similar ideas, only to be forced into a humiliating capitulation that left Greece begging its masters for survival. The nation that defied Darius and Xerxes, Mussolini and Hitler, found itself at the feet of Angela Merkel.
So, here we are again, at another moment of “crisis” that asks Greece to surrender a little more of its soul, and a few more decades of its future. Other nations may rebel against the Diktat of Brussels if they choose, but not the Greece of Alexis Tsipras—or, apparently, any other Greek political leader. The difference this time is that the EU wants to avoid another public caning of Greece, not for fear of arousing the wrath of Greek voters as such but of stirring up further populist antipathy elsewhere. Hence, the stick has been passed to the IMF. Which means, among other things, that any hope for daylight between Greece and its international overlords has vanished. They may pass papers back and forth on other subjects, but, as far as Greece is concerned, they are on exactly the same page.
Meanwhile, the news out of Greece this winter has not been about homes without heating, schools without books, or hospitals without bandages—old hat, all of that, and why repeat last year’s headlines?—but of the plight of refugees trapped on Aegean islands and isolated camps on the northern mainland in what has been an unusually harsh winter. Here, many thousands suffer in makeshift tents, and some have died. Implicitly, the Greeks themselves are blamed for this, although it is quite clear they are without the resources to provide adequate care, and that it is the EU that keeps the refugees on starvation rations and in shelters inferior to those of Auschwitz. This too, then, is added to the Greek store of humiliation, while (by no coincidence, I am sure) the Greeks are invited to take a first-hand look at just how bad things can get if they do not dance properly to their masters’ tunes.
For the EU, it is essential that the Greek public be kept in as passive and hopeless a state as possible, so that it faces no further insurgency or defection from its ranks. For her part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants no untoward disturbance as she tries to maneuver her way past next year’s German elections (and there have been nationalist challenges to the EU even within Germany itself). Thus we have witnessed a farcical ballet in which Brussels has sought to distance itself from IMF demands for further Greek austerity, even while preserving for itself the handy excuse that the IMF has been promised participation in the forthcoming bailout negotiations. Promised by whom? Not by the European Parliament or Council, but by the German government and its thus-far obedient lackey, the Netherlands. The IMF, meanwhile, will “insist” that this promise be kept, so that it can keep spooning out the bad medicine with the full cooperation and support of other parties.
So it is that an international lender disgraced a decade ago in the worldwide financial collapse, and a discredited entity that is hanging on for dear life against multiple brushfires and a major political defection, are able to present a united front against a small nation buffeted by years of imposed suffering and long since stripped of any control of its destiny. Things might yet spin out of control this summer if the Greek public refuses to submit to further punishment, and the volatile political situation across the Continent, which includes the card Russia is now playing in Eastern Europe, heats up between now and then. Certainly, the Angel of Death passed very close by Berlin and Brussels recently when Donald Trump talked about leaving NATO in the lurch. Cooler heads have prevailed in Washington, at least for the moment—the Pentagon is not about to give up its forward position in Europe—but yet another weakness of the EU was rudely exposed, namely, its inability to defend itself militarily. It would be rash to make even short-term bets on what the summer might bring.
Beyond this—and beyond Greece itself—lies a more general crisis of legitimacy in parliamentary government. A populist reaction in the United States, abetted by an antiquated and dysfunctional electoral system and strategic voter suppression, has brought to power a demagogue who holds himself beholden to no party or political elite, and whose capacity for wreaking havoc seems limited chiefly by his own ineptitude. The U.S. Congress, and with it the party system, has so long been held in contempt that approval ratings in the low double digits are no longer a shock; in France, a president soldiers on (and makes the usual speeches and pronouncements) with the support of less than a tenth of the population he represents. Behind this is the growing sense that parties simply do not matter, since they are mere agents of unaccountable banking and business consortiums, or simply of powerful individuals who control assets that eclipse those of whole nations. This is leading, with increasing rapidity, to the Age of the Autocrat, in which either the very rich rule directly, or those who rule become themselves very rich. The prototype for such a figure is Vladimir Putin, who exercises one-man rule over the largest country on earth, and is said to have amassed a private fortune of between $40 and $85 billion. How accurate such figures may be I am in no position to say; that they are not implausible may be proof sufficient for all practical purposes. And Putin, who maintains a front of democratic legality—a parliament and a judiciary, regular elections, etc.—in fact enjoys the highest unforced approval rating of any politician in the world, at least in his own country. It does help, no doubt, to be the heir of the tsars. But it also helps when democracies everywhere appear divided, enfeebled, and corrupt. Autocracy does provide clarity at least: you know whose hand is in your pocket, and whose whip is on your back.
It is thus the least surprising thing in the world that Donald Trump is an apparently sincere admirer of Vladimir Putin: he is his instinctive model. How well their bromance will work out in practice remains to be seen, as America refocuses its imperial interests again. But if there is one political figure in the world whom Trump would not wish to be, it is a leader not only scorned and reviled by the majority of his countrymen, but without the slightest power except to enforce mandates dictated to him from those themselves the lackeys or confederates of the great German hegemon.
He would not wish to be Alexis Tsipras.