For a little while now the Leftist government in Greece, led by Syriza and most visibly represented by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, has been raising the issue of “German war reparations” whenever the Greek financial crisis is discussed. Up until now however, they had not proposed a figure. A few days ago they got down to brass tacks and suggested €279bn might be fair.
On facebook feeds and web forums I’ve seen a surprising number of people suggest that this somehow represents a “distasteful” strategy. That it’s somehow “below the belt”. So-called moderate leftists have been tut-tutting this apparently shameful behaviour and suggesting Syriza need to retreat to the centre, agree to EU/IMF instructions and calm the hell down. And it’s not just on social media you hear this… the bloody Guardian is full of these “moderate leftists” attacking Syriza. Going so far as to wonder aloud as to whether Greece’s Left is falling under the spell of Moscow. Yes, that is Britain’s flagship “left of centre” newspaper whispering “reds under the bed!” ominously in your ear. God only knows what the Mail and the Telegraph are up to.
There are two things to be said about left-wingers who call for Syriza to return to the centre… firstly, they are totally misreading the situation in Greece which is on a real knife-edge. And secondly, they are – unwittingly – calling for a course of action likely to produce a sharp swing to the far right in southern Europe. At best it’s an ignorant centre-right position. At worst it’s a bit more sinister than that. It’s certainly not “left wing”.
There is genuine concern among many Greeks about the volatility of politics there right now. By and large no modern democracy actually wants to be in a position where they are forced to vote for “a radical solution”. That almost always means something has gone terribly wrong and the safe, conservative, quiet middle ground is no longer working for some reason. And that’s the situation in Greece right now. The country is on the verge of economic collapse (in the sense of there being no money in the banks and no bread in the shops; not in the sense of middle class Greeks being unable to afford a second holiday this year). And the reason for this is two decades of centrist corruption, coupled with the subsequent European banking crisis.
If you’re one of the army of unemployed graduates in Greece right now, you’ve lived your entire life under a centre-left/centre-right political class which actively falsified national accounts at the behest of wealthy oligarchs who refused to pay tax. What’s more… pretty much everybody knew it was happening. Corruption was endemic and both the far left and the far right were shouting about it. But so long as the status quo permitted the Greek government to generate ECB credit; it was ECB policy to encourage it to continue.
And then, surprise surprise, the whole thing collapsed. The European financial institutions acted shocked (just as they did when the Irish property bubble burst… because that was never going to happen, right?) and demanded that the people of Greece be punished for the sins of their corrupt government. Try to remember… it was ECB policy to offer limitless credit to idiotic Irish property developers based on absurdly inflated valuations. And it was ECB policy to offer limitless credit to a corrupt Greek oligarchy (via the Greek Central Bank). I find it mystifying that so many people have bought into the idea that the citizenry of those countries be held responsible for the reckless debts and corrupt behaviour of a few private individuals and institutions.
And that, of course, is the point being made by Tsipras when he demands German reparations. This seems to have gone over the heads of many (or else they are wilfully ignoring it). He’s a pretty smart guy and he knows he’s not going to get any war reparations. He’s merely publicly highlighting a vast discrepancy… how the German people were supported after their government betrayed them, and yet the Germans (who are the principal drivers of European financial policy) are demanding the Greeks be treated entirely differently. It is not distasteful to point out a very relevant double-standard.
When a government betrays its people and rips the nation apart, the international community can offer a Versailles Treaty or a Marshall Plan. It was literally the single most obvious lesson of 20th century history, and we – quite staggeringly – appear not to have learnt it. (Hint: The Marshall Plan turns out better for absolutely everyone involved)
Tsipras and Varoufakis are walking a tight-rope. The IMF/ECB intervention was not working in Greece. The situation didn’t need “adjusting”, it needed a new approach. In Ireland austerity is biting very hard, but the fact is – life in Ireland today is still considerably better than it was for most of the past half century, so people have adjusted. It rankles that we’ve accepted this debt with so little resistance, but that’s how it went.
In Greece though… circumstances are very different and the country has been decimated by the policies imposed by the troika. In 2005 Greece had the lowest suicide rate in Europe. Today it has the highest. Let that statistic sink in. Seriously. Think about how radically a society must have changed for that to have happened… think about how socially damaging the policies of the troika have been to result in that outcome. Nobody can be happy when unaccountable international financial institutions are laying waste to their society. And nobody can be happy when all of their mainstream political parties have accepted this situation and speak almost casually of “a further 10 years of austerity”. Those are precisely the circumstances in which nations are stirred to seek “radical solutions”.
So of course the Greeks have looked for an alternative. To do otherwise is literally suicidal.
The policies currently being imposed on Greece today are very similar to those imposed on Yugoslavia in the 1980s by the IMF (under the behest of a rabidly anti-socialist Reagan administration). Are we really dooming ourselves to walking that grim path again? Golden Dawn are unlikely to ever gain a popular mandate the way Syriza did… but the Greek people will not quietly trudge back to the centre ground if Syriza fails. They can’t afford to. And if Syriza fails, if the current government collapses, it is very possible that a right wing coalition will find themselves requiring the tacit support of Golden Dawn in order to hold power. And once you let fascists into government, even in an unofficial capacity, it can be pretty tough to get them out again.
I believe that Tsipras has one card – and one card only – he needs to somehow stall the EU and the IMF until the Spanish elections and hope (against hope) that Podemos somehow do in Madrid what Syriza managed in Athens. If that happens, it’s just about possible that a leftwing bloc within Europe, strong enough to demand policy change, could emerge. Very unlikely but it’s really their best bet (and I suspect they know it). Hence all the delays and stalling and missed meetings and “promises to review”. Also hence the demands for war reparations. It’s a stalling tactic*, but one with bite, and one with a real point to make.
Those calling for Syriza to fail in Greece (and right now, a call for a return to the centre ground is a call for their failure) are either hoping for a hard-right government or – at best – another decade of the Greek people watching the elderly kill themselves because they can no longer afford their medicine, and young men kill themselves because they see no future in a country where youth unemployment has now passed 50% and is still rising. The Greek people don’t deserve what’s happening to them. It’s crushing them. And it’s business-as-usual centrists… moderates… that are doing it and insisting upon years more of it. So the only real choice facing Greece right now is “left” or “right”?
Those who want the left to fail should – in this instance – be very careful what they are wishing for.
* I also think the logistics of a rapid switch to the New Drachma take a while to put in place so every day they can stall is an extra day of preparation (if Tsipras hasn’t got a warehouse full of newly-printed banknotes and a fleet of trucks on stand-by, he’s not as smart as I think he is).