Why we need to support Greece and Syriza

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Simultaneous debt reduction and structural reforms, we now know, will overextend any democratically elected government because they overtax its voters. And, without growth, there will be no structural reforms either, however necessary they may be.

Joschka Fischer

In Greece we don't have a mafia because we have a state.

Anonymous


Like it or not, we now all have a duty to support Syriza. That's not because Syriza is not, has not been, populist, amateurish at times, even naive; nor because we can overlook its unholy alliance with ANEL. We have to support Syriza, Greece and ultimately civilised society as it is, because this is our last chance to challenge the system of exploitation that is gaining an ever-increasing hold on Europe.

The story is well known. A few years ago Greece went bankrupt, around the day the disgraced ex-prime minister Giorgos Papandreou declared that Greece was running a much higher deficit than previously thought, thus handing the country over to that nasty institution dubbed the "troika", consisting of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The trio came in with what they called a comprehensive salvation package, the famous “bail out”, which amounted to tranches of money given to Greece every few months, in return for "reforms".

There are three problems with the story as it has happened. First, the reforms: The narrative so far has been that Greece lived beyond its means. It is actually true that the Greek state was profligate. The Olympic Games cost billions of euros, some of which was spent on crappy security systems jointly developed by Siemens and some Israeli specialists. The government bought German submarines (God knows why) and hundreds of German tanks; meanwhile the Porsche Cayenne became a top selling car. But the Greek state never reformed. Instead, the last government of Greece kept reporting to Brussels on reforms that never happened, whilst chaining the country to ever more debt. What actually happened was privatisation on an unparalleled scale, turning Greece into a European car-boot sale: As the economy shrunk by 25%, the "enforcers" sold everything off. Skouries, a goldmine in Chalkidiki, ended up in the hands of a consortium for €11,000,000. Analysts have said that the projected profits of the mine are up to €20bn, none of which will be taxed in Greece. A relatively unknown businessman with a dodgy presence in the Greek tax landscape ended up buying the Greek lottery organisation, thus establishing a taxable presence in the country now to the tune of a billion or two annually.

Greece has always been the fiefdom of a handful of people, be it Bodosakis, Latsis, Niarhos, Vardionoyannis, or nowadays Mr. Bobolas. These multibillionaires have traditionally been the quiet ones in the Forbes and other rich lists, with the notable exception of flamboyant Mr. Onassis. In a two-speed society they always operated above the rest, they were the state. Many of them would not stand a minute competing with the transatlantic sharks and the northern dinosaurs, which is why they always needed a sympathetic state to operate within. No one knows to what lengths each one of them went to maintain the status, the favourable state, but the presence of the Golden Dawn, the violence in the streets of Athens, as well as the creation of the "Potami" "party" certainly didn't do them any harm.

It is because of these favourable relations between the state and the oligrachs that no reforms could ever be passed. Even if the government genuinely meant to do that, which they didn't, it had already lost any legitimacy by pushing through the parliament, at the last moment and in the context of irrelevant discussions, hundreds of pieces of "urgent" pieces of legislation, designed to surrender more of the country to these few people. It is telling that as the last government was falling, the ex prime minister Mr. Samaras tried to push through legislation which would allow the coast and forests to be sold as land to be developed, presumably into estates for wealthy Qataris and Russians.

At the same time, the Greek state called on ordinary people to pay the price for all this: people who always have, and still do, work hard, day in day out. In the past four years the Greek government has engaged in an unprecedented money grab, as tax upon tax was foisted onto ordinary people on the only thing left: property. Since many Greeks owned their homes, for historical reasons and practical ones such as the lack of social housing, this process has amounted to mass internal displacement. For the first time in our history we have seen thousands of homeless people sleeping rough in the streets of Athens.

The truth is that Greece desperately needs reforms. We need to know where and how to pay tax, and where it goes. We need to know how much public money is spent where and what for. We need to ease the regulation for establishing businesses and social enterprises. We need to publish in plain Greek, and hopefully a few other languages, exactly how to conduct business with the state and so on and so forth. And we need to limit the power of the oligarchs. The truth is that the EU, Frankfurt and Brussels, are not, and never have been, interested in true reforms in Greece. In fact, they are afraid of them. If anything can give legitimacy to Syriza and the government, it is the barrage of sweeping and genuine reforms they are proposing that aim to level the playing field for everyone in the country and to limit the power of the oligarchs.

The second problem is that the “help” that has been given to Greece is not helping Greece at all. To start with, only 11% of the money originally "loaned to Greece" actually stayed in Greece. The rest left the country's accounts straight away, to bail out the German, French and other Eurozone banks which were over exposed to the Greek "debt market". As people were losing their homes across Greece, Lufthansa was advising the Greek government on how best to sell the peripheral Greek airports in order to boost the state finances. The highest bidder turned out to be Fraport, Lufthansa's, and ultimately the German state’s, subsidiary. At the same time, the wealth of Greek firms was disappearing in billions: as Angela Merkel was lecturing people on prudence, Greek multinationals were relocating to Luxembourg.

But the third problem is perhaps the most important: the Greek experience of austerity has resulted in a crisis of democracy. Since the catastrophe began, Greece has seen three governments, one of which was directly imposed by Brussels [2] in a bloodless coup, and all of which had only one raison d’etre: to enforce austerity as dictated by Frankfurt and Brussels. The last government was a travesty of a coalition between the traditional rightwing party Nea Demokratia and the remnants of the old socialist one, PASOK. All of these governments have been more or less corrupt. For example, the first finance minister of the coalition, Mr. Papakonstantinou, is now facing a court case because allegedly, as a minister, he removed the names of members of his family from a list of people with large sums of money in Swiss bank accounts. Both he and his successor, Mr. Venizelos, roamed Athens in a €750,000 satellite-guided BMW designed to be bullet and bomb proof, as if they were occupying forces.

In truth, austerity has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe unheard of in the developed world. We have seen the re-emergence of TB and people having to have their limbs amputated due to cases of untreated diabetes. Hospitals have stopped treating people as one in three people in Greece found themselves unable to access the health system. A paraplegic woman in Crete died because the electricity was disconnected from her home due to unpaid bills. People have been committing suicide in public. Health professionals claim that the suicide rate has risen by 40%. One in two young people are facing the prospect of decades of unemployment. In the past four years alone, 250,000 young people have left the country, leading not only to a shrinking of the tax base, but also a monumental brain drain that will further weaken the economy.

The key here is insult. People can take a lot , but what they have been subjected to is lie upon lie: they were told that Greece was being helped to reform and get back on its feet, but the opposite has been the case. Now on top of that they have been made an example for the rest of Europe: Greece has been dragged by the ear to the world stage like the naughty kid in school. But Greece is the exception, not the rule. What happened in Spain, in Ireland, in Portugal, has got nothing to do with Greece, or profligacy. What they all have in common, however, is that the taxpayer has had to swallow the losses of the high-flying, champagne-drinking few; and the taxpayer is starting to wake up to that fact. Greece is used as an example (by the likes of Merkel, Schauble, Brussels and much of the mainstream media) because the actions of the Greek state were so reckless, but the argument is being used as cover for the largest transfer of wealth from the many to the few that post-war Europe has seen.

We have to help Greece and spread hope before it is too late for the whole of the continent. I am not certain of Syriza’s integrity, or its chances of success, but it and parties like it are the only thing we have left. We can't allow the markets to take over.