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Let Greece breathe: workers' solidarity to counter bosses' blackmail

25 March 2015

25 March 2015
Despite the election of a government pledged to ease the intolerable burden of paying interest on Greece’s €320bn foreign debt and to renegotiate the terms imposed by the Troika (the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission) so far, no meaningful concessions have been allowed. The country faces a deadline of April 8 to submit a list of “reforms” acceptable to these institutions and, looming behind them, the German government.
Of course, there may be face-saving delays or “compromise” formulations, but it is clear that there will be no substantive relaxation that would allow the Syriza-led coalition to reduce unemployment and reverse the degradation of Greece’s social welfare system inflicted by the austerity Memorandum over the last five years.
The Greek government has pleaded its democratic mandate. The response of Germany’s Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, “Elections change nothing”, says everything. His words should be burned into the mind of every worker and young person across the continent. This is what their democracy looks like. When it comes to profits and the interest on the investments of the banks and the billionaires, democracy and the lives of ordinary people mean nothing. In fact, the EU and its leading institutions are not subject to even the slightest democratic controls.
EU imperialism
The smaller, weaker states and economies count for little in a European Union dominated by a handful of states, headed by Germany and, to a lesser degree, France and Britain. This domination of the weak by the strong has a name, too, imperialism. The European Union is an imperialist trading block, dominated by a few “big powers”, with a currency tailored to the needs of their banks, industrial and commercial corporations. It is easily able to trample on the democracy of the smaller states and to impose a stranglehold over their economies and the social welfare of their citizens.
The reason the Troika, now referred to as “the Institutions”, is determined to force the Syriza government into a humiliating surrender and continuation of the austerity imposed by the previous three governments in Athens is not that cancellation of the Greek debt is beyond their means. This would actually be a small matter for the wealthy countries of northern Europe. Having embarked on a new Cold War against Russia, they are currently showering billions on a Ukrainian government that is not even a member of the European Union or Nato.
Indeed, the “Greek” bailouts are not bailing out the Greek people at all. They are bailing out the country’s northern European creditors, the bank shareholders and bondholders who, like the worst loan sharks, lured Greek governments into massive debt to offset the economic prostration of Greece to Germany and the others within the framework of a euro whose terms were set in Frankfurt and Paris. Germany, with its giant and highly productive industrial corporations; Siemens, Volkswagen, Allianz, SAP and BASF, and its mega banks; Deutsche Bank (assets € 2.24 trillion), Commerzbank, Kfw Bankgruppe, etc. just cannot be matched by the less productive and small-scale enterprises of southern Europe.
The euro and its associated rules, from the Maastricht Treaty to the Stability and Growth Pact, is the underpinning for Germany’s domination of the Eurozone. It ensures that its greater industrial efficiency is given full scope in the markets of the southern and eastern parts of the EU, allowing it to run huge trade surpluses with them, whilst these countries’ home industries are out-priced and outsold. The exchange rate of the euro is maintained at a level suited to Germany while the national banks of smaller countries are allowed no control. In reality, the bailouts use taxpayers’ money to safeguard and compensate the millionaires and billionaires in Frankfurt and Paris, the City of London and Zurich. The bill for them is simply added to that of the Greek state and its citizens.
With friends like these…
When Greece entered the euro in 2002, these banks knew very well that its economy had not even approached the convergence criteria for the national economies envisaged in the Maastricht Treaty. Indeed, the whole of Europe knew it. To keep afloat, Greek governments borrowed heavily and Wall Street institutions, like Goldman Sachs, shamelessly helped to conceal the treaty-busting scale of Greek debt. When the bailouts began in 2010, €310 billion had already been advanced to the Greek government by the European banking and financial sector, much of it from Germany and France. They had expected decades of lucrative interest payments but then came the great crash of 2008-09.
Since then, the “Troika” has lent a further €252 billion to the Greek government. This did not go into funding wages or social services for the Greek people, as the gutter press likes to suggest. €149.2 bn of it went on repaying the original debt and the interest on it; €34.5 bn went to “compensate” private lenders for the 2012 debt restructuring, and €48.2 bn went to bailout Greek banks, including their foreign investors. Less than 10 per cent went into the normal expenditure of the Greek government. The Financial Times, not generally noted for its humanitarian instincts, correctly says that Greece has been reduced to a “quasi-slave economy” run “purely for the benefit of foreign creditors”.
The results of this “aid” have been catastrophic. Whilst the debt has exponentially increased, it is a lie that the Greeks have failed to “reform” their social expenditure. Since the imposition of the Memorandum, Greece’s economy has shrunk by 28.7 percent. 27 per cent of its workers are unemployed, a figure rising to over 50 per cent for under-25s. 200,000 young Greeks have left the country in search of work in the north. Popular consumption has fallen by 40 per cent and 40 per cent could not afford to heat their homes this winter. Thirty per cent are already living below the poverty line and 11 per cent of these are in “extreme material deprivation”. The Greek healthcare system is collapsing as a result of a 40 per cent drop in spending on it. Universal vaccination for major diseases has stopped and, as a result, HIV rates are up 700 per cent and malaria has returned after 40 years’ absence.
The masters of the euro and the EU are not doing all this out of sheer cruelty. There is method in their malice. By torturing and humiliating the Greek people, they aim to show to the entire continent that there is no way out from austerity. Democracy, elections and new governments make absolutely no difference. This brutal lesson is intended for the people of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and Spain, the other countries in the insultingly named PIIGS group, as well as Hungary, Bulgaria and other eastern and central European countries inside and outside the Eurozone. Its real target is the great mass of ordinary people across the entire European Union and, through the agency of the IMF, in countries far beyond its borders.
Divide and rule
Justifying and reinforcing this lesson is the coordinated propaganda narrative aimed at paralysing and dividing the resistance to job losses, wage cuts, precarious working conditions such as zero hours contracts, social service degradation and the handover of assets created out of public money, to a handful of super-rich profiteers. The media, both the broadcasting agencies owned by states and the press and TV channels owned by the billionaires, have sedulously repeated the lie that it was government overspending on health, education, welfare and social services, that was to blame.
Linked to this is the claim that Greece has a bloated public sector in terms of numbers of workers and its proportion of GDP. Bild Zeitung, the right wing German tabloid, repeatedly pictures Greeks as freeloaders on the hardworking taxpayers of northern Europe, as tax dodgers and layabouts. “NEIN! No more billions for the greedy Greeks” it screamed when the last loan was being discussed by the Bundestag. In fact, Greeks put in one of the longest working weeks in Europe, 44.3 hours according to Eurostat, while Germany’s figure is 41 hours. Over the year, the German average is 1,390 hours, in Greece the average is 2,119 hours. According to the EU agency Eurofound, Greek workers are entitled to 23 days’ annual vacation whilst Germans have 30 days. As for public services, according to the OECD, their employees represented 7 percent of the total workforce in 2011. In Germany, however, they were 11 per cent of the workforce and in France 23 per cent. In 2011, Greek public expenditure as a proportion of GDP was 42 per cent, as against 45 per cent in Germany and 52 per cent in France.
The aim of all this scandalous lying is to set the peoples of Europe, north and south, at one another’s throats. They want the workers in Germany, Britain and France to demonstrate a cold indifference to the pain and suffering of their fellow workers in the southern countries; Greece, Portugal and Spain. Supplementary to this evil work of division and diversion of the blame, is the scapegoating of immigrants and asylum seekers from inside and outside the EU and the ramping up of a new cold war, provoking Russia with military exercises on the frontiers of the EU. These are manoeuvres that can easily become more serious. The generals and the politicians are also demanding that spending on their war preparations, misnamed “defence”, must be increased, despite austerity.
But, for all this propaganda, millions now know the destructiveness of austerity from first hand experience and are disgusted at the inequality of “sacrifice” demanded from those least able to pay for it. Taxation of the incomes of the rich, the bankers and the CEOs of the giant corporations has not only failed to increase, it has been decreased. In the years 2008-12, there was resistance to these policies by mass demonstrations in different countries across Europe, and by the election of left or socialist parties pledged to end them. In particular, parties like Syriza and Podemos grew so dramatically precisely because they promised to end austerity altogether.
Crisis and resistance
The origins of austerity policy do not lie solely in the thirty year long economic doctrine called neoliberalism, although global institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO are still implementing that doctrine with, for example, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. Nor do they lie in the fact that the European Union is an institution dominated by a few major imperialist powers, headed by Germany and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, or that rivalry between the emerging three imperialist blocks results in beggar-my-neighbour polices that harm everyone apart from the super rich.
Ultimately, they lie in a capitalism in decline, mired in a deep, prolonged historic crisis. This crisis drives states, as well as industrial, commercial and financial institutions, to unload the task of recovering their profitability onto the working class at home and abroad and onto weaker states and economies. This drive has already led, and will continue lead, to recurrent deep recessions and to wars. Only immensely destructive crises and wars could gain capitalism a respite. For our own sake, we must not allow it such a respite.
Fortunately, the fight back has been ongoing across the continent and will continue, despite defeats and setbacks caused by the weakness and confusion of our leaders and their false strategies. The question is how to avoid further defeats and make the fightback successful. The fate of the Syriza government so far is revealing. Greek workers, who had engaged in over 30 one-day general strikes, and Greek youth, who occupied squares for weeks, discovered that protest alone would not budge the governments installed by the Troika. So, in 2012 and 2015, they turned to electing a government which promised to send the Troika packing, break from the Memorandum and restore many of the jobs and cuts made since 2010. Hence, Syriza’s remarkable rise and victory.
Clearly, it was correct that protest on the streets and in the squares was not sufficient, on its own. An anti-austerity government in power was what was needed. However, a government placed in office by an election was not sufficient either. As we have seen, the capitalists, whether Greek or German, do not give a damn about democracy.
Syriza, for all its radicalism and the enthusiasm of the elections, came to power as a reformist government; one without the backing of a mobilised working class ready to enforce its decrees and keep it under control. That is why Tsipras and Varoufakis set out to persuade the EU to relent, rather than setting out to force it to do so by mobilising the Greek workers as the agents of their own liberation. The strategy of negotiation, of trying to divide the governments and institutions of the European Union, has proved fruitless. Attempts to charm supposed sympathisers; the French President, François Hollande, the Italian Premier, Matteo Renzi, the ECB chief, Mario Draghi, even the most unlikely saviour, George Osborne, failed miserably. So, too, will “creative ambiguity” , that is, any attempt to juggle with interpretations of the agreement signed with the Eurogroup.
There is no sign that the ECB will loosen its tourniquet on loans to the Greek banks or allow them to benefit by quantitative easing. After all, the threat of a run on the banks when the ECB stops funding altogether is the weapon that allows the Eurogroup to dictate the Government’s policy, restricting its reforms to small scale measures. By April, at the earliest, or June, at the latest, when the Bailout ends and a new one has to be agreed, the moment of truth will finally come.
If it does not simply wish to surrender and be put into the pillory by its disillusioned supporters, Syriza must consider the alternative embodied in the old Latin motto; “If I cannot bend those above, I shall stir up those below”. After all, it was the struggle of the masses, the numerous one day general strikes and square occupations in 2010-12, that led to the dizzying rise of a hitherto fringe party, not the defiant speeches of Alexis Tsipras.
Only an even more powerful re-mobilisation of these masses, not just as passive voters in elections, but as active agents of their own destiny, can create a power capable of countering, and then overthrowing, that of the billionaires and their politicians and generals.
Even then, the Greek struggle against the institutions of capital cannot be successful in isolation. Just as the reasons for the hell Greeks have endured are European in scale, fomented in Frankfurt and Berlin, in Paris and London, so the forces that can check this onslaught are to be found right across Europe. They are in the workers’ movement, in the trade unions and left parties, among the young anti-capitalist forces, amongst the students and the unemployed and under-employed. All have suffered in some measure from being made to pay the price of the capitalist crisis.
Yet, so far, the actions and declarations in solidarity with Greece have been grossly disproportionate to what the Greeks need. True, even institutions as genetically conservative and sluggish as the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) have issued statements calling for an easing of Greece’s imposed austerity, but demonstrations for Greece have mobilised a few thousands at best.
What needs to be brought home is that Greek resistance to austerity is our cause, too. Breaking the stranglehold of austerity on Greece would weaken it across the whole continent. While this should start with a Europe-wide day of mass demonstrations, it should rapidly move on to days of action to force the issue of debt cancellation and an end to austerity. The political parties of the left, great and small, must be pressed to take part with their MPs and national leaderships. If they will not, they must be held up to contempt as the servants of the banks who are bleeding Greece and other countries white.

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