About 60 percent of Greeks have voted “No” in Sunday’s referendum on the bailout deal and austerity measures, reported the Interior Ministry after almost 30 percent of the vote had been counted.
About 9.9 million Greeks were eligible to take part in the vote, which was labeled #Greferendum on social media.
The “No” victory has been predicted by several opinion polls, including GPO, Metron Analysis and MRB, whose polls were released after the end of the voting.
Before the results were announced, the parliamentary spokesman for the ruling Syriza party, Nikos Filis, told Greek television that “No’”s prevalence in these polls indicated that Greek government can now make a deal with the Troika of international creditors.
“I think this is guidance for the government… to move forward quickly to seek a deal and normalise the banking system,” he said.
In the meantime, Greek government spokesman Gabriel Sakellaridis told state TV that Athens is planning to resume the talks with the Troika.
“The negotiations which will start must be concluded very soon, even after 48 hours,” Sakellaridis said, “We will undertake every effort to seal it soon.”
Proponents of the “Yes” vote argued that a “No” vote may lead to Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, and potentially the EU.
The talks between Greece and the Troika of international creditors – the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – have stalled since June, after the Eurogroup declined to prolong a financial aid program for Greece or delay payments on earlier debts.
Greece, which has been in crisis since 2009, was supposed to make an IMF loan payment of €1.6 billion by June 30 but failed to do so. It is required to make another major payment of €3.5 billion to the ECB on July 20.
For five years now Europe has been troubled by the problem of the Greek debt. It all began with a relatively modest sum estimated at 15-20 billion euros, though at the time coping even with this debt seemed beyond the country’s capacity. Instead of simply writing off the debt, the “Troika” consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) offered Greece a program of economic assistance in exchange for carrying out “urgent reforms”.
The results of this program, and of the help it provided, speak for themselves. Greece’s economy contracted by 27 per cent, and the debt rose to 320 billion, despite a partial write-off. From an original 60 per cent of GDP, the debt thus reached 175 per cent. Meanwhile, neither the Troika nor the previous Greek government acknowledged the obvious failure. The Troika not only insisted on continuing and even radicalising its clearly pointless actions, but also proposed treating the economic ills of other eurozone countries (Italy, Spain and Portugal) on the basis of the Greek model.
The actions of the Troika seem far less absurd if we reflect that the billions of euros intended to “save Greece” never reached that ill-fated country but were deposited immediately in German and French banks. Under the pretext of servicing the Greek debt a huge financial pyramid was created, analogous to a Ponzi scheme or to the MMM and GKO pyramids in 1990s Russia, but on a much greater scale. Meanwhile, part of the money that finished up in the banks was sucked directly out of Greece, while a further part came from the pockets of West European taxpayers. For decisions made effectively in Berlin and Brussels, with the approval of Paris, the citizens of other Eurozone countries were forced to pay. The victims included even the inhabitants of Spain and Italy, as well as of countries such as Austria and Finland that had no relation whatever to the events concerned. A sort of all-European pipeline was constructed, and used to siphon off state funds for the benefit of German and French financial capital.
With the coming to power of the left-wing government formed by the SYRIZA party and headed by Alexis Tsipras, hopes arose in Greece that the endless series of large and small economic, social and moral catastrophes which the country had suffered since 2008 would finally come to an end. Even if the situation did not improve, things would at least proceed differently. SYRIZA had been elected with a clear mandate to end the policies of economic austerity, to put a stop to the privatisation and commercialisation of the public sector, and above all, to give Greeks back their self-respect by conducting tough, principled negotiations with the creditors who in recent years had behaved toward the country as though they were an occupation administration. SYRIZA, moreover, was considered in Europe to be pro-Russian; during the election campaign representatives of the party had repeatedly voiced disagreement with EU policy toward Russia, criticising the imposition of sanctions and condemning the new political order imposed in Ukraine following the political overturn of February 2014.
The first agreements concluded by the new Greek government with its creditors showed, however, that in practice everything was turning out quite differently. The representatives of Athens made heated declarations, and then, after securing only minimal amendments, proceeded to sign the next agreement dictated by the creditors. In part, this inconsistency resulted from the contradictions of the mandate obtained by Tsipras and his colleagues. They had promised to put an end to the economic austerity that was killing demand and production. But they also pledged to keep the country within the Eurozone and the EU, stressing that a default on foreign debts had to be avoided. This way of formulating the question handed Greeks over to the mercy of their creditors.
To pay off the debts is simply impossible.
Moreover, a re-launching of the economy is technically inconceivable unless the harsh rules imposed by the ECB are rejected, along with its insistence on a dramatic increase in competitiveness unaided by a lowering of the exchange rate. Since it has been understood from the outset that the ECB will not agree to sharply lower the euro exchange rate solely in order to save Greece, it is clear that in technical terms there is not the slightest chance of a successful exit from the dilemma without Greece quitting the Eurozone and returning to the drachma. The only real question has been whether this exit will be planned, organised and prepared in advance, or whether it will be chaotic and disastrous. The situation is very similar to the one in Argentina in 2001, when after a default the peso had to be decoupled from the dollar if economic growth was to resume.
Nevertheless, even discussing this sole realistic scenario, let alone making preparations to carry it out, has been banned; if such a course were followed, the German and French banks would stand to suffer, along with the reputations of the EU leaders. So long as the Greek government accepts these conditions, it is in the situation of a doctor who undertakes to treat a cancer sufferer without infringing on the “lawful interests” of the tumour and without placing obstacles in the way of its growth. Or, it is like a person who negotiates with vampires on how much of his or her blood they will drink. In each case, the prior interests recognised are those of the vampires.
For the sake of fairness, it should be acknowledged that to a certain degree the contradictions of SYRIZA’s position reflect those of Greek society itself. On the one hand, many Greeks are outraged and want changes, while on the other, people are afraid to risk their middle-class comforts, even though these comforts are diminishing by the day. So long as substantial numbers of the population still have savings in euros, these people are paralysed by fear that their money will be lost or devalued. It is one thing to attend demonstrations demanding that the creditors “respect the country”, and quite another to be ready, right now, to accept particular sacrifices and risks for the sake of one’s own future. It is true that there is no other way out, but both the authorities and society need to think and talk about this openly. Through making statements that try to satisfy everyone, the Tsipras government has instead driven itself into a trap.
The problem is not so much that drastic and humiliating conditions have repeatedly been imposed on Greece by its creditors, as that these agreements are not solving the dilemma but exacerbating it. The debt crisis is worsening, and the sum owed is increasing – both in absolute terms and in relation to the size of the economy as the latter shrinks under the impact of the crisis. Consequently, any new agreement simply assumes that a new crisis will arise after a few months. Each time, this new crisis is more destructive.
While lacking the resolve to answer the EU leaders with an emphatic “no”, Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister, the economist Giannis Varoufakis (an import from the University of Texas), cannot fail to understand that agreeing with the Troika will also turn out disastrously for them. Before their eyes, just such a capitulation only two years ago transformed the powerful social democratic party PASOK from the country’s leading political force into an outsider.
Tsipras has sought to manoeuvre, doing his best to please everyone. He has reassured the creditors, indulged the petty-bourgeois illusions of voters, and delivered radical speeches to meetings of left activists. While promising everyone the maximum possible, his government in practice has tried to sabotage some of the agreements signed with the Troika, particularly in cases where the signatures were affixed by earlier administrations. But the ministers have lacked the courage even to suggest that these agreements might be abrogated, or that the government might openly refuse to carry out their stipulations. A notable example of the Greek government’s diplomatic approach is the position it has taken on the question of sanctions against Russia. Under the rules of the EU, Greece could simply block these sanctions in the summer of 2015. This demand was raised by members of the SYRIZA party itself, when they voted en bloc in the European Parliament against anti-Russian resolutions. But in the heat of the next round of negotiations between the Troika and the Greeks, at a time when Tsipras himself was in St Petersburg explaining to Russian colleagues the prospects for the development of special relations with Athens, his representatives in the EU gave their backing to the sanctions. Addressing the public, Greek diplomats then stated that they had fought like lions on behalf of Russian interests, and that it was only because of their persistence and principled character that the sanctions had been extended for a mere six months, instead of twelve months as the Germans had demanded.
Tsipras’s policy of compromise can be explained in part by a desire to win time in expectation of the elections in Spain, where the left coalition headed by the Podemos party had a serious chance of success. Spain is a far more influential country than Greece, with a far stronger economy, but is suffering from a very similar if less severe crisis. If Podemos were to come to power, Athens would be able to escape from its international isolation. In addition, the Left Bloc in Portugal has a definite chance of success. In other words, an opportunity has appeared to establish an international coalition of Mediterranean countries opposing Berlin and Brussels. But among the public in Spain and Portugal, Tsipras’s own actions and his evident weakness have raised questions about the advisability of placing trust in the left alternative, thus weakening the hopes of the left in those countries.
Within the European left milieu, sympathy nevertheless remains for SYRIZA as a party that finds itself in extremely difficult circumstances. Against the background of many years of setbacks for the European left, Tsipras’s initial successes inspired hopes which people are reluctant to abandon. The SYRIZA leader’s principle, of first making radical speeches and then of giving way to the superior forces of his opponents, seemed to be justified. Not only in other parts of Europe but in Greece as well, the popularity of Tsipras’s government increased. People not only refrained from condemning him, but pitied him as the hostage of vampires against which he was time and again proving powerless.
To fool pseudo-lefts and provincial petty bourgeois is not particularly difficult, but financial vampires do not fall for such tricks. The sabotage aroused righteous indignation in the creditors, who steadily increased the pressure. The agreements which the Greeks signed with the creditors after SYRIZA came to office were no better than those endorsed by the previous government, and had the same results.
In June, when the next round of payments fell due, there turned out to be no money in the budget.
A further restructuring of the debt was essential. In exchange, the Troika demanded the acceptance of a new “reform package”, by comparison with which all the preceding austerity measures seemed mere warm-up exercises. At one and the same time wages and pensions would have to be cut, taxes would need to be raised, and all concessions would have to be stripped from tourism, which amid the destruction of industry and the decline of agriculture remained the only relatively stable sector of the economy. The country would sink inevitably into a new spiral of recession. For SYRIZA, this would mean not only abandoning all its election promises, but also submitting to public humiliation, with the obvious prospect of defeat at the next elections. This, indeed, was what the creditors were seeking.
On June 22 Greece effectively capitulated. The government agreed to extract more revenue from the Value Added Tax, raising it to 0.93 per cent of GDP, and to increase taxes on shipping companies (in other words, to make trips between Greek islands and the mainland more expensive). A cut to pensions was also promised, though the Athens authorities asked to be allowed to introduce the changes involved over time rather than immediately.
The only point on which the Greek negotiators demurred, in order to save face, was a demand that the Value Added Tax be raised to 1 per cent of GDP. In other words, the extent of their resistance was a whole 0.07 per cent. The Greek side meanwhile agreed that company tax should be levied at the rate of 28 per cent, instead of 29 per cent as it had initially suggested to the Troika. The Greeks also asked to be allowed to keep defence spending at its former level; this matched the general requirements of the NATO bloc, of which Greece is part.
The game, it might have seemed, was over. The world financial press celebrated, and prices rose on the share markets. In Athens, there was even a demonstration by members of right-wing parties supporting the creditors. Well-dressed citizens gathered in the central Syntagma Square, calling for pensions to be reduced. True, there were not many of these demonstrators, only about 1500, but the television managed to make the picture so impressive that even the well-known American commentator Paul Craig Roberts, a sharp critic of the policy of the financial institutions, expressed puzzlement at the way Greeks had apparently been brainwashed to the point of agreeing to their own country’s humiliation.
Then the unexpected happened. German representatives declared their dissatisfaction at the speed with which the European Commission welcomed the new offers from Athens. Under pressure from Berlin, Tsipras’s offers were rejected. The Greeks had surrendered, but as it turned out, the Germans were not taking prisoners.
The Eurocrats not only refused to agree to the symbolic concessions needed by Tsipras and Varoufakis if they were to save face, but like gangsters with a client who is behind in paying protection money, began making new demands. With its back to the wall, the Greek government suddenly displayed a courage born of despair. Tsipras delivered a fiery speech to the people, and called a referendum. Greeks would decide for themselves whether to agree to the demands of the creditors. The last PASOK prime minister, George Papandreou, had planned to do something generally similar, but the creditors applied pressure to him, and he renounced his attempt. The upshot was that Papandreou lost his reputation, his job as premier, and even his position at the head of his own party. Knowing the fate of his predecessor, Tsipras showed more consistency. A further inducement for him was the fact that even before the eurocrats had rejected the “compromise” he had offered, a revolt had broken out in the SYRIZA ranks, and it was clear that if the agreement with the Troika was to get through parliament, it would only be with the votes of the rightists.
This time, the deputies of the conservative New Democracy party tried to block the vote on the referendum. But eventually they returned to the chamber, and the resolution was adopted. On July 5 Greeks are to decide on whether or not to agree to the conditions of the financial vampires.
It is significant that the Troika characterised the use by the Greeks of this democratic procedure as a rejection of the agreement. Troika representatives then called off the talks and declared that “aid” to Greece would cease from June 30. This means that regardless of the outcome of the referendum, a technical default from July 1 is inevitable, and this in turn will lead almost automatically to Greece’s exit from the eurozone and return to the drachma.
The chance that the supporters of austerity would win the referendum, illusory in any case, has now vanished completely.
What was bound to occur has now actually happened, just as in Argentina in 2001, where all political forces tried desperately to avoid a default and exit from the dollar zone (the Argentinian peso was tied to the US dollar), but where this occurred anyway. In both Argentina and Russia, financial collapse was followed by a few dramatic and chaotic months, after which an economic recovery began. The situation in Greece is somewhat more complex, but in Greece as well the shift to an inevitably devalued drachma opens a range of possibilities. Cheap resorts will attract the tourists who are now in critically short supply (Russian tourism alone in Greece has shrunk this year by 70 per cent). New prospects will open up for tourism and shipbuilding. Relations with Russia could also be placed on a more solid footing.
The situation has turned out to the benefit of Greece, but despite the actions of the country’s present leaders rather than because of them. It should, though, be recognised that Tsipras, even if he dragged out his decision until the very last moment, has nevertheless shown that he has a better claim to the role of national leader than his predecessors. The Greeks were forced to bend, but they were not broken.
What, though, can have motivated the Berlin leaders, when they refused to accept the Greek capitulation? It is possible, of course, that the German leaders simply made a mistake. The situation ran out of control because each side failed to anticipate the reaction of the other. The Greeks overestimated the rationalism of the Germans, and the Germans, the opportunism of the Greeks. The more acute a crisis becomes, the more mistakes are made; this is the general logic of the historical process. It is not excluded that the leaders in Berlin misjudged the likely results of the talks between Russia and Greece, and hoped that the Russians would supply Tsipras with money that the Greeks could use to pay off the creditors. But Tsipras left St Petersburg without having received any money, though with an agreement to build a gas pipeline that for technical reasons will be impossible to implement before 2018 (it should be noted that the Russian gas corporation Gazprom then and there announced that gas transit through Ukraine would continue after 2019, placing the profitability of the highly expensive Greco-Turkish pipeline in question).
Nor can the possibility be excluded that Berlin consciously provoked the crisis.
German analysts may have calculated that the debt bubble would burst in any case, and have decided to deflate it themselves, without waiting for events to develop spontaneously. Even if agreement had been reached on the conditions set down by the Troika, new crises would not only be “predictable with mathematical certainty” (as Varoufakis stated), but much more importantly, the proportion of the funds pumped by the German banks out of Greece would diminish with every new cycle, while the share coming from the German taxpayer would increase. In other words, political risk would be added to the risk that the debt pyramid would crumble. Members of the public in northern Europe are beginning to grasp that under the pretext of “saving Greece”, they themselves are being robbed by “their own” side. Even if northern Europeans fail to understand this, they will still mount resistance, out of reluctance to part with their money. It is also worth noting the publication of the sadly notorious Charlie Hebdo issue that came out with the headline “Drown the Greek to save Europe”.
So – was it evil intent, or a collective miscalculation?
These two explanations, though logically counterposed, may in reality serve to reinforce one another. There was a degree of ill-intent, but there were also miscalculations on both sides. We may recall that it was in precisely this fashion that war broke out in 1914. All the various parties had prepared for a war, had planned it and wanted it, but events nevertheless unfolded in a fashion completely different from what they had counted on. Control over the situation had been lost.
It appears that the same happened this time. Even if the Troika intended something along the lines of “drowning the Greek”, things will now proceed in a way distinctly different from what they anticipated. The referendum called by Tsipras is sharply altering the psychological landscape not just in Athens, but throughout Europe. Willingly or otherwise, SYRIZA has raised the banner of resistance. For the other crisis-wracked countries of the eurozone, this will provide a signal that the financial vampires of the EU are not all-powerful. The vampires themselves will be forced to undertake even harsher measures, in an effort to halt the growing collapse of the neoliberal regime installed in the EU by the Maastricht and Lisbon talks. As history teaches us, such measures ultimately serve only to exacerbate a crisis, provoking more and more active resistance. This is now occurring in the countries of the European “centre” – Italy, France, and even Austria and Germany. In the present situation, however, no other road remains open to the ruling groups in Berlin and Brussels. And before the light appears at the end of the tunnel, we are bound to plunge still further into the depths of the crisis.
All of our countries will feel the direct effects, including Russia.
Translation: Renfrey Clarke.
Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.
Why the European Central Bank’s Trillion Euro Plan will Only Help Keep the Banks Afloat
SHARMINI PERIES: In an effort to relieve some pressure on the struggling European economies, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, announced a 1 trillion euro quantitative easing package on Monday. Quantitative easing is an unconventional form of monetary policy where a central bank creates new money electronically to buy financial assets like government bonds. And this process aims to directly increase private-sector spending in the economy and return inflation to target.
Well, what does that mean and what might be wrong with it is our next topic with Michael Hudson. Michael Hudson is a distinguished research professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His two newest books are The Bubble and Beyond and Finance Capitalism and Its Discontents. His upcoming book is titled Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy.
Michael, the Fed and some economists will argue that this is what got the U.S. out of its 2008 financial crisis. In fact, they put several QE measures into place. So what’s wrong with quantitative easing?
MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, the cover story is that it’s supposed to help employment. The pretense is an old model that used to be taught in textbooks a hundred years ago: that banks lend money to companies to invest and build equipment and hire people.
But that’s not what banks do. Banks lend money mainly to transfer ownership of real estate. They also lend money to corporate raiders. They lend money to buy assets. But they don’t lend money for companies to invest in equipment and hire more workers. Just the opposite. When they lend money to corporate raiders to take over companies, the new buyers outsource labor, downsize the work force, and try to squeeze out more work. They also try to grab the pensions.
The Fed was pretty open in what quantitative easing is supposed to do since 2008. It’s supposed to lower the interest rates, which raises bond prices and inflates the stock market. Since 2008 they’ve had the largest monetary inflation history – $4 trillion of quantitative easing by the Fed. But it’s gone via the banks into the stock and bond market.
What has this done for the economy as a whole? For starters, it’s obviously helped stock and bond holders get richer. And who are they? They’re the 1 percent and the 10 percent.
People are wringing their hands and saying, why isn’t the economy getting richer? Why is it that since 2008, economic inequality and the distribution of wealth have worsened instead of gotten closer together? Well, it’s largely because of quantitative easing. It’s because quantitative easing has increased the value of the stocks and the bonds that are held mainly by the 1 percent or the 10 percent hold. This hasn’t helped the economy because the Fed is really concerned with its constituency, which are the banks.
Quantitative easing hasn’t helped one class of investors in particular: pension funds. It’s done just the opposite. Pension funds made the assumption a few years ago that in order to break even with the rate of contributions that corporations, states and municipalities are paying, they have to make eight percent or eight and a half percent a year as a rate of return. But quantitative easing lowers the interest rate.
Today’s lower interest rates have made pension funds desperate. The risk-free rate of return is less than 1 percent on short-term Treasury bills. If you buy longer-term treasuries you can make 2 percent, but then if the interest rates ever go up, you’re going to take a loss as the bond price declines. So pension funds have said, “We’re desperate; what are we going to do?”
They’ve turned their money over to Wall Street money managers and hedge funds. The hedge funds take a huge rake off of fees to begin with. But even worse, when hedge funds and the big banks – Goldman Sachs, Citibank – see a pension fund manager coming through the door, they think, “How can I take what’s in his pocket and put it in mine?” So they rip them off. That is why there are so many big lawsuits against Wall Street for mismanaging pension fund money.
To summarize, the effect of the quantitative easing has been to make pension funds desperate, and to support real estate prices, as if higher costs to obtain housing will help recovery. It doesn’t help recovery, because to the extent that quantitative easing supports a re-inflation of housing prices, new homeowners have to pay even more of their income to the banks as mortgage interest. That means they have less money to pay for goods and services, so markets for goods and services continue to shrink.
What the quantitative easing has not been used for is what was promised in 2008. Before President Obama won the election and took office, Congress said that the TARP bailout and TALF were supposed to go for debt reduction. Some was to write down mortgages, so that people could afford to stay in their homes rather than the millions of home owners that have been foreclosed on and thrown out. But even before Obama came into office, Hank Paulson, the Secretary of the Treasury, told Democrats in Congress, yes, we’re willing to write down debts. But as Barney Frank explained in exasperation, Obama said no, he’s not going to do that. Obama ended up supporting the banks. So almost none of the TARP bailout money has been used for debt write-downs.
The same phenomenon is happening in Europe.
PERIES: So, Michael, what’s wrong with what the ECB has announced in terms of a trillion euros worth of quantitative easing for Europe?
HUDSON: They head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, has said that he’ll do whatever it takes to keep banks afloat. He doesn’t say that he’ll do whatever it takes to help economic recovery, or to help labor more. The ECB’s job is to help banks make more money.
Draghi was vice chairman of Goldman Sachs during 2002 to 2005. His view is that of Wall Street. It’s not a vantage point helping labor or helping economies grow. So it’s not surprising that the trillion euros of new money that the eurozone’s central bank is creating hasn’t gone to help Greece, for instance, survive. It hasn’t gone to help Greece, Spain, Italy, or Portugal get out of depression by fueling government spending. It’s simply been given away to the banks to buy bonds and stocks, including buying American stocks and bonds.
Behind this policy is the trickle-down theory that if you can make the financial sector richer, if you can make the one percent and the 10 percent richer, it’s all going to trickle down. This is the view of Paul Krugman, and it’s the view of the advisers that Obama has had. But instead of trickling down, the stock and bond price gains by the 1% and 10% drive a wedge in the economy, by increasing the value of stocks and bonds and real estate and wealth against labor. So quantitative easing is largely behind the fact that the distribution of wealth has become worse rather than better since 2008.
PERIES: One of the things that has happened in Europe that you wrote to me actually in an email was the disappearing central banks’ role in stimulating economies. Why is this an issue?
HUDSON: Central banks originally were designed to monetize government deficits. Governments are supposed to spend money into the economy, because that helps economies grow. But in Europe the Lisbon agreements say governments can’t run a deficit more than 3 percent of national income.
Furthermore, the role of the European Central Bank is not to give a penny to governments. They say that if you give a penny to government, you’ll have hyperinflation like you had in Weimar. So the central bank can only give money to banks – to invest in stocks and bonds. But the ECB won’t buy fresh bonds to finance new government spending. The result of this policy of not funding government deficits is that if the economy is to grow, it has to be entirely dependent on commercial banks for credit.
We had this situation in the United States in the last few years of the Clinton administration when the United States actually ran a budget surplus instead of a deficit. Now, how do you think the United States could grow when there’s a budget surplus sucking money out of the economy?
The answer is that commercial banks and bondholders have to supply the money. But the banks only supplied money in the form of junk mortgages and other forms of an economic bubble, such as takeover loans and a stock market bubble.
The interest of banks is not to help economies grow; it’s to extract interest from the economy. The financial sector uses part of its rising wealth to lobby for privatization sell-offs. The problem with this is that when you privatize a public utility, you give away a monopoly – and if you deregulate the economy, you let the monopoly set up tollbooths over the economy, for toll roads, communications or whatever is being privatized.
The ECB is telling Greece to privatize to raise the money to pay its bondholders, the ECB and IMF. So you have quantitative easing going hand-in-hand with the insistence on privatization. The result is debt deflation as the economy is forced to depend more and more on banks for the money to grow, instead of on government spending into the economy. You’re having the governments not being able to spend on infrastructure, letting it fall apart, as is happening with bridges and tunnels in the United States.
The next step is for the government to say, “I’m sorry, the central bank doesn’t have enough money to help us build new infrastructure. So we’ve got to sell it off to private investors who do have the money.” The next thing you know, you have the economy ending up looking like Chicago. That city sold off its sidewalks and its parking meters to Goldman Sachs and to other Wall Street firms. All of a sudden the prices of parking, driving, and living in Chicago went way, way up instead of lowering the costs as privatization promised.
You have the same phenomenon here that England suffered under Margaret Thatcher: costs for hitherto public services go up. Transportation costs go way up. Road costs go up. Communications, internet costs, telephone costs, everything that is privatized goes way up. Financialization leads to a rent-extractive, almost neo-feudal economy.
In that sense, quantitative easing and the refusal of central banks to fund governments (except to pay bondholders and bail out commercial banks) is a new kind of class war. It’s not the old kind of class war, which was between employers and their workforce over what wages will be. It’s by the financial sector trying to take over the economy, and especially to take over the public sector, to take over the public domain, to take over public utilities and whatever assets a government has. If governments cannot borrow from central banks, they have to begin selling off property.
PERIES: Michael, this is exactly what’s happening in Greece right now. The SYRIZA government is somewhat forced to continue privatization as a part of the agreement of the loans that they have been given by European banks. What could they do in this situation?
HUDSON: This is really a scandal, because most privatizations are corrupt insider dealings. The SYRIZA Party came in and said, wait a minute, the privatizations that have been done are by governmental officials to their own cronies at a giveaway price. How can we balance the budget if we’re giving away the public utilities instead of getting a fair price for them?
The European Central Bank said, no, you have to give away privatization to cronies at pennies on the dollar just like Russia did under Yeltsin, just like the United States did with the railroad giveaways of the 19th century.
Remember, the American privatization to the railroad barons and their financial backers created essentially the ruling class of the 20th century. It created the American stock market. The same thing is happening in Greece. It’s being told to continue the former politicians’ drive to endow a new oligarchy, a new kind of a feudal monopoly lord, by these privatization giveaways. The ECB says that if you don’t do that, we’re going to bankrupt the banking system.
Yanis Varoufakis went back to the party congress in Parliament and asked whether they would approve this. The left wing in Greece has said, no, we won’t approve the giveaways.
The pretense is that privatization is to make money, but the European Central Bank is saying, no, you can’t make money; you have to give it away to our cronies. It’s all one happy financial family. This is escalating financial warfare.
I can assure you that neither Varoufakis nor SYRIZA has any interest in this kind of privatization giveaway. It’s trying to figure out some way of perhaps prosecuting the cronies for bribery, for internal connections, or figuring out some way of legally stopping the rotten policies that they’re told to follow by the European Central Bank – which isn’t giving a single euro to help Greece get over the economic depression that debt deflation has brought on. The euros are only given to the financial sector, basically to help declare war on the Greek government, the Spanish government, the Italian government.
This financial warfare is trying to achieve the same thing that military warfare did in the past. It’s aim is to grab the land, to grab control of the public infrastructure, to grab control of governments themselves. But it’s doing it financially rather than militarily.
PERIES: Right. The SYRIZA Party last week did agree to the conditions of privatization, that they would not roll back on the existing agreements that had been made by previous government. They agreed to not roll back on ones that are underway, and that they’re actually not even averse to privatization as a statement by Yanis Varoufakis. What does all this mean for Greece?
HUDSON: The financial gun was put to their head. If they wouldn’t have said that, there would have been a total breakdown, and the European Central Bank would have tried to bankrupt the Greek banks. So he didn’t have much of a choice. Everything that Varoufakis has written, and all that the political leader of SYRIZA has said, has been exactly the opposite. But they had to give lip service to what they were told to do, and any agreement that’s made has to be ratified by Parliament. So, what they’ve said is, okay, we’re going to play good cop, bad cop. We’ll be the good cops with you, and let Parliament and our left wing be the bad cops and say that we’re not going to stand for this.
Superbly ignored by the media until recently, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the new flavour of the day in the French presidential campaign. In truth, while trying to account for his dramatic rise in the polls – latest reports put him at 17% of the vote – most commentators could not help pour scorn on the Left Front candidate.
A survey of the main articles recently published in the British media provides a compelling case study of political prejudice and misunderstanding. Mélenchon is described as an “Anglo-Saxon basher with a whiny voice” (the Independent), a “populist” who’s “on the hard-left” (all newspapers) and a “bully and a narcissist, out to provoke” (BBC). More sympathetic commentaries compare him to George Galloway or depict him as a “far-left firebrand”, a “maverick” and the “pitbull of anti-capitalism”.
It is striking that the more favourable assessment of Mélenchon’s politics remains off the mark. Mélenchon is seen as a “lovable but old-fashioned leftwinger”. This fails to capture the essence of his political ambitions. Mélenchon’s rise has nothing to do with “1970s-style politics and nostalgia”, but is linked instead to his resolute take on the current capitalist crisis. He tells audiences that the austerity policies implemented across Europe are not only unfair but also counterproductive (even the Financial Times agrees). Mélenchon’s debating skills serve his cause, but he is also a lettered pedagogue: a dignified politician who has never participated in vulgar reality shows. What is more, Mélenchon is a French republican and a socialist, not a “far-left” or a fringe politician. He spent 30 years in the Socialist party unsuccessfully arguing that it should be a force at the service of ordinary workers, and he was a cabinet minister in Lionel Jospin’s government.
Oratory is politically useless if one does not have an important message to deliver. Mélenchon has one: neoliberalism has failed, so it would be suicidal to persist with its inadequate policies. The French MEP also had a credible programme. In didactically crafted speeches or in media interviews, he radically departs from mainstream politicians by explaining that the economic crisis is systemic, that is to say that it is due to our flawed political choices and priorities. Our societies have never been as productive and wealthy as today, but the majority of the population are getting poorer despite working harder and harder. The problem is not a question of wealth production (as neoliberals and Blairite social democrats would have us believe), but of redistribution of wealth.
In France raging pundits and opponents call the Left Front programme an “economic nightmare” or a “delirious fantasy”. Shouldn’t they instead use this terminology to describe the banking debacle or austerity policies across Europe? Mélenchon’s growing number of supporters view it as common sense and salutary: a 100% tax on earnings over £300,000; full pensions for all from the age of 60; reduction of work hours; a 20% increase in the minimum wage; and the European Central Bank should lend to European governments at 1%, as it does for the banks. Here are a few realistic measures to support impoverished populations. Is this a revolution? No, it is radical reformism; an attempt to stop the most unbearable forms of economic domination and deprivation in our societies. Fat cat bosses may leave France; they will be replaced by younger and more competent ones who will work for a fraction of their wages.
“Humans First!” is more than a manifesto title, it is a democratic imperative: a sixth republic in place of the current republican monarchy; the nationalisation of energy companies (as energy sources are public goods) and, less often noticed, the ecological planning of the economy, the core of Mélenchon’s political project.
Mélenchon has done French democracy a further favour. In a memorable TV debate, he emphatically defeated the extreme right for the first time in 30 years. Concentrating on policy details, Mélenchon demonstrated that Marine Le Pen’s programme was regressive for women. Furthermore, he smashed to pieces the myth of the Front National as a party that has the working class’s best interests at heart. Le Pen appeared lost for words and ill at ease.
Mélenchon’s campaign politicises the young. He appeals to the working class, which, contrary to some claims, has largely shunned Le Pen and which has been abstaining from the vote. For the first time in decades, Mélenchon is helping the left to reconnect with the popular classes. For Mélenchon, free market politics does not work and inflicts unnecessary suffering on the people. No other European politician is better placed than he is to convincingly argue that point.
Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European politics at University College London (UK). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Thousands Rally in France Behind Call for ‘Civic Insurrection’ (commondreams.org)
Greece’s two largest unions have announced a 48-hour strike over the new austerity measures endorsed by the government in return for bailout loans.
The unions, General confederation of Workers of Greece (GSEE) and Civil Servants Supreme Administrative Council (ADEDY), announced on Thursday that their members will go on a two-day strike from Friday in protest at the controversial decision.
“We will hold a general strike on Friday and Saturday along with the civil servants’ union,” said a spokeswoman with GSEE which represents the private sector.
ADEDY’s Secretary General Ilias Iliopoulos described the measures as “painful” which will “create misery for youths, unemployed and pensioners do not leave us much room.”
“We are moving to a social uprising,” said Iliopoulos.
Greece has been the scene of repeated strikes since the country first resorted to bailouts from international lenders in 2010.
Leaders of the three parties backing Greece’s coalition government approved new austerity measures on Wednesday but failed to agree to creditors’ demands to make 300 million euros ($398 million) in pension cuts.
The country’s Prime Minister Lucas Papademos still hopes that the coalition leaders will strike a comprehensive deal by Thursday evening, his office said on Wednesday.
To secure a bailout package of 130 billion euros, Athens must first persuade the troika — the European Union (EU), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB) — that it will implement long-delayed reforms and make further spending cuts.
Greece’s current debt stands at 340 billion euros ($440 billion) — a sum that equals around 31,000 euros debt per person in the country of 11 million people.
The country has, accordingly, the biggest debt burden in proportion to the size of its economy in the entire 17-nation eurozone.