The Greek people get screwed over (again)
The recent vote in the Greek parliament on the European Union bailout package featuring harsh 'austerity measures' and subsequent increase in protests marks the very sad culmination of a desultory story that paints the EU, Western governments and much prominent media in a rather different light to that in which they usually seek to present themselves.
We need to go back a little bit to understand what has happened. On November 3 last year, after publically mooting the idea for a few days, Greek centre-left Socialist prime minister Georgios Papandreou announced he would not go ahead with his planned referendum on the bailout.
Forced to resign a week later, Papandreou was replaced by Lucas Papademos, former Governor of the Bank of Greece and vice president of the European Central Bank, who now leads a new 'National Unity' coalition that not only includes the two major parties but also the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally. These replacements of both prime minister and government all occurred without an election.
As so often, however, the overwhelming story from the media was that of the broader Western political establishment. What we saw, read and heard was a massive sigh of relief that the EU, European banks, and international money markets would have their way.
What was Papandreou's crime? Why, like his grandfather of the same name (another centrist Greek prime minister during the mid 1960s, replaced by the notorious US-backed junta known as 'The Colonels'), did he have to go? This Papandreou had the temerity to think that the population deserved a say in whether to accept the strictest economic restructuring and debt-repayment regime likely ever enforced on a Western country in the post-war era. From politicians and journalists who daily – yet very selectively – advocate the crucial nature of democratic values, there was a deafening silence.
With a more than good chance that the population would say ?χι!– no – to the draconian austerity measures in a referendum, the political and economic elite of Europe and the West couldn't allow the very people who will immediately and directly feel the sharpest effects of any such plan to have a say in their futures. As we have seen elsewhere, these kinds of crucial decisions are far too risky to be left to democracy. Instead, those who really count must dictate terms: the money markets and governments who are almost entirely in lockstep.
(While the ideological context is of course rather different, I am reminded of when the Sandinistas in early 1980s Nicaragua asked Fidel Castro for advice as to whether they should have an election after successfully ousting the US-backed military government, to which the Cuban 'father' of Latin American revolution replied: 'Good God no, you might lose!')
If you live in the vast majority of the world, in other words beyond 'the West', this will all be rather old news. Democracy being routinely trampled on when it comes to powerful transnational corporate interests and global power politics is tiresomely familiar, but so too is the paternalistic and punitive 'structural adjustment programs' (the ultimate managerialist-speak euphemism) routinely forced on whole populations by the IMF and the World Bank that send already poor countries into much more serious poverty and increased indebtedness to the first world.
The difference, however, is that we used to be able to say these Western-run (really US-run) global institutions insisted on deals with 'developing world' countries when negotiating loans that no Western nation would dream of consenting to (Argentina is probably the most infamous case). Now Berlin and Paris are foisting the equivalent regime on one of Western Europe's own, despite being known to be not only entirely punitive and ineffectual, but also counterproductive and actually dangerous.
Seeing such striking images of Greek anger on the streets over recent days and months, many readers and viewers no doubt argue these people need to accept a bit of pain for the good of their country's ongoing economic health, and the grand experiment of the European Union itself.
Other more plainly ideological critics think 'they 'deserve it': that Greece, and other 'profligate' countries (the state and its people typically being conflated, no matter how dysfunctional the political process) who have some kind of welfare system and substantial public sector need to be forced into a more 'market'-based one – in other words, the same extreme vision of capitalism that caused the global financial crisis.
I recently heard someone planning a trip to Europe say, complete with punishing tone, 'and I will not be going to Greece' as if Greeks are now pariahs, vermin to be avoided and somehow punished with the denial of surely much-needed tourist Euros. That such a visit would actually help the very thing everyone purports be concerned about – the Greek economy – is of no consequence.
But why do Greeks somehow seem even more feisty and 'angry' than their traditionally bolshie European brethren in France and Italy? Can't these folk accept that they need to be helped from above, whether they understand or not? Is it just their 'Mediterranean' temperament that makes them so unreasonable and downright recalcitrant?
As is usual with reporting of unrest (as we saw with the deplorable role the Australian media played in perpetrating the historically and ideologically revealing lie of the Australia Day 'riot'), what is sorely missing from the copious reports – even when seeking to portray the situation of Greek citizens who will loose jobs and crucial services with some human compassion – is any sense of history. Most recently and obviously, everyday working people are being forced to pay for the ongoing economic effects of the GFC, despite being not of their making. But there is also a deeper historical issue here.
Like in countries such as Italy and Yugoslavia, the mainstay of sustained home grown anti-fascism and resistance in Greece during the 1930s and World War II was the local Communist party and other left wing and anarchist groups. However, (again as with Italy most famously) the resulting moral and political capital of the left in the eyes of many civilians was not allowed to flow onto having any proper role in re-building the post-war state. With a newly declared enemy, the now US-dominated (aided by a Marshall Plan with many long strings attached) Western world made sure in the years immediately after the war to curtail the very thing it claimed to have fought Germany over – freedom and democracy – lest the 'wrong people' get elected, as indeed they might.
In Greece the result was a post-war history of radically right wing, often military-style governments. The most infamous of these was 'The Colonels', who ruled for a murderous seven years backed by the US. Then, when democracy is restored a proviso hangs over elections, as the world beyond the West knows well enough but within it we like to deny. You can have democracy as long as you elect the right party; if not, look what happens.
With the post-war history of Western culture's founding democracy taken on board, it which it has been repeatedly battered, Greeks have a real right to feel aggrieved that powerful non- or even anti-democratic forces beyond their control are dictating terms yet again. An already shaky state when it comes to democratic legitimacy has again shown who the real bosses are, and they are not 'the people'.
Yet while journalists unreflectively report the 'interventions' in Libya and now possibly Syria through the Hollywood lens of the West's purported and always narcissistic love for fostering democracy, when it comes to Greece we hear a rather different story. No matter his actual qualities, that their new prime minister is the former head and deputy of the premier national and European banks for many Greeks makes clear the country's longstanding problem rather than its solution.
Why ordinary workers should pay through unbelievably harsh cutbacks in services, wages and actual employment – which no other European population would accept – for a global crisis caused by the out-of-control financial sector, and exacerbated by long-standing state-level ineptitude, has not been seriously asked let alone answered.
This is the usually unspoken ethical debasement at the heart of this sorry story. Although sometimes couched, also never properly explained is how the bailout will somehow alleviate a situation that quite a few economists, including in Greece, argue will only exacerbate it. Instead, media reports in the Anglosphere frequently just repeat starkly that it is a good idea and the Greek people simply have no choice. The banks, 'the markets', and the EU hierarchy can't all be wrong, right?
People all over the world are paying, directly or indirectly, for capitalism's 2008 meltdown and its lingering effects while the actual perpetrators – the self-styled cowboys of a still unregulated transnational financial sector and 'too-big-to-fail' banks – effectively get away scot-free.
With modern history showing both Greece's political establishment and more powerful actors beyond its borders in such a poor democratic light, the very genuine outrage of everyday people is even more acute than elsewhere and thereby more understandable. But for the EU, other Western Governments, and a largely echoing mainstream media, it seems nothing is less interesting or relevant.
Hamish Ford is a lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle, Australia
This piece was originally published by the ABC Drum (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)