Greece and the Global Capitalist Crisis


As the global capitalist crisis continues to unfold into 2010, Greece has come to be viewed as the system’s weakest link, a cautionary tale for countries around Europe and the world. The meaning of the Greek crisis needs to be contested as much as the meaning of the global capitalist crisis of which it is simply an expression.

One version sees the Greek crisis as symptomatic of an untenable generosity in salaries, pensions, and benefits enjoyed by European workers. This dovetails nicely with the long-standing attempt of neoliberals to blame the economic and social problems facing Europe on its more extensive welfare state. The problem is that Greek salaries and pensions are anything but generous. While in most advanced capitalist countries salaries and pensions absorb about 70 percent of the GDP, in Greece this share has been going down and now barely surpasses the 50 percent mark.

A slightly different, though related, explanation blames the crisis on the profligacy and deceitfulness of Greeks, claiming they have become used to the benefits of excessive government spending even as they refuse to pay the taxes necessary to finance such spending.

In fact, it is Greek business owners who don’t always pay their fair share of the taxes; they often divert part of the tax revenues paid by others into their pockets, as when they fail to turn over to the government the sales taxes they receive from consumers. Thus, in addition to receiving a low share of the national income, waged and salaried workers also end up paying a disproportionately high share of the taxes collected by the government. And every time there is a new round of austerity measures, as is the case today, they are the ones to be hit first, as they find their salaries frozen and their consumption taxes raised.

Complemented by an appropriate acronym, PIGS, which refers to heavily indebted countries—Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain—this explanation plays into the populist rage in Northern European countries (like Germany) at the very idea that Northern European taxes might be used to bail out a country like Greece, which cooked its books to join the Euro zone and now finds it increasingly difficult to service its debt.

According to this school of thought, represented by various Northern European politicians including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the solution to the Greek crisis, as well as to the similar problems faced by the other PIGS, is a strong dose of austerity to reduce government spending and deficits, while reaffirming the European Union’s long-standing prioritization of balanced budgets over full employment. The problem with such a solution is that it is likely to make the crisis even worse by deflating the economy even further. In so doing, it is likely to prove counterproductive even from a narrowly fiscal point of view, as such a deepening of the crisis can only lead to a reduction of government revenues, thus canceling out the savings achieved through reduced government spending.

Against the dominant interpretations of the Greek crisis, it is important to recognize that the predicament of Greek workers and ordinary Greeks from all walks of life is, above all, a reflection of the inherently undemocratic nature of the capitalist economic system. The madness of responding to a deep economic crisis with the draconian austerity measures that the Greek government has adopted is absolutely clear, both to Greek citizens and their socialist government. In adopting these measures, this government is in complete contradiction with the platform it ran on just a few months ago. Last fall, Greek voters made a choice between the old Conservative government, which argued that austerity was the only way out of the crisis, and the Socialist opposition, which argued for the necessity of a Keynesian solution that sought to address fiscal imbalances through economic growth rather than economic austerity. The verdict was clear. The Socialists won with a 10-point margin, which was the largest in Greece’s recent political history.

Now, the Socialists say, they have no choice but to adopt austerity measures because other nations have lost trust in Greece and regaining it is a matter of national survival. The trust that Greece’s socialist government is most worried about is not that of Greek citizens, but of the financial markets and rating agencies that created the present global crisis.

This general sense of frustration and discontent is bound to lead to periodic explosions, like the one that erupted in Greece in December 2008 and the ongoing struggles against austerity packages, including general strikes. There are, however, two obstacles to the escalation of this resistance.

First, since most of the leadership of the Greek labor movement are members of the Socialist Party, they may not be willing to exert as much pressure on the government as is necessary despite the impact of the austerity package on their own members. How serious an obstacle this will prove to be will partly depend on the pressure that labor leaders feel from the rank and file. There is already a sense that the labor leadership is caught between their allegiance to the Socialist Party and their need to seem responsive to their members. The pressure from below is likely to increase as Greeks begin to feel the impact of the austerity measures on their paychecks and general standard of living. In the meantime, the sense that labor leaders are not doing their utmost to resist the government’s austerity policies feeds the general disenchantment with these leaders, who are seen as part of the corrupt economic and political elite that has brought the country to its present state of crisis. This disenchantment was, in fact, a major theme in the December 2008 revolt.

The second obstacle to an effective resistance against the austerity measures is the inability of the Greek left to form a unified front. While the Socialists have enlisted the support of both the Conservatives and the extreme, anti-immigrant right wing, the left remains divided. This problem of internal division within the Greek left is linked to the absence of a compelling alternative vision, which is a problem faced by left forces around the world.

The main lesson from the present global economic crisis is that the operation of the capitalist economic system is in the hands of corrupt and incompetent economic and political elites who gain during times of prosperity and who get bailed out when capitalism hits the fan. This is an undemocratic economic system that clearly does not work for most of us. As the Greeks are finding out, what is needed is a rallying of workers, ordinary people, and the political left around the demand for economic democracy, run by all people for the benefit of all. Such global struggles should include the movement to take over and run democratically abandoned factories in Argentina, participatory budgeting experiments around the world, and other similar efforts. This direction is also consistent with the demand for self-management and self-organization that animated the uprising of Greek youth in 2008. It is time to go beyond resistance to the formulation of alternatives.

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Costas Panayotakis is assistant professor of social sciences at NYC College of Technology.