What’s ‘Fit’ to Read About Greece

The New York Times prides itself on offering its readers ‘all the news that’s fit to print.’  The value judgment inherent in the word ‘fit’ does not of course refer to the understandable and inevitable necessity for any newspaper to make a choice about which of the potentially infinite number of stories it is worth reporting on. It also refers to choices made even after the stories to be reported have been selected. These are choices regarding what information relevant to the story is to be reported. These choices make it possible for The New York Times to subtly take positions even in stories that at first sight seem to do nothing but report the events of the day. These are positions that are solidly within the neoliberal consensus, thus defending the capitalist system against potentially unsettling criticism and challenge. The true criterion of what is ‘fit to print’ for the New York Times is, therefore, not what is important enough to devote space to but what is consistent enough with conventional wisdom to contribute to the smooth reproduction of a socio-economic system that inflicts untold amounts of suffering on billions of people around the world. A case in point is ‘Greece and Germany Strike Conciliatory Note,’ a story by Melissa Eddy and Jack Ewing. (i)

The ostensible purpose of this story is to report on the upcoming meetings of the new Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and on the reporters’ assessment that “[t]he sometimes shrill discourse between Germany and Greece seemed to be turning more conciliatory this week as it dawned on leaders of Europe’s strongest economy and its weakest that a breakup of the euro zone would be catastrophic for both of them.” According to the article, both Samaras and Merkel “are trying to reconcile the expectations of their voters with the choices they know they must make to preserve the euro and prevent Greece from leaving the currency union.”

The article bases its conclusion that Samaras knows what he has to do and realizes the stakes involved on an interview he gave to the German newspaper Bild, in which he tries to reassure the weary German public that he is 100% committed to the austerity program imposed on Greece by the Europeans and the IMF but that he needs a little extra time to implement it. Because of this commitment, the article informs us, “chances appeared to be improving that he would win more time to meet terms imposed by official lenders and rebuild the shattered Greek economy.” I will not comment on whether Samaras’ chances are improving or not, but I do have to note the article’s assertion that, if Samaras got the extra time he needed, he would be able to “rebuild the shattered Greek economy.”  In making this assertion, the article does two things: it endorses Samaras’ approach to the Greek economic crisis, thus also endorsing the Greek austerity program with the slight modification that Samaras requests.

The article offers no reason for the latter endorsement and, in fact, suggests an entirely different conclusion when it points out that “[t]here seems to be a growing realization that austerity has already pushed Greece to the limit and any more belt-tightening would simply nourish extremist political parties and undercut tax revenue – making the country’s debt problems even worse.”  What this sentence recognizes is that the austerity program has led to a catastrophic depression in Greece, where the economy has shrunk by about 20% in the last three years and unemployment has skyrocketed. It is because of this economic collapse that tax revenues have fallen, thus aggravating Greece’s debt problem. What this means, in other words, is that, far from representing a way to rebuild Greece’s shattered economy, the austerity program is a major contributor to the problems Greece is currently facing.

In adopting such an inconsistent position, the article also obscures the inconsistency in Samaras’ own position, who also said, in a part of his interview to Bild that is not included in the article in question, that “[w]e stand by our obligations to meet all requirements. But we must spur growth, because that will shrink the holes in our finances. All that we want is a little breathing room to get the economy going and increase revenues.” (ii) In other words, Samaras is promising to continue the belt-tightening that the NYT reporters suggest may be counter-productive and refuses to admit that the continuation of draconian budget cuts and cuts in public sector salaries and pensions will not ‘spur growth’ but add to the Greek economy’s depression.

Given all this, it is worth going back to the article’s speculation as to what Samaras and Merkel know and realize about the effect of their actions on the future of their countries and of the euro zone itself. The article sets up a contrast between Samaras and the Greek people, in which Samaras is presented as the one who knows “the choices … [he] must make to preserve the euro and prevent Greece from leaving the currency union, while the Greek people are just described as having ‘expectations’ or needing, according to Jurgen Matthes, a German economist that the article quotes, Samaras to show them “that their sacrifices have been worthwhile and life will begin to get better.” And the article continues: “If he’s able to tell such a narrative, then things could change,” Mr. Matthes said. “People need to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” How interesting: instead of pronouncing on what lies closer to his field of specialty, namely the recessionary economic effects of austerity policies up to this point, the German economic expert chosen by the reporters pretends to be a psychologist and, by resorting to platitudes regarding human nature and speculations about what people need or do not need to see, promises that, despite the failures of austerity up to this point, everything will work out in the end if only Samaras were to get the myriads of unemployed and impoverished Greeks to ‘think positive’!

The problem, of course, is not that the Greek people need to see what Samaras does, namely the potential that the current policies will work in some distant future that never seems to come. The problem is that Samaras continues with the failed austerity policies that Greek people repeatedly repudiated. They did so in the May 6 election when they rejected the two parties that provided unambiguous support for the austerity program, Samaras’ own conservative party and the socialist party, by giving them less than a third of the vote. After this disastrous result both the conservatives and the socialists claimed that they had gotten the message and that, if they won the June election that followed, they would make it their first priority to pursue serious modifications of that program. It was only in this way that they managed to get enough support to form a coalition government. Instead of pursuing the different policies they had promised, however, they are continuing the same policies, hoping that the Europeans may allow them to do it a little more gradually. Going back to Mr. Matthes’ comment, therefore, if there is a problem with the Greek people, this is not that they are too distrustful of Mr. Samaras but rather that they may have been a little too gullible when Samaras claimed between the May and June elections to have had a change of heart regarding the austerity program.

As for the article’s claim that Samaras recognizes that a breakup of the eurozone would be catastrophic for Germany as well as for Greece, it seems to be contradicted by Samaras’ actions. If he believed this, Samaras would use it as a bargaining chip and try to fulfill the promises he made before the June elections. Instead of using the effects of a euro zone breakup as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with the Europeans, however, he is trying to terrorize Greeks into accepting another round of austerity by only focusing on the possibility that the Europeans will push Greece out of the euro zone.

All in all, this article manages, through a filtering of relevant information, to present an incoherent and misleading picture about the situation in Greece. This picture is only fit to print if one’s criterion of fitness is determined by what is in the interests of the global capitalist elites determined to make the rest of us pay for the crisis they caused. 

Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at the New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy.

i See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/business/global/daily-euro-zone-watch.html?ref=global-home .

ii See Harvey Morris, ‘Euro Zone Talks Revive Specter of Greek Exit,’http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/22/euro-zone-talks-revive-specter-of-greek-exit/?scp=1&sq=euro%20zone%20talks%20revive%20specter%20of%20greek&st=Search

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