GREEK ELECTIONS: “Greek voters may be about to plunge the European Union into a full-fledged economic and political crisis.” For real?

21 Jan

Greek parliament

Don’t look to me for economic analyses. I think I had had my first credit card in college for a while, before I realized that the amount you paid back to them was more than what you bought with them. That means credit and debt – the foundations of Western Civilization – were things I didn’t understand until like my mid-twenties. So as far as economics are concerned, I generally listen as carefully as I can to those who seem remotely intelligent to me and weigh what I can gather.

Greece is shaking up the Eurozone again, because parliament couldn’t vote for a President, I believe, and parliament was dissolved and now we’re having elections on January 25th. And everyone, or many people, are trembling at the thought of a SYRIZA, the left-of-center party, victory. I don’t know why they chose to call themselves by an acronym that means “The Coalition of the Radical Left.” Paranoiacs who talk about them as if they were Bolsheviks are already crazed enough in their attacks on the party, and SYRIZA really is, just that, a left-of-center-party. They only seem radical because the “center” – in Greece and everywhere – has moved so far to the right in every sense for the past few decades.

People in Greece whose intellects I respect think that a SYRIZA government – since they are in the lead in polls – would be a disaster: they think the best route for getting Greece out of its economic stagnation is to continue to follow the austerity dictates of the so-called “Troika” — the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB) – though Greece has followed them pretty much to the letter and steadily for the past two years, and there are more rounds of austerity coming, and little has improved. And if I ask them the more theoretical question of why Greeks should keep voting for the PASOK/ND two-party clique whose politicians have run the show since 1974 and are a bunch of almost Putinesque cronies in their brazen, shameless corruption and who got the country in the mess it’s in in the first place, they really don’t have an answer for me. One says he just doesn’t vote at all. But how fast a way is that for turning Greece into an American kind of politics-less civil society – which should be an oxymoron.

But I have reason to think that some of the people I listen to in Greece are listening to their class interests – worse, their class instincts, in the most knee-jerk sense – so I also try to listen to Americans I respect: like and especially Paul Krugman. I’ve cited him on this blog often, especially in reference to France – a country which I care about deeply – and he’s a vociferous critic of the EU’s austerity policies towards its prodigal southern and Celtic brothers. He points out that the economy of France, to speak about the center for a moment and not the perhaps hopeless periphery, and how much better it’s doing on every indicator than even Britain itself, precisely for sticking to some of its old-fashioned, socialized (not “socialist”) ideology. And to how much better the United States is doing, because, fairly or not, it sent a fresh flush of cash into its finance industry (instead of setting up a guillotine on Wall and Broad, which would’ve been my instinct) and now is probably the first major economy to have more or less dragged itself out of the hole. He’s written e-n-d-l-e-s-s-l-y about how the Great American Depression was on the verge of ending in 1936, when the government decided to “tighten belts” again and plunged the country back into the deepest economic slump ever in 1937, until it changed policies and then WWII spending ultimately saved it. And he sees the lag in Europe’s recovery, include the euro’s precipitous plunge to near one-to-one parity with the dollar, as the result — and purely — of moralizing and moralist, German-guided, insistence on austerity.

But as far as Greece goes, all the fear-mongers have brought out their heavy artillery. Maybe because I am such an economic illiterate, I recognize the psychological poker game involved in economics so much more clearly than others may. It’s amazing how the “Masters of the Universe” – these Alpha-Male studs that run our world in ways we’re too stupid to understand, because as it turns out, they don’t really understand them either – suddenly become menacing thugs or henny-penny pussies, alternating between the two, as soon as the width of their profit margins is even slightly threatened. This may be more an American problem than a European one, but I think it is what’s going on with Greece, the prospects of a SYRIZA victory and the discourse it’s generated. “Disaster” will follow. “Germans are ready to let Greece leave the Eurozone.” Frau Merkel dusts off her Lutheran-Communist pastor daddy’s sermons, and like the Biskop in Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” threatens fire and brimstone if Greece does not “koopereit.” “You must pay us,” say the lenders, “or it will be a disaster for all of us.” “We can’t…and won’t” say the borrowers, “and actually it will only be a disaster for you. You’ve already pushed us into a corner where we don’t have anything to lose, so…what are you going to do about that? Send us to debtors prison?” Hmmm…? Then what?

I’ve called the European Union “a neo-colonialist body disguised as the Highest Form of Western Humanism Project” before. And I can’t speak for Spain or Portugal or Ireland. But what I see the Union doing in Greece is engaging in the systematic destruction of a small economy.* By “small economy” I don’t mean a small territory of ten million with limited resources and a small-scale GDP. It’s a given that that’s what Greece always was. What I mean is a society of small-scale, personal, economic units. Some may balk at this idea, but I’m talking about something that’s one of the most positive aspects of our Ottoman inheritance. Late Byzantium was moving toward a system of large-scale landowners with an increasingly enserfed population – whether it was an organic development or the influence of Frankish feudalism is a big question. The fact, though, is that this process was arrested by Ottoman systems of land tenure and the block those systems put on the development of a landed, inherited aristocracy. And then in the twentieth century, Greece was the only former Ottoman country lucky enough to not have that small-scale type economy disrupted and perverted by the experiments of communism or even the economically statist policies that came to dominate Republican Turkey itself.

Why am I going so far back in history to talk about Greek elections in 2015? Because you might have to look that far back to see why we were spared the experiences of a large landless peasantry that could then be turned into a disenfranchised industrial proletariat – to a great extent at least; yes, there was Thessaly and there was Laurio, but nothing like what Western Europe or Russia experienced. The Greek entered modernity armed with few advantages, but one was a widespread public education system of fairly high standard for a country of its resources, the roots of which were already well-established in Ottoman times and put into systematic place almost immediately after independence. And the other was that, generally, he did so as an economically independent entity. A small-scale free peasant. A middle-class owner of some property. A “nation of shopkeepers,” as Napoleon condescendingly (and inaccurately) said of Britain. And all the better for it. Not even the sweeping flood of refugees from the Population Exchange of the 1920s with Turkey, which involved the absorption of an almost 30% increase in our population in less than five years; not even the tragic depopulation of rural Greece in the 1950s — for all its economic and military reasons — and the hideous Athens it created; neither of those massive sociological transformations changed the average Greek citizen from what he was: a free and reasonably independent economic agent of his own destiny.

THIS is what the “memoranda” are trying, and will succeed if allowed — if they already haven’t actually — in destroying. The tax on home-ownership and personal real estate is what I consider the most heinous and symbolic, even if it’s not the issue most Greeks are likely to get rabid about. Don’t ask me how: maybe the beauty of Athens had to be sacrificed to the πολυκατοικία, the apartment houses that I’ve called “cement-caves” where most Athenians and other Greek city-dwellers live, to create the domestic structure of Neo-Greek society. But what did emerge from the process of post-war Greek urbanization was a country where most people owned their own homes, and where – to a certain extent – a vertical version of traditional society was maintained. Relatives lived near each other, often in the same building, and though during the heady credit-backed lifestyle of the nineties it was common among Neo-Greeks to mock themselves for such domestic arrangements – grandma, or worse, your in-laws, living upstairs, and thirty-something-year-old kids living with their parents – I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen having come to rely on precisely those networks to survive the present crisis…and actually did back then even, before things got bad, as well: a mother-in-law that will take care of the children while mom’s working and have lunch ready by mid-afternoon for the family to share together; a sister-in-law with whom you can move in for an indeterminate amount of time till you’ve found a job again; networks that extend back to one’s ancestral village, where some lone, remnant relative has some olive trees for oil or some animals for cheese or just a bostani that can provide you with some tomatoes or cucumbers or some apricots that provide you with some jam. I remarked to others on how more civil and warm people in the public sphere seemed to be towards each other the last time I was in Greece, on what a, perhaps silent, but palpable, sense of greater solidarity people seemed to feel for one another and I got a dose of that almost instinctive Greek cynicism from most: “You’re romanticizing”… “Yeah, try going downtown during the midday rush…” But I also was witness, in a very memorable conversation, to one of those cynics getting dressed down by someone else: “Μη το λες…μερικοί έχουν βρει το φιλότιμό τους…” “Don’t say that so easily. A lot of people have found their sense of honor again.”

“Honor” is a bad translation for “φιλότιμo,” which means honor and amour propre and sense of dignity and reciprocity, all in one complex structure of emotions and social acts. Basically, “philotimo” is the sense of self-respect that’s intimately tied up with the upholding of your obligations to others that held Greeks together for centuries. All readers here know I’m a fanatic opponent of reading Classicizing virtues – or Classical anything — into Neo-Greek society, but the importance of “philotimo,” I feel, even if just discursive, even if only in its lapses, is a millennia-long constant.

The reader may be excused in thinking I’ve strayed from a basic issue of economics to an excavation of Greek cultural morals. And the truth is that I’m feeling kind of challenged right now in tying together the threads of where I’ve ended up with those I started with.

Well, here then: it’s those patterns of economic independence and the traditional bonds of morality that supported them that the Troika is determined to destroy. The Greek civil sector was not particularly bloated, not even compared with France, for example, which is my prime model for a life well-lived. And if it employed more people than it actually needed, let’s stop talking, like some are, as if it were a civil sector along Soviet lines: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” The Greek worker actually worked more hours than anyone in any industrialized country but South Korea – South Korea. Not efficient? Efficient for what and to what purpose? For the surpluses the Greek or other governments should enjoy? Since when is the state a business that has to pull in big profit margins and not primarily a structure for meeting the needs of its citizens? The same for the cutting of pensions that allowed older people to live in dignity and even help younger members of the family and have now been slashed by the Troika dictates? Really? Why? For whom?

And then on top of it all to tax people’s homes… We’re used to it in the United States, but I can’t convey what a sense of shock, and rightly so, this caused among Greeks – and even me. You’re going to tax me on the one roof I have over my head, the one thing I’m sure of, the one thing that I can grab at for some form of security, even if it’s Karagözi’s corrugated tin çandiri?

alexis-tsipras-neo-cvg-cvfvAlexis Tsipras

But let better minds than mine explain. This is an interview that Costas Lapavitsas recently gave a rather lame and argument-less Stephen John Sackur on the BBC’s Hardtalk. Lapavitsas is an economist, a graduate of the London School of Economics, a professor at the University of London and a columnist for The Guardian. He has the kind of intellectual confidence, articulateness and steel-trap mind that is — not just super-sexy — but is the gift of a certain kind of Greek who makes me immensely proud.  He’s an advisor for SYRIZA and I’m sure he’s detested by the party’s opponents because they can’t dismiss him as a childish, bratty demagogue the way they can dismiss Alexis Tsipras (above), the party’s actual leader, about whom I, too, have mixed feelings. There’s the BBC interview and then if you have the patience there are another interview and two longer lectures of his that get into stuff much more deeply.


He’s compelling…and smart…and not afraid of the truth. He makes the argument for what was always the small-scale of Greek economics: that it was never a country that lived off of large-scale foreign investment, that like I stated above, it never had a large “alienated proletariat” waiting for foreign industries to come and employ – exploit — which is precisely what the European Union wants to do to all of its southern periphery. He’s realistic; he was for exiting the Eurozone back in 2011-12, but admits it’s unfeasible now. He calmly listens to interviewer Sackur pose the smuggest kind of conventional wisdom, “but, surely…” questions, and without skipping a beat, says: “No..” and proceeds to demolish him. (His response to Sackur’s attempt to use Ireland as an example in his argument is not only point-on, but historically poignant, personally moving to me as a Queens boy, and a really satisfying little slap in the Brit’s face.**) He sees his Greece as the humanitarian disaster it has become, with a GDP that has fallen 25%, 50% youth unemployment and 25% overall unemployment, skyrocketing suicide rates and other rates of psychological diseases such as acute depression.  He says that it has moved beyond melt-down into what he calls “permafrost” and a stone from which no more blood can be drawn.*** He sees high, macroeconomic finance for the poker game it is: like I said – again – a game in which those who hold the reins of power alternately disseminate panic or fear in an intentionally self-fulfilling prophecy; and that those people are bullies, who will probably back down from their demands if a critical mass refuses to be bullied by them.

The point is building that critical mass.  And I thought I could vote in Greek elections for the first time this Sunday, but there are no consular elections for ex-pats possible with Greece as there is for a multitude of other countries — typical…  But if I could vote, I know who I’d be voting for.



* Tangentially but, I think, not in the least irrelevant to this post…  One of the starkest lessons in geopolitics and political economy I was ever taught was when I started teaching English as a Second Language in New York’s CUNY system and realized that my Latin American students weren’t destitute, landless peasants from the Guatemalan highlands or Caracas slum-dwellers.  They were well-educated teachers, accountants, civil servants, small business owners…  They were part of a sizeable but fragile urban middle-class that the Neo-Liberalism applied to many South American economies in the ’80s trapped in a vice, and forced out into emigration.  And that’s what’s happening in countries like Greece and Spain and Ireland today.

** Meaning, that given the history of the British in Ireland, it’s a bit rich for an Englishman to be using that country as an example of “recovery.”  Yeah, Ireland is doing better.  Better because the tragic full-scale emigration of its youth has started again — something you can’t miss all around you in New York and especially in Queens — the continuation of a demographic catastrophe which first started when Great Britain practically depopulated the island by ripping apart the fabric of the Irish economy, its people and its civilization in the nineteenth century, with policies based on a moralizing, racist, Protestant set of arguments that are remarkably similar to those that Frau Merkel likes to spout about the European South today. And Lapavitsas makes that abundantly clear to him.  Plus Sackur’s whole fussy, donnish demeanor and Oxbridge accent make him so the perfect dude to cast if you need a target Englishman that you almost feel sorry for him; if I were him I’d need a drink after that interview.  See my: “The Graves Are Walking”: Was the Great Potato Famine a genocide?”  

And when I say “Protestant” in contexts like this, you can be sure — as per Weber — that I mean capitalist, for which most mainstream White Protestantism and its moral codes  — again, as per Weber (maybe a bit exaggerated) — is simply a front.

*** Or the homier example of Nasreddin Hoca and his donkey might make things clearer: Merkel, Spain, Greece and Nasreddin’s donkey



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