Tag Archives: Alexis Tsipras

Πουλάμε τρέλα — “selling craziness” — ordinary Greeks’ take on the Greek “recovery”

1 Aug

Greek soup kitchen 2017Greek people queue to enter a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

There’s an expression in Greek: “Πουλάει τρέλα” — He’s selling craziness, literally, which is used when it seems like someone is acting like they don’t get it, or don’t understand, or didn’t see, or didn’t notice, in order to escape some kind of responsibility :

“Sorry officer, I didn’t realize how fast I was going.  Oh, is that the speed limit here?”

“Oh, is the rent due?  Is it the first of the month already?”

“300 Euros per month for Greek workers and 150 for pensioners seem like perfect living wages to me.”

Last week, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, to some the architect of Greece’s whole mess — a little unfair — or just an adolescent false messiah making crazy promises, announced that the Greek government bonds had gone on the market again, supposedly a vote of confidence from the financial community.  “The worst is behind us.”

And the entire Greek people, across the entire political spectrum, did a collective double-take and mumbled: “Huh?”  No people on earth have become as cynical about their politicians as Greeks have, and the government’s cheap optimism has been taken, not just as “selling craziness” by most, but as an added slap in the face, especially since most feel that news about bonds “coming out” in the markets is just preparing the ground for a fourth package of added austerity measures on the part of the European Union and its institutional partners (known collectively here, in a kind of scarily Orwellian, Big Brother language, as “the Institutions.”)

But let the article in the venerable Guardian tell you the rest in this past Sunday’s article: Greek debt crisis: ‘People can’t see any light at the end of any tunnel’

Money quote in my opinion:

“For the poorest of the poor Syriza has been good,” said Mourtidou. “But it has not done what the vast majority hoped and that is very dangerous. Tsipras had a calming effect when he came along. There isn’t another Tsipras to promise us the world and now I fear the earth could be trembling under our feet. The next choice could be the far right.  [My emphases].

It is a common concern. Greeks have responded to loss with fortitude and resilience but a mood of uncertainty prevails. Amid the rage and disappointment many worry the power of loss could assume other more menacing forms.

“Uncertainty is the new normality,” psychology professor Fotini Tsalikoglou noted. “It could manifest itself in apathy, violence, more uncertainty, we just don’t know.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Varoufakis, a dead Greek cosmopolitanism, and a Greece that now has nothing else

8 Feb

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From Al Jazeera by Iason Athanasiadis: The Greek Varometer: The irreverent, shaven-headed, motorbike-riding academic’s arrival is viewed in messianic terms.

I’m posting this for completely tangential reasons.  Because as I’ve said before, I’m not in the least capable of any political economic analyses, and, though I’m instinctively and emotionally happy about SYRIZA‘s victory, I really can’t tell how things are going to turn out.

(This Guardian article paints things as pretty dire, though of course that might just be more bullying and threat masked as “inevitability”: Tsipras favours Greek jobless over creditors in defiant policy speech:

The British chancellor, George Osborne, admitted the UK had already embarked on contingency plans in preparation for a Greek exit from the single currency. “This standoff between Greece and the eurozone is increasing the risks every day,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday, adding that Athens’ departure from the bloc would not only send European financial markets into a tailspin, but cause “real ructions” in the UK.

Earlier, Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve, said it was only a matter of time before the country left the eurozone. He said it was difficult to see why anyone would be willing to lend Greece more money and that without additional loans, the country would be forced to default and leave the euro.

“It’s just a matter of time before everyone recognises that parting is the best strategy,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. “It is not a decision where they are going to come to an agreement. All the cards are being held by the members of the eurozone.”

Greenspan also conceded that a Greek exit might trigger a meltdown in global financial markets: “I don’t think we have a choice.”)

But that’s not what was most interesting to me in Athansiadis’ article.  What was most interesting — and most gratifying, though it confirms a sad truth about the Greek statelet — is that Athansiadis chooses to portray Varoufakis as a product of a giant Greek Diaspora that the twentieth century, and twentieth-century nationalism, destroyed:

“He [Varoufakis] is also a kind of Greek largely eclipsed from the international stage since the 1960s; polyglot, adventurous, and hailing from a lively and vibrant Greek diaspora before it solidified into small-minded communities nurturing a parochial definition of Hellenism fossilised sometime circa 1950. Varoufakis’ father was born and grew up in Cairo’s fabled Greek community, directs a major Greek metallurgical interest, and maintains an interest in Hellenistic civilisation on the Mediterranean seaboard.”

and

“Varoufakis seems to hail from another Hellenism, the one defeated at the end of the 19th century when politics and circumstance conspired to ensure that the Hellas that entered the 20th century was narrowly defined by national borders, rather than the spread-out Greek-speaking cosmopolitanisms of North Africa, the Levant and Anatolia.

“Always a protectorate of the West, modern Greece was trapped by small-minded nationalisms (including its vendetta with post-Ottoman Turkey), resulting in the homogeneous and small-minded parochialisms from which the Golden Dawn impulse springs today.”

[my bold emphases in all of above]

Yes, thanks, Iasona…  For stating so clearly what the essential thesis of this blog is: that Hellenism was, and is, doomed in many ways since it contracted into an EBSN (ethnicity-based nation-state).  The sad truth is that the economic and cultural loci of the Greek world were always outside the Helladic peninsula (see my: Upon escaping from Greece… from this past September and myriad other posts) from early Classical times until the 1960s.  The modern Greek kingdom/state was always an economic basket-case from its beginnings and dependent on the Greek diaspora for its economic existence and, in fact, its cultural wealth and vibrancy as well.  There has rarely been a time that modern Greece was not teetering on the brink of insolvency or bankruptcy and the credit-backed 80s and 90s were simply smoke-and-mirrors that obscured that reality.

The reality is that Greece itself has nothing.  And never did.  “Φτώχεια, καλή καρδιά”…and mostly γκρίνια…*(1)  Its dying agriculture doesn’t and never did produce anything that its Mediterranean or even Balkan neighbors don’t produce in greater quantity and often better quality.  (Even my mother used to buy Bulgarian feta when I was a kid.**[2])  Its industry was always rudimentary and not particularly competitive — certainly not for export — and has practically disappeared.  If Greece ever had the potential of becoming a regionally important service center economy, like Singapore or Hong Kong or, closer to home, Lebanon before its civil war, that potential has never been realized — except in Cyprus to a certain degree — for a whole panoply of reasons that I think I’m not qualified to get into.  And whereas the great Greek financial magnates and industrialists and merchants of Alexandria and Odessa and Constantinople and Smyrna and Bucharest and Constanța and Iași in the nineteenth century liberally poured their wealth into building the institutions of the new state,***(3) the Greek families that today control our one potentially and traditionally great economic resource, commercial shipping, largely choose to keep their wealth off-shore.

I’m sorry to say that I can’t see what could possibly change this picture.  More tourism?  Neither reforms of the the Troika or the SYRIZA type will change fundamental material realities.  I’m afraid that Hellenism only flourishes when it’s part of a larger regional political economic network and I’m not sure that Europe is that network.  But then who?  A Turkey we always choose to respond to with hostility****(4) — to which it obligingly reciprocates?  Or the Balkans, which we denigrate, while Turkey is busy building commercial and economic and cultural ties with Balkan Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo?*****(5)  Or the total basket-case countries of the Arab world?  Or Russia in its current pariah-state condition?

And yet those were the parts of the world where the most dynamic communities of Greeks always existed.  Modern nationalism destroyed them.  And not just Greek nationalism, of course.  But Turkish and Egyptian nationalism and that of everyone else in the region.  Every one in their own box.

I’m just afraid that that contraction cost us more than it did anyone else. 

And I don’t see how it can be reversed.

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*(1) The lyrics from a famous Xarkakos song: “Poverty, a good heart, and lots of kvetching…”  Here’s the great Bithikotses’ recording of it.

**(2) And being from a village and region with a largely pastoral economy, she knew her feta; but the Bulgarian product tasted more like the hard, fattier, well-brined cheese she was used to, as compared to the cream-cheese mush Greece used to export in those days.  Granted, the quality has improved greatly since then.  As has that of Greek wines.  Especially the whites.  Build an economy on that.

At some point in the late nineteenth century, the economy of the Greek kingdom was deeply dependent on one thing: black (often called “Zante”) currants.  Forget Cuba and sugar or the Gulf states and oil.  This was a mono-crop dependency that rested wholly on prayers that Brits would continue to use copious amounts of these currants in their plum puddings at Christmas and not find another source for them.  When they did, or when demand for them stopped for whatever reason, the Greek economy collapsed.

***(3) One of the most obnoxious traits of the Neo-Greek middle-class is their denigrating, mocking, condescending attitude toward what constitutes the Diaspora of today, mainly Greek-Americans and Greek-Australians.  The dynamics of cultural assimilation in both countries and in the modern world generally will assure that New York or Melbourne will never become a Greek Constantinople or Alexandria, of course.  But that Neo-Greeks choose to look at their compatriots that left the country in the twentieth century, not as tragic victims of the country’s material limitations and war-time chaos, nor as an incredibly dynamic and enterprising group of Greeks who left for foreign shores and “spun gold out of thin air” there, in Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s famous words, but as rubes and hicks to be made fun of, while they sat home on their asses waiting for a growing welfare state to feed them, is just one of the most infuriating manifestations of Neo-Greeks’ blinkered worldview.  Snobs in a way that only the truly provincial can be — which I always say.  Much more to say about that.

****(4) Of course, there is the phenomenon of the so-called “Neo-Polites,” the considerable number of young Greeks who, for economic, or intellectual, or historic, or cultural, or sentimental reasons, have recently started to migrate “back” to İstanbul — though the extent to which we can call this a reconstituting of Constantinopolitan Greek life is pretty questionable.  It’s much more likely that a Roman life of sorts in İstanbul will ultimately be given a new lease by the Syrian Christians who have moved to the City in large numbers in the past decades.  Also much more to say about all that.

*****(5) Now, many Greeks in Albania, who are strikingly uninterested in Greece, have started to extend commercial and manufacturing networks into the rest of the country from the small pocket of territory they inhabit in the south; I have close relatives who, out of nothing, have built a phyllo/yufka manufacturing company, based in my father’s village of Derviçani, that sells throughout Albania and is looking how to expand into neighboring countries as well.  How far that will go is also to be seen.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

 

“Greece’s Agonized Cry to Europe” & “Ending Greece’s Nightmare” — TIMES editorial and Krugman: “The troika … was peddling an economic fantasy.”

27 Jan

Zappeion5d36c634-e1c9-4a23-aba2-ff07e45afbd5-2060x1236Photograph: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS (double-click)

Here’s The Times, Greece’s Agonized Cry to Europe:

The message from Sunday’s elections in Greece was unambiguous: The Greeks cannot and will not continue to abide by the austerity regime that has brought their economy to its knees. It was a message the Germans and other Europeans who continue to insist that Greece pay off its mountainous debt, no matter what the damage, must hear. Persisting on their dogmatic course is not only wrong for Greece but dangerous for the entire European Union.

It is too soon to anticipate how Alexis Tsipras, the maverick politician whose left-wing Syriza party won 36.3 percent of the popular vote and nearly gained an outright majority in Parliament, intends to deliver on the promises he made to voters to abandon the austerity program while reducing the nation’s debt and retaining the euro.

These goals are fundamentally incompatible, but the new prime minister has signaled to Europeans that he is ready to moderate his ambitions once in office. It is essential that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who is seen by Greeks as the prime architect of the austerity program, and the “troika” of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which manage the Greek bailout, demonstrate a similar readiness to ease the size and conditions of Greece’s debt burden.

And my man Krugman, Ending Greece’s Nightmare” (my emphases all through):

To understand the political earthquake in Greece, it helps to look at Greece’s May 2010 “standby arrangement” with the International Monetary Fund, under which the so-called troika — the I.M.F., the European Central Bank and the European Commission — extended loans to the country in return for a combination of austerity and reform. It’s a remarkable document, in the worst way. The troika, while pretending to be hardheaded and realistic, was peddling an economic fantasy. And the Greek people have been paying the price for those elite delusions.

You see, the economic projections that accompanied the standby arrangement assumed that Greece could impose harsh austerity with little effect on growth and employment. Greece was already in recession when the deal was reached, but the projections assumed that this downturn would end soon — that there would be only a small contraction in 2011, and that by 2012 Greece would be recovering. Unemployment, the projections conceded, would rise substantially, from 9.4 percent in 2009 to almost 15 percent in 2012, but would then begin coming down fairly quickly.

What actually transpired was an economic and human nightmare. Far from ending in 2011, the Greek recession gathered momentum. Greece didn’t hit the bottom until 2014, and by that point it had experienced a full-fledged depression, with overall unemployment rising to 28 percent and youth unemployment rising to almost 60 percent. And the recovery now underway, such as it is, is barely visible, offering no prospect of returning to precrisis living standards for the foreseeable future.

What went wrong? I fairly often encounter assertions to the effect that Greece didn’t carry through on its promises, that it failed to deliver the promised spending cuts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Greece imposed savage cuts in public services, wages of government workers and social benefits. Thanks to repeated further waves of austerity, public spending was cut much more than the original program envisaged, and it’s currently about 20 percent lower than it was in 2010.

Yet Greek debt troubles are if anything worse than before the program started. One reason is that the economic plunge has reduced revenues: The Greek government is collecting a substantially higher share of G.D.P. in taxes than it used to, but G.D.P. has fallen so quickly that the overall tax take is down. Furthermore, the plunge in G.D.P. has caused a key fiscal indicator, the ratio of debt to G.D.P., to keep rising even though debt growth has slowed and Greece received some modest debt relief in 2012.

Why were the original projections so wildly overoptimistic? As I said, because supposedly hardheaded officials were in reality engaged in fantasy economics. Both the European Commission and the European Central Bank decided to believe in the confidence fairy — that is, to claim that the direct job-destroying effects of spending cuts would be more than made up for by a surge in private-sector optimism. The I.M.F. was more cautious, but it nonetheless grossly underestimated the damage austerity would do.

And here’s the thing: If the troika had been truly realistic, it would have acknowledged that it was demanding the impossible. Two years after the Greek program began, the I.M.F. looked for historical examples where Greek-type programs, attempts to pay down debt through austerity without major debt relief or inflation, had been successful. It didn’t find any.

So now that Mr. Tsipras has won, and won big, European officials would be well advised to skip the lectures calling on him to act responsibly and to go along with their program. The fact is they have no credibility; the program they imposed on Greece never made sense. It had no chance of working.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Tsipras’ first cool act.

27 Jan

He was sworn-in in a civil ceremony without the Church or any clergy present.  I’m still unsure about this guy — as happy as I am about a SYRIZA victory — but this was a cool and definitive statement.  The Church of Greece needs to know its place — in church.

Tsipras11da7554-d82b-4bc1-a62e-ec2febfd5ced-620x413 Alexis Tsipras is sworn-in. Photograph: Simela Pantzartzi/EPA (click)

GREECE_2290790fPhoto: Alexis Tsipras (r) shakes hands with Greek president Karolos Papoulias during his swearing-in ceremony (Reuters: Yannis Behrakis)

Hands6047626-3x2-940x627Don’t understand the need to form a coalition with a member of a far-right, anti-immigrant party to gain majority in parliament.  Wasn’t there some docile old communist they could’ve taken out of the moth-balls?  But I guess strange bed-fellows is something we have to live with.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Everybody’s talking about how a Syriza victory shaking up Europe would be an unfortunate by-product: collateral damage…

25 Jan

…an accidental consequence if we’re not careful and we irresponsibly let Tsipras blindly lead us into this trap….when SHAKING UP EUROPE IS PRECISELY THE POINT!!!

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 11.47.15 PMGiannis Papanikos/AP (Click)

by Barbie Latza Nadeau — for THE DAILY BEAST

ELECTIONS
01.24.15
Greece’s Alexis Tsipras: The Man Who Could Break Europe
Sunday’s elections in Greece could bring to power a party that’s pitting the debt-ridden south of Europe against the rich north. Can its leader’s charisma carry the day?

In 2012, when Alexis Tsipras last ran to be prime minister of Greece, his compatriots were quite literally killing themselves in public squares because of the tough austerity measures that had strangled the country’s economy.

Tsipras, just 37 years old at the time, personable, extremely telegenic, took a page from his playbook as a student activist to rabble-rouse for a better life. Tsipras’s office was adorned with a poster of Ernesto “Che” Guevera. (His youngest son is named Ernesto.) And he rarely wore a necktie—especially when he tooled around Athens on his German BMW motorcycle.

His alternative-left Syriza party, he said, was the ticket out of the hell that Greece had become. “We have never been in such a bad place,” he told The Daily Beast back then. “Greeks are on their knees and leaving the country en masse. This is not an acceptable future for a European state.”

Back then, Tsipras promised to guide Greece to a better future, which he proposed would be one without the single European currency and thus outside what’s called the Eurozone.

In the end, Tsipras lost the election, which was played out in two rounds after no clear winner emerged from the first poll. But the fact that Syriza won 27 percent of the vote meant that more than a quarter of Greeks thought his plan had legs, and that worried mightily the powers that be Berlin and Brussels.

Leaders from the rich states in the northern tier launched an anti-Syriza campaign that hurt the untested young leader among those who worried that leaving the euro would be disastrous. “If Syriza comes first, Europe should be very afraid: my expectation is that we would have chaos,” Kevin Featherstone, head of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics told The Guardian at the time. “There would be huge instability and uncertainty on international financial markets and frenzy with a government that is a loose coalition and lacking clarity of purpose being forced to make decisions.”

Tsipras, who is back on the ballot on Sunday, has changed a lot since that last electoral run. Back then his partner was pregnant with little Ernesto. Now Tsipras spends more time carting his two kids around in the family sedan than joyriding on his beloved bike. He still isn’t photographed much in a tie, but his approach is far more tempered and moderate. This time he is running on a promise not to leave the eurozone. (He now calls his 2012 campaign promise a “paranoid plan.”) And this time, he might just win because many of the negative projections have come true and things in Greece have gotten worse. More than 200,000 Greeks have left the country in the last five years, and austerity has forced many businesses to shutter up or go off the radar. Greece’s black market economy is now estimated to account for nearly half of the country’s GDP.

More than 200,000 Greeks have left the country in the last five years, and austerity has forced many businesses to shutter up or go off the radar.

There are also signs that Europeans in other countries who once fought to keep the eurozone intact at any cost now feel they could get along pretty well without Greece. After all, it has a population of only 11 million in a European Union of 500 million and it represents only about 1.4 percent of the union’s GDP.

In early January, Germany’s Der Spiegel weekly quoted a source close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that Berlin was “open” to a Greek exit, or Grexit, as the potential departure move is known.

Under pressure, Merkel was forced to backtrack, insisting unconvincingly that she wanted Greece to stay. “I as German chancellor, and also the German government, have always pursued a policy of Greece staying in the euro zone,” she said at a joint press conference with British prime minister David Cameron.

This time around, Tsipras has promised the Greeks that Europe needs them and has no choice but to renegotiate Greece’s bailout debt conditions. And Greeks like what they hear. Days before the vote, he widened his lead by nearly 7 points ahead of current prime minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy party, according to the last poll conducted by Greek SKAI television.

Last time, Tsipras came out swinging against Europe and its currency. This time he is picking his fights, and trying to build alliances across the southern tier of the continent.

Tsipras argues that in order to stay in the eurozone, Greece’s ruling party has negotiated a foolhardy payment schedule for its $378 million bailout debt that makes it impossible for the country to grow. The current repayment plan is 175 percent of the gross domestic product, and Tsipras wants a better deal, starting with his demand that Europe should simply erase most of the Greek debt.

“Hope is coming,” he says, repeating the Syriza campaign mantra. “Five years of destruction and fear have led nowhere. Enough is enough.”

The lessons the young leader has learned since the last elections are apparent. He has traded what amounted to fear-mongering in his last electoral campaign for consensus building, starting with a promise to some of his former naysayer European leaders. Many of Europe’s struggling countries have launched their own versions of alternative leftist Syriza parties and Tsipras had made the rounds to Italy, Spain and Portugal in recent months.

In 2012, Tsipras gave wide ranging interviews to most people who cared enough to ask. This time around, he is writing op-eds in Europe’s largest newspapers to garner support not only for voting Greeks who have moved abroad, but to get Europe’s other austerity-suffering countries to back the debt reshuffling proposal with the idea that such a precedent could help them, too.

Writing in the Spanish daily El Pais, Tsipras tries to assure Spain that Greece can lead the way for all of Europe’s struggling economies. “From the darkness of austerity and of authoritarianism, into the light of democracy, of solidarity and of sustainable development,” he writes. “For this reason, Greece is only the beginning. Within this year, Spain’s turn is coming. The change begins from the South. The defeat of the political sponsors of austerity, foreclosures, of insecurity and fear, of corruption and the scandals has its launching point in our countries.”

Tsipras changed his message slightly in a hard hitting op-ed in the Financial Times a few days later, in which he says Europe must end austerity so as not to let “fear” kill democracy. “We have a duty to negotiate openly, honestly and as equals with our European partners. There is no sense in each side brandishing its weapons,” he writes. “Unless the forces of progress and democracy change Europe, it will be Marine Le Pen and her far-right allies that change it for us.”

On January 14, Tsipras fielded questions with the hashtag #asktsipras in what turned out to be an ingenious town hall debate that garnered 32,000 tweets in the first few hours after it launched. He accused the ruling class of “creating a breeding ground for scandals” and touched on everything from tax reform to foreign policy. He tweeted, “We will not take part in NATO with a bowed head. We will not support military interventions. We will defend international legality.”

Tsipras has come a long way in just a few years, but not all of Europe is optimistic about a Tsipras-led Greece. In an interview ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, which owns a lot of the Greek debt, quashed Tsipras’s debt renegotiation promise and said there is very little wiggle room when it comes to renegotiating debt. “A debt is a debt and it is a contract,” she told The Irish Times. “Defaulting, restructuring, changing the terms has consequences on the signature and the confidence in the signature.”

Speaking to RTLZ television ahead of the Davos meetings, Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who heads the influential Eurogroup of European ministers agreed. “There’s no political support to write off Greek debt,” he said.

And in Germany, there was that Der Spiegel report that the German government would rather have a Greek-free euro than open the way for a trend that would be costly to the richer nations. “The German government considers a euro zone exit [by Greece] to be almost inevitable if opposition leader Alexis Tsipras leads the government after the election and abandons budgetary ­discipline and does not repay the country’s debts,” the magazine reported.

Even at home in Greece, not everyone predicts that Tsipras will walk away with a clear mandate to run the country. Alexis Papachelas, executive editor of Greece’s Ekathimerini newspaper, cautions that the likely scenario of a second vote, like what happened in 2012 when the first ballot failed to produce a winner, could spell even bigger disaster for the country.

“Whichever party wins Sunday’s elections will be faced with a mountain of obligations. Tax revenues have plummeted and banks are under enormous pressure. Some inside Syriza like to believe they have a solution to every problem: Foreign lenders will give Greece ample time, the [European Central Bank] will provide unlimited liquidity to Greek banks …,” he says. “Or so they think. For if you attempt to cross-check the information you will find very little in the form of a convincing answer. It’s like they are divorced from reality.”

Tsipras’s response is typically stirring: “The struggle of our peoples for change is the struggle of common sense versus ideological fanaticism,” he says. “It is the struggle of dignity versus servitude,” he says.

But at the end of the day, somebody’s got to pay the bills.

No.  At the end of the day, one of the two forces at play here will blink…

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* 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

karikat__r_tan_oral

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“A Greek Politician Willing to Face the People”

27 Sep

An amazingly flattering article on Rena Dourou, MP of Syriza, from the Times:

DOUROU-superJumbo “People were amazed to see me. They had never met a politician. They were touching me, saying, ‘You are Rena Dourou?’” Credit Lynsey Addario for The New York Times (click: great pic and great Greek female face — not conventionally beautiful, but sexy in our sharp and edgy and smart and witty way.)

Not in a position to judge Syriza, Dourou’s slightly left of center party; people whose opinions I respect think the party’s leader, Alexis Tsipras (see Nicholas Gage’s assessment here and and my response here) is a not-to-be-taken-seriously posturer and brat; and the truth is he reminds me and others a little too much of a young Papandreou — and smells a little like too many Athens College graduates I know, though I don’t actually know where he went to high school.  But the portrait of Dourou is convincing enough.  Just the way she’s apparently dealt with the sexism of the Greek political establishment, at least, seems something to commend her for.

Money quotes:

Easy to mock as cheap and populist:

…for the time being, Ms. Dourou’s election as prefect, the rough equivalent of the governor of New York, represents the party’s biggest victory so far.

Petite and blond, Ms. Dourou ran an American-style campaign, going door to door, something most Greek politicians avoid out of fear of being assaulted by angry citizens. [My emphasis — only ’cause I thought it was really funny] On her office wall, she kept a map of the region with dozens of pins indicating where she had traveled. Few opinion polls correctly predicted her victory.

But she brought her handshakes and her motto — “if you feel you have the life you deserve, don’t do anything and vote for the same old people” — all over the city, even to areas considered bastions of the right-wing Golden Dawn party.

“I don’t know whether it got me any votes,” she said. “But people were amazed to see me. They had never met a politician. They were touching me, saying, ‘You are Rena Dourou?’ ”

And a perfect little detail with which you can paint the Greek political establishment’s level of professionalism, and Neo-Greek spoiled loser pettiness:

But for the time being, she remains an official with few allies in office and little experience. A few months after winning and before taking office, she sent a formal letter to her predecessor asking to be briefed on the “loose ends” and “current issues” in the region. In his response, he told her the information was on “corresponding websites.”

And this is the kind of stuff for which Syriza gets my ambivalent respect:

NONETHELESS, she has already made headlines for a public brawl with the central government over the future of thousands of municipal workers in her region. The central government wants to review their credentials and evaluate their performance. But Ms. Dourou sees this as a thinly veiled starting point for cutting workers and pleasing Greece’s creditors, and she is refusing to hand over their files.

Dealing with Neo-Greek male garden slugs:

STILL, politics in patriarchal Greece can be tough on women. Last year, the vice president of the government, Evangelos Venizelos, told a female member of Parliament that “she should be pregnant.”

As Ms. Dourou was campaigning for office, a former deputy prime minister from the socialist Pasok Party, Theodoros Pangalos, said in a radio interview that he could not stand seeing posters of Ms. Dourou’s “filthy face” all over Athens. He added that he would “like to see her campaign complete with a full-body picture of her with a bikini.”

Dunno…  We’ll have to see.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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