I expect you’ve probably heard that there’s been a bit of trouble in Athens recently. Hostile to the latest round of “austerity measures”, and in the midst a two-day general strike, thousands have taken to rioting; tear gas, smoke bombs and volleys of stun grenades being used by police to disperse the angry crowds gathered in Syntagma Square, outside the Greek parliament.
“Athens ablaze as Greece austerity riots continue into the night” ran one dramatic headline in The Telegraph:
“Greek police fired teargas and battled masked demonstrators as they attacked the finance ministry on Wednesday after lawmakers passed the first of two austerity bills demanded by international lenders.
“Smoke from flash bombs and teargas projectiles thrown by police to drive back the crowd filled the square outside parliament. One group of protesters attacked the nearby finance ministry on Syntagma Square, setting fire to a post office on the ground floor of the building.
“Another group tried to set fire to an office block housing a branch of one of Greece’s biggest banks while across the square, the luxury King George Hotel was evacuated.”1
In other words, the mad Greeks are throwing one of their hot-headed Mediterranean tantrums again. But, there’s another side to this story, which the mainstream news reports only occasionally touch on and almost never explore. It is the story of a people provoked, betrayed and sold out by all of their major political parties, and how, with no light at the end of the tunnel, this has sparked a rapidly strengthening and generally peaceful protest movement.
Not then a story of chaos and disarray, nor of disunity; but of defiance and courage and camaraderie in the face of shared adversity. This inside story was however wonderfully captured by Democracy Now! producers Aaron Maté and Hany Massoud in their honest and moving report from the streets of Athens on June 29th::
Mainstream opinion also has it that the Greek people somehow brought this debt crisis down on their own sorry heads, and that the latest response of the government parties and the IMF, desperate as it is, is the only available fix. Thus, the story presented to us appears as tragedy in the stricter sense, with the Greek people reaping the inevitable harvest of financial disaster which they themselves have helped to sow.
To those who believe in this version of events, the preferred solution depends upon forcing the Greeks to take their medicine before their domestic problems spread and infect us all. And mark my words, this crisis will spread, it will be coming to a country near you in the near future, and when it does arrive, it will most likely be called “the Greek Contagion”.
Yet this version of the Greek tragedy is also a fable, in which the forces of nature, in this case “the market”, provides our moral lesson, and it is fabulous too, in the more common sense that it is false. The Greeks did not cause their debt crisis, nor did the spread of its effects cause similar crises in Spain, Portugal, Ireland or anywhere else. The origin of the crisis has really nothing to do with Greece, and everything to do with Wall Street and the City of London.
Meanwhile, the medicine being offered is actually nothing of the kind, and is inevitably worsening the patient’s condition. Which is not my opinion, but the opinion of Mark Weisbrot, an economist and the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who explained on Democracy Now! how the “austerity measures” that merely serve the interests of the creditors are “making the economy worse”. Whilst according to Weisbrot, most economists and “the markets” also believe that a Greek default is inevitable in any case:
“Well the vote [for the latest “bail-out” and contingent “austerity package”] may pass, but it’s not going to be the end of this struggle at all because as you can say, the people in the streets are really the constraint. The creditors are trying to squeeze as much as they can out of Greece, and they’re making the economy worse. There’s hardly any disagreement among economists about that. That this package if it passes will make things worse.
They’ve already laid-off 10% of the government work force and now this package will call for another 20% of the labor force, the federal labor force, to be laid off and another 12% of GDP over the next three years in budget cuts, which would be like $1.70 trillion in the U.S., budget cuts and tax increases. So this is going to worsen the recession unless some totally unforeseen events were to happen. There is going to be a default. That’s the opinion of the markets and most economists and the question is, what’s it going to be like? When are they going to stop punishing Greece and allow the economy to grow and employment to return? That’s the big questions.”
Click here to read the full transcript.
1 From an article entitled “Athens ablaze as Greece austerity riots continue into the night: Violent clashes in Athens continue overnight with teargas and smoke from blazing fires filling the city centre”, published in The Telegraph on Thursday 30th June. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/greece/8607622/Athens-ablaze-as-Greece-austerity-riots-continue-into-the-night.html