Something huge has happened in Greece, though you wouldn’t know it if you rely on the US corporate media for your information.
That reporting has, with rare exceptions, followed the party line that a bunch of naive “leftists” led by Greece’s relatively young and new prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his motorcycle-riding radical economist finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, have pushed Greece “to the brink of chaos” through their ineptitude. This same biased reporting has been pushing the argument that Greece has “no choice” but to swallow even more austerity, selling off all its public assets to circling capitalist vultures, in the vain hope that someday the country’s economy will bottom out and begin “growing” again.
The reality of what has just happened is quite different. Actually, Greece has suffered seven years of austerity the likes of which countries like the US and northern Europe haven’t seen since the Great Depression. Unemployment is over 20% (50% for young people!), and there is no end in sight if the so-called Troika — the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank — continues to hold the country by the throat, demanding regular payments on a debt that even the IMF admits can never be repaid.
Far from being naive or inept, Tsipras, Varoufakis and the ruling Syriza Party have done two remarkable things brilliantly — one of which should not really be remarkable at all, except that the so-called “free world” has moved so far away from real democracy at this point that it’s forgotten what democracy is, and the other of which would not have been necessary were the global media not so fawning towards ruling elites in their respective countries.
The first of these two things was the bold decision by Tsipras to hand the question of what to do next in Greece to the Greek people, by allowing them to vote on whether they wanted to surrender to global and European bankers and the governments of the world’s wealthiest nations, or wanted to say “No!” to further demands for austerity. When Tsipras walked away from further bailout negotiations and made his surprise call for that referendum, and when the Greek parliament backed him by passing a bill setting the poll up, a cacophony of doomsaying pundits in Europe, the US and the Greek conservative media all warned the Greek people to “see reason” and to “vote for Europe,” as though voting against more austerity would inevitably mean pariah status for Greece.
There was a kind of smug gloating over early polls showing that a majority of Greeks planned to vote “Yes” to accepting whatever the banks and the European Union demanded, or later, when it appeared that the vote would be close.
In the end, of course, the Greek people voted by a landslide (61% to 38%) against European austerity demands that Tsipras labeled “blackmail” and “national humiliation,” and that Varoufakis called “fiscal waterboarding.” Tsipras was fully vindicated in his trust in democracy and in the people of his country, which he pointedly reminded had “invented democracy.”
Imagine for a moment what the US might be like if our leaders, instead of taking bribes — legal and illegal — from huge corporate interests and then voting for laws that favor those bribers, were to allow the American people to vote on the major issues of the day. Instead of handing over the nation’s health care lock, stock and barrel to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries as Obamacare has done, we’d by today have a program of Medicare for Americans of all ages, instead of just those over 65 or disabled, and it would be a well-funded Medicare! We’d have free public education through college. We’d have a Congress composed of people who earned no more than the people who elect them, and who would run for office without getting funded by corporations and the wealthy. The US military would also be out of Europe and Asia and most other parts of the world, and would probably be significantly reduced in size, too. These are all positions that polls show the majority of Americans have long supported, but sadly, the US has a government that really doesn’t give a damn what the American people want.
The second thing Tsipras, Varoufakis and Syriza did was talk honestly with the Greek people, instead of misleading them, talking down to them, and trying to manipulate them by turning to petty diversionary issues. Tsipras didn’t tell Greeks that if they voted “No” to more austerity they’d get a better bailout deal from Europe. He said that by voting “No,” Greeks had “proved that democracy cannot be blackmailed,” and that their “brave choice” would eventually “change the debate in Europe” over austerity.
One had to search long and hard to find any response to the stunning victory of the “No” vote by Tsipras in the US media. His opinion wasn’t in the New York Times, where the story was the page one lead. It wasn’t in the Bloomberg News report or in Reuters, either.
Now, the Greek story will get really interesting.
The US media, either through intent to confuse or out of ignorance, has cast the vote result as a Greek rejection of the European Union. This is nonsense. It is quite possible that the end result of the “No” vote will be a breakdown in negotiations over a further extension of credit to Greece, which would simply make the country’s ballooning debt, already well over $300 billion, even higher and more unrepayable. That in turn could lead to a decision by the Tsipras and the Syriza-led government to withdraw from the Euro, bringing back the old drachma as Greece’s currency. But there are a number of countries in the European Union that have never opted to surrender their local currency, notably Great Britain, which has obstinately stuck with the Pound Sterling.
And while quitting the Euro and printing its own currency, the drachma, which would be deeply devalued, could make life hard for Greeks for a time, particularly when it comes to buying imported goods, Greek goods would also instantly become highly competitive in world markets. Actually Greece is pretty well off when it comes to producing its own food, so people would not end up going hungry if they were priced out of the international food market. Meanwhile, in the one area where they might suffer — buying oil and gas — they are already receiving offers of help from Russia, which is happy to help pry Greece away from the NATO countries that are harassing its western borders. Russia has struck a deal for a pipeline through Greece, is offering its gas at a 15% discount to the world price, and probably will be coming through later — as may China also — with financial backing for the drachma, too.
When you think about it, all the paeans to globalization, and the scolding about protectionism, such as we’re now hearing in the US as Congress moves towards an almost inevitable passage of a horrific new mega-trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rest on a kind of faith-based “theory” that more trade is always good for both parties. American politicians and nearly all of the nation’s establishment economists take as a given that countries that close their borders to trade, or that set up tariff barriers to protect local industry and jobs, inevitably make things worse for their people. But this faith is belied by decades of experience to the contrary. Far more jobs have been lost in the US as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) than were ever created (and in Mexico, local farm economies were decimated as US agribusiness moved in to produce for export back to the US). Indeed, an argument can be made that the economic and especially income stagnation that the US has witnessed since the 1980s is a direct result of globalization, as countries have all raced to the bottom to try and win investment from global corporations that can keep moving their operations to the lowest-wage regions.
There is actually no reason why a country like the US, or even a small country like Greece, cannot basically operate as a discrete economy, producing for its own needs.
Imagine, if you will, a planet in which the entire population of the globe were 330 million (the US population today). If that population were fully employed, trained and educated and free to pursue its goals and dreams, we might expect it to thrive. Would things get better if suddenly another planet showed up in the galactic neighborhood and began orbiting the first one, so that the two planets could begin to trade? Maybe. Or maybe they’d just start making war on one another, with one eventually enslaving the other (if the first planet was the United States, that is almost certainly what would happen!).
If we look back at history, the US actually succeeded in industrializing not by tearing down tariff barriers, but by erecting them and keeping cheaper goods from Europe out so that fledgling local industries could grow.
The point is that countries thrive or don’t thrive not based upon whether they have free trade or protectionist policies, but on whether their governments act in the interests of the majority, or just of a small minority of the rich and powerful.
For the first time since Greek democracy was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup back in the mid-1960s, a Greek government is acting in the interests of that country’s people. That, as Tsipras has said, is in itself cause for celebration.
The challenge now will be to make sure the crony capitalist nations like Germany, Great Britain and especially the US, don’t respond to such a radical democratic development by subverting or overthrowing Greece’s government as they did before some half a century ago, or as they did to “excessively democratic” governments in Iran in 1953 or in Chile in 1973.