‘Resolving’ the Greek Crisis
By Costas Panayotakis
February 7, 2013 Source: NYTX
Some people never learn (or at least they pretend not to). Edward P. Joseph and Anna Triandafyllidou’s ‘Resolve the Real Greek Crisis’ is the latest attempt to attribute Greece’s ongoing economic and social catastrophe to the supposedly pervasive corruption of Greek society. (i) This was the narrative that was used in the early stages of the Greek crisis to justify the brutal austerity program that has been destroying the country for the last three years. This narrative has been pervasive, not just among the European political and economic elites that imposed the program on Greece or among mainstream media outlets, such as The New York Times. It was also used by the political elites in Greece that became willing accomplices to a crime that they themselves helped to bring about through the wrong-headed economic and social policies that made Greece especially vulnerable to the global capitalist crisis that erupted about 5 years ago.
That this is a convenient argument to the political (and economic) elites misruling Greece for the last few decades is obvious. When everybody is to blame, the people most responsible for Greece’s current state are left off the hook. That Joseph and Triandafyllidou contribute to such an outcome is illustrated by their diagnosis that
Greece has been plagued by the paralysis of collective responsibility: “So maybe I didn’t pay my taxes, but who did?”
Playing into the false notion that nobody pays taxes in Greece, this line of reasoning conceals the class dimension of tax evasion and legally sanctioned tax exceptions. Greeks are not paralyzed because they realize that none of them paid their taxes. Instead, Greece is increasingly divided between the less affluent majority that has paid all their taxes for decades and the affluent minority that has never done so in the past and that uses all its wealth and influence to ensure that it will never have to do so in the future either. And, by contrast to Joseph and Triandafyllidou’s critique of the leader of Greece’s anti-austerity Syriza party for a narrow message that supposedly does not embrace the reforms that Greece needs, Greece’s economic oligarchy is using the Greek media it controls to discredit Syriza, precisely because it fears that a Syriza government’s reforms might endanger the continuation of their privileges.
In addition to justifying the devastation of the lives of ordinary Greeks by suggesting that they brought the crisis upon themselves, Joseph and Triandafyllidou completely gloss over the systemic aspects of the eurozone crisis, which have been revealed ever since the crisis spread throughout the European periphery. Even when they mention the relationship between the Greek and European crises, they do so in a very misleading way, suggesting that “the impasse over Greece … serves as a brake on Europe’s recovery.” Are we seriously expected to believe that the corrupt Greeks are responsible not only for their own plight but for that of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, France and Cyprus as well as for the fact that unemployment rates in the eurozone have reached record levels?
The opposite is, in fact, the case. Rather than Greece holding Europe back, it is Europe that is devastating Greece and the European South by dispensing the poisonous austerity medicine that, as even the International Monetary Fund recently admitted, badly underestimated the contractionary effects of steep cuts in government spending. This disastrous outcome was not a surprise to anyone even vaguely familiar with the past record of IMF programs. As far as Greek political forces are concerned, it was primarily the Greek left, including Syriza, which very early on warned about the disastrous economic and social effects that the austerity program adopted in 2010 was going to produce. It is because of this that Syriza has opposed austerity and it is because of this that, in the last few months, it has seen its electoral support soar.
Of course, it remains to be seen how effective in negotiating with the Europeans a Syriza government would be. What is clear, however, is that the current ruling coalition in Greece has no interest in fulfilling the promise that allowed it to win the election last June, namely the promise to renegotiate and modify the austerity program adopted in 2010. Instead of using the systemic risk that a Greek default would pose for the eurozone as a bargaining chip in its negotiation with the Europeans, the ruling coalition is trying to terrorize Greeks into submission by warning that all hell will break loose, if the Europeans kick Greece out of the eurozone. To negotiate with the Europeans as equals, Greeks have to overcome this fear. As long as they don’t, their country’s downward spiral will continue unabated. And there is nothing in Joseph and Triandafyllidou’s appeal to vague reforms that will stop this downward spiral – hence the need that Joseph and Triandafyllidou feel to reassure us that “[s]mall changes, for example simplifying regulations and putting more information on legislation on the Internet can have a big effect.”
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 (Pluto Press).
(i) Edward P. Joseph and Anna Triandafyllidou, ‘Resolve the Real Greek Crisis,’ The New York Times, February 5, 2013.