The Greek referendum is about democracy, not just economics

Upon hearing the debt crisis in Greece, it could be easy to urge the Greeks to grin and bear the imposed austerity and pay their debts. However, as Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis (with agreement from the IMF) has pointed out, this is frankly impossible, the debt must be at least ‘restructured’ as the IMF put it.

Athens street graffiti
Athens street graffiti

Others might suggest a cost-benefit economic analysis of staying could be appropriate but this referendum is about more than that. It is about the sovereignty and defiance of the Greek people in the face of international organisations which have attempted to turn the country into a ‘debt colony’ as Channel 4’s Paul Mason has described it. In January, after years of austerity and subsequent bailout deals (which include austerity as a proviso), the Greek people had had enough. The Leftist Syriza party was elected and went into coalition with ANEL party on an anti-austerity platform.

Tsipras reminds the troika that Greek suffering is not a game and the Greek people cannot simply be played.
Tsipras reminds the troika that Greek suffering is not a game and the Greek people cannot simply be played.

Since February, Varoufakis and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras have been involved in negotiations with the IMF, the European Commission and the European Bank as well as leaders of EU countries, in search of a bailout package. This package Varoufakis has insisted, must not contain the ‘rat poison’ of austerity which has landed Greece in mountains of debt in the first place yet extensive austerity remains the main proviso to guarantee debt cancellation. Tsipras announced a referendum on the June 25th austerity/bailout offer with significant support on social media from across the world after what has been widely interpreted as an attempt at regime change by the IMF, European Bank and the European Commission.

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel-prize winning economist in a recent article in The Guardian also suggests that the debt dispute between Greece and the ‘troika’ (IMF, European Commission and European Bank) is about ‘power and democracy much more than money and economics’. He argues the austerity measures which have been implemented are deliberately designed to the depress the economy, measures which will continue if the Greeks vote Yes in the upcoming referendum. Unlike British austerity, Greek austerity has been externally imposed and is substantially deeper and more severe. In a recent talk I attended at my university, the University of York, Amartya Sen (another Nobel-prize winning economist) set forth a case against austerity which was echoed in an long-read in The New Statesmen. Sen drew on the empirical cases of Britain in the post-war era and Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s to demonstrate that rapid economic growth, rather than deflationary austerity is in fact the best way to reduce budget deficits. Furthermore, he recognized the similarity between the current situation in Greece and the situation in Germany after the signing of the Treaty of Versailes in 1919. Sen drew on John Maynard Keynes’s criticism of Europe at the time as a place ‘torn by internal strife and international hate, fighting, starving, pillaging, and lying’ and stressed the resemblance of 1919 to 2015. This comparison serves as a clear warning when considering that the ‘legitimate grievances’ from the Treaty of Versailles were largely responsible for the rise of the Nazis and the outbreak of World War 2, an idea which is the central thesis of the A.J.P Taylor’s seminal work, The Origins of the Second World WarIMG_1681

The devastating extent of the austerity which has been imposed by the troika on Greece is obvious to people such as myself, who recently visited Athens and was left shocked at the poverty and deprivation in the nation’s capital. Homelessness was rampant, particularly among the disabled and the enormous 60% youth unemployment rate has left the country’s younger generation emigrating in droves. Even our guide around the city was recently made unemployed, despite holding multiple degrees from well-established institutions and demonstrating himself to be extremely skilled. Nonetheless, in Athens there was also a remarkable defiance against austerity which was depicted throughout Athens in graffiti form, particularly from the vibrant Leftist, anti-fascist and anarchist movements.

A theatre which was left unfunded by the Ministry of Culture was taken over by an anarchist collective
Embros theatre was left unfunded by the Ministry of Culture and was taken over by anarchists in 2011 for the enjoyment of the community

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There was also a significant amount of resistance against the Neo-Nazi party, The Golden Dawn, who have sought to capitalize on the anger of the Greek people radicalised by austerity. This was also portrayed through Athens’s street art –

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Golden Dawn supporters give Nazi salutes
Golden Dawn supporters giving Nazi salutes

Not unlike the Hitler’s brownshirts, the Golden Dawn has sought to harness support on the back of a perceived international conspiracy against their country. When they are not touring neighborhoods handing out food to people deemed ‘racially pure’, they are literally pulling immigrants out of hospital beds and kicking them onto the streets. Their violence on the streets of Greece has earned them the status as a criminal organization and many of the leaders have been prosecuted in recent years. The eerily resemblance to that of Hitler and his brownshirts is obvious, both use violence to attack political opponents and to scapegoat ethnic minorities. Even Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros described Hitler as a ‘great personality’ on Australian TV. However, during my time in Athens, an anti-fascist demonstration took place in the city centre, brave protesters defied the politics of hate and violence which caused so much death and destruction in the last century. Nonetheless, Sen’s comparison of Greece to Germany is an apt warning against externally imposed austerity which can only be interpreted as economic failure and an attack on democracy.

Anti-fascist protest poster
Anti-fascist protest poster

Thus, I must echo Stiglitz’s words –

“a no vote would at least open the possibility that Greece, with its strong democratic tradition, might grasp its destiny in its own hands. Greeks might gain the opportunity to shape a future that, though perhaps not as prosperous as the past, is far more hopeful than the unconscionable torture of the present.

I know how I would vote.”

Varoufakis unveils radical new concept in the face of troika blackmail - 'democracy'
Varoufakis unveils radical new concept in the face of troika blackmail – ‘democracy’.
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Ken Clarke is right, it’s not surprising the public are switched off by elections

As the UK 2015 General Election approaches, we are barraged with a set of candidates who, as always, ‘preen and smile and bring forth a shower of clichés with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry’, as the late Howard Zinn once commented. The unpopularity of such candidates has been reflected in voter turnouts in Britain, which have been on whole decreasing: less than two thirds of the electorate voted in 2010 yet that was the highest turnout in a general election of the 21st century so far. There is also an undeniable correlation across the country in recent years between low voter turnout and poverty. The party most harmed by this was Labour, Blair’s centrist coup in 1997 and the consequent 13 years of ‘Third Way’ politics caused Labour to lose 5 million working class voters and forced members to leave in droves. In the 2010 Labour received the lowest share of the popular vote since 1918 and Scottish Labour in 2015 has been described as being ‘in meltdown’.

One of the overall reasons for this is because people are totally disillusioned by the political system, elections are fought less and less over issues which matter to people and more and more over the personality of the leader. Even at the heart of the Establishment, we had Ken Clarke, Tory cabinet minister for Thatcher, Major and Cameron commenting in The New Statesman

‘The public debate and the media, which is becoming increasingly celebrity culture, rather hysterical, sensational, and reduces the whole thing to theatre. Everybody’s election campaigns are presidential, everything’s attributed to the party leader. What matters is how the party leader eats a hamburger and all this type of thing. I mean, it does switch the public off.’

Clarke’s analysis seems on point, elections more than ever are based on the style and the personality of the party leader. David Cameron was recently filmed by The Sun, most of the footage concentrated on the Camerons having their breakfast at No.10 while trying their hardest to appear like normal people. Similarly, The Daily Mail interviewed Samantha Cameron for a personal insight into their family life, another clear attempt to humanize and normalise the Camerons. This ‘celebrity culture’ which has pervaded into the election campaigns is a symptom of our broken political system which breeds this ‘theatre’ kind of debate.

Paul Krugman touches on the economic aspect of this ‘theatre’ in his article in the New York Times where he refers to the ‘misleading fixation of budget deficits’, both Labour and the Conservatives have accused one another of making ‘irresponsible’ funding promises. Moreover, over the last five years the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and much of the media have lectured us on the necessities of cuts while borrowing went up and the economy almost slumped into a triple-dip recession.

This is the dominant narrative Krugman was referring to –

“In the years before the financial crisis, the British government borrowed irresponsibly, so that the country was living far beyond its means. As a result, by 2010 Britain was at imminent risk of a Greek-style crisis; austerity policies, slashing spending in particular, were essential. And this turn to austerity is vindicated by Britain’s low borrowing costs, coupled with the fact that the economy, after several rough years, is now growing quite quickly.”

Tories to match labour spendingBut this is simply not true. In 2007, George Osbourne said he would match Labour’s spending over the next three years, despite the fact that now he claims Labour overspent. Britain was nowhere near the so-called ‘Greek style-crisis’ and no other economy which borrows in its own currency was liable to such a crisis. Furthermore, the only reason the economy has now tenuously recovered is because Cameron held off reams of planned spending cuts. As Krugman points out-

‘if this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it will feel great when you stop’.Tories to match labour spending 2

While unemployment is decreasing, the jobs the coalition congratulates itself on creating amount to low-wage, low-skilled jobs and zero hours contracts. The ‘recovery’ narrative ignores the fact the coalition presided over the biggest decrease in average living standards for over 100 years. Meanwhile, the extremely rich, the so-called ‘wealth creators’, have benefited significantly and even received nonsensical tax cuts.

Unsurprisingly, this inequality comes at a price, The Telegraph and The Guardian reported that the life expectancy in Britain’s poorest areas is worse than Rwanda and on par with Botswana. This reality is completely ignored by the established narrative: ‘the recovering is working’, ‘we’re cutting the deficit’. A government could both cut the debt and improve living standards, they do not have to be mutually exclusive. Considering the money spent on benefits for people who’re in poverty-paying jobs, surely making employers pay the living wage saves the Exchequer money and stops the public subsidising low-wage labour?

It’s clear this pervasive narrative has also been a distraction from the privatisation of the National Health Service which the coalition have successfully downplayed by referring to it as ‘reform’ or ‘reorganisation’. The Health and Social Care act of 2012 has allowed companies to bid for NHS contracts, the biggest of which in March 2013… was worth up to £780 million’. According to RT News, it ‘will see 11 private firms perform heart and joint surgery, carry out scans and provide diagnostic tests for patients from mobile medical facilities’. Among the companies engaged in bidding for contracts is Lockheed Martin, an arms producer. To add further salt to the wound, this has been carried out while cuts are taking place to public-run facilities. While there has been a lot of rhetoric from Labour on the NHS, the reality is that Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) implemented by New Labour also privatised large chunks of it under the guise of a ‘public-private partnership’. The public, perhaps quite rightly, doesn’t know who to trust. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the US provides us with the perfect example of an expensive, inefficient and sub-standard health system run for private profit. In the States, those who can’t afford insurance can only receive treatment if they stay in Accident and Emergency, often for days on end, their family therefore is forced to stay with them to bring them food and care for them. Our politicians continue to push us further in that direction and away from most countries in the developed world.

Despite the important issues at stake, the childish squabbles refuse to cease, so you would be forgiven by me for thinking that it’s all just theatre.