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.
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.
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 War.
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.
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 –
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.
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.”