The power of ‘no’

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In Syntagma Square on Monday night, thousands of people gathered to say ‘no’ to the deal on offer from creditors on 5 July. It was noisy, but, as some commentators point out, unlike similar scale protests of 2011 and 2012, there was no violence. I imagine this is due in part to the marked absence of riot police – when I was here in November you would see them by the bus load with their riot shields and tear gas canisters on normal day.

That’s an important factor about the past five years of austerity in Greece – not only has it had devastating effects, it was implemented with a great deal of force. Four articles I’ve read over the last few days, for me, go some way towards explaining not only the strength of opposition to austerity, but also attitudes to the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. While a ‘no’ vote does not of itself represent a desire to leave Europe – Syriza’s mandate was to end austerity and stay in the Union – it reveals the chasm has opened up between those institutions and Greek democracy.

The economic impact of the policies the three institutions “foisted” on Greece five years ago, has been “abysmal” writes Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University.

I can think of no depression, ever, that has been so deliberate and had such catastrophic consequences: Greece’s rate of youth unemployment, for
example, now exceeds 60%.

He then adds what many Greeks have believed all along, that the ongoing debt dispute is not about the money and economics, it’s about power and democracy and using “deadlines” to force Greece to accept not only austerity measures, but other regressive and punitive policies. The aim is also to destroy Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s government if it continues to oppose it, Stiglitz claims:

After all, it is extremely inconvenient to have in Greece a government that is so opposed to the types of policies that have done so much to increase inequality in so many advanced countries, and that is so committed to curbing the unbridled power of wealth. They seem to believe that they can eventually bring down the Greek government by bullying it into accepting an agreement that contravenes its mandate.

Zoe Williams, writing in the Guardian, also sums up attitudes towards the troika that the Greeks have long held, arguing that that its stance towards Greece amounts to a “moral crusade” also believes that Sunday, the day of the referendum, will be the day that “unstoppable democracy meets immovable supra-democracy” but that from the point of view of the Eurogroup “the Greek people can vote any way they like – but what they want, they cannot have.”

Williams also believes that the failure to reach an agreement is the result of the troika protecting its own interests:

The Greeks have to be humiliated, because the alternative – of treating them as equal parties or “adults”, as Lagarde wished them to be – would lead to a debate about the Eurogroup: what its foundations are, what accountability would look like, and what its democratic levers are – if indeed it has any.

In his Guardian piece, Paul Mason says that the troika’s position “had always been to split Syriza, forcing Tsipras and his own moderates into a coalition government with the centre parties.

It was not until 4 June that Tsipras became convinced that his original strategy – to go on paying the lenders while negotiating the fine detail of an accord that never seemed to come – was fruitless. It was at this point that the forces in Syriza realigned leftwards and the strategy of the troika…was in tatters.

Mason also spoke to Antonis Vradis, a geographer at Durham University who has studied the impact of unrest in Greece since 2008, the youth networks have been preparing for this week’s “rupture” with the ECB:

They are creating structures you can’t default on. Self-organised clinics, the social centres you see all around you. Structures that will help them survive.

But five years of troika-imposed austerity is also changing the position of Greeks like Alex Andreou who is, he says, “a Europhile” and “a product of the Union” Andreou describes an encounter with a “well-dressed and immaculately groomed elderly lady” called Magda who asked him for money because she was hungry. Over dinner she told him how she had worked as a teacher all her life. Her husband, who had died a number of years ago, had been a college professor:

They paid their tax, national insurance and pension contributions straight out of the salary, like most people. They never cheated the state. They never took risks. They saved. They lived modestly in a two bedroom flat.

In the first year of the crisis her widow’s pension top-up stopped. In the second and third her own pension was slashed in half. Downsizing was not an option – house prices had collapsed and there were no buyers. In the third year things got worse. “First, I sold my jewellery. Except this ring”, she said, stroking her wedding ring with her thumb. “Then, I sold the pictures and rugs. Then the good crockery and silver. Then most of the furniture. Now there is nothing left that anyone wants. Last month the super came and removed the radiators from my flat, because I hadn’t paid for communal fuel in so long. I feel so ashamed.

The encounter was the beginning of the end of Andreou’s love affair with the European project, he says.

Because, quite simply, it is no longer my European Union. It is Amazon’s and Starbucks’. It is the politicians’ and the IMF’s. But it is not mine.

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