Greece on Fire as Debt Crisis Ignites Eurozone

Michelle Chen

Greek riot policemen pass by burning garbage during an anti-austerity demonstration in the center of Athens on May 6, 2010.

Greece is unraveling. Massive strikes, clashes with police, and more turmoil are on the horizon as the European Union imposes a draconian austerity budget.” Is it any wonder why Kanellos, the Greek protest dog, has been getting so much press? To outside spectators, the scrappy flaxen-haired mongrel symbolizes the more palatable side of Greece’s signature passion for protest. But the other symbol of unrest reported last week—three bank workers killed in a bombing incident—reveals a new lethal turn in the Greek debt crisis.

The International Trade Union Confederation and the European Trade Union Confederation has denounced the incident as a sickening atrocity, which is the antithesis of legitimate protest”:

We trust that those responsible for this and the other acts of appalling violence yesterday will be brought to justice without delay,” said Guy Ryder and John Monks, general secretaries of the international and European trade union bodies.

The Greek national trade union centre, GSEE, has also condemned the the fires, blind violence and vandalism” which took place, and deplored the fact that the tragic events overshadowed the largest demonstration in Greece in over 50 years.

On Occupied London, an insider reflects on the movement’s disarray:

On May the 5th the explosion of ideology that has plagued radical circles for some time now reached its tragic apex: 3 dead bank workers. With few honourable exceptions, in the next days knee-jerk reactions to the deaths consisted of blaming the police, the bosses, or even more abstractly Capital and the State for the carnage. Among these accusatory rituals, the lack of self-criticism is deafening. If the great silence were merely the result of some sort of existential numbness, it would be purely proof of the radicals’ inability to cope with the inevitable. Yet this silence is structural. It is an organisational component of the degeneration of the radical movement into a cult with its own oaths of secrecy, its own rules of speaking the truth, and of course its own precious totems and taboos.

As radicals wrestle with the ethics of mass protest, EU policymakers breed still more rancor as they scramble haphazardly to plug deep cracks in the European, and global, financial infrastructure.

There’s no shortage of things to blame for Greece’s dilemma: skeevy speculators, a tax-evading shadow economy,” systemic corruption, a headlong rush into European integration. Whoever you want to blame, you can be sure that the people suffering most in the streets of Athens have never controlled the decisions that drove them into crisis.

In an announcement about actions planned for Wednesday, the GSEE vowed to keep up opposition to the package of unjust and harsh measures” and argued,“The crisis should be paid [for] by… all those who looted public finances.”

The opposition isn’t registering with EU governments anxious to ward off contagion” from their Mediterranean cousin. Facing EU pressure and domestic backlash, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has finally dropped opposition to a hefty EU-IMF rescue fund for Greece and other shaky economies. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister George Papandreou and the Labour Ministry are shoving through pension cutbacks in a flailing attempt to curb government spending.

The real Greek tragedy, writes Andre Gerolymatos in the Vancouver Sun, is the unfortunate overlap between an incompetent state and a myopic Eurozone agenda.

Greek politicians are notorious for being corrupt, greedy, and incompetent. Regardless of party or ideology, most have gorged themselves at the expense of the country’s economic well-being.

However, they were not alone; their German counterparts guided them down the path to perdition. The unwritten practice of European Union officials looking the other way over doubtful state numbers provided by Greece and other countries during the creation of the eurozone is still symptomatic of deeper problems in the dream of a united Europe that is quickly turning into a nightmare.

The underlying culprit isn’t a profilgate civil service, however. Gerolymatos argues that Greece’s fiscal doomsday is the product of excessive military spending, which, ironically, has larded the industries of the same EU partners who are now stitching up Greece’s fiscal straitjacket.

As long as they were buying German and French military hardware, automobiles, fridges, stoves and a host of other products they could not afford, Berlin and Paris did not ask too many questions.

Why should they have? With their ballooning debts, the smaller EU countries effectively were underwriting the economic prosperity of Germany and France. The underpaid Greek, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Irish workers have made it possible for the German civil servant to retire at 65 with a pension that completely overshadows that of his or her Greek counterpart.

The Eurozone’s bitter medicine, in other words, is laced with a fundamental inequity: the austerity measures threaten to decimate the public sector in order to buoy the haywire financial system that drove the crisis. It’s a double-blow for a civil service undermined by shortsighted economic planning, patronage, and the failure of the private sector to provide adequate incomes. All this in the name of aiding” a fellow EU member state that needs real economic cooperation more than perhaps any other.

Yet the huge bailout plan could end up perpetuating Greece’s economic crisis and might not even prevent it from spilling over to its neighbors. Indeed, the harsh response to the Greek crisis smacks of the restructuring policies that international financial institutions have historically imposed on developing countries. Now it’s not just the Global South that has to contend with a neocolonial ideology.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz reflects on the toll sovereign debt is taking on Greek society:

The social and economic consequences of the current arrangements should be unacceptable. Those countries whose deficits have soared as a result of the global recession should not be forced into a death spiral – as Argentina was a decade ago. 

The way out, Stiglitz argues, is not a unilateral bailout but wholesale fiscal reform across the Eurozone, including the necessary fiscal framework, that should have been made when the euro was launched.”:

It is not too late for Europe to implement these reforms and thus live up to the ideals, based on solidarity, that underlay the euro’s creation. But if Europe cannot do so, then perhaps it is better to admit failure and move on than to extract a high price in unemployment and human suffering in the name of a flawed economic model.

According to Anne Applebaum at Slate, the rescue may be more about geopolitical symbolism than actually helping a troubled member state:

Though no one is saying so, this visible imposition of EU power on Greece will also serve as a warning to others who want to enter the Eurozone in future. Yes, if you play by the rules, being part of Europe means being part of the world’s largest and most prosperous economy. But if you don’t play by the rules, you risk coming under foreign financial occupation. We might not yet have a name for this phenomenon — neo-Euro-colonialism? — but, without anyone noticing, it has arrived.

The horror that played out in last week’s protests was perhaps a predictable outcome in a country where workers are are rapidly losing control over their livelihoods, political leverage, and even national sovereignty. From across the Atlantic, we might take comfort in watching the indefatigable Kanellos carry the banner for Greece’s robust tradition of protest. But as those grassroots voices are relegated to the outer margins the global economy, the Greek workforce seems to be marching straight into Europe’s newest debtor’s prison.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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