The other day I overheard two locals where I live talking politics. Their views were not very enlightened, insightful or informed. On the contrary, the fragments of their conversation that I picked up sounded like a collage of Daily Mail articles or the Ukip manifesto; the migrants at Calais where ‘economic migrants’ – a term that was clearly pejorative in the minds of both men. Even if they weren’t, ‘we can’t look after them all’, complained one of these upstanding citizens bitterly, as if ‘we’ had ever been trying to do any such thing.
The conversation also turned to Greece, which ‘should never have been allowed to join the Euro’, according to one of these pundits. The only reason it had joined, was because of ‘some bureaucrats in Brussels’ and the result was ‘a mess.’ Nowhere in this dismal conversation did I hear the slightest expression of sympathy for the awful devastation which the ‘troika’ have inflicted on Greece these last few years.
There was only the same old stereotype of lazy southern Europeans, whose fecklessness was supposedly compounded by the ‘bureaucrats in Brussels.’ Just an everyday exchange of prejudices and received ideas between two smalltown bigots, you might think, were it not for the fact that this tendency to blame the marginalised, the vulnerable and the victims of economic policies enacted by the powerful is such a depressingly ubiquitous component of the great contrick we call austerity, which large swathes of the British public have swallowed without any difficulty at all.
We can expect to hear similarly reactionary bigoted views expressed again and again as the referendum campaign on the EU gets underway next year, and Ukip and the Tory hard right attempt to transform withdrawal from Europe into a national cause célèbre and a litmus test of national sovereignty. Normally I tend to recoil in disgust when I hear such attitudes, which only confirm what a stagnant political and moral backwater this country has become, and they tend to make me want to cleave more strongly to a European identity that I feel far more comfortable with than British or English.
But Greece is another matter. Tomorrow millions of Greeks will vote on a very different referendum, to decide whether or not to accept the last package presented to the Syriza government by the ECB/European Commission/ IMF troika. It is not, contrary to the way it is sometimes presented, a referendum on whether Greece should remain part of the European Union, but – however indirectly – on whether Greece should remain part of the eurozone.
This follows more than five years of relentless enforced financial cruelty that has crippled Greek society and destroyed the lives of millions of people who had nothing to do with the financial crisis. It has been the most callous, ruthless and merciless destruction of a society outside a war situation that I have seen in my lifetime. All Europe’s political institutions and member’states have been complicit in this process, even if some have been more complicit in others.
Watching this tragedy unfold, I have asked myself again and again if Europe’s ruling elites are stupid, blinkered or simply powerless, in their blatant disregard for the nobler aspirations of the the Union’s founding fathers, and their determination to make ordinary Greeks pay the price for the corruption and incompetence of their ruling classes.
It is now clear that Greece is merely the most visible evidence of how deeply committed Europe’s rulers have become to the most voracious and destructive capitalism in its neo-liberal variant – a commitment that is clearly far more significant for them than any meaningful notion of pan-European solidarity.
Since Syriza’s election victory, Alex Tsipras’s government has bent over backwards in an attempt to forge some kind of compromise with its creditors, so much so that it has risked alienating its own supporters and voters. The troika has not budged one iota. Instead it has behaved like a payday loanshark, in its determination to squeeze money from a country that simply doesn’t have it, regardless of the cost.
This week documents from an internal report compiled by Greece’s own lenders suggest that the Greek debt will still be unsustainable even if Greece does everything that it is being asked of it. Yet still the troika is attempting to force Syriza to accept the same kind of privatisations and trade union ‘reforms’ that were once imposed on Iraq – during a military occupation.
Now Greece’s creditors have embarked on their own form of ‘regime change’ without the use of armed force. They have called Tsipras’s bluff and publicly stated that they want Syriza to fall so that they can replace it with a technocratic governmentthat will do what they want. They have demonstrated that they don’t want compromise. They want unconditional surrender and the total humiliation of Syriza pour encourager les autres and prevent the possibility of any similar resistance elsewhere.
So rather than seek agreement with Tsipras, they have allowed Greece to go to the wall in order to make Greece an offer it cannot refuse. But Greece can refuse. It can say no. It can leave the euro and begin printing its own currency, because as painful as that will process will be, it is difficult to imagine that it will be any more painful than the future that is already being planned if Greece remains in the eurozone.
If Greece says no, it will at least have the opportunity to reset its own destiny on its own terms, rather than those of international financial institutions. It will encourage other countries to do the same. If such resistance does take place, it would be a serious blow to the swaggering loanshark that is now lording it over Greece, and might even open the possibility of a different kind of Europe.
Because one thing is clear, that even if the troika ‘wins’ tomorrow and gets a yes vote, the notion of the European Union is a brake against the worst excesses of global capitalism and a model of social solidarity is dying, and may already be dead, as a result of its vicious war on immigration and the brutal imperatives of disaster capitalism that are being forced even on its own members.