One of the most depressing things about the grotesque and brutal fraud known as ‘austerity’ has been the ability of its proponents to convince so many people to accept its basic assumptions. Once you begin to believe in There Is No Alternative (TINA), so many things that might otherwise have seemed cruel, immoral, sadistic, corrupt, and inhuman begin to seem logical and inevitable.
In the kingdom of TINA it appears totally normal that people in Spain who were once encouraged by banks to take out mortgages that were only barely within their reach in better times should be put on the street as a result of the crisis; that Greek pensioners should be rooting around in dustbins for their next meal; that millions of young people across the continent cannot find work and millions of unemployed men and women in their fifties will never work again; that those in work have their salaries cut back till they find themselves in poverty; that thousands of men and women in Britain should be dependent on handouts from food banks.
Once you enter TINA you don’t really question these things, because you are expected to leave your conscience at the altar of the bleak and arid economic rationalism that insists that all this was necessary. The most you are expected to do is shake your head at the endless misery that has been inflicted on so many people who didn’t deserve it, but you are also expected to accept that all of this was necessary.
Because the politicians and the newspapers and television and the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are all agreed that There Is No Alternative if there is to be growth and prosperity again, if the Eurozone is to be saved, if capitalism is to be made well again.
Some of them talk about sacrifices and hard work, and tell us we are all working together towards the same goal. They promise us that our efforts will be rewarded, but even when those rewards don’t come, or come too late to save the people whose lives and futures have already been destroyed, or when they only seem to go to those who are already wealthy and have never felt any pain at all, we are constantly reminded that There Is No Alternative.
In this way the system corrupts so many people. It convinces its victims that they should accept their victimhood and their servitude. It convinces those who are not victims to blame or despise those who are. It convinces us that Greeks and Spaniards are lazy and wanted something for nothing, that it was their quaint southern European customs that have brought them into debt. It convinces us that that debt must be repaid, even if entire societies are ripped to shreds in the process, even when fascism once again begins to cast its shadow across the European Promised Land. It convinces us that the poor are feckless and must be punished for their fecklessness, that cruelty is kindness, that amorality is moral.
When immigrants drown by the hundreds in the Mediterranean we are taught that in a way it’s their fault too, because they should not have come to take resources that were needed for ‘our own people’ in a time of austerity. We believe this to the point when few people even question the British government’s decision not to participate in search-and-rescue operations because it says that such efforts will only encourage more people to come.
Such indifference is essential to There Is No Alternative. And now Greece has kicked open the door and provided us with a glimpse of another possibility that we were not expected to think about, and which the powers-that-be had clearly not expected, and the joyous faces in Athens last night are a testament to the revitalized political aspirations that have burst from under the moral ruins of the past five years, and which now offer at least the possibility of a different kind of Greece and a different kind of Europe.
Of course I know that it could all go wrong – though people who utter such warnings should remember that for millions of Greeks things couldn’t have got much worse than they were already. Syriza has an enormous task on its hands, its enemies are powerful and determined to restore TINA’s dominance.
But for now I congratulate the Greek people for taking this giant leap into the unknown and voting in the first government in Europe with an explicitly anti-austerity agenda. I wish them well, and I hope that what they have done will encourage other countries to leave the dismal world of TINA and remember not just what it was like to be radical, but what it was like to be human before we were taught to act and feel like heartless automatons.