R.I.P Europe

I’ve just come back from a week’s hiking in the Pyrenees. When I left for the mountains I knew that the European Union was in poor health.  By the time I came down four days later it was dead.  The cause of death is open to question.   Was it a deliberate act of collective suicide?  Or an accidental death, inadvertently carried out by a cruel, fanatical and clueless leadership that was simply too blinkered, too stupid, and too abjectly submissive to the financial institutions that have inflicted such catastrophic ruin on so many countries to keep the Union alive?

Was it homicide-by-banker?  Or did the Union finally succumb to a long illness, whose symptoms have been evident for some time?   Whichever the verdict, the Greek crisis is the catalyst that historians will one day analyse in their future post mortems.  But I can’t say I saw this coming.  On the contrary, the resounding Greek rejection of the Troika’s latest bailout package left me feeling moderately optimistic that the Oxi vote might galvanize Syriza and the European left in general to oppose the vicious fanaticism of Greece’s creditors and the malignant con trick called austerity.

If that happened, I naively thought, perhaps it might be possible to salvage the best of Europe from the corporate–bureaucratic-financial monster that it has become. Of course the surprising decision to force Yanis Varoufakis’s resignation should have been a warning sign of Syriza’s intentions, but there was no time to take in its significance before I disappeared into the mountains.

So the news of Syriza’s total capitulation to the Troika when I came back came as a real shock.   I assumed that Varoufakis’s resignation was an – admittedly poor – negotiating ploy.  I didn’t anticipate that after these painful and insane last few months, Tsipras would simply surrender everything and more without even a fight.   Why did he even call a referendum if he wasn’t prepared to use it to wring, at the very least, some serious concessions during the negotiations?

I now realize, as Syriza has done,  that Greece’s creditors had no interest in negotiations. They wanted only the total surrender, humiliation and subjugation of the Greeks and their government.  They wanted to crush Syriza in order to deliver a wider lesson any other movement with a similar programme.  They wanted to use the Greek debt to turn Greece into yet another neoliberal social laboratory.    Disregarding the referendum completely, they were determined to drag the Greek population to the muddy pool and make them drink from in it, in order to impose an accept an economic model on the country that even the IMF admits is unsustainable.

There is a grim irony in the fact that Germany was the principal driving force behind this process – the same Germany that once wrecked Europe, that then had its debt wiped out and its economy generously reshaped in order to pave the way for the post-war ‘economic miracle’; the same Germany that made millions bribing Greek officials to buy weapons that Greece didn’t need, and which now presents itself as model of financial probity.

So it’s deutschland uber alles, except that Germany is not the only culprit, and would not have been able to behave like this had so many other governments not supported it.  All this left Syriza caught between a rock and very hard place.  It had failed to prepare for the possibility of a Grexit, which in any case the referendum didn’t give it a mandate for. Without that option, it had nothing but moral pressure to bring to bear on governments and institutions that have now demonstrated that they are entirely resistant to any such pressures.

No good telling the Troika about democracy.   No point telling Greece’s creditors that their plans are a recipe for permanent recession and social ruin.  Don’t waste your breath talking to them about cruelty or solidarity.   Try and argue that if a soft-left formation like Syriza can’t find an alternative to austerity then the Golden Dawn fascists will pick up the mantle themselves and will use it for entirely different purposes.

These creditor-zealots can’t – or won’t hear any of this.   They don’t even realize that their deafness and blindness has killed the ‘Europe’ they claim to stand for. Of course, technically speaking, it isn’t dead.  The European Union still exists with all its institutions, and its representatives will stagger on like the walking dead, offering platitudes about progress, solidarity and ever closer union, as embittered and angry electorates across the continent turn to the likes of Jobbik, the National Front and Nigel Farage.

Governments and financial elites will still walk around in European clothes and sing emollient hallelujahs in praise of the eurozone.    But the idea of Europe is now dead, muerto, kaput, its remains splattered all over the Acropolis like the wreckage of a beautiful crashed aircraft.

To remind ourselves of what this idea once consisted of, consider these principles outlined in the preamble to the 2005 European Constitution:

‘DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person,freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law,

BELIEVING that Europe, reunited after bitter experiences, intends to continue along the path of civilisation, progress and prosperity, for the good of all its inhabitants, including the weakest and most deprived; that it wishes to remain a continent open to culture, learning and social progress; and that it wishes to deepen the democratic and transparent nature of its public life, and to strive for peace, justice and solidarity throughout the world,

CONVINCED that, while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of Europe are determined to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny,

CONVINCED that, thus ‘United in diversity’,  Europe offers them the best chance of pursuing, with due regard for the rights of each individual and in awareness of their responsibilities towards future generations and the Earth, the great venture which makes of it a special area of human hope.’

Pretty, isn’t it?  Like drifting down the Danube listening to a Mozart symphony.  Now try to relate any of that to the brutal humiliation inflicted on Syriza and the Greek people over the last week.  Try to detect a smidgeon of evidence that the ‘bitter experiences’ of the past were brought to bear to help the ‘weakest and most deprived’ in Greece.  Show me how the Troika has acted in a spirit of justice and solidarity.    ‘A special area of human hope’? - only to proponents of gallows humour. Democracy and transparency?  Enough now, you’re embarrassing yourself and no one is laughing.

Of course it wasn’t only Greece that wrecked these aspirations.  There were always contradictions between the nobler aspirations that drove the  European project and its actual practice; in the disastrously inept response of the EU to the wars in the former Yugoslavia; in the EU’s ruthless enforcement of its hardened anti-migrant borders and the massive death toll that it has engendered; in the EU’s reckless adventurism in Libya and Ukraine.

Despite all that, I believed that that European unity was a good idea, or at least that it contained the seed of of a much better one, and had the potential to become more than a ‘bosses club’, as some sectors of the left called it.  But now that Europe is gone – suffocated and trampled underfoot by the dim subjugation of national governments and EU institutions to the merciless imperatives of debt-driven finance capital.

Such a Europe doesn’t deserve the support of anyone, but the constitutional preamble is a reminder of another Europe that does.

And despite everything, I can’t help mourning its loss, and I can’t help wondering that if the European Union couldn’t implement these principles, then who will?

Greece Says No

Yesterday’s astonishing referendum vote in Greece has left elite jaws dropping across the continent.  In the face of universal opposition from the powers-that-be across the continent and dire warnings that essentially amounted to ‘ do what we say or else’ Greek voters overwhelmingly rejected the Troika’s latest bailout package.

Well, technically they didn’t reject the package exactly, because in the confused circumstances that followed Syriza’s referendum decision last week, the Troika declared its latest bailout offer to be null and void, and Alex Tsipras appeared to have accepted it, albeit with preconditions.

Never mind, because Greeks knew what they were voting for and so did their creditors, who had made it plain that they weren’t happy with the Syriza government and wanted Greeks to dissolve it and elect another.  Everyone knew that if the referendum vote had gone the other way then Syriza would have resigned, and this was clearly the outcome Europe’s financial and political elites wanted, which was why they turned their backs on Tsipras’s last minute acceptance of their latest package.

Ever since Syriza was elected, the Troika has been determined to exact complete and unconditional surrender from Tsipras’s government because it fears that anything less would encourage other countries to question the disaster capitalism in drag that goes by the name of austerity.

Greece’s creditors may not have wanted a referendum, but their behavior last week made it clear that they also saw it as a potential opportunity to ditch Syriza and get a compliant technocratic government in power that would do their bidding without fuss.   To press the point home, Greeks were presented with the same dread prospect of empty banks and ATM machines that were once used to justify the recapitalization of the banking system when the global financial crisis first broke.

Yet astonishingly, even in these fearful and ultra-conservative times, when electorates across the continent prefer to cling onto the boot that kicks them because they are terrified that the alternative would be worse, Greece refused to acquiesce in the face of shamefully undemocratic blackmail.

Told effectively to change your government or face bankruptcy, economic collapse, and expulsion from Europe, the Greeks voted no by an overwhelming margin.  And they were last night, dancing in the streets and public squares even as they stared down into what remains a very dark tunnel.   Why did they do this?  Are they mad, these southern Europeans,  in rejecting the ‘common sense’ imposed upon them by their sober northern creditors and the sour-faced disciples of TINA (There Is No Alternative)?  Are they suffering from an attack of mass psychosis?

Well no.  They were dancing because they had stood up to the blinkered financial thuggery that has ripped their society to shreds.   They were dancing because they had reached the conclusion that sometimes collective defiance – regardless of the risks – is preferable to endless humiliation, despair and ruin.   They were dancing because they had demonstrated a level of real political courage that has been so sorely lacking in so many countries during these grim years, and brave decisions are always more invigorating than fear and submission.

They were dancing because they had asserted their democratic right to choose a government that represented what they saw as their best interests rather than a government that recommended the interests of the Troika and the promoters of the disaster-capitalism-in-drag that we call austerity.

Of course this victory opens the way to all kinds of unforeseen possibilities.   The resignation of Yanis Varoufakis already demonstrates that Syriza’s own defiance has its limits.  The Troika may now accept Syriza’s conditions or Tsipras might demand more.   Greece may be cast adrift and expelled from the eurozone, or simply allowed to drift away from it.  If that happens, Greece may face a crisis even more severe than the one that has already wrought such havoc if it reintroduces the drachma, at least in the short-term.

As of this morning, no one knows how any of this will pan out.   But yesterday, the Greek people found itself and spoke with its own voice.   And now, faced with the refusal of the Greeks to dissolve its government, the powers–that-be can only either try and dissolve the Greek people itself, as Brecht once put it in a different context, or they can engage in open confrontation with a broad national consensus that is no longer restricted to the ‘far left’ government that the Troika tried to humiliate.

No wonder the Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijssebloem has described the result as ‘very regrettable for the future of Greece.’  German Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel yesterday accused the Tsipras government of taking Greece down a path of ‘bitter abandonment and hopelessness.’

Well if yesterday’s celebrations were what bitterness and hopelessness look like, then there are many other people in Europe who might want some of it too.   And they might even conclude, like the Greeks, that sometimes a leap into the unknown is preferable to a fearful, debt-enforced future of endless austerity,  and that sometimes, if you stand up to the powerful, you can actually win.

 

In the kingdom of TINA

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.