Commentary of the Week: The Truth About Greece (June 2-8, 2016)

commentaryoftheweekBy Michael Nevradakis

For this final commentary of the broadcast season, I thought it was time to tell you the truth. The truth about Greece. In May, likely for the first time in the post-war history of the Western world, a national parliament willingly ceded what remained of its country’s sovereignty, essentially voting itself obsolete. This development, however, did not make headlines in the global news cycle and was ignored by most of the purportedly “leftist” media.

The country in question is Greece, where a 7,500-page omnibus bill was just passed, without parliamentary debate, which transfers control over all of the country’s public assets to a fund controlled by the European Stability Mechanism, for the next 99 years. To be clear, this includes all public infrastructure, harbors, airports, public beaches, and natural resources, all passed to the control of the ESM, a non-democratic, supranational body which answers to no parliamentary or elected body. Within this same bill, the “Greek” parliament also rendered itself voteless: the legislation annuls the role of the parliament to create a national budget or to pass tax legislation. These decisions will now be made automatically, at the behest of the European Union: if fiscal targets set by the EU, the IMF, and the ESM are not met, automatic “cuts” will be implemented, without any parliamentary debate, which could slash anything social spending, salaries, and pensions. In earlier legislation, the Greek parliament agreed to submit all legislation to the “troika” for approval. For historical precedent, one needs to look no further than the “Enabling Act” passed by the German Reichstag in 1933, where the German parliament voted away its right to exercise legislative power, transferring absolute power to govern and to pass laws, including unconstitutional laws, to the Chancellor, Adolf Hitler.

The Greek omnibus bill was preceded by another piece of legislation, “reforming” Greece’s pension system through the enactment of further cuts, while increasing taxes almost entirely across the board. Despite government lies to the contrary, these cuts are regressive and will disproportionately impact the poorer strata of society: the basic pension has been cut to 345 euro per month, supplementary pensions to poor individuals have been eliminated, the value-added tax on many basic goods has been raised to 24%, the number of households which qualify for heating oil subsidies has been slashed in half while taxes on oil and fuel have again been increased, co-pays on prescription drugs covered by public health insurance have been hiked by 25%, employees’ contributions to the social security fund have been raised (effectively lowering salaries), special taxes have been introduced on coffee and alcoholic beverages, while Greece’s suffering small businesses have been saddled with an increase in their tax rate from 26% to 29%.

In addition to the aforementioned pieces of legislation, the Greek government, in effect, ceded its national sovereignty earlier in the year when, as part of the EU-Turkey deal on the refugee and migrant crisis, Greece unconditionally accepted the presence of NATO warships and Turkish military and police personnel in the Aegean region, while the “patriotic” defense minister of Greece, Panos Kammenos, has publicly proposed the construction of a new NATO base on the island of Karpathos.

While Greece has made global headlines in recent years—the media have remained silent on this latest neoliberal attack on the country’s economy and on Greece’s already suffering businesses and households. But it has not just been the mainstream media which has been quiet. Supposedly “leftist” media outlets such as Democracy Now! have “forgotten” about Greece ever since SYRIZA’s betrayal of the July 5th, 2015 referendum result, where an overwhelming majority (62%) of voters rejected further austerity. “Leftist” intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein have also remained silent. These “left-wing” outlets and intellectuals had all, at one time, openly supported SYRIZA—even while the signs were there that SYRIZA was not what it claimed to be. Today, these outlets and these intellectual figures refuse to admit that they were wrong or to openly denounce SYRIZA’s betrayal, while also not providing any support to other, true anti-austerity movements in Greece.

Of course, even when Greece was in the news, the truth regarding what was really happening in the country was obscured behind the international media’s overwhelming pro-EU, pro-austerity bias, which masqueraded as “objective” reporting.

The economic crisis in Greece has typically been blamed on “lazy” and “unproductive” Greeks who supposedly refused to work, even at their cushy government jobs, retired at age 30, and who lived beyond their means, vacationing in the Greek isles and spending the money of hard-working Europeans to live the high life. “Reality” television programs such as “Go Greek for a Week,” broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4, perpetuated this blatant stereotyping, as did the Greek media back at home. Even the supposedly brilliant anti-austerity “crusader” Yanis Varoufakis repeated the mythology that “hard-working” Germans and other Europeans are now paying to support Greece. The reality, however, is harshly different. Greece is not receiving “free money” from Europe or the troika. It is receiving loans—to repay previous debt—loans which are accompanied by high interest rates and onerous strings attached, such as the aforementioned measures recently passed by the Greek parliament. Greece’s debt as a percentage of GDP was 124% prior to receiving its first “bailout” in 2010. Six years later and after repeatedly being “saved,” this figure is approaching 200%.

What has gone unsaid by both the Greek and international media are the true origins and contributors to the Greek crisis. These factors include the manipulation, by Goldman Sachs, of Greece’s debt and deficit figures through a series of swaps and derivatives, hiding the true figures in circumvention of EU Maastricht criteria for admission into the Eurozone, for a tidy profit. Indeed, a piece of often-repeated mythology was that Greece was the only country which misbehaved by “lying” to enter the Eurozone. In fact, Goldman Sachs as well as J.P. Morgan and other major banks, helped Italy and other countries “lie” as well, while the role of swaps and derivatives in bringing about the global financial meltdown of 2007-2008 is well-known.

Manipulation took place in Greece too, at the behest of international lenders. Greece’s statistical authority, ELSTAT, led by former IMF official Andreas Georgiou, is said to have manipulated Greek deficit figures in 2009 to seem worse than they were in reality, with the goal of providing the political impetus necessary to bring in the IMF and other “saviors” to “bail out” Greece. These allegations were so serious, and so effectively substantiated by ELSTAT whistleblowers such as Zoe Georganta, that criminal charges were filed against Georgiou—charges which were quietly dropped by the “leftist” SYRIZA government in 2015. The ELSTAT scandal has barely been reported upon outside of Greece, if at all, while in Greece today it has essentially been “forgotten.”

Another cause of the crisis is the euro itself. The euro is a debt instrument, produced by a private bank (the European Central Bank) accountable to no government, and which is lent to member-states such as Greece. The concept of the European common currency was first proposed by economist Robert Mundell, who is also known as the father of “supply-side” economics, and who, in an interview with Greg Palast, had the following to say about the true objectives of the euro: “It puts monetary policy out of the reach of politicians, and without fiscal policy, the only way nations can can compete is by the competitive reduction of rules on business.” The euro was created to strip fiscal and monetary policy-making ability from national governments, leaving them without the ability to increase stimulus spending or devalue their national currency to regain competitiveness. The only option left was austerity and deregulation. What has happened in Greece, therefore, is not an accident or a “failure” of the euro. It was the goal, as Greg Palast also told us in our interview earlier in today’s broadcast.

Of course, the Greek and international media will have you believe that Greeks are overwhelmingly pro-euro, gleefully reporting the supposed results of public opinion polls which have claimed that 70-80% of Greeks wish to remain in the euro at all costs. Herein lies a dirty little secret of Greek politics: there are no independent polling firms. Instead, these firms all receive state funding, and all public opinion polls are conducted on behalf of major media outlets, all of which are politically aligned and most of which are oligarch-owned. Results are, predictably, tailored to the desires of these outlets and their owners—but are unquestioningly repeated by the international media and their Greece-based correspondents. What haven’t they reported? The results of the annual Gallup International poll, conducted in several European countries including Greece, which found majorities in Greece in favor of departing the Eurozone in both 2014 and 2015. This poll, conducted across Europe and by a non-Greek firm, is far less likely to be politically tainted.

It is nevertheless true, of course, that there is a strong pro-European sentiment in Greece. This mentality is deeply rooted in the country’s modern history. Following independence, the “great powers” promptly installed foreign monarchs at Greece’s helm. For most of the 19th and early 20th century Greece was a Bavarian and British protectorate. Following the Greek Civil War, itself prodded by the British, Greece became an American protectorate, capped off by the U.S.-supported military junta of 1967-1974. Following the fall of the junta, a conservative government laid the groundwork for Greece to cede its sovereignty, as the country joined the EU in 1981 and the Eurozone in 2002. Greece was also under foreign financial oversight—with the British, French, Germans, Italians, Austrians, and Russians permanently posted in Greece to take a chunk of the country’s tax revenues for the repayment of old Ottoman debts—from 1898 to 1978. Greece has never been an independent, fully sovereign state, and this reality has created a colonial mindset and fierce divisiveness in the Greek psyche: a division between those who were “leftist” versus those who were “fascist,” and a division between those who believe Greece should be aligned with the West, and those who wish to align with Russia. Those in favor of true independence and non-alignment are few and far between, while the crisis has brought back to the fore the old societal divisions.

Last summer, the Greek people voted overwhelmingly to reject the austerity proposals in last July’s referendum. But what exactly was the referendum asking? The question on the ballot was purposely convoluted, while the SYRIZA-led government did not present its planned course of action should the “no” vote have prevailed. This should have served as a warning. Tsipras, as well as Varoufakis, could barely conceal their disappointment that “no” prevailed—and so overwhelmingly—and neither could the media and the polling firms, which predicted that “no” and “yes” were running neck-and-neck, just as their electoral exit polls dating back to 2010, have been woefully inaccurate and always in a pro-austerity direction. The lead-up to the referendum also saw a tremendous wave of “solidarity” throughout Europe and the West—with activists purportedly supporting the Greek people and, somehow, supplied with SYRIZA flags, which I am sure one can’t just easily purchase in a shop in London or New York City. Oddly enough, following the betrayal, this “solidarity” movement dissipated. Gee, I wonder why.

The “protest” movement in Greece is not much better. While a general perception exists across the globe that Greeks have not been afraid to “riot” and to strike for their rights, the reality is far more mundane, unfortunately. Complacency, apathy, and resignation are the name of the game in Greece. Every so often when a protest is organized, the same old stale, ineffective recipes are followed: gather in Syntagma Square, stand around in front of Parliament with the same old placards, wait for the “rioters” to appear and the tear gas to start flying, and then retreat. And just who are these “rioters”? The media calls them anarchists—but a plethora of documentary evidence suggests that these are provocateurs, who are working in cahoots with the police and are sent in to orchestrate trouble in otherwise peaceful gatherings, providing the impetus for police to fire tear gas—not at the hoodlums, but at the crowd that had gathered peacefully, thereby breaking up the protest. Numerous videos and photos have shown these provocateurs mingling with police officers, or smashing shop windows in front of police, unobstructed. I’ve seen this with my own eyes: hooded men in civilian clothing mingling with police behind the U.S. Embassy in Athens during a protest in 2012.

In the rare event that a demonstration gathers large crowds, as was the case during the protests of the “indignants” in 2011 or the rallies in favor of “no” prior to last July’s referendum, this is invariably because partisan armies have been mobilized to show up en masse. A dirty secret of the large-scale 2011 protests is that they may well have been staged, to serve as a release valve for an increasingly disenchanted populace. An official now with the Independent Greeks party (which had not yet formed in 2011) claimed in an interview I conducted for my academic research in 2012 that he was the one behind the original Facebook invitation which led to the beginning of the “indignants” movement in Greece. When asked why the Facebook page was later taken down, his reply was that “it no longer served a purpose.” Similarly, while large crowds (and celebrity musicians) were mobilized in the days leading up to last year’s referendum, following the referendum and betrayal, the number of protesters in Syntagma Square did not surpass a few hundred. The partisan armies stayed home. Similarly, the mobilization of Greek farmers recently was halted once party-affiliated union bosses got involved, sending the farmers back home.

There’s a lot more that I could say—and that I will say in the published version of this commentary, which will soon be available on and elsewhere. But in the interests of time, I will say this about the Greek people: for years, you kept saying that you wanted Europe, wanted the euro, wanted to “be European” and live the European dream. How do you like that European dream now? Thank you, and have a good summer.

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