Saturday, May 19, 2012

An Open Letter to Alexis Tsipras

I have just finished reading the interview with you that was published in this morning’s New York Times.  I assume it is accurate, even if the questions were not always the ones I would have asked.  I was especially struck by this comment from the reporter:
Although he conceded that the Greek state had “significant dysfunctionalities and a need for deep structural changes,” he did not offer specifics beyond faulting the Socialists and center-right New Democracy for building up a jobs-for-votes system that helped Greece’s public debt balloon.
The rest of the interview was about Greece and the EU, Greece and the ECB, Greece and Germany, and so on.  Your party was portrayed as focusing its strategy on linking up with dissidents across the Eurozone who want to end the fixation on protecting creditors and enforcing austerity.

Fine: I can understand why you would do this.  Greece needs friends, and a regime change in Brussels and Frankfurt could do a world of good.  But if I were you I wouldn’t put to much faith in this approach.

Greece is now seen as a pariah state across the rest of Europe.  You can blame the leaders of Pasok and New Democracy for this: they joined into the charade of “bailouts”, giving the impression to ordinary people elsewhere (and especially in Germany) that feckless Greeks were subsisting off the handouts of the others, the honest, hardworking taxpayers north of the Alps.  None of these politicians pointed out that it was not Greece that was on the receiving end of these funds but banks and other private investors whose only goal was to get as much of their wealth out of the country as possible.  That game succeeded, and now it is only working class Greeks who will suffer if the country returns to the drachma and all domestic financial assets are radically devalued.  Meanwhile, bailout fatigue has settled on the rest of the continent, since the myth has been upheld that the very Greeks who are most at risk are the ones who benefitted.

In short, while it is necessary to fight for support throughout Europe for a zone-wide policy shift, I would place a lot more emphasis on domestic change—the goal Greece can pursue with or without Europe’s help.

The dysfunctionalities you briefly referred to are class issues, and this should be emphasized at every opportunity.

1. The tax revenue capacity of the Greek state is a class issue.  This is partly a matter of who pays and who doesn’t, although many small business owners who are hardly members of the elite also participate in tax avoidance.  The real issue, however is that working class Greeks  depend on the ability of the state to collect taxes in order to live a civilized life, to enjoy the protection of social insurance and public services without which capitalism would be utterly intolerable.  The rich don’t need this and are content to live in a society with a small, threadbare state.  We have this conflict in the US too, and its class dimension is perfectly obvious.

2. The patronage system of politics and economics is deeply injurious to the working class.  This is often disguised at the individual level, since each recipient of a job or the expedited consideration of a claim or help with queue-jumping is grateful for what he or she gets.  Such benefits, however, are purchased at the cost of submission.  The beneficiary must provide loyalty to the big shot who hands out the favors.  Each time this exchange of benefits for loyalty occurs, it reproduces the hierarchy that tells you, “They are above and I am below.”  It is a humiliation.  OK, I don’t know exactly how patronage is experienced in Greece, but such systems are known all over the world (I’ve personally experienced aspects of it in the US), and the story is more or less the same.  It is a matter of shifting from a system of favors to a system of rights.

My point is that focusing on Europe is a trap.  It buys into the narrative that the political choices in Greece are fundamentally about how to respond to the demands of the troika.  If cracking down on tax cheats and creating a truly independent civil service are seen as demands from their creditors, most Greeks will understandably oppose them, quietly if not openly.  But they are not primarily about forking over money to the rest of Europe but social justice in Greece itself.  They are class issues and should be fought for no matter what happens on the financial front.

There are two sides to the democratic deficit of the EU.  One is the lack of democracy at the level of Europe that has permitted so-called technocrats, which is to say acolytes of neoliberalism who put the interests of finance ahead of all others, to impose their will on civil society.  The other is the removal of essential economic issues from national political debate, because they have been superceded by “Europe”.  On these issues there is democracy neither up there nor down here.  I don’t know what Greece can do for the effort to expand the democratic political space in the EU, but it can do a lot for democracy in Greece by attacking a system founded on privilege.


Shag from Brookline said...

Moral: Beware of overbearing Greeks.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Re: "...working class Greeks depend on the ability of the state to collect taxes in order to live a civilized life, to enjoy the protection of social insurance and public services without which capitalism would be utterly intolerable...."

I don't think that this statement is sufficiently accurate. How about: "Greeks who are not rich depend upon the ability of government and enterprises to translate taxes and consumption expenditure (respectively) into forms of real wealth that are enjoyed by all. Wealth, that is, in the form of public services, social protection, adequate and healthy food, housing etc. Without such provision the point of capitalism is mute.