I’ve been trying to understand the situation in Greece. It feels important – if a country a couple of hours flight from mine collapses then I can’t see how that wouldn’t matter. At the moment I’m trying to grasp the reasons a country is getting dragged into poverty and near revolution, but between talks of troikas, Syriza, and a thorny fence of economic jargon (“multilateral austerity countermeasures” etc) I’ve only got the vaguest of grips on what’s going on.
Greece; What is to be Done?, Karl Heinz Roth’s 100 page pamphlet, first published in 2012, goes some way to both illuminate and obscure the situation. First off, it should be noted that GWITBD is published by Zero Press, a radical publisher with an open commitment to challenging the ‘banal conformity’ of discourse framed by late capitalism. So, they’ve got an agenda from the get go. I’d argue that every publisher has an agenda, it’s just that Zero are honest enough to print theirs inside their flysheets.
With this in mind, its little surprise that Roth’s analysis of Greece’s woes is based around attacks on the European elites he sees as hellbent on destruction of a country’s middle and working classes. Charting the progress of Greece over the last 30 odd years, from their 1981 entry into the European Community, to the Maastricht Treaty of ’92, to Greece’s ’01 adoption of the Euro, to the economic collapse and subsequent austerity measures of the late noughties, it’s a sorry tale by and large. As has been fairly widely noted now, Greece should never have been allowed to enter into the Euro. Upon their entry, the country’s economy was already on the decline, with the budget deficit over 5% beyond the annual GDP, unacceptable as an entry requirement, but carefully masked by the statistical manipulation carried out by a handful of well-placed powerbrokers.
Roth argues that this spectacularly short-sighted spot of book cooking was for a few specific points. First off the Greece was seen as an important strategic outpost against further trouble in the Balkan states. With the break-up of Yugoslavia still fresh in the minds of the Eurozone, bringing Greece into the fold was seen as a way of creating a buffer against any chaos spreading into mainland Europe. But there were other, more underhand reasons for lying to bring the Greeks in. The German’s had a specific interest; “The Greek Supreme Court had just accepted compensation claims by victims of the German occupation of Greece, and it had declared the confiscation of German assets legal. No one but the Greek government could halt the proceedings. It did so after the German government promised to support Greece’s application for Eurozone membership.”
So, essentially, German and Greek elites colluded. The German’s got to keep their assets in Greece, and the wealthy elite of Greece got a massive (and unsustainable) cash loan from Europe. And what did they spend the money on? Well, it turns out that a fair chunk of it went on guns. Using the supposed threat of Turkey as justification, Greece devoted a quite simply mental 4.3% of their entire GDP into buying weapons – frigates from France, and tanks and subs from Germany. The Turks and the Greeks were pretty much propping up the German arms industry through the noughties, with their combined spend coming to nearly a third of all German arms exports. There was also infrastructure spending that reflected military goals, with a highway built from the Ionian Sea to the Turkish border in Western Thrace clearly made with the armies needs in mind. And there was, of course, the Olympics of 2004- a huge white elephant construction project with little long term point.
At the same time, as has been much reported, the upper class of Greece’s simply chose to not pay tax. As there was so much passage between the political parties and the wealthy industrialists of the country, there was little political will to do anything about the issue. Cash wasn’t so much streaming into the country, it was streaming into the pockets of a small concentrated group of people, and just as quickly streaming back out to offshore bank accounts.
When the collapse came and debts were called in, there was no money in Greece to pay – there had never been money to pay from the get go. If dodgy mortgage sales in the States had sparked the crash, in many ways Greece was the dodgiest of them all.
Roth manages to break down this information fluidly – then he gets into the terms of austerity and takes his pamphlet into a world of serious economics, of debt adjustments, sketchy negotiations and private creditors gambling with government issued bonds. He has researched his figures thoroughly, and clearly knows his topic. However he has no inclination towards framing events in a compelling narrative, and this book has to be acknowledged as a text book rather than an absorbing account. No doubt he would disagree, but I see no problem in at least occasional descriptions of the characters he talks about – to reduce every banker and financial minister to a name and a job title makes for the occasional grinding bit of text. Given that Roth makes some strongly worded accusations, a bit of colour would quite possibly lend credence to his conclusions. For example, when discussing the reasons that Greek austerity has been a prolonged IMF sponsored attack that has had little chance of completing its stated goals (getting Greece’s creditors paid off and getting the country working again), Roth concludes
“Greece has been made a laboratory for a social experiment intended to clarify how far the system of working poverty – the exploitation of labour power below its subsistence level – can be taken and rendered permanent. The experiment is being extended to ever larger segments of the pauperized middle classes.”
I’ve no doubt Roth is correct – it’s hard not to think Britain isn’t embarking on its own low scale version of the same. But perhaps if he gave us a bit more insight into the psyche of the elites he talks about, then this conclusion would stand up to stern scrutiny. As it is, right wing observers are generally happy to debunk in talk with accusations of ‘conspiracy theories’, and I think he’s playing into their hands by not personalising further on the elites he talks of.
Still, taken as a primer on a drama that will have significant impact on the future of Europe for some years to come, Greece- What Is To Be Done is a chilling and timely overview. As for the question asked by the title, Roth has his own suggestions, setting his solutions in the terms the Occupy Movement has adopted. He believes in new trans-national co-operatives, and, surprisingly considering the downbeat tone of the book, he believes that there’s hope yet. All we need is “the social (re-) appropriation of public goods whose spectrum of activity ranges from the occupation of buildings and neighbourhoods to the reappropriationof municipal enterprises, public transportation and public services… a transnationally coordinated systematic rupture has some prospects of success.”
Greece - What Is To be Done? is available now from Zero Press. More details here.