Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

False Dawn or Challenge to Germanic Hegemony?

“… and when they danced in the square,
the ceilings trembled in the houses,
and the glasses rang on the shelves.”
— from Romiosíni, by Yannis Ritsos

An altered Europe emerged from yesterday’s elections. France chose mild socialist François Hollande for its next president and Hellene voters deep-sixed the two major parties which made them captives of predatory lenders that sank the nation into poverty and misery. Both just before and just after the elections, IMF, ECB and German leaders issued the expected threats, intoning yet again the “fears for contagious instability”, warning they would stop all “bailouts” (aka high-interest loans) if the new Hellenic government tries to change the corrosive repayment terms (one mandates paying the loan interest before attending to the country’s basic needs), and calling the change “a victory of the South” – shades of the evil swarthy Southron hordes in The Lord of the Rings.

Personally, I suspect that Hollande will prove as “radical” as Obama. The Hellenic elections boosted the leftist coalition SYRIZA to the same levels as the (barely) first-ranking party, leaving little room for the usual cozy arrangements – reaching even a bare majority will require the cooperation of at least three parties. SYRIZA has a young charismatic leader who is not free of demagoguery and has not articulated an alternative program beyond repudiating the debt. More disquieting, a neonazi party, Golden Dawn, has managed to enter the Athens Parliament for the first time. If anyone is thinking with dread of the Weimar republic and the results of the humiliations of the Versailles treaty, they’re right.

Granted, Hellas is not Germany in more ways than one. The obvious difference is that Hellas is a tiny (estimated: 2%) contributor to European economy. But there are other differences. For one, contrary to the accusations of laziness, Hellenes work longer hours and have fewer holidays than Germans – and the habit of closing for a noon nap makes perfect physiological and environmental sense in a Mediterranean climate. For another, the post-WWII Marshall plan for Germany was a real bailout, not a loan. One of its terms, that Germany would repay lenders after reunification, was never mentioned when the Berlin wall fell. Nor does anyone dwell overlong, if at all, on the fact that the Americans agreed (without consulting the Hellenes) on the suspension of German war reparations to Hellas, because the latter’s resistance movement was primarily communist.

Unlike Germany, Hellas did not bomb, invade, or slaughter anyone – yet it was given more punitive and humiliating terms than Germany by titular friends and allies. This was partly so that the country could function as yet one more canary in the mine for the “neoliberal” economic kill-the-patient “cure” (despite the fact that it proved an unmitigated disaster wherever it was tried, from post-USSR Russia to Haiti, whereas Iceland and Argentina fared far better by rejecting it), partly to frighten other European outliers into surrendering without terms to the austerity straitjacket. These were the same friends, incidentally, who forced the Hellenic government to buy their defective airplanes and submarines, refusing to play a part in securing the borders of the only-in-name European Union; the same allies who accused Hellas of not caring for the veritable tsunami of its illegal immigrants, while deporting theirs to Hellas as part of their “cleansing” programs and re-election campaigns.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think that Hellenes bear no responsibility for the crisis — the ruling family dynasties and the tax-dodging plutocrats, in particular. But they don’t deserve 23% unemployment (the rate among women and the young is 50%, a recipe for depopulation and brain drain) nor forced sales of national resources at cut-rate prices to circling looters. They don’t deserve to have kids faint from hunger in schools, adults in their prime commit suicide from despair. The austerity recipe has primarily penalized two groups: the law-abiding, and small businesses, which are the lifeblood of Hellenic economy. Finally, if half the members of a federation are ailing (Portugal, Ireland, Hellas, Italy, Spain… on to Belgium, Holland and France, to say nothing of Britain who is trying to pretend otherwise) it cannot be solely their fault, especially when their details differ as much as they do in this case. When banks count more than people, financial speculators expect risk-free profits, and decent lives with civil rights and safety nets are called “marxism” instead of “minimum requirements for civilization”, something is seriously off in the equation.

Hellas changed history several times, sometimes as leader, sometimes as gadfly. It may do so again. Hellenes do badly when ease descends upon them, but when their spirit is aroused they plant their spear and don’t retreat. At the very least, the election results signal that people will take only so much rapine before they react – and trying to foist wrath on scapegoats doesn’t work indefinitely as a safety valve. Now if only the US voters do the same in November, instead of repeating the mantra of “Bend over when told – the rich deserve to have it all – why do you hate FREEDOM?”, perhaps humanity has a chance for a different trajectory than slavery and disenfranchisement of 99% of its members.

Images: Marianne, the French enblem of liberty (Luxembourg palace, anonymous artist); W. Eugene Smith’s iconic WWII photo: this quintessence of stoic defiance almost certainly was Ángelos Klónis, an immigrant from Kefaloniá.

20 Responses to “False Dawn or Challenge to Germanic Hegemony?”

  1. Caliban says:

    Well said.

    What strikes me as increasingly odd, especially in this much-vaunted information age, is the utter lack of real, and reliable, data. We’re told that health care costs are skyrocketing, pensions are skyrocketing, etc., etc, but where is all that money going? Most people who get pensions are getting quite modest pensions. Many if not most people put more into the health care system than they get out. There are vague claims of waste, fraud, and mismanagement; is it really hard to find out if and where such waste and fraud is occurring?

    I have my own suspicions–the vast army of useless middle-management with bloated salaries doing mindless work that could be accomplished by a troop of syphilitic monkeys. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but every statistic I see is clearly incomplete or misleading. We need good, independent, reliable data, rather than foaming rhetoric, if we are to find a way out of this mess.

  2. Athena says:

    The data are there. For example: in the U. S. there are now 2.5 medical administrators for each doctor. Have you ever seen an administrator fired or not given his raise like clockwork in your university? I thought not — nor in mine, either. To say nothing of the Pentagon’s black budget.

  3. Dylan Fox says:

    With regards to the administrators, as someone who’s worked in and around public services for a while now, I can say that it’s the buggers who decide who should get sacked that should be given the boot. Is a manager going to sack half-a-dozen nurses, or themselves? Makes me angry.

    And with the bailouts, the language around them is really quite worrying. Time and again we hear lines to the effect of, ‘the duly elected representatives of the people must not interfere with the vast asset drain we’ve forced on them.’ There’s just this mantra that the rich getting their pounds of flesh is far more important than people’s lives and livelihoods. Makes me angry.

  4. Mephane says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with everything said in the article, and find it very refreshing to hear a voice who doesn’t just chime into the chorus of prejudice.

    What troubles me most about this entire situation (not just Greek, possibly not even the EU, but the entire planet) is that I have absolutely no idea who we would ever get ouf this mess in the foreseeable future. The powers (banks, corrupt politicians) that benefit from the political and economic status quo still seem entirely untouchable. They are not just ethically completely detached from the so-called ‘common people’, they are so remote that they present more of an abstract concept, like an imaginary foe, than a real, concrete, solvable problem.

    And when looking at the situation from afar, as I like to do from time to time, it seems completely absurd. Assuming money as a measure of resources, energy and human work, the sheer discrepancies how it is spent, and how much is in which hands, is obscene. Politicians moan and debate about every single coin that might land in the hands of the poor as if that were theft from the rest of society, while on the other hand billions are allocated in military budgets on one hand, and private banks on the other hand.

    Of course, a lot of that money is entirely virtual (by which I mean it represents no actual physical value) and could, in theory, simply be eradicated by setting numbers in some computers to zero. But that would turn major banks bankrupt and, through the (deliberately, I suppose) complicated network by which those banks are intertwined with politics and the rest of the economy, drag everything down with them.

    The planet is effectively held hostage, and under the constant threat of the hostage-takers that they would rather see everything go to hell than let go of their loot. This is why I have no hope that the elections in France and Greece could turn the boat around. The best I expect is a small delay of the inevitable.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe in a single unescapable outcome of our current misery, but everything so far seems to point towards a number of possible, all similarly bleak futures.

    To give at least a little positive prospect in this comment, I would like to state what I believe is necessary for us to overcome the current problems:
    a) Overcome human greed. I do not expect that somehow all people turn altruistic, so this would need checks and balances in place that make unrestricted greed an unsuccessful strategy.
    b) Embrace human rights for once and for all and without compromise. Contrary to popular believe, they are often not worth the paper they’re printed on. For example, think about the very fact that the UN had to add a clause that states that the right to live leads to the right to eat. I would have considered that conclusion self-evident, and the mere fact this needed pointing out (though to no real effect so far) is depressing.

  5. Eleni says:

    I think that more or less you describe the situation accurately, Athena. But I’m very worried. I’m not very confident about how Greeks will react in the face of further adversity. I fear that everyone will turn against everyone and we’ll have another civil war of -some- sort. Sadly, we’re anything but a cooperative society.

  6. Caliban says:

    I’m sure the data is out there, but it’s not being talked about, or its being distorted, and sadly journalists have neither the time nor the inclination to make it more widely known. I admit, I am ignorant; I didn’t know the 2.5 administrator/doctor ratio (even worse than I imagined).

    Of course, those 2.5 administrators arise out of what Mephane mentions: the utter terror that a poor person might get some “undeserved” money or health care or other benefit. But the micromanaging the public’s money, at least in the US, is so heavy that it costs us dearly: US health care is twice as expensive per capita compared to Canada and Europe and elsewhere (that data, at least, I do know, and I guess it really IS from all those administrators).


  7. Belle says:

    Hear, hear. I think you’re right on target: “When banks count more than people, financial speculators expect risk-free profits, and decent lives with civil rights and safety nets are called “marxism” instead of “minimum requirements for civilization”, something is seriously off in the equation.”

    We are partly to blame for accepting the neo-liberal mantra that business is the answer to all questions, that money is more important than people. As a historian, I am very troubled by the echoes of previous times in which such factors led to disastrous and hellish wars and disasters. What will it take to wake us?

  8. Asakiyume says:

    I agree with you about the wrongheadedness of austerity measures. A country can’t recover financially if its every avenue of advancement is destroyed by austerity measures.

    I also agree with Caliban about lack of accountability with regard to things like healthcare statistics.

  9. Foxessa says:

    Not to mention the tonnes of cash — literal tonnes of cash — the U.S. literally threw to the winds in Iraq.

    And is still continuing to throw in various other ways — deserting billion dollar fortresses in Iraq and Afghanistan because even so they can’t be secured from bombs and other attacks.

    We literally have no idea, no accounting, of what amounts we’ve thrown away over there since 2003. Much of it though, you can count on it, has landed in the banks accounts of the privatized corporate military contractors, everyone from darthcheney&halliburton to whatever Blackwater calls itself today. Much of this money is financing private, corporate merc armies, that’s for sure, so they will be prepared when the whirlwind of starving masses screams into action.

    Thanks for such a clear-eyed, intelligent and informed description of what’s going on.

    Love, C

  10. green_knight says:

    I’m keeping fingers crossed that Greece will manage to get out of the corner it has been shoved in. Here in Britain, austerity is biting hard – and we’re only seeing the beginning,

  11. Walden2 says:

    If Americans are stupid enough to let Romney become President – hey, they did it twice with Bush Jr., Nixon, and Reagan – primarily because a bunch of them cannot handle a black President, then we deserve whatever we get.

  12. Dylan Fox says:

    Mephane > I think we need to change our insular attitudes before we change anything else. I mean, you ever seen the show Man vs. Food? A guy goes around America seeing if he can beat eating challenges. Meanwhile, half the world is starving and there are people cowering in doorways outside those restaurants dying for want of food. And supermarkets and restaurants throw away tonnes of food, locking it behind steel fences and crushing it so no one can eat it. It all beggers belief, it really does.

  13. Athena says:

    Thank you for the comments, everyone! As you may know, the Hellenic parties have been unable to come to an agreement about a coalition government, which means a second election round with leftist SYRIZA the likely winner. Whether SYRIZA will be able to make the transition from opposition to ruling government remains to be seen, but the traditional two large parties made such a hash of it that they have lost all moral and political authority. Another disquieting finding was that half of all policemen voted for the neonazi party (which also explains why many of the provocateurs during earlier demonstrations carried police IDs). In the meantime, the so-called civilized Europeans are acting like loan sharks pressing a mark for payment, and insisting that “nothing can change” as if the memorandum was a stone tablet directly from Jahweh.

  14. Mephane says:

    “Another disquieting finding was that half of all policemen voted for the neonazi party”

    I find this rather unsurprising and would expect the exact same result in many other European countries.

  15. tmi says:

    As far as US healthcare, it isn’t just the administrators. It’s also the utter stupidity of the system of employer-provided health insurance, which ensures that the relatively young and healthy get all the expensive tests they (don’t) need, at prices set high to make up profit lost to the old and relatively unhealthy Medicare patients, and the financially destitute ER patients with no way of paying at all.

    Unfortunately, I agree with Mephane about global outcomes; the powers that be have the power, and they like it this way. Humans are greedy, and greed doesn’t mean only having a lot, but having MORE than other people. This “need” is both emotional (they feel better by comparison) and practical (so the disadvantaged can be more easily used).

  16. Brian M says:

    Heck. My small working class suburban California city police department owns a tank. A TANK. Of course the cops will vote for the fascists.

  17. Athena says:

    Yes — when the war machine didn’t have an external target, they got rid of their overstock by selling it to police departments. That’s why cops are now running around in SWAT armor and using “maximum force” from the get-go. When this happens, combined with “all terror all the time” suspension of civil rights, the end of civilian/civilized rule is upon us.

  18. Brian M says:

    did you read the infuriating case where the cops TASED a woman for refusing to get out of her car to sign a minor speeding ticket? She was months pregnant, needed to use the restroom, and just felt lousy. One fascist loon of a judge PRAISED the cops for their bold service in the defense of LAW. Because LAW is far more important than a pregnant, uncomfortable woman delaying instant compliance to the State.

  19. Brian M says:

    I might note, for the record, that the pregnant woman’s real crime was Driving While Black. which ALWAYS justifies excess force in Tea Party Nation.

  20. Athena says:

    I wish I could say I was surprised.