The Political Debut of Europe’s “Generation Austerity”

A news bulletin from the Guardian:

Brussels, February 12: The new Greek government’s confrontation with its Eurozone creditors over its campaign to relieve its staggering debt burden while also relaxing the terms of five years of austerity resulted in stalemate late on Wednesday …. It appeared that Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, ordered his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, to stand firm against the pressure to make any concessions.

New Politics for Old in the Cradle of Democracy

On January 25, 2015, the Greek people elected a team of politicians who imagine themselves – probably correctly – as harbingers of a generational change that is swiftly taking place everywhere throughout Europe.

The generation of politicians who have directed Europe’s centrist parties for the last quarter-century came into office convinced that the collapse of Soviet Communism was a happy outcome for all. It would be a long time before anyone looking forward to a political career in a democracy would play with the notion that, after all, there might have been something to be said for the wisdom of Karl Mark, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin or Leonid Brezhnev. Pictures of these worthies came down from the walls in the offices of History Professors throughout the free world.

Contemplating the victory of the newly-minted Syriza party in Greece, the major news outlets in our part of the world concentrated at first on the notion of new beginnings and the turning-of-the-pages-of-history. Here, after so long, was generation with vision, representing renewed hope. These men had not been implicated in the ugly work of cost accounting that made such dull dogs of their immediate predecessors in government – the lot who had wrestled with reduced tax revenues, who had curtailed social spending, postponed eligibility for pensions, and wiped out entitlements of all kinds. The thinking and the public style of the Syriza Party, its successful candidate for Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, and the Prime Minister’s choice for Finance Minister, Yanis varoufakis, were adjudged as “refreshing,” offering new light on boring old issues, as though what the world needs most it imagination — old things having passed away. Dramatic illustration of the newness of the new day appeared in the fact that the new government began by breaking the most ancient tradition of all – insisting on taking oaths of office without benefit of Greek Orthodox clergy.

Doing the Diplomatic Rounds

Within a few hours of this bracingly secular induction Greece’s Prime Minister and his new Finance Minister arranged to get personally acquainted with their counterparts in several of the European governments and with the highest officers of the European Union’s financial super-agencies, with whom Greek governments have been compelled to deal over the last few years. These public occasions were meant to offer the political, social and economic elites of the western world opportunity to acknowledge that a People’s Revolution had indeed taken place, and that these were the new masters

In Athens itself, and subsequently in the capitals of Holland, the U.K., France, Italy and Germany, press conferences were held. The words as well as the body language were crafted on the Greek side with a view to getting each particular meeting remembered as the first moment when the irresistible wave of populism began to sweep away everything that had been separating the masses and the power elites since the end of World War Two. The representatives of incumbent European governments turned up in the black suits and ties, the conventional costume of statesmen attending world conferences on all the matters of the hour. The Greeks presented a modified version of the Bolshevik model of the 1930s: leather coats and no ties; some stood on the platform with hands in pockets. It was the classic swaggering, morality-inversing tactic of delinquents confronting parents, bosses, creditors: We are the people/They are the suits, the money-bags.

Several of the Government leaders with whom Greece’s new Prime Minister and Finance Minister stood at their press conferences are leaders of one or other of the centrist parties that have been in and out of governing coalitions for decades. Today, they are being told by opinion polls and more noisily by great public rallies that their days are numbered and that, as was the case in Greece, their successors will belong to presently-small, newly-minted, parties that will win election to office on the promise of “rolling back austerity.” In Spain it will be the left-wing party Podemos; in Italy, which has a debt load that stands at 132 percent of its GDP, it could be the Five Star Movement; in Denmark, it could be the Danish People’s Party.

You are forgiven for not recognizing the names of these particular parties, as the politics of the moment is so volatile that any one or all of them may well have crested and collapsed before the next election day; but what most commentators take for granted is that whichever parties replace them in the affection of the voters they will share the principles of Greece’s Syriza.

Yanis Varoufakis: Poster-boy for Generation Austerity

Greece’s new Finance Minister Varoufakis will no doubt go on delighting interviewers for so long as this crew remains in charge. He commands the whole range of English that a darling of the press should have. He draws on the vocabulary of current economics, sociology and political science out of the top drawer, while dealing the very latest in slang, show-biz and fashion-talk out of the bottom drawer.

As for his ideological bearings: Varoufakis is a self-described “libertarian Marxist.” “In truth,” he says, “Karl Marx was responsible for framing my perspective of the world we live in, from my childhood to this day. It is not something that I volunteer to talk about in ‘polite society’ much these days because the very mention of the M-word switches audiences off.” While this may be so, Varoufakis does not understate the revolutionary character of the movement he fronts: “We (the politicians of Generation Austerity),” he announces, “are going to destroy the basis upon which they [the wealthy and political elite in Greece] have built for decade after decade a system, a network that viciously sucks the energy and the economic power from everybody else in society.”

As proof of his cosmopolitanism, Varoufakis borrows famous words of a famous Irish poet to portray the recent Greek election as a beautiful moment of clarity: “Greek democracy today chose to stop going gently into the night. Greek democracy resolved to rage against the dying of the light.”About the current economic crisis he says: “Europe in its infinite wisdom decided to deal with this bankruptcy by loading the largest loan in human history on the weakest of shoulders … [It is ] a kind of fiscal waterboarding that has turned this nation into a debt colony.” The waterboarding image, of course, serves to link this story of the torture of Greece by Europe’s bankers to the record of George W. Bush, the torturer of the martyrs of Guantanamo, the man who, as all on the Left agree, has set back forever the possibility of happiness in the world by inventing Terror so that there could be a War on it.

Bringing Nazism Into The Narrative

Because the right-wing in Greece, as in most European countries, shades into neo-Nazi territory, it is important for Syriza ‘s leaders to denounce the neo-Nazis and get right with the history of the days when the Nazis occupied Greece (1941-1945.)

The Greek people noted that the first move of Alexis Tsipras after being sworn in as prime minister was to lay a wreath at a memorial to a massacre of Greeks by German soldiers during World War Two. Minister Zaroufakis pursued the theme further during his visit to Berlin a few days later. At a joint press conference held with German finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble he said: “Germany must be proud of the fact that Nazism has been eradicated here…. When I return home tonight I shall find myself in a parliament in which the third-largest party is not a neo-Nazi party, it is a Nazi party.” The reference is to Golden Dawn, universally-recognized as an extreme, nationalist right-wing party, famous for holding rallies for the purpose of decrying Greece’s drift toward acceptance of immigrants from Turkey and Muslim world.

In the course of his first major speech to Parliament, February 8, Prime Minister Tsipras demanded out loud and for all the world to hear that Germany must own up to the past and commit to reparations to Greece for all that Greeks suffered during world. This is no way for any government to endear itself to its creditors. Chancellor Merkel has made clear that there is nothing to talk about here. Economists tell us that if all the victims of Germany’s depredation were now to receive the compensation they believe that they are owed (with accrued interest, of course) the entire GDP of Germany would not begin to meet the bill. As a matter of fact, there is in the books a Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany signed in September 1990, just as they were going out the door of history, by the two governments, East and West, that governed the German people prior to the collapse of European Communism. The terms were subsequently endorsed by the major Allied powers from the War and then likewise endorsed by a long list of lesser nations— including Greece. At the time, financial assistance was laid out by the Germans to the various governments; but in accepting these gifts the recipient governments acknowledged that the matter of “compensation” for the wartime misdeed of the Nazis. was now settled forever.

The Syriza government is now promoting the notion that much still remains to be paid – that the whole story of what the Germans took away from the Greeks should be reviewed, with a view to mitigating the present burden that Germany and German banks have imposed on the Greek masses. In re-opening this matter, cynically bundling-up this claim for “reparations” in the radiant cause of ending neo-Nazism, the new “liberated” Greek politicians may imagine that they are winning the hearts of The People everywhere. But it is dishonorable mischief-making, stirring up the memories of Europe’s darkest hour of with the bare-faced intention of setting nationa against nation, race and against race, People against Bankers. Worst of all, they are hardening the hearts of those politicians everywhere who can see clearly enough that this is an appeal to the bourgeoning anarchist wing in the new Left – in Europe, and everywhere else.

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