A Greek Tragedy : Act III


By Duane Campbell

Left activists need to understand the crisis of austerity being imposed by  European bankers on Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, among others.  A catastrophe on the scale of the Great Depression has been forced upon Greece for over five years under the deceptive description of a “bailout.”

Lets start with a few basics usually not considered in the corporate media descriptions of the crisis.

What happened ?

1. In 2010 and 2011, mainly German and French banks in pursuit of high profits made massive loans to Greek firms. When the banks recognized that this was a high risk, they were bailed out (not Greece) by transferring the debt from the banks to the public institutions like the European Central Bank and the IMF.  Now the ECB and the IMF are trying to force the Greek government to cut pensions, education, salaries, and health care to pay for the bail out of the banks. 

These funds were transferred from banks, the ECB, and the IMF to pay back banks, the ECB  and the IMF.  Few funds were used to assist the Greek people. That is loans are being used to refinance the debt. They are recycled back to Germany, France  and other nations’ banks.  (Macropolis)

2.  The German nation owes almost as much money to the Greek people as Greece owes to Germany and the European Central Bank combined.

But Greece can not collect from Germany. Germany has the political and economic power (and allies such as the U.S.) to enforce debt repayment by starving the Greek economy and forcing the Greek nation into a great depression. (Hallinan,  “Greece, Memory and Debt.”)

3. The current policies are imposing a depression on Greece.  Austerity policies have produced a decline in the Greek economy by over 25% since 2010.  John Maynard Keynes explained this effect of imposed austerity during a depression way back in the 1930s,  but the bankers and the governments they control choose to ignore this reality in part because it is not in their interest.

There are significant and complex economic issues here, but it is equally important to not allow narrow, technocratic,  bankers’ and  economists’ insiders views to  go unchallenged.  The problem is not that they are technocrats, but that their numeracy (number crunching) disguises a particular set of political assumptions that enriches and protects the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

The domination of discussion in the media and in academia by a narrow and limited view of economics allows the neoliberal (pro- finance capital) assumptions to determine policy.   To understand this process of wealth extraction, we need to recognize how debt has been transferred from banks to nominally “public” institutions such as the IMF and the European Central Bank.

 The bankers’  assumptions produce policy choices that make the rich richer and the poor poorer.  They are not the product of a science of economics  but of the well-financed pursuit of self interest and the promotion of profit by the financial oligarchy.

To begin to comprehend an alternative, you need to understand, along with Greek Finance Minister  Yanis Varoufakis,  that this is not a Greek crisis, it is a Eurozone crisis that is currently having its most devastating effects on the people of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, and immigrant minorities in France,  among others.  See his explanation here.

The crisis is severe. These countries, and particularly young people, are going through a  depression, similar in scope and magnitude to of the Great Depression of the 1930’s which brought fascism to power in Germany, Italy and Spain.

The austerity demands of European bankers and politicians have shattered the economy of Greece,  producing  layoffs, wage and pension reductions, and huge cutbacks in health care. Some 44 percent of the Greek people are now living below the poverty line.

Pensions for retirees is currently one of the major sticking points preventing a compromise between Greece and the Eurozone bankers.

The Financial Times reports, “main pensions have been slashed 44 to 48 percent since 2010, reducing the average pension to 700 euros a month … About 45 percent of Greek pensioners receive less than 665 euros monthly — below the official poverty threshold.”  This is about $745 dollars per month.  (Mark Weisbrot)

 Many pensioners and their families  have already been reduced to poverty, and currently  the European Central Bank  and the IMF  insist on yet further cuts in pensions. For honest recording of the many and changing data points, I recommend the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

The crisis was initially created by the general crisis of capitalism in  2008/2009.  

During this period, Europeans, especially in Greece, Spain and Italy, suffered a recession similar to our own, including use of tax dollars to save major banks.  The looting of the U.S. economy crashed the world economy and caused the massive cutbacks Greeks and others continue to suffer. The situation is not improving. 

In Europe, as in the U.S., the banks were bailed out at public expense while the working people were required to pay the bailout costs.   Bankers raised their profits by imposing policies of severe loan paybacks as a part of the program known as austerity.   Austerity policies are ruining the Greek economy —  and you and I should care, in part because similar policies and programs  are at work in the U.S. and are advocated by most of the Republican candidates for President.

Bankers imposed their plan for austerity through their influence on government power, and quasi-governmental institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European  Union Central  Bank.  In the poorer countries of Europe, the imposition of austerity has made the economic situation worse year by year while maintaining a very profitable system for finance capital and capitalists.  This is class war of the rich against the poor and impoverished.  

Why is this devastation austerity policy being imposed?   Austerity is imposed by coordinated economic power because, in the short term, it serves the interests of finance oligarchs in Europe and the U.S.  If we misunderstand the nature of the crisis being imposed upon the people of Greece, Spain, etc,  then we are likely to misunderstand the crisis being imposed upon working people and pensioners and college students ( among others) here in  the U.S.

Under the current system of political economic advantage and ideological domination in the European Union, the working people, the 99%, cannot win.  They are being forced into increasing desperation, at times with the support of working people in Germany, for example,  who support their government’s harsh economic extractions from Greece due to nationalists’ myth making rather than an analysis of  economic reality.  See the excellent essay on Greece: Memory and Debt

A government responding to the needs of the 99% of its own people, as has the Syriza government of Greece, would need to seek alternatives to the continuing economic despoliation.  If a democratic government is elected in Spain this fall, they will face similar demands from the bankers and creditors.

The European Monetary Union is not going to change, because the current system is very profitable for the financial oligarchy.

There are alternatives.   Leading economists recognize the failure of the austerity approach and have proposed alternatives, but the banking sector will not consider reform.  See “A Modest Proposal” A significant number of mainstream economists have proposed reasonable if moderate alternatives ( Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, and others: “Economists Demand End to Greek Austerity”). A Greek exit from the Eurozone may be the best of several bad options.  They could leave the 19-member Eurozone (European Monetary Union) but remain in the 28-nation European Union.  As an example, Great Britain is in the European Union but not in the European Monetary Union known as the Eurozone.

Another alternative supported by a left wing in Syriza would be for Greece to follow the example of Iceland and nationalize the  banks rather than bail them out with further bank and  IMF loans that must be repaid by further cutting of pensions, schools, health care and social services.  Certainly, a new policy direction  is needed.

So, what do we do as a left in the U.S.?

First, we need to comprehend the reality of the oligarchy using the governments to impose austerity in Europe and in the U.S.   To do this, we need to turn to alternative media and economic institutions, since the oligarchy funds and promotes its views and claims a consensus on the  “Greek crisis.”  I recommend the several papers at the Center for Economic Policy and Research site. 

The bankers and the governments that they control argue that Greece is just being irresponsible.  This blaming the victim is the same argument that U.S. finance used to blame the poor and people of color  home owners in the U.S. for the real estate crisis that the banks caused in 2008/2009.  The oligarchy has a significant infrastructure and well endowed economists to promote their neoliberal economic viewpoints.

Study and analysis and acts of solidarity beyond the dominant paradigms will help us to develop policies and practices  for the needed  battle in our own society against corporate greed and the neoliberal finance oligarchy. These forces control a growing number of state governments, including Kansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, Louisiana, Texas and most of the South.  The corporate forces provide the resources for the Republican Party victories in the U.S. Congress, which consistently promotes austerity policies at the federal level as well as providing the economic and media advisors of most of the Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency.  

We need to break the stranglehold on what passes for economic thinking here in the U.S. as well as in Europe.


Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist for over 40 years, and former  chair of Sacramento DSA. He blogs on politics, education and labor at www.choosingdemocracy.blogspot.com and www.talkingunion.wordpress.com
He recently returned from Greece.

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