What if three million protesters poured into the streets of American cities, and with a general strike shut down all transportation, closing government offices, and setting banks and office buildings ablaze?
If one takes into account the size of Greece, a proportionate amount of the Greek population did just that on May 5. Over 100,000 protesters took took to the streets. But this was not your ordinary European mass rally. World markets, including Wall Street, felt the tremor from these demonstrations. The protests are against onerous economic cutbacks in the wake of a € 110 billion Euro ($145 billion) bailout for a near-bankrupt economy. But a large percentage of the Greek population doesn't see itself paying for a generation for the corruption of their own officials, and the economic shock therapy dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and German bankers.
From the UK Guardian:
"All of us are angry, very, very angry," bellowed Stella Stamou, a civil servant standing on a street corner, screaming herself hoarse, a block away from where the bank had been set alight.
"You write that - angry, angry, angry, angry," she said, after participating in one of the biggest ever rallies to rock the capital since the return of democracy in 1974. "Angry with our own politicians, angry with the IMF, angry with the EU, angry that we have lost income, angry that we have never been told the truth."
From the Wall Street Journal:
"For 30 years the Greek people have been held hostage," said Periandros Athanassakis, 48, a garbage collector in Piraeus, the port near Athens. "Those who stole the money should pay."
Some officials saw in Wednesday's protests the seeds of broader discontent. "We may have an uprising in the making," one senior Greek official said.
The New York Times focused on the violence, predicting (in their hopeful way) that the violence would bring about a government reaction, and a backlash of Greeks "against a growing number of extremists". The Grey Lady intoned, "Some said they were willing to endure what some economists predict could be 10 years before the economy bounces back," even while others were responding differently:
... clustered among the protesters were subgroups numbering in the hundreds - mostly young and many clad in black, wearing hoods or masks and carrying helmets, wooden bats or hammers - that the police and other demonstrators identified broadly as anarchists. They led efforts to storm the Parliament building, chanting "thieves, thieves," and hurling rocks and gasoline bombs.
Everyone agrees that the situation in Greece is dire. And Greece is the proverbial canary in the coalmine, as world financiers look doubtfully upon Spain's 20% unemployment rate and indebtedness, and precarious economic conditions from the UK to Italy. The Germans are the real power behind the EU, and their economy is the one that others are looking to for a bail out the weaker states - but only at a price. The Germans are holding firm to the terms of their bailout, even as German chancellor Angela Merkel said, "Quite simply, Europe's future is at stake."
What's the Bailout Deal?
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has a difficult, maybe impossible austerity package to sell to the Greek people. The Greek state has been living on borrowed funds for some time. The bailout deal proposed by the Germans and IMF demands Greece reduce its national borrowing rate from 13.4% of national income to 3% within four years. But where's the money going to come from?
According to another New York Times story:
The new measures include an increase of two percentage points in the value-added sales tax, which is now 19 percent; a further increase in the fuel tax; increases of 20 percent for alcohol taxes and 6 percent for cigarette taxes; a new tax on luxury goods; and a 12 percent cut in supplements to wages for civil servants, Mr. Petalotis said.
They also include a 30 percent reduction in the bonuses given to civil servants as holiday pay, which amount to two additional monthly wages, he said.
The Gerson Lehrman Company describes how the Greek economy is going to be chopped up and sold to the highest bidder, many of those foreign. Of course, they are quite sober about it all:
The government will accelerate privatizations (€ 2.5 bill. budgeted for 2010) and may change its mind regarding majority ownership by strategic (foreign/EU) investors of types of assets / industries that have been protected under the existing social /political model, including utility/infrastructure, transport or special state (monopoly) assets. Examples might include the railway company, water distribution companies, the electricity grid or the power company (PPC), as well as the soccer betting company (OPAP), gambling Casinos and the remaining stake in Hellenic Telecom (OTE), which will probably be sold to Deutsche Telekom. Other interesting candidates for privatization might include airports and seaports and enhanced PPP/PFI models will be considered for infrastructure investments.
So goodbye living wages, goodbye state-run utilities, transport, and telecom. As the quote above makes clear, German companies are primed to sweep up the goodies off the bargain basement floor. This is a bitter pill for the Greeks, who endured Nazi occupation during World War II, which they answered with a large bloody resistance. The old hatreds and resentments still simmer under the surface.
Back in February, Greek Deputy prime minister Theodoros Pangalos lashed out:
Nazi theft of Greek gold during the Second World War is to blame for the country's faltering finances, Athens claimed yesterday....
Greece said the real culprit for its problems were the Nazis, whose occupation lasted from 1941 to 1945....
Germany swiftly rejected the accusation, saying it paid £50 million in compensation by 1960 and more to forced labourers of the Nazi regime.
Where is this all headed?
People in the U.S. are used to hearing about European general strikes. In the popular mind, fostered by a somnolent and ignorant press, such protests are quaint European customs, artifacts of a past that is not relevant anymore, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. But this is a crisis that is not going to go away. And within living memory, European states have turned to violent coups and dictatorships to quell popular dissent, as in Greece and Portugal in the 1960s and 1970s.
In Italy, U.S./NATO-backed right-wing terrorists, part of the left-behind armies of Operation Gladio, facilitated the Italian government's "strategy of tension" during the 1980s in order to keep the then-popular Italian Communist Party from entering the Italian government. Philip Willan covered the revelations of this story in the UK Guardian a decade ago:
The 300-page [Italian parliamentary] report says that the United States was responsible for inspiring a "strategy of tension" in which indiscriminate bombing of the public and the threat of a rightwing coup were used to stabilise centre-right political control of the country.
Those who carried out the attacks were rarely caught, it said, because "those massacres, those bombs, those military actions had been organised or promoted or supported by men inside Italian state institutions and, as has been discovered, by men linked to the structures of United States intelligence".
The crisis in Greece and the European Union in general is exposing the deep flaws within the post-Soviet economic and political structure in Europe. The fires in Athens are a harbinger of a bigger crisis to come, one that Americans will have to pay attention to. But do not count on the U.S. press to honestly report what will happen, or the U.S. government to stand aside in neutrality. The Obama administration is pushing the Europeans and the IMF to get the bailout deal in place quickly, even as right-wing Republicans are screaming they will not support the U.S. paying its portion of the IMF bailout funds.
The people of Greece seem determined they will not pay for the orgy of corruption and double-dealing that has left their economy in tatters. Whether it was Goldman Sachs playing funny with derivatives to help the Greek government to hide its debt, or German companies rushing to buy up newly privatized industries, or the wide-spread corruption of Greek politicians, they are saying something that American workers and middle class might be thinking, and that has some people afraid: "'let the plutocracy pay'...'Why should we, the little man, pay for this crisis?'"