Greece Is Ripe for Radical Change

The latest draconian austerity measures imposed on the Greek people can be a catalyst to bring about the end of the old system

The passing of the third and most draconian tranche of austerity measures by the Greek parliament on Wednesday was a pyrrhic victory. It marks the beginning of the end of the coalition government and offers a textbook example of the terminal decay of a system of power. The signs are everywhere.

The procedure followed during the parliamentary debate violated both the rule of law and democracy. The one-clause bill incorporating a large number of unrelated measures amounted to several hundred pages but was given to MPs only the day before the debate, making detailed discussion impossible. New measures were added, one of which, removing parliament's independent control of its business, created such a reaction that the government had to withdraw it immediately.

The bill introduces new spending cuts, tax rises, education and social security "reforms", attacks on labour and trade unions rights, and miscellaneous unrelated provisions. A number of measures in the bill were declared unconstitutional by the areios pagos (the supreme court), the audit commission and parliament's legal service. Their incorporation into a single clause meant to turn the occasion into a vote of confidence and stop government MPs from rejecting parts they found beyond the pale. Under guillotine procedures, the debate was limited to 10 hours and was dominated by party leaders and spokespeople, disenfranchising backbench MPs. This indicates the government's contempt towards parliament and democratic debate. Still the Democratic Left, the minor partner in the coalition government, abstained from the vote and seven Pasok and New Democracy MPs voted against or abstained, cutting the government majority from to 29 to three.

The new cuts in salaries and pensions come on top of the 40% reductions already in place. Greece has experienced a 24% GDP contraction over five years, with unemployment at 25.5 % and youth unemployment at 55%, the highest in Europe. A humanitarian crisis has followed, with homelessness, mental illness and suicide at unprecedented levels. Hospitals cannot work for lack of basic medicines, schools have no textbooks or fuel for heating, people scour rubbish bins for food. The various lists of potential tax evaders, many of them supporters of the mainstream parties, disappear in the drawers of the elites. Politicians and rich tax evaders enjoy permanent immunity, while journalists who reveal them are prosecuted. Greek society is collapsing before our eyes and the neo-Nazi Chrysi Avgi rises on its ashes.

According to Sigmund Freud, the superego imposes impossible demands on the ego and keeps augmenting them if the self obeys. Something similar is happening to Greece. The troika and government measures have a sadistic character. They claim that austerity and internal devaluation will lead to growth. Yet the results show precisely the opposite. In April 2010, the IMF predicted that austerity Greece would have -1% growth in 2011 and move to steady growth in 2012. In April 2011, it changed its forecast for the year to -3% growth. It turned out -7%. In April 2012, the IMF predicted -4.7% for the year. Most economists are now predicting -7% or more.

It does not take great expertise to explain this abject failure. Public spending cuts and tax increases during a deep depression reduce demand, increase unemployment and halt growth. The slowdown reduces tax revenues and increases spending on unemployment and other benefits. Fiscal targets are missed and new austerity is demanded to plug the ever-increasing gap. The austerity measures are not about fiscal discipline but about turning Greece into a weak country under foreign diktat. If the IMF and government economists were first-year students they would have failed their exams. Unfortunately, their diktat makes millions fail their lives.

When a power system becomes historically obsolete radical change follows. The ancien regime may survive for a while, however, and even frustrate the "spirit" of history. Radical change requires three elements. Strong popular desire, a political agent prepared to take power and, finally, a catalyst, which combines the other two and gives the moribund power system the final push. In Greece, all three elements are present. The will for change was evident in last year's resistances and occupations and in the recent strikes and demonstrations. The Syriza party, which has been adopted by the people as the agent of change, is asking for elections. In a symbolic gesture, the Syriza MPs left the chamber on Wednesday and joined the rally in Syntagma Square. The disastrous austerity measures have become the catalyst for changing the 40-year-old power system that has brought the country to its knees.

The number of government MPs backing the measures under the principle that "turkeys don't vote for early Christmas" is fast diminishing. The combination of strong parliamentary opposition, social mobilisation and the decay of the minor coalition parties will soon impose elections and change.

A sense of deja vu coloured the proceedings. The collapse of George Papandreou's government last year started in the same way. The early austerity was approved by the Pasok-dominated parliament in June 2011 with a few MPs defecting and huge rallies and clouds of teargas in Syntagma. The prime minister, Antonis Samaras, who had voted against the earlier austerity, now finds himself in Papandreou's shoes. According to the philosopher Hegel, history repeats itself because radical change takes two efforts to succeed. On this occasion, the repetition will not be a farce but a huge relief.

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