Can the Greek Tragedy Be Rewritten?

Supporters of Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza party, wave a giant flag outside Athens University in Greece on January 25, 2015. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Can the Greek Tragedy Be Rewritten?

Outside of Latin America, it has become exceedingly rare for left-wing radical organizations and political parties to transition from agitating in the streets to actually assuming power through elections in a few short years. That is only one of many reasons why the new government of Alexis Tsipras in Greece has captured the imagination of the global left.

In elections earlier this year, Tsipras' anti-austerity Syriza party won enough seats in Parliament to become de facto heads of the most ruined economy in Europe. What lies ahead could map an exit plan from the business-as-usual model plaguing countries around the world, including the U.S. Not surprisingly, Syriza's win has set off a tidal wave of fear, consternation and economic orthodoxy among elites, hinting that the prevailing tradition of placing profit first is more precarious than we might think.

It is no accident that Greece is the first site of successful economic rebellion in modern-day Europe. More than two years ago, I had the chance to speak with then-University of Texas professor and current Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis a couple of times on "Uprising." In November 2012, Varoufakis underscored the extent of the human tragedy, saying "Greece traditionally had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world. Now, the suicide rate is competing with the highest such rates around the globe. Primarily middle-aged men ... are literally killing themselves." He cited the high-profile suicide of a pharmacist who before killing himself had written a "political manifesto against the elites." Unemployment in Greece reached levels higher than even the worst days of the Great Depression. Greece became the Western poster child of neoliberal austerity measures. Simply put, they'd been pushed too far.

As we have seen in countries such as Brazil and Venezuela, masses of people have come to see the ideology of market fundamentalism, in which capital is king, as clashing with the very basic notion that an economy should be designed around collective human needs. And with their own lives being sacrificed on the altar of capitalist faith, Greeks have revolted in heresy. Richard Wolff, the acclaimed Marxist economist, told me that "the situation in Greece is terrible. It is terrible in the way Americans ought to pay attention to because what has happened there could happen here, and there are many of the same forces pushing in that direction."

There are many far more impoverished places on the planet than Greece or the U.S., laid waste by the ravages of historic colonial exploitation and modern-day profit-based resource extraction: Niger, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Haiti. Most of them inhabit the bottom rungs of the United Nations Human Development Index. But few if any of those countries have ever had widespread economic security. Greeks had a minimum guaranteed income, generous pensions and more, and in a few short years they lost much of their hard-won social and economic security. The shock of that loss galvanized the Greek public into expressing its disgust and cynicism at the polls as an act of desperation.

Here in the U.S., the most recent and prominent manifestation of anti-capitalist disgust came in the form of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, which spread like wildfire. While the actions were inspiring and even game-changing in terms of influencing the mainstream discourse, there was little long-term impact. According to Varoufakis, the U.S. case is slightly different because austerity is not a specific policy designed to restructure the economy as in Greece. But each time the White House and Congress fail to agree on the budget, "the default position is a massive reduction in government spending ... which will work like austerity." The lesson, said Varoufakis, is "that a recession can turn very quickly into a depression," as in Greece.

Indeed, for the poorest Americans there has already been something akin to a depression for decades now. An economist at Johns Hopkins University found that 20 years of welfare reform policies in the U.S. have resulted in the neediest Americans losing benefits while slightly better-off folks received more federal aid. Professor Robert A. Moffitt studied families on government assistance from the years 1983 to 2004, and, according to The New York Times, "generally unemployed single mothers with children" saw their benefits falling by a whopping one-third. There are an estimated 2.5 million single-parent families in that category.

Meanwhile, according to Moffitt, "There's been this emphasis on rewarding workers and people like the elderly or disabled who are considered "the deserving poor.'" This should come as no surprise, given that welfare policies were deliberately redesigned under Clinton and Bush to reward those who have jobs rather than those who do not or (more likely) cannot work. Perhaps the U.S. elite has succeeded in staving off a political revolt by targeting the poorest of the poor disproportionately, rather than engineering a more equal-opportunity devastation as seen in Greece.

But politics can change quickly in the event of a perfect storm. In April 2012 Varoufakis--as if foreseeing his party's astounding success nearly three years later--told me, "when you have societies that are caught in a 'death spiral,' then the obvious side effect of this is that the political scene implodes as well." Indeed Syriza's win has threatened the very foundation of Europe's neoliberal doctrines. Wolff agreed that the latest Greek elections were "a very important warning ... to everybody else in Europe and here, too, that things can change in a very few years from the conventional old politics to a radical new [one]. ... No wonder the old powers of Europe are trying to hold [Syriza] back and fighting. They're afraid for themselves where this model might go and how it'll affect their own people."

Syriza's election wins have solved the first part of Greece's problem: how to gain political power on an anti-austerity platform. The second and harder part is actually making a dramatic change to the economic model. I asked Varoufakis how newly elected officials could remain part of the eurozone, placate their constituencies by cutting back austerity programs and solve the fiscal crisis all at once. Without hesitation he said, "It's dead easy, it can be done in a week." He added with a wry laugh, "Politically, it won't happen, I'm afraid." He laid out a three-point plan that included unifying the banking systems of Europe, merging public debts of various European states and creating a Europe-wide "reinvestment policy" to stimulate the economy. None of this sounds very radical and even leaves the main tenets of a growth-based capitalist system intact. But the crucial difference is that it redesigns the details of such a system to put human needs at the center.

Wolff explained in crystal-clear terms the lens through which we have to view a system that is failing so many to benefit a few: "An economic system is as good as the jobs and incomes and security and future it provides to people. We have it upside-down in modern capitalism. We all adjust to the system. We should be adjusting the system to us."

In the meantime, all eyes are on Greece to see if what Varoufakis thought was quite easy but politically impossible is something that his own party and he can engineer, now that they have the power to potentially rewrite their nation's future.

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