Monday, 13 July 2015

There is a New Berlin Wall and it's called The Euro

"The whole of the Mediterranean now finds itself in the wrong currency, and yet virtually nobody in the political arena has the courage to stand up and say that. I feel that the continent is now divided from north to south. There is a new Berlin Wall and it's called the euro."

I find myself surprised to report that these incisive and insightful words were uttered recently before the European Parliament by none other than Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain's far-right Euroskeptic party, UKIP - though I'm not sure the label 'far-right' is really appropriate any more. For in the charged political climate of today's Europe, it is perhaps an indication of just how acrimonious and divisive the politics of the eurozone have become - how irrational, fanatical, and hegemonic the policies of certain of its members - that Farage comes off sounding like the Voice of Reason. The eurozone seems to be in the grip of an economic neo-fascism far more extreme than anything UKIP could drum up.

I now officially count myself among the Euro-skeptics - not just with regard to currency union (that was the case before) but with regard to the EU project as a whole. I am not going to fault the UK or anyone for wanting to hold a referendum on EU membership in the future. All the worst fears about the EU, so far mostly peddled in the tabloid press - about surrendering national sovereignty and decision-making to faceless technocrats in Brussels, and EU politicians unaccountable to the people over whom they exercise enormous power - have been fully confirmed. And even worse - it would be bad enough if we were simply ruled by technocrats and bureaucrats in Brussels, but that would suggest at least a commitment to rational, data-driven policies. This is far worse. The latest rumblings over the Greek debt in Brussels - deal or no deal - suggest a political union driven by an irrational, sadistic, vindictive, fanatical and divisive neo-fascist politics of domination and hegemony, a conspiracy against the public, a conspiracy against democratic politics, led by politicians who are prepared to punish voters in a member country for their choice of government, for demanding rational economic policy, for making choices that their EU overlords dislike.

Economist Tim Worstall, writing in Forbes (hardly a lefty political rag), is more-less in line with Krugman, Stiglitz, and any number of award-winning economists: "It’s very difficult indeed to design plans for Greece that are actually worse than the one the European Union is trying to impose upon that benighted country. Decades of enforced poverty in order to maintain a currency (and possibly even a political order) that the country should never have embraced, should never have been allowed into, just isn’t one of those things that would win you a gold star in your high school economics class. Everyone from Milton Friedman to Paul Krugman, with a few insignificant bag carriers like myself bringing up the rear, has been screaming that the problem is the euro and while that remains so will the problem...However, amazingly, the German finance ministry seems to have managed to come up with a plan that is even worse...As has been pointed out, those who don’t [study history] are doomed to repeat it."

Paul Krugman in The New York Times calls the Eurogroup's demands "madness...This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief. It is, presumably, meant to be an offer Greece can’t accept…" And while Chancellor Merkel is harping on about trust, Krugman insists - "Who will ever trust Germany’s good intentions after this?...In a way, the economics have almost become secondary. But still, let’s be clear: what we’ve learned these past couple of weeks is that being a member of the eurozone means that the creditors can destroy your economy if you step out of line...even a complete Greek capitulation would be a dead end...The European project — a project I have always praised and supported — has just been dealt a terrible, perhaps fatal blow. And whatever you think of Syriza, or Greece, it wasn’t the Greeks who did it."

Joseph Stiglitz, another Nobel-winning economist, also insists that the real problem is Germany, which has benefited greatly under the euro. While he believes the eurozone should stay together, he notes that most economists (including himself) hold that "the best solution for Europe, if it's going to break up, is for Germany to leave. The mark would raise, the German economy would be dampened...and Germany would find out just how much it needs the euro to stay together...and possibly be more willing to help out the countries that are struggling...There's a whole set of an unfinished economic agenda which most economists agree on, except Germany doesn't."

"If Greece leaves," Stiglitz adds, "I think Greece will actually do better...There will be a period of adjustment. But Greece will start to grow."

Even on this side of the Atlantic, Wolfgang Munchau, associate editor of the Financial Times and former co-editor of FT Deutschland, writes that Greece's creditors "have destroyed the eurozone as we know it and demolished the idea of a monetary union as a step towards a democratic political union...In doing so they reverted to the nationalist European power struggles of the 19th and early 20th century. They demoted the eurozone into a toxic fixed exchange-rate system, with a shared single currency, run in the interests of Germany, held together by the threat of absolute destitution for those who challenge the prevailing order...This brings us back to a more toxic version of the old exchange-rate mechanism of the 1990s that left countries trapped in a system run primarily for the benefit of Germany, which led to the exit of the English pound and the temporary departure of the Italian lira. What was left was a coalition of countries willing to adjust their economies to Germany’s. Britain had to leave because it was not...Once you strip the eurozone of any ambitions for a political and economic union, it changes into a utilitarian project in which member states will coldly weigh the benefits and costs, just as Britain is currently assessing the relative advantages or disadvantages of EU membership. In such a system, someone, somewhere, will want to leave sometime. And the strong political commitment to save it will no longer be there either."

In fact, I have yet to read a credible, independent expert opinion that has anything positive to say about Greece's creditors and their role in this debacle. One financial analyst, Marc Ostwald of ADM Investor Services, claimed the latest deal offered by the creditors was worse than the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that crushed Weimar Germany with debt and paved the way for the second world war. The creditors, he added, seem to be trying “to completely destroy Greece”.

Even Jeffrey Sachs, one of the infamous 'shock doctors' much-maligned by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine (he is in fact credited with having coined the term 'economic shock therapy'), has effectively cast his lot with Syriza, writing that "Europe’s demands – ostensibly aimed at ensuring that Greece can service its foreign debt – are petulant, naive, and fundamentally self-destructive. In rejecting them, the Greeks are not playing games; they are trying to stay alive...The Greek government is right to have drawn the line. It has a responsibility to its citizens. The real choice, after all, lies not with Greece, but with Europe."

Already in the lead-up to Syriza's election several months ago, Sachs wrote: "The leftwing party Syriza is no anomaly; it is telling the financial and political truth in the runup to Sunday’s elections, however unpleasant that may be to politicians in Berlin and Brussels."

What is becoming increasingly clear, given the near-consensus of eminent international economists - Nobel laureates and esteemed economic thinkers all - on the utter fallacy of the Eurozone creditors' position, and the correctness of Syriza's demands, is that Syriza is really not very radical at all. As Slavoj Zizek put it in a recent article in New Statesman, "if one looks closely at the proposals offered by Syriza, one cannot help noticing that they were once part of the standard moderate social-democratic agenda (in Sweden of the 1960s, the programme of the government was much more radical). It is a sad sign of our times that today you have to belong to a 'radical' left to advocate these same measures..." The label 'radical left', as I've said before, only has meaning in a charged political context where the 'centre' has become the technocratic neo-fascism currently gripping the imaginations of many eurozone leaders. If Syriza are radical, it is only as radically rational pragmatists.

In light of all this, the account given in a recent interview by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, of the past few months of negotiations, makes a lot of sense:

...[T]he inside information one have your worst fears confirmed...To have “the powers that be” speak to you directly, and it be as you feared – the situation was worse than you imagined! the complete lack of any democratic scruples, on behalf of the supposed defenders of Europe’s democracy. The quite clear understanding on the other side that we are on the same page analytically...To have very powerful figures look at you in the eye and say "You’re right in what you’re saying, but we’re going to crunch you anyway."

It’s not that it didn’t go down well – it’s that there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank...You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on – to make sure it’s logically coherent – and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken.

Schäuble was consistent throughout. His view was "I’m not discussing the programme – this was accepted by the previous government and we can’t possibly allow an election to change anything..." So at that point I had to get up and say "Well perhaps we should simply not hold elections anymore for indebted countries," and there was no answer.

My constant proposal to the Troika was very simple: let us agree on three or four important reforms that we agree upon, like the tax system, like VAT, and let’s implement them immediately. And you relax the restrictions on liqiuidity from the ECB. You want a comprehensive agreement – let’s carry on negotiating – and in the meantime let us introduce these reforms in parliament by agreement between us and you...And they said "No, no, no, this has to be a comprehensive review. Nothing will be implemented if you dare introduce any legislation. It will be considered unilateral action inimical to the process of reaching an agreement." And then of course a few months later they would leak to the media that we had not reformed the country and that we were wasting time! And so... [chuckles] we were set up, in a sense, in an important sense.

The palpable hysteria with which European elites met Syriza's mere election a few months ago, with talk of markets tumbling and predictions of general mayhem, is reminiscent of C.P. Cavafy's famous poem, 'Waiting for the Barbarians', in which he describes a 'civilized' society in decline, preparing for an imminent invasion by barbarians who never, in the end, turn up - and ends with these lines:

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

The eurogroup's disappointment with and consequent resentment of Syriza amounts precisely to this - Syriza are the barbarians who never materialized, who turned out to be in fact the rational, pragmatic and moderate antidote to the irrational, German-led neo-fascist economic extremism driving the poorer European economies into debt servitude - Syriza made them look bad, simply put. Syriza as extremist barbarians would have been 'a kind of solution' - they would have justified harsh measures, in the eyes of creditors. When Chancellor Merkel talks about 'trust', this is probably what she is getting at, or where these sentiments come from. As some commentators have pointed out, the Germans have shown themselves to be less trustworthy than anyone - but they are nonetheless fanatically, obsessively, hysterically convinced that behind these rational, pragmatic moderates in Syriza, the barbarians still lurk, in wait.

What is also clear is that, even if Syriza has lost the political battle - for now - it has clearly won the rational argument. The forces of Reason and Rational Economic Policy are clearly on its side. And the development of science, even economic science, isn't subject to socio-political fluctuations, market movements, and special interests quite as much as the political field is.

During negotiations in Brussels yesterday, it emerged that one of the creditors' demands (specifically a German idea), as a condition of the Greek bailout, was to transfer 50 billion euros of 'valuable Greek assets' as collateral to a shady Luxembourg-based 'Institution for Growth'. This entity, as later reported, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of German KfW, chaired by none other than Germany's finance minister Wolfgang Schauble. Quite apart from the cronyism and conflicts of interest - this, dear reader, is tantamount to me giving you a loan to help you repay your debts, but in return demanding that you, say, sign over the mortgage on your house to me as collateral - which in the long run makes you poorer, as you are giving up an asset that will appreciate in value, and less likely to be able to repay your debts, including your debts to me. This is just another example of how fantastically stupid the austerity regime imposed on Greece for the past 5 years has been, and goes a long way in explaining why economists around the world are railing against it. Even if this idea was watered down in the latest form of the agreement - the assets now will be transferred to an entity based in Athens - the principle is the same: the Greek government is somehow expected to achieve major budget surpluses while at the same time making itself poorer in the long run (by selling off assets), and growing the economy, and repaying its debts, and making those debts more sustainable.

As for the cronyism and conflicts of interest in the suggested version of the plan, we should remember that Schauble, Germany's finance minister and chief EU moralizer in the Greece debt crisis, resigned from office as party chairman back in 2000 due to his role at the centre of a massive corruption scandal in Germany involving illegal campaign financing and "a labyrinthine network of secret slush funds fed by millions of Deutsche marks in undeclared - and therefore illegal - campaign contributions." Schauble, by his own admission "personally ran the slush-fund system during his 25 years as party chairman...At first the chairman insisted that he had only briefly met Karlheinz Schreiber, the fugitive weapons dealer who regularly handed bags of cash to CDU officials. Then last month Schauble was forced to admit that he had personally accepted a 100,000 Deutsche mark donation from Schreiber - in cash."

Well, I guess that makes it kind of easy to stay solvent and lecture others about financial responsibility, when you get regularly handed personal 'donations' of millions in cash by dodgy weapons dealers on the run from the law. And then, to have the cheek to talk about 'trust'…With this in mind, I suspect that Schauble hates Syriza so much precisely because they have no links to previous Greek governments, to the corrupt political elites with whom he did deals in the past and who, like him, had a penchant for failing to declare moneys (received or spent), which ultimately led to their demise, and the demise of the Greek economy once Wall Street imploded. Schauble, in other words, prefers to deal with corrupt neo-fascist stooges like himself. With his wheelchair and irrational intransigence that leads to disaster, he actually seems a great fit for the role of latent Nazi Dr Strangelove, director of weapons research and development in Kubrick's epic film - a man willing to risk everything, including the fate of the world, for the sake of his own misguided intellectual obsessions...

In the Guardian's reporting on the talks in Brussels last night, there was mention that the Eurogroup, among other things, wants "rigorous review of collective bargaining" - as if collective bargaining rights and unions caused the financial crisis, not corrupt banks propped up by the same corrupt politicians who are now trying to get rid of Greece's first non-corrupt government in at least a decade. Nice try. This clearly has nothing to do with constructive, rational economic policy. In negotiations described by one senior EU official as an "exercise in extensive mental waterboarding" of the Greeks (for those unaware this is a form of torture favoured by CIA interrogators), the new terms reached "are much stiffer than those imposed by the creditors over the past five years." This, said the senior official, was payback for the emphatic no to the creditors’ terms delivered in the Greek referendum last week. “He was warned a yes vote would get better terms, that a no vote would be much harder,” said the senior official.

Greece, in other words, is being collectively punished for voting 'no' in the referendum. Quite literally - punished. This really is terrorism, as former Greek finance minister Varoufakis put it. According to the BBC's Paul Mason, "in Greece large numbers of people – on all sides of politics – believe the Europeans are trying to force the elected government to resign before a deal is concluded." I'd say that's been pretty clear for a while now.

So here's hoping that the Greeks will have the courage to resist, and perhaps take the plunge out of the euro zone themselves. There are some signs of fierce opposition to the latest deal from within Syriza itself, not least the President of Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, who delivered these blistering words to Greek legislators yesterday:

After the Second World War, Germany enjoyed the greatest remission of debt [in history], so as to allow it to get back on track. This was done with the generous partnership of Greece...And yet Germany is behaving as if history and the Greek people owe a debt to her, as if she expects to receive a historic payback for her own atrocities…

The artificial and deliberate creation of conditions of humanitarian disaster so as to keep the people and the government in conditions of suffocation and under the threat of a chaotic bankruptcy constitutes a direct violation of all international human rights protection treaties, including the Charter of the United Nations, the European treaties, and even the statutes of the International Criminal Court. Blackmail is not legal. And those who create conditions that eliminate freedom of the will may not speak of "options." The lenders are blackmailing the government. They are acting fraudulently, since they have known since 2010 that this debt is unsustainable. They are acting consciously, since their statements anticipate the need for humanitarian aid in Greece. Humanitarian assistance for what? For an unexpected and inadvertent natural disaster? Is it an unpredictable earthquake, flooding, a fire?


Humanitarian aid [would be required] because of their conscious and calculated choice to deprive the people of the means of survival, closing the tap of liquidity in retaliation for the democratic choice of the government and the parliament to call a referendum and to turn to the people to decide their own future...

NO to blackmail

NO to ultimatums

NO to the Memoranda of servitude

NO to the repayment of a debt they did not create and that is not attributable to them

NO to new measures of impoverishment and exhaustion

. . .

It is important to keep reminding ourselves in all this that the global financial crisis that started in 2007-08, and which reverberates to this day in Greece, at its root has nothing to do with 'lazy Greeks' or the welfare state (as Paul Krugman pointed out many times) or poor people living beyond their means, and very little to do with Greece - it is the direct result of catastrophic incompetence, greed and corruption among top executives in the biggest banks in the richest country in the world - the United States - who were bailed out unconditionally with funds many times greater than the money merely funneled through Greece (and back to foreign banks in the form of loan payments). Some of the reasons why Greece is suffering to this day:

  • In a global financial crisis, the weakest economies are hit hardest (especially in a common currency zone, which goes back to the argument why Greece should never have joined the euro);
  • Years of mismanagement by previous Greek governments (i.e. hiding their debts), made up of the same corrupt politicians favoured and propped-up for years by equally corrupt foreign (mainly French and German) banks, and today supported by corrupt Eurozone and Troika officials who want to get rid of Syriza; they were effectively hiding structural weaknesses in the Greek economy which were exposed when global financial markets slid into recession;
  • Failure by Troika and Eurozone officials to acknowledge their failures and follow rational economic policy in relation to Greece, making the crisis there far worse through austerity measures that led to record unemployment levels and even deeper recession since 2010…

As one commentator notes in the Washington Post, "This latest melodrama playing out in Brussels as European finance ministers meet to discuss whether or not to approve a new Greek bailout, appears so nonsensical that it can be hard to believe these people are deciding the future of Europe."

I would even go so far as to say, we have here an entire currency union run by a cabal of incompetent, sadistic, fanatical neo-fascist buffoons and stooges - instead of obsessing about cutting Greek pensions, these people should be pensioned off and locked up in a care home somewhere where their senile babble will be muffled behind sound-proof doors instead of shaping policies that affect millions of people.

I have coined a new word: Oxi-mandias. In reference to the Greek 'Oxi' in the referendum, and Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias' - this is the impending fate of the European project, so long as it remains in the hands of its current fanatical, irrational, neo-fascist architects:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!"
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Or, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late."

When asked about the Versailles analogy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded: “I never make historical comparisons.”

How ironic, cynical, and loaded a statement for a German head of state to make. As Louis Armstrong 'Satchmo' put it, "Denial ain't nothin' but a river in Egypt." And indeed, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If Karl Marx is to be believed - that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce" - this one could well end in tragedy. A Greek, or Greco-German tragedy, no less.

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