Changing of the Guards

The recent anarchist riots in Greece have cost the country billions of dollars in damage. Rioters destroyed shops and luxury cars, sparing homes.  They attacked Citibank and other buildings which represented the system.  They were not interested in looting.  For example, they broke open an ATM machine and burned all the cash.

The recent anarchist riots in Greece have cost the country billions of dollars in damage. Rioters destroyed shops and luxury cars, sparing homes. They attacked Citibank and other buildings which represented the system. They were not interested in looting. For example, they broke open an ATM machine and burned all the cash.

by Cognord, Brooklyn Rail, July 2015

It appeared that the endless saga of the negotiations between the Syriza government and the European lenders had come to an end. After five months of ferocious zigzags, suspense, and fear, a certain deal had been reached. A sense of relief was radiating from the world press, the technocrats, and government bureaucrats. Whether the deal would be a success or not, however, seemed to depend on whom you ask. For those who wanted to ensure that austerity would continue, the deal was certainly to their liking. Curiously, for those who claimed to be on a mission to end austerity, the deal was also favorable. For those who will be immediately affected by the proposed measures, it seemed that not much had changed. The devil is in the details, some say, and many would have preferred those details to get lost amidst the obscure technicalities. Unfortunately for them, however, even Lorca knew that “ […] under the multiplications, the divisions, and the additions […] there is a river of blood.” The relief and satisfaction that the deal brought about could only have been short-lived. In fact, it could only have provided some gratification to the extent that it remained on paper. For as soon as its measures would have been implemented, the party would have been over.

Gentlemen, we don’t
need your organization

In the February 2015 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, I described Syriza’s infamous Thessaloniki Program(its veritable pre-election box of promises) as a minimal Keynesian program, with no real chance of reversing the catastrophic consequences of five years of violent devaluation. Back then, to say this was nothing short of blasphemy. An enthusiastic left was roaming around the globe speaking of a radical left, proclaiming an end to austerity, blowing a wind of change. Criticisms of Syriza and its economic program were cast aside as indications of an unrealistic and arrogant ultra-leftist dogmatism.

Today, the very people who supported Syriza in widely read articles and interviews are forced to admit a certain “moderate Keynesianism”1 in the initial program as well as a real distance between that program and today’s agreement. The happy chorus has stopped singing about the “end of austerity/Troika/etc.,” and has made a hard landing onto the desert of the real.2

It seems it took five months to openly admit what was already clear from the February 20th agreement. And while for those who put their trust in Syriza it is somewhat understandable that hope dies last, for those close to the decision-making process of the Greek government, such naiveté is, to say the least, suspicious. For if something has become crystal clear in the last few months, it is that Syriza was not negotiating with European officials; it was actually negotiating the ways through which the continuation of austerity will be accepted by its own members and by those who will be forced to endure its consequences.

Decline and fall of the
spectacle of negotiations

From the February 20th agreement in the Eurogroup onwards, it had become clear that Syriza was in no position to implement its Thessaloniki Program. After it became clear that they had no leverage to impose a discussion on debt reduction and an admission of Greece into the Qualitative Easing program of the ECB(European Central Bank),3 Syriza’s last chance was to rely on a show of good will from the Troika (which was kind enough to accept a ridiculous name change into “Brussels Group”), in exchange for social and political stability in Greece’s troubled territory. A clearly misunderstood version of the “extend and pretend” policy that the Eurozone has been following since the beginning of the crisis was seen by Syriza as a possible win-win for everyone: both the Troika and Syriza would pretend that austerity is minimized, while its essential character would remain unchanged.

However, a combination of the orchestrated irritation caused by Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and his inconsistencies, and the more substantial fact that any lenience towards Greece might spiral down towards Eurozone countries with more significant GDPs, meant that this sort of divergence from austerity was out of the question.

The only remaining way to salvage the spectacle of “negotiations” was to engage in a PR campaign which would offer different narratives to different audiences. In this process, what was a series of humiliating compromises in the Eurozone meetings was constantly transformed into a “harsh negotiation” for the Greek audience. Varoufakis became a cause célèbre, whose ability to annoy German Finance Minister Schäuble became a source of national pride in Greece. A mixture of hope beyond proof, disbelief, and the non-existence of political opposition made the task even easier for Syriza’s think-tanks. To top it up, one only needed to throw in a series of incomprehensible figures and decimal points. The self-evident truth of the abandonment of any prospect of minimizing austerity consequences was mystified through a steady production of numbers and statistics which left even experienced “experts” baffled.

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