Germany can’t be allowed to strangle Syriza at birth. The fate of millions across Europe depends on it.
Angela Merkel is the most monstrous western European leader of this generation. Politicians who inflict economic cruelty on a mass scale, trashing the lives of millions as they do so, do not end up in courts to face justice. But Merkel undoubtedly stands tried and convicted in the dock of history already. The EU’s high priests of austerity conjure up the words of Charlie Chaplin’s rousing speech at the end of The Great Dictator: “Machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts”. The Greeks have rebelled against machine men – and women – and they are crying out for others to follow.
However, Merkel, the EU bureaucrats and international financiers are cruel but not stupid: they know hope is a contagion, and will do all they can to stop Syriza inspiring others. Merkel has already demanded that Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, ignore his democratic mandate and stick to foreign-imposed austerity measures.
In the runup to the election, leaks from the German government suggested a Greek exit from the eurozone: a clear message to the Greek people not to vote the wrong way. For those who want Europe to have a future that isn’t one of falling living standards, rising insecurity and stripped-away social provision, it is the policies of Merkel and the rotten elites she represents that must face a reckoning.
Consider the Nobel prizewinning economist Paul Krugman’s skewering of a policy that has hacked away a quarter of the Greek economy. As Krugman notes, the troika – the IMF, European Central Bank and European commission – promoted “an economic fantasy”, for which the Greeks have paid. They projected that unemployment would peak at 15% in 2012, but it hurtled to over 25% instead. He demolishes the lie that the Greeks did not impose enough austerity: they cut even further than was planned, and as the economy collapsed so did the tax revenues.
The Greeks must live within their means; they are suffering from years of profligacy, unlike the thrifty German state, or so the mantra goes. Greece is certainly more afflicted by the scandal of tax avoidance and evasion than most nations, and Syriza promises a welcome radical crackdown on both.
But the myths that underpin what is barely veiled collective punishment would be destroyed. As a Bloomberg editorial put it: “Every irresponsible borrower is enabled by an irresponsible lender.” Germany ploughed money into countries such as Greece and Spain – that’s the “magic” of deregulated markets – and in doing so “lent more than they could afford”. German banks and their political champions should have known this would end in disaster.
So why didn’t they act? Simple: greed. As Kevin Drum, a US writer, explains: it provided “German savers with a place to invest their money” and, crucially, “provided the periphery with enough cheap capital to act as a thriving market for German exports”. Who were the first EU countries to exceed the budget rules tied to the single currency, but Germany and France? Powerful as they were, they faced no comeback. Does that absolve the Greek elites – note, not the Greek people – of their role in calamity? Of course not. But Merkel should be begging for forgiveness too.
All Europe’s leaders have to offer is broken societies and broken people. Over half of young people in Spain and Greece are without work, leaving them scarred: as well as mental distress, they face the increased likelihood of unemployment and lower wages for the rest of their lives.
Workers’ rights, public services, a welfare state: all won at such cost by tough, far-sighted people, all being stripped away. There is a certain smugness expressed in Britain: just look across the waters at how bad things could be. Certainly Britain has been free of the euro. It has employed quantitative easing on a grand scale – though for the benefit of banks rather than people, and in an unsustainable, credit-fuelled mini-boom.
But in any case, British workers have suffered the biggest fall in their paypackets since the Victorian era, and one of the worst of any EU country. Britain’s rulers, just like those everywhere else in Europe, have punished their own people for the actions of an ever-thriving elite.
That’s why Greece has to be defended urgently – not just to defend a democratically elected government and the people who put it there. European elites know that if Syriza’s demands are fulfilled, then other like-minded forces will be emboldened. Spain’s Podemos, a surging anti-austerity movement, will be more likely to triumph in elections this year. Syriza has already achieved change: the European Central Bank’s limited quantitative easing is partly a response to its rise.
Even that well-known radical Reza Moghadam, Morgan Stanley’s vice-chairman of global capital markets and ex-head of the IMF’s European department, confirms Syriza’s strong negotiating position. The precedent of an exit from the eurozone would lead to the market punishing other members, and to calls for the erasing of half of Greece’s debt. A victory is possible, but it depends on popular pressure right across Europe. If Syriza extracts concessions, it will be a stunning victory for all anti-austerity forces, and will help shift the balance of power in Europe.
But if Greece loses, as those governments and banks that will now try to suffocate Syriza at birth intend? Then austerity will triumph over democracy. The future of millions of Europeans – Greek, French, Spanish and British alike – will be bleak indeed. That is why a movement to defend the already ruined nation of Greece is so important. Defeated Germany benefited from debt relief in 1953, and we must demand that for Greece today. We must champion Syriza’s call for the end of an austerity policy that has achieved nothing but social ruin, across Europe in favour of a strategy of growth.
Syriza’s posters declared: “Hope is coming”. Its election must represent that everywhere, including in Britain, where YouGov polling reveals huge popularity for a stance against austerity and the power of big business. A game of high stakes indeed: one that, if lost, will mean countless more years of economic nightmare.
This rerun of the 1930s can be ended – this time by the democratic left, rather than by the fascist and the genocidal right. The era of Merkel and the machine men can be ended – but it is up to all of us to act, and to act quickly.