Neo-Liberalism, Austerity, and Greek Democracy

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For five years now, the Greek people have been on the receiving end of a massive programme of forced austerity.  Living standards have fallen, on average, by at least a quarter. Unemployment has risen to 1 in 4 of the labour force; youth unemployment is, officially, a staggering 50% and the real figure is far higher.  Suicide rates have risen by 40%– a shocking indicator of the human cost of this failed neo-liberal ideology.

Right from 2008, there has been massive opposition to austerity in Greece.  Large-scale protests, student walk-outs, occupations of businesses and government offices, and strikes, including general strikes, have all become common occurrences across the country.  That the Greek state, despite three changes in government in the last five years, has ignored these protests and continued with austerity, is only one element in a broader erosion of the very fabric of Greek democracy.

This time last year, the then Prime Minister George Papendraou momentarily wavered from the austerity script and meekly suggested that the Greek people should be consulted by referendum about any further cuts.  Within days he had been removed, by the EU. Unable to form a coalition with SYRIZA or the Communist Party, both of whom oppose austerity, the pro-austerity politicians of PASOK and New Democracy willingly got into bed with LAOS (Nation), an extremist party that until then had been consigned to the racist fringes of Greek politics.  And of course, this interim coalition, in power until the summer of this year, continued to implement the EU’s austerity policies, slashing wages across Greece.

Thus, the EU and the “moderate” right wing of Greek politics granted a new legitimacy to the violent and bigoted Greek far-right.  It’s terrible when the far-right get access to power anywhere – it’s even more worrying when it happens in a country that as late as 1974 was ruled by a brutal extremist junta.

In the elections of June of this year, Golden Dawn, LAOS’s more violent cousins, won 18 seats in the Greek Parliament and the country has since seen a sharp rise in racist attacks.  And this is definitely not a fringe phenomenon.  In fact, the rise of Golden Dawn has been, from the start, intimately linked with the Greek Establishment.  The current Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, who just narrowly beat SYRIZA in the elections, has been only too quick to play the race card.   He has denigrated immigrants as “the tyrants of Greek society” and “conquerors.”  There have even been reliable reports that police in Athens have begun to collude with Golden Dawn in carrying out vicious attacks on impoverished migrants from Albania, Egypt and elsewhere.  These are blatant attempts, by a discredited and undemocratic ruling elite, to distract attention from the train-wreck that is their austerity agenda. At the same time the journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, has been arrested on a spurious “invasion of privacy” charge.  His actual “crime” was to publish a list of 2,000 super-rich Greek tax exiles.

This assault on democracy is a last-ditch effort to scapegoat some of the most vulnerable people in Greece in the hope of avoiding any movement away from austerity.  That it has happened under the watchful eye of the Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning European Union would be hilarious, if it were not so serious.

What Greece, and indeed all of Europe needs now is an immediate halt to these destructive of austerity (which, even the IMF now agree, doesn’t work), a socialist recovery plan, with economic democracy and job-creation at the centre, and a vigorous grassroots-led campaign against the poison of racism and sectarianism.