Friday, February 17, 2012

Greece's collective nervous breakdown

Greece is a country and civilisation with a long history, the longest in Europe. But in its four thousand years of history, what it is going through now must rank as being one of the most humiliating episodes in its national history.

We'll forget about some of the ancient past for the sake of brevity; the 300 Spartans, the wars with the Persians, and so on. We'll forget Greece's occupation by the Romans for four hundred years. Moving on, we'll forget (for the moment) about the Fourth Crusade; that moment when Constantinople, Christendom's richest and most populous city at the time, as well as it's intellectual heart, was looted bare and half burned to the ground by fellow Christians. We'll forget about the Byzantine's long and painful decline after the Fourth Crusade until its eventual overthrow by the Ottoman Turks. We'll forget about Greece's occupation by the Turks for nearly four hundred years. We'll forget about Greece's occupation by the Nazis during the Second World War, and the bloody civil war afterwards. And we'll forget about the time when Greece was ruled by a brutal military junta, backed by the CIA during the middle of the Cold War.

We'll forget all that for now. It's worth remembering that words like "trauma"and "psyche", as well as pretty much most words to describe government, such as "democracy", "tyranny"
and "anarchy", are Greek. These could all be applied to describe in different ways the state of Greece today.
Greece as a nation-state is in collective meltdown. It just hasn't realised it yet. For decades (since the fall of the military junta, but moreso in recent decades), successive governments gave generous salaries and benefits to their population, in order to satisfy their wants and to garner popularity. At the same time, Greeks, from politicians down to hairdressers, were doing what they could to defraud the system, subsequently draining the government's revenue while at the same time the government was doing what it could to spend even more of it.
So it's no surprise that Greece would eventually find itself in a state of virtual bankruptcy. The question was what to do when the government eventually was forced to admit the truth to itself and to the public.

What it did do, considering that Greece was in the Euro, along with sixteen other countries, was ask for help. And because of the collective nature of the Euro (that when one country is screwed, the rest may well follow) the European Central Bank (mostly bankrolled by Germany, the Eurozone's strongest country) was obliged to provide it.
But Germany and the ECB were not in a sympathetic frame of mind, and in order to give Greece the money it needed to keep functioning, it asked for a lot in return, and (as the Greeks did not have trustworthy history of keeping to commitments) in a fairly short space of time. The result of that? The Greek government is forced to tear the guts out of its own institutions: government assets sold off to (foreign) privatisation; massive government lay-offs, salaries and pensions cut and cut again; meanwhile taxes are increased again and again. The consequence? Fury on the streets; 100,000 homeless in Athens; middle-class workers forced to queue for church handouts - a population and a country of modern Europeans, reduced to virtual poverty to pay off a loan.

Greece, in other words, is no longer in control of its own fate. The government, paralysed by the fear of being kicked out of the Eurozone and having to fend for itself under its own currency on one hand, and a fury at being a virtual hostage to a foreign power on the other, is stuck in a death-spiral trajectory. But this death-spiral of poverty is due to last for several more years at least, if Greece is to pay back its debts to the ECB/Germany. Meanwhile, in the real Greece, outside the parliament, it is clear the people cannot tolerate this forever. Already there has been looting and burning of buildings.

Greeks have been here before, though a long time ago. The Fourth Crusade of 1204 occurred when Crusaders were sent to Constantinople, then the capital of the Byzantine (Greek) Empire, in order to replace one emperor with his nephew on the throne. The nephew had promised a large financial reward to the Crusaders for this service. However, the empire at this time was practically bankrupt due to governmental mismanagement. The Crusaders forced the nephew, once installed on the throne, to raise taxes and loot the churches of gold and valuables. Riots were not long in coming, and within a matter of months the nephew was forced from the throne and replaced by a Greek who was not a pawn of the Crusaders. As a result of this, the Crusaders attacked the city a second time; this time, when they entered the city, it was looted bare of valuables and partially burned to the ground.

Greece these days is in a similar bind of its own making; only now, instead of being held hostage to Crusaders, it is held hostage to bankers in Frankfurt.

It's not Germany's or the ECB's fault that Greece is a financial colony. Greece could have decided that the best thing to do, given the kind of strict conditions that the ECB offered, was to choose to leave the Euro and fend for itself, using its own strategy. Some German politicians, secretly would prefer that; it would make it easier for them, and easier on the stability of the Eurozone.

There is to be an election in Greece in a couple of months, and I guess the question that most Greeks will be asking when the make their vote will be "Who runs Greece?". It is up to them to decide.

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