Crisis at the Acropolis

In everyday language, the word austerity means ‘to live plainly’. In economics, it means dropping the axe on a country’s social safety net, rising taxes, falling wages, and layoffs. Ironically, it is those who already ‘live plainly’ whose lives are most brutally impacted by “austerity” in the economic sense. The people of Greece had to learn this the hard way.

In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and the Great Recession, all of Greece’s dominoes tumbled down. Political corruption and tax evasion had led the country to run budget deficits year on year for more than a decade. This didn’t matter so much in the heady years of the 2000s when Greece’s lenders were happy to look the other way, but after the near-implosion of the world’s financial system and the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the banks came calling and the shit officially hit the fan.

Together, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank, colloquially known as the ‘Troika’, agreed to lend the Greek government the money it needed to remain in the EU and keep from going bankrupt if it agreed to enact punishing austerity measures.

In May 2008, Greece’s unemployment rate had stood at a modest 7.3 percent. By Sept. 2013, it had soared upwards to a stunning 28 percent, more than 3 points higher than the U.S. at the height of the Great Depression. Homelessness, suicides, and poverty rates all jumped upwards as the situation deteriorated.

From 2010 to 2012 Greece, and especially Athens, was rocked by hundreds of large-scale protests, some reaching attendance in the hundreds of thousands. In those days it was not uncommon to see the square in front of parliament thronged with people, the air filled with the crisscrossing green beams of laser pointers sold to the crowd by opportunistic street vendors.

Since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1973, Greek politics had been dominated by two centrist parties: the conservative New Democracy and the social-democratic Panhellenic Socialist Movement. As the emerging social crisis unfolded, the momentum of Greek politics began to rapidly flow outward to the far-right and the far-left at the expense of the centrist parties, who were seen as culpable for the sorry state of the nation.

Fast-forward to this year’s snap elections and we have a situation in which the neo-fascist Golden Dawn is the third largest party in parliament, while the Panhellenic Socialist Movement barely qualifies for seats and has fallen below even the Greek Communist Party.

The big winner, however, is SYRIZA, a coalition of far-left parties united under the banner of anti-austerity.

Since 2012 the Troika had relied on the New Democracy-led government, barely clinging to power, to advance the euro-consensus plan of emergency aid in exchange for austerity. With the election of SYRIZA that consensus has gone out the window.

SYRIZA has made several hardline demands of the Troika, for one that future payments come from new growth in the economy instead of straight budget cuts, and for another, that a large portion of Greek debt be written off entirely, much like the German government’s WWII war debts were written off in 1953. Among other things, the SYRIZA government has also promised the Greek people that it will “gradually restore salaries and pensions so as to increase consumption and demand,” and to “rebuild the welfare state, restore the rule of law and create a meritocratic state.”

Greece is a small country, and in its negotiations with the Troika the only trump card the SYRIZA government has in its hand is the threat of pulling out of the Eurozone and going back to printing its own currency, the drachma. So far they’ve been unwilling to consider that option due to its political unpopularity, but if the Troika refuses to compromise it will be either that or capitulation.

Despite being a coalition of “radical-left” parties, the striking thing about SYRIZA is that it’s demands are not all that radical. If there is extremist ideology present in this situation, it is that of the EU, IMF and ECB who have presided over an unprecedented peace-time humanitarian crisis on behalf of European finance.

Much as the German and Northern European press like to trot out old stereotypes of the need to discipline the ‘lazy Greek’, there is no sober justification for what transpired within the borders of their Southern European neighbor.

Five years on, austerity policies have not led to the growth that was predicted. Unemployment in Greece still stands at 25 percent and the gross domestic product of the country stands at the same level it did in 2006, shirking just under 100 billion dollars from its peak in 2009.

The people of Greece have suffered enough. There is no justice in forcing so many to bear such hardships because banks were overeager to lend money to corrupt politicians. The discontent of the Greeks will not go away so long as they continue to suffer, and if they do not find a solution through SYRIZA, the Troika should note that Greece is also home to Golden Dawn, Europe’s strongest far-right party.