Obama: Mr 99%?

The US president needs to recognise the resentments that have sparked the 99% movement.

Just a bunch of "kids and kooks" or the early and messy stirrings of a deeper shift in US politics? That's the question pre-occupying US politicians and assorted commentators from left to right as the one month old occupation of Wall Street spreads to a growing number of cities.

They call themselves the "99 per cent" -- representing, they say, everyone apart from the super-rich and powerful. On the left the nacsent movement has been lionised by Naomi Klein as "the most important thing in the world" with self-conscious comparisons made to the recent uprisings in Tunisa and Egypt, as well as the "indignados" in Madrid and those on the streets in Athens. In contrast, high-brow centre-right commentators view it as inchoate, unimaginative, and amateurish: all slogan, no proposal. Grow up, put on a suit and do some hard policy work is their message.

Meanwhile the Tea Party, scornful though they are of the notion that government should do more to tackle the problems of the 99 per cent, take the protestors a bit more seriously even if they they don't like to say so. Until now Tea Party activists have enjoyed a near monopoloy on grass-roots energy and righteous anger, so they are eyeballing the new competition carefully. They've been prompted to spawn their own counter-movement "the 53 per cent", representing the interests as they see it of the half of the population who are federal tax payers. (Memo to Liberal Democrats seeking to remove ever more low-earners from the UK tax-system: working people who've been taken out of the tax-system are viewed as non-contributors by the populist right). Other voices lament the fact that the cultural chasm between the 99 per cent-ers and the Tea Party is so large that it will not permit common cause to be made on one or two specific issues where there is some populist shared ground.

But perhaps most interesting is that some important establishement and centrist voices are choosing not to dimiss the protestors, which they surely would have done only a few years ago. Hence the likes of the New York Times and the Financial Times have adopted sympathetic, if questioning, stances (indeed the FT even felt moved to invoke the spirit of The Diggers -- which surely must be a first -- in a recent op-ed).

This measured response is prompted in part by the increasingly widespread reconigtion of the scale of mainstream resentment at the explosive growth in rewards going to the richest 1per cent -- and this at a time of continued public outrage about the cost of the last bank bailout (as the next one moves into view). But it's also rooted in a new appreciation of what has been happening to the living standards of most of the other 99 per cent, and a deepening sense of anxiety about what could happen if these trends persist.

There is now indisputable evidence that the US economy isn't working for what are termed middle-class families. The income of the typical American family has seen only aneamic growth for a generation. But from 2000 - 2010 these these trends worsen: the median income of families with children in the US has fallen by more than 11per cent, with a fair chunk of that fall happening before the onset of the recession, though it has deepened since (indeed 11per cent will be an understatement as incomes fell again sharply in 2011). As the chart below shows, this has cut across all racial groups -- always an important factor in US politics -- though some far more than others, with African-American families seeing a staggering 18 per cent drop in their incomes.

 

[Source: US Census Bureau]

Until recently one of the main virtues of the US economy -- often held up in mitigation against these long-term wage trends -- has been its powerful record jobs. Yet employment levels have been crashing over recent years, which will act as a further drag on future wage growth. The "American jobs machine" hasn't just run out of steam; it has broken down.

These challenges leave the Obama administration with little choice but to run against the economic system that it oversees. The President now regularly opines about the bad deal that the middle-class are getting: "a lot of folks who are doing the right thing aren't rewarded and a lot of folks who aren't doing the right thing are rewarded". In another echo of our own politics, Vice President Joe Biden proclaims that "the bargain has been breached."

Yet for all this rhetorical effort the Democratic leadership is nonetheless torn between different strategies for responding to this new vibrancy on the left. On the one hand, the case against embracing the new currents animating US politics is deeply institutionalised: it's been a long time since the Democratic Party successfully mobilised populist political sentiment -- and there are strong grounds for questioning its willingness to do so now, a point Robert Reich has recently made. Moreover, Obama will clearly want to fight from the centre in 2012, doing everything he can to push the Republicans to the right. He is very unlikely to think that standing shoulder to shoulder with unruly street protestors will help this cause. And for all his tough talk about Wall Street, he will also be looking for his own big money donations.

Against this is the obvious appeal of finding a way of tapping into some raw political energy, rekindling idealism and identifying some plausible enemies -- all of which Obama needs -- and which together add up to some of the key driving forces in politics. Clearly this doesn't mean signing up to all the myriad ideas emerging from the 99 per cent movement, but it does mean recognising more directly the resentments and insecurities that have sparked this new force. If handled deftly this approach could also strike a chord with the anxious American middle-classes.

As all sides look to 2012 it is clear that the anger that has surged across US society, well beyond those occupying Wall Street or attending Tea Party meetings, is a highly unpredictable and potent force, especially for an incumbent President. If Obama fails to find a way of riding and successfully steering it, then it is set to turn against him.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

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A view from Athens: anger, cynicism and indecision over Alexis Tsipras' snap elections

What are the Greeks in Athens saying about their prime minister's resignation and upcoming snap elections, and who do they believe will win?

Still recovering from the shock of Alexis Tsipras’s unexpected move to call snap elections, which will take place on 20 September, people here are beginning to talk.

Popy, an elderly widow who lives on my street in Rafina, a port town twenty kilometers ourside of Athens, says she is a realist. “Syriza doesn’t exist any more, there is only Tsipras.” She describes Greece’s handsome young prime minister as a “gambler”.

“Does anyone know who he truly is and what he believes?” she asks. “Sure he’s charismatic, but what’s he offering?”

The first “party” in the polls at the moment are undecided voters, at 26 per cent. People are dazed, confused, and angry. A taxi driver tells a friend whose car had broken down that Tsipras’ referendum “divided entire families”; he wasn’t on speaking terms with his own brother, who voted Yes. The man says the only hope left on the horizon was pro-Grexit, pro-drachma Popular Unity (Laiki Enótita), led by Panagiotis Lafazanis, who was Minister of Energy in Tsipras’s cabinet before he resigned.

Many in Athens roll their eyes skyward when Syriza is described as Europe’s “first time left-wing” government. Dimosthenis, a street vendor, tells me: “This is a world first – a party of the left that doesn’t apply its own programme, but instead adopts the programme of the opponent!”

At the local market, two old women are disagreeing about the elections. I overhear one say it is better to have a “progressive government” implement onerous terms it hates than to leave it to the local “servants” of the Troika. Her friend says she thinks the real servants are Syriza.

Orestis, who runs a mini-market in Athens’ sprawling neighborhood of Peristeri, is equally sarcastic about the prime minister’s stated intentions: “First he voted for the measures, then he’ll implement them – or try to – and after that, he’ll fight them.”

And my friend Myrto, a chemistry teacher at a private school in the affluent northern suburb of Kifisia, says: “A socialist, presumably people-friendly, party that implements anti-popular policy – this hasn’t been invented yet!”

The most scathing remark comes from Manolis, a pensioner buying rice and concentrated milk ahead of me in a supermarket: “Tsipras is calling new elections because after the murder he needs to manage the country’s funeral," he laments. "We Greeks have never had a shortage of gravediggers,” he adds.

Few believe Tsipras when he says he gradually wants to undo the reality that brought the weight of the crisis onto wage-earners and pensioners. “Nice left-wing government we have,” says a taxi driver waiting at a stand. “It’s imposing a retroactive pension cut, it does away with benefits for people on low salaries, it increases taxes, signs plans for temporary work, and, via the World Bank, is opening the doors wide to foreign investments in a country with salaries of 300 Euros a month.”

A highly cynical, though telling, remark comes from an elderly woman buying rice at an outdoor market in the town of Marathon: “When Tsipras says he couldn’t have done differently, he’s telling us that he can do even worse in the future.  No way am I voting Syriza.”

The internet abounds with ironic remarks about Tsipras’ government. One blogger writes:

First time left – and Syriza is selling the country for a penny to foreign sharks. First time left – and the rich and powerful continue to tax evade scot-free. First time left – evictions and house auctions continue. First time left – the dream of free medical care remains distant. First time left – and cameras are installed at all toll booths. First time left – and the government condones a plan to fill Greece with one-armed bandits, usually installed in close proximity to schools. First time left – and Alexis Tsipras is present at the inauguration of the new Suez Canal, and shakes hands with Egyptian dictator Abdel Fatah el-Sisi!

In the metro, I meet Danae, a young member of Antarsya (Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow).  All fire and brimstone, she tells me this crisis is about a worldwide fall in the rate of profit. The privatisations and deregulation are giving the green light to large multinationals to enter areas they never had access to. She says the Troika and the local oligarchs will now try to turn Greece into a special economic zone – “a hell for most of us, but a paradise in the Mediterranean for big business”.

Signed during the hot mid-August “people’s baths” – when the entire country shuts down for a week – the memorandum “fast-tracks” Greece’s dismantlement. The latest bailout, as Nick Dearden notes, “has nothing to do with debt, but [is] an experiment in capitalism so extreme that no other EU state would even dare try it”.

The country has been saddled with €86bn (US $94bn) more debt. Sakis, a teacher of high school mathematics whose child has Down's syndrome, compares the new agreement to a “gravestone”. He worries that, for the next 30 years, “we will just be collateral” to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

“Bravo, Alexi!” says Iro, a mother of three who cleans houses and makes some money as a freelance hairdresser. “We had the local soundrels and now Alexis has imported the world-class ones.” Alekos, an attendant at a petrol station, tells me he thinks it is “no coincidence” people like Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem and ESM head Klaus Regling are supporting Tsipras’ decision to call premature elections. “They want to make sure the memorandum is implemented,” he says with a smirk on his face.

Alexandra, a single mother who works as a clerk at DEI, the country’s power supplier, tells me that if Tsipras, Nikos Pappas, Alekos Flambouraris, and the other decision-makers in the government, had gone after the corrupt bureaucrats, contractors, doctors, businessmen, and shipowners, “things would be different”.  This view is shared by blogger Giannis Lazarou. He writes that instead of going after the “parasites” in the public sector – people who opened “windows and doors” to corrupt contractors who milked the country for decades – Tsipras is letting Schäuble and Juncker clean up the “manure” of the Greek system. 

A man queuing in line in the post office to pay his power bill, says it best: “Tsipras didn’t stand up to the foreigners because he knew this meant he would have to confront the local scoundrels.”

Kostas, a plumber from Northern Epirus, says the “lesson of realism” has been learned well by both Podemos and Syriza. He calls Syriza’s socialism “pink” and says it is about as radical as Spanish Christian democracy 30 years ago. Alekos, a souvlaki wrapper in Exarxia, an Athens neighborhood with a tradition of urban resistance, tells me he is angry with Syriza for not going to the people. “There are two sources of power in this world,” he smiles wryly, “a lot of money, and a lot of people.  Syriza surrendered to the former because it didn’t have the guts to rely on the latter.”

People are in an increasingly angry and defiant frame of mind. Andreas, who owns a small locksmith shop in downtown Athens (one of the few professions that hasn’t suffered in the crisis), says “nothing is over”. He expects “the experiment to blow up in their faces”.

While pessimistic about the chances of escaping the dark fate the “institutions” want for the country, some readily point out the chinks in the opponent’s armour. Menelaos, a waiter at a seafood restaurant in Piraeus, talks of the “Achilles heel” of European and local bankers, who will now attempt to “rape Greece”.

“Bankers don’t really care about economic growth because they can make money in good or bad times,” he says.  “What they truly fear is a bank run.”  He explains that since most European banks are vastly undercapitalised, with even German banks holding less than five per cent in liquid cash for their outstanding loans, the idea of a bank run “puts the fear of God into them”.

In a similar vein, Maria, a kindergarten teacher who supported Lafazanis’s Left Platform and now backs his Popular Unity party, tells me: “Only the fear of chaos – of revolt and revolution – will get the Dijsselbloems, Merkels and Schäubless to end austerity. We should threaten them.

A similar spirit is echoed from the other end of the political spectrum by the leader of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. Nikolaos Michaloliakos says Greece ought to, “use the threat of atakti xreokopia [disorderly bankruptcy] against them”. 

It worries the anti-austerity establishment who vote New Democracy, Pasok, and River, that the climate here is so polarised. Especially troublesome is the fact that the anti-austerity camp includes both the far left and the far right. Usually, fascists and communists disagree. Here they form an “anti-austerity twin of neocommunists and extreme right-wingers,” as Stamos Zoulas writes in Kathimerini (The Daily).

To many, Lafazanis’ Popular Unity appears as the only credible opposition party left. Created in zero time, it must immediately participate in elections. Theodoros, who teaches music at an odeo, or conservatory, voted for Syriza but says he will now vote for Lafazanis’s group. “Despite everything, the people in Popular Unity have remained faithful to the No vote,” he says. “Their ministers resigned from the Syriza government, and, together with their deputies, they now risk not being reelected.”

He tells me: “Popular Unity will protect its credibility like the apple of its eyes: what it promises, it will do.”

Drachma supporters who will now vote for Lafazanis’ party insist the national coin is only “a tool for the country’s development – not an end in itself”, as 23-year old Kimonas puts it. A graduate student at Athens Polytechnic, he says the shibboleth “euro or drachma” was a false dilemma because it “sounds like ‘euro or chaos’ when it isn’t explained properly”.

He adds that he doesn’t believe Syriza ever really had a Plan B. “That was a rap the panic-mongering, pro-austerity media want to hang on Syriza, especially former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.”     

On a more theoretical level, Irini, a 12th-grader who waits tables at a seafood restaurant in Loutsa, tells me she does not accept the “Varoufakism”, as she formulates it, of equating the eurozone with “Hotel California”. “It’s not Grexit and a return to the drachma that’s the real issue,” she stresses. “Hotel California isn’t just a currency but a place of lazy, apathetic submission to the Troika! We can and must leave it!”

Blogger Nikos Dimou writes that Popular Unity is, “a fresh version of the KKE [Communist Party of Greece] with retro promises of a Soviet-style, state-run paradise outside the EU and the euro”.

Naturally, comparisons of the country’s exit to a biblical catastrophy are rejected by supporters of Popular Unity. They point to the experience of other countries and say the period of greatest difficulty will last a few months, after which the economy will begin to grow again. 

The far left does not know whether to ignore Lafazanis’s new party, or vote for Popular Unity as a tactical step that will push things further to the left and radicalize a large section of society, particularly the youth. “With persistence and self-confidence,” writes Blogger T, “Popular Unity might cause an earthquake in the coming elections.”

“People are stupid,” says a textile worker from Piraeus. “This game has to play itself out”.

He continues: “In the absence of a real socialist party, we must at least vote for the one that says the most radical things. Only this way is it possible to keep the ball rolling in the right direction.”

Similarly, Blogger Antonis will support Popular Unity as “the only way” to guarantee a “new cycle of struggles” – struggles based on what he calls the “legacy of the 62 per cent No vote”. He is optimistic: “There’s no need to commit hara-kiri. Grassroots movements will unite in a large front to support popular needs. Syriza was never the hope, after all. We are the hope. And we can’t allow it to be lost forever”.

Yet many people I’ve spoken with remain sceptical of Lafazanis’ party. Giorgos expresses a common attitude: “Popular Unity that comes out of a split! Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

Sophia, who works as a ticket inspector on buses, tells me she thinks the Left Platform mildly criticised the Tsipras government but did little to block it. Others are more cynical, like Giorgos, a 50-year-old worker in a bread factory, who thinks it was “convenient” for Tsipras to have a “left platform” in order to attract voters who weren’t quite sure Syriza was a bona fide left-wing party.

So Lafazanis’ pro-Grexit party doesn’t convince everyone. 

Olga, who used to work as a journalist but is now unemployed, says: “Few realise Popular Unity isn’t calling for an anti-capitalist solution to Greece’s problems. In the eyes of the rich, of course, they are flaming commies, but that’s just not true.”

She adds that even the radicals in Antarsya aren’t calling for the “expropriation of the expropriators”, and that Lafazanis’ party will channel growing opposition to austerity into a political dead-end.

“Popular Unity came from the flesh and blood of Syriza,” says a man waiting for a bus on Marathon Avenue. “Syriza doesn’t really have a social base, and neither does Popular Unity.”

On that same bus to Athens, a young soldier returning from leave tells me how little faith he has in Popular Unity. He says its leader, Lafazanis, and Costas Isychos, former Deputy Minister of National Defence, did not protest on 26 January, the day after Syriza came to power, when the government revealed that 70 per cent of the ND-Pasok memorandum were “necessary measures”. Angrily, he asks, “Necessary measures for whom?”

“Isn’t Nadia Valavani in Popular Unity?” asks Giorgos, whose son plays on the same football team as mine. “Wasn’t she saying “DEN PLIRONO” (“I will not pay”) before Syriza was elected? And when she became Alternate Minister of Finance, she demanded we pay the memorandum as a ‘patriotic duty’!”

“Comrades of Popular Unity,” writes a blogger, “you must clarify whether by ‘No’ you mean ‘No until the end’.”

Larisa, a single mother from Bulgaria who cleans houses, is critical of Lafazani’s new party. “They owe an apology to the people because they didn’t leave Syriza when the No of the referendum was turned into a Yes. They left when Tsipras announced new elections and they knew they wouldn’t be on the electoral lists.”

A strongly ideological view is expressed to me by Spiros, an automobile mechanic from the town of Spata. He thinks both Syriza and Popular Unity are “pseudo-socialist” parties. Even the fiery Speaker, Zoi Konstantopoulou, who is supporting Lafazanis, isn’t a “true socialist” to him. Spiros is convinced that Lafazanis and his Left Platform served as a “left cover” for Syriza, and that they “jumped ship” before they were pushed by Tsipras’ snap elections. In other words, they knew they would be expelled from the party anyway.

Who will win the elections? Many believe Tsipras will hit percentages close to those of the January elections. The consensus, however, is that, as the measures are implemented, his government will fall in scandal and corruption. Others are convinced that Tsipras will come in second after New Democracy, and that the next government will be a coalition of all pro-austerity parties: New Democracy, Pasok, and the River. In any event, it is quite possible the next government will closely resemble the current caretaker government of Vassiliki Thanou, Greece's top Supreme Court judge, and first woman prime minister in Greek history.

Syriza supporters see their party’s reelection as the only way for the country to get back on its feet. They are hoping for as low a voter turnout for Popular Unity as possible. 

Lambrini, an employee at a travel agency, says she believes Popular Unity can actually win the upcoming elections. This, however, would only happen if Lafazanis “doesn’t try to steal the No vote for himself”, but instead “leads a popular groundswell of anti-austerity opposition”.  Yet she remains doubtful. “I don’t see Popular Unity really taking people into account – this is probably a second version of Syriza, another top-down organization with big names while simple citizens and organization at the base are absent”.

The most interesting comment comes from Mikis Theodorakis himself, an icon of the left. The famous nonagenarian wrote a letter to Lafazanis asking him not to participate with Popular Unity in the elections. He argues that “today’s Parliament is the main tool in the service of the politics of austerity”, and says its aim is to “cover illegal laws with a democratic cloak”.

“All of you in Syriza believed that by gaining the majority in parliament and becoming a government you would be able to strike at the heart of the System,” he notes.  “This confirms the principle that you can’t hit the System from within the System, because in the end you become the System.” 

Theodorakis told Lafazanis that if he participated in the election and reentered the “sinning Parliament”, he would confront two choices: “Either as opposition you will serve as a cover for the anti-popular decisions of the foreigners, or – if you become the government – you will meet the fate of today’s pro-memorandum Syriza.”  His closing remark cut like a knife: “It [is] a shame the popular forces that will vote for  you will have the same luck as the Syriza supporters, who – like it or not – vote for the memoranda.”  

Deferentially, Lafazanis disagreed. He said Popular Unity, “would not behave like Syriza”. He promised Theodorakis he would cooperate with him outside of parliament in the popular front the old man is calling for.

Realists believe that whatever the outcome of the election, the austerity measures will continue. There will be no miracle, no salvation for Greece, and that Popular Unity is not ready for the contest.

“We’ve become resili (an embarrassment) as a country,” an elderly pensioner sitting next to me on a bench in the working class district of Vironas says. “Everyone’s laughing at us. Greece’s Che Guevara – the young man who was going to change Europe – has quickly thrown in the towel.”

A blogger known as Aidiasmenos (“the disgusted one”) writes that he can’t understand why so many believe Syriza will win the election. “Tsipras got 36 per cent in January but it’s been all downhill since then. The Left Platform abandoned him, the public servants have left him, the pensioners are jumping ship, as are the pro-drachma supporters, not to mention the unemployed. How can he possibly win the election?” 

Tsipras, however, is confident of victory. So much so he announced that he would not cooperate in a government that included the pro-austerity parties of New Democracy, Pasok and River. This confounded and embarrassed a number of pundits who for a week had been saying and writing exactly the opposite.

Myrto, a language teacher at a private evening school, believes Tsipras will win the elections. The reason she gives is stark: “He has closed a deal with Germany to implement the memorandum.”  She believes that in the short term Syriza will be the winner in the elections, but that then “the clock will start working backwards”.

Who can deny Tsipras has made, consciously or not, all the right moves – if keeping himself in power is the measure, that is? Despite the damage done during the negotiations, his decision to hold the referendum brought him great popular support.  This has helped him clean up the internal game – even though he was routed in the “war”.

The message has filtered out to society that Tsipras tried hard and negotiated “like a lion”. Many are prepared to forgive him for the awful results of the negotiations. Tsipras’ greatest asset is that he “ate wood” (the Greek expression for a beating) in Brussels. “At least he tried,” a shopper in the supermarket says. “And that counts for something.”

So despite his 180-degree turn, Tsipras is still by far the most popular politician in Greece. He has timed the elections with Machiavellian perfection. Any further delay would only have weakened his position and strengthened that of his opponents, on both the left and the right.

Another strong card Tsipras holds is purely psychological. Most Greeks are tired of the struggle with the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. They fear that Lafazanis’ new party will opt for an essentially unpopular Grexit.

Plus, the country’s internal opposition hasn’t had time to organise itself. Syriza’s external opposition is also in a state of relative disarray. New Democracy might gain 25 per cent in the elections, but no more.

Seen through this prism, things look good for Greece’s young former prime minister.

By calling early elections, Tsipras has also effectively rid himself of figures like Lafazanis and other recalcitrants who might challenge his authority. An intangible –  although very real – factor that will also work in his favour is that a large contingent of people who voted for Syriza will vote for Tsipras again – out of a sense of embarassment. As Panos, a naval architect, puts it to me: “These people are ashamed of admitting they were trolled so badly by Tsipras.” 

Finally, let us not forget that Syriza is the first party in Greece to have the support of both conservative Kathimerini newspaper and Avgi (Dawn), Syriza’s mouthpiece.

The coming elections will once again have the nature of a referendum. This time, the underlying question is not the memorandum per se. This time, it is all about Tsipras and his need to stay afloat politically. Ironically, Syriza came to power by attacking the "There is no alternative" slogan (TINA). Now Tsipras has managed to make himself “the only alternative” in Greek politics.

So how will the Greek people respond?  The last words will go to Nikita, a cook on a large passenger ship that does the Rafina-Mykonos route. When I ask over a coffee which party he supports, he becomes angry with me. “Party?” he asks, shaking his head. “Instead of talking about what the parties will do, we all ought to start talking about what we will do. Unless we stop them, no one will.”

After a moment, he adds: “Given the absence of a socialist party that will really challenge the local rulers, we have no other choice.”

Like many others here, I will not vote this time.

Evel Masten Economakis has been living in a town 25km east of Athens since 2005. He teaches history, and also works in construction to supplement his family's income. Follow his "View from Athens" series here.