Market utopianism supposes a price-setting market in human beings without a society. Photo: Getty
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Greece and the birth of fiscal colonialism

Greece is caught in a vicious debt cycle that leads to a perpetual need for stimulus.

It is often noted that Athens is the birthplace of democracy. The city is less often credited as the cradle of the market economy. Maritime trade linked the port towns of the ancient Mediterranean, between which cargo was transported according to an insurance system beyond political control. Over time, Athens became dependent on imported food for survival. Regulations were brought in to stem rising inequality, including restrictions on usury, fixed prices for bread and constraints on property sales. And yet inequality increased.

As the volume of maritime trade grew, so did the wealth of its merchants. The link between the maritime economy and territorial democracy was debt. Free citizens lost their oikos, or family home, and became indentured slaves. Power, land and wealth was concentrated among a group that the Greeks called oligarchs. To this day, there is a constitutional guarantee that the Greek state will not tax shipowners on their earnings.

The origins of globalisation – the face-off between territorial democracy and international capital – are to be found in Athens. This power struggle intensified under the Roman empire. The sea lanes were every bit as important in the formation of the imperial system as the Roman roads.

Yet, as the nation state ultimately replaced the city state, free-flowing capital remained difficult to domesticate. This underpins the left’s enthusiasm for the European project, which developed in the 1980s as a transnational means to constrain promiscuous capital. It has not worked out that way.

There is something degenerate about the politics of Greek debt. It is as though nothing has been learned in 2,000 years – as if the left had forgotten the powers of capital and imperialism and the right cannot make a distinction between the financial economy and productivity.

We are being asked to choose between two failed dogmas: debt-based socialism and market utopianism, neither of which is capable of generating value, neither of which resists the reduction of human beings to commodity status by developing labour value and the virtues of loyalty and trust essential to any relationship.

The narrative that suggests that fiscal discipline was the cause of German economic success after the Second World War, without reference to workers on boards, a vocational labour market, self-governing cities and regional banks, is a distortion. Germany has not established its system of democratic vocational and corporate governance practices. In Gramscian terms, it is dominant without being hegemonic.

Unsustainable contradictions are now in play. Without a recognition of what was wrong with the formation of the euro and the overall direction of the EU, there will be no resolution to the conflict between debt and democracy. Political violence and mass unemployment are now possibilities in Europe. Fascism is the logical next step.

Market utopianism supposes a price-setting market in human beings without a society. Welfare statism, which is what left politics has become, has no place for society or capital. Both are bankrupt. Permanent Keynesianism and limitless debt spending are a nasty place for a political economy to be, in permanent bad faith and servitude. There is a double tragedy here. Since joining the EU, Greece has become an entirely monetised economy and so the value of its currency is of fundamental importance. In other words, it has become dependent on subsidies and imports. Outside the EU and the euro, it would have a standard of living closer to that of Bulgaria than of Belgium.

Syriza has pursued an entirely incoherent strategy of simultaneous resistance and surrender. Greece is caught in a vicious debt cycle that leads to a perpetual need for stimulus. The result is what we now have: fiscal colonialism without political reciprocity. The wiser strategy would have been to surrender a semblance of national democracy in favour of the German social market system. The German system is pro-worker; its foreign policy is not. This is what the UK Labour Party should be challenging.

After the Second World War, the British occupying power in North Rhine-Westphalia, under the supervision of Ernest Bevin, the Labour foreign minister, was a crucial force in brokering free and democratic trade unions, worker representation on boards and a vocational economy that defined the social market economy. It promoted labour value rather than debt in its political economy and a social democracy rather than an administrative state in its politics. Where is that British Labour Party now?

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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