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10 July 2015

A view from Athens – OXI-dation: has Greece’s No vote missed its chance to create a healthier Europe?

Syriza could yet keep Greece in the eurozone. Our contributor, the Athenian schoolteacher Evel Economakis, bet a souvlaki on it.

By Evel Economakis

Oxidation can have destructive effects, like rusting. But it’s a process that has great benefits too: it lowers the risk of cancer, improves metabolism, increases the production of energy, and helps weight loss. Could the Greek people’s Oxi vote and its effect on the EU have healthy qualities too? Not likely now, given Syriza’s decision to perform a backflip: the Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is presenting a memorandum to the Greek parliament that is similar, if not harsher, to the one rejected in the referendum.

I’ve heard a lot of odd things in the streets of Athens recently. Foremost among these is the view that we’re heading for an imminent Grexit. We see now that the chances of this happening are about as great as a meteorite hitting New York City tomorrow morning. I have even wagered a souvlaki (extra onions, no sauce) with a friend, another teacher at the high school where I work, that a new memorandum will soon be signed between Greece’s “radical left” Syriza government and the EU-ECB-IMF troika. 

All along I’ve maintained Syriza will perform a backflip. As of course, will the establishment in Berlin, Brussels, Frankfurt, and New York. 

After all, who needs a Grexit? Do German and French banks want a Lehman Brothers-style domino effect financial disaster? Is China interested in seeing Greece forced out of the eurozone? Has the Red Dragon’s huge China Ocean Shipping Company – Cosco – leased the gateway to Europe only to find that the port of Piraeus is no longer in the eurozone? Russia, embattled and politically isolated with tremendous problems of its own? Or does the United States want Greece out of the EU, with a potentially tempestuous geopolitical seachange at the crossroads of three continents? President Barack Obama and IMF boss Christine Lagarde do not appear to.

Even Germany is showing greater “flexibility”.  And this makes sense.  How could Angela Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble be such blind eurocrats as to be motived only by the thirst for revenge — to punish the Greek voters who stubbornly asserted their right to adopt polices incompatible with their obligation as a member of the eurozone? 

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As often happens when Germany is central to a global story, some commentators recently suggested the country may be returning to type. That Berlin, consciously or subconsciously, is seeking to realise its old dream of a German-dominated Europe from east to west. Yet Mitteleuropa never included southern Europe. A Grexit could theoretically be the first step in that direction, leading eventually to the detachment of the Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian cars from the European train. But this, we see clearly now, is highly unlikely.

The Greek referendum was extremely divisive here. My father, an octogenarian who rants about the “Bolsheviks” in power, will not speak to me. Such views are too emotional to be rational. In reality, Alex Tsipras’ Syriza party, which represents not the little guy but the middle classes (and some big businesspeople) is about as revolutionary as the Swedish social democracy of the Sixties. What these “radicals” truly want is capitalism with a human face. 

However, as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, even such a tepid stance does in fact constitute a real threat to the status quo. Global capitalism can’t afford the old Keynesian welfare state, which unraveled after the Soviet Union slipped into the dustbin of history in 1991.    

Who will allow the Germans to destroy Europe a third time? Unsurprisingly, President François Hollande has come down strongly against any Grexit.  And Berlin will now stop ignoring Paris’ objections. 

Just before Tsipras left Brussels on 26 June for Athens to announce the now-historic snap referendum (probably a world record: it was prepared and held in just one week), he remarked: “Democracy cannot be blackmailed”.

Indeed, it appears the eurozone’s weakest link is democracy. Now everyone sees this, though not everyone wants to admit it, especially those who want to live in a world where elections merely confirm the consensus of experts and bankers.

It hasn’t escaped the attention of the more astute political analysts that ever since it came to power on 25 January, Syriza has been moving steadily to the right. This trend has intensified since last Sunday’s referendum results, and makes the signing of a new deal within the next few days likely.

Greece is not going to be a “Hellenic Lehman Brothers”. As Owen Jones has recently written, default is always accompanied by the fall or ousting of the ruling government. Yet in the event of a Greek default (which will not happen), this will probably not occur. 

The Greeks now feel both defiant and victimised. What do you get when you put such people into a corner? They come back at you even harder. So if Greece defaulted and was led into Grexit and the minting of the drachma or some other currency, the elections that would follow would definitely not lead to a return of the pro-austerity parties of New Democracy, PASOK and To Pomami. A more likely scenario is for Syriza to split into two or three new parties (rumblings of discontent are already loud), and for one of these (perhaps with another as junior partner) to return to power. 

 The real radical left in Greece isn’t Syriza. It is Antarsia (“Mutiny”: Anti-Capitalist Left Cooperation for Overthrowing the System), which is currently supporting the government the way a noose supports a hanged man. These people are calling for a permanent continuation of the government’s temporary allowance for people to get around on mass transportation (buses, trolleys, metro, etc). They also want the perpetuation of the capital controls of the banks as tools aimed at nationalising banks and corporations. More, they are calling for workers’ control in hospitals and enterprises, particularly in their accounting departments, to avoid further capital flight from the country.  Given Syriza’s decision to cave in, many people are likening Alexis Tsipras to an early Christian who went naively to the lions; some are even calling him a “traitor”.

Perhaps the oddest thing I’ve heard in the streets of Athens came from the lips of a young German journalist I bumped into in Syntagma Square a few days ago. He was convinced that if Greece were pushed into Grexit, then a putschwould bring the military to power. This is utterly ridiculous. The Greece of 2015 is not the Greece of 1967. The country is (still) in the EU. A coup by the military is a non-starter because after so many years of mass demonstations and a shift to radical politics, particularly among young people, such an event would most certainly trigger a violent revolution. Let us also not forget that Greece has a draft army. What putschist general could guarantee his 18-year-olds wouldn’t turn their weapons against him?

The meeting of the European Parliament on Wednesday 8 July 8 was reminiscent of the kind of shouting matches you might have seen in a Bavarian beerhall in the Weimar period. Still, the pro-Greece wing was stronger than the other side.

So there will be no Grexit. Neither will there be a return to a capitalist welfare state. The global crisis precludes this possibility.

A more important fact is ignored by most commentators. The debate about austerity may be likened to an argument about how much petrol to put into a car whose engine has seized up, pistons jammed and carburetors clogged.  Perhaps it isn’t so much the European Union that’s at stake but the very system – the “car” itself.

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