Political language, as George Orwell observed in 1946, is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. Seven decades later, consider the way in which mildly progressive political leaders are depicted by their right-wing critics. In the US, Barack Obama, who has bragged about securing “the lowest level of domestic spending” since the 1950s, is condemned as a “socialist” by his Republican opponents. (If only.) In the UK, Ed Miliband, who supports a public-sector pay freeze and wants to slash child benefit, is dismissed as “Red Ed” in the right-wing press. (We wish.) In France, François Hollande, who has presided over the steepest spending cuts in that country in more than 40 years, is deemed to be “anti-austerity”. (Huh?)
Then there is Greece, where Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras, a mild-mannered, tieless civil engineer, was sworn in as prime minister on 26 January. Judging by the hysterical tone of the press coverage, you could be forgiven for assuming that the love child of Karl Marx and Che Guevara had been elected to office in Athens. “Far-left firebrand races to victory”, read a headline in the Times. “Shock waves across Europe as the far left sweeps to power in Greece”, shrieked the Daily Mail.
Syriza, we are told, by everyone from the Mail to the BBC and the Guardian, is a bunch of radicals, revolutionaries and extremists. It’s not centre left; it’s far left. In this bizarre inversion of reality, those who helped to inflict mass unemployment, widespread poverty and public-health emergencies – involving a succession of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria epidemics – on a once-developed western country are deemed to be the moderates and the centrists. Is any more evidence needed of how our political debate has become so skewed to the right?
After all, what is “extreme” about providing free electricity and food stamps to 300,000 Greek families now living below the poverty line, as Syriza has pledged to do? What is “revolutionary” about wanting to negotiate a restructuring of ballooning, essentially unpayable debts? Especially after austerity measures demanded by the unelected “Troika” (the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund) led to Greece’s public debt climbing from 126 per cent of GDP in 2009 to over 170 per cent of GDP in 2014. Is it “radical” to describe – as Tsipras has done – five years of relentless, growth-choking austerity, in which the suicide rate rose by 43 per cent, as a period of “humiliation and suffering”? Or to refer to Troika-enforced spending cuts – as Syriza’s Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, did – as a form of “fiscal waterboarding”?
Don’t be distracted by the “far left” smear. Syriza’s programme of debt relief, fiscal stimulus and financial support for the poorest, rather than the richest, is mainstream macroeconomics. The party is merely planning to do what the textbooks suggest.
Don’t take my word for it. On 23 January, two days before the Greek elections, 18 eminent economists, including the Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Christopher Pissarides, the Oxford University professor Simon Wren-Lewis and the former Bank of England interest-rate setter Charles Goodhart, published a joint letter to the Financial Times endorsing Syriza’s call for debt forgiveness. Economic stability in Greece, they argued, could be “achieved through growth and increased efficiency in tax collection rather than through public expenditure cuts, which have reduced the revenue base and led to an increase in the debt ratio”.
Stiglitz and the others also called for a “further conditional increase in the grace period, so that Greece does not have to service any debt, for example for the next five years and then only if Greece is growing at 3 per cent or more”. They cited the precedent of the “bisque” clause of the 1946 Anglo-American financial agreement, under which the UK was allowed a waiver of 2 per cent interest payment until its economy “met agreed conditions”. As the 18 economists concluded, “the whole of Europe will benefit from Greece being given the chance of a fresh start”.
Remember, the Greeks have not suddenly embraced Marxism. But they have revolted against the insanity of neoliberal economics – and against the extremists in Brussels and Berlin bent on imposing austerity on them. The only real “shock” is that it took so long for this Hellenic backlash against fiscal sadism to commence. On a visit to Athens in 2012, I met Nikitas Kanakis, the director of the Greek branch of the charity Doctors of the World. He described to me in graphic detail how his country was in the midst of a “humanitarian crisis”. “If the people cannot survive with dignity,” he said quietly, “we cannot have a future.”
Will Syriza give them back their dignity? “Hope is here,” declared a victorious Tsipras on 25 January. But time is not on the party’s side and this movement of political novices will have to confront a vast array of vested interests at home and abroad – from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the bean-counters of the Troika to the tax-dodging business elite of Athens and a Greek police force infiltrated by neo-Nazis. It won’t be easy and if Syriza fails, the swing back to the right will be both decisive and disastrous.
A few days ago, I rang Kanakis to see if he was celebrating Syriza’s rise to power. He wasn’t. “What I’m afraid about,” he said, “is that sometimes hope creates illusions.”
Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the NS and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted . His ebook “The Debt Delusion” is published by Vintage