Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

Jamie Galbraith’s ties to Greece go back some seven decades, most recently as an adviser in the Ministry of Finance (working with Yanis Varoufakis) for the Syriza government.

In a recent comment (itself a summary of his new book, Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe), Galbraith [ht: cb] has presented a clear, trenchant critique of Europe through its treatment of Greece.

Last year’s third bailout of Greece, imposed by Europe and the International Monetrary Fund, does to Greece what Versailles did to Germany: It strips assets to satisfy debts. Germany lost its merchant marine, its rolling stock, its colonies, and its coal; Greece has lost its seaports, its airports — the profitable ones — and is set to sell off its beaches, the public asset that is a uniquely Greek glory. Private businesses are being forced into bankruptcy to make way for European chains; private citizens are being forced into foreclosure on their homes. It’s a land grab.

And for what? To satisfy old public debts, incurred for tanks, submarines, the Olympics, big construction projects outsourced to German firms, and to hide deficits in health care, with creditor connivance — a quagmire of graft to support an illusion, that Greece could “compete” as part of the euro. Already in 2010 the IMF knew it was breaking its own rules by pretending that Greece could recover quickly, sustain a huge primary surplus, and repay its debts. Why? To help save French and German banks, which the IMF’s sainted managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, wanted to do, because he wanted to be president of France.

Europe crushed the Greek resistance in 2015. Not because Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, thought his economic plan would work; he candidly told the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, that “as a patriot” he would not sign it himself. But Germany wants to impose its order on Italy and on France, where civil society continues to fight back. And Chancellor Angela Merkel could not admit to her voters, or to fellow Europeans from Slovakia to Portugal, that back in 2010 she’d saved Germany’s banks by saddling them with Greek debts that could never be paid.

Greece was given collective punishment as a lesson. It was done to show that “there is no alternative.” It was done to stop any other attempt to develop, articulate, and defend a more rational policy. It was done to protect the power of the European Central Bank, the German government in Europe, and the policy-making authority, in face of a long record of failure, of the IMF.

If there is an alternative for Europe, where would it come from? According to Galbraith, the process begins with the Democracy in Europe Movement (or DiEM25), launched in 2015 by Varoufakis. But it doesn’t stop there.

Ultimately there would have to be big changes, as revolutionary as the 2015 Athens Spring. The old oligarchies, the Brussels cabals, the self-serving technocrats, and the economic ideologues who now dominate European economic policy would have to yield.

02-native-american-long-house.w750.h560.2x dsc_0061

Back in May, in an interview with Grèce Hebdo, French philosopher Alain Badiou was asked about the source of his optimism concerning contemporary social movements, from Nuit Debout to Bernie Sanders, even when they face strategic setbacks:

So you’re continuing to look to communism as a horizon?

Yes, not only do I keep this horizon open but I think it is very important to do so. For if there is no strategic idea then movements undergoing setbacks or recuperation risk having devastating subjective effects. There you risk demobilisation, the thought that ‘well I was young then, I threw myself into this adventure and it didn’t work’. Our thinking has to be that while there are strategic setbacks we will maintain our course despite the sinuosities of History. History does not march in a straight line but in a very tortuous way, and we should not imagine any royal road leading to emancipation. There are reverses, negatives, and that is why we need to have a compass come what may. If we have no compass we end up old and disheartened.

I was thinking about the idea of communism as a horizon as I read (only because a reader [ht: ja] sent me the link) the latest from New York Times columnist David Brooks. He begins by noting that, in the eighteenth century, American Indians rejected colonial society (which “was richer and more advanced”) but many whites were moving the other way, choosing to live within Indian society (which was “more communal”).

Brooks then moves up to the present and notes that there seems to be a new desire for community, at least among Millenials.

Maybe we’re on the cusp of some great cracking. Instead of just paying lip service to community while living for autonomy, I get the sense a lot of people are actually about to make the break and immerse themselves in demanding local community movements. It wouldn’t surprise me if the big change in the coming decades were this: an end to the apotheosis of freedom; more people making the modern equivalent of the Native American leap.

While readers wrap their heads around the idea that Brooks might be a modern-day communist (or at least a communist sympathizer), consider what that means. In many Native American societies, the surplus was created by the direct producers and then managed not privately (as in capitalism), but by the commune (either directly or by a representative of the commune, such as an elder or religious figure). So, in historical communism (which some, especially in the Marxian tradition, refer to as “primitive communism”), there was no exploitation, no “ripping-off” of the producers by “autonomous” individuals who did not participate in creating the surplus.*

And, as it turns out, communism is more than just a horizon: it’s actually being practiced in a wide variety of economic and social settings. One such example are the refugee “squats” [ht: ja] in Greece, an alternative to the government-run camps. Best I can tell, all the work is being conducted collectively, as part of the commune:

There are cleaning teams, cooking teams, security teams, language lessons, art classes, children’s activities, beach outings, translators, Arabic lessons for volunteers and more.

Squats are run without government or major nongovernmental-organization influence and rely on donations and manpower from independent volunteers. Responsibility is divided among the residents. At Dakdouk’s original squat, a “local technical group” is the go-to for all maintenance and IT issues. There are plans to establish a bakery to produce bread en masse for residents and rooftop gardens to provide “for the soul and for the body,” says one group member.

I doubt anyone thought that was how communism would come to be established—among refugees, the most marginalized people in the world today. However, that may be exactly the communist horizon both Badiou and Brooks have in mind: noncapitalist communal activities that provide for both the soul and the body.

 

*Interested readers should consult the pioneering work of Jack Amariglio (e.g., “Subjectivity, Class, and Marx’s “Forms of the Commune’,” Rethinking Marxism, 22:3, 329-344) and Dean Saitta (e.g., “Marxism, Prehistory, and Primitive Communism,” Rethinking Marxism 1:1, 145-168).

 

Trotman

Bob Trotman, “Business as Usual” (2009)

Is anyone else struck by the contradiction between what is actually going on in the world and the fact that, for those in charge, it’s just business as usual?

Consider, for example, the decision to drop the charges against the three remaining officers facing trial in connection with the April 2015 death in policy custody of Freddie Gray. In fact, according to Mapping Police Violence, “only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime, and only 2 of these deaths (Matthew Ajibade and Eric Harris) resulted in convictions of officers involved.” Charles Blow, for one, is appropriately “incandescent with rage”:

Bill Clinton, who I found more beguiling than many, apparently, took the stage and shifted the burden of dismantling oppression from the shoulders of the oppressors to the shoulders of the oppressed, saying: “If you’re a young African-American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be. Help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future.”

How are the people without the power, the people against whom the power is being exercised, supposed to alter the perversion of that power if the abusers are not held accountable?

I am exhausted. I am repulsed. I am over all the circular dialogue. But I don’t know precisely where that leaves me other than in a hurt and festering place. America is edging ever closer to telling people like me that the eye of justice isn’t blind but jaundiced, and I say back to America, that is incredibly dangerous.

And during that same convention, as broad swathes of Americans continue to suffer from the Wall Street-engineered crash of 2007-08 (not just, as Barack Obama put it, “pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures”), hordes of financial industry executives (as well as drug companies, health insurers, and others) descended on Philadelphia.

While protesters marched in the streets and blocked traffic, Democratic donors congregated in a few reserved hotels and shuttled between private receptions with A-list elected officials. If the talk onstage at the Wells Fargo Center was about reducing inequality and breaking down barriers, downtown Philadelphia evoked the world as it still often is: a stratified society with privilege and access determined by wealth.

In fact, as Thomas Frank warns, Donald Trump might end up stealing the voters Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are taking for granted.

Let’s see: trade agreements, outreach to hawks, “bipartisanship”, Wall Street. All that’s missing is a “Grand Bargain” otherwise it’s the exact same game plan as last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. Democrats seem to be endlessly beguiled by the prospect of campaign of national unity, a coming-together of all the quality people and all the affluent people and all the right-thinking, credentialed, high-achieving people. The middle class is crumbling, the country is seething with anger, and Hillary Clinton wants to chair a meeting of the executive committee of the righteous.

When Democrats sold out their own rank and file in the past it constituted betrayal, but at least it sometimes got them elected. Specifically, the strategy succeeded back in the 1990s when Republicans were market purists and working people truly had “nowhere else to go”. As our modern Clintonists of 2016 move instinctively to dismiss the concerns of working people, however, they should keep this in mind: those people may have finally found somewhere else to go.

Meanwhile, the European Union is disintegrating and the euro zone continues to impose Draconian austerity measures. As Joseph Stiglitz explains in a recent interview, banks and corporate interests generally have been the only beneficiaries.

Q. In your telling, Germany has imposed austerity across Europe out of faith in a discredited economic idea, the notion that if policy makers concentrate solely on preventing budget deficits and inflation, the markets can be counted on to deliver prosperity. A lot of your book is devoted to demolishing this idea. Does the German elite still really believe in this philosophy, or is something else at play?

A. I’ve visited Germany often, and I’m shocked about how strong the belief is in this view that has been totally discredited elsewhere.

But the policies are mixed together with interests. When the Greek crisis broke out in 2010, what was really at risk were German and to some extent French banks. And there was an enormous bailout that was called a bailout of Greece but was really a bailout of German and French banks. Most of the money went to Greece and then right away went back to Germany and France. . .

Q. You argue that some European leaders secretly welcomed mass unemployment as a means of adjusting to the crisis because this was the only way they could see to spur investment — lowering wages. The strictures of the euro took other options off the table: Crisis countries could not let their currency fall or lower interest rates or expand government spending. Was unemployment really embraced as a fix?

A. They wanted to break the back of workers. Their view was that workers needed to accept a wage cut and we are going to change the bargaining rules to make it more difficult for them to resist. And if we need to add on a little dose of unemployment, well, that’s unfortunate.

Q. Doesn’t that goal predate the crisis?

A. It’s very clear that the euro was a neo-liberal project in its construction. Employers like low wages. They have broken the back of the unions in many of the countries of Europe. They would view that as a great achievement.

However ironically, it has fallen to the Boston Consulting Group [ht: sm] to sound the alarm about attempting to conduct business as usual:

Societies in the United States and Europe are being fundamentally challenged in ways we have not seen for decades—with nationalistic rhetoric and agendas from the far right and a deep distrust of business, globalization, and technology from the far left. Many worry that such a polarization of public opinion and policy making could introduce new risks and uncertainties that would deter investment (which is already far too low, judging by current interest rates) and undermine the basis for future prosperity.

Why this polarization? While there are many causes, and they vary from country to country, it reflects in large part widespread and growing dissatisfaction with entrenched economic and social inequality and greater personal uncertainty in a fast-changing global economy. It also reflects people’s mistrust of political and corporate elites, who are seen as the architects of this state of affairs. Economic inequality within our societies is a byproduct of the way we have managed the past three and a half decades of global economic integration. At the same time, technology—in particular, recent advances in robotics, machine intelligence, and distributed ledgers (blockchain)—could replace human labor in many areas, further compounding dislocation, inequality, and discontent.

Brexit was a watershed. The British vote to leave the European Union was motivated in large part by frustration with economic stagnation and inequality, and it has created fertile ground for nationalistic, anti-immigrant sentiment. The English West Midlands, the region with highest “leave” vote, has experienced stagnating median household incomes for nearly two decades.

The division between those who have captured the vast majority of the benefits from global integration and technological progress and those who haven’t runs between major cities and smaller communities, between young and old, and between people with different levels of education. And it’s not just Great Britain—70% of the US workforce has experienced no real wage increase in the past four decades. Similar patterns can be observed in Canada, Germany, and other European countries. Wealth concentration has also increased globally, with around 1% of people controlling 50% of the world’s assets.

the-infinite-recognition-1963(1).jpg!Large

René Magritte, “The Infinite Recognition” (1963)

Dan Rodrick, like most mainstream economists, wouldn’t know left-wing economics if it bit him on the proverbial nose (as I explained in early 2015). What he’s really referring to—in his essay, “The Abdication of the Left”—is liberal economics, the left-of-center wing of mainstream economics.

But, if you replace all his references to “the Left” with “liberalism,” you can read Rodrick’s latest column as a forceful indictment of left-of-center mainstream economics over the course of the past few decades.

As an emerging new establishment consensus grudgingly concedes, globalization accentuates class divisions between those who have the skills and resources to take advantage of global markets and those who don’t. Income and class cleavages, in contrast to identity cleavages based on race, ethnicity, or religion, have traditionally strengthened the political left. So why has the left been unable to mount a significant political challenge to globalization?. . .

Economists and technocrats on the left bear a large part of the blame. Instead of contributing to such a program, they abdicated too easily to market fundamentalism and bought in to its central tenets. Worse still, they led the hyper-globalization movement at crucial junctures.

Rodrick is correct. The liberal wing of mainstream economics (in the academy, as advisers to liberal political parties, and in multinational financial and development agencies) did, in fact, embrace market fundamentalism—from domestic financial markets to international trade and capital flows—and the policies they promoted did serve to accentuate existing income and class cleavages. And then, after creating the conditions (in the form of growing inequality and financial fragility) for the crash of 2007-08, they proceeded to manage the imposition of austerity policies, both within and across countries.

So, indeed, liberals are in large part responsible for the resurgence of the Right, in the form of anti-immigrant protests and nativist populism. Those movements, which have been moving from the fringe to center stage in the United States and Europe, are the more-or-less inevitable backlash against free-market fundamentalism and economic austerity.*

That’s not to say those on the Left—the real Left, not Rodrick’s liberal mainstream economists—do not share some of the blame. Their own weak opposition to market fundamentalism and economic austerity, which often meant little more than a return to Keynesian macroeconomics and the defense of existing welfare-state programs, created a vacuum for other policies and strategies. What was needed (both where the Left was in power, from Greece’s Syriza to Brazil’s Workers’ Party, to where it was not, including the United States and the rest of Europe) was an approach that, at one and the same time, highlighted the structural causes of growing income and class cleavages and proposed alternative economic and social institutions.

If, as Rodrick explains, “the right thrives on deepening divisions in society – ‘us’ versus ‘them’.” and liberalism looks to enact “reforms that bridge” those cleavages, the Left aims to overcome those cleavages by creating new, noncapitalist ways of organizing economic and social life. Not just managing the cleavages but actually eliminating them.

That, as I see it, is the challenge for the Left moving forward.

 

*As Brad DeLong admits, the liberal fantasy of free markets and globalization—his own view of the world—”did go horribly wrong”:

Financial globalization was intended to take down barriers to capital inflows erected by rent-seekers in developing countries, and so speed growth in economies that had been starved of capital while also equalizing incomes. Financial deregulation was supposed to break up the cozy investment banking and other oligarchies of Wall Street and diminish their private-sector tax on the American economy. Financial deregulation was supposed to provide the poorer half of America with the access to fairly priced credit that it lacked and with the opportunity to invest in assets that would yield equity-class returns, which it also lacked. And, in a world in which central banks had the powers and the will to successfully stabilize aggregate demand, there seemed little downside to letting people who could not put together a 20% down payment buy a house, to forcing Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to deal with competition from Citigroup and Bank of America, and to allow entrepreneurs in Mexico to raise funds not just from a cozy oligarchy of Mexico City banks but on the global capital market.

And France’s socialist technocrats were right: in highly-open economies the task of managing aggregate demand has to be a global, or at least a North Atlantic-wide, or at least a continent-wide exercise. In a good world, large exchange rate changes should only take place in response to persistent fundamental disequilibria rather than being used as first-line tools for demand management.

It all did go horribly wrong.

puerto_rico_and_the_vultures___ramses_morales_izquierdo

Next week, after the Memorial Day recess, the entire House is expected to take up the bill, which last week was approved (by a vote of 29-10) within the House Natural Resources Committee, with support from the White House, to handle the Puerto Rico debt crisis.

The folks at the Wall Street Journal couldn’t be happier.

The bill offers debt relief to Puerto Rico in return for a mechanism to overrule the territory’s feckless current government and impose reform. The legislation explicitly pre-empts conflicting laws and regulations passed by the commonwealth. It also stipulates that legal challenges will be heard in federal rather than commonwealth court.

The key to the reform is a seven-person control board modeled after the board that pulled the District of Columbia out of a debt spiral in the 1990s. The President would select the board from nominations by the House Speaker (two), Senate Majority Leader (two), House Minority Leader (one) and Senate Minority Leader (one). The President has sole discretion to choose the seventh. The appointments must be made by Dec. 1, and the terms last three years, so the GOP majority’s choices will steer the board’s crucial early decisions. . .

After ensuring that financial audits and a fiscal plan have been completed, the board would propose a plan of adjustment that is fair and equitable. The legislation explicitly requires that the plan respect creditor priorities and liens and be “in the best interest of creditors.” So if Democrats later control the board, they couldn’t subordinate general obligation bondholders to pensioners.

As we know, similar programs elsewhere—in Europe (e.g., Greece) and in the United States (e.g., Detroit and Flint)—have proven disastrous, at least for the majority of the population. They have only helped the “vulture creditors,” who have already profited enormously from extending high-interest loans and purchasing tax-privileged bonds. In each case, the possibility of real debt relief was scuttled in favor of repaying the creditors and imposing the kinds of economic and political “reforms” elites both inside and outside have long wanted to implement.

Last August, Joseph Stiglitz and Mark Medish warned that Puerto Rico “can’t pay its debts today, and with short-term debt financing at the high interest rates demanded by creditors, it will be even less able to pay its debts tomorrow.” As for the United States, it needs to

take responsibility for its imperialist past and neocolonial present. Washington owes Puerto Ricans a future based on democratic legitimacy and a financially and socially viable development strategy—a development strategy that is more than a set of tax breaks for profitable U.S. corporations.

The new deal is exactly the opposite of taking that responsibility, since (as Erik Levitz [ht: sm] explains) it means establishing “a pseudo-colonial shadow government tasked with trading debt haircuts for austerity measures.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Bernie Sanders, in the midst of his own presidential campaign, is strenuously campaigning against the bipartisan Puerto Rico deal.

In my view, we must never give an unelected control board the power to make life and death decisions for the people of Puerto Rico without any meaningful input from them at all. We must not balance Puerto Rico’s budget on the backs of children, senior citizens, the sick and the most vulnerable people in Puerto Rico.

Moreover, this legislation requires that any restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt must be “in the best interests of creditors,” not in the best interests of the 3.5 million U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico.

“Not in the best interests of 3.5 million U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico”—who may soon find themselves in the same position as the citizens of Greece, Detroit, and Flint.

3318

Special mention

download download (1)

OJ-AJ415_BRUSSE_16U_20160505120307

Greek workers have begun a 3-day general strike in protest against further austerity measures that are being proposed in return for more bailout money from their European creditors.

Even the Wall Street Journal admits that the proposed package of fiscal retrenchment measures is unsustainable, as it could come to 5 percent of Greece’s gross domestic product.

Eurozone finance ministers are holding a special meeting on Monday to debate the problem. Few expect a solution. One is needed at the latest by July, when Greece will default on bond debts unless a deal unlocks fresh bailout aid. The number causing the most grief is 3.5% of GDP: the primary-surplus target written in last year’s Greek bailout agreement. “The IMF thinks the primary objective should be lower. That would help Greece,” says David Mackie, chief European economist at J.P. Morgan.

Aiming for a smaller surplus would allow for less austerity, and for the Greek economy to breathe, IMF officials have argued for months. But it would also entail restructuring European loans to Greece, so that its debt doesn’t spiral ever higher. At a minimum, the IMF wants Europe to postpone Greece’s payment obligations by decades.

Eurozone governments led by Germany don’t want to take a hit on their Greek bailout loans, which total €205 billion ($234 billion) so far. Berlin is insisting the primary-surplus goal can’t be changed.

The fact is, since 2010, a succession of Greek governments have enacted spending cuts and tax increases worth a total of 32.3 percent of GDP, “a scale of austerity far beyond that seen in any other European country during the financial-crisis era.”

Greek workers are saying no more—and even the Wall Street Journal, which still considers the previous austerity measures to have been “inevitable,” can’t find a policymaker or economist who “argues that further belt-tightening on that scale is what Greece’s economy needs at this point.”