The day after the rescue

A chronicle of lessons learned from the crisis

Konstantinos Poulis
What do we know now that we didn’t know at the start of the crisis? Here I΄m going to run through some information that would have been useful, but which took some time to become entrenched in the public debate. It’s not that we didn’t know any of this, since some of the points that I’ll mention could be heard on the sidelines of the conversation. So why is reviewing this information useful now? Because by seeing where we went wrong, we might be able to learn how to discuss and analyze better in the future. Let’s learn from our mistakes, as they say; let’s try to locate the blind spots in the debate even today.

1. More than 95% of the bailout money went right back to the banks, thereby benefitting precisely the people who designed the so-called bailout programs. During the first years of the programs, their architects consistently responded to criticism by insisting that if Greece didn’t receive the bailout funds it wouldn’t be able to pay wages and pensions. The revelation that the amount returned to the banks reached 95% is an overwhelming affirmation of the view that the program was not, in fact, “an unprecedented support mechanism” (as George Papandreou described it in Kastelorizo) ​​but rather a massive attempt to collectively deceive a people and compel us to accept money that we would simply have to return in full from out of our other pocket. Now, though, we have Dijsselbloem’s admission that “we used taxpayers’ money to bail out the banks”; the IMF’s acknowledgement of an erroneous fiscal multiplier, studies which reveal how Germany has profited from the crisis—all small pieces of a puzzle that together cast doubt on the popular image of lazy beneficiaries. These kinds of things were indeed said, both by people who knew what they were talking about and by people who didn’t, but did not enter into the mainstream of the public discourse. Now, however, they have.

2. The coverage was misleading. How could there have been such a mismatch between reality and the public discourse? Yannis Pretenteris wasn’t just my favorite journalist; he was also a central voice at the heart of bailout coverage. He was one person who claimed that they knew the debt wasn’t viable, even though they would never say it (he relates all this at length in his recent book); to the contrary, they said that it was the only solution if Greece were ever to return to normalcy. Now, however, we know what happened. We know from the conversations made public every time a journalistic interaction went awry that, through political interventions, owners of the major media outlets received thalassodaneia (“sea loans” issued with very loose terms) and contracts for major public works, all so they could distort reality and blame the rest of the world. Journalism became the act of concealing that which the public should not know—as was the case with Maria Spyraki, who was rewarded for her blatant violation of every journalistic ethic by being made a spokeswoman for New Democracy. But even if we really knew all this from the start, now we have concrete evidence in the form of statements that emerged from George Papandreou, and later Alexis Tsipras’, conflicts with media mogul Stavros Psycharis.

3. The bailout policies have been successful and effective. This is a point that requires clarification. If we are talking about the stated objectives of the program they have of course been unsuccessful, seeing as public debt hasn’t been tamed nor does it appear that it will be even in the distant future (see Mark Blyth’s contribution to this feature). But if we are talking about the program’s unspoken objectives, namely the consolidation of austerity as the only available path, it has been a success. Privatization is being championed by two parties now squabbling merely because one is hugely eager for it and the other is less so, with the same going for the dissolution of the labor market and of workers' rights. There are two bases to the apathy of Greek society when it comes to monitoring their dissolution. If we judge the bailout programs on the basis of their stated goals, they have proven unsuccessful. If we judge them by the objectives that we attribute to them, they have been entirely successful. This has all been a war on the weak, waged with exemplary efficiency.

4. A vote for Golden Dawn is not a legitimate vote of protest. I personally never subscribed to this delusion. So widespread was the downplaying of the phenomenon that few people ever thought the party would retain its votes even after the murder of hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas. We underestimated two things: the first was the bloodthirsty sentiment of a large number of our fellow citizens; the second was the ease with which our bourgeoisie would deliver us to Neo-Nazis if only to prevent a swing to the Left.

5. “We’ll see what happens starting in September”. Nothing happened. I remember how the so-called liberals over at Kathimerini used to tease us because we believed that, sooner or later, the people would react, because “it’s impossible for this to go on.” It turned out that it is possible, is exceedingly possible, for these things and others like them to go on and on. The lack of a compelling alternative proved entirely corrosive for any change that was proposed, with the result that the degree to which the world is able to tolerate injustice and deprivation turned out to be unexpectedly large. Now we know that there exists no limit of injustice, misconduct or circumvention of rights that, once exceeded, guarantees political uprising. That kind of thing takes both a ready compelling retort and courage, which never existed here. The two consecutive citizen movements were the formation of the Aganaktismenoi (Greece’s Indignados) and the rise of Syriza. In retrospect, though, they amounted very little.

6. Sweet is the draught of power. This is the point where I really lost it. I never imagined that Euclid Tsakalotos and Thodoris Dritsas could ever sign the kinds of things that they sign. Those with a closer relationship to Syriza might have seen it more clearly. I might have predicted that the plan for negotiations wouldn’t succeed, but I couldn’t have imagined that the same people could reconcile themselves to the idea that all you have to do is say that before you were delusional, but now it’s passed, so now it’s fine to say the very thing that they had been saying for so many years and which you’d cursed them for. So it turned out that hunger for power was also present in those who had spent years in minor parties, or entirely outside of politics. A man’s soul is a mysterious thing.

7. No one can actually discuss economic matters. One of the barriers to analysis was the sheer technical complexity of the issue, which left an immense field wide open to the influence of propaganda. When respectable interlocutors on both sides claimed that leaving the euro will lead to either 18 months of hardship or a total disaster, it became clear that this was not an actual debate. The question of leaving the euro turned out to be the most critical one of this whole stretch, but it was never really possible to discuss it. That’s why ThePressProject was founded: as an attempt to bring to Greece a dialogue that existed between distinguished economists, but which never entered into our own national debate. ThePressProject is still here, but that conversation never took place. There were two economists who were able to speak competently about the subject and who did influence the public debate: Yanis Varoufakis and Kostas Lapavitsas (nearly all of their colleagues were, of course, capable of discussing the matter, but none affected the public conversation in the same way). Varoufakis supported an ultimately fatal dead-end strategy. Lapavitsas, on the other hand, proved unable to stay the enormous stream of hysteria in the currency debate and, at the critical moment, in the wake of the referendum, his party appeared fearful. The result was that the public debate about the euro played out on the opponent’s court and rendered us scared and timid. When the anti-bailout Left determined that rupture from the Eurozone would be a precondition for any conversation about austerity (something which the political parties DiEM25, Course of Freedom, and Popular Unity now all share in acknowledging), the issue was decided; its destruction complete. Everything else is a matter of academic debate.

8. Strike while the iron’s hot. At this moment there remain small leftist parties led by politicians who didn’t follow Syriza in capitulation to austerity. Their positions strongly evoke Syriza’s back in 2015, the difference being that now they are all convinced that rupture from the Eurozone is a precondition for any critique of the bailout programs. The bad thing is that they missed the historic opportunity they had back when the world was actually interested in these views.

9. In the end, the creditors never backed down. It sounds silly to say so now, but Syriza's negotiating strategy was premised on the belief that there was no way that the creditors wouldn’t back down. Some thought from the outset that this was an ill-chosen approach, while others confessed once the party was over that they had been delusional and so on. But the lesson we should take away is that it is inconceivable that there should have been no exit strategy in place, in case of the failure of the original plan. The paradigmatic moment was Paul Krugman’s inability to believe it possible that the Greek government did not actually possess its notorious Plan B. In other words, why would they allow you to win the negotiations if you don’t actually have an exit plan? This is old news, but the takeaway is that the optimism was both unfounded and fatal.

What, then, would have needed in order to sketch out a plan that was not completely doomed? A detailed plan articulated with the outspokenness that gives strength to the desperate, without the scaredy-cat politicking. We lacked both answers and courage.

All of this brings us back to the question of exactly what it means to be a member of the Left. Let me propose an idea: a member of the Left is someone who believes that the world can, with effort, risk, and struggle, actually change. When someone wants to change the world but fears the closure of the banks, he is simply ridiculous—a member of neither the Left nor the Right.

The notion that a political exit was possible and that it did not require rupture was a lullaby when what we needed was a battle cry. Again, with the privilege of hindsight, we can safely say one thing: unfortunately, the whole current of objection to the bailout programs, as articulated primarily by the Aganaktismenoi, was wiped out when we bet on a lame horse called Syriza. It was convenient for Syriza, and especially for our creditors, to claim that a solution could be reached without conflict. The result of the referendum showed that, under certain conditions, the people would indeed have been willing to fight.  


Now we know that the next time a mainstream journalist says "what you’re asking is risky" the response needs to be "to battle!" and not some statement of compliance made to avoid worrying the world, the voters, the markets, and whoever else. Only right now there doesn’t seem to be a next time, only a landscape so deserted, and tacitly compliant, that it sends shivers down the spine.

2018-08-18 21:31:39
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