Further thoughts on the Greek situation

I’ve sat down a few times this week intending to write something about what’s happening in Greece, but the situation has been so fluid it’s been hard to make much sense of it. Things do seem to have settled into some sort of pattern over the last couple of days though, so I’ll hazard some thoughts.

My suspicion that the Germans would stick to a hard line seems to have been right; what was more surprising was the speed with which the Syriza government caved in. Their capitulation has been met with bewilderment and not a little anger in left-wing circles, coming as it did only a few days after they had received a strong mandate from Greek workers in the referendum.

Accusations of selling-out are a little unfair I think; Tsipras and those around him seem to have expected the Germans to back down, and, when it became obvious that that wasn’t going to happen, to have calculated that it was better to remain in power, and try to offset the worst of the austerity, rather than walk away. There is some logic in this position, though, given that they have just signed away a big chunk of sovereignty, the scope for resistance may be limited.

Where Syriza can be criticicised is for allowing themselves to be boxed into such a position. They seem to have drastically underestimated the extent to which the Germans would be prepared to sacrifice their economic interests to maintain their political power. From what I have read of accounts of the negotiations it sounds as if the Greeks approached them like an academic debate, in which cold logic would win out, rather than the vicious political street fight that the Germans engaged in.

It is hard to understand why this was so; Syriza may be a broad coalition, but plenty of their senior members are experienced activists who should have seen this coming. There are reports that some in the Left Block of the party were arguing that more preparations should be made for the possibility of an exit from the Euro, but very few practical steps to this end seem to have been taken.

As things stand it is looking like a defeat for the left, but all is not lost. There will certainly be a realignment of anti-austerity forces, and while the bailout agreement has been passed by the Greek parliament it it far from clear that the Tsipras government will be able to push through the most unpopular provisions, given the level of politicisation and mobilisation of the Greek working class. There are splits emerging in the Troika too; the IMF, which is more interested in getting at least some of its money back than preserving German hegemony in Europe, may force Berlin to accept some write-off of the debt.

There are also some signs that pan-European solidarity with the Greeks may be stirring, most crucially in Germany. Even in the UK, which is always a bit detached from these things, there have been demonstrations and collections of cash for food banks and free clinics in Greece. This may not significantly alter the course of events, but might alleviate at least some of the pain.

If we have learned one thing from the last two weeks though, it’s that this crisis is far from settled, and there will undoubtedly be more unexpected developments before we can say that it is over.

Post-oxi

So the Greeks held their collective nerve and voted No on Sunday; now we wait to see whether Germany will follow through on the threat to throw Greece out of the Euro, and perhaps out of the EU altogether.

On the face of it, it makes no economic sense to take such drastic action over what, in the grand scheme of things, are relatively small sums of money, but this has always been as much a political crisis as an economic one, and, in political terms, allowing popular democracy to win out over neoliberal discipline is a much bigger threat to Europe’s rulers than even the worst shocks that might follow a Grexit from the Euro.

So my money (euro, not drachma) is on Merkel sticking to her hard line. Whatever happens, difficult times ahead for Greece.

Oxi

I’ve been involved in a lot of political activity over the years, but, being honest, I have to admit that most of it has been, if not exactly inconsequential, then marginal at best. A few minor victories here, some setbacks there, nothing that will trouble the historians. I don’t mean this dismissively; progress has always come in countless tiny increments, and some occasional leaps, and it’s usually only with the benefit of hindsight that we can tell what is significant.

That said, I have often found myself daydreaming about what it would have been like to have been around when things were really going down – Russia in 1917, Spain in 1936, Cuba in 1953, Chile in 1973; when the struggle reached a point of crisis and irrevocable choices had to be made. In the accounts I have read of such times life certainly seems to take on an intensity unmatched in my own more pedestrian experience, but often at a considerable personal cost to those involved. On balance I guess I’m glad to have lived, so far at least, in a relatively quiet period.

Of course no one really gets to choose the circumstances they live through, and people can find themselves making history without ever having sought out that responsibility. Such is the fate of the population of Greece, who go to the polls tomorrow to choose between two visions of their future, and perhaps of the future of Europe.

I wouldn’t presume, from my position of comfort in Northern Europe, to fully understand the pressures that will weigh on the Greeks as they cast their ballots, but if I were there I would be voting No. It’s far from certain that a rejection of the EU austerity plan will give Syriza the leverage they need to negotiate a better deal, but accepting a continuation of the disastrous program of the last few years will surely condemn the Greek working class to inescapable poverty.

What I have heard about the political engagement of Greek workers is encouraging, and I am hopeful that they will back Syriza in sufficient numbers to deliver a victory, though it looks like it will be close. Whatever the outcome, something has started – the long, difficult process of turning Europe away from its current course. It’s a task that will require united action across the whole continent, but the movement in Greece could be the inspiration those of us who have thus far lagged behind need to get our act together.

Making up time

Today is going to be one second longer than usual, and I feel I should use the extra time to catch up on my blogging duties. There are two obvious stories that we really should have covered in the past month, but, for one reason and another, never got round to. The first one is the tale of Rachel Dolezal, which is right up our street, concerning as it does issues of social identity and personal reinvention, which we’ve considered many times in the context of virtual worlds. The second, and I think rather more important, is the unfolding situation in Greece, which looks set to come to a head with the referendum this weekend, and is likely to have knock-on effects across the continent, not least on the ongoing debate on EU membership in this country.

So, plenty of work to do. I’ll get right on to it tomorrow…

They were defeated, we won the war

The Battle of Waterloo took place 200 years ago today, and the anniversary has been marked with varying degrees of enthusiasm across Europe; here in the UK we have had reenactments and services of thanksgiving, while the French, perhaps unsurprisingly, have more or less ignored it.

Napoleon’s final defeat is generally remembered, in this country at least, as a stirring British victory over French tyranny; this overlooks the fact that, over the course of the Napoleonic wars, Britain contributed relatively little to the fighting on the ground, preferring to subsidise continental allies. Napoleon was undone by his disastrous campaign in Russia, and his real climatic defeat came at the Battle of Leipzig; the 100 days leading up to Waterloo was just a bloody coda.

It’s understandable that the British establishment, facing present-day worries about its place in Europe, should turn to the past for comfort. At the time of the battle the UK was little over a century old; Wellington’s victory cemented the nation and ushered in an era of British dominance that didn’t begin to falter until the First World War.

Whatever one thinks of Napoleon, the defeat of the French Republic at the hands of an alliance of monarchies was hardly a victory for progress. The Congress of Vienna saw the Bourbons restored in France, and entrenched absolutism across the continent, hastening the rise of Prussia and setting the scene for the tragic century that was to follow.

The ideals of the revolution could not be held down though. It wasn’t long before the French people rose again, and after years of struggle, a Second Empire, and another war against the Prussians, they were eventually done with kings for good. The Paris Commune, cruelly suppressed by the bourgeois counter-revolution, was the high point of this period, and is still inspirational today.

So perhaps the French, who, in my experience, know their history very well, are right to be ambivalent about Waterloo. The Ancien RĂ©gime can win a battle, but the war goes on.

Polls apart

So how accurate did my election forecast turn out to be? Well, I correctly predicted that the vote would happen yesterday, but got just about everything else wrong. I don’t feel too bad though, since even the professional pollsters were way out, and nobody was talking about a Conservative majority.

Which is of course the nightmare scenario. Things were bad enough in the last parliament, when the Tories were at least mildly restrained by the LibDems, so goodness knows how grim it will get in the next few years. Last time round there was some hope that the rightward drift of the government might provoke a left-leaning backlash, but, outside of Scotland (where the situation is more complicated than it looks at first glance), that never really materialised, and the chances of a progressive resurgence seem even slimmer today.

Oh well, back to the barricades I guess. Though I’m getting too old for all that street politics stuff…

Final prognostication

The polls in the UK General Election open in a few hours, so I guess I’d better put my political reputation on the line by predicting who will come out on top once the votes have been counted.

Here’s my forecast:

Labour will be the biggest party, though they won’t have an overall majority. They will do better than expected in Scotland though, and the SNP won’t have the influence that they have been hoping for. The LibDems will take a bit of a hammering, but won’t be wiped out. UKIP will have one or two seats at most. The Tories won’t be too far behind Labour, but they won’t be able to put together a workable coalition. Labour won’t go into coalition either, but the anti-Tory numbers will add up to make a minority government possible.

So… Our next Prime Minister will be Ed Milliband. Things will be rocky for a while, but will stabilise, and he’ll serve a full term.

A Labour government will be different from a Tory government, and the more marginalised sections of the community will probably do a bit better, so I suppose that this result would be the least bad possible. I’m not expecting any revolutionary changes – as time passes I’m getting more resigned to the idea that I won’t see such developments in my lifetime. Though if there’s one thing that history teaches it’s that you seldom see these things coming, so there’s always hope.

Anyway, check back in a couple of days, and we’ll see how right I was…

Smoking up

It’s 4/20 again, and it’s good to see that the tide of marijuana legalisation seems unstoppable, in the US at least.

Sadly there’s no sign that any of the big parties contesting the election over here are going to make freeing the weed a major part of their platforms. This might be a missed opportunity; in a close race the stoner vote could just swing it. Assuming they get it together enough to turn out…

Long range forecast

Well, I’ve been reading the papers, keeping up with the polls, and watching the debates on TV, but I’m not feeling any more confident about calling the outcome of the election. I have managed to come to one conclusion however; my confusion isn’t down to any inherent unpredictability in the process, but rather stems from my inability to imagine why the electorate might choose to vote one way rather than another.
This in turn is at least partly due to the homogeneity of the political scene here; while there are some differences between the parties they are all singing from essentially the same pro-capital hymn sheet. The left is even more marginalised than it was five years ago, and class-based politics is all but dead, so an old Bolshevik like myself has no sense of which way the population might be leaning, since from my perspective the available options are all equally bad.

But a more personal, and probably more important, factor is my gradual withdrawal from active politics over the last decade or so; I’m almost totally reliant on second-hand reports of what is agitating the public mind, most of them gathered through the unreliable channel of social media. Add in the decline of my youthful certainty, and some age-related general bewilderment, and it’s little surprise that I have no idea who is going to come out on top at the start of May.

Perhaps it’s all just too close to home; anxiety about how the outcome might affect my personal circumstances may be clouding my judgement. I certainly find it much easier to pronounce authoritatively on what will happen across the Atlantic; Hillary will win. You read it here first.

Predictably unpredictable

After months of anticipation the UK General Election is finally upon us. All the pundits are saying it’s the most unpredictable contest since, well, the last one, but I feel I should hazard some sort of forecast.

So, based on an entirely unscientific reading of a few highly selected news feeds, I’m going to say… no, it is too hard to call at the moment. The broad outline of the debate seems clear – it’s going to be won and lost on the economy – but there are enough confounding factors to leave the likely outcome frustratingly obscure. How much will the Liberal vote collapse, and where will it go? Will UKIP supporters return to the Tory fold? Will Labour do as badly in Scotland as the polls seem to suggest?

I guess things may become clearer over the next few weeks, and I will get round to making a prediction before polling day. In the meantime I’ll try to keep up some sort of commentary on developments, which might help focus my own thoughts on the matter, if nothing else.

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