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.


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.


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.

Greeks bearing gifts

It generally takes something momentous to wake me from my mid-winter slumber, but such an event has just arrived in the shape of the very encouraging victory of the radical left party Syriza in the Greek general election.

The next couple of weeks will be interesting, as we wait to see who blinks first in the negotiations over reducing and/or rescheduling Greek debt. It seems likely that there will be some sort of deal, since I don’t think either side is willing to see the fallout that would result from a default. There isn’t much room for manoeuvre though; the Greek people desperately need some relief from years of crushing austerity, and failure to deliver this would precipitate a massive political crisis in Athens, while the ECB is wary of seeming too lenient on the debt question, lest it encourages similar popular uprisings in other parts of the Eurozone. My guess is that the eventual compromise will favour the Greeks, since things can’t get much worse for them, so they have less reason to back down. The Germans don’t seem to be in a forgiving mood though, so it could go either way.

The situation in the UK doesn’t really parallel that in Greece. We have had some austerity, but it’s been on nothing like the same scale; crucially the middle class, while squeezed, have not been completely impoverished. There is no left formation analogous to Syriza either, anti-austerity sentiment taking on more of a diffuse, localised form. That said, if things work out well for the Greeks it will give a boost to the left here, and perhaps inject some excitement into our own election campaign. Whatever happens the result has shown that markets and bankers don’t have a monopoly on power, and that the voice of the people can’t be ignored.

Bad news for bears

Disappointing, if unsurprising, results in the US midterm polls, after the GOP finally realised that elections are won on the centre ground, rather than the wingnut fringes. It probably means that the last two years of the Obama administration will be even more underwhelming than expected.

It wasn’t all bad news; weed is now legal in Alaska, Oregon and DC, and there were minimum-wage hikes all over the place. Sadly the proposal to ban the use of donuts for bear-hunting in Maine was unsuccessful…

The value of application

I’m middle-aged, and sensible, and a bit dull, so of course I have a monthly contract for my cellphone, with unlimited minutes and texts (not that I ever use many of either, since I don’t have much of a social life to speak of). Anyway, I guess that means that I’m well outside the target demographic for WhatsApp, and not really in a position to even begin to understand why it might be popular among the youth, or what its revenue model might be.

Even if I did comprehend how money can be made by facilitating gossip among teenagers, I’m still not sure that I would be able to get my head around the fact that Facebook just paid $19 billion for the app. How did they come up with that valuation? Why not $12 billion, or $25 billion, or some other random figure? For $19 billion they could have got a proper, profit-generating, corporation like ConEdison, and still had some change left. I know that the deal was mainly financed with Facebook stock, which may or may not hold its value, but reportedly there was about $4 billion in actual real cash involved too. The guy who sold them Instagram must be feeling he left some money on the table.

I probably shouldn’t care what Silicon Valley venture capitalists choose to waste their money on, but it’s impossible to read about these astronomical sums being thrown around and not wonder if some more productive use might have been found for the cash, like, you know, fighting world hunger or something.

No doubt such naive sentiment would earn me a stern lecture from today’s tech entrepreneurs, about how enriching the wealth-creators is the true road to global prosperity, just like Ayn Rand said, but even if I was a hard-headed capitalist rather than a soft-hearted communist the WhatsApp deal might raise a few concerns. If the rate of profit in traditional industries has declined to the point where capital is forced to find a home at the risky edge of new technology, then it doesn’t auger well for the economy as a whole. Of course tech enthusiasts will argue that we’re talking about a new, disruptive paradigm, and that the old rules don’t apply, and that the sky-high valuations of internet stocks are completely justified and not at all based on any sort of irrational exuberance, but that’s what they’ve said about every bubble since the days of tulip mania.

At least us poor folks can look forward to the whole edifice collapsing at some point in the future, though the Googles and Facebooks are probably already preparing plans to lobby the Government for a bailout when the crash comes, because these arch-objectivists do tend to embrace corporate socialism when times turn hard (for them). In the meantime I guess we just have to keep organising, and resisting where we can.

Hooray for Hugo

After giving last year’s award to worthy women’s rights activists, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee seem to have rediscovered their sense of ironic black humour. They haven’t quite managed to top their 2009 masterstroke, when Barack Obama got the nod for his work in spreading goodwill and understanding by escalating wars and terrorising whole populations with killer drones, but giving the medal to the European Union, at a time when EU macroeconomic policy is spreading fear and despair through much of the continent, does come a close second.

It’s been rather a depressing week all round, from a left point of view, what with Romney making up ground in the US and our own Tory government promising all-out class warfare. There was a bright spot though; Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution marches on in Venezuela. Chavez has his critics on the left round here – proletarian bonapartism is a phrase one sometimes hears – but his record of improving the lot of the poor beats anything we’ve managed in the last half century, so more power to his elbow I say.

Can you Digg it?

Interesting news from the world of social media this week, where the sale of plucky internet start-up Digg raked in a cool $500K for investors, a sum they might have been excited about had their stock not cost $45 million just a couple of years previously.

Add in the doubts about Facebook’s revenue model, and one might fear that the social media bubble is about to burst. I guess I’ll have to postpone the SLS IPO…

(Here’s the music link which partly inspired this post, but which I can’t work out how to shoehorn into the main text.)

Grey Skies

I’ve been pretty lax on the blog front of late, which I had been ascribing to simple idleness, but my new theory is that I’m just being slowed down by having to wade through that damn Higgs Field every day.

Anyway, what’s been happening? Spanish flair did win Euro 2012, as I (almost) predicted, though it triumphed over Italian artistry rather than Teutonic efficiency, the Germans having lost their way in the semi-final. For a while after that game it seemed like they might cave in on the Eurobond question too, but no such luck.

In other news, the reading public have twisted a dagger into the heart of aspiring authors everywhere by enthusiastically embracing a volume of reworked Twilight fan-fic, making it the fastest selling paperback ever in the UK, despite it being, by all accounts, very poorly written, not particularly transgressive, and certainly not psychologically sophisticated.

Discouraged by this turn of events I have abandoned my plans to spend the next few months working on my own literary masterpiece, in favour of my usual summer routine of getting stoned in the park (assuming the rain ever stops), with a suitable soundtrack. There may not be many more posts this month…

Life imitates sport

I’ve not had much time for blogging recently, because, among other distractions, I’ve been spending my evenings drinking beer and watching the football on TV.

I had been hoping that last night’s match between Greece and Germany would provide me with a handy metaphor for a post on how the downtrodden masses can, through organisation and unity, overcome seemingly impossible odds, but sadly the cold efficiency of the Germans saw them run out comfortable winners.

Things are looking a little more hopeful on the political field though. The left may not have won in last week’s rerun election in Greece, but it appears they have done well enough to force Angela Merkel to accept some softening of the austerity programme imposed on the country.

On current form it looks like the Germans might end up facing Spain in the final; perhaps Iberian flair will make that match a better symbol for the future course of European protest.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 103 other followers