Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Neutering of Alexis Tsipras

All of which lead back to the subject of Greece.  Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called for elections on September 20 which, despite his disastrous performance, he is expected to win.  After defying Europe on austerity, loudly proclaiming Greek sovereignty, and calling a referendum to defeat an offensive austerity proposal, he then proceeded to cave and accept much harsher austerity terms and greater infringements on national sovereignty than the proposal that the people voted against.  So why is he still popular.  The cited article suggests three reasons:

  1. The only alternative to capitulation is leaving the euro, which the Greeks are not willing to do;
  2. Mainstream parties are thoroughly discredited, both by disastrous economic performance since 2008 and for their role in causing the mess in the first place;
  3. At least Tsipras made a serious effort to beat back austerity before he caved.  
I would add another reason.  People are tired of crisis and just want a return to normality, even if the current norm is really bad.  Tsipras, having done his level best before caving, is now ready to settle into his role as a respectable center-left political leader.

Of course, we know what has happened to respectable center-left leaders and parties in Europe since 2008.  They have embraced self-destructive austerity and are being abandoned in mass by their voters. The old center-left party in Greece has experienced mass defections to Syriza.  Now that Syriza has caved, where do they have left to go?

The crisis in Greece has truly driven home that there are only two alternatives -- either leave the euro, or stay on whatever terms the creditors choose to dictate.  Any attempt to resist the creditors will simply lead to harsher terms.  So why does leaving the euro remain so resolutely off the table?  This column believes that the Greeks are staying out of nationalism:

The Greeks, for their part, have been putting their national identity ahead of their pocketbooks, in ways that economists do not understand and continually fail to predict. It is economically irrational for Greeks to prefer continued membership in the eurozone, when they could remain in the EU with a restored national currency that they could devalue. 
But, for the Greeks, eurozone membership does not mean only that they can use the common currency. It places their country on a par with Italy, Spain, France, and Germany, as a “full member” of Europe – a position consistent with Greece’s status as the birthplace of Western civilization.
Maybe.  But I think what is really hard for people like me to understand is how "national identity" can be expressed by submitting to ever greater and more humiliating infringements on one's national sovereignty.  If there is one thing that these negotiations have made absolutely clear, it is that Greece is not, in fact, being treated as "on a par with Italy, Spain, France and Germany" -- well, at least with France and Germany.  Italy and Spain may be partners in humiliation.  The alternative is the prospect of leaving the euro is just too terrifying and that the Greeks still prefer the devil they know over the devil they don't know.

I guess it all depends on what happens next.  If the Greek economy recovers, no doubt Tsipras will remain popular and will be looked upon (quite wrongly) as a wise and foresighted statesman.  But if the economy continues to languish, then the pressure will continue to build for someone to do something to make it better.

And now I intend to abandon modern Greece and the modern world for a while and return to Ancient Greece and the overthrow of democracy in Athens in 411 B.C.

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