Global Agenda: Poor, nasty, brutish

Neither China’s rise nor its decline and potential fall impacted political thought and action the way the crushing of Greece has and will.

A man holds up a Greek national flag during a demonstration in support of Greece (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man holds up a Greek national flag during a demonstration in support of Greece
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week has seen remarkable, nay amazing, developments that will affect everyone and be remembered for many years. Yet most people are content to read or hear about or watch them – and move on with a shrug to the next item.
We are witnessing the regression of European politics to a Hobbesian state, of the sort quoted in the headline – from Hobbes’s Leviathan – as the “natural condition of mankind” and of the individual in times of war. True, in Europe there is currently no war in the accepted sense. But there is in the sense Hobbes defined, of “the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal.”
This week saw the ruthless crushing of Greek sovereignty, of the democratically expressed (twice, once in a general election and once in a referendum) will of the Greek people and of other key tenets of the “European project” and the ideals that originally drove it. The crushing was done by Germany and its allies. And what was so starkly impressive and frightening about it was that it was accomplished without a shot being fired, let alone a blitzkrieg being launched.
It is essential to define the relative importance of different phenomena: to whom they are important and why. Thus, last week’s column brazenly claimed that “the entire Greek crisis... is secondary and increasingly marginal compared to the major event... which is developing in China.” That remains true in a global macroeconomic context, because it is the Chinese economy – specifically its deep problems and relentless decline – that will impact every country, every industry, every firm and every household in the world, just as China’s rise did in the previous generation.
But neither China’s rise nor its decline and potential fall impacted political thought and action the way the crushing of Greece has and will. Nor has the rise and fall of China influenced how individuals – you, me, the man and woman on the Clapham omnibus – manage our personal affairs.
Greece will. It hasn’t yet, because most people haven’t grasped the enormity of what happened. But when they do, it certainly will.
A friend of mine asked me in genuine perplexity: “I don’t understand how, after Tsipras won a huge majority in the referendum to back his policy, he turned round and gave in on everything?” The question is excellent, and many millions of words have already been written in attempts to answer it. Undoubtedly, psychology and many other disciplines have contributions to make in formulating the definitive answer. But the correct answer is also the simple one: He gave in because he had no money. “They” – originally “the Troika” but now just the EU, led openly and aggressively by Germany – would not provide liquidity to the Greek banks unless he capitulated, totally and in the most humiliating manner possible. The alternative to surrender was, in effect, mass starvation.
This is the essence of what happened this week. All the rest is neither new nor, in the greater scheme of things, all that important. Thus the key facts concerning Greece’s utter inability ever to repay its debts, which stem from its fundamental economic inefficiency and failure – which in turn are the product of a corrupt, self-serving and chronically incompetent political culture – all these were well known.
This column, as so many others, has been discussing them for the nearly six years since the Greek crisis broke.
On the basis of those facts, it can be legitimately argued – and I would certainly be sympathetic to that argument – that Greece has no right to exist as an independent nation state. After 185 years of sovereignty, most of them spent in bankruptcy and none in self-generated prosperity, it is clear that Greece is as failed a state as you can get – and as failed as any ex-colonial African dictatorship you care to mention.
However, the European family of nations chose to disregard those facts. It pushed Greece into the then-European Economic Community, granted it membership in the European Union and allowed it to cheat and lie its way into the euro. Everything that needed to be known about Greece’s bankrupt economy, politics and culture was known long before the revelations of October 2009 triggered the crisis.
For the past five years the EU has imposed austerity on the Greek people, rendering many of them unemployed and reducing most of them to poverty (by European standards, at least). Now the EU – part of it willingly and part unwillingly – has imposed on Greece the elimination of its sovereignty and, in so doing, has announced that democracy is irrelevant.
These are messages that will resound far beyond Greece’s borders. They represent a betrayal of the basic principles that the European project espoused from its outset. And they will therefore intensify the disillusion of the young generation across Europe and stoke the fires of nationalism and of antidemocratic movements that have been on the rise in recent years.
In short, this week saw a defining development in European – and perhaps global – politics. But it also saw a parallel development of much more direct and urgent relevance to individuals and households, which will be discussed in the next column.