The Greek crisis

Below is the presentation from the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group meeting of March 10, 2010, edited for publication. Since then, the class-collaborationist union leaderships let the mass protests peter out after several months, so that the government succeeded in imposing massive cutbacks on the workers. But the Greek protests helped inspire other workers in Europe, while the struggle in Greece is bound to flare up again.

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While the bourgeois economists and news media trumpet every small blip in the Great Recession as evidence that the worst is over, it keeps extending and breaking out in new places. The latest is Greece, where the yearly government deficit has reached 12.7% of the GDP, with a total cumulative debt of over $300 billion euros, or $400 billion. This is a gross violation of European Union financial rules, which limit the deficit to 3% of GDP, and it also brings up the specter of a government default on its debt. So in November last year the Greek government, pushed by the EU, sought to cut the deficit, and as good neo-liberals, they aimed to do this by extreme austerity. This included wage freezes and pay cuts for government workers, a two-year increase in the retirement age, massive cuts in bonuses to civil service workers, an increase in the VAT, or national sales tax, and a 10% cut in spending on social programs. and cuts to services. On February 3rd, the EU executive body, the EU Commission, endorsed this call for the Greek masses to bear the burden of the crisis, and went further and urged additional wage cuts.

Protests sweep the country

But an encouraging feature of the situation is that the Greek masses aren't taking this lying down. Greek workers and youth have already faced bad conditions for years, and the austerity plan has called forth a continuing rash of strikes and demonstrations. I'll give a partial listing of these actions.

So a major confrontation is on the way in Greece. Let's look a little closer at the class forces involved in this struggle.

Cutbacks imposed by "socialists"

Until recently, the conservation so-called "New Democratic" government of Prime Minister Karamanlis was in power. Surely, one might think, this must be the source of the problem. And so, just the luck of Greek workers that snap elections held in October threw Karamanlis out and installed George Papandreou in power, with his Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or PASOK, holding a parliamentary majority. Why George Papandreou, the president of the Socialist Inernational and the son of the famous Andreas Papandrou who opposed the former Greek military junta and founded PASOK, will solve the problem.

But no, it is in fact PASOK and Prime Minister Papandreou who have been orchestrating the attacks on the Greek working masses. Just as the election of Obama here in the US didn't stop the Bush military and economic program, so PASOK is now serving as the instrument for attack on the Greek masses.

Not everything that glitters is gold. PASOK calls itself socialist, but it is a type of "socialism" that squeezes the masses for the benefit of the rich. Oh yes, just as Obama sighs that he didn't bail out the banks out of love for Wall Street, but because he loved Main Street, so George Papandreou claims to have taken this or that measure to make the rich pay a few more cents. But it's just sugar-coating on a program that will cut the welfare of workers by 10 or 20 or 30%.

We need, not the word "socialist", but an actual party that is based on the workers and leads their struggle. This is why there has to be a struggle against parties which claim to support the workers, but actually are tied hand and foot to the corporations and the bourgeoisie.

The two-faced role of the union leadership

Meanwhile the reformist leaders of the main union federations, the ADEDY and the GSEE, backed PASOK in the elections. This puts them in a quandary. On one hand, they want to continue to support PASOK, and they support the neo-liberal program of the EU. Stathis Anestis, a spokesman for the GSEE and member of its executive committe, gave an interview in January where he declared that "We can't escape the fact that we have a very serious problem on our hands" and he said that GSEE was "willing to accept tough measures on the condition that they are just."

On the other hand, these union bureaucrats want to appear to be on the side of the workers. So, while opposing some actions against PASOK, they participated in others. But their stand was to get the workers to accept cuts and sacrifices. Anestis posed as a militant and said, for example, that workers had already lost 15% of their purchasing power last year before the crisis. But he then said that the GSEE would fight for -- only a 4% pay increase for private sector workers to deal with this, and he hinted that the GSEE will abandon even that, if it was necessary to have workers bear their "fair share" of the crisis.

If you recall, I mentioned earlier that Mr. Papagopoulos, the head of the GSEE, was pelted with water and yogurt when he spoke at the March 4 demonstration. Now you may understand why this took place. It wasn't some sort of Greek tea partiers that were angry at Papagopoulos; it was the Greek workers who were sick of being sold out to the bourgeoisie by the likes of these bureaucrats.

Mr Papagopoulos is reminiscent of our postal union bureaucrats, who tell the workers to sit on their hands, and who are more scared of embarrassing postal management than they are of betraying the interests of union members. Even if the APWU isn't doing it in Detroit, the APWU sometimes holds a few pickets, and that's it. But it's not enough just to do a few things for show. There needs to be a serious struggle, and that requires that workers develop class-struggle organizations.

It is a positive sign that there is anger at these bureaucrats in Greece. But it will only be when the mass of workers are organized independently of the bourgeoisie and such of its servants as Mr. Papagopoulos, that they will be able to carry out a consistent struggle.

Making money off the crisis

Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie has put its own class organizations into motion. The bankers have played an especially notable role in this crisis. The bankers and financiers foresaw this crisis, and went into action. And to what end? To help the Greek people overcome this crisis? To warn them of the problem? No, they made backdoor deals to make money off of it.

One example of this is good-old Goldman-Sachs. Not content to fleece the American working people, it went into action to fleece the Greeks. In 2001, just after Greece was admitted to the EU, Greece had to obey EU financial rules. Goldman-Sachs make a deal with the Greek government to hide Greek debt from public view, thus apparently obeying EU rules, in exchange for privatization and extravagant payments to financiers. The deal was that the Greek government got cash immediately in return for pledging the landing fees for the next two decades at the country's airports to Goldman-Sachs through a private entity called Aeolos, and Goldman-Sachs also got a cool $300 million fee for setting this deal up. A previous deal, in 2000, called Ariadne, took care of the money from the Greek national lottery.

These are backroom deals, and as such, they not only are creeping privatization, but they are always on disadvantageous terms to the government. But even the public deals aren't much betters. As the Greek financial crisis began, more and more financiers saw a way to profit. There started to be a bigger and bigger market for credit default swaps, in which financiers bet on whether the Greek government will default. One can supposedly hedge against loss from loaning money to Greece, by buying a credit default swap which pays off big-time if Greece does default. Or you can skip the loan altogether and simply buy a credit default swap to speculate.

So as the crisis escalated, the Greek credit rating went down, the bankers charged more to loan to Greece, and speculation in credit default swaps escalated. The overall result is to increase the likelihood of a deeper crisis. And the more crisis deepens, the more profit there is for the financiers, and the more pressure that they can exert.

But of course the financiers are only operating as a part of the bourgeoisie. Both the Greek bourgeoisie, and the EU bourgeoisie as a whole, are using the crisis to impose more neo-liberal measures on the Greek people. There have been demonstrations and strikes before in Greece, against being squeezed by the bourgeoisie, but the bourgeoisie wants more, and it is using the crisis is an opportunity to put pressure on the people. On the other hand, this is a dangerous game, as the crisis may spread.

Deeper economic problems

Indeed the financial crisis is only the manifestation of deeper economic problems. The Greek economy has been in trouble for a long time. The escalating neo-liberal measures in Europe have had a bad effect on Greece. For one thing, the neo-liberal market measures, combined with competition from the Eastern European revisionist countries turning into low-wage market economies, has resulted in a certain deindustrialization in Greece. The market measures have also meant increasing inequality and pressure on the working masses.

When PASOK first came to power in a major electoral victory in 1981, it instituted a series of reforms. These included the development of a National Health System and other social programs, civil marriage, educational reforms, and so forth. But even then, PASOK backtracked on its overall promises with respect to coordination with the overall European bourgeoisie, both military coordination through NATO and economic coordination. PASOK tried to satisfy both the Greek bourgeoisie and the Greek masses, and ended up in trouble. It let the market evolution of Greece continue, but tried to buy working class acquiescence to this through various social programs.

But, as the EU bourgeoisie became more and more neo-liberal, and the financial crisis in Greece deepened, PASOK has gone over to neo-liberal cutting of the social network which it originally helped put in place. Its rhetoric against the bourgeoisie is hardly more serious than Obama's occasional fulminations against Wall Street. And its complaints that it is really those hard-nosed Germans who are forcing it to retrench are simply an attempt to divert attention from its own program. For that matter, it is PASOK which carried out the integration with those hard-nosed Germans and EU institutions.

While the bankers are making profits off the crisis, and the bourgeoisie is using it to promote neo-liberal reforms, the crisis also poses a danger for the European economy as a whole. Greece is part of the eurozone, in which all the countries have the same currency, the euro. A major default in Greece would have consequences for other countries. And there are already similar crises brewing in Portugal, Ireland and Spain.

A new major collapse in the EU would make a mockery of the blather that the great recession is lifting. Even without such a collapse, the major cutbacks in Greek, Portugal, Ireland and Spain show exactly what type of economic situation we are moving toward. The fact that it is a social-democratic government in Greece that is imposing these cutbacks shows that there is no such things as a kinder, gentler neo-liberalism. Whether implemented by New Democracy or the Panhellenc Socialist Movement, unemployment and starvation are the same. This also shows that we must look below labels. We need a truly socialist movement, a movement of the working masses, not a bourgeois party which uses a popular label. And we need labor unions that really fight for the workers, not ones that, provided the union leaders are allowed a place at the table, go along with the bourgeoisie.

For what is happening now is not just an economic crisis, it is also the first signs of a growing political crisis. Economic devastation will eventually give rise to the desire for political realignment. It is when there are parties that truly speak for the working class that there will be the possibility of real change in the economic situation, effective measures to contain mass misery, and a real struggle to end the capitalist rule of insecurity, starvation, and environmental devastation.


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