international analysis and commentary

Rebranding austerity as a necessary evil


Ironically, the situation in Greece has not changed much after the electoral victories of SYRIZA in 2015. There is a government that enforces austerity on a devastated population, arguing that these unwelcome measures are imposed by an impossible situation. The party’s members of parliament are supposedly divided but continue to say that there is no alternative and that their social sensitivity makes them the best choice under the circumstances. They insist that we need not worry, for all this will be over by next year when Greece will return to growth and an end will come to the era of the despicable “memoranda” imposed by Brussels. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his coalition partner Panos Kammenos even made fervent public statements for the end of austerity, just as they signed the latest austerity deal in May 2016. In the meantime, they promise to do everything in their power to negotiate hard against the impossible demands of the ruthless International Monetary Fund (IMF).

There is no alternative?

It is very familiar rhetoric, repeated verbatim by the very people who fought it relentlessly in recent years – that is until they came into power. With one exception: once there was a puzzling question of whether there was an alternative, now it is a hard fact that no political force in parliament thinks there is an alternative (excluding  the neo-Nazi members of Golden Dawn and the terribly unconvincing Communist Party).

In this sense, Greece is faced with exactly the same problems, only there is no one to point them out or to give voice to criticism. SYRIZA’s capitulation has resulted in a political aphasia. The theatrics of disagreement have reached unimagined levels of absurdity, as we watch political parties that have all agreed to austerity policies pretend to disagree over who can better shove these policies down the throat of the Greek people. It was not that long ago that George Papakonstantinou, when he was Finance Minister under George Papandreou, and former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras would talk of the “last measures” to be taken, inform us that “we are on the verge of turning a corner”, or that “we were seeing light at the end of the tunnel.” This all comes from the same handbook on rhetoric in times of austerity, and if it were ever convincing at all, it sure isn’t now.

George Katrougkalos, the current Labor Minister, became prominent in the public sphere in 2011, during the anti-austerity rallies of the Greek “indignant” movement. It is now astonishing to see him been repeatedly treated by the public in exactly the same way his opponents were treated some years ago. It is also shocking to see him defend himself in the exact same tone and with the same arguments once used by his opponents. The initial “moral superiority” and political credibility has this habit of wearing out. SYRIZA politicians are now being verbally attacked on the street, as previous ministers were, for the exact same reasons.

When the government now assures its voters that collective labor agreements or lock-out and collective redundancies constitute a “red line” for the government, this can only bring a bitter smile to the Greek voters. There is an undeniable tendency to cross these red lines, so when a Greek minister says that the IMF demands such and such, “but…”, the people do not listen to what follows the word “but”.

With regard to the management of the public debt, at this point even debt relief of any kind without relaxing austerity measures will not change the situation of the Greek people dramatically.

SYRIZA came to power first on the promise that it would change Europe and cancel the bail-out deal and then on no promise at all, other than that it was too early for the political parties of the old establishment to return to power. But when the time came for new austerity packages to pass through the Greek parliament, there was a sense of total inability to confront the government with mass demonstrations. It is as if this has been tried and failed.

The strikes are part of a ritual: silent, sporadic and ineffective. Even in key issues of major symbolic value, such as the privatization of the Elliniko Airport and the Port of Piraeus, the very same people who have been fighting them are now re-presenting their former enemies’ arguments.

Missing hopes 

If there is one thing missing from today’s Greece, it is hope – the kind of hope that enables social movements to resist. The idea that SYRIZA would change Europe was over-optimistic, to put it mildly. But Spain’s Podemos has now made the exact same move, as has the UK’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, to promise to fight austerity, without questioning the major establishment through which austerity is being enforced. If this is a mistake, we will soon know. For the moment it appears that neither of the two, Podemos or Corbyn, is doing very well, even though it does not follow that a more radical agenda would serve them better.

This apathy of the Greek people could of course be interpreted as a welcome realization of the actual circumstances of the Greek economy, which were not recognized until now. In other words, as a defeat of populist slogans that can get you elected, but will not help you deal with the real problems of the economy.

The opposition does use this argument, which makes good sense from their perspective, given the outcome of the SYRIZA negotiations. But how can SYRIZA acknowledge that its promises have been either naĂŻve or deceptive, and at the same time the people who proposed them purport to be our best bet to drive us out of the mud, it is hard to understand.

Leaving aside SYRIZA or the opposition, the question of whether there actually is an alternative, a breach with the creditors that also represents a viable path for the Greek economy, is not within the scope of this article and it is not very popular in the Greek people’s agonies right now. However, we can state that if the assumption is that this apathy is but maturity, a realization of circumstances, then we would have to assume that austerity is a working policy, which is far from proven.

We can say for sure that the optimism that SYRIZA cultivated regarding the creation of a united front of the countries of the South against austerity has long ceased to inspire. The fact that people were ready to give the Left a chance was a clear sign of an urgent need for new answers. In Greece, this was followed by widespread disillusionment.

Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell once tried to stand by his choice to appoint a marketing executive, Charlotte Beers, to the position of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, a woman with no previous diplomatic experience. The strategy failed, but then came Barack Obama, and suddenly, the same policies became broadly accepted. It was an example of successful rebranding.

This story rings very familiar. Tsipras has managed to rebrand austerity policies as a necessary evil. This has been attempted by every administration since the first bail-out deal, but this is the first time it has succeeded under the hypnotized gaze of the Greek population. People will not offer their support, but they do not fight the government either. For how long, we cannot know.