A European Tragedy
13 July 2015
They are so committed to their ideology that even human suffering at its hands cannot sway them. In fact, deep down, they welcome it.
I’ve been following the Greek crisis in the last few weeks with an almost religious fervour and If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the EU (ahem, Germany) is committed to austerity. To witness these politics has been nothing short of revelatory. More than ever we’ve been witness to the tussle between some of Europe’s biggest players on a single issue. So what have we learned?
Ideology is stronger than rationality
I suppose we should have known this all along, but many of us had hoped that the Greek crisis would force some EU states to admit that austerity doesn’t work. It’s evident, however, that we are so committed to the lie, so entrenched with the banks and so deep in the pockets of the wealthy elite that we will commit an entire nation to damnation in its name. It needn’t have been like this, but the likes of Schauble and Merkel are so committed to their ideology that even prolonged human suffering at its hands cannot sway them. In fact, deep down, they welcome it. Their commitment to this brand of fiscal policy resonates with them in a very particular way. It does so because it aligns closely with how we’ve been taught to manage personal finances (more on that later).
Your country is a theme park
Theme parks are are fun, they thrill and when everything is working well, no one dies. For theme parks to run well, however, they need money – a lot of it. The rollercoasters need safety checks, someone needs to ensure the teacups are secured well so that centrifugal forces don’t toss patrons into the air like a sprinkler system. It needs new, fast rides, year after year and it needs a lot of staff. To run, to stay profitable, to grow, a theme park needs investment much like a country. What we’ve seen in Greece over the last few years is what happens when you close down the theme park’s Burger King and forget to grease to rollercoaster carriages. People are thrown off into oblivion – hungry (see: Alton Towers).
In Greece we’ve seen young and old alike cast from the economic wheel in an increasingly spectacular fashion. And in the context of the newly agreed deal (as of Monday 13th July) we’re promised a lot more suffering.
Lessons can only be learned through suffering
But suffering is good, we would be led to believe. Even as Greece comes apart at the seams as a result of austerity, George Osbourne (the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer) is content to ram billions of welfare cuts down the public’s throats while subsidies for businesses eclipse the total savings from those cuts almost ten-fold. You see, the idea of austerity conforms to a very compelling narrative, succinctly: “Oops, we’ve overspent, let’s stop spending so much.” Makes sense right? Well it does for you and me, it aligns with the common experience of examining your bank balance a week before pay day and switching to Pot Noodles for lunch. But it doesn’t make sense for a theme park. In that last week before pay day, as we shovel rehydrated noodles into our mouths we tell ourselves that what we’re doing is right, that this suffering is good and that we’ll soon be eating gourmet soups and sandwiches for lunch if only we can get through this. Tightening our belts makes us feel frugal, it makes us feel efficient and with the promise of reward on the horizon we come to the conclusion that this suffering is for our own good. We must suffer to prosper, we are told, and we believe it.
I’m not going to go into what we should be doing fiscally in order to grow, because this post isn’t about that, however, I will briefly mention it. To me, overspending, up to a certain point, is merely the misallocation of funds to areas that yield little/no return. In the UK you could probably say this of any IT project related to the NHS! In order to “get back on track” we need to examine what we’re spending and start being smarter about where the money goes. What investment will generate more jobs, at a basic level. Now, whether you fall to the left or the right of the nationalisation/privatisation side of the debate is irrelevant, because ultimately you believe that money, well invested is good for the economy. By that logic, Greece is being strangled.
Dear [Insert country here], I don’t care what you voted for
We’ve seen what the EU do when faced with political dissent. Syriza, a far left party, have been hammered into submission due to their anti-austerity stance. At the EU summit last week Alexis Tsipras made an speech that stated that democracy itself was under threat. He’s right.
“It is the sovereign right of a government to choose whether to increase taxation on profit-making businesses and to not cut the benefits to the lowest pensions, the EKAS, in order to meet fiscal targets. If it is not the right of a sovereign government to choose in what way it will find equivalent measures to cover the required targets, then we must adopt an extreme and anti-democratic view. That in the countries that are in a program there must be no elections. That governments must be appointed, technocrats must be appointed and that they assume responsibility for the decisions.”
And now, a week later, we find that Greece’s national sovereignty has indeed been assumed in the interests of a deal. The “NO” vote meant nothing, the vote that brought Syriza into power almost six months ago means nothing. The EU refuses to tolerate the anti-austerity stance of any government, something that Spain’s Pablo Iglesias should take note of now if he ever hopes to get power within his own country and steer his nation as he sees fit. To Europe, austerity beats democracy every time. Fall in line or suffer the consequences.
Clinging to austerity dogma in spite of the damage it causes is worrying beyond its immediate effects. When applied, it benefits only very few, worsening inequality and marginalising the voices of the weak. It’s the kind of behaviour we’d expect from an organised and hierarchical religion circa The Dark Ages. It is truly worrying that for perhaps the first time we see that Europe (and especially Germany) cannot be reached regardless of how impassioned the plea. They answer to a higher power. Austerity has now become Europe’s holy fiscal weapon and it has launched a crusade on the less fortunate. Greece is its first true victory.