Recent developments in Greece provide an acute illustration of the long-standing contradiction between capitalism and democracy. This contradiction has also been felt in Greece in the past, including in the history of military coups aimed at the repression of popular movements and at ensuring the country’s subordination to the wishes of the United States during the Cold War. Just as this earlier history illustrated the hypocritical incongruity of the United States’ support of brutal fascist dictatorships in the name of defending democracy and the free world, so does the present moment refute the long-standing myth on which the European project was built.
Indeed, far from advancing a democratic project designed to bring together the different peoples inhabiting the European continent, the political and economic elites both in Europe as a whole and in individual countries, such as Greece, have made it clear that, at a time of economic crisis, the trappings of democracy are a nuisance. In this sense, the Greek political crisis does not simply revolve around the continuation or not of brutal and socially catastrophic austerity policies. The question increasingly facing Greek people is whether even the trappings of political democracy are allowed to be swept aside by a dictatorship of capital over people that is ever more blatant and ever more brutal in the human toll it exacts.
On May 6 Greek citizens had, for the first time, the opportunity to vote on the austerity program that has turned their lives upside down for the last two years. The results were devastating for the socialist PASOK party and the conservative New Democracy party that had dominated the Greek political system since the end of the last military government in 1974. These two parties, which had for decades split among themselves about 80 percent of the popular vote, found themselves supported by less than one third of Greek voters. The decline in their support is even greater, of course, once we take into account that, with abstention at the historic high of 35%, the percentage of the electorate that chose to cast a vote was lower than in the past.
The defeat was especially dramatic for PASOK, which first adopted the austerity program in May 2010 after having run and won on an anti-austerity platform a few months earlier. Falling from 44% in 2009 to 13% two and a half years later, PASOK came in third, after the conservatives and the left-wing SYRIZA party, which ran on a platform of reversing austerity and forming a left government that would be supported by all the forces of the Greek left.
This far-reaching change in the Greek political landscape was a resounding rejection of the social catastrophe and economic failure that the austerity program, adopted in exchange for loans from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union that allowed Greece to avoid default on its debt, has produced. Public-sector salaries have been drastically cut as have pensions. Labor and collective bargaining rights that were won decades ago were unceremoniously liquidated, also opening the road to severe cuts in the wages and salaries of private-sector workers. Brutal budget cuts have also hit Greece’s education and health care systems, while more generally destroying Greece’s already meager welfare state. The adoption of such measures at a time of crisis has predictably led to an economic depression, with the Greek economy expected to shrink by over 20% in a matter of a few years. Reducing aggregate demand, the collapse of incomes and government spending has also led to the closing of tens of thousands of small businesses and to a skyrocketing unemployment rate of 22% for the general population and over 50% for young workers. As a result, poverty, homelessness, hunger, and suicide rates have been rising rapidly.
Because of the economic depression it has created, the austerity program has failed even in narrowly fiscal terms. As the economy shrank, so did tax revenues, making it impossible for the Greek government to meet the fiscal targets of the program and necessitating a second rescue loan earlier this year. The fact that, against the predictions of the Greek government, the European Union, and the IMF, a second loan became necessary proved the failure of the austerity program and the economic assumptions underlying it. The fact that the Greek government and the European political and economic elites responded by prescribing even heavier doses of the same failed medicine predictably led to growing popular opposition.
Although the austerity program had met with popular opposition from the very beginning, including with sectoral and general strikes as well as the occupation of public squares last summer, things came to a head last fall, when it became clear that the socialist government of George Papandreou had become too weak to keep pushing through the parliament wave after wave of austerity measures that seemed to make things worse rather than better. In an attempt to re-legitimize his government, Papandreou announced a popular referendum on the second loan agreement. Realizing that the Greek population was likely to vote this agreement down, the German chancellor Angela Merkel and the French president Nicolas Sarkozy made their displeasure known and, threatening to throw Greece out of the eurozone, forced Papandreou and the socialist party to cancel the referendum.
At that point, instead of calling an election, Greek and European capitalist elites installed a coalition government between conservatives and socialists that was headed by an unelected former banker, Lucas Papademos. This government’s purpose was to adopt the very loan agreement and the harsh austerity accompanying it that would seal the future of the country and its citizens. The hope was that, once the loan agreement that Greek citizens could not be trusted to approve became a fait accompli, Greek voters could, after the fact and with the help of the ideological terrorism dispensed by Greece’s mainstream media, be convinced to continue supporting the socialist and conservative parties that had doomed them to a future of economic depression and misery. To minimize the risk of any unpleasant surprises, the leaders of both the conservative and the socialist party were required to sign statements that they would continue the brutal austerity program prescribed by the loan agreement no matter what the result of any future election might be.
The election of May 6 has upset these plans. Receiving a level of support much lower than anyone expected, the conservatives and the socialists could not muster a parliamentary majority even if they formed an alliance. Having made a mockery of the Greek political system’s claim to be democratic, the two parties found themselves punished. The new election that has been called for June 17 will therefore not just be an election over austerity but over the very future of democracy in the land where its concept was born.
Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at the New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy.