Sunday, 28 June 2015

Greek Lessons

Here are some points to consider when sorting through the news stories about Greece.

The media coverage is naturally focused on day-to-day events. However, the key point to understand is that, long before the crisis broke in 2010-11, the Greek economy was unviable. It had for many years been dependent on grants from the EU, extensive credits and low interest rates. Before the 2008 worldwide financial implosion, these boosted Greek living standards. Post-2008, there was the reckoning, starting with much higher borrowing costs.

What had characterised Greece both before and after 2008 was a low level of tax revenues compared to state spending, but this was only another way in which its fundamental economic weakness was expressed. Greece had little to offer apart from shipping and tourism. But tourism had become more uncompetitive, while shipping was 'offshore', paying little tax. Along with other weak, usually southern European states, such as Portugal and Spain, but also Italy, Greece had found its competitive position undermined with the rise of cheap labour countries in Asia.

In 2010-11, the EU 'solution' was to lumber the Greek state with more debt so that it could pay off private bank creditors, mainly German and French banks. This was to avoid a reckoning in terms of writing off debts that could not be paid by adding to the debt pile which was now held to be held mainly by the Greek government. The political logic at that point was that the European banking system could not withstand taking more write offs when it was so weak, and the legions of policy-making geniuses had not yet managed to work out anything else.

A debt write off -  effectively 100bn euros or so - was then organised in 2012. Private creditors took a hit in a 'debt swap', being forced to restructure their 'assets' into loans at greatly subsidised interest rates. However, by that time, the Greek economy had collapsed under austerity measures imposed by creditors, so nothing improved and the ratio of debt to GDP continued to soar.

There followed a never-ending story of Greek-EU negotiations and subterfuge. By 2013, Syriza managed to convince itself, or at least had the political platform, that a much better deal was possible, both staying in the euro system and getting an end to austerity policies. After forming a government in January 2015, it did next to nothing to challenge the Greek oligarchs or deliver a reality check to the Greek middle class, its social base, and instead postured against Germany, the main creditor country, and annoyed all of its creditors. But, with their Ukraine policy falling apart, and with their policies in the Middle East and North Africa in a shambles, leading to many thousands of refugees trying to escape to Europe, the creditors had other things on their minds apart from endless meetings with recalcitrant Greek debtors.

So far, the Greek government has not yet defaulted on other official (government/IMF) creditors. But the European Central Bank (ECB) has extended many tens of billions of loans to the Greek government and given Greek banks another almost 100bn in emergency liquidity via the Greek central bank. On Tuesday there is also a Greek government payment due to the IMF, a default on which does not happen for a country that is meant to be one of the insider's club, yet there appear to be no funds to pay it.

The ECB may have today (Sunday) issued the coup de grace that the euro system is not otherwise able to deliver by refusing to increase its liquidity provision to Greek banks. So there will be a banking system closure in Greece on Monday, with no sign of when banks will be able to open again.

There is no legal mechanism for being kicked out of the euro, nor for a member leaving it, as far as I am aware. If anything, a euro member leaving might well threaten its membership of the wider EU. Yet, the ECB can stop doing business with one of its constituent parts, namely the Greek central bank. By stopping further funding of Greek's imploding banking system, the ECB, if it continues, will preside over the collapse of Greece's economy, forcing an exit from the euro system.

There are many economic details in dispute regarding the EU/IMF/ECB conditions to be agreed with Greece, but the creditor position at present is that the debtors have walked away from negotiations, so there is no more to discuss. One interesting angle is the question of taxes. Syriza's offer was to push the burden of adjustment onto corporate taxes rather than spending cuts, given that the latter would be focused on pensions, etc. Apart from any normal, reactionary bias in creditor demands, the inability of the Greek government to collect taxes must have been a factor in rejecting this alternative programme.

What happens in the next few days will signal again how far the 'independent' ECB is independent of the need to abide by its formerly sacrosanct rules in order to keep the euro political-economic system intact. A Greek exit from the euro is believed by many politicians to be less of a problem than it would have been in 2010-11. That is probably true, but it will nevertheless be a serious blow. One aim of Europe's bumbling ruling classes may have been to crush Syriza in order to undermine oppositional movements, such as Podemos in Spain. However, by showing that there is an exit door for euro members, even if it leads a lift shaft, this also shows that other countries may be pushed into it.

More broadly, the destruction of the Greek economy is a sign of what awaits other, previously privileged, countries that cannot make the grade in today's rapacious and imperialist world economy. If there is a lesson in the Syriza episode it is that a middle class-led movement that tries to restore the status quo ante inevitably fails.

Tony Norfield, 28 June 2015

Note: One of the first articles on this blog, 'Origins of the Greek Crisis', 24 June 2011, covered the background to recent events.


  1. What is your definition of Middle Class in relation to Greece. This is related to your following comment:

    "If there is a lesson in the Syriza episode it is that a middle class-led movement that tries to restore the status quo ante inevitably fails."

    This says to me that the EU is attacking the Middle Classes in this austerity drive and that the Middle Classes are doomed. But from where I sit reality seems to be that austerity is attacking the poorest in society and the professional middle classes are sitting pretty.

  2. Steve,

    The point I wanted to make was not well expressed. More clearly, I hope, it is that:

    (a) the status quo ante cannot be restored, ie the Syriza programme was doomed to fail;
    (b) the Syriza movement was a broad coalition, but its 'anti-austerity' programme was based on the delusion that it could be;
    (c) quite clearly, the Syriza leadership were not prepared to 'go all the way' and wanted to restore a version of the past that would keep the system intact;
    (d) this reflected their middle class/go between compromising stance on all things in practice, despite some rhetoric to the contrary.

    I agree that the economic policies in the EU, as elsewhere, are attacking the poorest in society. However, the middle classes are not necessarily 'sitting pretty'. Many of them are also facing cutbacks in their income and wealth as small businesses collapse and many professions are being hit by cuts in government spending. Nevertheless, the politics of such people is usually only one of posturing, with their pleading for their special interests cloaked under more general outrage against 'austerity'. I have come across no example of where Syriza's policies took on Greek capitalists or did anything significant to challenge the widespread corruption.

    I should have made clearer that I am not against middle class politicos for sociological reasons, but only when their political stance is as described above.

    Tony Norfield, 22 July 2015