What they say goes – out of the window
The decision by the Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to put to a referendum the bail-out deal negotiated with the Eurozone and the IMF has not gone down well.
The European heads of state most closely involved in the negotiations, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, went quietly ballistic at the risk that a popular vote could unravel the concessions they thought they had forced out of the Greek government.
Markets around the world immediately went into meltdown as international investors feared a sovereign debt default. This would threaten Greece’s creditors, notably European banks, with losses that their balance sheets could not take.
International investors understand perfectly that in order to perpetuate the system that allows them to make money, the Eurozone governments and the IMF were quite right to impose on the ordinary Greek citizen a savage contraction of her living standards and to ensure, by setting interest rates for Greek borrowing at punitive levels, that Greece would not escape its international debt bondage for a generation.
The mainstream press has been consistent in accepting that the ‘markets’ must be appeased if not obeyed, in using the deliberately alarmist and unsubstantiated language of the non-existent subject of medical economics (‘spreading contagion’), and in consistently failing to question the obligation of Greek workers to ‘pay their way’, when no such thing was demanded of international banks who sliced and diced packages of shaky mortgages and then fooled themselves into thinking their value was triple-A.
It has been generally accepted by everyone, apart from the Greek cabinet of course, that decisions about the way the international economic system is organized are far too important and complex to be subjected to a popular vote. This view has a pedigree. It was famously expounded by Henry Kissinger in 1970 when Chile elected a socialist president, Salvador Allende:
“I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
To prevent this ‘virus’ (Nixon’s own pseudo-medical choice of words) from infecting other Latin American states, there then followed the violent overthrow of an elected government by a US-supported military, widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, imprisonment without charge or trial, exile, and an economic system that increased unemployment tenfold and pushed half the population below the poverty line while destroying what had been one of the best health and public education systems in the Americas.
Greece has not been threatened with this. Yet.
And the idea of subjecting important decisions to popular debate and approval is becoming disarmingly familiar.
There is a comforting fiction that democracy is satisfied by the opportunity to choose, every 4 or 5 years, a representative who, if not already part of the economic elite, is almost certainly in thrall to the current economic system. These representatives are not obliged to do what they promised their voters, but are expected to repay those who funded their campaign.
(And don’t ask how democracy works at such bastions of international capitalism as the IMF, the City of London or the G20 whose current meeting in Cannes is sponsored by leading capitalist corporations – could they find no other piper to pay for this tune?)
Electorates, when not distracted by an unavoidable stream of advertising and celebrity-based entertainment, will struggle to understand issues if they rely for their information on the popular media or their education system. So important decisions, such as to accept the imposition by external forces of national economic structures that will beggar the population for years, get left in the hands of representatives who are selected on much the same criteria as consumers choose toothpaste.
This fiction is being questioned in, among other places, the general assemblies of the various occupations around the world. The idea is gaining ground that ordinary people can educate themselves and each other about the important issues and come to a democratic consensus about what to do, which is what the Greek government, to the horror of the so-called democracies of the west, intends to try.
Would it not be ironic if democracy as more-than-a-cross-on-a-piece-of-paper-every-few-years was given a welcome shot in the arm from such an out-of-the-way and unlikely place as Gree-
Oh, hang on a minute.