Brutality and Neoliberalism in Greece
Greece has become a quintessential bellwether for tracking the uneasy dynamic between economic recession and neoliberal policy in Europe. The so-called troika, consisting of the European Central Bank, European Commission, and International Monetary Fund, is widely seen as exacerbating what was in 2008 a tenuous, though not entirely debilitating, slide into recession through a program of austerity and dramatic economic contraction. The basic claim of opposition forces within Greece is that the punitive effects of the troika’s conditions have fallen disproportionately on the working class, who has suffered from the relentless cuts on social programs such as healthcare and pensions.
The ethical implications of this struggle, justified by the troika as necessary growing pains on the road to recovery, have been highlighted by citizens of all classes across Europe, from Portugal, to Ireland, and perhaps especially to Spain, which, in the final quarter of 2012 experienced its most rapid economic shrinkage in more than three years—sending Spain’s nearly six million unemployed into a crisis of doubt over the prospects of successful recovery in the years to come.
If Greece’s desperate economic scenario reflects the greater dangers of a neoliberal austerity treatment, then the bumpy momentum of the opposition movement within Greece—spearheaded by the left-wing SYRIZA Party—can be seen as reflecting two essential and mutually fulfilling facets of austerity’s consequences. On one hand, the opposition party’s lackluster performance in recent polls points towards difficulties in integrating the disgruntled masses into what is seen by most Greeks as a discredited and ineffective political system, while on the other the increasing relevance and importance of SYRIZA points towards the increasing magnetism of an accountable leftist growth model through the interaction of a viable and responsive governing body with a reinvigorated sense of civic participation.
In a recent interview in the Athens daily Kathimerini, SYRIZA’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, defended the party’s recent plateau in public approval after its rapid period of growth from 4% approval recorded in opinion polls just a few years ago to 20% today as consistent with a recent, pervasive trend of disaffection and symbolic self-disenfranchisement that has stifled not only the growth of SYRIZA, but all parties running on an anti-bailout platform.
A fundamental distrust of government pervades many facets of Greek life, from voting behavior to taxation, the latter having been diagnosed as a root of the original economic recession. Since citizens lack faith in the government’s will or capacity to reciprocate taxation through due or timely compensation—whether via social services, educational benefits, public works, or welfare—many modern Greeks feel neither compelled nor responsible to pay their taxes.
Tax evasion at the highest echelons of Greece’s economic spectrum was put into the spotlight this past year as a former Greek finance minister was revealed to have turned a blind eye on 2,000 suspected tax dodgers—known as the “Lagarde List” after the French finance minister who presented the list to the Greek government in 2010. The list, in which former defense ministry officials, the former deputy interior minister, and numerous prominent businessmen are named as using undeclared bank accounts at an HSBC branch in Geneva, Switzerland to evade paying taxes in Greece, embodies an insidious brand of structural corruption.
This and similar scandals have lent to a sense of internal decay which makes many Greeks wary of supporting the government in any form—a cultural and social reality that even parties seeking to radically restructure the Greek political system, such as SYRIZA, will need to contend with in years to come. To unite opposition forces across Europe against this epidemic of austerity, political elements must recognize and respond to this natural decline in civic faith and employ a system of deeply transparent mass politics, integrating all levels of society for what will hopefully be a future cleansed of this variety of corruption and economic brutality.