Project Syndicate has always rubbed me the wrong way. It is no media favourite of mine, though I do drink heavily from its run-of-the-mill liberalism: In its own way, this megaphone for (to borrow a Krugmanism) Very Serious People is rather helpful. One can do much worse for mainstream Think Pieces on global issues.
Its articles occasionally throw up truly eye-rolling experiences, even for a battle-hardened consumer of modern media. Take this morning’s column by Pavlos Eleftheriadis, an Oxford law professor, entitled, ‘The Dark Side of Syriza.’ I took exception to Eleftheriadis’ blatant partisanship on Twitter, as is my wont:
In fairness to him, the good professor’s partisanship is to be expected from a member of the national executive of To Potami, a marginal* centrist-liberal party in the new Greek Parliament, polling but six-tenths of a percentage point higher than the unreconstructed Leninist KKE. To Potami are (with a touch of exaggeration) worse than useless: They’re a throwback to a 1990s-style Third Way, Sensible Liberalism that needs to die a harrowing death. So in a sense, my criticism is a bit more neutered than I should have liked: Of course his is a partisan hatchet job–saying so is just banally true. Nevetherless, Professor Pangloss took a bit of exception to my faint criticism:
Funny, this. It seems to escape the professor’s attention that partisanship can go hand in hand with citation. I would expect nothing less of a man of his profession. But throwing in a few quotes by one’s political enemies is hardly convincing evidence on its own of fair representation or interpretation. Professor Eleftheriadis is a politician of sorts (and a lawyer!) after all–selective memory, tendentiousness and a heavy dose of ideologically-inflected, agenda-setting rhetoric are all par for the course.
With that in mind, I do not think it terribly unfair to engage in a bit of Fisking. Professor Eleftheriadis takes a few liberties and makes some heady assumptions to advance his Davos-friendly piece. Let’s take these one by one.
Professor Eleftheriadis starts ominously, saying the Greek electorate’s choice was a leap into the ‘dark.’ Apparently, an irresponsible and destructive programme that has thrown Greece into chaos–contracting the economy for 42 straight months–is not dark enough. We are then told Syriza’s ideas are nothing new and, indeed, are ‘far from ideal for Greece or Europe.’ Presumably, he means to contrast this to the novel economic strategy pursued by the Troika, founded on an ideological programme first put into practice after a right-wing coup a mere 42 years ago. Perhaps the good professor still has the phrase ‘There Is No Alternative’ ringing in his ears decades after it was uttered by Margaret Thatcher. In the event, what is old is not necessarily better than what is new, though in the case of the five-year old bailout programme, something new might be a good idea after…this:
The professor says the new Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has ‘antagonized the EU and created a climate of confrontation.’ Does he mean the same EU whose leaders said they would ‘crush’ Greece to teach the country a lesson? The same EU which forced aside democratically-elected leaders in Italy and Greece; whose central bank blackmailed Cyprus and Ireland? (It is doing the same to Greece now.) He studiously ignores the crass, ideological, anti-democratic arrogance of Europe’s leaders, to say nothing of their blunt obstinacy. No, the bully-boys here are Alex Tsipras, Yanis Varoufakis & co. for refusing to be pliant supplicants.
This myopia is then followed by a logic so convoluted, I refuse to believe Eleftheriadis wasn’t laughing through every key stroke. You see, Syriza is ‘not truly an anti-austerity party’–despite its anti-austerity manifesto and the Troika’s rejection thereof on the same grounds–because it does not attack austerity ‘from a European perspective.’ (Despite Yanis Varoufakis’ continued insistence that there can only be European solutions to a European crisis, but never mind…) On this so-called ‘European perspective,’ the professor is (narrowly) on to something: *This* bureaucratic Union of Fools demands anti-labour ‘reforms’ and continued austerity in the teeth of a humanitarian crisis. If Professor Eleftheriadis means Syriza might not share the European Union’s *neoliberal* perspective, then in this he is surely right. But to say Syriza is not anti-austerity because it doesn’t advocate austerity demanded by Europe is to engage in rather exemplary sophistry.
The hysterics continue on the next paragraph, where the professor laments Tsipras overlooking his little party during coalition talks (can one really blame him?) and, in a true howler, labels the catastrophic bailout by the Troika a ‘well-meant policy error.’ Of course, it was anything but. Timothy Geithner’s revelation of Europe’s intent to ‘crush’ the Greeks is hardly the only example of this. Even the International Monetary Fund, in its own anodyne way, admitted that the real purpose of this ‘well-meant policy error’ was to sacrifice Greece in order to save the entirety of the European project. To quote just one part of the IMF’s mea culpa:
57. In the event, the SBA-supported program served as a holding operation. On the positive side, moving ahead with the Greek program gave the euro area time to build a firewall to protect other vulnerable members and averted potentially severe effects on the global economy. However, not tackling the public debt problem decisively at the outset or early in the program created uncertainty about the euro area’s capacity to resolve the crisis and likely aggravated the contraction in output.18 An upfront debt restructuring would have been better for Greece although this was not acceptable to the euro partners. A delayed debt restructuring also provided a window for private creditors to reduce exposures and shift debt into official hands. As seen earlier, this shift occurred on a significant scale and limited the bail-in of creditors when PSI eventually took place, leaving taxpayers and the official sector on the hook. [My emphasis in red.]
Maybe the professor is again right in his own charming way. The Greek bailout was well-intentioned from the perspective of private sector holders of Greek bonds in Europe’s creditor core states. These poor folks–the European banking elite–were allowed to reduce their exposure and dump these toxic bonds onto the continent’s dissolute taxpayers. Not only was Europe able to rescue its stricken banks, it was able to build firewalls against contagion so that, if Grexit comes–thanks to the remorseless logic of the bailout programme and the country’s eroding debt profile–the average woman in Germany, the Netherlands and Finland can pin the blame on the laziness of Greeks and not the fecklessness of their own leaders.
The real tragedy is not the story of this gigantic sleight of hand, forever incriminating the victims for crimes hatched elsewhere, but Syriza’s gauche ‘language…of resistance to conquest.’ How the faint hearts in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin will survive these vicious verbal assaults is beyond the scope of my cloudy lens.
The good ship Eleftheriadis now turns straight into Europe’s gathering storm: The growing xenophobia and nationalism stalking the continent.
The European left has engaged in plenty of earnest hand-wringing about Syriza’s choice of coalition partners, the Independent Greeks (ANEL.) The party’s co-religionists have tackled this thorny issue in the media, and I have already set down my thoughts on the logic of choosing an anti-austerity party to execute an anti-austerity policy programme. The sobering calculations of a parliamentary majority haven’t escaped any of these critics’ notices, still less the tactical considerations driving this decision, but that’s irrelevant to our professor. Instead, he accuses Alexis Tsipras of sharing the same ‘virulent nationalism’ as ANEL, and–worse–as ‘Europe’s enemies’ in Dresden (a barely-coded reference to the xenophobic PEGIDA movement in Germany) and (where else?) Moscow. This is an astonishing, almost admirable feat of distortion on a grand scale. Not only is Alexis Tsipras no better than Putin or Kammenos, his rhetoric is similar to that of the Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, or (in English) the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. Bravo, Herr Professor.
Eleftheriadis goes one further. In calling Europe’s leaders ‘gangsters’ who wish to ‘plunder’ Greek assets, Tsipras–we are told–is no better than Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán. The language is fiery (if understandable under the circumstances) though, seen from a certain point of view, hardly unfair. What were the European Central Bank’s demands to Ireland if not an ‘offer’ the latter couldn’t refuse?
Lumping Tsipras with xenophobic nationalists is a character assault worthy of a Hollywood blacklist. The rhetoric is underhanded, indirect and dissembling. Despite Syriza’s pro-immigrant rhetoric since the 2012 election, we are to consider its leader no better than a national chauvinist. If Eleftheriadis were halfway charitable, he would recognise that very little unites the political instincts and attitudes of Marine Le Pen and Alexis Tsipras. If the critical rhetoric of Syriza’s partisans sometimes veers into hyperbole, it is not, alas, without reason–or some grain of truth. When Eleftheriadis argues that ‘Official Syriza documents regularly condemn the EU as an organization that undermines democracy and causes poverty and destitution throughout Europe,’ why should his readers not look askance at Europe’s record since 2008 and agree? Multiple reports show a demonstrable increase in poverty and homelessness in Europe. In the pointed words of the Red Cross, ‘Whilst other continents successfully reduce poverty, Europe adds to it.’ The European Union swept away inconvenient political leaders and installed technocrats in governments of ‘national unity’ at the height of the crisis. Given this appalling record, who are we to believe, Eleftheriadis’ protestations or our own lying eyes?
The professor’s contortions continue. Syriza’s platform accepts the necessity of fiscal coordination within monetary union. Indeed, the finance minister’s basis for negotiations includes Greece running a burdensome (if reduced) primary surplus alongside its reform agenda. You would never know that from Eleftheriadis’ writing: ‘Though Tsipras, too, claims to favor the euro, he never mentions the fiscal discipline that it requires…’
Furthermore, he wishes to paint Tsipras as a conspiracist over the cross-party contestation of Greek debt figures in 2009-2010. Eleftheriadis gambles on his audience’s ignorance, leaving aside the inconvenient context. As for that context: There was widespread uproar and public debate on the size of the budget deficit in the immediate aftermath of the first Greek bailout. Part of the scepticism was based on the work of statistician Zoe Georgantana, whose work was cited by the country’s prosecutor for financial crime to investigate claims of malfeasance by the country’s official statistics office. (Another part was the very nature of statistics collection in Greece before the crisis; who can blame the cross-party scepticism?) The head of Greece’s statistical agency even faced prosecution, though not at the behest of Tsipras–then only leader of a small, if growing opposition party. And he was hardly alone in his scepticism; understandably so, given the shock of the crisis to the country’s politics at the time. Per the Financial Times in 2011:
Lawmakers from Greece’s five main political parties, from rightwingers to communists, have also contested the 2009 deficit figure. Elstat’s own trade union has demanded a say in approving figures on the public finances before they are sent to Eurostat, staging strikes and sit-ins in order to press its claim.
Judged by his time and place, Tsipras starts to sound less like a raving conspiracist and more like a politician making sense of a chaotic situation.
By now, Professor Eleftheriadis is fighting a rearguard action against those ‘attacking the EU, “speculators,” and hedge funds’ for Greece’s plight. He is primarily concerned with the apportionment of blame, of which there is enough to go around: From the reckless lending of private actors in creditor states before 2008, to Goldman Sachs (speculators par excellence) helping the government hide the scale of the country’s debt, to Europe’s abysmal diagnosis of the country’s problems, culminating in a corrosive loan package to an insolvent state. Our hapless professor is too incensed at protestors–whether on the streets of Athens or in Syriza party headquarters–to remember Greece’s follies were not the deliberate choice of the average Greek man, woman or child. (Of which, more below.)
Eleftheriadis’ concluding attitude, lamenting European citizens flocking to Eurosceptic parties as the crisis deepens, is par for the course in his flustered defence of an anti-democratic European Union. Instead of recognising the true ‘EU-wide pathology’–the yawning gap between the political and economic expectations of Europe’s citizens and the responses of their policymakers–the professor is most exercised by the symptom, not the disease. That disease is the selfsame neoliberal dogma denounced by Greece’s oligarch-controlled television stations: A telling meeting point for Europe’s critics, left and right. Professor Elftheriadis somberly notes a growing isolationism in Europe, without a matching concern for the immiseration of people on the continent’s southern edge. The problem isn’t Germany’s intransigent Ordoliberalism, deeply embedded in the construction of monetary union, or a flawed European policy framework: You are the problem, cher citoyen.
Pavlos Eleftheriadis sees a ‘dark side’ to Syriza’s challenge to the European consensus. His half-baked critique, however, suggests this so-called ‘dark side’ amounts to nothing more than the party’s principled rejection of the bailouts, and of the attendant conditionality imposed by Greece’s international lenders. He defends an increasingly discredited notion of Europeanism, one which is disintegrating under the weight of the contradictions inherent in its neoliberal character. His critique is founded on an incomplete understanding of the crisis (Greek profligacy before 2009 was matched euro-for-euro by surplus capital from northern European banks), an ill-advised and uncharitable characterisation of Syriza, and–the coup de grâce–moralistic finger-waving about Greece’s responsibility to swallow a destructive, unnecessary medicine.
It is this vacuous moralising which the Left must strenuously confront at every opportunity. These crude arguments, often built atop cultural essentialisms, absolve those in power, inform policies destructive to human well-being, and sidestep the lived experiences of ordinary people. If Professor Eleftheriadis wishes to train his critical eye anywhere, he should do so against those who would claim the cultural superiority of some Europeans over others as an explanation for this crisis.
We must only entertain those arguments which do not lose sight of the material realities of ordinary people. The rest is white noise:
From the worm’s-eye perspective which most of us inhabit, the general feeling about this new turn in the economic crisis is one of bewilderment. I’ve encountered this in Iceland and in Ireland and in the UK: a sense of alienation and incomprehension and done-unto-ness. People feel they have very little economic or political agency, very little control over their own lives; during the boom times, nobody told them this was an unsustainable bubble until it was already too late. The Greek people are furious to be told by their deputy prime minister that ‘we ate the money together’; they just don’t agree with that analysis. In the world of money, people are privately outraged by the general unwillingness of electorates to accept the blame for the state they are in. But the general public, it turns out, had very little understanding of the economic mechanisms which were, without their knowing it, ruling their lives. They didn’t vote for the system, and no one explained the system to them, and in any case the rule is that while things are on the way up, no one votes for Cassandra, so no one in public life plays the Cassandra role. Greece has 800,000 civil servants, of whom 150,000 are on course to lose their jobs. The very existence of those jobs may well be a symptom of the three c’s, ‘corruption, cronyism, clientelism’, but that’s not how it feels to the person in the job, who was supposed to do what? Turn down the job offer, in the absence of alternative employment, because it was somehow bad for Greece to have so many public sector workers earning an OK living? Where is the agency in that person’s life, the meaningful space for political-economic action? She is made the scapegoat, the victim, of decisions made at altitudes far above her daily life – and the same goes for all the people undergoing ‘austerity’, not just in Greece. The austerity is supposed to be a consequence of us all having had it a little bit too easy (this is an attitude which is only very gently implied in public, but it’s there, and in private it is sometimes spelled out). But the thing is, most of us don’t feel we did have it particularly easy. When you combine that with the fact that we have so little real agency in our economic lives, we tend to feel we don’t deserve much of the blame. This feeling, which is strong enough in Ireland and Iceland, and which will grow steadily stronger in the UK, is so strong in Greece that the country is heading for a default whose likeliest outcome, by far, is a decade of misery for ordinary Greeks.
– John Lanchester, ‘Once Greece goes…’ The London Review of Books
* Marginal, though not voiceless. Perhaps as a result of its prominent membership, or (more likely) its ‘pro-European’ (ho ho) centrism, its message has been getting a bit of a hearing in the foreign press. See here for an example.