The Greek ‘election’

Interesting piece by Slavoj Žižek in the LRB.

The next round of Greek elections will be held on 17 June. The European establishment warns us that these elections are crucial: not only the fate of Greece, but maybe the fate of the whole of Europe is in the balance. One outcome – the right one, they argue – would allow the painful but necessary process of recovery through austerity to continue. The alternative – if the ‘extreme leftist’ Syriza party wins – would be a vote for chaos, the end of the (European) world as we know it.

The prophets of doom are right, but not in the way they intend. Critics of our current democratic arrangements complain that elections don’t offer a true choice: what we get instead is the choice between a centre-right and a centre-left party whose programmes are almost indistinguishable. On 17 June, there will be a real choice: the establishment (New Democracy and Pasok) on one side, Syriza on the other. And, as is usually the case when a real choice is on offer, the establishment is in a panic: chaos, poverty and violence will follow, they say, if the wrong choice is made. The mere possibility of a Syriza victory is said to have sent ripples of fear through global markets. Ideological prosopopoeia has its day: markets talk as if they were persons, expressing their ‘worry’ at what will happen if the elections fail to produce a government with a mandate to persist with the EU-IMF programme of fiscal austerity and structural reform. The citizens of Greece have no time to worry about these prospects: they have enough to worry about in their everyday lives, which are becoming miserable to a degree unseen in Europe for decades.

Such predictions are self-fulfilling, causing panic and thus bringing about the very eventualities they warn against. If Syriza wins, the European establishment will hope that we learn the hard way what happens when an attempt is made to interrupt the vicious cycle of mutual complicity between Brussels’s technocracy and anti-immigrant populism. This is why Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, made clear in a recent interview that his first priority, should Syriza win, will be to counteract panic: ‘People will conquer fear. They will not succumb; they will not be blackmailed.’ Syriza have an almost impossible task. Theirs is not the voice of extreme left ‘madness’, but of reason speaking out against the madness of market ideology. In their readiness to take over, they have banished the left’s fear of taking power; they have the courage to clear up the mess created by others. They will need to exercise a formidable combination of principle and pragmatism, of democratic commitment and a readiness to act quickly and decisively where needed. If they are to have even a minimal chance of success, they will need an all-European display of solidarity: not only decent treatment on the part of every other European country, but also more creative ideas, like the promotion of solidarity tourism this summer.

[...]

Here is the paradox that sustains the ‘free vote’ in democratic societies: one is free to choose on condition that one makes the right choice. This is why, when the wrong choice is made (as it was when Ireland rejected the EU constitution), the choice is treated as a mistake, and the establishment immediately demands that the ‘democratic’ process be repeated in order that the mistake may be corrected. When George Papandreou, then Greek prime minister, proposed a referendum on the eurozone bailout deal at the end of last year, the referendum itself was rejected as a false choice.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I agree with that last para, because what’s been clear for decades is that the European ‘Project’ is, at its heart, a profoundly undemocratic one in the sense that a large proportion of the citizens of European democracies don’t feel represented within the Euro machine and probably have never voted for it. An academic colleague of mine who has spent many months in EU committees discussing science and technology policy once told me that there was one infallible way of getting Eurocrats riled, and that was to ask whether a particular venture would be a defensible use of “taxpayers’ money”. My friend intuited that it was the idea that taxpayers might be in any way relevant to these questions that really irritated the Eurocrats.

Likewise, the fact that my fellow-countrymen in Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum was famously regarded by Brussels as the ‘wrong’ result. The Irish was told to go back to the ballot box and vote differently (and they did). This is a bit like Brecht’s famous dictum that if the people reject the government then it is time to dissolve the people and get a better crowd.

On the other hand, it’s really difficult to work up too much sympathy for a society in which tax-evasion and a bloated public sector are as pervasive as they have been in Greece. Consider, for example, Micheal Lewis’s celebrated report on the country which contained passages such as this (about the Greek public sector):

As it turned out, what the Greeks wanted to do, once the lights went out and they were alone in the dark with a pile of borrowed money, was turn their government into a piñata stuffed with fantastic sums and give as many citizens as possible a whack at it. In just the past decade the wage bill of the Greek public sector has doubled, in real terms—and that number doesn’t take into account the bribes collected by public officials. The average government job pays almost three times the average private-sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The average state railroad employee earns 65,000 euros a year. Twenty years ago a successful businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece’s rail passengers into taxicabs: it’s still true. “We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,” Manos put it to me. “And yet there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.” The Greek public-school system is the site of breathtaking inefficiency: one of the lowest-ranked systems in Europe, it nonetheless employs four times as many teachers per pupil as the highest-ranked, Finland’s. Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something. There are three government-owned defense companies: together they have billions of euros in debts, and mounting losses. The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as “arduous” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average—and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets.

Or this, about tax evasion:

A handful of the tax collectors, however, were outraged by the systematic corruption of their business; it further emerged that two of them were willing to meet with me. The problem was that, for reasons neither wished to discuss, they couldn’t stand the sight of each other. This, I’d be told many times by other Greeks, was very Greek.

The evening after I met with the minister of finance, I had coffee with one tax collector at one hotel, then walked down the street and had a beer with another tax collector at another hotel. Both had already suffered demotions, after their attempts to blow the whistle on colleagues who had accepted big bribes to sign off on fraudulent tax returns. Both had been removed from high-status fieldwork to low-status work in the back office, where they could no longer witness tax crimes. Each was a tiny bit uncomfortable; neither wanted anyone to know he had talked to me, as they feared losing their jobs in the tax agency. And so let’s call them Tax Collector No. 1 and Tax Collector No. 2.

Tax Collector No. 1—early 60s, business suit, tightly wound but not obviously nervous—arrived with a notebook filled with ideas for fixing the Greek tax-collection agency. He just took it for granted that I knew that the only Greeks who paid their taxes were the ones who could not avoid doing so—the salaried employees of corporations, who had their taxes withheld from their paychecks. The vast economy of self-employed workers—everyone from doctors to the guys who ran the kiosks that sold the International Herald Tribune—cheated (one big reason why Greece has the highest percentage of self-employed workers of any European country). “It’s become a cultural trait,” he said. “The Greek people never learned to pay their taxes. And they never did because no one is punished. No one has ever been punished. It’s a cavalier offense—like a gentleman not opening a door for a lady.”

The scale of Greek tax cheating was at least as incredible as its scope: an estimated two-thirds of Greek doctors reported incomes under 12,000 euros a year—which meant, because incomes below that amount weren’t taxable, that even plastic surgeons making millions a year paid no tax at all. The problem wasn’t the law—there was a law on the books that made it a jailable offense to cheat the government out of more than 150,000 euros—but its enforcement. “If the law was enforced,” the tax collector said, “every doctor in Greece would be in jail.” I laughed, and he gave me a stare. “I am completely serious.” One reason no one is ever prosecuted—apart from the fact that prosecution would seem arbitrary, as everyone is doing it—is that the Greek courts take up to 15 years to resolve tax cases. “The one who does not want to pay, and who gets caught, just goes to court,” he says. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the activity in the Greek economy that might be subject to the income tax goes officially unrecorded, he says, compared with an average of about 18 percent in the rest of Europe.

Žižek is right that our enslavement to a particular manifestation of neo-liberal capitalism threatens to undermine democracy. The problem for his case is that the Greeks are not a great argument for it. A better example might be Ireland, a country in which every man, woman and child is now in debt to the tune of €17,000 because of their government’s insane decision to indemnify banks for their crazed borrowing and lending. In the last General Election, my countrymen threw out the crooks (Fianna Fail) who had got the country into this mess, but elected a crew who — at least in one respect — were just “Fianna Fail Lite”, and who have insisted in sticking to the ludicrous commitment entered into by their predecessors. The result: an austerity programme on steroids, and a predictable recession.

Of course — as with the Greeks — my countrymen are not exactly blameless either. Apart from tolerating the pervasive corruption of their politicians and of the planning system, they also enthusiastically mounted the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and goaded it energetically into a gallop in the belief that the laws of economics had been suspended, that property bubbles go on forever, and so on. So I’m left with the thought that while we get the governments (or at least the politicians) that we deserve, we also got a banking system and an economic ideology that none of us voted for and even fewer of us understood.

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