On the 5th of July the Greeks will either make their own history or agree to live within the confines of one that is being written for them. In India, many of us will be waiting for the referendum’s result with a thumping heart, and a secret hope.
The referendum in Greece next Sunday is about much more than a country accepting or rejecting an austerity package. Torn between narrow self-interest fuelled by economic fear and the higher calling of democratic assertion, the people of Greece are being asked to affirm who is to be in charge of their future. Will they themselves decide what the country’s political course is to be or will creditors be allowed dictate how their country must be run? It is the kind of moment that beckons irrational heroism. People around the world can have an opinion but it is difficult for anyone to make this decision for the Greek people, or to even give them advice about it. In the end, it is the Greeks who will have to live with the consequences of their decision.
If Greece votes ‘Yes’ for the austerity deal on Sunday and accepts the harsh conditions of its creditors, the world will simply roll on. Just as it has for the past many years, with our political and democratic agency, and institutions, completely numbed by the neoliberal global economic system. This system only knows self-aggrandisement and accepts engagement only on its own terms. There is no democratic assertion, no revolution, that can stand in its way. It is normally not even clear whom one should rebel against. The most potent feature of the current system is that it hides itself so well even while being everywhere. No clear target is visible about which one can easily say, this is the system’s nerve-centre, if you destroy it, it will be dead and gone. Or even that you would have hurt it grievously. That is why rare occasions like the current Greek referendum are so significant. The worldwide community of ‘investors’ knows its significance, even if others do not.
If Greece votes ‘No’, this would indeed be historic and possibly path-breaking. It would a moment of democratic release for the Greek people and the whole world will want to share in it, such is the current political suffocation caused by the neoliberalism that we all live under. One must hurry to say once again: we are no one to judge how the Greeks should vote, because they will be voting with and for their lives and their future – whether in a good direction or bad. We cannot ask them to be the fuel to ignite the revolution for the rest of us, even when there is a chance that they could be the vanguard of a momentous worldwide change that history will celebrate in times to come.
The manner in which politics has become completely chained to financial capital is so seamless that people around the world are desperate to see the first cracks. There is anger at the way international creditors are telling Greece not to raise taxes on big business but to cut pensions in order to gather money to pay them back. The way credit agencies can tell the Indian nation that they are better advised to cut social spending than tax the affluent. The way global corporations can challenge and escape ‘sovereign’ social policies under the investor dispute clauses of global trade treaties. People today have all democratic rights until the time they clash with the needs and demands of global capital. Those needs and demands are everywhere and all-consuming. They leave very little space free for democracy.
Global capital has long since declared itself free from politics and democracy. Increasingly, as we see in Greece, it has now begun to claim control over politics and democracy. It wants to run the Greek nation and its policies. Obviously, ‘they’ are aghast that their new demands are being put to vote through a referendum so that people decide whether to accept them or not. The Greek referendum, then, is a vote on the future of the current neoliberal system. Will financial capital and markets continue to govern politics? Or will it be the other way around?
Will the Greek people be able to overcome the fear that global capital might punish them in a manner that sets an example for other nations daring to think of moving in a similar direction? Do they trust themselves enough to realise that by rejecting the demands of their creditors they can open the door to the political, social and economic rejuvenation of their country? In a recent speech, Amartya Sen has described the package creditors are trying to force down Greek throats as ‘antibiotics with rat poison’:
An analogy can help to make the point clearer: it is as if a person had asked for an antibiotic for his fever, and been given a mixed tablet with antibiotic and rat poison. You cannot have the antibiotic without also having the rat poison. We were in effect being told that if you want economic reform then you must also have, along with it, economic austerity, although there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why the two must be put together as a chemical compound. For example, having sensible retiring ages, which many European countries do not (a much-needed institutional reform), is not similar to cutting severely the pensions on which the lives of the working poor may depend (a favourite of austeritarians). The compounding of the two – not least in the demands made on Greece – has made it much harder to pursue institutional reforms. And the shrinking of the Greek economy under the influence mainly of austerity has created the most unfavourable circumstances possible for bold institutional reforms.
Many well-respected economists believe that in refusing the terms of the creditors for imposing further austerity Greece will be taking the most appropriate and rational economic decision. A ‘No’ vote, in other words, is the only way that Greece can begin to economically grow again.
It is an unfortunate human failing that fear can be a much stronger instinct than hope in crunch times. But then we also know that when individuals, and peoples, are really pushed to the wall and their dignity is impugned, they are capable of reacting with unthought of courage.
On the 5th of July the Greeks will either make their own history or agree to live within the confines of one that is being written for them. In India, as in the rest of the world, many of us will be waiting for the result of the referendum with a thumping heart, and a secret hope.
Parminder Jeet Singh is with IT for Change, a Bengaluru-based NGO