Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
After a terrible January, in which the rouble lost a third of its value against the dollar, and with the oil price still on the slide, things are looking up for the Kremlin. They might have expected another round of sanctions to follow the the shelling of the market in the Black Sea town of Mariupol.
But the new government in Greece, a coalition of nationalists and socialists, with little in common except a belief that Vladimir Putin (since he is Merkel’s enemy, he must be their friend) blocked sanctions that European leaders had prepared in reply to this Bosnian-Serb style atrocity. To Hungary and Cyprus, Putin appears to have added a third, slightly less marginal, ally.
The main prize, however, is Spain, where the pro-Chavez Podemos is neck and neck with the governing Partido Popular in the polls, and elections are due next December. Despite a return to growth (two per cent last year), a large section of Spanish society is gripped by contempt for a political class it perceives, hardly without reason, to be riddled with corruption.
Meanwhile, unemployment remains high at almost 24 per cent, and its effects are only partly weakened by the common practice of paying people cash in hand, “in the black” away from the prying eyes of the tax inspectors. Though the scale of Spanish corruption is not enough to cause unemployment in itself, the extreme leftists of Podemos attribute corruption, austerity and unemployment to the machinations of a “neoliberal” conspiracy of high finance, the “Washington Consensus” and Angela Merkel.
Podemos, with Syriza in Greece (and Sinn Fein in Ireland), having identified the enemy, seize upon frustration with austerity and demand that justice be done for the depradations that they believe it has made upon their socieites. Theirs is the politics expressed by that New Left’s slogan “another world is possible,” and the belief that its time has come.
The financial crisis rendered the centre-left’s economic plan – promote growth, tax the proceeds, and redistribute them through a growing public sector – obsolete. The temptation to borrow more, even when things were going well, in the belief that the boom would go on for ever, was too strong.
But when the crash came, and revenues collapsed, the higher level of state spending could only be maintained by borrowing enormous sums from the financial markets. To the conservative taunt that all labour governments run out of money, left-wingers must add the indignity of depending on the good will of the same bankers that they hold responsible for the crisis.
“The bankers caused the crisis, but we need to do what they say or we won’t be able to borrow money from them” suggests not leadership but humiliation. Not just Ed Miliband and François Hollande, but the far better looking and charismatic Pedro Sanchez, who leads the mainstream Spanish left PSOE have foundered trying to defend it. How much more gratifying to rise up against the System, refuse to negotiate with your creditors and threaten them with default!
The post-Marxist far left, consigned since the fall of the Berlin wall to teargas-filled anti-globalisation demos and dreary academic conferences (Encountering restistances: the genealogy of neo-liberal structural violence, etc.) has returned in force to meet pent-up demand for economic martyrdom.
But a cry for justice, as every grandmother knows, doesn’t buy you very much. To adapt Martin Luther King, the promissory note issued by the Greek bank of justice will come back endorsed with a note marked “insufficient funds.”
Most of Greece’s bailout funds involve money going around in a circle. They have, in essence, been lent by the European Financial Stability Facility to prop up Eurozone banks who had lent to Athens in the expectation that if anything went wrong they would be bailed out by European institutions.
But the bailout and austerity are symptoms of Greece’s economic failure not its cause. Debt relief would improve the government’s fiscal position a little, but the Greek economy’s problems – a bloated public sector far too large for the country’s tax base, and terrible private sector productivity – would remain.
Syriza’s economic policies, which include re-hiring civil servants made redundant, would would only make things worse, and its crackdown on tax evasion has been announced too loudly to catch people by surprise. To improve productivity, Greece will need to attract foreign business, which will scarcely have been encouraged by the new government’s behaviour.
It will take them time to realise that Greek economic problems, if sometimes assisted by the outside world, began in Greece and cannot be traced to the United States and international capitalism. Until then, they seem to derive sustenance from their conviction and that anybody who stands up to the system them is on the side of the oppressed against “hegemony.”
Thus, Syriza happliy entered a coalition with the anti-semitic Independent Greeks party (one of its MPs maintains that “the American-Jewish FM Henry Kissinger” is the “patriarch of the World Zionist movement”), and blocked that new round of sanctions on Russia. Podemos, whose leader has described Venezuela as “an example for Southern Europe” has a CEPS foundation which has received €3.7 million from Venezuela.
Though Greece is relatively small, the blow to the Western alliance and democracy in Europe would be severe were Madrid to come under the control of Podemos. The Eurozone’s leaders would be wise to extend more generous repayment terms (such as linking repayments of debt to GDP growth rates) to Spain, Ireland and Portugal, which are getting their finances in order, before it is too late.