Sunday, May 16, 2010
Greece laid low by its decadence
On Wednesday the bill comes due for Greece, and Greece can't pay. Instead, it is going to take Europe down to its level, to an economy that has been kept afloat for years by blackmail, self-delusion and other people's money.
The metaphor for the decadence of modern Greece was years in the making but took shape on May 5, on Stadiou Street in the commercial district of Athens. Yet another mass strike by unionists and anarchists was making its way through the city. Three hooded men spun off from the march and began using hammers and rocks to smash the front window of the Marfin Egnatia Bank. After breaking the windows, and despite shouted warnings that there were people inside, the men lobbed several petrol bombs inside. Flames and smoke quickly engulfed the three-storey building.
Upstairs, in her second-floor office, Paraskevi Zoulia, 34, known to her friends as Vivi, was at her desk. She was engaged to be married, and had been planning her wedding. She died of burns and smoke inhalation. A second young woman, Angeliki Papathanasopoulou, 32, who was four months pregnant, tried to escape the fire by climbing onto a balcony. She did not make it. A third co-worker, a young man, Epaminondas Tsalkis, 36, was found in a stairwell, asphyxiated by smoke.
Illustration: Michael Mucci
What happened next was just as disturbing. When fire and ambulance crews attempted to respond, they were hampered by demonstrators protesting against cuts to public sector pay packages. People were still shouting anti-capitalist slogans outside the bank even after the fire bombing.
As the bank's chairman, Andreas Vgenopoulos, arrived at the scene soon after the attack, he was greeted by shouts of "murderer". One of the demonstrators shouted: "How many yachts do you own?" Police surrounded Vgenopoulos to protect him from the crowd. A video shows a man trying to break through the cordon to attack Vgenopoulos. The activist was bundled away by police in riot gear.
In response to the incident, the Greek Federation of Bank Employees' Unions issued a statement blaming the bank for the deaths, citing inadequate safety measures. The federation called for strike action, even accusing the government of complicity: ''This tragic event that took the life of three of our colleagues, two women and a man, is the sad consequence of anti-popular [government] measures that whipped up popular anger."
This absurd logic was then parroted on the hard-left websites. Typical was this tortured reasoning: ''Bank branches have been a regular target for protesters in the streets of Athens for years; for this reason, banks are boarded up on demonstration days. To lock up employees in a bank branch lying on the route of the biggest demonstration the country has seen in its post-dictatorial era is murderous negligence.''
The union front for the Communist Party, PAME, also blamed the government for the tragedy and called for a blockade of Parliament. It described the decision to endanger the workers by not closing the bank as a provocative act designed to ''demoralise the working class movement''.
This is the depravity of modern Greece, where political street intimidation is routine and public debt is larger than the nation's gross national product. This debt has been used to pay the bribes demanded by the militants, to pay for a giant public sector that Greece cannot afford, and whose workers expect a generous pension from the age of 58. Finally, this collective madness reached crisis point. Many people have blood on their hands in today's Greece. Violent demonstrations are commonplace. Deceit is endemic. Tax avoidance is the national sport. The public sector is bloated and strike-ridden. The government is bankrupt. The nation is deluded. The Greeks lied to get into the European currency union, then spent like fools once they gained admission.
With Wednesday's multimillion-dollar debt deadline looming for Greece, instead of allowing the country to default on its loans and accept reality, and for the euro-zone banks who lent so recklessly to absorb the consequences, the Greek cancer has been allowed to spread into the entire system of the European currency union. The European Central Bank, in concert with other agencies, has agreed to provide more than a trillion dollars (€750 billion) of more debt to prop up the euro-zone banking system.
This is an enormous gamble, imposed by the political elite and technocratic class in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union. At a stroke, this financial accord has significantly changed and enlarged the nature of the European Union, which will now issue bonds that carry Europe's AAA rating, to prop up nations in severe financial stress.
The bailout is designed to protect the euro-zone banking system, which is even more leveraged than the American banks were going into the global financial crisis in 2008. That crisis, unlike this one, was caused by the convergence of the excesses of casino capitalism, and the US government's meddling in diluting the bank lending standards. It was a disastrous combination.
Europe is largely burdened by a different disastrous convergence: a welfare system it can't sustain, excessive speculative lending by banks and, until last week, an inert European Central Bank. So the European Union has, de facto, extended its power into the banking system to save a currency union that is fractured in all but name.
No one knows how this will unfold. The euro zone has a tectonic fault-line between the Teutonic north and the Mediterranean south. The German people, the ultimate lenders of last resort for all this economic excess, may revolt under the burden. As they should. My guess is that this massive gamble will ultimately fail
Source: Sydney Morning Herald 17/5/2010