Thursday, June 30th:
Wherever I go these days, it’s a riot! Literally so, it would seem. Vancouver two weeks ago to attend the NDP’s national convention in Vancouver, just in time for a disgraceful hockey riot. And then, this weekend, Athens for a Council meeting of Socialist International — just in time for two more days of rioting, as the social democratic government of Greece wrestles with the bitter fruits of conservative misrule in this country.
As is fit and proper in any setting, the best poll is the “cabbie poll”. The cab driver from Athens airport had much to say about things in his country.
On the rioting in Athens: “what was happening in the square in front of Parliament for weeks and weeks was a perfectly peaceful demonstration that people were taking their children to,” he said. “People were there with their grandparents and their children, it was a family occasion and totally peaceful. And it was making our points. And then for just two days, the new ones showed up and started throwing bricks and rocks. It’s disgraced the country. It’s embarrassing. It’s not Greece.”
A familiar theme. Again and again, powerful and peaceful demonstrations by citizens are hijacked and disempowered by the violent. The same thing happened in Toronto during the G8 last summer. This is a serious challenge for progressives around the world — to find a way to mobilize the power of civil society and peaceful protest, without losing that power to the lust for violence of young men of a certain sort.
On the Greek national debt: “Yes, maybe we borrowed some of that money and maybe we should pay some of it back. But not all of it. For some of it, maybe they need to go and look for the Swiss bank accounts and the tax havens in the Caribbean. People here are taking 25 per cent pay cuts, and losing their pensions and their jobs and we didn’t see anything from all of that money. ‘They’ put it in their pockets and ‘they’ should pay it back.”
People in Greece are acutely aware of the criticism being leveled at them in Europe and around the world. Like citizens in Iceland and Ireland, they are having a hard time understanding why a crisis that has its roots in a different kind of lust — the lust for limitless wealth and power, which caused those who control the financial system to drive the world economy over a cliff — means that ordinary people are morally bad; must pay much higher taxes; must take deep pay cuts; must retire into poverty; and must do without education and health care, in order to keep the party going for bankers and speculators.
That isn’t all that needs to be done, alas, as we were going to hear the following morning.
Friday, July 1st:
George Papandreou addressed the opening session of Socialist International in an unmistakable Canadian accent. It isn’t as widely appreciated in Canada as it should be that we are the current Greek Prime Minister’s second home. His family found refuge in Toronto during the former military dictatorship in Greece. His father led PASOK to victory once democracy was restored, leading the first Greek social democratic government. Prime Minister Papandreou led PASOK to a second, majority government in the most recent Greek elections.
Just in time to confront the reality of a €230-billion national debt.
He is a quietly inspiring figure, George Papandreou. In the teeth of a first-class financial, economic and politic crisis, he took his place in the chair here (Papandreou is president of Social International), and opened the meeting with a calm, thoughtful, and determined overview of what he was dealing with.
Perhaps his most important words were his final ones: “we will survive, and we will win.”
That will surely be true. But the road to survival will be a long and bitter one. “Greece is not a poor country but it was a mismanaged one,” he acknowledged frankly. And so, confronted with an overwhelming financial crisis, his government took “patriotic decisions to save our country.”
The details have been well covered on globeandmail.com. It is Papandreou’s conclusions about the future that merit thinking about next. “Are we too weak to deal with the financial and banking system?” he asked. “Are we too weak to deal the need for transparency in the financial markets? Are we too weak to deal with the ratings agencies? Are we too weak to fight tax havens?” He noted that bond rating agencies could destroy Greece’s financial plan with a single additional downgrade. They have more power over the future of Greece than its people or its Parliament, “and that is totally unacceptable.”
Precisely so — which is why responsible social democrats in all jurisdictions are, and should be, allergic to excessive reliance on debt to finance government.
This is in stark contrast to conservatives in their modern form, eager as they are to finance tax cuts for their friends and other reckless spending through public debt. Doing so provides a perfect pool shot from their perspective. The rich get richer, and government is destroyed. Perfect!
But what we are seeing on our television screens from Athens is the inevitable consequence.
Which is why, in the 100-plus countries represented in Socialist International, moderate, responsible, mainstream progressive parties are putting forward the sensible, realistic alternative to conservative misrule. The British Labour Party; the German SDP; the French Socialists; Australian Labor; the Scandinavian social democratic parties; the New Democrats, Canada’s new official opposition; PASOK; and the many other progressive parties meeting here are broadly of like mind on these issues.
The immediate financial crisis — so similar in its essentials all around the world, triggered by neo-con recklessness and misrule, and the limitless greed of financiers and speculators — needs to be addressed.
Countries around the world need to be put back on their feet — to survive, and to win, as Papandreou says.
And the root causes of all of this madness needs to be addressed in the style Prime Minister Papandreou is using to address the crisis here in Greece, against overwhelming odds — calmly, thoughtfully, and with determination.
This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.
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