A message of hope for 2017 from Greece

Did you enjoy 2016?

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Pretty much everyone I met who is not Greek and does not visit Greece regularly has had the same question for me in 2016: “So, how are things in Greece, its quiet now, no? Better?”.

This post answers this question (if you were minded to ask) but also unexpectedly carries a message of hope in these dark times, a little indication of how 2017 might be the beginning of a recovery for Europe (at least) despite the annus horribilis 2016.

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How are things in Greece? I think the closest parallel is drowning in quicksand. So long as you don’t move, nothing gets better. If you try and move, you sink a little deeper.

Syriza’s government has been a circus of horrors, whichever way you look at it. Since they took power in 2015 (as has been well documented in this blog) they have lurched from one disaster to another, from one conflict to another, from one (endless) ‘negotiation’ to another. They have achieved a series of ‘political solutions’ which is code for defeat and capitulation. They have interpreted the demands of Greece’s creditors in the most destructive and senseless manner, to the degree that even the IMF thinks the country is dying, stuck in a mire of growth chocking measures.

Most of the time Syriza has done nothing to improve the situation in the country (staying put in the quicksand). Some of the time (usually after botching another round of ‘negotiations’) they have legislated a new raft of fiscal measures (wiggling in the quicksand and sinking a little deeper).

Nothing has improved in Greece and nothing is changing for the better. My answer to my earnest enquirers is that Greece continues to sink as people slowly eat away any left over cash saved before the crisis. This is not to say that some have not benefited. Syriza friends and family are finding jobs in new PM’s offices. Syriza journalists are being hired at resurrected ERT. The party goes on for the few, for a little while longer. Far-right lunatics (forming the junior coalition partners) continue to bless fighter jets, while police cars cannot move for the lack of fuel. There is ample comedy, within the tragedy.

No, things are not improving in Greece.

So where is the message of hope for 2017 the headline to this post advertises?

Greece has been one of the first places where the wave of populist lies and ‘anti’ propaganda led a band of bandits to power. Greece pioneered the escape to fantasy in 2015, proudly followed by the British people electing to torch their economy through Brexit and the Americans electing to have a stab at torching the world by voting for Trump.

As the first piece of this puzzle of a (often farcical) rerun of the 1930s, Greece may be a good place to speculate on possible futures.

I had argued in 2014, mistakenly believing that those who speak nonsense and act crazy are putting on a show to excite the mentally handicapped sections of the electorate (I was wrong, they are stupid, devious and crazy), that a failure for Syriza would leave the political system in such a sorry state, the electorate would lurch further to the extremes after having witnessed the failure of both establishment parties and their populist antagonists. Who would benefit? Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-nazi (but fat and hairy) variant was first in line.

Alas, this does not seem to be happening. The failure of Syriza to drag Greece out of the quicksand is shifting support to traditional parties, like New Democracy (under its new centrist leader Mitsotakis). Syriza’s antics have served to demystify the idea of the ‘left’ as morally superior. Tsipras has laid bare for all to see how what he leads is not ‘the left’ but a group of opportunist, amoral, ignorant and incompetent power-hungry populist have-beens. Even a population as jaded as the Greeks, after 6 years of crisis, realise that the ability to govern and a broad plan (even a Euro-friendly one) is better than banditry and chaos lorded over by power-mad buffoons.

And here is the message of hope for 2017. After the populist experiment has failed, people can come back from the populist abyss. Perhaps the explosion of discontent that brings the sewer to power dissipates after the experience of governance via populists. Perhaps even the attempt to blame ‘others’ for failure won’t convince people who suffer the consequences of bad decisions.

I admit that things look bad at the moment for Europe and the world. There is a chance however that in 2017, Germans will trust Angela Merkel with another term, ensuring continuity for the European project. The French could return a mainstream president (anyone but Le Pen), thus ensuring the stability of the Euro, The Italians could keep at bay the populist buffoonery of Beppe Grillo.

Britain may ameliorate its Brexit experiment in self-harm.

Unfortunately, the Americans cannot help us here, as Trump is entitled to run a world-wide, real-life version of the Apprentice for 4 years. If the world doesn’t end on his account, we may look back at 2017 as the year that things came back from the brink.

They might. Considering the alternative, they must.

Cheer up and enjoy your mince pies.

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@iGlinavos

From permanent Revolution to permanent Memorandum

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How to Cure Yourself of Leftism

In January 2015, I was one of those poor sods who believed that voting for Syriza would be a good idea. The reason was that I thought that Europe had tired of a programme that did not work and was looking for a way to offer something different. However, the loss of political face this would entail would be internally damaging for politicians in the creditor countries. Therefore, I managed to convince myself, an anti-austerity government in Greece would offer opportunity for a new pro-growth settlement. Alas, I was horribly wrong.

Creditor nations felt like something needed change, but this was motivated by fatigue with the Greek problem, rather than cracks in their belief that austerity works. Nonetheless, Varoufakis got better terms in February 2015 that were on offer to Samaras earlier, when an extension to Greece’s second bailout was agreed. From that point onwards everything went to hell, as Varoufakis chose to present the February deal as a defeat and proceeded to wage war on the Troika. Following the glorious example of First World War generals, Varoufakis and Tsipras sacrificed what was left of the economy in pursuit of glory. By March 2015 it was evident to objective observers that Syriza was on a path to disaster. I regretted at that point having supported them. I still regret it. Being stuck in London, I did not actually get to vote for them, but I feel guilty nonetheless.

You all know what followed. The glorious summer battles, the heroic referendum. The sudden capitulation, followed by the pogrom of the ‘drachmists’ and the revalidation of Syriza’s path to ruin in September 2015. Tsipras brought us Memorandum No 3, then predictably failed to act on his promises, failed to finish the evaluations that triggered payments, brought the country this spring to the brink of another credit crunch, in order to capitulate yet again. This latter capitulation (that opens the tap drip-dripping funds with which to pay creditors while the economy withers and dies from lack of investment) comes with a list of measures that would make Reagan blanche and Thatcher choke on her scones. The worse of statism and neoliberalism put together. A horror of almost universal originality.

How is this explained to the Greek population, and why isn’t there more reaction? Syriza started saying they would be better than Samaras and Venizelos. When they failed at that, they claimed they would be better than the supposedly corrupt and entangled governments that came after the dictators. When they failed at that, they claimed that the mind blowing surrender of sovereignty inherent in the new permanent memorandum, is better than the 400 years of Turkish occupation (all these come from Syriza MPs and minister pronouncements). I shudder to think what they will be better than next.

Having completely abandoned each and every electoral (and pre-electoral) promise they ever made, Syriza members have descended to incoherent and surreal nonsense in trying to justify their continued occupation of the government. They claim alternatively that they are blackmailed into accepting horrible measures; or that the measures are actually good; or that they are bad, but not accepting them would do their enemies bidding; or that they agree to things but will not implement them; or that the NAI supporters are to blame, even though OXI won the referendum; or (and this is the latest one by some character named Kyritsis) that they have been elected in order to wage class war, to pass the burden of Greece’s collapse on the wealthy classes. All in all a difficult to follow cataclysm of divisive, inappropriate, nonsense. And this torrent of stupidity is of course not confined to Syriza. Kammenos, this monument to the nation’s suicidal tendencies, declared the measures that he had just voted in Parliament to be criminal and unconstitutional and vowed to resist them. And then we wonder why Greece has a credibility problem.

Why am I telling you all this –most of which you know-? I want to declare myself cured of leftism. For most of my career I was writing and publishing nice progressive pieces about democracy, neoliberalism, the rule of law, the role of the left in progressive politics etc etc.

Mr Tsipras, I thank you. You have cured me of leftism once and for all.

No amount of abstract theorising compares with what the left can do once in power. Nothing compares with a group of people, so sure of their own moral superiority, of their own goodness, that they will do anything and everything to maintain their position of power. No shame, no remorse, no regard for consequences, no end to the party – till the party is over. I will no longer be a cheerleader of the left.

I argued for democracy – the people voted for a bunch of thieves

I argued for choice – the people chose fairy-tales and closed their eyes to reality

I argued for self-determination – the left sold its soul and the nation with it

I argued for sovereignty – the left chose their jobs

I argued for enlightenment – the left offered bullshit instead of the truth

The left sold out, for their MPs salaries, for jobs for their friends. After it sold out it embarked on a war of slogans to misdirect the anger against it. The left in Greece changed the narrative of the crisis from a failure of political-economic-cultural system into a fairy tale of invasion, special interests and economic occupation. People have been sold seaweed for silk ribbons (a Greek saying) and they knowingly bought it.

How to cure yourself of leftism? Study the Greek crisis.

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@iGlinavos

Got a state job with a fake degree? No problem

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Imagine the following situation (any relation to real persons is entirely coincidental).

Yorgos was not great at school. He managed to scrape through and finished with a pass mark his secondary school (the obligatory part of education in Greece) in the provincial town in Arta in western Greece. Yorgos attended, but did not finish the optional, post-16 lycée with the local equivalent of a baccalaureate. His chances of getting a state job (the golden prize of the Greek job market) were quite slim, as ASEP (the national state recruitment management system) would credit him too low to enter into a position. Considering the vast majority of young Greeks crave the stability of a state job, ASEP scoring becomes all important, grading people on the basis of qualifications and personal factors (whether they are members of a protected class, children of large families etc).

What could Yorgos do? How to game the system and improve his chances? How about a fake qualification from a bogus private college (technical lycée, or TEE in Greek)? Why not? Indeed a reported 2000 Yorgoses had the same idea in this one town!

After Yorgos fixed his scores, with some help from an uncle who knew the right people within the party in power at the time, he obtained a job in the local tax office, where he spends his days drinking frappe behind a glass window in front of endless queues of citizens waiting to have a piece of paper stamped, before moving on to the next glass window where the same thing happens and so on and so forth.

Unfortunately, Yorgos’ quiet existence has been upset by the discovery of his fake qualification (and those of a few thousand of his colleagues). Such rotten luck. Yorgos is worried about consequences. If he were outside Greece things would go seriously south. Lying about your degree can have serious consequences in Europe. You could face up to 10 years imprisonment in the UK, as well as having your degree revoked. It will also severely damage your reputation.  Embellishing your qualifications, tampering with your degree certificate, or obtaining a fake degree certificate is a criminal offence under the Fraud Act 2006. You would, at minimum, lose your job. It is due to checks on qualifications that I have to take my degrees down from the wall, out of their frame (my mother had them framed, I know what you are thinking), and haul them to HR on my first day of every new job.

Alas, Yorgos is lucky, he lives in Greece. Greece is the place where sovietisation is continuing apace despite its demise pretty much everywhere else in the world. Mr I-will-never-wear-a-tie-Tsipras who represents state employees through his first-time-left-with-some-far-right-loones government would not let an estimated 2500 state employees lose their jobs over something minor, like bogus qualifications. The government newspaper (yes, there is a government newspaper, and Syriza journalists – Pravda was a good model it seems), announced a solution! The ministry of education (headed by someone without a degree, of course), will hold special exams pronto, for all those unsure about the veracity of their qualifications. This way they can prove their competence, without worrying about losing their jobs! What a great, transparent solution. Everyone wins.

Also, this can be used for an assault on private education providers in Greece, a historical enemy of the left, which came of age in the byzantine, inefficient, corrupt and filthy state Universities. These being the best in the world, I was told. While visiting on Erasmus, I had the privilege to attend classes while kids were selling tissues, stray dogs were sleeping under desks, and Communist Youths were plastering the blackboard with posters during the lectures at Athens Law School. Brilliant.

I scold you in advance if you entertain any thoughts of the Greeks as a band of tax-sucking, cheating, corrupt scumbags. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can provide our validated fake qualifications on request.

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@iGlinavos

 

What the demise of the soviets teaches us about modern day Greece

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How can a weak tyrant wreck your life? One would think that a weak state is ripe for subversion or evasion, therefore, so long as one is not reliant on public services, survival should not be imperiled by the presence of a tottering regime. Yet, the experience of the soviet twilight years demonstrates how wrong this assumption can be.

The soviet state was pervasive, yet weak; predatory yet powerless. It could -and did- undermine its citizens’ ability to lead a safe and predictable existence. How does one explain this paradox, of a weak, but dangerous predator? A long developed literature on post-communist transition reveals that layers of over-regulation at multiple levels of government, coupled with corruption and general subversion hurt the weakest in society the most. It is those who cannot afford to bribe the officials, shield their incomes, move their funds to foreign accounts that get caught in the nets of the state-predator and are either taxed to insolvency or buried under mounts of bureaucracy. Now, before you dismiss all this as the predictable complains of orthodox economists against a command economy, I assure you I am not one of them. I even wrote a book decrying the neoliberal advice given to Russia in the early 1990s and its consequences. Nonetheless, the horrid consequences of the command economy and Stalinist planning cannot be denied, nor can its human impacts.

How is the soviet experience relevant to modern day Greece? This month, a massive bill has gone through the Greek Parliament. It consists of a long set of documents that MPs were supposed to read, understand and debate during 3 days, before a decisive vote for the government. The bill contains a raft of new increases in taxes -including an increase in VAT to 24%- and a controversial fiscal adjustment mechanism that will automatically trigger contractions in state spending if primary surplus targets are not met. This is reminiscent of debt break tools present in federal states, something discussed (but never implemented) in earlier phases of the Greek crisis. This debate is taking place in a country that exhibits many of the worse traits of the soviets, and is incidentally run by a government containing a significant number of self-proclaimed Marxists.

Reflecting on the appropriateness of the measures proposed in order to deal with the Greek crisis, or their origins, is not the point of this article. We can however note the following: Such a significant assault of tax measures on a population can only have two effects, an increase in attempts at evasion and the destruction of legitimate economic activity. This is not unprecedented, nor unpredictable. It is exactly this creation of a predatory, yet weak state that prompts comparisons with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The crippling tax burden on Greek businesses means that those capable of evading, by relocating abroad (Bulgaria has proved to be a popular destination for fleeing Greek manufacturers), or by hiding assets abroad, or bribing their way to a friendly settlement, will do so. Those who cannot, pensioners and employees are the usual example, will suffer the consequences of yet another desperate scramble to squeeze funds out of a nearly broke population, 6 years into an unprecedented crisis.

Is it inevitable that crisis turns a state into a wounded monster that seeks to devour the weakest, while those who can outrun its clutches flee? Perhaps the soviets were unable to change course, bankrupted by the arms race and shaken by the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Perestroika came too late to redirect an economy crippled by the distortions of central planning. For Greece, the current descent into wilful self-destruction seems to be a choice by an elite that has chosen to preserve (for as long as possible) the privileges of a dying clientist state. Yes, in Greece’s 6 year existential crisis many mistakes were made by local policy makers and by the country’s creditors. A corrupt, predatory, weak state captured by client groups and political interests prevented modernisation and reform (in whichever direction). An unwavering focus on fiscal adjustment and last-minute fixes from Europe stretched out a crisis that other states with similar problems managed to overcome. However, the current bill presumably debated by the speed reading Greek MPs (the bill spreads over more than 7000 pages), offers the worst mix of disincentives to economic activity and offers absolutely no reason for optimism that Greece is getting anywhere near overcoming its difficulties.

The demise of the soviets tells us that a wounded beast can only go on for so long. The Greek beast will stop devouring itself eventually. The question is what will be left of the population when that happens.
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@iGlinavos

 

Tsipras Boris and the politics of the absurd

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How does one effectively argue with the absurd? What can an opposition do when those in power drown public discourse in surrealist nonsense? Unlikely as the above sounds, countering criticism with crazy is a growing trend in politics at home and abroad.

The example closer to home is Boris Johnson. Cloaked behind a manufactured aura of genial buffoonery Boris has managed to side step most serious concerns about his record and behaviour. He even seems to be managing to survive his transformation from Mayor to rabid Brexiteer. When confronted with serious questions he responds by mumbling inanities. The reporters think “this man is a joke”, the public thinks “he is funny”. At least the damage wrecked by Boris is minimal, until of course he ushers in a Brexit he does not really believe in.

The damage created by a less affable troupe of buffoons, the Syriza-Anel abomination is way more serious.

Many, the author of this blog included, have been decrying Syrizanel as a band of deluded ideologues, shameless liars, fraudsters, or incompetent morons depending on the day and topic. Yet a serious opposition to their governance of horrors is becoming increasingly difficult, as statements coming from Maximou (the prime ministerial seat) become gradually more and more outlandish.

Varoufakis in 2015 was fighting the evil Germans. Tsipras in the summer ran the referendum of shame, won it and immediately reversed course, declaring victory nonetheless. In the autumn, Syriza started fighting the IMF, which was fighting for debt relief (which was a core government objective). Just this month, after endless talk of red lines, negotiations etc, Tsipras has utterly capitulated, yet returned to declare victory. This was followed by ministerial declarations a day or two after that they were again blackmailed into capitulation. Pappas, the shockingly inadequate minister of state, today in New York confirmed the government’s agreement to the necessity of keeping the (only a week ago evil) IMF as part of the Greek programme.

Confused? It gets worse. After months of outrage at Tsipras transformations from Memorandum basher to Memorandum (sham) enforcer, he announced that he never lied, it is just that he and his team suffered from self-delusions. So they were not selling us porkies for 5 years prior to coming into power. They did not scupper the nascent recovery of 2014 by forcing elections due to deviousness, or stupidity. They did it because of self-delusion.

The fact that he can say stuff like that without causing a whole scale insurrection proves how the endless torrent of double-speak, miscommunication and daliesque bullshit has numbed an entire population into depressed submission.

How can one principally oppose people who act crazy all the time? How can one respond to this Mafioso Pappas when he gives a lesson on the semantics of sunbathing to Deutsche Welle?

The assault of buffoonery and the degrading of public discourse will result in a sticky end for all of us, through Brexit or Grexit.

Resist the idiots. It is necessary for survival.

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@iGlinavos

Is SyrizAnel turning Greece into a Failed State?

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There is a sense that the situation in Greece is deteriorating rapidly, not only in an economic, but also in every other sense. The combined pressures of the migrant/refugee crisis, economic stagnation, diplomatic torpor and internal strife created and promoted by the government of Tsipras/Kammenos are leading things to the edge. In the summer of 2015 European officials voiced concern that Grexit could lead Greece to degenerate to a failed state. People are beginning to question whether Greece is heading there anyway, Grexit or no Grexit. The following discusses the proposition that Syriza and their far-right partners are turning the country into a failed state. Is this outlandish? Judge for yourselves.

Three elements can be said to characterize the phenomenon of the “failed State” from the political and legal point of view.

Firstly, there is the geographical and territorial aspect, namely the fact that “failed States” are essentially associated with internal and endogenous problems, even though these may incidentally have cross-border impacts. The situation confronting us then is one of an implosion rather than an explosion of the structures of power and authority, the disintegration and de-structuring of States rather than their dismemberment.

Secondly, there is the political aspect, namely the internal collapse of law and order. The emphasis here is on the total or near total breakdown of structures guaranteeing law and order rather than the kind of fragmentation of State authority seen in civil wars, where clearly identified military or paramilitary rebels fight either to strengthen their own position within the State or to break away from it.

Thirdly, there is the functional aspect, namely the absence of bodies capable, on the one hand, of representing the State at the international level and, on the other, of being influenced by the outside world. Either no institution exists which has the authority to negotiate, represent and enforce or, if one does, it is wholly unreliable, typically acting as “statesman by day and bandit by night”.

From a legal point of view, it could be said that the “failed State” is one which, though retaining legal capacity, has for all practical purposes lost the ability to exercise it. A key element in this respect is the fact that there is no body which can commit the State in an effective and legally binding way, for example, by concluding an agreement.

Let us test the above elements against the situation in Greece at the moment.

Does Greece retain sovereignty over its territory? Greece spends more than 2% of its GDP on military expenditure, yet it is unable to patrol the Aegean, in the short-distance crossings between Turkey and the Greek islands that migrants use to come over. NATO and EU’s Frontex is now tasked with securing the sea border. It is unable to patrol its land borders to prevent people smugglers operating, and is absent from the northern border with Macedonia (Idomeni) where there are now daily clashes between stranded people and the Macedonian forces. Yesterday Macedonian police is alleged to have crossed the border and fired upon migrants on the Greek side, sending rubber bullets and tear-gas into the Idomeni camp, which is well within Greek territory.

Is there a collapse of internal law and order? With courts frequently closed due to strikes by judicial staff and/or lawyers there is a significant problem with the administration of justice. Roads are frequently blocked, first by striking farmers, then by migrants. There are violent scenes between police and residents, migrants and police, rival political factions. There is a sense of lawlessness and desperation, especially in areas where welcome centres for refugees are being built.

Finally, is the state adequately represented? Can it conclude and enforce agreements? This is perhaps the area of greatest weakness. If anything Greece in the crisis years has proved an intransigent partner to its creditors. It is even more so now. Mr Tsipras and Mr Kammenos have betrayed every single electoral promise they ever made to the Greek people. They are no better with their promises to foreigners. They are insincere in their dealings with the country’s partners and creditors, discussing on the one hand, denouncing them as occupiers on the other. The latest farcical episode with Tsipras’ insurrection against the IMF proves beyond any reasonable doubt that there is no genuine negotiation going on. It is games, political subterfuge and personal interests.

What is the conclusion? Is Greece a failed state? Not just yet, but the continuation of the current course, and the current government is charting a path to failure. As Syriza’s own ministers proclaim: There is worse to come.

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@iGlinavos