Greek tragedy

Yanis Varoufakis has a blog post And the Good Ship Greece Sails On in which he writes a fictional letter to an Italian colleague which will be used in a play this summer in Italy (in itself an interesting sub-plot!). He nails the social import of the current behavior of the elites in this new Depression:

While they are dithering, fiddling as Athens, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, Dublin are burning, our societies are descending into a mire in which hope vanishes, prospects are annihilated, life is cheapened, and where the only winners are the misanthropes, the ‘haters’, the seekers of scapegoats in the form of the ‘alien’, the Jew, the ‘different’, the ‘other’. As the lights are literally going out in my country, with families ‘choosing’ to have their electricity supply discontinued in order to put food on the dinner table, thugs ‘patrol’ the streets in search of the ‘enemy’. Nazi ideology is getting another chance, like hunger and dispossession, to infect, once again, our social fabric. And as our institutions, our trades unions, our cultural norms and organisations are turning into empty shells, little, if anything, stands in the way of the bigots, the racists, the exploiters of generalized pain and helplessness. Alas, the serpent’s egg is hatching again in Europe, and for the same reasons it did back then.

As with Krugman he finds the current crop of leaders of Europe to be recapitulating Woodrow Wilson:

When I was studying economics, as a young man, I recall I had serious difficulty understanding how it was that the governments of the mid-war era, from 1929 onwards, could have failed so consistently to arrest the economic malaise that led us, tragically, to the Second World War. I was reading about President Hoover’s commitment to reduce swiftly government expenditure, and to cut wages, while the US economy was imploding, and I just could not understand how he and his merry advisers could countenance such idiocy. I simply refused to believe that they were bad men wishing ill of their compatriots. But at the same time, I could not understand how they managed to convince themselves that their actions would bring relief to their suffering voters.

Well, many years passed since then and, at long last, I understood. Watching our government in Greece since the debt crisis erupted, observing Europe’s leadership dither and adopt one calamitous policy after the other, I finally got it. It is, come to think of it, not dissimilar to what happened in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Inside the Pentagon, smart generals understood perfectly well that America’s war in Vietnam could not be won. That sending more troops to fight in the jungles, unleashing more napalm bombs over Vietnamese towns, cranking up the war effort in general, was pointless. We know full well, courtesy of Daniel Ellsberg’s heroic efforts, that they knew individually, and in small groups, the error of their ways. And yet they found it impossible to coordinate with one another, to synthesise their views, so as to agree to a change of course. A change that would have saved thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives, not to mention a huge amount of money. Something similar is happening in Athens, in Rome, in Frankfurt, Berlin and Paris today. It is not that the members of our elites cannot see that Europe is like a train that is derailing in slow motion, with Greece being the first carriage to leave the tracks, Ireland and Portugal following, leading to the derailment of the larger carriages that follow: Spain, Italy, France and, finally, Germany itself. No, I believe that, in the eye of their mind, they can see it, at least as well as American generals could envision the final scenes in Saigon – with the helicopters airlifting the last Americans from the rooftop of the US Embassy. But, just like the American generals, they are finding it impossible to coordinate their viewpoints into a sensible policy response. None of them dare speak when they enter the conference rooms in which the important decisions are reached, lest they are accused of going ‘soft’ or of having ‘lost it’. So, they stay silent while Europe is burning, hoping against hope that the fire will put itself out, while knowing, in their heart of hearts, that it will do no such thing.

I am skeptical of the parallel that he gives to the military in the Vietnam war. The military was wed to its policy for good reason: their own funding was dependent on the manufacture of the fear of communist global domination. That this fear was manufactured by the politicians at the time, and the FBI and the CIA for their own funding purposes, is germane. Group think is a danger in any cohort. Thinking what you are paid to think is also a clear and present danger for any person.

“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair

When an enterprise depends for its livelihood on the fear of foes, as the military-security establishment does, the tendency to exaggeration, or outright manufacture of the fear is nearly assured. That there may be real foes, who have real negative intentions toward your group, country, institution is of course the reason that the military and intelligence have a purpose. But also, the reality should be considered as a limit to the ambitions of the spies and generals.

The politicians who we are speaking of, should be less wed to disastrous policies that are the product of only one faction- the bankers – of the elite. At least my perception is that in Europe, where electoral laws are more restrictive,  the politicians should be more able to steer an independent course from the bankers and extractive, rentier ponzi schemers, even if this no longer the case in the USA. In America, of course, the politicians ARE tied for their funding and power to the factions of the elite that are in favor of more austerity, more oligopoly, more rent extraction.

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