Every night this week I have been out in the bars and cafes of Thessaloniki, Greece talking to the people there. Every night the discussion has inevitably gone to the political situation. The people I converse with do not agree on Syriza. Many of them are undecided what to vote on the referendum. Others are just in a state of mixed disbelief and resignation that it has gotten this far. As is completely normal in Greek discussions, they can be quite vociferous in their disagreement. But almost every point of view I have heard has a single thing in common: A sense that the Troika is out to get them.
This is not a new feeling. It is not something that has come into existence with Syriza’s victory. Last year at a hostel café in Athens, I asked the bartender, a competent trilingual woman in her mid-twenties with a masters in Psychology who was working for a minimum wage part time job, what she thought about the situation and was told that “We are bankrupt, our politicians just won’t admit it.” No one in Greece thought Austerity was working last year. For some insane reason, however, the world’s economic elite did seem to believe that things were better. The protests of 2011 had died down. The complaints were less loud. The economy was beginning to grow. Tourism had had a banner year.
If they had bothered going to Greece and talking to the people there they would have realized just how absurd this feeling was. Youth unemployment was catastrophic. Youth underemployment was worse. The few people who did have jobs in my age range were working in tourism, and almost all had full degrees and multiple languages like the aforementioned hostel café worker. Worse, a huge number of young degree holders had already left the country. Rather than things being better in 2014, they were just resigned and depressed.
Then came Syriza. I wasn’t in Greece for the election, but I could see its excitement all throughout my facebook feeds. This was something new. This was hope. Here was a party saying that if they just talked straight to the Troika (that is the main creditors of Greece), then they would see reason. Austerity hadn’t worked in the Greek case, it was time to change course. Surely the creditors would realize that debt relief and allowing the greeks to try other economic models would be the best way to get their money back in the long run!
This elation did not last very long. Within weeks of Varoufakis’ initial tour of the European institutions it was quite clear that there would be no agreement. Syriza had misjudged. They had been too naïve. The facebook statuses turned acrimonious very quickly. But the question in the arguments wasn’t whether Syriza was right that Austerity was not working, anyone looking around in a greek city could tell you that austerity wasn’t working. Rather the question was whether Syriza were too amateur and whether they were making things worse by sticking to their principles so aggressively. That is still the discussion the Greeks around me are having this week as we have reached a crisis point and the negotiations have ended.
This is their internal discussion, and while I tend to sympathize more with Syriza than not, it is not my place to weigh in on what the Greeks should do on Sunday. I am more interested in talking about the other side of the issue, which is that this conflict cannot be blamed primarily on the Greeks and that successful nations of the western world all need to realize that their success has come at the expense of countries such as Greece for far too long.
The history of western colonialism in Greece is a long one, quite possibly the longest one depending on how you define the term. It begins with a Venetian and Frankish military adventure in 1204 CE that destroyed the center of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Fourth Crusade was intended to be an assault on Palestine, but got sidetracked by economic interests into attacking Constantinople (modern Istanbul), which was at the time the largest Greek speaking city in the world. In the aftermath of the successful assault, the region that is now modern Greece was partitioned into several western polities. For this discussion, the most interesting of these is the Venetian holdings. Where the Franks tended to move in and become local feudal lords, the Venetians set up the economies of their new holdings to directly benefit the Italian city state. Venetian Greece was used as a source of raw materials for Venetian products. These products could then be sold for significantly more than their material value, often back to the people who had supplied the raw materials. This is a classic colonialist model and also represents to a great degree the way the Greek economy has worked for the subsequent history of the country. Greek Olives are even now made into Italian Olive Oil.
I won’t go into the rest of Greece’s medieval and early modern history, as it would be a bit more of a book than anyone wants to read, but the region repeatedly became a battle ground and a pawn between western powers and the Ottoman Empire over the course of the next centuries. The most famous consequence of this is the destruction of the Parthenon in Athens in 1687 by the artillery of the Venetian general Francesco Morosini.
The era which I am more interested in from a modern perspective is the 19th and 20th Centuries in which the Modern Greek state has existed. From the beginning of its existence the Modern Greek state has not been allowed to be an independent nation by western powers. In the London Conference of 1832 England, France, and Russia decided to appoint the Bavarian Prince Otto of Wittelsbach as the new king of the now independent Greece. This intervention on the part of great powers (all of whom were owed money by the Greek revolutionaries) ended the First Hellenic Republic and began the Kingdom of Greece. From its very beginning the modern Greek state has seen its development meddled with by larger and richer countries in Europe.
Of course, the European powers are not the only countries to have treated Greece as a pawn for their foreign policy. The country that has the longest modern track record of treating Greece as a geopolitical tool is of course the United States. In the Greek Civil war of 1945-1949, first Britain and then the United States actively bankrolled the right wing anti-communist forces. The US intervention was decisive in stopping communism, though I cannot believe that was worth the human cost. This began an era of US involvement in Greece that led to a military dictatorship in the 1960s and 70s. At the same time that the Marshall plan was spending money to rebuild Germany, the same exact foreign policy spent money that prolonged war in Greece and actively stifled democratic government.
The point I am making here is that Greece has rarely been allowed to develop on its own. It has been treated very similarly to how Latin American countries and other colonized countries have been treated for centuries. There has been a long tradition of more rich and powerful countries feeling that their power and interests justify them telling the Greeks what they should be able to do as a country.
The current situation here on the part of the economic elite is a continuation of that sort of thinking that treats the Greeks as an effectively incompetent people while ignoring the role the more powerful countries played in this mess. In the 2000s, the country of Greece began borrowing far more than it could afford to repay on the assumption that the growth from the Euro would be continuous. This heady experience of the Euro led a population that had been fiscally conservative to take mortgages on homes, build new buildings that would never have been built in the 1990s, buy cars on auto loans, and to host the Olympic Games. In other words, the spirit of the early Euro days led them to act exactly like Americans or western Europeans.
Of course, when the bubble burst in 2008, the world decided that people who took loans must be punished, but the banks who decided to give the unwise loans should be protected. In the US this took the form of the bailout, in Greece this took the form of massive loans attached to austerity and debt restructuring so that the Troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank took over the debt that had previously been heavily private. Greece has been given a great deal of money in the last years, but the vast majority has gone right back into the hands of the banks that had made the unwise loans. In return for not defaulting, Greece had to cut government spending so drastically that they collapsed their economy. Basically, Greece’s population was on the hook for a bail out of the banks. We have across the world prioritized capitalist institutions more than we have prioritized populations of people.
The way this has been structured is a direct return to the sorts of thinking that led to the military Junta. The Troika treats Greece like teenagers who need to be taught not to spend more than they consume. They assign the blame to the Greeks, rather than splitting the blame between the Greeks and the capitalist ideology that caused the Greeks to behave in such a foolish way when it seemed like there would be eternal growth. They certainly would rather blame the Greeks than their own policy of austerity.
Since Syriza has come into power the Troika has begun a form of economic gunboat diplomacy. Rather than sending the British navy to blockade the port of Athens (as happened at one point in the 19th century), they have blockaded the money flow to the Greek banks. Of course, if you want a breakdown of the numerical and policy wonk details of the current situation, an archaeologist spending the summer in Greece is not the best person to talk to. There are more detailed articles by more knowledgeable people (some by Nobel laureates) on exactly how the ECB and company have forced Greece’s economy to this point.
But where a historian and archaeologist can add something is to suggest that this is a direct continuation of the colonialist policies that have plagued Greece’s interactions with the west for the country’s entire history. When the Troika accuses Syriza of being “Amateur” they are continuing a long tradition of powerful and lucky countries dictating policy to less lucky and weaker countries.
This is justified by nationalist lies. The Greeks are portrayed as lazy, incapable, and so on. They are penalized for not being perfect, when we ignore that we also are not perfect. We proscribe policies that we think worked for one western country or another, and then we blame the Greeks when something goes wrong with those policies.
If you listen to the rhetoric of the anti-Greece articles (basically anything I read on Forbes or from the Economicist, for example) there is something fundamentally wrong with the Greeks that they don’t act like good little Germans. This is western cultural imperialism at its worse.
If the Greeks do not trust banks (and they don’t), then it is because they have a long history of being abused by banks and of banks failing, often due to the actions of larger powers. If they don’t trust politicians and think they are corrupt and stupid, then it is because they have a long history of having puppet governments and corrupt governments that were actively put in place by the western powers. Every time they have made the mistake of trusting governments and banks in the last century or so they have regretted it. Why should this time be different? Why should they possibly trust that the unelected European economic elites actually have their best interests in mind and should be trusted?
If we really want to see a strong Greece, rather than a destroyed Greece, then the way that this is accomplished must start first and foremost by supporting their democratic decisions. The way in which the Troika has escalated this whole nightmare since February is unacceptable. The constant cries of amateur at Syriza are designed to absolve the Troika of blame from the way this has gone.
I don’t see Syriza as the escalatory side in this debate. I see escalations coming primarily from the side of the Troika, which holds all of the cards. The decision to allow the Greek banks to run out of money is one that I read as designed to punish the socialist government for attempting to follow its democratic mandate to say no to austerity. The escalation of the meaning of this referendum by the heads of Europe from a referendum on the austerity deal to a referendum on the Euro vs Drachma is a cold blooded act of demagoguery designed to head off a conversation about whether austerity and the euro are fundamentally connected things. The Greeks want to stay in the Euro. Syriza wants to stay in the Euro. This is blatantly clear. But neither can afford to do so if they have to continue the austerity policies forced upon them. The Greeks might well chose to accept more austerity next week, but the decision they are making is between accepting austerity and a change of tack.
Making the vote more than that is an attempt to not have a conversation about what it means to be in the EU or the Eurozone on a much larger scale than just the issues in Greece. The Greeks either are cowed and toe the line, or the Troika can pretend it was justified to kick them out. After all, if the Greeks vote to leave that is their problem… never mind that they won’t have actually voted to leave.
If the creditors of Greece really cared at all about the population of Greece, they could easily have worked with Syriza. The first start would be to scale back the proscriptions attached to their loans and to delay repayment and accumulation of interest. If they want Greece to come together and support its government and democracy and work to actively improve itself rather than avoid taxes and hide money, then they need to actually say that the Greeks are allowed to attempt their own solutions.
By not doing so, and instead trying to punish the socialist government, the Troika, and by extension the European Union, just becomes another foreign colonialist power telling the Greeks what to do.
For my part, I don’t want to try and say what the Greeks should do this week. It is not my place. All I can say is that their reaching this point is far more the fault of colonialism and globalized capitalism than it is truly a problem of their own making. They do not deserve this level of externally enforced misery. No one does.