Tommy McKearney examines the connection between sovereign debt and aggressive great power strategies. This article first appeared in Socialist Voice March 2015. Tommy McKearney is a member of the Independent Workers Union and has been a long time Marxist activist, critic and writer.
The soap opera that surrounded SYRIZA’s limp attempt to negotiate with the vicious, agenda-driven European Union, led by the financial sector, has understandably captured huge attention during the recent past. As with all the best action within that genre, viewers were kept in mock suspense while the inevitable dénouement was played out.
Pundits spoke solemnly about the risk of Greece leaving the EU, of threats to financial stability, or a break-up of the euro zone. Meanwhile the new government in Athens stuck out its chest and talked of taking on the mighty German finance ministry and the other members of the Troika. That the drama ended for SYRIZA with a timid whimper rather than anything so unsettling as a bang was, unfortunately, all too predictable.
The new Greek prime minister, Aléxis Tsípras, may be a handsome and articulate addition on the European political stage but he is no Fidel Castro. His finance minister, Varoufákis, strikes a dashing pose as he tours the Continent’s capitals, but, photograph him as you may, he hasn’t the steel of a Che. Therein lies the essence of the Greek people’s disappointment. Not only did they need a determined and purposeful socialist government and instead got social democrats, but a hard-pressed population was allowed to believe that a different and better outcome was possible.
Not that any genuine socialist or working-class activist can be anything other than dismayed by what has happened. Many on the left throughout Europe greeted SYRIZA’s election victory with genuine enthusiasm. The Greek people had rejected a plundering, neo-liberal programme imposed on them by international financiers, and it appeared, from the newly elected government’s declarations, that someone, somewhere was finally prepared to reject the demands of rentier capitalism. That the initial rhetoric proved hollow is a set-back for all on the left, as early optimism (and not only in Greece) may well be replaced by disenchantment. How often - some may justifiably ask - can we raise expectations before people stop believing in the possibility of meaningful change?
It would be a mistake, nevertheless, to ascribe the failure of SYRIZA to personal inadequacies, betrayal, or lack of moral fibre. The Greek social democrats’ misfortune was to be bit players in a much greater game, and one in which their leadership mistakenly believed they could effect change while staying within the parameters of the present system. The response to this regrettable situation should not be the sterile cry of “We told you so” but to endeavour to promote a deeper understanding of what went wrong, and why.
Following the crisis in capitalism created by the economic crash of 2008, Europe’s ruling class and its vehicle of delivery, the European Union, is in no mood to endure any challenge to its authority or to tolerate developments that might undermine its power. Like a wounded beast, the ruling class is even more aggressive and dangerous than it was when feeling stronger.
The nature of its response to this present crisis is manifesting itself in two different but related theatres. One is being played out with the Greek government and people; the other is the ever more lethal and dangerous conflict raging in Donets and the wider Don Basin. While acting tough in the negotiations between Athens and the Troika, the EU and its allies are also pursuing their agenda in eastern Europe.
Following a well-practised routine, the western European media prepared the ground as they promoted a narrative asserting that Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, were intent on an aggressive policy of invasion and expansion. Old, crude anti-Soviet rhetoric was regurgitated. In February the second in command of NATO’s forces in Europe, General Adrian Bradshaw, told the Royal United Services Institute (the elite’s strategic think-tank in London) that NATO forces must prepare for a large-scale conventional assault by Russia on an eastern European member-state.¹ Shortly thereafter the British prime minister, David Cameron, announced that he is to send military personnel to Kiev to train the regime’s troops, and give additional funding to the BBC to “counteract Russian propaganda.”²
Ignored in the telling of this scaremongering and sabre-rattling was the fact that the EU and the United States had encouraged a coup against an elected government in Kiev, and supported its replacement with a regime that made no secret of its hostility to Moscow and to Russian-speaking Ukrainians. No mention either of NATO’s encroachment into an area of immense strategic sensitivity to a country that lost 26 million citizens within living memory. Donets is, after all, only a two-hour journey by car from the Russian city of Volgograd (or Stalingrad, as it was known when assaulted by Nazi Germany in 1942).
Deliberately concealed, moreover, is an underlying calculation being made by upper echelons of the dominant capitalist power-brokers in the United States and western Europe. Relentlessly pursuing, over the past few decades, a short-term neo-liberal policy of profit maximisation at all costs, they have caused their own manufacturing industries to re-establish themselves outside their home countries, often to the “BRIC” countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Inevitably this has led to a decline in their own productive capacity, forcing them to become ever more dependent on finance and services.
In the long run this creates a dilemma for the western powers, because economic history and experience clearly demonstrate that finance follows production, rather than the reverse. Inevitably this must mean a decline in their global hegemony—unless, that is, they can offset this trend by a related policy of;
(a) using debt to subdue some
(b) undermining any potential zone of economic competition among others.
Yet the ruling order in the West persists with this twin-track policy, with the obvious intention that debt burdens will crush, contain and confound the social-democratically inclined states of Europe while creating chaos elsewhere, preventing the emergence of a rival economic powerhouse.³ The cynical unifying calculation in this strategy is that, with the absence of an alternative economic bloc, the indebted have fewer options and the BRICs have fewer outlets. Those who believe they won the “Cold War” by threatening mutual self-destruction now seem to feel they can retain influence by a stratagem of “We’ll rule or we’ll wreck.”
And the evidence to substantiate this assertion? The proof lies in the absence of any other possible or plausible explanation for the behaviour of those world leaders who have imposed economic misery on vast sections of the European and American working class, while bringing bloody chaos to the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine. No rational market economist has demonstrated that austerity can achieve anything other than deflation and loss of production. No sane individual has ever argued that western intervention in North Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria or Russia can lead to anything other than world-engulfing catastrophe.
The adage that socialism is the only alternative to barbarism, or worse, has never held more validity than now.
1. Sam Jones, “NATO warned to prepare for move on territory,” Financial Times, 21 February 2015.
2. Chris Green, “British troops to ‘train soldiers in Ukraine’,” Independent (London), 24 February 2015.
3. For those who may argue that China disproves this contention it would be worth their while reading Martin Wolf’s article “How addiction to debt came even to China,” Financial Times (24 February 2015).