Learning from the Greek ‘Betrayal’

Europe’s defenders of neoliberal economics favoring the market interests of wealthy elites over the social needs of average people marshaled their forces to crush the Greek challenge to “austerity,” with Greek Prime Minister Tsipras betraying his supporters, John Pilger told Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Filmmaker and columnist John Pilger sees the capitulation of Greece’s Syriza leadership to German-led demands for more austerity on the Greek people in exchange for a new bank bailout as a “betrayal.”

Pilger, who spoke late last week with Pacifica’s Flashpoints host Dennis J Bernstein, also called the Greek situation a moment of bracing clarity for activists confronting the powerful political forces arrayed against popular movements..

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece's Syriza party. (Photo credit: FrangiscoDer)

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s Syriza party. (Photo credit: FrangiscoDer)

DB: What is your overview of what happened in Greece?

JP: Greece is important, obviously, for the Greek people, because they have suffered so much. But it’s also important for all of us because here was a government that promoted itself and was accepted, to a large degree, as different – dare I say radical – but different. It was going to take on these autocratic forces in Europe that have built this fortress of extreme capitalism. I repeat – extreme capitalism.

The neo-liberalism in the heart of the European Union is an extreme version. They were challenging that. They were saying, yes, we have debts, but the super wealthy in Greece incurred the debts. All of them were good neoliberals. The ordinary Greek taxpayer didn’t incur these debts and the debts of the Greek parliament are odious, illegitimate and illegal. This is not the Victorian times, or debtor prison times. The country is not going to be put in prison.

This is the platform that the Syriza government campaigned on. They not only campaigned on it, but then they held a referendum less than two weeks ago where a majority of the Greek people clearly voted against doing any kind of austerity deal. They’ve been betrayed. Lessons must be learned from this.

DB: What does this betrayal look like? It looked like a dramatic, profound and troubling flip-flop and the highest levels of Greece.

JP: I don’t like the word betrayal much, but there are some English words that are exactly right, and this word is exactly right for this because there is no doubt that twice – on January 25 [the Syriza election victory] and [in the July 5 referendum rejecting EU austerity demands] – the Greek people voted to not have this kind of draconian imposition on them. And their government, with this mandate, went in the opposite direction. They did it knowingly and willfully. That is betrayal.

Watching the news you can see a sense of disappointment and obvious betrayal. What many people expected the Greek government to do was repudiate this illegal and illegitimate and odious debt as Argentina did successfully – to get rid of it. The Greek people say, “We are not paying this debt, we didn’t incur these debts.” People made a lot of money from these debts.

In any case, the Greek debt is less than 30 percent of even what the German debt is, and they are the biggest creditors. We are having a coup d’état from the German money chieftains, which is basically what this is, a coup d’état against the people of Greece, not the government of Greece, because the government of Greece has complied.

People who care about this, progressive people, must learn from this. There was a lot of hope for the Greek government, but we had enough of hope. Barack Obama had hope coming out of his ears and it was fake. We’ve got to stop accepting these kinds of postmodern political organizations, which are basically affluent middle-class without any sense of real politics.

We must stop regarding them as in some way radical. Or we’ve got to make them radical. There are many lessons from this that must be learned. There are many lessons from the election of Barack Obama and the complete collapse of any real liberalism within the Democratic Party. But on this one, this is a striking lesson that must be learned.

DB: This looks like it was almost choreographed all the way through. I don’t want to get paranoid or conspiratorial but it happened in the open.

JP: Yes, it happened in the open. People tell leaders they elect to go off and be their champion in a dire situation like this. They give them not only the benefit of the doubt but also a lot of good faith, which is different than hope. That can be justified. It’s very complex. It is hard to get your head around what was really going on in these endless shuttle trips to Berlin and Brussels and all the rest of it.

To use plain language, the Greeks were being screwed. A lot of pirouetting was going on by Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister but they were being done over. At some point, Prime Minister Tsipras Sypris should have gone to the Greek people and said this is what’s happening to us. There’s a sense of this when he called the referendum. That’s the most shocking part of this, and it’s why I use the term betrayal. People thought he was saying, this is what is happening to us, what do you want us to do to go forward. They voted overwhelmingly for him to reject these so-called austerity measures, and he did the opposite.

I think it’s a growing up time as the political situation of our countries in the West is dire because there is no opposition and very little significant dissent. We need to look to Latin America to find imaginative politics, to find forms of radicalism, forms of change. But in the West – the U.S., Europe and elsewhere – that is not the case. We have single ideology systems with two factions, which has long been the case in the U.S., which has led the way.

It wasn’t always in Europe. After the war in Europe, the social democratic project was given life by the promise that World War II would not happen again. That promise has been betrayed. We’ve been distracted by identity politics, by issues that some people are important but really are distractions because this situation in Greece is the main game.

It’s about have a society where elderly people are now almost 50 percent in poverty as is now the case there. Of now having suicides among young people at such a horrifying level, as I read recently. Modestly paid people not having wages that bring them a decent standard of living. This is the main game. This is the fight. It’s about time those people who like to call themselves radical, left, progressive, whatever – they understand that. They must check the word hope out, and get on with real stuff.

DB: Can you talk about how identity politics has been used against the people?

JP: We think we live in an information age, but we actually live in a media age. They are different. So much of the media age is repetitive and manipulative and very powerful. Walk down any street and watch people transfixed by that thing in their hand. There’s a kind of digital slavery among people.

The media age plays itself through these devices, through all the forms of media that there is now. It appropriates noble causes, feminism, for one thing. Sometimes, I get the sense that so much of the issues of feminism are ruled from the media not from the streets and those women who bear the burden of inequality of working life and elsewhere, but from the media. The whole idea of identity politics, what matters, is ourselves, us, me, me, In the late 70s it was called me-ism. At least they called it me-ism then, and they don’t call it that now but that’s what it is.

I’m making a film at the moment. Part of the film is set in the Marshall Islands where the nuclear tests were conducted. On my way back from Honolulu, I picked up a magazine at the airport that said, “Have a bikini body.” I doubt that anybody on that magazine knows where Bikini was. The cover had a swimsuit on a very thin woman, showing off her bikini body. I have been interviewing people whose bikini bodies are lacking a thyroid gland.

The bikini was launched in honor of the atomic test in 1946. Who knows that? It’s important. That’s the connection. It was a women’s health magazine that was completely manipulative, with nonsense – articles about how to have a better orgasm, and how to eat carrots for your ears, all the usual stuff, stuffed with advertising, manipulative, with a bikini on the front.

DB: I’m remembering a man named Anthony Guarisco, one of the veterans ordered to watch those explosions after the war. He started a group that became the International Alliance of Atomic Veterans. He said the atomic vets of the U.S. and all the people who lived there were the “sacrificial lambs laid on the altar of the nuclear age.”

JP: They were used as guinea pigs, deliberately as guinea pigs. They were examined for many, many years, not treated, although a few were treated. But they were examined as guinea pigs. That’s where the nuclear age began, with the devastation of two Japanese cities. But in 1946, the big stuff was tested around Bikini through the Marshall Islands.

The issues don’t change. The contours may change a bit, but the distractions these days are everywhere. Bourgeois women who have absolutely everything they want, that is regarded in a lot of media as feminist, but it is not. It’s about privilege. That is a major distortion throughout the media.

Women who have been struggling against the most hideous inequalities, violence in the home and elsewhere, do not have this voice because they are outside the realm of me-ism. There are too many isms in this conversation. My most hated one is post-modernism, because I know what it means. Post-modernism means dampening down real politics, real change, and real radicalism. I think those people running Greece organized this betrayal by doing that.

DB: What do you hear about what the Greek peoples response may be?

JP: I think the people of Greece are stunned actually. They are stunned and becoming angry. In Athens, there is the first dig demonstration against Syriza, which is a tragedy, because that was their party. It is the beginning of getting wisdom. Spain and Italy are similar, and elsewhere, where there are tremendous grassroots movements. They will not be conned again. They will be a lot tougher on the people who go forward to represent them.

I hope that’s an optimistic view and that’s what comes from this. Europe isn’t about grim German bankers and Brussels bureaucrats. It is about a lot of young people who have good politics. They want to change the world and make things better and they are getting on with that.

DB: How did the press do on this one?

JP: The press did what they usually do. They haul out every clich̩ and jargon. Syriza was called hard left, radical, leftist. None of that has any meaning. None of them can explain the situation. There was some not bad reporting. But you must navigate through the Internet to find people who know what they are talking about. The mainstream Рwhat a misnomer, as so much is unreadable and unwatchable.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.  You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.

11 comments for “Learning from the Greek ‘Betrayal’

  1. July 25, 2015 at 02:22

    I’ve tried hard, as a non expert (in anything), to follow all of this. I lack an understanding (except in what I think you might call ‘macro’ sense) of economics and finance. But I pay attention to those who do, namely people like Leo Panitch. Real News Network has been talking to him over there about the crisis. He gets kind of jargony and assumes a leve of knowledge from others that I, for one, just don’t possess. I can tell you that his book, “the Making Of Global Capitalism,” co-written with Sam Gindin, that the entire Left (as far as I can tell) had nothing but praise for, was over my head. But I believe I took some things from it. And I’ve always liked Leo, maybe mainly because he’s such a friendly guy. He teaches in my home town of Toronto. Anyway, I’ve been relying on what he tells us. But not only what he tells us.

    He seemed to be saying that the Greek people didn’t, and don’t, see Alexis’s referendum as anything other than a means by which he might strengthen his bargaining power with the troika. I’d like to know whether that’s true. He seemed to suggest that even after the referendum, the Greek people support him and hold the troika responsible. I would like to know what the Greek people, speaking without interference from the stolen Greek media (the oligarchs) have to say. I have seen anger coming from the Greek people since the referendum and the subsequent capitulation (which Leo says was ‘not’ a capitulation) by Alexis. So is that anger anger at the troika or at Alexis? Panitch keeps falling back on polls showing that Greeks didn’t want to exit the Eurozone, which helps form part of his defense of Alexis. Again, What polls. He mentioned one poll in a recent discussion (part 3) with Sharmini (RNN), but couldn’t name the polling company. He simply insisted it was reputable. I’m sure it was. Still…

    Leo also compared the referendum and Alexis’s handling of it to bargaining by unions. He’s appealing to realpolik and suggests, in so many words, a pragmatic approach to fighting in the class war. I flash back to a book I read about Jean Chretien (“Double Vision” by Edward Greenspon and Anthony-Wilson Smith), in which is discussed Chretien’s famous pragmatism. As Donald Gutstein writes in his book, “Harperism,” neoliberalism, which came to Canada late (because of Trudeau, supposedly), was introduced by Brian Mulroney but really given a boost by Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. And pragmatic, not principled, politics. At the risk of being branded as one who has been damaged by religion, I believe in principles (and, incidentally, have never dogmatic about religion), I believe in principles. I take to heart Jesus’s admonition to his followers to let one’s ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and one’s ‘no’ mean ‘no’. That’s simple honesty. It doesn’t make the honest person ‘simple’, as in stupid. Worldly honesty is an entirely different thing, something that a Jean Chretien or Alexis Tsipras might embrace. One day their ‘yes’ is ‘yes’, but the next day their ‘yes’ means ‘no’.

    Just about everyone takes the easy way. People, even good people, have developed the habit of lying. They found that telling the truth was so much harder, decided to lie, developed the habit and never looked back. I find that telling the truth sometimes is hard, but not really – if you develop ‘that’ habit. But you won’t if you don’t believe in principles.

    Leo did offer that he thinks Alexis needs to communicate with the Greek people clearly. Okay. That’s what I’m talking about. (I found a lot in his discussions with Sharmini to be contradictory. But maybe it’s me.) Because, If it’s true that the Greek people have no desire to leave the Eurozone, then they need talking to. They need to be educated, because neoliberal capitalism is not compatible with democracy. Does anyone, anywhere on the whole Left, think that free trade agreements do ‘not’ transfer political power from the people to unelected corporations?

    We need some facts about what the Greek people think about the referendum and Alexis’s use of it. That would help us to better digest what some of the experts, like Leo and assorted members of Syriza, are saying about the referendum, the people’s reaction and the solutions going forward. In my opinion. But I do think that the Real News has been doing great work. Dimitri Lascaris has been great.

  2. Vincent L. Guarisco
    July 24, 2015 at 10:44

    Great Piece. In addition, I thank the author for mentioning (and quoting) my father, Anthony Guarisco, in his exquisite essay. Indeed, I was lucky to have wonderful parents. Both Anthony and Mary served a higher purpose in life by helping those in society who seemingly had no voice at all. If interested, here’s a tribute piece I published back in 2008. https://consortiumnews.com/2008/030608b.html

  3. paul wichmann
    July 22, 2015 at 03:18

    Tsipras betrayal? I don’t know. Though bad things had been said about him, I thought he was doing OK. Then the referendum, after which the Troika, by whatever mechanism, cut off the flow of Euros and set a deadline for Greek compliance / submission. Greek bankruptcy and leaving the Euro – with no script to replace it – had meant no food, no fuel and no medicine. People, in numbers, were going to die, and establishment Europe wasn’t going to give a hurl. And I don’t think protests from the citizens of the world were going to amount to much.
    Democracy was meaningless / inoperative here, and I’d rather accuse Tsipras of forced capitulation than betrayal.
    Any bailout of Greece had invited similar expectations from Italy, Portugal and Spain, and would have riled the citizens of the not-in-trouble European States. Yet this seems inadequate cause for establishment Europe’s utter intransigence and gratuitous cruelty.

    Greece has a debt of 350-400 billion Euros – Italy and Spain, inexplicably, own a disproportionate share of it. The derivatives tied to this sum is, at minimum, four times greater – and derivatives weigh on the debts of Italy and Spain as well. Greece is therefore a small domino. If it fails / goes bankrupt / exits the Euro, Italy and Spain necessarily follow. Along with the derivatives tied to them. The whole of Europe will be rolled up. There is little to fall back on: China is slowing and America’s economy is canned.
    I recommend this article
    from which I draw the following facts and conclusions:
    “JP Morgan held $63.7 trillion notional amount of derivatives, $40 trillion of which were various interest rate derivatives.”
    ” Deutsche Bank is reported to have about a $73 trillion derivatives book.” (their interest rate derivatives are assumed to be proportional)

    Psst – German GDP is a bit under 4 trillion, so the derivative exposure of Deutsche Bank (this not the German central bank) is 18 TIMES that of the German GDP. A one percent loss on that 73 trillion is one-sixth of a years’ German GDP – one hell of a bailout (bail-up). Extend this roil to the rest of the German… no, all, the western banks. ’08 is then a pothole compared to the cliff from which the world economy is poised to dive. And for me, this is a repeat of ’08 in that the die is cast, there is no way out. All the politicians and bureaucrats – those that are conscious – can do is delay the day of reckoning.

    This, then, is what Tsipras was up against – Heaven and Hell bent on keeping Greece in a agonized state of suspended animation, or better, waste.

    • July 25, 2015 at 02:34

      Yes, but. Alexis did not have to hold a referendum, especially if (as some suggest; we need to find out) he expected a ‘yes’ outcome and had no intention of honoring a ‘no’ outcome. Even setting aside that rumour, Alexis, by holding a referendum, in which there were two possible outcomes, namely a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, implied thereby that he would accept a ‘no’ if it was forthcoming. Was there an agreement between Alexis and the Greek people that ‘no’ would only mean that Alexis’s hand, vis a vis the troika, would be strengthened? I’m not convinced of that. Did the Greek people misunderstand the referendum? In any case, I’m not convinced that Alexis’s, and Yannis’s, referendum amounted to a ‘cruel’ lie. Alexis would have easily avoided that accusation (levelled by many) had he communicated clearly with the Greek people. That would have also meant having a different referendum question to, namely something along the lines of “Your ‘no’ will only strengthen my hand going into negotiations. It will not guarantee that negotiations will succeed and it will not be a no to the Eurozone.” To my simple eyes, Alexis’s referendum and subsequent capitulation (or whatever you want to call it) were cruel and unforgivable.

      • July 25, 2015 at 04:33

        I meant to say, above, that I’m not convinced that Alexis’s and Yannis’s referendum didn’t amount to a cruel lie to the Greek people.

  4. zman
    July 21, 2015 at 19:12

    Tsipras has burned his bridges. What happened in the States with Obama was bad enough, but this, after a referendum, is disgusting. I don’t know if this was a set-up deal or not. There are many different ways to twist arms and it’s difficult to tell if this was the end game from the get-go or not. An example of arm twisting that Americans witnessed, but barely remembered by anyone, is what happened to Reagan. I remember clearly that he absolutely refused to have G Bush on his ticket. But, if you were watching the repub primary when Reagan won, you saw him leave the stage and go into a back room. When he came out, he did a 180 degree turn around and announced G bush would be his running mate. What happened? Did he get to see the dirt gathered about his life that was embarrassing, that he was told would come out or was he threatened by Bushes buddies in the CIA? What? Did the same happen to Tspiras? Did he have the same thing happen to him as Perot, where his family was threatened? The only one who knows is Tspiras. Nothing is beyond these money mongering bankers and their ilk. The European bankers had better remember what the French did when they were in dire straits and were told to eat cake.

  5. leon anderson
    July 21, 2015 at 16:36

    Alexis Tsipras stole a page from Obama and it worked again. He got elected and ignored his campaign promises. What’s a voter to do?

  6. Mark
    July 21, 2015 at 12:20

    That was a pleasure for me to read as I get the sense that eventually there will be no argument for the establishment to hide behind.

    It is unfortunate that the more people the system rolls over and squashes, the sooner we will all come out of the either and stand up for the rights of all. I wish education and the sharing of knowledge would allow people to see before it happens to them or others they care about but people are too distracted with the “me” and not concerned with the “we” — we have been conditioned and indoctrinated this way by the establishment controlled media — with beliefs and laws that wrongly put all responsibility for any individuals opportunities on the individual themself — this is absurd when there are 7 billion people on earth and maybe only 1 billion are truly in a position to make meaningful choices for bettering their lot — which in the present system within a finite world, bettering one’s lot always comes at the expense of someone else or someone else’s opportunity.

    Economic opportunities are controlled by laws and practices in the system, including those laws that are not enforced when it comes to the banks and others. Enslavement capitalism will eventually come to end, it is working for a lesser percentage of the world’s population as each and every day goes by.

    The human race can do better once we understand who and what our enemy is. We should not fear change and because the system is not working and headed for true calamity, we should be embracing these changes some of which are inevitable — and if we all can help it along we can get to a different reality that much sooner…

  7. Abe
    July 21, 2015 at 11:41

    Guilt and fostering of guilt feelings in a person or entire nations is one of the deadliest ways churches and bad political leaders have found to manipulate their people. The guilt becomes an irrational fear of punishment. The Greek people are indeed being punished for sins they are innocent of. No French banker, no Goldman Sachs banker, no French IMF Director General Lagarde goes to jail for their role in the crisis. Mario Draghi, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is treated as a hero when he precipitates the present phase of Greek crisis on February 11 when he announced he would stop accepting Greek state bonds as collateral for ECB credits, precipitating the crisis that Varoufakis and Tsipras have used to betray their people.

    The perfidy was for Tsipras to say “yes” to the Troika four days after Greek voters said a clear “no” to more Troika austerity.

    Greeks, especially before their politicians and oligarchs lured them into the EU and then the Euro, were, and to a great extent as I can judge still are, wonderful, warm, calm people. They are social and enjoy what is good in life–good food with good company and good music and dance. That goodness is being destroyed by people who feel threatened by it.

    Through what is clearly a long-planned operation of betrayal of the Greek people from the inside by Greek oligarchs and their political hangers-on such as Varoufakis, Tsipras and now oligarch Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos, and from the outside interests behind the Troika, Greek people face the temptation of the next sequence in the guilt cycle—going from fear of punishment to a growing desire for revenge on those they believe did this all to them. God forbid if that stage now comes. Revenge is always self-destructive, no matter who it targets. Only by realizing there is no guilt, but rather criminal actions to destroy the Greek people will Greeks find the inner strength to do the good and resolve the crisis. The alternative is murder and suicide, and that we have had enough of.

    Greek Guilt and Syriza Perfidy
    By F. William Engdahl

  8. Brendan
    July 21, 2015 at 11:22

    More from John Pilger on Greece here:

    “Alexis Tsipras: Latest so-called ‘Leftist’ to sell-out to the bankers” by Neil Clark

  9. Brendan
    July 21, 2015 at 11:14

    It’s an understatement to describe the Syriza leader Tsipras’s capitulation as a betrayal. That makes it sound like he only broke some election promise, which is what politicians do in every country.

    A better word would be ‘treason’ because Tsipras sold out Greece’s sovereignty by passing control of the country from its own citizens on to outside financial institutions.

    The negotiating position of Tsipras and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was always extremely weak because they had no Plan B ready for when the other side refused to compromise. Even worse, they let everyone know that they had no intention of even considering the only realistic Plan B. That alternative was the re-introduction of the Drachma to replace the Euros that the creditors refused to make available, even for successful Greek businesses.

    Since before he was appointed finance minister, Varoufakis presented himself as an expert in game theory, and therefore in negotiating. He expressed the certainty that the other side would have to make major concessions because they had too much to lose by not finding a solution.

    Well guess what? They knew that Greece needed them much more than they needed Greece, because of the Syriza leadership’s unconditional commitment to the Euro. They were also determined to prevent the precedent of people democraticaly deciding their own destiny. “Elections change nothing” as Varoufakis was told by his German counterpart Wolfgang Schaueble.

    It was clear that Varoufakis’s bluff had been called when Schaueble even recommended a five year Greek exit from the Euro.

    If Greece had instead returned to the Drachma and defaulted on its debts, that would have caused a lot of disruption in the short term for Greek people and businesses. But Greece could have at least started to build a functioning economy, helped by an immediate boost in exports and tourism due to a weak Drachma. That would be far better than the state of servitude that Greeks now face for a generation if they don’t reject the demands to pay off unsustainable debts.

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