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..
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’Ã©tat from the German money chieftains, which is basically what this is, a coup d’Ã©tat 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 clichÃ© 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 – what a misnomer, as so much is unreadable and unwatchable.