As the Greek standoff with leaders of the Eurozone and the financial institutions that have been keeping the country afloat enters into a critical period, I am taken back almost 40 years ago to a different Greece: the proud country that existed before joining the European Union.
At the height of the Cold War in the late 1970s, my father was assigned to a tour abroad at Iraklion Air Force Base in Crete, Greece. Because housing at the military installation was limited when we arrived on the island, my parents rented an apartment on the second floor of a two-story concrete block building in a quaint little town nearby called Hersonissos.
Our new home overlooked a pasture with a whitewashed steeple church and a view of the azure beauty of the Mediterranean Ocean on its north side and a modest mountain range filled with olive groves and small towns on its south side.
I was about 5 years old and fondly recall playing with Greek friends as we explored ravines on the hillside behind our house, tromped across fields dotted with goats and cows, and marveled at the volcanic tremors that seemed to shift the craggy terrain in small but noticeable ways on a regular basis. In the universal language of children, my brother and I somehow found ways to communicate and even learned a smattering of Greek while imparting a smidgeon of English to our friends.
On warm weekends, my father would drive his young family to the bustling market in the city of Heraklion. We would make our way past colorful stalls filled with goods tended by industrious Greek shopkeepers skilled in the art of bargaining. After a morning of shopping, we would inevitably stop for an afternoon snack of souvlaki and fries washed down with Limonada, a lemon-flavored soda. We paid in drachmas.
When military housing became available, we eventually moved on base and, surrounded by other Americans, became cloistered in the rituals of US military life. Yet, that didn’t stop us from learning the rhythm of the island and the resilient nature of its people through frequent excursions.
One of my favorites was a visit to Knossos, where the ruins of an ancient and elaborate Minoan palace still stands. According to Greek mythology, the palace’s king, Minos, had a wife who had sex with a bull. The King built an elaborate labyrinth at the palace to house their half-human offspring. Called the Minotaur, the son possessed the head and tail of a bull but the body of a man and feasted off of young Athenian men and women who were offered as sacrifices.
It is now with a profound sense of irony, that I read that former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has labeled the international force driving the Troika’s demands for deeper cuts to and/or the privatization of critical public resources at fire sale prices, the “Global Minotaur.”
In this formulation, Greece’s monster is today’s global neoliberal enterprise, perhaps with a man’s body, but a head that looks something like the charging bull that anchors Wall Street in New York City. This minotaur wears a crisp suit, and eats the people of Greece alive, through ever-deepening austerity measures that cut into the nation’s families, body politic, and infrastructure.
Neoliberalism is a form of profit-at-all-costs capitalism that dissolves the distinction between markets and governments. Although traditional market capitalism eschews the role of government in regulating markets, its primary objective is the production of goods and services. In contrast, neoliberals views capital markets as the means and the ends for regulating every aspect of the human experience.
I have closely followed new developments regarding the crisis through the domestic and international media. Greeks are usually portrayed as either irresponsible scofflaws bent on getting more than they deserve and seeking to doom the European Union in the process, or else as courageous leaders taking on an unjust and immoral international financial regime. A common theme is that, contrary to dire warnings from some fiscal conservatives, the US could never suffer Greece’s fate because we control our own currency. While this is true, there are still important lessons that Americans could learn from this last week’s euro debacle.
We can now see clearly that Euoropean neoliberalism is openly hostile to popular democracy. When they learned of the pending Greek referendum allowing the people to weigh in on the direction of the negotiations, EU power brokers immediately dropped all pretense of negotiations and adopted a hard line stance that forced Greece to close its banks.
Articles recounting how Greece ended up in this standoff have also revealed that Greece’s European creditors sought to actively sidestep the country’s left-wing Syriza party with a campaign to rally “yes” voters, during the recent referendum.
In the US, those of us who have fought to defend social insurance programs against conservative political forces bent on using any excuse imaginable to either cut or privatize important public programs, are familiar with the same forces seeking to manipulate public opinion and politics to fit their economic objectives.
The Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s multi-million dollar efforts to drive public opinion about US debt, social security, and Medicare provides a prominent example. Yet to see it operationalized in a global context is to understand how the mobilization of bias is aligned to privilege financial elite at the expense of working people everywhere.
I last visited Greece in the summer of 1994. By this time, I was a political science graduate student studying abroad at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. At semester’s end, I purchased a Eurail pass and headed south.
After spending a week in Athens touring the sites and socializing, I hopped a ferry to Crete to retrace my childhood memories. When I reached Hersonissos, I was disconcerted to discover that the pristine, sleepy town I remembered had become an international tourist destination catering to British and German young adults looking for fun in the sun.
They filled restaurants, bars, nightclubs, moped rental shops, and youth hostels. Although I was one of those young people, I was saddened that I could find none of the geographical markers from my youth. The definition of progress meant a form of economic development that privileged financial gain over nature.
At that time, the European Union had not yet been fully implemented. The original currencies of today’s member nations were in effect, and travelers still had to go through checkpoints at each country’s borders.
And although the conveniences of traveling the Eurozone with seamless borders and a shared currency had not yet been established, people still made their way to the country in droves attracted to its beautiful coastlines, warm people, and ancient history and culture.
As Greece contemplates a future possibly outside of the EU, it only has to look toward its past to realize that it has survived as an independent nation before and that it can do so once again.