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Costos Panayotakis: Movement united in the streets but divided on how to take power

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Greece, Prime Minister Papandreou is about to step down, and in all likelihood his successor will be the former vice president of the European Central Bank Lucas Papademos. But whoever is the new prime minister and whatever the new government of Greece looks like, one thing’s for sure: if it’s up to Europe’s bankers and Europe’s political leaders, it will be the Greek people that will pay for this crisis. There seems to be not much debate at those levels about the kind of austerity they want to see. Of course, the Greek people may have something else to say about all of this. Now joining us to give us his take on the current situation in Greece is Costas Panayotakis. He’s a sociology professor at the New York City College of Technology at CUNY and author of the recently released book Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy. He joins us now from New York. Thanks for joining us, Costas.


JAY: So, first, what’s happening most recently? And then talk a bit about how the movement’s responding to this.

PANAYOTAKIS: Well, this austerity program has been going on in Greece for 18 months. The effects have been devastating on ordinary Greeks. So over time the resistance has escalated, and it weakened the socialist government, and because of that, the prime minister increasingly had trouble passing through the new waves of austerity measures through the Parliament. And that’s why he announced the referendum, which enraged the European leaders. And he–and there was also a rebellion between within his party, and he had to call it off. And now there is negotiation for a new coalition government with the conservatives that is designed to basically push through the latest European agreement that involves–that would commit Greece to more than a decade of harsh austerity measures. And the express function of this coalition [incompr.] the formation of this coalition government is not to ask Greek people, which, according to polls, are opposed to this agreement. And there is some difficulty in agreeing on the government. Part of that has to do with how long the government is going to last, and part of that has to do with the fact that the conservative party is now facing an internal rebellion, because all these months, the conservatives presented themselves as being opposed to the austerity measures, and now they’re making a sharp about-turn, and a big part of their base is very upset about that.

JAY: So the new leader or new prime minister is likely to be this former banker, which means there’ll be now, like, direct control by the banks without even politicians in between the rule. How is the movement going to respond to this? And what are they calling for?

PANAYOTAKIS: Well, I think the movement is going to continue. Over the months what has happened is that the general public has been disenchanted with these policies. Originally people were willing to give the new socialist government at the time the benefit of the doubt. People were shocked by the magnitude of the crisis. But over time you see the escalation of resistance taking a variety of forms–general strikes, occupations of public space, and including–you know, last summer there was an Occupy movement in Athens and around the country with people taking to the central squares. It was in many ways a precursor to the Occupy movement in the United States. So things are getting so bad that, you know, the resistance is bound to increase.

JAY: What are the demands that are emerging? I know there was some debate in the movement itself, in the oppositional movement, about whether to call for just a straightforward default on the debt or not, whether to get out of the euro or not. Where are people at, people that are involved in the oppositional movement on the streets and such?

PANAYOTAKIS: Yeah, I think there is a division even within the anti-austerity camp as to whether default and exiting the eurozone would be the best course of action. There is a side that says that, you know, this is what Greece should do, and they cite the example of Argentina ten years ago, when Argentina basically defaulted and unpegged its currency from the US dollar. It faced very drastic sort of economic problems and depression for a short period of time, but then it sort of recovered swiftly afterwards. But then there is another side that argues that the Greek economy is not really comparable to Argentinian economy and that the best course of action would try to sort of work within Europe and try to create an anti-austerity from the European across the continent [sic]. I mean, from my sort of point of view, without necessarily wanting to argue that one side is, you know, correct and the other is wrong, I think at the very least it can be said that Greece does have leverage over Europe, Greece. And we see that each time there is a political crisis in Greece, there is big turmoil, great turmoil around Europe and around the world financial markets. And Europe has shown that they are willing to blackmail Greece and basically say, either you do what we ask you to do, or we are going to eject you out of the eurozone. And I’m not convinced that they could easily do that. And I think what Greece would need, in my view, is a government that has behind it a strong anti-austerity movement that would basically try to call Europe’s bluff and basically just go–should have come out and say these policies are not working, these policies are making the crisis worse. And this–we can see that, this failure of these policies, by the fact that now a second bailout is necessary. When the first bailout was negotiated 18 months ago, the expectation and the prediction of the European Union and the Greek government and the IMF was that Greece would be able to turn to the financial–international financial markets in 2012. This has not materialized, and it’s not surprising, because when the economy–the austerity measures throw the economy into a deep depression, of course revenues are going to collapse. So this strategy is not working for Greece. And it’s not working for Europe, because instead of containing the crisis around the Greek crisis, what we see is that the crisis is spreading around Europe and is deepening.

JAY: Is there any such party? You say there needs to be a party backed by a strong austerity movement that can call Europe’s bluff. Is there such party emerging? Or is there one that exists?

PANAYOTAKIS: Well, in Greece, I mean, the political force that would be likely to do that would have to come from the left. And Greece does have a relatively powerful left. But the problem is that the left in Greece is fragmented. The main segment of the Greek left is the Communist Party, and they have been basically segregating themselves from everybody else. And there is–the second-largest party of the left has called for–it’s called the coalition of radical left–has called for, you know, sort of a kind of–forming an anti-austerity front that would include all the parties of the left, as well as the many citizens and voters from the two major parties that are disenchanted with austerity. But these–even though they have called for that, this has not materialized yet. And that’s–and unless there is this kind of consolidated anti-austerity call in Greece, I think the anti-austerity–the anti-austerity argument will not be as compelling to people, because I think many Greeks, even though they’re very disenchanted with these policies and they don’t think they’re going to work, they also–many of them have a kind of fatalistic attitude that, you know, there is no real alternative.

JAY: I mean, it’s–kind of shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the mass movement, both whether it’s in Greece or other parts of Europe, or in fact in New York or North American cities, you know, sort of the lack of the organizational specific strength, specific, clear demands in a program. Lack of that helps give it size, because everyone can buy in, but on the other side of it, if you look at Greece, there doesn’t seem to be a united front developing with an electoral strategy that can actually take power in some way.

PANAYOTAKIS: Yeah. I think this is the challenge that is facing the Greek left. I mean, this is one of the, you know, most important crises in Greek society. In many ways, you know, the left is proving prophetic as to the state of the Greek economy. For years and years they were basically debunking in various ways the false sense of prosperity that existed in Greece, especially after its entry to the eurozone. But now [that] the crisis of–has struck, in many ways their predictions have come true. But you know, the challenge now is for them to actually present a compelling alternative, and without this, they will just continue being, you know, sort of relatively marginal players in the Greek political system.

JAY: Well, whether–do you see a vision that makes some sense to you? Like, is there a voice in Greece with an alternative vision that’s resonating with you?

PANAYOTAKIS: Well, I mean, I think this idea that political forces in Greece are suggesting, this anti-austerity front, does make a lot of sense to me. It is hard to–for this, you know, front to form without the cooperation of the Communist Party, which has at least around 10 percent of the vote. And so I think this program that has been articulated by various forces–I mean, I mentioned the coalition of the radical left, which includes one major party with roots in the European movement of eurocommunism in the–from the ’70s, along with other left-wing and ecological parties. So, I mean, there is this kind of microcosm of a sort of cross–a coalition across different political forces. But, you know, most of the ingredients of this coalition are relatively, you know, small, and the entire coalition, you know, is around 5 percent of the electorate, have the support of 5 percent of the electorate. So what we need is not just articulating a different point of view, although this is necessary, but also the different parties being willing to come together, join forces, and attain a kind of critical mass that would then sort of encourage many of the Greeks who have dropped out of the political system in disgust or in, you know, sort of desperation to basically think that, yes, an alternative is possible.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Costas.


JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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