Syriza’s John Milios on continuing the fight against austerity

Greece continues to be in flux. Two weeks ago, the Greek people voted over 60% No in a referendum on further austerity. One week ago, the Greek government agreed to a new Memorandum in principle after an all-night negotiation, described at times as “mental water-boarding”. Finally, last Wednesday, the first pieces of enabling legislation were passed by the Greek Parliament with a large rebellion of Syriza MPs voting against the laws.

Since then debate has raged in and outside Greece about the future of the Eurozone, the political strategy chosen by the Syriza leadership and the future of this first government of the left in post-crisis Europe. This interview with John Milios is an important intervention into this debate.

John Milios is a long-time activist and prominent figure within Syriza. Until early this year, he was the party’s chief economic advisor. He is also a member of Syriza’s central committee and was one of the 109 out of 201 members of the central committee who signed a letter published last week opposing the new Memorandum. He is a professor of political economy and the history of economic thought at the National Technical University of Athens.

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Austerity insanity: on the Greek proposals

Alternate title: #Gruster#$%k. My most recent piece from Ricochet on Syriza’s proposed austerity package.

There is acrimony and division in Athens, after the Syriza government submitted a revised list of proposals to its creditors. Despite a resounding victory in last Sunday’s referendum for Oxi — the “no” vote rejecting creditor demands that Greece fall in line — the government has presented austerity measures that exceed those previously on the table.

Despite dissension within the ranks of Syriza, the Greek parliament approved the government’s proposals in a bitter debate and vote that stretched into early Saturday morning.

The proposal now includes €13 billion in measures over three years rather than €8 billion over two. In short, it is a terrible austerity package. It enforces consecutive primary surpluses (calculated as Greece’s budget balance minus debt servicing payments) on a depressed economy, cutting expenditures on transfers like pensions and raising taxes.

In contrast to previous proposals and memorandums, the current proposal somewhat moderates the intense class bias of austerity measures. More of them are directed towards the rich in the form of small corporate tax hikes, a more progressive income tax, and cuts to spending on military contracts. All this, however, is far too little to talk about in any serious way. After so many “last chances” at the level of official negotiations, punitive austerity appears to be the edge of possibility in Europe today.

To say this shows the bounds of a neoliberal, technocratic Europe sounds a little hollow by now. Yes, a split has finally appeared between the creditors — France helped Greece draft its proposals, which Germany sees as insufficient — but if the political choice in Europe is between François Hollande’s technocrats and Angela Merkel’s, then it is the slimmest of margins to be toying with. (more…)

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The New Europeans: Like the Old on Greece

Poland’s man in Brussels, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, has truly settled into his shoes as a new member of the European elite. On Tuesday, he issued the stern warning: “Our inability to find agreement may lead to the bankruptcy of Greece and the insolvency of its banking system. And for sure, it will be most painful for the Greek people.”

Such threats are common currency among Euro-elites. Tusk shows just how well the Polish political class, alongside those of the other Eastern European countries, has been integrated into the power structures and ideology of neoliberal Europe.

At home, the Polish Prime Minister as well as her Minister of European Affairs have also derided Syriza as populist and dismissed its appeals to democracy. They echo an increasingly integrated elite across all of Europe that prizes technocracy over democracy, has learned to play divide and conquer at home and is ready to use the language of the Mafioso when it comes to anyone not playing by the rules. (more…)

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Oxi: a political opening amid economic suffocation

This week has been a taste of what the economy would look like with a real rupture with the Eurozone: uncertainty, elite blackmail, banks teetering on the brink and the start of rationing. That the mobilization of Syriza and the left outside it has overcome this and made Oxi a possibility is impressive. Greece and its economy can expect no miracles either way Sunday’s vote goes and for quite some time afterwards, but they deserve full international solidarity.

And so on the eve of the Greek referendum, with the streets of Athens still buzzing from Friday night’s enormous Oxi!/No! rally in Syntagma Square, I’ve collected and parsed some of my notes on Greece from afar. A text on where things stand is first, then some notes on how things came to be for those not keeping close track the past few months.

Where things stand

Five months of torturous, fruitless negotiations came to a head last week when the more-or-less polite dance around the table in Brussels abruptly broke down. Whether this was a costly demobilization or a calculated strategy to demonstrate the intransigence of the Institutions doesn’t quite matter at this point. When Alexis Tspiras called a referendum on a take-it-or-leave-it offer last Friday, he precipitated a political rupture, which soon started to foreshadow the economic rupture that Greece leaving or being pushed out of the Euro would bring.

(more…)

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Europe ready to kill Greece to keep TINA alive

My latest piece on Greece was published yesterday at Ricochet. In short, Europe and the IMF’s message that ‘there still is no alternative’ proves that objective of punitive austerity is political, not economic. Here it is in full:

The project’s aim is to make an example of Greece and solidify austerity as the only option within a Europe united by elite interests. Emergency summits, duelling proposals, trickles of banking system support and stern warnings create an economic veneer to paper over ultimately political aims.

Take the latest “compromise” proposal made yesterday by Greece’s ruling party Syriza. It offers a whopping additional €8 billion in austerity measures over the next year and a half. These measures amount to 1.5 per cent of GDP in 2015 and nearly 3 per cent of GDP in 2016. Rather than a compact for growth, or even stability, Europe has squeezed out yet more painful austerity that will make it much harder for Greece to escape its 21st-century Great Depression.

It is “not the right moment” to discuss debt relief, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the EU Commission, was quoted saying, despite the increasing concessions. This is the political, not economic, function of the Greek debt. It’s not the right moment economically to discuss the debt because Greece has long been insolvent, its debt repayments kept on track by drip-fed funding via subsequent agreements of austerity. Politically, it’s never the right moment, because each new agreement maintains austerity as the only possible option. (more…)

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Repeat after me: Alberta isn’t Greece

Last week it was Andrew Coyne; this week it’s Jack Mintz. Seems all the National Post’s favourite conservative commentators have suddenly decided to offer their Very Serious Advice™ to Alberta’s new government. While Coyne made a spurious comparison between raising the minimum wage and instituting a minimum income, Mintz outdoes him with an even more spurious comparison between Alberta and Greece.

Simply put, it is completely disingenuous to compare Greece to Alberta. Greece has seen its economy lose a quarter of its GDP since 2008 – a level of economic crisis unseen since the Great Depression. Unemployment has spiked to over 25%, youth unemployment is over 50% and poverty is widespread. While private creditors who participated in the pre-crisis boom have been bailed out, Greece has been forced into a vicious spiral of austerity driven by an unsustainable debt.

What’s the situation in Alberta? Alberta is still expected to grow, albeit very slowly, in 2015 according to most economists. Unemployment is up by 1% from a year ago, before the oil price crash. In part this is due to firms trying desperately to find efficiencies and cut costs to maintain profits. The picture is not rosy to be sure, but Alberta is in a wholly different category from Greece.

However, not only are Alberta’s problems completely unlike those of Greece, Mintz is wrong about Greece itself. Mintz joins the chorus of mystification that presents Greece as profligate rather than insolvent. It’s not the flow of “unsustainable deficits” but the stock of crushing debt and insolvency that is driving Greece deeper and deeper into crisis–one openly abetted by creditors hoping to make it an example for anyone else in Europe hoping to free themselves from the yoke of austerity. (more…)

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Austerity and economy in Quebec (transcript)

On last week’s podcast, I interviewed two researchers from Montreal’s IRIS, or the Insitut de recherché et d’informations socio-economiques, which has now been producing important progressive research for 15 years. This conversation with Julia Posca and Eve-Lyne Couturier is a great introduction to Quebec’s experience with austerity, the resource extraction agenda and popular organizing against both. Here’s the (almost) full transcript of that interview, edited for clarity and length.

Michal Rozworski: Why don’t we start with this little white book, “L’austerite au temps de l’abondance” that was recently published in Quebec. The title translates roughly as, “Austerity in a time of prosperity”. Julia, you wrote the title essay: what do you mean by this phrase?

Julia Posca: With the austerity agenda, citizens are asked to play their part and accept, for example, that we will all have to spend more to get public services and in order to have a more efficient state to get prosperity.

But for the past 30 years, this prosperity has only been for a small part of the population. We only see the incomes of the 1% that are rising. We see growth but we don’t see the whole population benefitting it.

Another way I’ve heard this put is “our austerity is their prosperity.” Who has benefitted in Quebec? What has happened to inequality?

Julia: There is this perception that Quebec is a poor province and that there are no rich people. What we’ve seen, however – and we’ve done our own research at IRIS on inequality – is the same trend as in the US and the rest of Canada: the same rise in the concentration of wealth. It’s been slower but it’s still there.

What struck me most is that the incomes of the majority of the population have tended to stagnate. Wage-earners have been abandoned. (more…)

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Austerity and economy in Quebec

Many in English Canada recognize the CCPA, but relatively few know of IRIS. Tucked away in an old Montreal school that has been repurposed as a home for a wide array of social enterprises and NGOs, IRIS, or the Insitut de recherché et d’informations socio-economiques, has now been producing important progressive research in French for 15 years. Sadly little known outside Quebec, IRIS and its researchers have explored everything from widening inequality to resource extraction to the damage that austerity has done to Quebec’s historically more robust welfare state.

This week, I sat down with Julia Posca and Eve-Lyne Couturier, two IRIS researchers. Our conversation spans everything from the austerity agenda in Quebec to the response from the province’s social movements to the renewed push towards resource extraction in the North. Julia and Eve-Lyne provide image of Quebec that has its particularities but is also coming to terms with many of the same issues facing the rest of Canada.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

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Canada’s Austerity Consensus

I have a longer piece out in Jacobin today on tracing the roots of today’s austerity consensus in Canada to the 1990s. In a way, it’s me coming to terms with the last twenty years of Canadian political economy.

How exceptional is Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his crop of Canadian conservatives? For not just large- and small-l liberals, but also some leftists, the last decade has been an aberration — particularly compared to the alleged synthesis between responsible government and economic expansion that occurred during the 1990s. Yet while both public and elite consensus has shifted even further to the right since the ’90s, too often Harper and the current Conservatives are portrayed as an anomaly rather than a continuation.

The ultimate irony of the last two decades of austerity may be that Harper’s Conservatives have been able to rest comfortably on their laurels because of previous attacks on working-class power and livelihoods, even temporarily increasing public spending to save a system in crisis.

While the 1980s had laid some of the groundwork in Canada, the Right’s counterrevolution was not as successful as it had been under Ronald Reagan in the US or Margaret Thatcher in the UK. It was up to Canada’s Liberal Party, the centrist, “natural governing party,” to cement it.

PM CHRETIEN AND DEPUTY PM GRAY APPLAUD FINANCE MINISTER MARTIN

In his 1994 budget speech, Paul Martin — then the finance minister, later the prime minister — encapsulated the Liberal message:

It is now time for government to get its fiscal house in order. For years, governments have been promising more than they can deliver, and delivering more than they can afford. That has to end. We are ending it . . . Over the next three years, for every one dollar raised in new revenues we will cut five dollars in government expenditures.

The subsequent austerity drive was one of the most severe in the Global North, and remains the foundation for the Right’s strategy of death by a thousand cuts.

Taking this longer view of the political economy of Canadian austerity — and the nature of Harper’s conservatism — isn’t just crucial to making sense of the present. It provides more stable ground to fight for a less austere future. (more…)

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Budget 2015: A tale of austerity past, present and future

I’ve been banging the drum of “slow-motion austerity” for a while and little in the 2015 federal budget suggests any change from the pattern of death by a thousand cuts. This budget is another is a series of unspectacular austerity budgets. Taken together, however, the cuts rapidly add up and budgets become more remarkable for the tenacity with they’ve made us pay to get to the present.

A long-term view focused on austerity is very different from much of the mainstream coverage of the budget with a tawdry focus on “goodies” for this group or that. While the media should be criticized for too easily swallowing government talking points and dividing people into opposed special interest groups, it would be naive to think of this budget outside the context of electioneering to carved up demographics. On the one hand, this reinforces a neoliberal narrative of each for themselves; on the other, this is also the reality of the on-going neoliberal transformation.

So while this budget may be more politicized than average in light of the fall election, I won’t write about goodies for groups. Instead, I’ll take the opposite tack: look at the election year budget as a continuity of slow-motion austerity past, present and future. (more…)

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