Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth (2013)
I could start and end my commentary with this simple imperative: BUY THIS BOOK.
Economics was one subject about which I had little interest and a lot of hostility when forced to take it in college. The teacher tried his best, but trying to explain economic theory to a bunch of kids who have possibly never had any knowledge of how much money their parents make, spend, or what things cost is a rather hopeless proposition. At least for me, combined with minimal exposure to life long enough to seen the actual consequences of economic theory in policymaking and being able to see the short-term and long-term impact of such policies, made the content just too much of a word salad to be useful.
And the Weak Suffer What They Must: Europe’s crisis and America’s Economic Future by Yanis Varoufakis, (2016)
I am so ashamed to discover that I thought I was informed about things in the world but to my shock I learned, in the preface, that Greece had suffered a coup d’etat on April 21, 1967, and “neofascist colonels came to power” so the author, 6 years old, listed to German radio broadcast to find out news about Greece. And they had to hide under a blanket to do so because while it might have been neo as far as fascism goes, it was just as perilous and deadly as traditional fascism: listening to German radio broadcasts to learn about what was happening in Greece was “one of a long list of activities punishable by anything from harassment to torture.”
I was a child at the time, but still feel that somewhere along the lines of all the discussions of fascism I have read about in history that someone would have mentioned Greece. I had read and heard about the debt and enforced backwards neoliberal austerity the EU imposed on them and recognize that it is (a) stupid, (b) deadly, and (c) for the profiteering capitalist banksters benefit. The preface notes that the euro crisis started in Athens in 2010 triggered by debt woes. And now we have seen Puerto Rico dealing with the same issues, and I have been watching a video called “The End of Poverty” that has given me a completely different framework to understand the deliberate intention of the World Bank, IMF, and corporations with American government or CIA assistance, work to keep the undeveloped countries underdeveloped to be exploited for their natural resources and serfdom of their people.
And there are still long trails of the World Wars choking change and progress. WWI punished the Germans so severely, they were crippled by inflation and reparation demands, contributing to WWII. Apparently some of the reparations were due to Greece but not paid from WWII. So now that the banksters are also involved, the cry of “a debt is a debt” and thus no write off, or write down, or mortgage bailouts for U.S. homeowners, or student loan debt, and Puerto Rico, and the mandates of the World Bank that forced third world countries to take on debt and then suck all the wealth of the countries dry via extortionate interest payments, and refusing to modify UNPAYABLE debts in “biblical economics” forcing Greece (in 1953) — because the United States convened a conference in London to reduce German debt to other countries, including Greece, then meant that Greece and now Greek teenagers must live a “life of misery because of unpayable debts amassed by a previous generation.”
WWI also gave us A Peace to End All Peace (superb must read book) by dividing the Middle East up into fake countries without regard to the will of the people, the tribal nature of the people, and the significant religious differences that Westerners didn’t bother to try to understand.
A tale of two debts was turning into a morality play with no end. Europe is an ancient continent and our debts to each other stretch decades, centuries ans millennia into the past. Counting them vindictively, and pointing moralizing fingers at each other, was precisely what we did not need in the midst of an economic crisis in which large new debt, piled upon mountains of legacy liabilities, were a mere by-product.
Capitalism, lest we forget, flourished only AFTER DEBT WAS DEMORALIZED. [At least for corporations, individual people not so much]. Debt prisons had to be replaced by limited liability, and finance had to ride roughshod over any guilty feelings debtors were encumbered with, before “the rapid improvement of all instruments of production. . . [and] the immensely facilitated means of communication could draw “all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilizations” — to quote from non other than Karl Marx. (pp xviii-xix, footnote 2)
Chapter 5 has a discussion really pertinent in light of the recent shocking LEAVE vote for Britain to leave the EU. And it is also ironic because a major reason the Scotts voted to stay in the UK after so many years of wanting to be independent was because they wanted to be in the EU! Now it is only logical that they would want to leave the UK and stick with the EU since that promise was broken. And even more dramatic is the concept that Ireland might unify! In my lifetime I would never have dreamed that I would see the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the CIA and complicit presidents force regime change and do deals like Iran-Contra, interfere in Chile to implement neoliberal policies there, Dictate to countries (or try to) to force privatization of their nationalized resources for the profit of global multinationals.
Nope, we are not a just, well-intentioned, smart, or decent country and have not been for decades or longer. Absolutely for sure Nixon, plus Vietnam, but the shit really hit the fan with the long degrading slide of Reagan, Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Obama’s failure to actually commit to change blinded by neoliberalism and professionalism and meritocracy and belief in bipartisanship and the possibility that Congress would actually choose to govern.
And now, we face further decline with a possible Clinton the Second, or the end of the world as we know it if Republican presumptive candidate, that multiple-married, multiple bankruptcy, loser who has zero qualifications as a public servant, much less dog catcher, Trump actually gets to learn the nuclear codes. I am still choking to death on the fact that he is getting confidential briefings and has just to phone it in or open his mouth to get 24×7 news coverage AS IF ANYTHING HE SAYS IS WORTH SHIT. If the Republicans maintain control of Congress, we all better decide to develop skills to make shacks waterproof and hide from gangsters and banksters, and dumpster dive for food, because our choice with the two presumptive candidates is “half a loaf” at best, and shut up and die you lazy assholes on the other side.
I knew there was a lot of coverage of Greece and the “austerity crisis” but I had no clue why it was happening or why it mattered to us so significantly that our isolationist media even covered it some.
This book is a high-level explanation of the history of currency issues and war and the consequences of really bad decisions back to the end of WWI and especially WWII followed by the Republican resurgence that stopped New Deal policies in their tracks such that not even Democratic presidents could recover from their control. Not that Bill Clinton wanted to, being a neoliberal that killed welfare and did so much other damage.
I was dumbfounded to learn about what he called the “Nixon Shock” that involved his treasury secretary — John Connally — yes the man who was in the car when President Kennedy was assassinated. It’s weird to think of him as something other than frozen in time to that defining moment in American history.
President Nixon decided [at Conally’s urging] to make a startling announement on live television: the global monetary system, which America had designed and had been nuturing since the end of the war [WWII], was to be dismatled in one fell swoop. The calendar read Sunday, August 15, 1971. . . .
Washington was intent on pulling the plug from a global financial system that it had designed in 1944 and that it had been nurturing ever since. (p. 2)
Another name popped up that makes me weep for our country. Paul Volcker, who was Conally’s undersecretary at Treasury, has remained a huge force in our government up to at least 2011! 40 years of questionable influence. The Nixon Shock was the decision to take the US off the gold standard.
It is not entirely clear to me why that was a bad thing, it seems like it was inevitable, but further discussion in the book ties all these historical threads together that ends with the mess in the world currency and policies like the desire of some to return to the gold standard, which is realistically not possible. And I do not understand why it would help and not cause more harm because we have printed a whole lot money than we have gold to back it up.
Unfortunately this book is due back at the library so I will have to revisit when I have more time. It has good notes and has a fantastic breath of knowledge about things outside of US as well as in America. He does describe how the Euro came to be, and mentioned that originally France voted against Britain from being allowed to join the EU.
The shocking chapter 7 “Back to the Future” reminded me that I had heard talk about the rise of Nazi and authoritarian regimes taking over seats in parliaments and other governmental groups that you would have thought would never allow it with WWII still within living memory.
Every time I sat on the ministerial benches in Greece’s parliament, immediately opposite me sat the DEMOCRATICALLY elected THUGS of Nazi party Golden Dawn. . . .
If we didn’t have our own version of authoritarian fascist with massive willing followers, I would not have thought the Nazis would really have a chance to come back so soon. The author visited one of them, Kapnias, in 1991. When he went to his guest room, he found two books on his pillow.
One was entitled Memoirs of a Prime Minister. Its author: Adamantios Androutsopoulos, the last prime minister of the military dictatorship that had darkened my youth, a puppet appointed by Dimitrios Ioannidis, the brigadier who took the neofascist junta further into neo-Nazi territory after the student massacre of November 17, 1973.
The second book was a small leather-bound volume in an advanced state of disrepair. Incredulous even after I had read the title, Mein Kampf, I opened it. It was an original German edition, published somewhere in Germany in 1934. Bedtime material to shock the visiting leftie with, I surmised. Courtesy of a semi-illiterate farmer who, clearly, wanted to make a point. (p. 199)
Hitler was the author of the second book for those of you too young to know. He thought he was doing the will of God too.
“… I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator. In standing guard against the Jew I am defending the handiwork of the Lord.”
We Americans don’t have any international news to speak of, so it is no wonder that I never heard about the Golden Dawn or the Student Massacre. And that is one of the indicators that America as an entity is as narcissistic and psychopathic as The Donald is, and that certainly contributes to his popularity among stupid white people.
[Kapnias] was sent to Crete for “training” in the art of interrogation and countersubversion. It was there that Hans, his instructor, gave him the leather-bound copy of Mein Kampf, like preachers who hand out copies of the Bible to illiterate natives before moving on to proselytize others.
The Second World War ended but the conflict in Greece intensified as the country sank into the mire of a nightmarish civil war. . . .(p. 199)
Anyway, there is a bit of a complicated story behind the guy but basically Nazi covers a lot of ground. The punchline is that he was a menial laborer for a sort of nobleman and his daughter Georgia before going Nazi. Her father and husband were both killed by nationalists and partisans and Kapnias, now one of the gendarmerie, “was in a position to exact revenge on the upper class of his small, quasi-feudal universe. He approached Georgia with a proposal: ‘You marry me and I shall stop my ilk from ridding the land of you and your communist seed,’ referring to her two orphans.”
Alas, not long after their bleak wedding, Kapnias was dismissed from the brutal gendarmes for using excessive force during some interrogation — a little like being fired by Mephistopheles for excessive malice.His wrath and associated brutality then turned against his new wife, her seed, and the whole world. Thus Georgia bought her family’s survival at the price of a life of abuse, poverty, tears and terror under Kapnias’s permanently cruel regime. She was never to find respite until her death in 2012.
Back then I had assumed that figures like Kapnias were a dying breed whose like would fade from the land of our parents. It was not to be, as the sight of the Golden Dawn deputies luxuriating in the Athens Parliament House confirmed some year later. (p. 200)
As we know all too well, the world is once again plagued with authoritarians and theocrats and hatred for everyone and anyone. Women are truly suffering, like Georgia, when they seek protection of a man only to be abused by them. Rape in war is “normal” (read the definitive book by Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (first published 1973, extensive discussion on the impact of war on women), but nothing is ever done to help the women. In fact, in WWII, women who, out of self-defense, had sexual relations with Germans soldiers and officers, were shamed for being collaborators and had their hair shaved off so everyone would know.
He has an extensive discussion on the rise of authoritarianism, including the impact of an economic explosion, which he relates to 2008. National humiliation and defeat could also be considered a part of recent American experience, with the possible exception of Grenada, we have been humiliated by Vietnam, Iraq, and many other wars, somewhat ironically because they used the guerrilla techniques we invented against the British. We don’t know the languages, we don’t look like the people we are fighting, we don’t have the passion and intensity of the religious driving forces behind their goals. For us, it is all about oil and the sale and spending of a bloated massive military-industrial complex budget that serves no American when people are homeless, hungry, and destroyed by usurious interest on excessive debt just to maintain a minimal living.
Greece suffered comparable [to Germany in WWI] defeat and humiliation in 1922, at the hands of Mustafa Kemal and as a result of its own nationalist government’s hubris. The political instability that followed the military and economic catastrophe, in unison with POVERTY’S TRIUMPHANT INTENSIFICATION after the 1929 global crisis, gave rise to our own variety of fascism: the regime of Ioannis Metaxas installed by a coup on August 4, 1936.
Of course, none of this was out of the ordinary. Only a few days before Greece’s fascist regime was born, Spain was falling into the same crevasse with Generalissimo Franco’s assault on the Republicans. Italy had turned to fascism ten years earlier, under Mussolini, as had Portugal under Salazar. Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, the Baltic states all fell to some variety of the serpent. Even Britain had its brush with Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts, not to mention several royals of a pro-Nazi disposition. Today we tend to forget that the specter of fascism was haunting most of Europe well before Hitler’s first cannon shots, air raids and Panzer division advances kickstarted the Second World War. (pp. 200-201)
He then details that the “evidence is all around us” that we are looking at an increasing acceptance of authoritarian leaders — voted in by people who should know better! He returns to the Nazi wife-beater, Kapnias, ” a bitter angry perpetually seeking revenge on a world that never gave him a chance. Until, that is, the Gestapo offered him one; a chance that he grabbed with both hands and which he was savoring to the bitter end, surrounded by his innocent, unsuspecting goats.” (p. 205)
I would argue that he had a capacity to have a chance before the Nazi’s gave him a chance to be cruel and powerful, but his nature was not one of patriotism to die fighting the Nazis but was one of cowardice and a sense of entitlement to the nobility to whom he was bonded as a laborer.
In our long conversations, Kapnias appeared intoxicated with the power that his Nazi instructors had lent him. Attuned to his own empowerment from an alliance with the dark side, he reveled in the retreat from decency that was to mark his life thereafter.
“The Germans were above God,” he told me. “Unlike the Italians or our own mob, they could use any means to get the job done. Without wincing! With no fear! No passion!” “You had to see them with your own eyes.” “They were magnificent” was his last utterance on the matter, his face lit up like a Christmas tree, his heart filled with extra pleasure, from noticing that my stomach was turning with every one of his words.
Being handed that little leather-bound book, which Kapnias did not have the German to read, was like an induction into a European brotherhood: an evil one, undoubtedly, but one that was also vastly more technologically advanced than his own community, giving a marginalized, cowardly man like Kapnias a priceless sense of BELONGING TO SOME CIRCLE OF THE SELECT. A sense that can ELICIT A HIDEOUS OUTPOURING OF VIOLENT SENTIMENTS, WORDS, ACTS. (p. 205)
He describes the deterioration of Greece using migrant labor to build the stadia for the 2004 Olympics who then were suddenly unemployed and having hard times, serving to stoke nationalists to become anti-immigrant, actually joining with police to raid and destroy migrant neighborhoods. They didn’t stop there, they then began to go after “prostitutes, gays, lesbians, transsexuals and, of course, left-wing migrant-lovers.”
It was the financial interests that bankrupted Greece in 2009 and led to the 2010 bailout. The people were not bailed out, just like here, the banksters got the money and the people got “austerity” that demolished the Greek economy. Though we may avoid a Donald Trump presidency, the little Nazis of the authoritarian theocrats are dominating our State and local legislatures and Congress. They don’t need to be the top dog to keep us from having nice things like single-payer healthcare, free tuition, much less a universal basic income. They want to force birth on all sexually active women but definitely do not want to spend a dime to keep those kids alive much less educated. Social Darwinism that actually includes letting people die.
With the discussion he has about it is the weak suffering, I realized that is the key difference between republican/conservative/Xtians and Democrats, lefties, and definitely progressives. The right wants us all to fight like dogs for scraps to prove we deserve to live. The left wants us all to be able to live lives of beyond economic subsistence on the razor edge of catastrophe under the control of filthy rich people and corporate entities.
The left want to help the weak. The right only wants to exploit them.
Greece’s Golden Dawn got its first taste of real power just before the election of May 2012, when it would score its first electoral success. It came in the form of a despicable decree issued by the then minister of public order, Mr. Michalis Chrysohoidis, a longtime socialist party minister. Chrysohoidis and his colleague Mr. Andreas Loverdos, the then minister of health, mounted a campaign against the weakest women in Greece. Loverdos even addressed a United Nations conference to inform a flabbergasted audience that Greek “family men” were being put at risk by HIV-infected African prostitutes. The two ministers decreed that the police arrest prostitutes in central Athens (many of them undocumented migrants), forcefully subject them to HIV tests, and have their photographs and names posted on the ministry’s website so as to warn their Greek clients.
Over several weeks, police would sweep Athens, arresting, with no warrant, any woman who did not seem to them sufficiently respectable, shove her in a van and take her to the police station where officers would restrain her while nurses extracted blood. And if the HIV test came back positive, they would throw the hapless woman into a police cell, without any counseling whatsoever, charged with endangerment of public health. In one fell swoop, a multitude of a liberal democracy’s cherished principles were torn asunder. For what? So that two embattled socialist party politicians could stir up, and profit electorally from, a moral panic based on xenophobic narratives that were grist to the mill of organizations like Golden Dawn.
It is in this sense that Golden Dawn found itself in power even before they entered parliament. Why should its thugs care about governing if their policies were enacted by the legitimate politicians occupying ministries under the command of the troika of Greece’s lenders? True ideologues, the Golden Dawn BRUTES celebrated the conversion of their sinister agenda into Bailoutistan’s public policy.
A few weeks later, in June 2012, two consecutive elections delivered a new Greek government, under the leadership of conservative Antonis Samaras. The government lost no time in passing an extraordinary piece of legislation clarifying that Greek citizenship and good grades in college entrance examinations were not sufficient for a young person to enter Greece’s police or military academies. What else was needed? Proof of “ithageneia” — that is, of a Greek blood lineage — that naturalized migrants were, naturally, denied. Why? To pay to play to the Golden Dawn voters, who like all fascists have a penchant for blood and land, hoping to entice them back to the fold of the right-wing mainstream.
Thus, for the first time since the Nazi laws of the 1930s, a European country introduced legislation that segregated its citizens (and not just as residents) according to who had the “right blood” and who didn’t. A TERRIFYING CHILL OUGHT TO FILL OUR HEARTS THAT THIS SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO OCCUR IN THE WORLD TODAY. And a deep shame ought to fill our hearts that this should be allowed to occur in the world today. (p. 110-111)
I quoted this at length because I think that it is realistic to think that IT CAN HAPPEN HERE.
Lacking the ethical, intellectual and financial weapons that they and their predecessors had willingly retired, or refused to create, some years before, satisfied instead with a steady supply of financialization’s sweet lotus, Europe’s social democrats were ready for the fall. Ready to retreat. To bow their heads to the bankers’ demands for bailouts to be purchased at the price of self-defeating austerity for the weakest. To shut their eyes to the vicious transfer of the crisis’s costs from those responsible for it to a majority of citizens, Germans and Greeks alike, who had been stressed, some suffering , even during the good times: the very people that social democrats were supposed to represent.
Unsurprisingly, European social democracy went to ground, leaving the road open to MARCHING RACIST ULTRA-RIGHTIST THUGS all too happy to act as the protectors of the weak — as long as the latter had the RIGHT BLOOD, SKIN COLOR and PREJUDICES. (p.p. 224-225)
Unlike some other countries, we don’t need the police to grab people off the street (although they are doing a good job of shooting them on the streets), because we have hundreds of thousands of ammosexuals ready willing and able to beat, burn, and shoot people because they are wearing turbans or headscarves.
FYI the “serpent” references are explained in a footnote on page 303:
My references to Nazism as “the serpent” are due to the impression left upon a younger version of me by Ingmar Bergman’s 1977 film The Serpent’s Egg, a story highlighting the distorted pseudo-scientific imperatives behind the Nazi experiment. The title itself was borrowed from a line of Brutus’s in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg / Which hatch’d, would, as his kind grow mischievous / And kill him in the shell” (act 2, scene 1).
The message to take away from this book is to be on guard. The issues of currency, other countries’ governments, and our local and state government elections matter.