Athens burns: has Greece entered its Argentina moment?

  • February 13, 2012

Capitalism & Crisis

Greece’s political establishment trembles as banks and government offices burn amid violent anti-austerity riots. Has the country finally reached a tipping point?

Exactly ten years ago, the crisis-ridden country of Argentina spiraled into a bout of social unrest that would eventually lead to the largest sovereign default in history. After three years of being forced to swallow the bitter pill of IMF-imposed austerity, a tipping point was finally reached: foreign creditors and neoliberal governments had pushed the people too far. They rose up in defiance and ousted five successive Presidents in the space of just three weeks.

With the incredible images of flame-engulfed buildings and policemen emerging out of Athens, it now looks like Greece may be headed down the same path. The country has become ungovernable. Even though a majority of traitors was found to pass yet another deeply unpopular austerity package through Parliament, this weekend’s violent protests indicate that the ‘Argentina moment’ may have arrived. The Greek people simply can’t take any more austerity.

This weekend’s 48-hour strike and mass demonstration witnessed some of the largest mobilizations in Greece to date. Even our weathered comrades inside Greece reported that the scale of the protests and the severity of the violence were some of the worst yet. With over 100,000 descending onto Syntagma Square, riot police desperately clung on to their perimeter as they were pelted with rocks and firebombs. The Guardian reported that:

More than 40 buildings were set ablaze in an orgy of looting that left scores injured as protesters vented their anger at the caretaker government and parliament’s ordering of a further €3.3bn of savings by slashing wages and pensions and laying off public sector workers … Meanwhile street battles between police firing rounds of teargas and demonstrators hurling firebombs and marble slabs left Syntagma square, the plaza in front of the parliament building, resembling a war zone.

“The rebellion has begun,” the Greek resistance hero and veteran left-winger Manolis Glezos told reporters. Indeed, as students and anarchists fought back waves of riot police assaults on the occupied University Law Department, as hundreds of outraged protesters took over a TV station, and as plumes of smoke and clouds of teargas filled up the Athenian night skies, one thing became overly clear: the social situation in Greece has spun entirely out of control.

Just before the weekend, the Guardian’s veteran Greek correspondent, Helena Smith, wrote that she feared for a “social explosion”, warning that the “Greeks can’t take any more punishment.” With poverty deepening, social inequality worsening, protests persisting and the economic situation only spiraling ever deeper into despair, “it is easy to see why, among politicians at least, there is little stomach for more.”

A series of resignations by ministers on Friday, unwilling to support the latest measures, not only underlined the panic of the political class – in a country where MPs no longer feel safe walking in the streets – but proved how tenuous public support is for the bailout. If there is to be a social explosion, many said that it would come because Greeks had been pushed too far.

In my own PhD research, which compares the Argentine crisis of 2001-’02 to the Greek debt crisis, I am paying particular attention to the process through which the “impossible” at some point becomes “inevitable”. In Argentina, two factors conspired to make a default and a massive devaluation of the peso — both of which previously seemed heresy — inevitable: massive popular protests combined with a willingness of foreign creditors to let Argentina fail.

In Greece, we appear to be approaching a similar tipping point. Six government ministers resigned this weekend, the far-right Laos party deserted the coalition, and over 40 lawmakers were sacked after they rebelled against the terms of the EU-IMF bailout. As the Guardian rightly concluded, “the scenes of mayhem on the streets of Athens and all across the country leave big questions unresolved regarding Greece’s capacity to stick with the savage austerity.”

Unlike two years ago, “when the angry graffiti demanded that the ‘IMF go home’ and ‘reject austerity’, it now exhorts protesters to ‘murder bankers’ and ‘rise in rebellion’ and ‘never be slaves’. The spirit of resistance shows no sign of abating. With support for the left … growing by the day, opposition to any cost-cutting reforms is bound only to increase.” As one opposition leader put it, “Martial law has to be imposed for these measures to be implemented.”

At the same time, Greece’s foreign creditors appear ever more willing to allow the country to default. Helena Smith has pointed out that, “as the talks [between Greece and its creditors] rolled on last week, a growing number of voices in the single currency’s more stable “core” countries suggested they could manage without Greece … Some investors, too, argue that, because a default has been a possibility for many months, financial markets would take it in their stride.”

Dutch Prime Minister Rutte — who throughout this crisis has been playing hard-ball with Greece, usually followed a few weeks later in his radical neoliberal footsteps by Angela Merkel — has already raised the possibility of a Greek exit from the eurozone. So have EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble. All in all, Greece’s creditors appear to be preparing the ground for what they previously told us was “impossible”.

Yet as the elites persist with their scaremongering just to buy themselves a little more time, at least the 82-year old WWII survivor Stella Papafagou won’t be afraid of the “apocalyptic” consequences that Prime Minister warned of in Parliament today. “We’ve fought several times for liberation,” she told the New York Times. “But this slavery is worse than any other. This is worse than the ’40s. I would prefer to die with dignity than with my head bent down.”

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