As negotiations between Greece’s Syriza-led government and the “troika” unfolded, Truthout spoke with world-renowned author and analyst Tariq Ali. In this interview, Ali discusses the first months of the Syriza-led government in Greece, explains why he believes that Syriza has not done enough to stand up to the demands of the troika, and shares his own proposal for a referendum that would directly place the issue of Greece’s eurozone membership on the table.
Michael Nevradakis: There was a great deal of hope regarding Syriza’s promises to reject economic austerity. You had expressed optimism in Syriza prior to the Greek elections, but you have since adopted a more critical stance toward Syriza. How do you evaluate its first months in office?
Tariq Ali: Everyone was hoping that they would be able to do much more. I am perfectly aware of how difficult the situation is and would be for any party of the left that won an election in any country in Europe today, because they confront powerful and strong enemies who do not wish to have any radical model of politics and economics succeed, or even move two steps forward. They would rather destroy it, whatever the cost. And I think that is what the EU [European Union] and, of course, the German leadership, which is the strongest player in the EU, as well as the United States, are attempting to do. The United States plays a “soft cop” or a “less hard cop,” and the Germans are playing the “hard cop,” and they’re the ones who are essentially formulating policies. I say this so that there’s no misunderstanding. We know what the problems are; we know that there’s a big campaign against Syriza within the EU. The way they’ve been spoken to, the way their leaders have been addressed is nothing short of disgusting.
“I see it as the left’s internationalist duty towards Greece and other countries to break the link and say that we are not in favor of this Europe.”
So, why am I critical? My criticism is basically that they should have known that this would be the response of Europe. They’ve wasted too much time, in my opinion, traveling all over Europe and meeting politicians and prime ministers who never were on their side in the first place, who in many cases, [President François] Hollande in France, for example, campaigned against them. And the notion that they could split off, if they really believed it, it was crazy, that they could split off some of the EU countries from the Germans. It didn’t happen! It was very unlikely this would happen, and even the countries who are facing the wrath of the EU and doing their bidding, they were even more critical – the Portuguese, the Irish – because they’ve capitulated.
Now, what could have been done, and what I’ve argued should have been done, is that the Syriza government should have come back from the first round of negotiations and told the people. Now, they said we can’t do this because these are confidential meetings, but hell, these are not confidential meetings, because the Financial Times and other newspapers in Europe and elsewhere know exactly what happened. They’re getting leaks, and our side hasn’t been getting leaks at all. So that was a problem, that they didn’t come home and tell the people what was really going on.
A second problem, an even greater one, was that they attempted to pretend that they were making progress. This was not the case. There was very little progress made. And today, we are now at the crossroads in Greece, I fear. I don’t think they’re going to get their demands, so the choice now is capitulate, surrender, or default and fight back. And they have weakened themselves if they’re going to be forced into doing the latter, by not telling people what has been going on for the last few months, and that is my big criticism and deep worry about the situation in Greece.
Prior to the referendum, Syriza, in its first months in office, had proposed the continuation of much of the previous austerity measures, and had stated that lenders like the IMF and the European Central Bank would be repaid in full. Meanwhile the country’s privatization program has continued in earnest. What do you make of these actions and these continued policies?
I disagree with them very strongly, especially the privatizations, which people hate. It’s a way to make money by using the crisis in Greece, and it was attacked by Syriza during the election campaign and they pledged that they wouldn’t do it. [Greek Finance Minister Yanis] Varoufakis, who I know slightly, is an intelligent economist but not a great politician, and effectively, he thinks in an extremely narrow-minded way. No strategic vision, which is very sad.
I don’t agree with any of these measures taken, which you pointed out, and the appointment of this ex-Pasok hackette to the IMF. I think it’s a case in point. I think what they’re trying to do is move to the center, trying to show people, “look, we’re doing our best, we’re nice, moderate people, but still they’re crushing us.” I don’t think anybody has any doubt about what they’re trying to prove inside Greece itself, but the situation now is such that you can’t play these games any longer. You have to choose. Surrender if you want, but people will know that. You can say that this was the only compromise solution we could get, but if it’s basically caving in to the demands of the EU elite, then it is a surrender, and it’s a very, very dangerous move because what it then shows the rest of Europe is “don’t bother participating in elections, nothing you can do is going to change anything.” And that then affects other radical groups in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere. So I, of course, am not at all happy about this.
After over five years of austerity in Greece and in other crisis-stricken countries in Europe, it is evident to many that these policies are not working, at least for the economies and people of these countries. In your opinion, why is there such a continued insistence on the part of the European Union, the German government and the other so-called institutions to continue pushing further austerity?
I think the reason is political, because no serious economist, or someone who I regard as serious, and I mean bourgeoisie economists, are saying that this is going to work. In fact, many of them, the Americans particularly, but not just the Americans, even some of the economists in the Financial Times, are saying that this is not going to work at all, that it is proving disastrous, and that a new course is needed. But it’s easy to say and it’s correct, but a new course, seriously pursued, would challenge the fundamentals of neoliberal economists, because what the opponents are proposing is effectively a form of Keynesianism, center Keynesians or left-wing Keynesianism. And for them to permit this would be to accept a defeat, and what they’re frightened about is that it would open up a new space for movements and radical currents, which would challenge them, and they’re not prepared to do that.
Secondly, they don’t care. These are politicians and bankers who effectively are keen on one thing, which is preserving and maintaining the level of profits. They don’t care a damn if people suffer. The 20th century world has changed very drastically in this new century, and they feel no reason, they don’t feel threatened by anyone. So unless there was a revolutionary upheaval or semi-revolutionary upheaval or political insurrections, they will carry on like this. This is why Greece is so important. The Syriza government, it’s not too late still, should have said to the people of Greece, “These are the choices on offer, and we’re going to push a referendum and there will be one question: Should we stay in the eurozone at any cost?” That’s the question you need. If the people say no, if the eurozone and the politicians who control the euro make impossible demands, then you have the right to leave. [The people of Greece] have to be told very clearly, “These are the choices, and we were elected to fight against what is being offered, and we’ve ended up not in a good position, but now this is what we are proposing to do.” The Europeans seem pretty confident that Greece will capitulate, meaning if you look at the German press and the French press, they don’t think there’s going to be too much resistance, and that will create a crisis in countries of the south, and in Syriza.
In your view, what has the impact of IMF involvement in countries and economies around the world been historically? Has any country, to your knowledge, been able to return to prosperity or to emerge out of an economic crisis with the policies that the IMF has prescribed?
No. On the contrary, it’s put these countries in an even worse crisis; it’s heightened disparities in wealth, especially since the advent of neoliberal economics, it has led to the virtual destruction of the social infrastructure of many, many countries in different parts of the globe. The only continent where they were resisted after having their way for many decades is South America. First the Argentineans reneged on the debt and reached an agreement to pay a tiny proportion of it. The Venezuelans effectively pushed through a political insurrection by the ballot box, and elected a leadership which destroyed, politically, the coalition parties that had backed the IMF demands. Likewise Bolivia, likewise Ecuador, to a certain extent. The Latin American continent, South America, has succeeded in doing this. It has not happened anywhere in Europe.
The IMF’s function is to defend economic orthodoxy, like Keynesianism as it was in the 40s, 50s, 60s and to a certain extent in the early 70s, or if the overall conception of what needs to be done changes in Washington and then a new consensus is established that says that the way forward is neoliberalism, privatizations, the entry of private capital into the most hallowed domains of social provision, then that is what they push. They never do anything that is in the interests of the countries to whom they’re lending money. Greece is a case in point.
We’ve seen recently the electoral victory of the conservatives in the United Kingdom and their ambivalence toward the European Union; we’ve seen the rise of far-right parties in much of Europe; we’ve seen also the EU’s harsh stance on the immigration issue, and of course, its continued inflexibility when it comes to Greece and other crisis-hit countries when it comes to the austerity measures being enforced. What do you believe the future of the so-called “European Dream” will be, and do you believe that the EU even has a future?
Well, the big problem is the left, by and large all over Europe, is very confused on this issue in my opinion, which is one reason why people are going to the far-right parties in some countries: I feel that while we’re all internationalists, and while a radical European Union or a social union that helps each other is something very desirable, what we have got instead is a shameful financialization of capital for defending exclusively the interests of the wealthy and of punishing those who try and break out from the system, and using the euro to effectively create a system, a neocolonial system, where lots of small countries have no sovereignty at all.
The Balkan states minus Serbia, which has not yet been allowed in, are very indicative of this crisis. Ireland is, Portugal is, to a certain extent some of the less “important” countries are now themselves under huge pressure to privatize and to push through what they laughably called “reforms,” but what they really are talking about is regressive measures to take more and more rights, social rights, away from the working class and from the less privileged sections of the population, in the interests of the bankers and the hedge fund owners and the billionaires.
“The only serious choice that we have is to default and to create a new currency for inside Greece, while retaining the euro as the trading currency.”
This is what the European Union has become: a machine to enhance the grip of capital over politics, and as a result, democracy itself is now under threat and the European Union, in my view, has become a deeply reactionary institution. This is now very clear, and they’re scared of allowing people to vote. This is very interesting. A Guardian columnist who used to work for Le Monde the other day said, “the danger of having a referendum in Britain is that the French might demand one too.” Well, the French did demand one on the constitution and rejected it, despite the fact that the entire media was in favor of it. So we will see what happens.
My own opinion is that I certainly will not be voting in favor of the European Union. I mean, I think for anyone on the left to do this, given that we now have a record of how this union has functioned, what this union is, a total lack of democracy in it, and effectively power is exercised by three or four countries, why should we tolerate this any longer? I see it as the left’s internationalist duty towards Greece and other countries to break the link and say that we are not in favor of this Europe. That is what I think the left should do.
As far as the European Union itself is concerned, if you look at how the Germans have dealt with Greece, my feeling is they want Greece out, and they’re not that bothered if the British electorate votes to quit Europe. I’m not sure that that will happen, by the way, but they’re not bothered because they can still carry on doing economic deals on another level and, at the same time, it will give them the opportunity to restructure the union, which will probably reduce the standing, even more, of the small countries who were flooded into the European Union, with the US and UK backing, to prevent the Germans from getting too strong. So what’s going on now, I think, is that there is a great deal of discussion and debate within the German elite as to what is the best way to restructure the European Union, so they’re not that bothered. That’s my reading of the situation.
You mentioned your proposal for a referendum being held in Greece regarding the issue of staying within the eurozone or departing from the eurozone. What else do you believe Greece should do in order to get out of the crisis and this cycle of austerity, and what do you believe the Greek people should do to hold their government accountable?
I think it’s very clear now that the demands being put on Greece by the EU and the IMF are unacceptable, and I think that the Greek leadership, [Prime Minister Alexis] Tsipras in particular, should broadcast to the nation, should travel the country telling people this is what’s going on, this is how far we’ve been prepared to go; he can use that weakness in a sense; this is how far we’ve been prepared to go; they won’t accept it and they want to crush it. So, the only choice now that we have, serious choice, is to default and to create a new currency for inside Greece, while retaining the euro as the trading currency. That is what we’re about to do and we need your support to do this. Now, I don’t know whether this is going to happen. They might be forced to do it in the worst possible circumstances without any preparation at all, but we shall see.