The straitjacket of austerity tightens on Syriza

The contradiction of putting an end to austerity and remaining within the eurozone has manifested itself in full force for Greece. At this early stage, it is alarmist to argue that Syriza has “sold out” nor is it realistic to proclaim that Syriza has achieved “victory” in its negotiations.

How Syriza uses the four months until the extended bailout program expires in June, and what Greece’s governing party will do once this period ends, will begin to reveal to what extent Greece can put an end to austerity and Syriza can make good on implementing the program that carried it to victory in January’s elections. That is surely the minimum amount of time necessary to begin to make any judgment on Syriza as it is tightly boxed in by circumstances not of its making.

Athens (photo by A. Savin)

Athens (photo by A. Savin)

It is difficult to avoid the belief that New Democracy intended to hand Syriza a poisoned chalice. Although corporate-media commentary at the time almost uniformly suggested that New Democracy, Greece’s main Right-wing party, was taking a reasonable gamble that it could successfully get its candidate elected as president by parliament, attempting this seemed more an act of suicide. The party had moved up the presidential election, and its failure to seat its candidate automatically triggered early parliamentary elections. There was no reasonable chance of its presidential candidate winning, and little chance of it retaining its parliamentary majority once fresh general elections were triggered.

Parties ordinarily don’t intentionally bring down their own government. But with a series of large debt repayments due in 2015 from February to July, the difficulty of making those payments and the rising anger of the Greek people at their immiseration, going into opposition and ducking responsibility for their own policies must have seemed tempting.

Tightening the financial screws

Syriza has no easy task, nor have Europe’s dominant institutions made it any easier. A week after Syriza took power, the European Central Bank said it would cease accepting Greek government bonds or government-guaranteed debts as collateral for loans to Greek banks. This effectively cut off the main source of financing for Greek banks. The ECB, in its supervisory capacity, also prohibited Greek banks from further loaning money to the Greek government, cutting off another source of funding.

This sudden action of the European Central Bank constitutes a “noose around Greece’s neck,” writes Ellen Brown in her Web of Debt blog:

“The ECB will not accept Greek bonds as collateral for the central bank liquidity all banks need, until the new Syriza government accepts the very stringent austerity program imposed by the troika (the [European] Commission, ECB and IMF). That means selling off public assets (including ports, airports, electric and petroleum companies), slashing salaries and pensions, drastically increasing taxes and dismantling social services, while creating special funds to save the banking system. …

Not just Greek banks but all banks are reliant on central bank liquidity, because they are all technically insolvent. They all lend money they don’t have. They rely on being able to borrow from other banks, the money market, or the central bank as needed to balance their books. The central bank (which has the power to print money) is the ultimate backstop in this sleight of hand. If that source of liquidity dries up, the banks go down.”

The result of this power play was a cash-flow problem for the government and Greek banks. It also triggered an exodus of capital out of the country, Mark Weisbrot writes:

“This move was clearly made in bad faith, since there was no bureaucratic or other reason to do this; it was more than three weeks before the deadline for the decision. Predictably, the cut off spurred a huge outflow of capital from the Greek banking system, destabilizing the economy and sending financial markets plummeting. … The European authorities appeared to be hoping that a ‘shock and awe’ assault on the Greek economy would force the new government to immediately capitulate.”

With an estimated €20 billion of bank deposits believed to have been taken out of the country from December through late February, and the impossibility of paying off debt while continuing to have enough money to run the government, Syriza’s room for maneuver rapidly shrank.

Bailouts for banks, not people

What is crucial is to understand that the “troika” bailed out large multi-national banks, in particular German and French banks, and are now asking Greek working people to pay for it.

Through 2009, Greek debt was mostly held by European banks; French and German banks alone held more than 40 percent of Greek debt. The €227 billion of loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund that have since gone to Greece were used to pay large financial institutions elsewhere. By one estimate, only €15 billion has gone to state operations; none after 2012. The Greek government has been a pass-through, taking the loans given it and promptly sending it to financiers.

There are more payments coming soon. Greece is due to pay €450 million to the IMF on April 9 and €7 billion to the IMF and European Central Bank in July, among other deadlines. Because Syriza remains committed to retaining the euro as Greece’s currency, reflecting majority Greek opinion, it remains committed to paying off its debt, which can only be accomplished through cutting government services and spending. This is the pitiless logic of austerity.

Unlike the previous New Democracy and Pasok governments, Syriza has not completely surrendered. Last month, two bills were passed in parliament that subsidize electricity, food and housing. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called the extended-bailout measures an “interim agreement” and that the government will not ask for a third bailout when the program ends in June. He also vows that making Greece’s wealthy pay taxes will be a centerpiece of reform.

Nonetheless, Syriza has made major concessions, agreeing in February to continued supervision by the troika and that it would refrain from any “unilateral action.” It also failed to get any reduction in its debt, and must pass an inspection by the troika in late April before it receives any of the money agreed in February, when the bailout extension was signed. Syriza was required to submit a list of reforms that must be approved. It did so on March 27; negotiations are continuing but the list was met with initial disapproval for not giving the troika everything it wants.

Among those reforms are a series of tax measures estimated to raise an additional €3.7 billion in revenue for the government, including cracking down on tax avoidance by the wealthy and on smuggling. But there is also another major concession, allowing the privatization of Greece’s most important port, at Piraeus, to go ahead despite promises to halt all privatizations. That is estimated to raise another €1.5 billion. A Chinese state-run shipping company seeks to buy a two-thirds stake.

Still insisting red lines will not be crossed

Syriza continues to declare that it will prioritize working people over debt repayment. The international economic affairs minister, Euclid Tsakalotos, told The Guardian:

“Our top priority remains payment of salaries and pensions. If they demand a 30% cut in pensions, for example, they do not want a compromise.”

The austerity that has been imposed has resulted in a contraction in gross domestic product of 25 percent, unemployment above 25 percent, a fall in real wages of 30 percent and a reduction in industrial output of 35 percent. And the size of the foreign debt has risen!

There is no way out of this without renouncing at least some of the debt, and doing so means leaving the eurozone and re-adopting its old national currency, the drachma. There should be no illusions that doing so will be free of pain. Left to the tender mercies of speculators, the drachma could conceivably lose 75 to 80 percent of its value in a short period of time. Assuming that a re-instituted drachma is initially valued at one euro, this would mean that imported goods will cost the equivalent of three or four euros instead of one, a drastic inflation.

Such a drastic currency devaluation would presumably spur a big increase in local production, because Greeks would need to produce internally to make up for being able to buy far less products from outside the country. It would also give a boost to exports, because Greek goods would now be cheap. This is the “Argentina option,” so called because Argentina followed this path in the early 2000s, almost immediately improving its economy. But the Argentine government did nothing that touched capitalist relations, and of late the country has suffered from mounting difficulties.

Is leaving the eurozone necessarily the question?

Thus there are Left, even Marxist, economists who do not believe Greece should leave the eurozone but rather go ahead with nationalizations and other measures anyway. So the debate over euro versus drachma does not fall along clear-cut lines. For example, a prominent economist elected to parliament on the Syriza ticket, Costas Lapavitsas, argues that Keynesian measures are what are possible in the immediate moment but that Greece must drop the euro. Another prominent economist, Michael Roberts, argues for an immediate Marxist-inspired program but that Greece should retain the euro.

Professor Lapavitsas argues that, although getting rid of capitalism is what is needed in the long term, for now getting rid of austerity is what is necessary and that is impossible within the framework of the eurozone. He believes that a negotiated exit from the euro would be the best solution. This would include a 50 percent debt write-off and that the devaluation of the drachma be limited to 20 percent through an agreement with the E.U. to tie its value to the euro; that is, the drachma would not be traded freely as currencies customarily do.

Capital controls and immediate nationalization of banks would be necessary as part of this proposed program. Rationing would be inevitable for a time, but Professor Lapavitsas argues that rationing already exists “through the wallet” as millions of Greeks can not afford even basic necessities. Crucially, he says that all this would be carried out with workers’ control (a factor missing in Argentina); bank employee unions should have a role in running the nationalized banks. Unused productive capacity would soon kick-start the economy, he said:

“What you’ve got to appreciate, though, is this: devaluation would not work simply, or mostly, through exports. It would work through the domestic market, more than exports. At the moment, there are vast unused resources in Greece. … There are vast unused resources across the country! Small and medium enterprises will come to life immediately if there was a devaluation. There is enough small-scale capital to do that. The revival of the economy, the return of demand and production, will be very rapid, and it will take place primarily through that. … I have — and econometric studies I’ve seen confirm it — little doubt that small and medium enterprises will allow a return of Greece to a reasonable productive state within a very short period of time, a couple of years.”

Professor Roberts, on the other hand, argues that it is “extremely unlikely” that the drachma would depreciate by only 20 percent, and that a larger devaluation and rising prices would offset any gains from cheaper exports. He wrote:

“Greek capitalism is no position to turn things round with its own currency. Greek capital will be saddled with huge euro debts following devaluation and it won’t be able to export enough to stop the Greek economy dropping (further) into an abyss and taking its people with it. [A Greek exit] also means not just leaving the euro but also the EU and without any reciprocal trade arrangements that Switzerland has, for example.”

Bank nationalization and a public takeover of strategic industries should be at the center of any Greek plan to raise investment and growth, Professor Roberts argues. Although in favor of Keynesian prescriptions such as progressive taxation and labor rights, these measures should be geared toward a larger project of replacing capitalism, not to try to make capitalism work, in or out of the eurozone. But he acknowledged that should his program be adopted, Greece might be expelled from the euro anyway.

There are no guarantees. Professor Lapavitsas’ belief that a drachma devaluation can be held to 20 percent seems overly optimistic and Professor Roberts’ belief that Greek must leave the European Union (and thus have trade cut off) were it to drop the euro seems overly pessimistic. Whatever direction Greece takes, however, it can’t travel as far as it needs to on its own. An economy drastically remodeled on a democratic basis is the only solution in the long term, but such a country would face severe pressure from capitalist governments seeking to destroy it.

Greece must create links with countries attempting to move past capitalism, such as those in Latin America, and must be joined by other European countries traveling the same path. Greece can’t be a socialist island in a global sea of capitalism. There are only international solutions, not Greek solutions, to Greece’s problems. The capitalist alternative is to continue to be immiserated for the sake of private profit, the same fate as the overwhelming majority of humanity.

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6 comments on “The straitjacket of austerity tightens on Syriza

  1. Nicely balanced analysis. As you point out, if the money to run Greek’s government has already run out, Syriza doesn’t have a whole lot of choices. I have become quite frustrated with leftist articles accusing them of capitulating and corporate media analyses cheer leading the troika for castrating. My personal preference would be to see Greece withdraw from the Euro and use local and complementary currencies to revive their local economy – possibly with support from Russia.

    Will be interesting to see the outcome of Tsipras’s upcoming visit to Moscow.

    • I share your frustration. Syriza has been in office for two months! And as if the party has a magic wand they can wave to render the global capitalist apparatus impotent.

      I am also in agreement that the outcome of the prime minister’s trip to Moscow should be interesting. I wouldn’t expect him to come home with any aid, but the mere fact of his going will give the troika, and E.U. finance ministers, something to think about. Better still, a trip to Caracas, La Paz and Quito could yield tangible results, for all the parties.

      The bigger the bloc in a struggle for a better world, the better chances of success. And Podemos is leading the polls in Spain …

  2. Very nice analysis. I included a link to blog post on my new blog at links.com. Hope you get some additional traffic. Your analysis deserves attention.

  3. Henry Larsen says:

    On what grounds can you justify the preposterous assumption that any ‘re-instituted drachma’ would be ‘initially valued at one euro’?

    It seems far more likely that the exchange rate would revert to something rather closer to the status quo ante, which was 340:1.

    • Not whatsoever “preposterous,” Henry. A new drachma is a new drachma, not the old drachma. If Greece is to change its currency, an initial valuation at one to one is the logical starting point because it makes the changeover much easier to deal with. Basic logistics.

      Further, the theoretical one-on-one valuation makes it easier for a reader not necessarily familiar with foreign exchange markets to grasp the size of a potential devaluation in a new drachma should Greece leave the eurozone. There are many advocates of Greece leaving but it is not necessarily understood that doing so would come with short-term pain.

      Whatever an old currency was priced at is completely irrelevant to a new currency. And such changes are not so unusual. A couple of decades ago, Mexico dropped three zeros from its peso — instead of 3,000 pesos to the U.S. dollar, it became three pesos to the dollar. No effect on inflation or any other macro-economic condition; simply made the money easier to deal with. I was in Mexico in the early 1990s, and all the merchants used calculators because it was unwieldy with all those digits.

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