If you are like me, a socialist in the United States witnessing the deadly effects of a neoliberal austerity that no politician has ever dared to challenge, you are watching the situation unfolding in Greece with great interest. After much back-and-forth between the Greek government, led by the leftist Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), and the so-called “institutions” that are lending the country’s Treasury money to remain solvent — the European Union (EU), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB) — Prime Minister Alexis Tsipiras decided to call a referendum on the final deal given to the Greek government by the institutions.
This referendum, scheduled for Sunday, has been described by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a choice between remaining in the single currency known as the Euro, or leaving it. If you have followed politics long enough to remember when Eastern European nations like Romania and Bulgaria clamored for Euro membership (and when Turkey claimed that only Islamophobia was keeping it out of the EU), it will not surprise you that such an exit has never occurred in the single currency’s history, and may be a prelude to leaving the EU altogether (also unprecedented).
There will be much wrangling and discussion about whether Greeks should vote yes or no, and many others will much more informed opinions on the specific economic downsides and upsides of doing so (obviously, I hope the No side emerges victorious). But it is the rhetoric used towards the Greek people that has caught my attention. It sounds very familiar, as it is the same language that has been used against people of color in the United States for decades.
I have never been to Greece, but I once had a friend that spent some time doing gerontology work in Ikaria. She described it as a fairly laid-back place where retirees relaxed in the sunshine and whiled away their twilight years in sun-soaked bliss. As they should; you work hard your entire life, you should be able to enjoy some sun when you are finished with your contribution to society. This friend told me in 2008 the same thing that has been recounted ad nauseam by the world’s press: that the Greek pension system is generous and that folks can begin collecting on it a lot earlier than retirees in the United States and much of the rest of the industrialized world. That sounds a lot more like a society that gives half a damn about the welfare of its citizens than a system for inducing laziness and sloth.
Yet the putative leader of the European response to the Greek crisis, Merkel, has used precisely that language to describe the Greek retirement system, as well as the retirement infrastructures of other countries that have needed EU assistance. The constant framing of the issue of being one that pits industrious northern Europeans versus slovenly Mediterranean nations is having its desired effect on the way the European electorate sees the situation. If reading your typical comment section in The Guardian would not have convinced you of that, then this much more scientific poll of the situation will certainly do the trick.
This is a feature of what my former dissertation advisor at the University of Alabama described as neoliberal paternalism. In order to get people to accept punishing measures that would typically be DOA, the capitalist class must create a common enemy that is being seen as dragging down the whole national (or supranational) social fabric and then demonize them to the point where they seem almost inhuman and undeserving of the most basic functions of compassion and solidarity. Once that foundation has been laid, the state can set about using their power to punish those that are seen as deviating from the “citizen as market consumer” model of neoliberalism. This includes the poor; those who belong to union; any community that has resisted the neoliberal order in any way and cannot simply be bought off.
That sequence of events sounds familiar because, well….
In the wake of that cover, we saw the Newspeak-titled Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 passed that deregulated, devolved, and deconstructed whatever shards of a decent social welfare infrastructure we had left in this country. In its place we have a program that, in Alabama, requires nearly 40 hours of work (or work-like activities) in order to receive the earth-shattering sum of $215 a month if you have two children as a single parent. This is akin to 13.5 percent of the federal poverty line for a family of three and it would buy you exactly squat as a parent trying to make ends meet.
Because the funding for this program comes in block grants rather than matching federal funding, and because you can be penalized for not kicking enough people off assistance per fiscal year, the program has taken to oversanctioning people in order to end their welfare benefits. In the book written on this topic by the aforementioned dissertation advisor, Dr. Richard Fording, along with two other colleagues, Drs. Sanford Schram and Joe Soss, they apply what they refer to as the Racial Classification Model (RCM) to assess whether these sanctions are applied equally or if racial bias plays a role in who gets their crucial bits of funding taken away. The results are, well, unsurprising to say the least: racial bias plays a big role in who gets punished by neoliberal paternalism.
This sort of thing, of course, goes back centuries; the framing of Black people as lazy, lecherous, and lacking intelligence can be found in plays, cartoons, and literature. Even campaign signs:
This constant framing of the American mind on Black people extends to other people of color as well, and it also extends to public policy. Think TANF, immigration, and the myriad Wars on Adjectives and Other Non-Human Entities we have floating about.
Likewise, we have seen Greece endure some of the most punishing measures of austerity that can be imagined. Greeks have seen mass unemployment on the level of the Great Depression, a large jump in suicides, and the burden of fixing the mess created by financial institutions falling squarely on retirees and the working class. Hell, they even had public television shut off mid-broadcast by the government. Much like other sectors of Greek society, the staff engaged in a bit of resistance by continuing to operate and stay on the air by other means.
And much like the United States, the consensus on delivering these measures is bipartisan. While Merkel belongs to the rightist CDU party in Germany, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the leader of the EU group of finance ministers, belongs to the Dutch Labour Party. Indeed, the European center-left and center-right have converged on a point of delivering unending punishment to working-class Greeks for having the temerity to elect a government that was elected on reversing the austerity.
(Syriza’s actual performance in office is a different discussion for a different day.)
This stuff is a feature, not a bug, of capitalism. The situation in Greece is only an extreme form of social control that has been practiced elsewhere, including the United States. And the resistance to that control must not simply be community-based, regional, or even national; it must be global. Otherwise it will end as so many working-class struggles have: in abject failure.