The Greek Crisis and the Threat to Political Liberalism: A cautionary tale for Ireland, Portugal, the whole of Europe

12/06/2011 by

If 1929 has taught us anything, it is that a major (capital ‘c’) Crisis poses a lethal threat to (a) currency unions (e.g. the Gold Standard then, the euro today) and (b) political liberalism. The latter threat has, so far, featured only as a projection (see here for a relevant argument), rather than an observed reality. In a recent post I argued that the EU’s recent demand that Greece’s assets be privatised by a junta of foreign officials was the first step toward the dismantling of the EU’s basic democratic principles. Today, in this post, I  warn about an even more radical threat, this time to basic liberal tenets about the rights of private citizens. My warning will take the form of a true story, to which I am an eyewitness. It should, I submit, send shivers down the spine of all European (small ‘l’) liberals. Precisely because this is a seriously worrying tale, I shall include no commentary: just a blow by blow account of facts.

My tale begins about nine weeks ago. From April 2010 till nine weeks ago, I was a regular invitee on public TV and radio (ERT, the Greek public broadcaster). Ever since my criticism of the government’s policies intensified, about a year ago, every time I went to the ERT’s TV studios technicians would approach me in disbelief that I was still being invited. I paid no attention, even though their incredulity was becoming louder and more intense. It was around March when the CEO of ERT called me to his office to announce that he wanted me not only to appear regularly on their TV current affairs programs but also to present my own program after the main news bulletin, offering a running commentary on the unfolding crisis. His kind offer made me think that the technicians’ musings were verging on the paranoid. Though accepting his offer would entail a huge workload, I promised to send him some ideas on the matter; which I promptly did.

During the days that followed, I continued to appear, as a commentator, on a variety of ERT’s TV programs. A few days later, and as I was waiting for the CEO’s response, I received a call from a producer of one of these programs. The message took me by surprise: “We have received an order from high up to exclude you from all TV shows. But we will be damned if we comply. Can you come tonight? I want to rub their faces in it.” Naturally, I went. Indeed, I kept appearing on ERT TV for quite a few days after that. Until a new phone call came informing me, informally of course, that they could no longer defy the powers that be. I thanked the caller and said that I very much appreciate their resistance and think no ill of their eventual capitulation.

Weeks later, about ten days ago (after my return from a lightening trip to Australia), I was surprised to receive a call from some ERT TV producer who was, apparently, inviting me to one of their programs again. Because the voice was unfamiliar, it occurred to me to say: “Are you sure you want me on this program? For I have it on good authority that I am persona non grata on public TV.” She protested that such things no longer happen on Greek state TV and that she refuses to believe that anyone is proscribed. But she did back off, saying that she would call me back  in a few minutes, after she did a little digging up. The few minutes turned into a couple of days. But she did ring, to her credit. Her voice almost trembling with consternation, she said: “Mr Varoufakis, I am calling to thank you for protecting me. I had been away on leave and did not know there was a verbal ban on your appearances. Had you not warned me, I would have been in trouble.”

The story above, as the reader will have noticed, is more than a week old. While highly disconcerting for anyone who cares about political liberalism, I would not have written the present post just on the basis of the above: State TV channels, especially in places like Greece, have been known to have their strings pulled by governments. However, an even more disconcerting development compelled me to write the present post as a warming to my friends and colleagues in Ireland and Portugal, countries where the authoritarianism of the national-eurocratic regime is likely to spread. Contagion does not only concern bonds spreads; it can easily apply to the realm of human and political rights.

So, what was the latest development that egged me on to write this post? This coming Thursday (16th June 2011) a well thought of Greek publisher will be launching a new Greek book of mine in the splendid gardens of the Byzantine Museum (in downtown Athens). It is a Lexicon in which I have compiled definitions and explanations of the terminology of the present economic and political crisis (anything from the word ‘crisis’ to ‘CDS’, ‘CDO’ and the like). Well, this morning my publisher called me with hideous news. For the first time in living memory the three major newspapers of the land (Vima, Kathimerini, Eletherotypia) have failed to publish in their Sunday editions (or even to mention) the press release regarding my book’s launch. What makes this even more astounding is that the book will be launched by senior, well established figures: Alekos Papadopoulos (the former Finance Minister of Greece, who was the only Fin Min under whose watch Greece’s debt shrank significantly); Christos Chomenidis (one of Greece’s renowned new generation novelists) and Nikos Xydakis (the editor in chief of one of these newspapers, Kathimerini, which refused to mention the book’s launch).

When I asked my publishers how they interpreted this ‘silence’, the answer came back crystal clear: It is nothing short of an old fashioned purge.

The tale’s moral: Greece has had its problems over the past thirty years. But the one success we can be proud of, as a nation, was that, after decades of political authoritarianism and intolerance of difference, we had managed to create a vibrant democracy in which no views were suppressed and where the very notion of purging, suppressing and airbrushing out of reality certain people and/or their views had been confined to the annals of our awful past. In fact, this was one of the great achievement of our current Prime Minister’s father. It is for this reason that my personal experience fills me with horror. At a personal level, it makes no difference. But it concerns me deeply at the political level for two important reasons: First, because it shows how this crisis can surreptitiously reverse crucial democratic and liberal gains which we had convinced ourselves were, by now, irreversible. Secondly, because I very much fear that the illiberal, authoritarian malaise that seems to have began in Athens very recently will spread to the rest of the European periphery, before it infects the whole of Europe. Lest we forget, the Cold War itself began in the streets of Athens in December 1944.  It is, in this sense, perfectly possible that all sorts of nastiness can begin here, in Greece, now (as a result of the crisis which also started breathing here) before it infects Dublin, Lisbon, Madrid, Milan, even Berlin itself. Friends of all political persuasions, beware!

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