By Richard (RJ) Eskow, cross-posted from Campaign for America's Future
From the Parthenon to the Potomac, it was the same story: Elites
still hold veto power over the democratic process, and they're not
afraid to use it.
Democracy: 'Radical,' 'Irrational,' 'Dangerous'
Ironically, this week's ferment began in the country that's usually
credited with creating democracy. In many ways the Greek economy
couldn't be more different from our own. The government's fiscal
problems there are due in large part to widespread corruption and
massive tax evasion - not tax breaks, tax evasion - which
are very different from our own problems. The government's finances
dramatically worse than our own - almost like night and day - and a
default could create the next major financial crisis.
A certain level of fear and concern was understandable when Greek
President George Papandreou announced there would be a referendum on the
new bailout plan imposed on his country. The global economy is still
unstable, top-heavy, and still riddled with too-big-to-fail
institutions. In a worst-case scenario, Greece could trigger another
Yet the fear was rarely balanced with an understanding of what's
really happening in Greece. There was no acknowledgement that the
bailout's terms might be grossly unfair (they are), that they're likely
to make a terrible situation even worse (they will), or that Greece is
in chaos, misery, and despair. (It is.)
And what was most striking was the assumption the elite - the 1%, if
you will - have veto power over the democratic process. In most of the
commentary that flowed from the powerful and the press, a surprising
number of world leader didn't even acknowledge that Greece had the right
to its own democratic decision-making process.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, whose nation will benefit from
"bipartisan" U.S. actions to create a free trade agreement between the
two countries, said that "The world has plunged into fears again because
of the Greek prime minister's radical step to hold a
referendum." Closer to home, French President Sarkozy said that "the
Greek's gesture is irrational and, from their point of view, dangerous."
The first part of that statement is a slur against democracy. The second part is, of course, a threat.
What's the Greek word for 'shafted'?
Few are asking who created the Greek debt problem, or who benefited.
As in the United States, deficit-creating behavior primarily served the
wealthy, the powerful, and the banks. Tax collections for
corporations and the wealthy have been very low in Greece. And while
tax evasion is commonly for everyone from taxi drivers to millionaires,
it takes a lot of cheating cabbies to equal one rich tax dodger.
Bankers didn't give Greece these loans out of kindness, either. They
saw an opportunity and they took it. That's why they're being asked to
take "haircuts" and lose part of the loan repayment (a reasonable
measure that hasn't been yet considered in the US mortgage crisis.)
Greeks are struggling with devastating levels of unemployment, a
declining standard of living, and widespread social unrest. While the
austerity measures imposed on it do include tax hikes and measures to
reduce tax evasion, they will have an especially devastating impact on
already hard-hit middle class Greeks. They're the ones who went to
work, paid their taxes (wage earners were disproportionately taxed
because of the evasion), and paid into their Social Security and health
funds with the expectation these services would be available when they
It doesn't matter now. They won't get their say. Once again the
elites were given veto power over democracy. A "bipartisan" revolt of
politicians in both major parties made sure of that, and today George
Papandreou is looking forward to joining the swelling ranks of Greece's
The public's widespread dissatisfaction is understandable, and this
stifling of democracy should raise even more fears for Greece's future
stability than the referendum did. What will happen if the Greek people
continued to be denied a place at the bargaining table as their fate is
decided? Given that nation's troubled past, and its tormented present,
there's always John F. Kennedy's quote to consider: Those who make
peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.
But what does this have to do with us? We certainly don't face
Greek-level problems. In fact, it serves the elite's narrative to
suggest otherwise. Our currency is the dollar, which helps a great
deal. We're a commanding world economy. We have the money and resources
to fix our joblessness problem, if we only had the will, and we're not
part of a larger group like the European Community.
Bet we are part of the G20, which this week reaffirmed its obsession
on austerity measures even as Europe sinks under the weight of those
already imposed. Washington's Powers That Be are still obsessing about
Here, as in Europe, public opinion is expected to take a back seat to
the elites. Yet another poll has been released which shows that a
majority of people in all age groups oppose cutting Social Security to
fix the deficit. Past polls have shown that strong majorities of
Republicans, independents, and even Tea Party member oppose such
Yet despite the strong public objections, and despite the fact that
there's overwhelming evidence these cuts are unnecessary and
counterproductive, an elected "Super Committee" is likely to recommend
them anyway. The usual Congressional rules have been waived in order to
force their proposal to a simple up-or-down vote, with no possibility
of filibuster and no chance to offer amendments. And US politicians
will be under as much pressure to vote for this austerity measure as
their Greek counterparts were.
The same week that democracy was under siege in Greece, the "Super
Committee" heard from a blue-ribbon panel representing the austerity
elite: a Republican hater of Social Security recipients; a Democratic
member of Morgan Stanley's Board of Directors; a Republican ex-Senator;
and an economist aligned with the Democratic establishment advocates for
entitlement cuts. The activities of all four been funded by Republican
anti-government-spending billionaire Pete Peterson.
In words that echoed those of the South Korean and French Presidents,
the quartet told the unelected committee that if it fails to offer
austerity measures which the public rejects, "We haven't got a prayer
and neither have you." The elites have spoken: The public is to be
ignored. Democracy's been vetoed.
Here's what they didn't teach us in civics class: Democracy has
always been controversial. "Democracy... is a charming form of
government," said Plato, "full of variety and disorder; and dispensing a
sort of equality to equals and unequals alike." He could sound like a
Tea Partier at times. "Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy,"
he said, " and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of
the most extreme liberty."
Plato's aversion to democracy is shared by a lot of powerful people
these days. But politicians, especially those whose party derives its
name from the democratic principle, would be better off remembering
another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who said that "The only stable
state is the one in which all men are equal before the law."
Representatives from groups that represent Social Security and
Medicare recipients, the disabled, and the elderly requested an
opportunity to address the Super Committee. They wanted to present their
case for preserving these programs, a position that's supported by
compelling evidence and supported by majorities in all political parties
and of all generations.
Their requests were ignored.