Terrance Heath

Greece Proves Populist Movements Can Fight and Win

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 05, 2015 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: austerity, austerity kills, austerity measures, economic inequality, GOP, Greece, income inequality, Paul Ryan, Republican Party, sequester

alex-tsipras-greece-victory.pngAfter five years of protests, demonstrations, and strikes, Greek citizens voted last month to throw off five years of crushing austerity. Their victory has emboldened populist parties across Europe, and should inspire Americans to resist austerity here at home.

The victory of Greece's leftist anti-austerity Syriza party and the election of Alexis Tsipras as prime minister ushers in a government that will push back against the austerity measures devised by the troika of Greece's international creditors and the International Monetary Fund, and accepted by the country's economic elite, following the crash of Greece's economy in 2009.

Greece's new leaders left little doubt about their intentions as they celebrated victory.

"Greece leaves behind the austerity that ruined it, at least behind the fear, leaves behind five years of humiliation, and grease moves forward with optimism and hope and dignity."
- Alexis Tsipras, Greece's new prime minister.

"We are going to destroy the basis upon which they have built, for decade after decade, a system, about a network that viciously sucks the of energy and economic power from everybody else in society."
- Yanis Varoukis, Greece's new finance minister, on Greece's oligarchy.

The IMF assumed the Greek government could impose austerity without significant impact on economic growth and unemployment. In fact, the IMF assumed Greece's economy would grow as a result of the 2010 aid package, for which the troika and the IMF demanded austerity measures. The results were disastrous.

Wealthy Greeks got off scot-free. Cocooned in suburbs, they were untouched by austerity cuts until mid-2013, when the government ruled that wealthy Greeks were no longer entitled to free police bodyguards. (Since 2009, businessmen and journalists who were threatened by anarchist groups had received personal police protection.)

The burden of austerity cuts fell mostly upon middle- and working-class Greeks.

Three million Greeks are living on or below the poverty line. Nearly every family has been affected. Many have survived by queuing up at soup kitchens and scavenging rubbish bins for food.

Austerity devastated the health of Greece's economy and its people. The national health budget was cut by 40 percent. As a result, 35,000 doctors, nurses, and other health workers were unemployed. Hospitals lack basic supplies and sufficient staff.

Infant mortality went up by 40 percent. Stillbirths are up 21 percent, as a result of cuts to prenatal service. HIV infections rose more than 200 percent due to increased IV drug use and cuts to needle exchange programs.

austerity-kills.jpgAusterity drove some Greeks from desperation to despair. Suicide deaths in Greece increased 45 percent between 2007 and 2011, driven mostly by a rise in suicides among men. According to one analysis, every one-percent fall in government spending led to a 0.43 percent increase in suicides among men. Men between the ages of 45 and 89 face the highest suicide risk, because they are most likely to have their salaries and pensions cut.

Since the financial crisis, conservatives have warned Americans that we're in danger of becoming Greece unless we submit to the austerity Greeks are rising up against. Unlike Greece, America has only experienced what Paul Krugman calls "de facto austerity" -- due to Republicans in Congress blocking any measures that might help the economy. Sequestration was another taste of the kind of austerity conservatives want to impose.

The new Republican Congress will almost certainly try to subject Americans to the kind of austerity that Greeks have suffered. House Budget Committee chair Tom Price has already proposed measures that would reduce the federal workforce by over 400,000, leading to the loss of even more jobs -- mostly in the private sector -- supported by the economic activity of federal employees. Price's proposed "reforms" to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are really cuts that would devastate those programs and the Americans who depend upon them.

The fight against austerity in Greece has only just begun. Greece's creditors and economic elite will insist on more punishing austerity. In the next two years, the fight here at home will also intensify. As Americans push back against homegrown austerians, Syriza's victory should remind us that progressive, populist, people-powered movements can win -- if they just keep fighting.

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