The untold story of the Greece coup: Another democratically elected leader tossed overboard for not submitting to economic orthodoxy

The Greek people said no to austerity, knowing the path would be hard. They learned bittersweet, painful lessons

Published July 14, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

A woman passes outside a shuttered shop in Athens. News that Greece clinched a deal to stay within the eurozone group of nations broke Monday morning  .  (AP)
A woman passes outside a shuttered shop in Athens. News that Greece clinched a deal to stay within the eurozone group of nations broke Monday morning . (AP)

A scant week ago it looked as if Greeks were about to teach all of us something of great value. With their “no to austerity” referendum two Sundays back, they would show us what it was like to rise to an occasion—the occasion being the defense of democracy against unaccountable power. Sacrifice was inevitable and would be difficult—this Greeks understood—but it would have an essential aspect: It would have a meaning no technocrat or creditor could ever measure (or in all likelihood understand).

That vote, and the life Greeks have led since electing the Syriza government last January, are all about what Greeks going back to Aristotle call telos—a  purpose, an ideal, a thing to be striven for. Today we speak of teleology, the study of things according to what they are meant to do.

What has been the telos of the Greeks under the left social democratic government of Alexis Tsipras? What is the teleology? Obvious questions with obvious answers. I have already noted one.

Their passionate intent has been to restore various values to their proper places. Democracy must be retrieved from a place so diminished and lowly that its exercise—its authentic exercise, I mean—is considered by the ideologues and the powerful to be suspect. Human dignity may be the last thing left that cannot be marketized and monetized, but so be it: It simply does not ever get put on the table.

That is what the Greeks had to teach us. They said to us: If you are waiting around to defend worthwhile things until there is no sacrifice you indulge in fantasy and do not understand what makes life worth living. Long odds and hardship are no excuse not to stand up for something. Neither is the latter the source of unhappiness it is made out to be—not if you have your telos clear and your minds recruit your hearts.

What a difference a week makes. As readers will know, Tsipras was more or less brutalized at the euro zone summit held in Brussels last Sunday—“mentally waterboarded,” as one diplomat in attendance put it—and at this writing proposes to inflict on his electorate a worse version of the austerity regime voters told him twice—in the January election and in the recent referendum—to reject.

We have our lessons from the Greeks now. They are several, they turn out to be by negative example, sadly enough, and they are bitter rather than sweet. But by definition there are still things to be learned.

I did not sit with Tsipras in Brussels, bullied and threatened into surrendering much of Greece’s sovereignty as he wondered what it would be like to lead 11 million people into an economic abyss. Nor did I eat dinner out of a dumpster last night, as many Greeks did.

But there is no avoiding the word. Greeks failed. No one can say their courage flagged, but their chosen leader proved unable to resist, to reject, to tell European Union leaders and that truly dangerous figure in the German cabinet, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, “Enough. Keep your euro. If we are to suffer we will do so for what we believe in.”

For the record, in my view a grave mistake and an injustice were rendered in Brussels. Two reasons.

On practical grounds, the third bailout the Tsipras government now hopes for—in some drastic shift toward the ineffectual center—has no chance of working. To apply still more austerity in a crisis that has already proven the strategy’s failure is Einstein’s definition of insanity.

There is no argument on this point. On Tuesday the International Monetary Fund—why only now, for heaven’s sake?—issued a paper saying Greece requires debt relief far beyond anything Europe has so far been willing to consider (and it is not yet clear Europe will consider any). Debt is projected to peak at a wildly unacceptable 200 percent of GDP, up from 175 percent (which is only highly unacceptable). Gross financing will move above 15 percent of GDP, also in the unacceptable range.

Reuters saw the report, and a summary via, an analytic site, is here. Translation: Greeks are about to surrender any foreseeable chance to crawl out of debt. Most of the funds to arrive via the bailout-to-come will be recycled back to creditors.

Which leads to the second point. The suffering of Greeks will escalate under the terms of the proposed third bailout—another point no one debates. But still more saliently, it will have no purpose. One cannot avoid calling this an injustice.

Very honorable aspirations have just been broken, along with a lot of hearts, surely. Weirdly indeed, this may qualify as tragedy by Aristotle’s definition in “Poetics,” written in the 4th century B.C.: “an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude… effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.”

The power of Greek tragedy lies in large part in what it is does to those watching. The audience has witnessed the worst but leaves the theater with refreshed spirits—purged of terror, as literature profs put it in my day. Let’s try this out.

When news of the agreement in Brussels broke early Monday morning, my heart sank and my thoughts scrambled into incoherence. A principled leader had gone down—swinging, as tragic heroes do—and an endeavor possessing true magnitude lay there like another Greek ruin.

But it did not take long for the useful truth to come.

In my read the European Union’s explicitly vindictive attack on Greeks was an attack we find in variant versions everywhere. Greece did not just demonstrate there is no point resisting the neoliberal order. That is the lesson Germans and most other euro zone countries intended—by their own account, this. But the opposite comes over: One learns the absolute necessity of resistance in the name of the perfectly ordinary cause of democratic government.

Greeks suffered a defeat, to put the point another way, but they compel the rest of us to see that defense is not only possible but required of us.

Thomas Piketty demonstrates with diligent scholarship that capitalism leads to increasing inequality by its nature. Similarly, we have just seen via an extremely graphic case that the neoliberal economic order cannot co-exist with democracy. Its imperatives will by definition reduce the democratic process to spectacle, hollow form, until people recognize it as such and determine to reject it.

If you object to this assertion, please use the comment box to explain what we have just witnessed if it is not an administrative coup at the European Union’s hands. Please tell us what remains of Greek democracy now that elected leaders cannot pass legislation unless it is approved by creditors, I.M.F. technocrats, unelected European officials and somebody else’s finance minister.

It is already common to say that the E.U.’s victory over Greece this week is actually a huge defeat for European unity. O.K., but I see it as one theater in a much larger conflict.

Look at the American predicament. It is all different and all the same. I have never heard anyone call the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case a judicial coup, but I would not object if someone did. Five years later, the chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission tells the New York Times that there is no hope left that money in American politics can be controlled. Not a peep from anyone when the interview was published in May, so I link it here.

Let us not omit the scene overseas. Honduras, June 2009; Egypt, July 2013; Ukraine, February 2014, Venezuela, they are still working on it: In every case you have one degree or another of American complicity in the overthrow of a democratically elected leader, in all but the Egyptian case for the same reason—a leader’s refusal to conform to the economic orthodoxy.

Do we have any intention of ever coming to terms with this record? “We do not want to go back to a dark past,” President Obama said when papering over American involvement in the Honduras coup. We are satisfied with this kind of pabulum? Relieved of duty?

Europe’s most evolved institutions (supposedly) fail to uphold democracy’s bedrock principles. Ditto the nation that began as the Enlightenment’s highest ideals made flesh. I do not see that a drastic conclusion can any longer be avoided: The West is failing. The institutions wherein populations invest power abuse it.

Follow-on thought, even more nerve-wracking: Neither do they any longer exhibit the capacity to self-correct. I first drew this conclusion the evening of the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2000 election—and if that was not a coup of judges, what was it? What does it mean, a couple of friends and I asked one another, when democratic process cannot repair its own dysfunctional democracy?

We are 15 years on from the election stolen before our eyes. Is it not time to discard the customary frameworks within which we do our thinking as to what is possible and needs to be done? I reply to this, “Long past time.” We have to think differently, as in very.

This is a special challenge for Americans, it seems to me. The rest of humanity is accustomed to living in historical time—that zone where things actually change. Note that no Greek expresses any particular surprise at the abrupt choppiness of events, however much they protest them. For Americans it is different. Our exceptionalist ideology locates change ever elsewhere. And we have long considered ourselves more or less immune, on our immense island, from the tribulations visited upon others. So we have thought.

Recognizing that we have arrived in uncharted territory, wherein we have to build new structures to live in, is thus a more imposing reality for Americans than for others. In short, Mama never told us there would be days like this because there were not supposed to be any.

Among the interesting things about our moment—and a little to my surprise—is that right-thinking people are readier than one might expect to respond in new ways to circumstances they were not prepared for. In America I am thinking of the Bernie Sanders phenomenon.

The current edition of The Nation features a remarkable spread on the man and his thinking. You can read “Bernie Sanders Speaks,” an extended Q&A, here, and good for the Nation for making it available to everybody. So many things begin with history and language, and so does the force of Sanders’ arguments.

Nomenclature counts for a lot with Sanders. He talks about “political revolution.” “Socialism” does not send him screaming into the night. Invoking Denmark’s social democracy he says, “It’s a more vibrant democracy in many respects. Why would I not defend that? Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word.”

In the land where there are no problems, only “issues,” naming things properly is powerful. Instantly the conversation opens out. You may think one way or another about socialism, it does not matter: Do not miss the extent to which the universe of the possible broadens. “The most serious political problem facing this country,” the Vermont senator observes, “is that we don’t discus serious problems facing this country.”

(Memo to the Sanders people up in Burlington: More work on the foreign side. Drop the Russophobia and rethink Israel.)

One more lesson deriving from the Greeks.

In the face of certain disaster were they to exit the euro, what exactly did Greeks posit in response? It was old and new all at once. And there is something in this, too, for the rest of us.

The Greeks told Europe that their own past counted for more than a 16-year-old currency union administered elsewhere. They were defending traditions, values, a way of life that had arisen from the ground beneath their feet. And they understood that more money from Europe and all that came with it would, perniciously, destroy all of this.

The New York Times had the good idea (for once) of sending a reporter from the metropolitan desk, one accustomed to doing close-to-the-ground work, to Athens to cover the scene on the street this past week. Anemona Hartocollis filed a truly commendable piece that appeared in Tuesday’s paper. It is here.

Hartocollis wrote about an Athens baker, a corner pharmacy, the peace of Sundays because the shops do not open, and how Athenians think the bailout to come “will change Greek culture from a highly personal, neighborhood-based society to one dominated by faceless corporate interests.”

This is exactly what the bailout is going to do. It is what the bailout is intended to do.

The question here is identity and where it comes from. Institutions bearing the neoliberal order into peoples’ lives prove incapable of accepting the local source of identity, to say nothing of accommodating it. This is why the Greeks were right to ask Tsipras to lead them away from the E.U.’s austerity policies. But rejecting austerity while remaining in the euro was never going to be. That illusion was the cross on which Tsipras was crucified in Brussels.

It is a shame Greeks did not grasp the either/or of their dilemma. They needed new institutions—new as in post-euro—and these would be old, their own. They would have sacrificed much to revive their economy self-reliantly, but long term, and maybe medium, they would have won the war with a polity of their own choosing and into which no one could intrude.

As far back as the 1920s and 1930s, prominent French intellectuals posited that southern Europe, while Western and European, has an identity, culture, tradition, and history distinct from the north’s. In the early 1940s, a noted magazine called Cahiers du Sud, published in Marseilles, dedicated an issue to l’homme Méditerranéen, “Mediterranean man,” a figure with its own character.

Copies of Cahiers du Sud are rare now. But Camus elaborated the theme in a celebrated lecture delivered in 1937, and you can read that here.

This kind of thinking has everything to do with the future of democracy. We should take note for use in our own context. Mediterranean man, to put the point as succinctly as I can, was not a neoliberal.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

MORE FROM Patrick L. Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alexis Tsipras Austerity Greece Thomas Piketty