by Philip Ferguson

A couple of days ago veteran political commentator Matthew Hooton made an interesting claim in a short comment on The Standard blog.  In response to the outcome of the referendum in Greece he said, “It won’t be too long before they are forced to introduce exit visas. Syriza will be forced to take Greece down a totalitarian path. It’s what always happens when countries follow this type of economic thinking.”

So resisting austerity leads to ‘totalitarianism’?

Well, Greece has actually experienced totalitarianism.  In 1967 a brigadier-general and several colonels led a military coup that overthrew the elected Greek government and ushered in seven years of military dictatorship.  And what economic policies were followed by the totalitarians?  Did they resemble Syriza at all?

Of course they didn’t.  They were thoroughly pro-market, like Matthew Hooton himself.

They repressed the Greek working class while creating a series of pro-business incentives and stimulating capital accumulation.  Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from the soil as capitalism ‘rationalised’ the agricultural sector.  Wages were held down in order to make Greek capitalist enterprise more ‘competitive’ in the European market.

Greek capital boomed, while the society became more unequal, the state was used to suppress workers’ organisation and democratic rights generally, and thousands were arrested and tortured.

By the time the dictatorship was overthrown – by those supposedly ‘lazy’ Greek workers and left-wing students – the post-World War 2 global boom was over and capitalism entered yet another bust period and Greek firms were in such a chronic state that the post-totalitarian regime had to carry out a series of nationalisations!  (Nationalisations, of course, almost always come about because capitalists prove unequal to the task of managing businesses and, indeed, whole sectors of their own economy.)

The economic policies of the actual Greek totalitarians – as opposed to the imaginary ones in Matthew Hooton’s head – were an outstanding example of the necessary connection between capitalism and oppressive regimes.

Indeed, there is no major capitalist economy in the world that doesn’t have a background in dispossession, oppression and undemocratic regimes.  In Britain the peasantry were dispossessed of the land and made destitute over a period of several hundred years before being converted into factory workers labouring for 60 hours a week and more, using dangerous machinery, in filthy workplaces, their children also being forced to work, and all without the vote.  British capital also was significantly built up through the slave trade.

In the US the origins of capitalism are inseparable from slavery and the slave trade and the dispossession of, firstly, the indigenous population and later many European migrants who had settled on the land only to be driven off by big landholders and later agribusiness.

As Marx noted back in the 1860s, “capital comes (into the world) dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”  Along with the violent removal of the peasantry of Europe from the land, the other chief elements of primitive accumulation are also noted: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”  (See Marx on the genesis of the industrial capitalist; chapt 31 of Capital, vol 1.)

The place where market economics of the type favoured by Hooton were most sweepingly implemented in the period since the Second World War is Chile between 1973 and the late 1990s.  Now, was that a democracy or was there a totalitarian regime?  Well, no surprise, it was a vicious military dictatorship which tortured and murdered thousands.

It seems a sad comment on pro-market commentators like Matthew Hooton that they base their statements on their personal feelings – like their snobbish loathing of the working class – rather than on informed research.  And you would not need to do much research to find out about the economic policies of the actual totalitarian regime that existed in Greece, economic policies rather closer to those of Hooton himself than to those of Syriza.

The other notable thing about commentators from the economic right in relation to Greece is how they fall back on the most vulgar kind of racialised stereotypes.  Greece’s problems are the result, they suggest, of the ‘laziness’ of the Greek people, their profligate ways, their refusal to pay income tax and so on.  Can’t the right do any better than this?

Probably not, because they also start from the premise that capitalism is the best of all possible ways of organising an economy, even though it keeps going bust every decade or so, with all the massive wastage that accompanies the busts – lots of capital value being destroyed, lots of workers being unemployed, lots of money having to spent on paying unemployment benefits and so on.  Their cargo cult-like belief in the superiority of capitalism means they can’t, or won’t dare, think critically about the existing system.  So anything that goes seriously wrong in the system can’t be the fault of the system itself.  It must be the fault of ordinary people, especially workers, who actually have no say whatsoever in the running of capitalism.

Most of the commentators from the economic right, such as Hooton, are social liberals.  They aren’t racists.  However, their unreflective attachment to capitalism leads them into falling back on racist stereotypes.  Another indication of how you can’t be consistently socially progressive while acting as an apologist for a clapped-out economic system well past its best-by date.

Happily, despite the whinging of our sorry excuses for serious political commentators on the economic right, the mass of the Greek people continue to hold the perfectly reasonable view that they should not bear the burden for the failure of an economic system over which they haven’t – and are not allowed – any control.

The referendum outcome was a powerful democratic rejection of austerity.

And the referendum leads to another aspect of democracy and lack of democracy.   Syriza went to the people to get – or not get – an endorsement for opposing the austerity demands of the troika.  Who did the troika go to?  Where is their democratic mandate for anything?  The three organisations that make up the troika – the IMF, the European Central Bank, the EU Commission – are all unelected bureaucrats.  They have no democratic mandate from anyone to do anything, let alone try to impose austerity on the Greek people and the democratically-elected Greek government and its democratically-endorsed resistance to the austerity these wretched bureaucrats are trying to impose.  And can anyone seriously imagine the likes of Angela Merkel going to the German people with a referendum on austerity?

Poor Matthew Hooton and his chums have ended up rejecting democracy – as exhibited in the July 5 referendum – and backing unelected bureaucrats.

But that’s capitalism and its apologists for you.  Not good on democracy.

  1. ropata says:

    Great post. Advocates of Capitalism are generally doing it from self interest, and they have a platform to spread their disinformation for the same reason.

  2. Phil F says:

    Hooton is sometimes quite insightful and it’s always good to know what the more intelligent glove puppets of the ruling class are thinking and saying.

    But other times he’s just an eejit.

    And, of course, always motivated by self-interest, bound up with the defence of the existing clapped-out system.

    NZ Capital Inc seems rather short of consistently intelligent intellectual pugilists.