Yesterday’s decision by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to submit the European Union (EU) bailout package to the Greek voters as a referendum item threw panic into world markets and thoroughly upset the applecart for the G20 summit that is about to begin in Cannes. This is an absurdity that only seems to be appreciated by comedian Colin Quinn, who once asked why the World Economic Forum meets regularly in Davos when, if they really wanted to know about the health of the economy, they would learn so much more by meeting in Haiti. The fact is that Papandreou was experiencing the “Occupy Wall Street” effect long before that movement had established itself. Syntagma Square has witnessed both rallies and marches, all concerned with the devastating effects of austerity on the general public. Now the EU wants Papandreou to sign up for more of the same; and Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel have summoned him to Cannes to strong-arm him into accepting the deal. Here we have two leaders of major European democracies meeting with the leader of the country where democracy was born; and the message they are giving him is that, in the interest of the “greater good” of “economic well-being,” the only course of action amounts to “The public be damned.”
Of course it is more than just the Greek public being condemned to damnation. The G20 is a painful reminder of the extent to which the global economy is at the mercy of an elite sector of the rich and mighty concerned with little more than maintaining their personal wealth and political power. The problem is that the power of political position is not the power that will lead to recovery from the current economic crisis. That power can only be grounded in the consent of those being governed for whom living conditions have become most dire. To ignore those voices is to play the same confidence games that have sustained financial reasoning for all of the history of the very concept of money. However, what the “Occupy” movements have taught the general public is that they are always going to be the losers in those games; and, as the saying goes, they are not going to take it any more.
Sarkozy and Merkel are running scared. They are scared because current economic conditions have exposed the Eurozone as a house of cards. There is now a wind blowing in from Greece that can turn that house into a pile of rubble (and, as no end of pundits have observed, that wind is likely soon to be coming from Spain, Portugal, Ireland, or even Italy). This would clearly be a bad thing for the world at large, but is there no leader ready to accept the fact that this wind will not vanish? The problem is not one of building walls to shelter that house of cards. The challenge is to build a stronger house at a time when the alternative is likely to be having no house at all. Do we really expect that anyone enjoying the comforts of Cannes will raise this proposition at the G20 summit?