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Kjetil Røed
Røed is an art critic based in Oslo.

When Greece was at the brink of collapse in 2015 – where it remained ever since, more or less – radical left-wing party Syriza, fronted by Alexander Tsipras, triumphantly gained power. They promised to end the extortion by the global finance elites and to get the national economy up to speed. As we know, this did not go to plan, as the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank refused to give an inch, and demanded that Greece tighten their moneybag even further. This led to cuts in public services, privatisation and increased frustration and unemployment.

In the end, Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis resigned – he was unpopular among the EU leaders – and Tsipras continued following his re-election despite Syriza not fulfilling its promises. They were left no other choice but to get into bed with the EU, led by European «President» Angela Merkel. The state coffers were almost depleted, the banks closed the cash points and branches, which led to great losses – not just to the Greek State, but to millions of private savers with money in their accounts. Greece was closer than ever to a total catastrophe.

A detailed look. The documentary #ThisIsACoup, backed by website The Intercept, tells the story of the Greek and Syrizan misers. We follow the events day after day, trailing the people and leaders closely. The film provides a unique, yet one-sided look at the process. Why not dig a little into the past history – how the Greek got into this endless debt which led to this crisis? Why not consider the relation between the international organs which maintain this debt scheme?

There is no need to scratch the surface to discover that the Greek loans are rooted in a financial model designed to enslave rather than alleviate states and its citizens during troubled times. The financial elites have a strong interest in keeping the weakest in their places, trapped in a dependency relationship to those in power. This goes for the individual citizen just much as countries faced with supranational institutions – such as the World Bank or the European Central Bank.

Mason is on the right track – but is this not too simplistic? Is there really a solution in the direction he is pointing?

Debt’s moral dimension. Why lend someone money on conditions you know they will never be able to accommodate? Why allow Goldman Sachs to help Greek to hide their existing debt just to accumulate further and heavier debt? To be able: to trap the debtor in a dependency relationship. To own him. In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber goes to the root of the notion of debt. The belief that you have to «repay what you owe» is not primarily a financial but a moral question, he states. He reminds us of the term’s origin as he discusses the German Schuld, which means both debt and sin. This moralistic view, believes Graeber, distorts what it really is about.

The questions raised in the film, are not limited to the Greek fate – as it is about how far a neoliberal world order pressurises both states and citizens to maintain its control. The first step towards another world order is, feels Graeber, to eradicate impossible debt, and prevent further such contracts.

Make it smaller. Paul Mason, the producer of #ThisIsACoup, continues on the path set by Graeber in his book Post capitalism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). The large debt schemes which till to now have governed the world, are about to be replaced by a more local economy based on bartering and short, economic cycles, he points out. Mason is hopeful. Through phenomenon such as Uber and Airbnb, we see the outline of a sharing economy which dislocates from the centralised value cycles which characterises neoliberalism, he claims.

If the State facilitates small businesses and makes it harder for larger, multinational companies, we could end up in an economy with far less inequality and injustice, he goes on to argue. Apple, Wallmart and McDonalds would not decrease wages and avoid taxes, but instead be required to offer courses in trade union activities. Naturally, there would be less inequality, but we would also arrive at a state where earning money is subordinate to more apparent issues such as a roof over our heads and food on the table. We could even imagine, he intimates, that money itself would be less important.

Mason is on the right track – but is this not too simplistic? Is there really a solution in the direction he is pointing?

Cosmopolitan tradition. Maybe. Mason’s focus is on the small-scale conditions and how the State can stem finance capital destructions internally – but he also writes himself into a cosmopolitan tradition where the basis is for every citizen of the world to enjoy the same rights. In this sense, he also advocates a sort of civil wage, whereby everyone, independent of local ties or salary, is guaranteed a minimum wage.

Yes again, there is an almost Utopian element here, but the logic as evident as before – if the Greek citizens were guaranteed subsistence, they would not suffer under the debt schemes trapping the State.

Idealising and tangible utopias. Mason is idealising a tad here, some might say he does it rather a lot, but it is appropriate to localise the concrete cultural places for these thoughts to continue – they might be expanded on, experimented on and developed in new directions. It is the simple and intuitive solutions we need to carry on working with.

Masons belief is that if we de-globalise the economy, conditions will be right for a smaller network of goods and services, and thus, the capital accumulation in international companies will reduce and perhaps disappear. If the State could help its citizen with such a model and prevent large chunks of capital to be moved out of the country, a way of living based on real needs will be rediscovered, not as slaves to the capital.

But then we need to stop viewing debt as a moral issue, as something you have to pay back if you have acquired it. The fact of the matter is, as both Graeber and Mason point out, the state debt which Greece has acquired is not first and foremost debt – but a new form of colonialism whereby the rich keep the poor hostage.

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