October 12, 2012 · 2 Comments
Above: Port of Piraeus, Greece.
By Costas Panayotakis:
Liz Alderman’s “Under Chinese, a Greek Port Thrives” is the New York Times’ latest sermon for neoliberal ‘reform.’ The article contrasts the part of the Greek port of Piraeus, close to Athens, which has been leased to the Chinese company, Cosco, to the part, still run by Greece, which “lags behind” in productivity. Let’s dive into the various problems of this news story:
First of all, the article contradicts itself when it tries to recast this contrast as a morality tale regarding the superiority of private enterprise over public mismanagement and inefficiency. Such a tale obviously doesn’t square with the fact that, as Alderman herself admits, Cosco Is “owned by the Chinese government,” yet her article is filled with formulations that refuse to come to terms with that fact. For example, the caption to the large eye-catching photo accompanying the article and dominating the first page of the NYT Business section on October 11, 2012, reads as follows: “Cosco leased half of the port of Piraeus in 2010 and converted a business that had languished as a Greek state-run enterprise into a hotbed of productivity.” Here the fact that the ‘successful’ Cosco is government-owned is left out of the picture but the fact that the ‘unsuccessful’ part of the port is ‘state-run’ is foregrounded. This selective use of facts then makes it possible to set up a misleading contrast between government economic activity, on the one hand, and productivity, on the other.
And what about the subtitle of the article, which suggests that the “[o]verhaul in Piraeus may be a model of what Greece must aspire to?” Given the fact that Cosco is government-owned, the logical implication of such a statement would be that what Greece must aspire to is government-owned enterprises that are productive and successful, much like it needs private-owned enterprises that are productive and successful. (By the way, one of the common problems of neoliberal ‘analyses’ of Greece is that they gloss over the fact that part of the reason for the growth of the public sector in Greece were the weaknesses of the private sector, which was never able or willing to drive economic development and create enough job opportunities for Greek workers. Of course, if Alderman were to acknowledge all that, she wouldn’t have ended up not with a news story that fitted into the neoliberal narrative but with the platitudinous, and politically incorrect, conclusion that, for Greece to become more productive, both its public and its private sectors have to become more productive.)
So Alderman instead interprets her story as “emblematic of the entrenched labor rules and relatively high wages – for those lucky enough to still have jobs – that have stifled the country’s economic growth.” Once again this statement does not square with the facts. In fact, this ideological bromide has been used for the last few years to justify the complete liquidation of all labor and collective bargaining rights in Greece as well as the drastic reduction of people’s wages. If Alderman’s claim was correct, then, given the dramatic restructuring of labor relations in the last few years, one would expect Greece to lead the world in economic growth and low unemployment. Instead, of course, these structural reforms, favored by Alderman and other neoliberals, have helped to produce a deep economic depression, as the collapse in people’s incomes has led to a collapsing demand, a shrinking of the Greek economy at an annual rate of 7% and an unemployment rate of 25%.
The fact, universally recognized by Greek economists, is that wages are only one (and, in the case of Greece, not the main) cause for Greece’s lagging competitiveness. The fact, however, that wages and labor rights are the only factors that the austerity program is focusing on shows that this program is not designed to improve the performance of the Greek economy but to launch a class offensive against Greek workers and ordinary citizens. By obscuring these facts, then, Alderman perpetuates the false narrative from which this offensive draws strength.
Something else missing from Alderman’s article is worth noting here. As that article appeared, it was reported in the Greek press that Greece was facing the prospect of having to appear before European courts for having bestowed upon Cosco unfair competitive advantages. In other words, not only is Cosco government-owned, it also relies for its success on the largess of a Greek government that simultaneously attacks even the most basic living conditions of its citizens. This is once again a reminder that the neoliberal project is not about removing the government from economic activity in general. Instead, this removal is selective and is entirely absent when it comes to government interventions that are favorable to capital (I should add here that the web version of the article includes a Cosco sign with the tagline: “Improving Port Competitiveness through Science and Technology.” For obvious reasons, the contribution of government-provided unfair advantages to Cosco’s competitiveness is conveniently ignored).
Perhaps the best voice for Alderman’s message is that of Captain Fu, the chief of Cosco’s operations in Piraeus. Seeing himself and Cosco as an emissary of development, he provides an interpretation of the European crisis that must be music to the ears of neoliberals like Alderman:
“Captain Fu … says Greece has much to learn from companies like this.
“‘The Chinese want to make money with work,’ he said. In his view, too many Europeans have pursued a comfortable, protected existence since the end of World War II. “They wanted a good life, more holidays and less work,” he said. “And they spent money before they had it. Now they have many debts.”
As Captain Fu’s pithy interpretation of the European crisis makes clear, we live in a deeply cynical age. In the post-war period development used to be seen as the socio-economic process that would allow the entire world to enjoy the benefits of the comfortable lifestyles and welfare states of countries in the global North, including Europe. With the rise of neoliberalism, however, even the pretense that capitalism can have a human face is being abandoned. In the minds of neoliberal functionaries, like Captain Fu, the meaning of development today is not to raise the living conditions of Chinese workers to the level of their European counterparts but to push the level of European workers down to that of workers in China. In this respect, the message that comes out of the last paragraph in Alderman’s article is ominous indeed:
“As Greece struggles to overhaul its economy, [Captain Fu] said, Cosco represents an opportunity for Greek workers – and the country itself. ‘Cosco is their future,’ he said. ‘We are here to stay.’”
Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and an author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy.