On Greek Democracy

October 31, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Kostas Vaxevanis

Above: The persecuted Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis.

By Costas Panayotakis:

In an editorial published on October 29, 2012 The New York Times rightly criticizes the prosecution of Greek investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, who published the names contained in a list of Greek citizens who had Swiss bank accounts and some of whom may have been guilty of tax evasion. (i) The NYT goes on to contrast the uncharacteristic speed with which the Greek judicial system moved in Vaxevanis’ case with the failure of Greek governments to use this list, which they have had for years, to curb tax evasion. At a time that the Greek economy is reeling from a serious debt crisis, the Greek political class has chosen not to focus on the more serious source of Greek budget deficits, namely the low revenues due to the refusal of affluent Greeks and the Greek capitalist class to make a contribution to tax revenues equivalent to that made by their European counterparts. Instead, the main strategy of tackling the deficit has been to focus on the less problematic expenditure side by devastating the living conditions of ordinary Greeks through cuts in their salaries, their pensions and the social services they can count on.

So far so good. Interestingly, however, The NYT manages to snatch falsehood from the jaws of truth, when, in the course of enumerating the social costs of the austerity program, it suggests that “Greek democracy is also feeling the pressure, with voters deserting the traditional center parties for more radical alternatives on the far left and far right.” This sentence does a number of things: first of all, it sets up a dichotomy between political forces in Greece that are democratic and political forces that are not; second, it identifies the democratic political forces with ‘the traditional center parties’ which have brought Greece to its current desperate state and which, as even The NYT is forced to admit, would rather prosecute journalists than tax the rich capitalist oligarchs that have long bankrolled them; third, it equates the rising anti-austerity opposition on the left of the political spectrum with the also rising neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. Thus, an editorial that on the surface appears as a critique of the ruling political elites in Greece ends up completely aligning itself with the propagandistic dilemma ‘Either us or the dangerous extremists of the far left and far right’ that these elites use to prolong their increasingly shaky hold on power.

The plausibility of this ideological move on the part of The NYT is secured through a misrepresentation and omission of any fact that would go against the editorial’s narrative. For example, The NYT states that “[t]hanks largely to the decision by … Vaxevanis to publish the list…, several former ministers are struggling to explain why” they failed to use the list to curb tax evasion. In fact, the former ministers in question, which include the current leader of the Socialist Party, one of ‘the traditional center parties’ that are, in the imagination of The NYT editors, bulwarks of democracy, had been thrown on the defensive long before Vaxevanis published the list. And one of the parties that, according to The NYT, represent a threat to democracy, Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), had asked a question in the Greek parliament about this list months ago only to be told by a leading minister of the Socialist party that no such list existed.

Another thing that The NYT editorial does not mention is that the prosecution of Vaxevanis is not an isolated phenomenon. In recent days a number of respected journalists working for public TV in Greece have either been fired or seen their news shows pulled off the air because they were not seen as supportive enough of the other supposed bulwark of democracy in Greece, namely the conservative party that is heading the current pro-austerity government in Greece.

In one of these cases, a popular morning news show on public TV was pulled off the air because the hosts of the show raised questions about the Greek Public Order minister’s handling of the incidents of torture of anti-Golden Dawn protesters by the police. These incidents, first reported by the British newspaper The Guardian and then taken up by other international media organizations (though not The NYT) served as a reminder of the tolerance of ‘the traditional center parties’ for the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn organization. In fact, the current Greek prime minister and head of the conservative party pandered to the anti-immigrant feelings the Golden Dawn thrives on in order to boost the sagging support for his party in last June’s election.

The NYT’s narrative is best understood as one of ‘enlightened’ pro-capitalism. The newspaper’s mission is to defend the status quo by addressing any excesses, such as extreme austerity or blatant undemocratic deviations on the part of political elites, which may endanger the status quo’s ability to reproduce itself in the future. The fact that the Greek political class shows much greater concern for the interests of the few than the needs of the many is a reminder of the ways in which political democracy is limited and contradicted by the imperatives of a capitalist economic system. In such a context, the dichotomy between democratic and undemocratic political forces is not one between the traditional center, on the one hand, and the extremes on the left and right of the political spectrum, on the other. Instead, the traditional center and the far right are de facto members of the same undemocratic camp and the rising anti-austerity left becomes de facto the only hope for a more democratic future for Greece and its citizens. It is this reality that The NYT’s muted criticism of ruling political elites in Greece seeks to obscure.


Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press).


(i) See ‘Greece Arrests the Messenger,’ .


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