Wednesday, 6 April 2016

A perspective into Europe and representative democracy: “Start the Week”, BBC Radio 4, Monday 04 April 2016

One of many British institutions is the BBC.  And within the BBC, there are sub-institutions, one of which is “Start the Week”.  Normally, the programme is a 45 minute plugging of various author’s books, accompanied by a slightly dramatic studio discussion in order to drum up some book sales.

On 04 April 2016, the discussion was tangential to the question of Brexit v EurIn, but offered some ear-opening perspectives about the actual underlying strategy of the ruling elite of the Eurozone, therefore also the European Union.

In short, few of the programme’s participants expressed much confidence in how democracy is currently practiced within Europe.  Seen through the eyes of the headline act Yanis Varoufakis, the European Union had made itself anti-democratic.  Said Dr Wolfgang Schäube to Yanis Varoufakis in the latter’s first Eurogroup meeting:

“Elections cannot be allowed to change the economic policy in Greece.”

The programmes’ guests, and their interests, were as follows:
  • Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece, plugging his book “And The Weak Suffer What They Must?”
  • Gerard Lyons is Chief Economic Advisor to the Mayor of London, plugging his book”The Consolations of Economics”
  • Erik Berglof is Director of the Institute for Global Affairs at the London School of Economics, honorably present only for the discussion and apparently with no book to plug.
  • Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture Emeritus at the University of Cambridge, plugging his book “Democracy: A Life”
  • Karen Van Dyck is the Kimon A. Doukas Professor of Modern Greek Literature in the Classics Department at Columbia University, plugging her book “Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry”

Varoufakis’ book is about more than just his experience in the Greek debt crisis in 2015, but clearly this experience features large in this programme.  For years, Varoufakis has characterised governments’ global economic policies as akin to a vacuum cleaner of wealth, evolving into a minotaur, where the effect was noticeable upon the withdrawal of the United States of America from the Bretton Woods gold-based exchange rate control system in 1971.

About the Eurozone, Varoufakis commented that the consequence of today’s monetary and banking policies put bankers into a perverse position, commenting about one meeting with a banker in which “he [the banker] was incapable of practicing the Protestant work ethic”.

Varoufakis noted that money poured into Greece ultimately went to banks, leaving the liability of the underlying debt smeared onto taxpayers around the Eurozone.  The result was that, say, Slovakian taxpayers underwrote (sort-of) the Greek debt held by French and German banks.  Varoufakis didn’t utter the word “laundering” - it’s a loaded term, implying criminal conduct - but, essentially, laundering is what Varoufakis described.

Lyons tended to agree with Varoufakis’ description of the world, but disagreed with Varoufakis’ prognosis and prescription.  Lyons said:

“The Eurozone is probably the most idiotic economic idea thought up by any person, anytime, anywhere. That’s how bad it is.  Good economics is good politics; bad economics is bad politics.”

Lyons asked why Varoufakis chose to keep Greece within the Eurozone when, practically and economically, it made good sense to leave the Eurozone.  Varoufakis replied that there was no means of pegging a drachma to the Euro, so Greece would needed to have made a new drachma, and that process would take twelve months, dismissing a new currency as practically impossible.  Varoufakis blamed the ruling elites throughout the Eurozone, especially the French.

Agreeing to Varoufakis’ basic description of events, Berglof noted that neither France nor Germany chose to reform as necessary to make the Eurozone work properly.  In so doing, Berglof appears to corroborate Varoufakis’ view of the French state.

Lyons noted that the world is globalising and, therefore, de-centralising.  Yet, he said, the European Union is going in the wrong direction: it’s centralising.

Thus started the discussion about ruling elites (technocracy) v representative democracy.

Crudely summarised, the ancient Greek idea of democracy had all citizens having a say in the running of their city/state/province, irrespective of income and wealth (but, Cartledge noted, the finance minister wasn’t subject to the democratic vote).  But in modern times, democracy stems from the magna carta model.  But this model isn’t democracy: it’s a cliqueocracy or a plutocracy.  The whole point of the magna carta was to wrest power away from the King to a clique of barons, who quite enjoyed having serfs to do their bidding and keep out of the way.  The cliqueocracy has evolved into today’s technocracy, as practiced by the European Union.

When Varoufakis revealed Schäube’s quotation, there were audible gasps at the studio desk, and an eerie pause.  Varoufakis added that we - the people - have formally accepted democracy in a form to deny its content (“just like the banking union, by the way.”).

Specifically about Brexit, Lyons considered that Brexit would be a chance for freedom, whereas Varoufakis felt that Brexit would start a process of European disintegration that would return Europe to the geopolitics (and economics) of the 1930s, citing a north-south divide within Europe along the line between the Alps and the Rhine.

Varoufakis and Lyons did have an interrupt-fest, with Varoufakis lancing the usual EurIn polemics at Lyons and then deliberately ensuring Lyons couldn’t respond (a reminder that Varoufakis is, after all, a left-winger).

I’ve skipped the programme’s discussion of poetry in this blog, but the poet’s corner contains some very timely themes of yesterday which appear still to haunt us today.

A stonking listen, well worth 45 minutes, and there is more than can be crudely summarised here.

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