Impasse. The people of Greece continue to resist; the markets, media and politicians continue to insist that there is no alternative. Something will have to give. Whatever the solution, electoral democracy will have very little to do with it. When the country’s erstwhile leader, Mr Papandreou, mooted a referendum on austerity measures, the idea was universally dismissed as manifestly untenable. Markets and media alike responded with genuine alarm: it was the talk of a dangerous lunatic; Mr Papandreou had to go. This tells us all we need to know about the prospects for representative democracy at such a time.
Not so long ago the UK had its own version of the Greek crisis. In 1976, with the economy crippled by debt, the then Labour government was forced to impose a devastating austerity budget in return for a desperately needed IMF loan. The measures resulted in the Winter of Discontent, and the Tories swept into power on a wave of anti-union sentiment. It took Labour almost two decades to recover; the British left has arguably never recovered. On that occasion, pragmatism won the day. Anything less would have been unthinkable, and the radical alternative proposed at the time by Tony Benn - that Britain should reject the IMF, nationalise the North Sea oil and effectively ‘go it alone’ - would have turned Britain into an international pariah, a veritable ‘rogue state’. Fresh from dismantling democracy in Chile, Dr Kissinger would have had his work cut out once more.
In the Cold War era, the totalising logic of global capitalism was given a veneer of political legitimacy: democracies were undermined, juntas tolerated and authoritarian regimes condoned, all in the name of protecting the world from the menace of the Soviet Union. But what happens today if someone won’t play the game? It is by no means certain that the men who torched libraries and cinemas in Athens on Monday night were necessarily leftists, and we know that the markets would sooner wink at a dictatorship in Greece than allow its people a say in the running of the economy. You have incurred a debt, they say, and you must pay it pack. But the debt was incurred by the capitalist class, and yet repayment is being sought from the people as a whole. The contradiction is evident to even the most uneducated person - you need a degree in Economics in order not to see it.
The Greek catastrophe is only an extreme version of the political crises facing many countries during the current downturn. Across Europe, the economic crisis has precipitated a new era of unrepresentative government. At the healthier end of the spectrum you have a country like Britain, with a coalition government carefully bulldozing large swathes of the country’s social infrastructure in the name of deficit reduction. The radicalism of Mr Cameron’s reform programme is inversely proportional to the strength of his government’s popular mandate, but what does it matter? The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has already declared that a Labour government would adopt a similar policy. Our so-called ‘squeezed middle’ is hanging in there; in Greece, middle class professionals are forming bread lines. But we have one thing in common: a paralysing and portentous sense of powerlessness.