This week was a sharp reminder that the ancient ideal of democracy is just as threatened -- and to some, just as threatening -- as it's ever been. In government offices in Athens, G20 meeting rooms in Cannes, and "Super Committee" chambers in Washington, we learned that there are still places where the will of the people can be overruled by the whims of the powerful.
From the Parthenon to the Potomac, it was the same story: Elites still hold veto power over the democratic process, and they're not afraid to use it.
Democracy: 'Radical,' 'Irrational,' 'Dangerous'
Ironically, this week's ferment began in the country that's usually credited with creating democracy. In many ways the Greek economy couldn't be more different from our own. The government's fiscal problems there are due in large part to widespread corruption and massive tax evasion -- not tax breaks, tax evasion -- which are very different from our own problems. The government's finances dramatically worse than our own -- almost like night and day -- and a default could create the next major financial crisis.
A certain level of fear and concern was understandable when Greek President George Papandreou announced there would be a referendum on the new bailout plan imposed on his country. The global economy is still unstable, top-heavy, and still riddled with too-big-to-fail institutions. In a worst-case scenario, Greece could trigger another financial meltdown.
Yet the fear was rarely balanced with an understanding of what's really happening in Greece. There was no acknowledgement that the bailout's terms might be grossly unfair (they are), that they're likely to make a terrible situation even worse (they will), or that Greece is in chaos, misery, and despair. (It is.)
And what was most striking was the assumption the elite -- the 1%, if you will -- have veto power over the democratic process. In most of the commentary that flowed from the powerful and the press, a surprising number of world leader didn't even acknowledge that Greece had the right to its own democratic decision-making process.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, whose nation will benefit from "bipartisan" U.S. actions to create a free trade agreement between the two countries, said that "The world has plunged into fears again because of the Greek prime minister's radical step to hold a referendum." Closer to home, French President Sarkozy said that "the Greek's gesture is irrational and, from their point of view, dangerous."
The first part of that statement is a slur against democracy. The second part is, of course, a threat.
What's the Greek word for 'shafted'?
Few are asking who created the Greek debt problem, or who benefited. As in the United States, deficit-creating behavior primarily served the wealthy, the powerful, and the banks. Tax collections for corporations and the wealthy have been very low in Greece. And while tax evasion is commonly for everyone from taxi drivers to millionaires, it takes a lot of cheating cabbies to equal one rich tax dodger.
Bankers didn't give Greece these loans out of kindness, either. They saw an opportunity and they took it. That's why they're being asked to take "haircuts" and lose part of the loan repayment (a reasonable measure that hasn't been yet considered in the US mortgage crisis.)
Greeks are struggling with devastating levels of unemployment, a declining standard of living, and widespread social unrest. While the austerity measures imposed on it do include tax hikes and measures to reduce tax evasion, they will have an especially devastating impact on already hard-hit middle class Greeks. They're the ones who went to work, paid their taxes (wage earners were disproportionately taxed because of the evasion), and paid into their Social Security and health funds with the expectation these services would be available when they were needed.
It doesn't matter now. They won't get their say. Once again the elites were given veto power over democracy. A "bipartisan" revolt of politicians in both major parties made sure of that, and today George Papandreou is looking forward to joining the swelling ranks of Greece's unemployed.
The public's widespread dissatisfaction is understandable, and this stifling of democracy should raise even more fears for Greece's future stability than the referendum did. What will happen if the Greek people continued to be denied a place at the bargaining table as their fate is decided? Given that nation's troubled past, and its tormented present, there's always John F. Kennedy's quote to consider: Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.
But what does this have to do with us? We certainly don't face Greek-level problems. In fact, it serves the elite's narrative to suggest otherwise. Our currency is the dollar, which helps a great deal. We're a commanding world economy. We have the money and resources to fix our joblessness problem, if we only had the will, and we're not part of a larger group like the European Community.
Bet we are part of the G20, which this week reaffirmed its obsession on austerity measures even as Europe sinks under the weight of those already imposed. Washington's Powers That Be are still obsessing about austerity, too.
Here, as in Europe, public opinion is expected to take a back seat to the elites. Yet another poll has been released which shows that a majority of people in all age groups oppose cutting Social Security to fix the deficit. Past polls have shown that strong majorities of Republicans, independents, and even Tea Party member oppose such measures.
Yet despite the strong public objections, and despite the fact that there's overwhelming evidence these cuts are unnecessary and counterproductive, an elected "Super Committee" is likely to recommend them anyway. The usual Congressional rules have been waived in order to force their proposal to a simple up-or-down vote, with no possibility of filibuster and no chance to offer amendments. And US politicians will be under as much pressure to vote for this austerity measure as their Greek counterparts were.
The same week that democracy was under siege in Greece, the "Super Committee" heard from a blue-ribbon panel representing the austerity elite: a Republican hater of Social Security recipients; a Democratic member of Morgan Stanley's Board of Directors; a Republican ex-Senator; and an economist aligned with the Democratic establishment advocates for entitlement cuts. The activities of all four been funded by Republican anti-government-spending billionaire Pete Peterson.
In words that echoed those of the South Korean and French Presidents, the quartet told the unelected committee that if it fails to offer austerity measures which the public rejects, "We haven't got a prayer and neither have you." The elites have spoken: The public is to be ignored. Democracy's been vetoed.
Here's what they didn't teach us in civics class: Democracy has always been controversial. "Democracy... is a charming form of government," said Plato, "full of variety and disorder; and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike." He could sound like a Tea Partier at times. "Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy," he said, " and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty."
Plato's aversion to democracy is shared by a lot of powerful people these days. But politicians, especially those whose party derives its name from the democratic principle, would be better off remembering another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who said that "The only stable state is the one in which all men are equal before the law."
Representatives from groups that represent Social Security and Medicare recipients, the disabled, and the elderly requested an opportunity to address the Super Committee. They wanted to present their case for preserving these programs, a position that's supported by compelling evidence and supported by majorities in all political parties and of all generations.
Their requests were ignored.