The new savagery

"The government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years with no help from the state.

"And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting... I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don't find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance."
—Dimitris Christoulas, in his suicide letter
Athens is on fire again, after the suicide of a 77 year old pensioner in an act of political protest and personal desperation. This wasn't a quiet, out of the way suicide. No, he carried it out in broad daylight, shooting himself dead outside of the Greek Parliament building. It was every bit as dramatic a statement as the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Saigon in the 1960s. Faced with government austerity measures that have slashed entitlement funding, many on the lower rungs of Greece's economy are facing an uncertainty and hopelessness which have been unseen in EU countries since the end of World War II.

Of course, Greece isn't the only EU member suffering. When states with weaker economies—like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Ireland—joined the common currency, the euro's strength flooded those countries with money and cheap credit. Both governments and citizens went on a shopping spree, until countries like Greece had debts of 150% of their GDP. When the crisis of 2008 hit, the house of cards collapsed, until now the EU is in a condition in which there are concerns as to whether the common currency can survive as it is. In some corners, even the EU project is in doubt.

The answer to the debt crisis is growth. If the indebted countries can get their economies to grow, they'll collect more tax revenue and can pay off their debts while meeting social obligations. However, the response to the crisis—pushed by a hardline Germany, the EU's economic engine, and main funder of the bailouts—has been crushing austerity, and only austerity. Every new bailout comes with the condition of more budget cuts and tax raises—and mind you, the tax raises are across the board, not only targeted at those who can afford them. Every credit downgrade elicits the same response: cuts in welfare payments, cuts in unemployment insurance, cuts in the minimum wage. Greece is in the fifth year of its "recession"; Spain has a Depression-like unemployment rate of 23%. All the indebted countries are bowing to the pressures of bailouts and credit rating agencies. It can be accurately said that democracy is on hold in those countries, as they implement measures dictated from abroad.

This is a new savage world into which we're entering. People are being made to pay for the sins of the banks who kept loaning the money without a concern for how such an irresponsible flow of credit would dislocate weaker economies. It's one more example of those with wealth and power using that wealth and power to acquire more wealth and power. Meanwhile, the rest of us are made to suffer once the bubble bursts, as it always does, because bubbles by their nature are unsustainable.

It's not just a European problem. If the Republicans had their way, they would make the EU debt crisis seem like child's play. The Ryan Budget is a monstrous hybrid of austerity for the poor and middle classes, and a tax giveaway for the rich and corporations. As President Obama said on Tuesday, it presents a radical view of America that upends any idea of a social compact which has governed this country's economy since the 1930s. The government's profligacy—which always seemed to increase the most under Republican control—would be paid for by those with the least, who depend on government programs; except, of course, that austerity would be cancelled out by yet more tax breaks for the rich, which would instead increase the national debt. The Republicans are no longer hiding their goal of redistributing wealth to the top; it's plainly out in the open, official party policy.

What would the real-world effect of the Ryan budget be? Well, let's take a look at one of our own community.

Her Twitter handle is @marabout40, and just yesterday the marshal locked her out of her apartment in Queens, NY, for nonpayment of rent. You can follow her timeline here. She's been jobless, one of the long-term unemployed, and her luck finally ran out. She spent last night in a basement with her dog Tucker. Thanks to the help of her online friends, she's piecing together a plan for both the near and middle term. The outpouring of support and offers of help is a testament to the community we've built on the pragmatic Left.

But what would people like her face under a complete Republican regime? According to the BBC report on the Greek riots, the suicide rate in Greece has gone up 40% since the imposition of austerity. Would we see the same here, as Republican budgets shred the last vestiges of the safety net? People like marabout—and we are all marabout—would be left to fend for themselves in a Randian experiment gone critical mass. We'd be thrown back to a time before Social Security, before unemployment insurance. The lives of those of us without vast resources would be nigh on to serfdom; we'd bend our necks to make sure we never lost a job: no union organizing, no demand for better wages or benefits. With only a tattered safety net—if any—corporations have all the power. Marabout has done everything right in her life, and she still fell through the cracks due to circumstances beyond her control. Those cracks would become chasms under a President Romney and Vice President Ryan, a Speaker Boehner, a Majority Leader McConnell. Use whatever term you like—fascist; radical; extreme. They all point to a dark picture of social Darwinism, where selfishness is the only defining trait.

The only thing we have to combat this new savagery is ourselves. The American media is owned by conglomerates who are more concerned with maximizing ad revenue than in fulfilling their role in a democracy and informing the public. Blogs like this, Twitter, Facebook: they're our media, where we get our message out, one by one, spreading it virally. President Obama realizes that he can't depend on the traditional media to transmit his views to the public. Instead, he has created a technological campaign that targets voters in a way that none of his opponents can even think of doing. All of this might just keep this country from going down the path of Greece, and stop Dimitris Christoulas from being repeated in our cities and towns.