Category Archives: World

To understand the politics of Islam you must look at its history

Islam has become one of the hottest topics in politics worldwide.  And yet the religion is little understood by non-Muslims. Instead ill-informed narratives gain currency, even amongst the better educated. It is a hard subject to get a grip on, but BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend, on Sunday broadcast an excellent item on combating Islamic State (IS). Each of the three introductory interviews was illuminating, but that with Washington Islamic history expert Haroon Mughal made things a lot clearer to me.

As with most areas of current politics, we need to get a historical perspective. Most educated people will know that Islam has two main denominations, Sunni and Shia, which arose from a split in the 7th Century over who was the prophet Mohammed’s successor as caliph. That, of course, remains an important fault-line, as followers of the two sects (and variations within) are intermingled in Iraq, Syria, Lebenon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Yemen, to name the main hotspots. The split may be compared to the Christian split between Catholic and Orthodox, but geographically it is much messier. Apart from in Iran and, to a lesser extent, Iraq Shias are in the minority – but they are politically more coherent because there have reasonably clear hierarchies and, perhaps, they are used to a greater level of challenge.

The Sunni realm too used have clear hierarchies and orthodoxies, sponsored, in early-modern times, by the Ottoman Turks, who held sway across most of it; there was even a (nominal) caliph, until the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922. But this orthodoxy was subject to challenge, and a Reformation of sorts took place in the 18th Century, led in particular by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Like the Christian Protestant Reformation, it urged a back to basics creed, that rejected the corrupt ways that orthodox Sunni religion was practised. There are two key things to know about Wahhabism, which is now the orthodoxy in Saudi Arabia. It emphasises the separateness of true-believing Muslims; others are condemned to hellfire and not worthy of consideration. The second is that it takes inspiration from the customs of early Arab days, most notably in its strictures on sex, women and crime.

Mr Mughal’s critical insight was that, unlike for the Christian Reformation, there was no Counter Reformation – a reinvigoration and counterattack by the orthodox. At this time the Ottomans were on the wane, and the orthodox structures were too weak to mount such an effort. That leaves a vacuum at the heart of Sunni Islam. There is a huge amount of scholarship which can be used to counter Wahhabism, but efforts to do so are weak and disjointed. Imams tend not to be up for the sort of intellectual challenge required. Meanwhile the Wahhabists have a clear message and are expanding their appeal. The ground has been prepared through official Saudi sponsorship of mosques and schools, which has spread throughout the world, and undermined orthodox teachings. Now more sinister forces are promoting Wahhabi ideas to the disaffected, in ways that a re socially corrosive.

There are two important groups of Wahhabist derivatives, both of which have a clear political agenda, that some refer to as “Islamism” . There are the violent ones (I don’t want to call them “Jihadis”, since it is important to preserve non-violent aspects of jihad, just as there are non-violent uses of “crusade”, a very similar idea), promoted by terrorist movements like al-Qaeda and IS. They have a millenarian interpretation of the scriptures: that the end of the world is nearing. They extend the Wahhabist ideas of separateness to the practice of violence against non-believers, not least Muslims that do not share their binary world view.  There are enough sacred texts and historical episodes from Islam’s formative years to allow a coherent narrative – even if their practices go against a mass of Islamic scholarship. This narrative of violence has a clear appeal to the disaffected looking for some kind of heroic way out of their dead-end lives. The second group is known as Salafists; they share much of the millenarian credo of the terrorists – but they are non violent. They advocate the withdrawal of believers from any non-Islamic political structures. Salafists are much more numerous than the terrorists, with a lot of strength in Egypt and Tunisia, but their doctrines of withdrawal reduce their political weight. Some politicians have tried to play them off against the terrorists, since they are able to argue the case for non-violence from a Wahhabist perspective. But this serves to entrench the basic, and socially corrosive, ideas of Wahhabism.

The critical question is whether orthodox Sunnis can organise themselves into putting together a vigorous, international counterattack on Wahhabism, and to win back the battle of ideas. The hope is that a confident, cosmopolitan orthodoxy can be established that offers a middle way between a godless  materialism that denies Islamic heritage, and the backward looking ideas of Wahhabism. This seems to be what Mr Mughal was advocating.

But such a Counter Reformation faces formidable challenges. The first comes from political power. One group that would love to promote such a “respectable” version of Islam are the military backed regimes of Arab countries, like Egypt. And yet the incompetence and corruption of these regimes is one of the things that gives the Wahhabist creeds a lot of their appeal. Any Counter Reformation has to keep its distance from such willing official sponsors. Another challenge, of course, is the rejection of Saudi sponsorship; we may hope that low oil prices will reduce this malign influence.

But the biggest challenge surely is to develop ideas that are compatible with the modern, cosmopolitan world. This means rejecting the paternalism of the current order -allowing young people more freedom to consort with the opposite sex and choose their own marriage partners, and to offer women more freedom and power all round. To say nothing of more tolerant attitudes to gay sex. This is a huge jump for many, older Muslims. To them the paternalist ways are something worth fighting for, and their religion is bulwark against dissolute modern ways.

Is their anything to learn from what has happened to Christianity? In Europe established churches are fighting a losing battle with materialism. They cannot find a viable middle way between an empty modernism and being perpetually behind the Zeitgeist. They remain the standard bearers for socially conservative values – which is perhaps why they have a strange obsession with sexual morals. This has parallels with modern Islam.

Still, in America it is a different story. Somehow American churches are able to find compatibility between traditional beliefs and the modern world. We may associate them with conservative strictures on abortion and gay sex, but they have moved on in the question of love and marriage, and the empowerment of women. American churches are fragmented and highly competitive. They have no choice but to adapt to the modern world, or else they will lose out to neighbouring churches, constantly juggling a mix of social conservatism and modern values. To my knowledge Muslim imams and mosques haven’t taken on such a competitive approach – but I don’ think there is any institutional barrier to it. This bottom-up way offers more hope, surely, than some kind of top-down institutional one based on learned scholars and high level conferences.

But, assailed by an ultimately futureless and destructive Wahhabism on one side, and the temptations of godless materialism on the other, orthodox Sunni Islam must change itself somehow.


Post Imperial thinking on the Iraq-Syria troubles needs to be challenged

Last week I watched BBC Question Time. Not something I do often, and not something I would care to repeat. It’s what happens when news is treated as entertainment. Three politician panellists put forth their careful platitudes, but at least showed some grounding in reality (none of them were in the Donald Trump school of politics). No doubt to spice things up the BBC added two journalists to the panel. They proceeded to spout a lot of provocative rubbish, in the way that you can when you are unaccountable for what you say. The audience chipped in with their own angry views. There was no time to unpick anything anybody said. It was all anger and provocation; there was no time for truth or solutions.

Syria came up as a subject, in the context of whether the RAF should extend its bombing to Islamic State targets in that country. It was striking that everybody seemed to think that Syria’s troubles were both our fault, and that it was our responsibility to sort them out. “Our” in this case being a rather fuzzy conflation of the the UK and the West generally. It is an attitude that I will call “post imperialism”. It is an advance on imperialism but shares much the same view of the world. It should be challenged.

The imperial era was at its height before the First World War broke out in 1914. In these times people in Britain and in other leading nations divided the world into three camps. On the one hand were the civilised countries, being the major powers: Britain, the USA, France and Germany at a minimum. Then there were the uncivilised or semi-civilised ones. The former had a positive duty to civilise the latter, and the favoured method was through colonisation, or other inclusion in an imperial domain. Then there were the countries in between: Russia, Turkey, Japan and so on, who were bit-players of different levels of importance.

Apart from a general mission to civilise, the major powers felt that empires were a good thing for the imperial powers themselves. This was mainly a matter of prestige, but various other economic and military benefits were widely touted. Failed states and political vacuums were therefore regarded as opportunities for imperial expansion. The main risk was of clashes between the rival powers. So the leaders of these major powers, and most of their people too, felt that what went on in any part of the “less civilised” world was their business. The doctrine of non-interference with the internal affairs of other states only applied to other major powers. China had particular reason to be aggrieved, as the major powers felt they could do what they liked, from grabbing port facilities to promoting the opium trade.

Post imperialism is definitely an advance. We now recognise that imperial possessions are more trouble than they are worth. Failed states are regarded as threats rather than opportunities. But there is still an attitude that the world is their business from the old colonial nations, and the US, and its implicit division of the world between the civilised and less civilised. It follows from this that practically any disaster anywhere in the world, outside a select group of stronger nations, is somehow the responsibility of these powers, and blame should be pinned on their political leaders. China and India are among the few big nations that reject this notion, with perhaps some marginal exceptions in their near-abroad. Russia shares the post imperialist attitude, but is bitter at being left out of the post imperialist club. The defeated powers of the Second World War, Germany and Japan, have more complex attitudes, it must be added and it wouldn’t be right to label them as post imperialist – though Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, wants to be.

But the trouble is that these post imperialist nations have no idea how to establish peaceful, thriving polities amongst the “lesser” nations. Do they back military strongmen, like Colonel Gadaffi, to preserve at least some semblance of stability and a functioning state? As soon as they do, these dictators push the limits to see how oppressive and corrupt they can be before they are rejected. This often leads to a catastrophic breakdown. Do they carry out “liberal interventions”, set up a new government and leave? But successes are rare (Sierra Leone perhaps) and the failures even more catastrophic (Iraq and Afghanistan).

So what we are left with is an incomplete “do something” idea, which involves finding some villains and hitting them with advanced weapons while keeping as few servicemen as possible in harm’s way. This has never worked, of course. But even some quite respectable people, like the Economist magazine, seem to favour it as better than nothing, which is a doubtful proposition.

So what do I suggest? We should step back and not assume that the great powers are ultimately responsible for any political mess that arises. There are plenty of more local people that can take the blame for the rise of IS, for example. Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki for his combination of malign neglect and downright oppression of Iraq’s Sunni tribes. The leaders of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for stirring the pot without any interest in establishing a stable alterative. And Bashar al-Assad, who, though more competent than Mr Maliki, knew no other form of governance than outright oppression. And yet, with the exception of Mr Assad, criticism of these figures in the west is muted. It is much more fun to blame Tony Blair or George Bush. The record of both these men is atrocious, but it really isn’t helpful to keep blaming them as if they were the only grown-ups in the room. All that does is encourage the local powers to keep stirring the pot in the hope they will get western arms – or prestige from defeating them.

In the long run, the situation will only improve when the local powers start to practice mature statesmanship. The should be establishing diplomatic solutions with each other rather than fighting proxy wars and seeking to get outsiders involved. That will only start to happen when the western powers let go. No doubt limited humanitarian interventions will still be needed. But at some point we must grow up and admit that we are imperial powers no longer.


Barcelona: Europe’s capital of modernism

The outside of the Sagrada Familia, approaching its Nativity Façade,IMG_3083 was extraordinary but somehow familiar. It has become Barcelona’s most famous landmark. But I was not ready for the inside. The soaring columns; the vaults like a giant forest canopy; the different coloured light coming in through the stained glass windows. This basilica seems little more than half-finished but it completely overshadows the city’s fine and (mainly) medieval cathedral. And that is evident from the numbers who go and see it. That sums up Barcelona very nicely.

Last week was my first visit to the city. What struck me most was how at ease the place is with the modern. Two eras stand out. First was the later part of the 19th Century and early 20th. This was the when the Sagrada was started, and, in common with many major European cities, Barcelona exploded in size. The genius of architect Antoni Gaudi stands out, but the general self-confidence and exuberance of the architecture is striking. By comparison London building of the era seems obsessed with past forms, from medieval Gothic, to classical to, even, old Venetian architecture. Meanwhile Gaudi’s naturalistic forms foreshadowed Art Nouveau, and now look timeless. For much of the 20th Century, when Fascists and Communists held the initiative, brutal straight lines and right angles held sway, in an effort to show the superiority of human endeavour over the natural world – and Gaudi’s modernism looked whimsical and irrational. And yet there is nothing whimsical or irrational about natural forms. Gaudi’s architecture is functional and his forms resolve to simple mathematical principles. Nowadays we understand this better, and the Sagrada’s interior looks uncompromisingly modern. Such vision, lasting over such a stretch, is rare. London never truly embraced this sort of modernism. Paris dismantled much of its wonderful Art Nouveau pieces, like its Metro station entrances. Viennas’ Secession movement fared better, perhaps, but the surviving examples have the air of museum exhibits.

Barcelona’s second period of modernist self-confidence started in the 1980s, after the pall of civil war and fascism was lifted, and was revealed to the world at the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. This second period has not ended. Apart from accelerated progress on the Sagrada, and its successful integration of Gaudi’s vision with modern engineering, there is a lot of confident modern work. This is most visible on the coastal part of the city. This stretches from the beach-side facilities and marinas with their focus on leisure, to the highly impressive modern port facilities. And in the suburbs there are modern residential areas, smart modern factories, and sweeping roads and bridges. Barcelona is an old city. At its heart there are ancient buildings and narrow medieval streets, all built on Roman era foundations. But I have not seen such an ancient place wear its modernity with such ease.

What of Barcelona’s politics? It is hard for a tourist to say much based on a week’s visit, simply looking tourist sites. The Catalan independence flag, the Estelada, was everywhere though. The evident strength of the Catalan independence movement draws an obvious parallel with that of Scotland in the UK. But I was struck by its different historical origins.

Catalonia is an older political entity than Spain itself, but has never had a period of full independence. Its spell as part of Moorish Al-Andalus was brief; its political origins were as a frontier region of Charlemagne’s Christian empire, and as such it looked to France for political and cultural leadership. This was not the case with all of modern Catalonia, it must be said, as the southern regions remained under the Moors for much longer, but it was true of Barcelona, which emerged as the area’s principal city. The connection with southern France was much diminished after the crushing of the Cathars in the 13th Century.

Catalonia developed its own political structures in the medieval periods, including a proto-parliament, and became part of the wider political entity of Aragon. It flourished as a trading entrepot, until it was eclipsed by ports with better access to the New World.  In the 15th Century, with the Moors being pushed back towards Granada, Aragon and Castile were united to form the basis of modern Spain. Spain in turn formed part of the wider Habsburg empire. These political entities were sensitive to local political structures,however – more resembling the union of British crowns under the Stuarts in the 17th Century than the United Kingdom of the Act of Union. But the Spanish Bourbon monarchy which replaced the Habsburgs in War of Spanish Succession, and in particular the crushing of Barcelona on 11 September 1714, after a long siege, brought an end to that. Catalan patriots date the era of Spanish oppression from this infamous date. Catalonia regained a degree of autonomy in the 19th Century during Spain’s political turmoil, and when industrialisation took off. This was crushed by General Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.

But, of course, the picture is complex one. Barcelona drew in migrants from all over Spain. Its cosmopolitanism no doubt contrasts with the rural conservatism of Catalonia’s Pyrenean villages. I can’t begin to predict how Catalonia’s future will play out. What I can say is that Barcelona’s modernism, and its whole feel, is very different from the rest of Spain. It feels closer to the heart of Europe. And it is a wonderful place to visit.



The Chinese test the limits of a state managed economy

Political commentary on economic growth operates between two poles. On the one side the right argues that the state should get out of the way, and allow entrepreneurial businesses full scope to do their thing. On the other, the left says that growth is driven by investment, much of which must be directed by the state to be effective. Both are right, of course, and the balance depends on the circumstances. But China offers a fascinating case study in this discourse.

Until the rise of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China offered a good example of a failed, state-led economy, alongside the Soviet Bloc amongst others. The economy was made up of state owned enterprises (SOEs) and state directed cooperatives, operating according to production quotas, all part of a state plan. But the economy took off as the shackles of state control were released.

This seems to follow the right’s playbook, but what happened was in fact much more subtle. The state quotas and SOEs remained in being, but a private sector economy was allowed to flourish alongside it. This contrasts with what happened in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. There, following the advice of right-wing US economists, the state system was dismantled, with SOEs sold off and production quotas abolished. You can’t be half-pregnant, these advisers suggested. That was disastrous, of course. The SOEs were acquired by well connected crooks, who formed a governing oligarchy. Essential state support systems collapsed. A flourishing economy did not emerge until a natural resources boom saved things.

Meanwhile, China’s pragmatic approach delivered spectacular growth, which led to a rapid diminution of poverty. After a first phase in which private enterprise transformed agriculture, a growing private sector flourished in producing manufactured goods for export. It was one of the most brilliant acts of economic government the world has ever seen. They took no advice from westerners. But the Chinese governing elite was left with some difficult questions. Sooner or later the SOEs and political structures would present limits to growth, and would have to be reformed. Commentators, inside and outside the country, confidently predicted that the Communist Party would have to release its grip. But that is not how things have played out.  The Party did reform SOEs to make them more responsive to market economics, but they did nothing that would threaten its own monopoly of political power.

Instead, as the 21st Century has progressed, a new model of growth has emerged. Alongside a vigorously competitive private sector, a massive programme of state-directed investment has sustained growth. That meant growth rates of 10% or so, even through the world recession of 2008/09. Something like 35% of Chinese national income is directed towards investment, much of it through SOEs. This has now swung towards the left-wing model, and those suspicious of capitalism and democracy have taken inspiration. A wise government, unconstrained by the petty-corruptions of democracy, has led the way to continued spectacular advance – and throwing out all that austerity nonsense too.

But, as Martin Wolf writes in the FT this is all coming into question.  The Chinese economy is slowing down. To an outsider this might look like an orderly transition. Growth rates of 7% are still high by almost anybody’s standards; the government’s aim of moving to an economy led by consumption rather than investment looks natural enough – this will improve the wellbeing of the Chinese people. And yet deep flaws in the Chinese model are being exposed. China has rather little to show for years of massive investment – at least in terms of economic returns, rather than monuments in steel and concrete. And behind the investment lurks piles of debt – representing the savings Chinese people. Chinese productivity has been static.

And slowing the growth rate from 10% to 7% may sound easy, but it creates real strains on financial systems, with all the time lags built into it. It implies a much larger dislocation. But with a stock of useless investments, SOEs who are not used to making themselves more efficient and effective, and a financial system threatened by excessive debt, doubts are growing about how feasible even 7% is as a growth figure. And since China plays such a big part in the world economy, it is no wonder that financiers across the globe are getting jittery.

This has some resonance in domestic politics in the developed world. The left’s criticism of austerity policies since 2008 has been virulent, and joined by many respectable macro-economists. Surely, they suggest, the state should have shored up demand with a programme of investment. Labour leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn’s economic proposals are thick with this sort of thinking. But this only works in two circumstances. First is that the pre-crash economy was sustainable, and can be revived quickly, so all that is needed is to cover a temporary lapse in demand. In this event it hardly matters if the investment itself is useless (digging holes and then filling them in, and so on). But in Britain at least there was good reason to question the sustainability of the pre-crash economy: a large current account deficit, a structural deficit on state finances, a bloated finance sector, a declining oil and gas sector. Besides it is all now a bit late.

The second way in which investment can shore up an economy is if that investment produces decent economic returns in due course, allowing debts to be repaid. The unfolding problems in China are showing what happens if investment is badly directed. There are plenty of other examples (Japan is another good one). The trouble is that the more you try and turn investment on and off like a tap, to regulate the macro-economy or in an explicit drive for growth, the more likely investment is to be wasted. The money is directed according to political imperatives, not economic ones. This is something that macro-economists, who don’t like to look behind their beloved aggregated and averaged statistics, often miss. In the UK the criticism that the government did not invest enough after the crisis remains a valid one – but it would not have been easy to pump in the sort of funds that the wider economy needed to keep on an even keel.

Time will tell on China. Its leaders are not to be underestimated. But they are demonstrating that you can have too much state direction for a healthy economy.


Is the Euro worth saving?

Anglo-Saxon economists were always sceptical. And so was much of the British establishment, though less so in the early days. But sponsors of the European dream were determined. And at first European Monetary Union defied the sceptics. But now the dreams are vanished and the only people defending the union seem to be those that have face to lose. Is it all over for the Euro?

It is Greece that seems to prove the scheme’s futility. The Greek government cannot repay its debts; its banking system depends on a bankrupt government for solvency and the European Central Bank (ECB) for liquidity. Greece cannot print its own money to inflate its way out of the hole. Instead European institutions and the IMF have to bail it out, and they are demanding conditions that add up to a loss of the Greek government’s sovereignty over its economic policy. Both sides blame the other, and the more the blame game goes on, the more trust and solidarity break down. The Euro is tearing the union apart, when it was supposed to bring Europe’s peoples together.

It doesn’t take hindsight to see what went wrong. Mostly the scheme’s weaknesses were pointed out at the start. Its supporters (who included me) just thought that this time it would be different.

Monetary policy is set at continental level, and yet there isn’t a great deal of economic integration. In order to adjust to local business cycles and local economic shocks, national governments have only a very limited set of tools. And the most important, fiscal policy, is constrained by the Stability & Growth Pact. This was instituted to try and prevent member governments becoming insolvent, a contingency that the zone had no process to deal with. This made it quite unlike a federal system, like the US, the only comparable monetary system that most knew. In the US there is a strong federal level of government, which draws substantial taxes from all parts of the union, and can make big fiscal transfers between the union’s members to compensate for the lack of monetary flexibility.

Funnily enough the problems with this set up did not play out in the way that most critics foresaw.  They thought that different business cycles or local shocks in different parts of the union would be the big problem. This happened – especially when the central economies of Germany and France endured recession, while peripheral economies, such as Spain and Ireland fizzed. But these were not the main cause of the crisis that emerged following the global financial meltdown in 2008.

The first problem was that investors assumed that member governments could not go bust, and that if they got into difficulties somebody would bail them out. As a result, it became much easier for the peripheral governments to borrow, and this allowed them to run their economies with a looser hand than they should. This was most egregious in the case of Greece, who produced misleading economic statistics, which put their government into a completely unsustainable position. And when it was clear Greece could not repay its debts, the system had no set of processes with which to manage the crisis.

Perhaps Portugal and Italy were guilty of something similar without the fraud, though Italy has not needed a bailout. But the other bailout cases (Spain, Ireland, and Cyprus, though I am less confident that Cyprus follows quite the same narrative) the main problem was not government finances, but a reckless private sector that fuelled property bubbles. What added fuel to these bubbles was cross-border flows from elsewhere in the Euro area, and especially German banks. The Euro system had greatly facilitated such flows. When the bubble burst, it brought down the countries’ respective banks, and this in turn draw their governments down with them. Governments couldn’t let the banks go bust, since they controlled local payments systems and economic chaos would have resulted. Like Greece these countries then needed external support and bail-out.

The important point to make about this series of crises was that they were to great extent “endogenous” as economists like to say – they have to do with the way the system itself operated – and not exogenous – the external shocks and uncontrollable factors which most economists thought was the system’s weakness. That suggests that bad systems design was a large part of the problem – and that, in theory, could be fixed. Most suggest that it implies a fully federalised system, with a federal government, supported by federal taxes and federal debt. An alternative route would have two main elements: a national insolvency regime (a bit like US states, but not Puerto Rico, which is on the path to creating a US version of the Greek crisis); and banking reform to produce a more federalised banking system firewalled from member governments.

But either route would leave member governments facing a grim reality. The Euro offers a straitjacket for government finances, and not a liberation. In the fully federalised case, the scope of government responsibilities would be curtailed and handed over to a federal government. In the alternative governments would be heavily restricted by their ability to borrow in financial markets (which would do away with the need for the Stability & Growth Pact). This latter is, in fact, what many supporters of the Euro (including me) envisaged all along (though in my case I completely failed to grasp the difficulties of managing the banking system). It was rather a Thatcherite project. But others thought EMU would be a step along the path towards a federalised Europe. It was the unresolved conflict between these two visions of the Euro that got the system into its current mess.

And this conflict is still unresolved. But the federal vision is losing ground; there simply isn’t the political support for it. That doesn’t stop people in the European Commission from quietly pushing for it though. But those who aren’t convinced by the federal idea, aren’t convinced by the multi-state currency area alternative either. Why opt for a straitjacket? Wouldn’t it be more democratic and easier to say goodbye to monetary union altogether and let each country go its own way with its own currency?

And I don’t have the answer to that. One thing I will say is that the quality of economic commentary in the media is pretty dire. From this you would think that the advantages of having a floating currency make doing anything else foolish. But all Economics students are asked to do an essay on the pros and cons of floating currencies, and frankly it is not that obvious that either route is a winner. As a rule, the smaller and more open the economy, the more there is to be said for a fixed currency regime – which is why the Euro is popular with so many smaller EU members. Floating currencies reduce the effectiveness of fiscal policy, especially in such small and open economies. The rather loose fiscal policy of the Britain’s government in the 2000s caused the exchange rate to be too high, leading to a trade deficit and a hollowing out of British industry the country still have not recovered from. By contrast Germany has been able to maintain its industrial base within the Euro, albeit with some painful restructuring.

And a floating rate does not prevent banking bubbles. Iceland had one in parallel with Ireland, with its own currency. Recovering from the bust best no less painful for Iceland than for Ireland, though arguably not really any worse either.

But setting up a more secure banking system across the Euro area is no small thing, and its feasibility is an unknown. Against this, taking the Euro apart would be a huge undertaking, so there is there is much to say for trying to make it work on a rather less ambitious scope. Inertia is on the side of the Euro. But the starry-eyed enthusiam is gone




Greek crisis: the problem is loss of trust

The leaders of Greece’s Syriza government are clever people. They include university academics, well versed in modern economics, including game theory and the theory of negotiations. After yesterday’s decisive No vote in the referendum on settlement terms, these negotiators now feel they have a strong hand. I don’t share their optimism.

Unless you believe the conspiracy theories that Syriza’s real aim is to create a Venezuela in the Mediterranean, they appear to think that their EU counterparts and the IMF will be forced to negotiate because the consequences of not doing so are dire. What they seek are two things. First is that the level of government debt be reduced through forgiveness. The second is that the Greek government has a free, or freer, hand to follow an economic policy of its choosing, supported by fresh funding, primarily in the form of support for the Greek banking system by the European central Bank (ECB).

On the face of it neither of these requests is all that unreasonable. The moral case for debt forgiveness is a sound one. In the modern age more responsibility needs to be pinned on creditors to lend responsibly, and to suffer losses otherwise. The lending made to Greece before the crisis was not responsible, although misinformation from the Greek government contributed. This moral case is softened but still stands after two things. The Greek debt has already been substantially restructured so that the country’s interest rate burden is proportionately less than even Germany’s; the net present value of Greece’s debt is not nearly as high as you might assume for its nominal size. And now the debt has been taken over mostly by government agencies; the private sector banks that originally lent the money have mostly been paid off, after significant losses were forced on them.

And as for economic policy, the nominal Greek aim is to set up a virtuous circle of increasing demand that will help the economy to recover, so that its banks can repay the ECB, and that other lending becomes more sustainable. There is a familiar, Keynesian demand management logic to this. I think this is why so many respectable economists (especially based far away in the US)  support the Greek government’s standpoint. There is also a powerful argument about democracy – surely a democratic Greek government should choose its own path to a sustainable economy? The sight of so many unelected functionaries dictating terms to the Greek government has angered not just Greek citizens. I have seen many comments this morning about how the Greek referendum vote was a blow for democracy. The People have spoken!

So what’s the problem? International leaders are masters of fudge and pragmatism. Surely some kind of face-saving formula can be found that will be better than the consequences of a collapse of the Greek banking system? This is now a clear and present danger. Greeks having been withdrawing deposits from their banks, making the system insolvent. Since this looks like a temporary problem, the ECB has been prepared to prop the system up with emergency funding, awaiting the return of those deposits once a new deal has been struck. But last week this support was cut off, as the confidence of European governments was shaken about the ability to do any deal, when the Greek government called the referendum. With the referendum done the outgoing Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, suggested that this funding would return while a new and more reasonable deal was in prospect. Mr Varoufakis, who had taken to lecturing his European colleagues on basic economics, even resigned to make such a deal easier to negotiate.

But all negotiations are built on trust. You have to believe that your counterpart will stick to their side of the deal. And this has always been the problem with Greece and its creditors. What these creditors fear is that the Greek government do not put their economy on the path to true sustainability, and that it and the country’s banks will continue to need injections of foreign money without any real prospect of these being repaid. And this further support will have to supplied or underwritten by fellow European governments. There is little feeling of solidarity with the Greeks from other European electorates. Better off countries, like Germany, Finland and the Netherlands are outraged about the prospect of more taxpayers’ money being sent to countries that they see as feckless. Many east European governments, like Slovakia or Lithuania, are poorer than the Greeks overall, and see no reason to let the Greeks off; in some cases they have been forced to endure harsher austerity regimes than the Greeks were. Governments in other countries that have been subject to bailouts, Spain and Portugal in particular, do not want to give an easy victory to Syriza, lest it encourage similar movements in their own countries.

And why isn’t the Greek economy sustainable? This is a familiar combination of corruption, clientalism and ineffective government. Tax collection is inefficient; many benefits are too generous; there are too many meaningless publicly funded jobs. Many Greeks are entrepreneurial and hard working, but overall the economy does not pay its way – consumption is sustained by net imports. To create something more sustainable would require a programme of reforms, most of which would be politically unpopular. They would also suck demand out of the economy in the short term, i.e. they involve what has become known as “austerity”. Some theoretical economists, like Joe Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, seem to think that economic reform programmes can be designed without austerity. But this requires a favourable context and an efficient government – which does not apply here. The commonest way for such reforms to be imposed is through the government following a programme designed by outsiders, such as the IMF. Or else it is the threat of such an intervention that forces governments to act. These outsiders become convenient scapegoats, but in the longer term the reforms may be popular, as they deliver a healthier economy.

But the hidden background to the current crisis is that the Syriza government has not offered any convincing programme of reforms, while reversing reforms enacted by its predecessor. You wouldn’t guess this from listening to their smooth-talking spokespeople on the international media. But the Syriza movement contains many with more extreme, anti-foreigner views, limiting the government’s ability to act. The IMF in particular have found their plans utterly unconvincing. Politically they seem happy to go after rich people to tax them more. But rich people’s money is a notoriously elusive quarry; and the government is unwilling to take on any other reform with a political cost.

So what are the European governments to do? They are the critical parties on whom a deal depends. They have been humiliated by the referendum. Their electorates are telling them to not throw good money after bad. Their expert advisers suggest the Greek offers of reform are unconvincing, which means that the crisis will simply repeat itself. Over the years they have increasingly embraced an idea that had been unthinkable: that countries may be able to drop out of the Eurozone. The political costs of a negotiating failure have never been lower.

So what might happen? This depends in some measure on how well-prepared the Greek government is for this moment. If they have in their back pocket a credible compromise deal that saves some face for the European governments, we might pull back from the brink. Mr Varoufakis’s resignation is a good start, it has to be said.

What are the ingredients of such a deal? The Greek banking system must be at its heart. The banks must be recapitalised using external capital. They need to be insulated from the Greek government – in other words the money supplied by outsiders shouldn’t be simply channelled into government debt. Something needs to be offered to reduce the principal of older debts – though perhaps the interest bill can be kept intact. The Greek government can then be left to work its own way out of its short-term economic problems.

Such a deal would point towards the sort of reforms that might make the Euro more sustainable. Separating the banking system from government, with a more centralised regulatory and ultimately deposit insurance scheme. A resolution system for insolvent governments that means debts can get written down quickly. More nominal freedom for government fiscal policy – with discipline forced by bond markets, not EU agencies.

Such a deal would be a way forward. But it still needs trust. Alternatively the Greeks will have to create a quasi-currency of their own to keep their banks afloat – a first step towards the Euro exit. I am not optimistic.



The European dream slowly unravels

I am one of nature’s political optimists. But 2015 is one of those years where it is all going wrong. The Lib Dem near wipe out in this year’s UK General Election, for one thing. The rise of Islamic State is another – along with the spread of vicious Islamophobia promoted by such outfits as Britain First. Meanwhile state after state in the Middle East and Africa is failing, with vicious dictatorships taking hold in other countries. This gives Israeli hardliners the cover they need advance their own brand of apartheid, and the ghettoisation of Gaza. Any attempt at finding a humane middle way is undermined by extremists of one sort or another, in country after country.

And now, as Gideon Rachman points out in yesterday’s FT, the European dream is dying before our eyes. The idea of ever closer European union was one of the formative ones in my own politics. In 1975 I was a 17-year old that was definitely ready to vote in that year’s British referendum on Europe. I’m not sure why it should have caught my imagination so – I grew up in postwar prosperity, where the World War was just an interesting piece of history. I suppose I found British society so staid and constricting that I wished for its institutions to be subsumed into something much more modern and exciting. I meet many people of my age that feel the same way though.

But apart from opening out British society and commerce, the EU represented a path towards civilised governance and prosperity for the undemocratic countries on its fringes. Greece was the first country to take the path of throwing off dictatorship and coming in to the mothership of Europe. 35 years on and the achievements look hollow. Greece took on the trappings of a well-managed European democracy but did not take it to heart. It remained run by a rich elite which did as it pleased, while bribing the rest of society with generous pensions and meaningless public sector jobs. They became artful in keeping that show on the road by extracting grants and loans from the rest of the union at the same time as disregarding rules they did not like. They even managed to join the Euro, reducing borrowing costs, and allowing the fiction of a properly functioning European state to continue. But sooner or later the music had to stop. And when it did the foundations of the European project looked shallow. There is an absence of trust and solidarity.

The Greeks themselves, or at least those that govern them, seem in denial about the sort of reforms that will be needed to get them on the path to prosperity. They claim to be victims, condemned as to doom-spiral of “austerity”, with many Anglo-Saxon economic commentators (Noble Laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz among them) cheering them on. But dig a bit deeper and we find that words such as “austerity” and “reform” have been abused so that a lot of the dialogue is at cross purposes. The Syriza government wants to reform some aspects of the Greek state, but sees no problem with those aspects that I have referred to as “bribery”: maintaining ineffective public sector jobs and unaffordable state benefits, such as pensions.This leads to the suspicion, especially amongst Germans, that all the Greek government want to do is to keep the old, failed way of running the state on the road, lurching from bailout to bailout, using moral blackmail each time.

The Germans, of course, are hardly blameless. Their banks kept the Greek show on the road, in the apparent anticipation that their government would bail them out if things went wrong. That expectation proved sound enough – most of the bailout money went to them, and practically nothing towards providing the investment the Greeks so badly need. The Greek government’s moral case is not entirely hollow – but their combative approach to negotiation is destroying trust. No wonder that British Eurosceptics urge the UK government to emulate such tactics in their dealings with the EU! Even now the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, suggests that a No vote in the forthcoming referendum is just a step in the negotiation, not a real moment of decision. Those European leaders who have been trying to fudge things to get a deal, like Claude Juncker, the President of the EU Commission, feel betrayed.

The prospect of Greece dropping out of the Euro and then the EU is steadily growing. This would be a calamity for Greeks, and raises the prospect of yet another failed state. As more than one commentator has suggested, if the Greek ruling elites had what ti takes to run an independent monetary policy, they would not have got into this mess in the first place. It would mark a big moment for the EU too. Its first major defeat. But it has limited powers; it cannot make an unwilling partner reform itself.

And old Europhiles like me must wake up and acknowledge the truth behind that. Our dream cannot be fulfilled. The EU is a confederation, not a federal state. It cannot bind its members by force of arms, as the United Stares did when some of its members tried to secede over 150 years ago.

The question now is whether the EU can survive a Greek exit, or will it be the start of a general process of disintegration. Greece is not the only country to be a cause for concern. The other bailout cases -Spain, Portugal and Ireland – were always more serious about reform and integration, and I do not see these as being of immediate concern. Cyprus, with its cultural ties to Greece, may be different. But the future integration of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are far from secure.  At least they are not members of the Euro.

Greece seems to be the lesson that the EU learns by. After its entry to the Euro, the EU became much stricter about allowing further new members. After its flawed bailout, which let many private sector investors off the hook, it was much stricter with Cyprus.

But what is emerging is a different Europe. One where much less solidarity is expected. And one with an Exit door. It is a system of rules and standards that facilitate free trade, environmental cooperation and good governance – but one where it if you fail you are out. Integration is not necessarily in one direction. The union will no longer be ever closer.

Into this sad situation the British Prime Minister David Cameron enters with his attempt at British renegotiation, leading to a referendum. This may seem to be the last thing that Europe needs. But Mr Cameron’s negotiating skills are far more advanced than Mr Tsipras’s, and he is showing much more application than hitherto. This cloud offers a silver lining. It may define a looser union, but if the British public votes to stay in it will offer a counter-narrative to the slow disintegration that is happening elsewhere. Such is what is left of my European dream.


Greece: can you have reform without austerity?

The standoff between the Greek government and most other EU governments continues. The other governments are happy to extend loan facilities, but only if Greece stands by the conditions it had previously agreed. For the Greeks that is anathema, because it means holding to austerity. Many observers here in Britain seem to sympathise with the Greek side. And they offer a middle way: reform without austerity.

Three columns in the FT make the case. I have provided links, but beware – the FT operates a paywall with a very limited number of free goes. First was the weighty (intellectually) Martin Wolf. He condemns the EU programme for focusing too much on austerity and not enough on reform. Austerity sucks demand out of the economy, causing mass hardship; reform would make Greece’s economy more efficient. Next came the intellectually much lighter Tony Blair: Two false paths for Europe – and a new third way. This puts the idea into more overt political terms, though conjuring up memories of his own British “third way” that was politically successful for a while, but whose reputation is now somewhat tarnished. As an aside this is interesting because it shows that Mr Blair accepts uncritically the basic left wing economic narrative – looser fiscal and monetary policy will lead to growth. On Monday was regular FT columnist Wolfgang Munchau: Athens must stand firm on failed policies. This is positively vitriolic about the EU conventional wisdom on austerity, which he regards as economically illiterate and a complete failure. This article contributes to the picture by exploring Greece’s options in the event of breakdown, including the intriguing one of the country printing its own money.

So what to think? Austerity refers to the reduction of public spending and the increase of taxation. It is considered economically counterproductive because it sucks demand out of the economy, which in turn knocks tax receipts – which makes things worse by creating a downward spiral. In Greece’s case the object of vitriol is the target that the government should run a primary budget surplus of 3% , to pay for debt interest, which comes to about 3%, after the recent restructurings (and a remarkably low figure for debt of 175% of GDP). Surely even prudent governments should be allowed a deficit in a recession? So what about reform? It is here that each of these commentators is awkwardly silent. Just what on earth do they mean?

Economic reforms to promote efficiency usually mean changes to product and labour market regulation to make them more open to free market forces. These are undoubtedly required in Greece.  But they promote short-term insecurity to jobs and businesses. They are not politically popular, and I doubt very much that there that the Greek public distinguishes between these reforms and austerity. They all part of the same hateful phenomenon.

And the problem goes deeper. Regulation tends to create public service jobs., which deregulation threatens. Besides it is the scale of the public sector, both in terms of jobs and transfer payments, that is a large part of the problem. In several ways this undermines a dynamic private sector. They tie up resources; they undermine labour markets, and so on. For too many people the way to wealth involves politicking rather than delivering things that people actually need and want. And so reform often means cuts – which is back to austerity.

In fact to find ways of stimulating demand without blocking reform is quite hard. There is the economists’ old favourite: investment. But efficient public investment requires an efficient state to direct it. Otherwise the money simply lines the pockets of well-connected people. Surely Greece is vulnerable to this? More bank lending? Another can of worms. Frankly I will not be convinced that reform without austerity is a possibility until somebody can spell out a programme which delivers it. The Greek government is proposing a reversal of both austerity and reform. Once again British (and American) economists are guilty of using macroeconomic analysis to skate over practical problems that turn out to be the very heart of the issue.

There may be some hope a middle way though. Perhaps some fudge around economic cycles can be used to cut the target for primary surplus. And there must be some opportunity to reshape the austerity/reform programme to put more weight on collecting tax from wealthiest – which the new Greek government seems much better placed to do that the last.  Alas I am too far away from it all to have any feel for how likely such a deal might be. All I will say is that British commentators are generous with the taxpayers’ money of other nations, but their credibility would rise if they suggested that British taxpayers should join in. All the talk of respecting Greek democracy would then be put into a clearer perspective.

Meanwhile it seems quite likely that there will be some kind of Greek default. Following Mr Munchau it looks quite likely that the Greek government would issue some form of electronic currency of its own, in the from of IOUs, to keep things going. This may well be against the letter of the rules for the Euro area, but it could buy enough time for a compromise to be reached. And perhaps the development of a safety mechanism for the Euro currency area. The Eurozone needs to find some sort of middle way between the inflexibility of a gold standard, and the creation of a federal state without democratic consent. Might what amounts to local currencies be part of this?

Meanwhile, as the saying goes, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. That is surely the case for reform without austerity. Sorry Mr Blair.



How far will liberals go to defend their values? Putin poses the question.

Liberal values are under attack by people happy to use violence to stop their advance. Two main groups of attackers have emerged: various flavours of Islamic extremism, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This onslaught is causing stress for traditional liberals.

We are used to dealing with constitutional opponents: from the collectivist ideas of the left to the social conservatism of the right. But these opponents play by a set of rules which, though they include some manipulation of the media, by and large do not involve killing people. The debate is engaged on liberal terms and settled democratically. But what happens when our opponents do not accept such rules? What happens somebody else has declared war on liberalism?

We have an ideal that we defend ourselves using the minimum level of force, while trying to move the dispute on, and into a liberal and democratic form. In particular we want to maintain peacetime rights and methods as far as possible – since the idealisation of war is itself a rejection of liberal values. This is largely appropriate as we confront Islamic extremism. This is guerilla activity from within our societies. But there are some types of threat where we have to accept something far from the peacetime ideal. Hitler was stopped in Stalingrad, by forces whose methods were no less ruthless than his own. Sanctions and a peace conference would not have liberated Germany. The problem arises when a state decides to project its military power to evil ends. In recent memory we have the appalling example of the former Yugoslavia. There the state power of Serbia was used to promote ethnic cleansing. Liberals in the West tried to step back, not takes sides, and talked of promoting dialogue. But to Serbia this was just weakness. It was not until the appalling massacre of Srebenica that Western countries realised that they had to take sides.

And now Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses a similar threat. Ethnic cleansing may not be on their agenda, though defence of Russian-speaking people is supposed be one of their motivators. The Russian aim seems to be to maintain the power of its ruling elite, not just in Russia, but across a broad sphere of influence outside. This involves a cordon-sanitaire of neighbouring client-states, and undermining the multinational organisations of NATO and the EU that represent opposing value systems. In this they are building on a deep sense of Russian otherness to the rest of Europe, and widespread suspicion, or outright hostility, to liberal values. Persecution of gays, for example, is something of a totem. The Economist this week has published an analysis, though some might doubtless it to be a little paranoid. Russia is prepared to use a projection of military power to secure its aims, and it is also projecting “soft power” of propaganda and sponsorship of extremist political parties, such as the National front in France. They are deploying great subtlety on both fronts, having learnt much from previous adventures, for example in Georgia.

And I worry about the reaction here in the West. I recently had a din-dong on Facebook after somebody started posting a series of stories (from respectable sources) to suggest that the Kiev government were a bunch of ruffians and that we should leave them to their fate. I will quote at length from this conversation, perhaps stretching Facebook etiquette a little (Facebook is regarded as “semi-private”, but the person publishing these views is using a political label rather than their own name, so I feel fewer scruples about quoting them here).

We are talking apples and oranges. You seem to be more concerned with the geo-political battle between Washington and Moscow. Liberals should be more interested in protecting the rights of minorities in Ukraine rather than standing up for a nationalist state who wants to crush opposition by violence. Very few people seem to be speaking up for the innocent civilians caught up in what is a classic proxy civil war, with the USA and most of the west supporting and funding one side and the Russians the other, no doubt with covert support. The constant blame game by both sides means little to people who have had their homes or family blown up. 
There is no military solution for Kiev, Putin will increase his support for the rebels to match anything that we can provide. Even if Kiev could conquer the rebel territory, what then? Journalists who have been there report real anger by local people with the Kiev government. In the Ukrainian parliamentary elections last October in government held areas of the Donbass the turnout was less than a third and in those areas less than 20% of voters voted for government parties. There clearly needs to be proper political dialogue between Kiev and the rebels, anything less than this will prolong the misery for everyone. It was not a wise move for Kiev to declare war on their own people and call them terrorists. Kiev is very dependant on western financial support, we need to start pressuring Kiev to stop breaking international law on human rights and war crimes and start entering serious negotiations with the rebels as we did with the IRA. Russia needs to do the same with the rebels. Ultimately, this conflict needs to be resolved by the will of the people through a proper referendum not through violence.

This is interesting because it is largely accurate on the core facts. The people of the Donbass never trusted the Kiev government; the war has polarised their views against it; a projection of Russia’s military power means that a military reconquest by Kiev looks impractical. The Kiev government has been responsible for indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, and some fairly robust enforcement of its conscription laws, which can, of course, be described as violations of human rights.

But hang on. Moscow’s intervention is what prevented any kind of peaceful or constitutional solution. The “anti-terrorist operation” by the Kiev government was only started after the “little green men” had appeared to stiffen up the rebels, and persecute anybody that supported a united Ukraine. Russia was building on genuine discontent by the people of the Donbass, but ultimately it was and is a projection of Russian military power. It is not wrong to respond to such a projection of power by military means, and if the Ukrainian government had not, the “rebels” would control a much broader area of territory – to say nothing of encouraging the Russians to push their luck elsewhere. And when wars start, things get messy – especially when the  Ukrainian military is not the fully modern, professional and well-equipped forced force that we are used to seeing in the West. They have not, so far as I know, bombarded civilian areas that were not part of a military conflict zone (i.e. containing Russian weapons) – unlike the indiscriminate recent attack by Russian rockets on Mariupol, or, indeed, the attack on MH17. Finally, the Ukrainian government has the backing of its citizens in the areas it controls, even Russian speaking ones, as Kiron Reid’s article in the current edition of Liberator makes clear (and also my limited personal contacts in the country).

The best chance of promoting liberal values in Ukraine remains a strong government in Kiev that is aligned to the West in outlook, if not formally a member of NATO or the EU. The current government is the best prospect so far of achieving the sort of reforms that will push back the influence of the malign oligarchs and security aparatchiks that are the hallmark of the Putin way. It is clear that the sort of peaceful settlement that Russia would allow in Ukraine would fatally undermine such a government and give it (or its puppets) a veto over any serious effort at reform. Liberals in the West can’t use the familiar formula from Yugoslavia that there is bad on both sides, and wash their hands of it. We must take sides. This does not necessarily mean supplying arms, still less military assistance, though we should not rule out such support on principle.

It is not just the people of Ukraine that would suffer if Ukraine is humiliated further. There is no reason to think that Russia’s adventurism will end there. The Russian elite has never accepted the loss of the Baltic states, all of whom have large Russian-speaking minorities.  Russian adventurism there could involve Western, and British, troops.

At its best liberalism means the defence of the weak and the promotion of universal human dignity. At its worst it can be camouflage for avoiding difficult choices. In the face of the lethal threat posed by Mr Putin, please let it be the former.


Syriza’s victory. This is going to end badly for somebody

Last weekend the anti-establishment, far-left party Syriza won the general election in Greece, and did better than most people forecast. Under Greece’s unique electoral system, which gives the largest party a bonus of 50 seats, they almost won an overall majority. Guardian journalists jumped for joy. For them it showed that their hated austerity policies can be challenged and beaten. Elsewhere there are quite a few calming voices; things can be worked out, seemed to be attitude. Both views are naïve.

First, in fairness, a couple of positive things need to be said about Syriza. The Greeks have been badly let down by their political establishment, represented in two political parties: New Democracy and Pasok. And yet it is these establishment parties that have been entrusted with sorting the mess out so far. Syriza are coming to government with fresh eyes and should be in a better position to clean things up and distribute the burden more fairly. They should certainly be given the benefit of the doubt for now.

And one of their central positions, that Greece should be forgiven much of its debt, is perfectly coherent. We need more caveat emptor from buyers of sovereign debt. Repayment of debts is not a sacred duty that comes before basic human needs. A more liberal attitude to debt is one of the ways in which progress can be made in unfamiliar economic environment we find ourselves in. There are, of course, trying consequences to such liberality: it will become more difficult to borrow.

That I think is were the more moderate commentators start. But difficulties with Syriza’s position start come thick and fast after that. This is what Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras said immediately after his victory:

Greece is leaving behind catastrophic austerity, it is leaving behind the fear and the autocracy, it is leaving behind five years of humiliation and pain. Your mandate is undoubtedly cancelling the bailouts of austerity and destruction. The troika for Greece is the thing of the past.

This is rage against austerity: the need to cut back government expenditure and raise taxes in response to the economic crisis. And this is what those Guardian writers like. The left wing narrative, applied to countries as diverse as Britain, France and Greece, runs something like this. In the 1980s a malign conventional wisdom infected the governments of the western world: neoliberalism. This sought to reduce the scope of government and regulation, and in its place rely on free markets.  All this did was to enrich an elite at everybody else’s expense. And it ended in banking madness that led to economic collapse in 2008. And yet these neoliberals remain in charge! They have used the crisis as a reason to pursue austerity policies. But these policies are an evident failure: everywhere they have been applied growth has been stagnant. When will the world come to its senses, reverse austerity and let growth return?

Syriza’s victory will test this narrative to destruction. The first problem is the debt renegotiation. Sovereign debt is about 175% of Greek national income. This sounds unsustainable. Surely all Syriza is doing is asking for common sense to be applied so that everybody can move on? But all is not what it seems. The size of that debt is a bit of an accounting fiction. Debtors have already conceded a lot on both interest rates and repayment schedules; the debt is not anything like as burdensome as the headline figure suggests.

And there are powerful reasons for preserving that accounting fiction. First, outright debt forgiveness is unpopular right across northern Europe – and not just Germany. Conceding ground on it will nourish the far right from France to Finland. And of course, it will undermine mainstream governments in Europe’s periphery: Portugal, Ireland, Spain and even Italy. The original Greek deal, put together with the hated Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF) was an elegant compromise designed to balance these destructive forces. The best the Greek government can hope for is a bit more of the same fudge. Allowing Greece to drop out of the Euro and the EU would be very destabilising for the rest of Europe; but it is hardly clear that conceding a lot of ground to “renegotiation” (a euphemism I have always hated) is any better.

And then there are those austerity policies on which the Troika have insisted. These are often portrayed as economic nonsense by the left, because of their effect on aggregate demand, which leads to a sort of doom loop. That is indeed a problem, but their fundamental aim is to put the Greek economy on a sustainable footing. Government expenditure and taxation were way out of line with each other; Greek industry was internationally uncompetitive. Unless these problems are tackled no solution is credible, which means that nobody will lend the Greek government money. Read the more thoughtful “Keynesian” critics and you will suggest that stimulus is focused on initiatives that do not undermine sustainability – infrastructure investment is a favourite. And that, as I have pointed out before, is not as easy as it appears.

Now the Syriza leaders are not stupid, even if some of those Guardian commentators are. Elements of their programme address the issue of sustainability: improving tax collection and targeting the wealthy elite more effectively. But many of their promises seem to go in the absolute opposite direction – reinstating government jobs and raising salaries; reversing changes to employment protection.

Now it is possible to sketch out a fudged way forward; changing the balance of Greece’s reforms, allowing a little more short-term slack, and a little more debt rescheduling.  But how is this “leaving behind catastrophic austerity”? It is impossible for Syriza to meet the expectations it has raised. The Vox Pops broadcast by the BBC over the last week or so suggest that the Greek voters themselves largely understand this – which is one reason to think that maybe such an outcome is what is in store. Mr Tsipras will simply follow the trail blazed by France’s Francois Hollande. In that event it will be the far left in other countries that will be left empty handed.

But a Greek exit from the Eurozone, and the EU, is the other likely outcome. If that happens Greece will indeed have banished the Troika and liberated itself from its debt burden. But the austerity that the Greek populace have suffered to date will look tame.

There is very little middle ground. This is not going to be an easy year. Behind that we can see a flaw in the leftist narrative. The economic policies of the 1990s and 2000s did not just benefit a wealthy elite in developed countries; benefits were spread right across society, including an expansion of government programmes. But these advances were built on sand. Lacklustre growth since 2008 is shaped by fundamental economic forces. It is the new normal. We had better get used to it.