Coups versus #coups

Last week, Greece was offered a loan package by its creditors. According to those who congregate around the #thisisacoup hashtag, this loan offer amounts to staging a coup. Military coups are serious events, and comparing this loan offer to a military coup is demeaning to anyone who has truly suffered in a real coup – such as the one which took place in Greece just over 40 years ago. Just as the use of the term “Nazi” to describe any policy you might not agree with trivialises the thousands of people murdered in gas chambers by the real Nazi party.

Orwellian doublespeak

Greek coup

The real (not #) coup in Greece, 1967

Many of the #thisisacoup tweeters will be too young to have experienced the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. I’m in my mid forties now, a lot older than most of those tweeters, and I was five when the junta’s rule ended. I don’t have first hand experience of any military coup, but the vivid second hand experience I do have of one that happened twelve and a half thousand kilometers away from Athens in 1973, a year before the end of the Greek junta, and which marked me profoundly as a child, makes my objection to this fatuous hashtag particularly visceral.

When you need a loan because you are living beyond your means (and have been for a long time), and someone offers you the loan you need, you may not like the terms of that loan. But if that’s the best that’s on offer you either take it or you leave it. The choice is yours. It’s not comfortable, but that’s what happens when you spend more than you earn. No one is forcing Greece to take this loan. Describing the offer, I repeat the offer, of a loan you are asking for, I repeat asking for, as being the same thing as an army driving its tanks in and taking control of your country at gunpoint, is a dangerous distortion of reality. That distortion of reality is related to the earlier one which landed Greece in such a hot mess in the first place, namely thinking you could somehow run a country with a bloated public sector and generous welfare and public pension provision, at the same time as having low tax collection.

It’s natural, albeit a little childish, for people to distort reality in this way. When reality – i.e. the fact that your past way of life was unsustainable – is hard to face, it’s tempting to disguise it. But let’s keep some sense of proportion and retain some level of decency here. Don’t compare a loan offered to you, albeit on what you think are harsh terms, to guys bursting into your house at night with guns and masks, raping your mother and kidnapping your father. Don’t compare  torturing people and making them disappear with offering them financial assistance, however punitive the terms.

Marineros contra Pinochet

My second hand experience of a coup came when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties, and my family hosted four Chilean refugee families. They were the families of sailors who had been locked up and tortured because they refused to back Pinochet’s coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Under pressure from Amnesty International, Pinochet’s junta released some of them on condition that they emigrated. Host families such as mine were where they stayed after they left incarceration, and while they were finding their feet in their adopted country.

Tank and guys on the ground

The real (not #) coup in Chile, 1973

We became particularly close to the second of those families, who stayed with us when I was around seven. My parents had a lot in common with  Theo and Rosalie, both on a personal level and in terms of values. Their son, Roberto, was my age and we were and still are close friends (even if we used to fight a lot). My sister was the same age as his sister Claudia. Later on they had a third child, Alicia, not long after my brother was born. It’s an over-used phrase, but they are like a second family to us.

For a few months after their arrival, when you would knock on Theo’s door in the morning to wake him up, you would find him at the window, ready to jump out and run away from the thugs who were sent to take him away and whom he still expected to be there – even though he was on a different continent.

I was a teenager when the last Chilenos stayed with us, a couple with two young girls. I remember the father’s face vividly to this day. He had a mustache, a shy smile and an eye patch, hiding the effects of the torture inflicted on him by Pinochet’s sadistic flunkies. It tool me a long time to be able to watch Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, and I thought of that man when Paulina described her torture.

When I think that the offer of a loan to a seriously indebted and chaotic country is being compared to experiences such as these it makes me furious. How could they be so callous, so tone deaf, so historically ignorant and so petulant?

Lessons of a real coup for today’s #coup

When I look back on those dark times I am more and more struck by the similarity between #thisisacoup’s followers and Pinochet. Let me explain. As someone who doesn’t think government intervention is a good thing, and is only able to achieve any limited good it can if it is kept modest and restricted in scope, I disagreed with Allende’s policies and agreed with a lot of Pinochet’s, particularly the mandatory pension funds – even though his capitalism was polluted by sweet deals between cronies and insiders, i.e. government intervention to hand wealth to Pinochet’s inner circle. But I didn’t care about economics. If the Chileans wanted to vote for Allende, let them. If it turned out to be a disaster, which it probably would, let them learn their own lessons and vote for someone else.

My view is that there are some things which are more important than others. Not kidnapping people and not torturing them is more important than any fiscal or economic policy. And as long as you allow people to vote freely and express their opinion without fear you will eventually grope your way to a workable solution. It may not be the solution – I don’t think we ever find the solution because I’m not a utopianist – but it works well enough and is the basis for future improvement.

What I found scary with Pinochet’s coup, apart from its obvious brutality, was its sinister utopianism. Pinochet knew what he wanted Chile to look like, and he was going to force Chile to fit that utopia at any cost, and no matter what the sacrifice. To that utopianism he sacrificed the people he tortured, the bodies he and his henchmen broke and tore, the women his henchmen raped, the families he scattered, the children whose childhood he confiscated by taking their parents away. These people, these bodies, these families were crucial parts of existence, and I would define utopianists as people who don’t think existence is good enough when measured up to their utopia.

What I find scary about the #thisisacoup twitterati is that they also know what the world should look like, and if the world doesn’t look like their vision it’s the world’s fault. Where Pinochet violently imposed his vision of a rigid and hierarchical society, #thisisacoup is intransigent in its demands for debt cancellation to support a large state and generous government spending, all this ultimately to fund their egalitarian utopia. Just as with Pinochet, the voters of the countries who are lending them the money and ultimately footing the bill, real human beings who don’t want to give them that money on the terms they demand, are dismissed because they don’t fit #thisisacoup’s utopian vision.

Allende of course was a utopianist too. That’s why I disagreed with his economic policies. But he was a democratically elected utopianist. The great irony is that Pinochet’s justification for his coup was that … this is a coup! (hashtags hadn’t been invented in the seventies). He claimed that Allende would make Chile a puppet state of the Soviet Union and would not allow elections in the future.

dale gribble

Democratically elected? That’s what they want you to believe!

Such conspiracy theories are designed to be impossible to disprove. You can’t re-run history to see what would have happened had the tanks not rolled in. The utopianists like Pinochet, and his friends like J Edgar Hoover, started from the visions in their heads and evaluated the tangible world around them by reference to those visions. Karl Rove’s aide, as reported by Ron Suskind in his brilliant article in the New York Times (17 October 2004) puts the premise shared by both Pinochet and  #thisisacoup, albeit from very different political perspectives, succinctly: “when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too.”

By describing a loan offered to Greece, not forced on it, as a coup, #thisisacoup is trying to create its own reality. Opportunistically equating a loan whose terms you don’t like to the violent political seizures of power which see people murdered and tortured is to create your own reality. So too is the petulant dismissal of the situation Greece is in. Greece needs this loan for its banks to re-open while staying in the Euro. That’s reality. If it wants to stay in the Euro, those are the terms. If it doesn’t, it can always adopt a new Drachma and print as many of those as it likes to fund its massive budget deficit and bloated private sector. European voters in the lender countries are saying “if you want to stay in the Euro here are the terms.” Greece doesn’t have to accept those terms. If it wants to accept those terms, don’t call it a coup. If it doesn’t, there’s the door. Good luck. It’s not a coup, it’s a loan agreement.


Many critics of the terms of the loan argue that Greece can never repay its debts, so why not just cancel them? Firstly because of moral hazard. If you let the Greeks off you penalise everyone who has been trying to balance their books, and discourage the very behavior needed to emerge from the European sovereign debt crisis. Secondly, because the only point of any partial debt forgiveness is to keep Greece in the Eurozone – if Greece leaves the debt is worthless, whether through default or currency devaluation or a combination of the two, so there’s no point in lending them a nickel in such a scenario. If Greece stays in the Eurozone, it will have to become more efficient and balance its books. But it doesn’t want to. So the only means of leverage on Greece to do what is required for it to be a viable member of the Eurozone are the conditions attached to its debt. Wipe out the debt and they will just go back to politicians hiring their cousins for phantom jobs.

Greece’s debt will be subject to a haircut at some point. But that haircut will be the eventual “reward” for reforms such as a significant shrinkage of the public sector payroll, liberalisation of industries with cosy deals that shield them from competition (such as the Greek haulage industry), and of the labor market – so that it becomes attractive for businesses to offer jobs to the hordes of unemployed young Greeks.