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2010, the debt crisis is in full swing and is making headlines in all media. Six years later, exceptionally low interest rates temporarily put aside discussions of « too much » public debt and repayment problems. The refrain of the « excessive public debt » usually gives rhythm to our daily life, the decisions regarding it sealing the fate of the great majority of the population, whether in Greece, Belgium or Argentina. Let’s go back in time to better understand the stakes of this case.

In recent years, the blackmail of the « debt system » has become all the more visible as bank bailouts have turned a banking crisis into a debt crisis. This blackmail and the domination of creditors are, however, far from new. Without going back 5,000 years as David Graeber does(1), we can evoke not ancient Greece, but the newly independent Greece of the early 19th century. A little less than 200 years ago, European powers, which already formed a Troika (United Kingdom, France, Russia), joined forces to force this country, the cradle of democracy, to take on new debts in order to repay the old ones. While the suspension of Greek debt in 1826 is usually explained by the high cost of the war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, international factors, beyond the control of the Greek authorities, played a very important role. Here too, the causes must be sought in the financial crisis that had occurred a year earlier, with « in December 1825, the first great world crisis of capitalism following the bursting of the speculative bubble.(2)

The same period, but on the other side of the world, in Haiti, where the uprising of a people displeased some who used debt as an instrument of coercion. After three centuries of slavery, the Haitian uprising routed the French army and the declaration of independence abolished slavery in 1804. The French demanded in 1825 the payment of a sum equivalent to 21 billion dollars today to recognize the country’s independence and renounce a new invasion. 

Inherited for many countries of the South from the colonial era, the debt has allowed them to remain under the tutelage of the Northern powers. After World War II, countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa needed capital to finance their development. 

The loans, operated by three major actors (private banks, Northern countries and the World Bank), were far from disinterested and were widely used to support the strategic allies of the United States and, conversely, to put obstacles in the way of policies seeking economic independence (Nasser in Egypt with the nationalization of the Suez Canal, N’Krumah in Ghana, Manley in Jamaica, Sukarno in Indonesia, etc.) In 1979, Paul Volcker, the head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, decided on a sharp increase in U.S. interest rates. The fall in commodity prices and the increase in interest rates decided by the United States led to a debt crisis for many countries. Indeed, interest rates on loans to Southern states were low, but variable and tied to U.S. rates. In August 1982, the debt crisis broke out and Mexico became the first of many countries to declare itself in default. The IMF intervenes and imposes its procession of remedies that will only stun the patient, the Structural Adjustment Plans (SAPs): cuts in public spending, export-oriented agricultural production, total opening of markets by removing customs barriers, VAT increases, privatization of public enterprises (non-exhaustive list)… 

The austerity policies imposed in Europe since the banking and financial crisis, which later turned into a debt crisis, are of the same type as the structural adjustment policies that have been applied for 30 years in the countries of the South, resulting in widespread poverty and increased inequality. To return to the Greek situation, which perfectly illustrates the global situation, the conclusions of the Commission for the Truth about Greek Public Debt, chaired by the President of the Parliament Zoe Konstantopoulou and coordinated by Eric Toussaint, are without appeal: the vast majority of the Greek debt is illegal, odious, illegitimate and unsustainable(3). This did not prevent Alexis Tsipras from signing a third memorandum in September 2015 (just as illegal as the previous two). 

This same blackmail, already present in the 19th century, is visible in recent weeks and some, such as Alexis Tsipras, do not hesitate to speak of restructuring(4) on an air of victory, omitting the whole series of anti-social measures that continue to be imposed on the Greek population (lowering of pensions, reduction of the number of employees in the administration, increase in taxation of households and companies…) continuing the ongoing humanitarian crisis largely caused by the « solutions » brought by the Troika since 2009. 

The debt « crisis » represents an apparatus of capture and redistribution of social wealth(5), a strategy. It is a governmental device, which is not neutral or « technical », but is eminently political and the expression of power relationships. 

Robin Delobel

Notes et références
  1. David Graeber, Dette, 5000 ans d’histoire, Les Liens qui libèrent.
  2. Pour lire l’étude complète La Grèce indépendante est née avec une dette odieuse, Eric Toussaint voir :
  3. Pour en savoir plus :
  4. Nous questionnerons dans un prochain article ce terme, loin d’être la panacée.
  5. Comme Maurizio Lazzarato dans son livre Gouverner par la dette.

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