There's an interesting experiment you can try for yourself, if you have a few spare chimpanzees, no academic oversight, and a glinting crystal of murder and malice where your heart should be. If you put an ape in a tiny cage, and subject it to periodic electric shocks, the creature will grow furious, smashing itself repeatedly against the bars, shrieking and howling, desperate to get out. What you then do is open up one side of the cage onto a deep chasm. If no chasms are conveniently available, you could try the roof of a sheer, high building. The chimpanzee will suddenly grow very quiet. It'll peer over the precipice, sniff the air, stare briefly into the emptiness in front of it, and retreat again. It'll become suddenly very anxious. When you shock it again, it'll sit by passively. It has the terror of the void now. It will suffer any indignities you throw at it in a stunned and broken silence.
This imaginary experiment is entirely unethical if you're doing it to chimpanzees, but it's also the European Central Bank's stated policy towards Greece. Ever since the first rumbles of country's debt crisis in 2009, its creditors have been subjecting the Greek population to monthly humiliations: benefits and pensions lacerated, new taxes thrown with the force of a ballistic missile, the reduction of a quarter of the country to the status of surplus life, all in the name of economic recovery. Throughout this ordeal, there's always been a kind of sadistic choice – if you don't like it, you can always quit the Euro, default on your debts, throw yourself into that empty chasm, and see what happens next. The expectation is that, like the neurotic chimp in its cage, Greece will always teeter on the brink but never actually make the plunge.
The Greek debt crisis is, of course, a banking crisis: unsafe practices from the financial sector threatened to cause an implosion of the entire industry, and so across Europe the state stepped in as the final guarantor of capitalist relations. Instead of taking over these banks, however, governments tended to just pour money into them – money they themselves had to borrow. Suddenly a banking crisis became a government deficit crisis – and in a spectacular ideological coup, the idea that this was because governments had spent too much on social programmes became the received wisdom.
Rather than bailing out the European banks directly, Greece's European creditors gave it a loan, and before long they were demanding interest. In the period from 2010 to the beginning of 2015, Greece borrowed €252 billion from the rest of Europe, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. Of that, €232.9 billion has been spent on interest payments, or been given to banks and speculators. Almost none of this money is actually going into the Greek economy, but each new loan comes with conditions: Greece has to take away more and more from its people, so that the creditors can have their profit.
But the latest raft of demands might have gone too far. On Sunday, the country will hold a referendum on its creditors' latest offer. The question Greece is being asked is a bit of a mouthful – "Should the plan of agreement be accepted, which was submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund in the Eurogroup of 25.06.2015 and comprises of two parts, which constitute their unified proposal?" – and also by now entirely irrelevant to the situation. The "plan of agreement" it mentions is no longer even an offer: Germany's confirmed that the deal is off the table, while the government of Greece stepped back from the edge yesterday, essentially caving in to all its "humiliating" demands and being rebuffed. But the real question is pretty simple. What the referendum is asking is this: do we give in, or are we desperate enough to push the big red button, the one marked "fuck everything up"?
What actually happens next is another story. The governments of France, Germany and Italy insist that a vote against the agreement would inevitably result in Greece leaving the Euro; the Greek government disagrees, but it no longer really has control over its own referendum. Nobody really knows what's at the bottom of this chasm. But these are some of the possibilities:
GREECE VOTES YES
The actual conditions being offered by the ECB and the IMF are no longer on the table, but this is still the condition they're hoping for. Prime Minister Tsipras, of the SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) party, has offered to resign in the event of a Yes vote; it's likely he'll be replaced by some putty-faced bank-appointed technocrat. There'll be an emergency loan, and then another loan to prevent Greece defaulting on its emergency loan, and then another to cover that one. Interest payments will be met. First Greece will sell its islands to Chinese billionaires, then its ruins to banking conglomerates that always wanted a nice Acropolis in their foyers, then its children to slave traders. The endless ranks of the unemployed, mere useless flesh, will fade away or be turned into fertiliser. Those that survive will be forced to dig through the dry, dead earth with their bleeding hands, looking for flecks of valuable minerals. You have to pay your debts. Death will be slow and painful, but before long the nation of Heraclitus and Aristophanes will be gone forever.
Likelihood: Moderate. Most polls predict a win for the No camp, but as Britain has learned, polls can't always be trusted.
GREECE VOTES NO, EVERYTHING IS FINE
This is what SYRIZA is hoping for. A No vote, they seem to think, will strengthen Greece's hand in negotiations: in the face of a clear popular mandate, the IMF and the ECB will have to grant some small concessions towards social democracy. Greece can keep the Euro, and initiatives will be introduced that will actually allow the economy to grow, so that the debt can be paid back in full somewhere down the road. Tsipras has always tried to position himself as a sensible pragmatist willing to work constructively with his European creditors. He seems to think that the people he's negotiating with are also nice, sensible types who believe in democracy and want everyone to live happily. In fact, they're pale, bloated, rapacious monsters who would tear the throats out a busload of children if they thought there was some profit in it. If Greece votes No, they'll want it to suffer.
Likelihood: Zeus will descend from the clouds with armloads of government bonds before this dream comes true.
GREECE GOES COMMUNIST
After a resounding No vote, SYRIZA ditches the Euro, nationalises the banks, purges itself of reactionary elements, re-expropriates the private property of the capitalist class, and sets up vast labour armies to begin the task of building a new, better future, in which nobody will ever suffer for another person's gain, and everyone can bring themselves to self-realisation.
Likelihood: It might still happen. It might still happen. It might still happen.
The major European countries have made no secret of the fact that they don't like the current government in Greece; if it keeps holding referendums they might decide to bring in a new one. There's a precedent here. After the Second World War, Britain and America brutally suppressed the popular Communist movement, sowing the seeds for a right-wing military dictatorship that lasted until 1974. Plenty of elements in the Greek deep state still remember the junta very fondly, and might be easily induced to relive their old glory days of bashing commie students with axes and sending their leaders to the firing squad.
Likelihood: Nobody's really talking about it yet, but higher than we might think.
GLOBAL NUCLEAR WAR
If you don't pay your debts, eventually a cop will show up. Disputes between creditors and debtors always come down to armed force, and armed force tends to be on the side of credit. In the 19th Century, war was standard practice in this sort of affair. France fought two wars with Mexico, in 1838-1839 and 1861-1867, when the latter refused to pay its debts. Tens of thousands of people died. In its long and storied history, war has always been Europe's strongest export. It can't be long before German planes are once more buzzing over Athens, before British death squads are again pushing through the countryside, before the Aegean is mined. Greece will have few friends, but there's one that might count. Russia is the traditional protector of the peoples of the Orthodox Church, and also the world's largest nuclear power. Warheads will pop like blisters on the face of an acne-scarred Earth, cities will melt in their Luciferian blaze, and it'll all be because some nice old Greek ladies couldn't collect their pensions.
Likelihood: Death is certain.
More about the Greek crisis: