On 4th July 1776 a group of people living in America declared they no longer wished to pay taxes to another group of people, the British Government.
On 5th July 2015 a group of people living in Greece declared they no longer wished to pay interest to another group of people, the Troika or the bankers.
The words we use to describe these two situations are different (‘taxes’, ‘interest’, ‘government’, ‘bank’), but the underlying pattern is the same: refusal by one group of people to continue to pay to another group of people what the treaties, customs and practice of the day say they should do. And then indignation from the second group that the first should dare to refuse.
The consequences may be equally significant.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s the American revolution formed part of a wider zeitgeist of revolution and revolt: France against its own king from 1789-99, Haiti against France from 1791-1804, Argentina 1810-18, Mexico 1810-21, Venezuela 1811-23, Brazil 1821-24, and the Greeks themselves against the Ottoman Empire, 1821-32.
Back then the accepted structure of the day that came under repeated pressure was monarchy and colonialism. Change was resisted, but those structures were modernised.
Today the accepted structure that is coming under pressure is the way we have set up the our monetary systems. Push is coming to shove, the Greek people are pushing back, and the change they seek is being resisted.
But we know that Greece is not alone in its difficulties. Portugal, Spain, Italy and France have all been mentioned as possible candidates to leave the Euro. Puerto Rico has already announced it is unable to repay its $72bn debts. China is being described as a bubble. And US debt is perhaps $17 trillion or even $205 trillion. The structural problems that surfaced in 2008 are playing out, and like the Americans of 1776 the Greeks have said that they will no longer play by the old rules.
Just as 200 years ago, nobody really knows what the current global situation is or how it will play out. And just as Britain did with America 239 years ago, the banks will keep trying to force the Greeks to continue paying up. But the fact that there is conflict shows that there is potential for improvement.
In 1776 the British government failed, and the common theme between what then happened across the world and what is happening today in Greece is freedom: people saying ‘enough is enough’ and refusing to be dominated by others.
And there are three interesting predictions we can make about how the current situation might play out.
First is that although 200 years ago the changes seemed weird and were fiercely resisted, today we accept that the monarchy and colonialism of that time are inappropriate. Relations between countries, and between people and governments, have been improved and modernised to a system we like better, and the same can happen to our monetary structures. Iceland is already creating a different approach.
Second, we have the capacity to learn and change. Less than 30 years after it finally gave up trying to force Americans to remain part of the existing structure, in 1807 the British government voluntarily abolished the slave trade across its empire. Then it actively campaigned for others to do the same. It switched from being a suppressor of freedom to a promoter of it.
Like a character in a movie, we resist doing what we have to until there is no other option. Then we move fast.
And the third prediction is that the world we live in today is much faster than the world of 200 years ago, so any domino effect has the potential to play out much more quickly, and for the benefit of us all.
On 4th July 300 million people celebrated the freedom that came from a structural change that happened 239 years ago. 200 years from now we may celebrate the 5th of July for similar reasons.