Greek debt crisis: Let’s not return to the status quo

The Guardian, Thursday 13 May 2010

by Alexandros Stavrakas

If by “hope” we mean a feeling of yearning and expectation for something to happen, and by “change” we mean an improvement of our present condition, then this is Greece’s moment of hope and change – and it is an overdue moment indeed.

But, before this moment is lost in indiscernible patterns of technocratic parlance, financial speculation and micro-political concerns, we must grasp the true emancipatory potential it has – and act accordingly.

First off, this is neither a time for paroxysms of self-abasement nor for public displays of arrogance. The processes that led to this situation and the ways it will be handled from here on are respectively, the result of collective actions and common objectives and should, therefore, not be reduced to private psychological propensities. Talk of shame, as much as of pride, is self-serving and unproductive.

As recent events and writings have shown, a space has opened up where everything is on the table. Proposals and thoughts that a few months ago would have been met with contempt, or dismissed as obscure or radical, are now being seriously considered and openly voiced even in mainstream media. The validity of those proposals will have to be examined on a case by case basis, but the mere fact of their currency is in itself an important step forward. This space is gradually closing, and the task is to think and act before this opportunity is swallowed by the neoliberal demand to simply negotiate a solution in the interest of the very way of life that produced the predicament.

That is to say, instead of merely negotiating the terms of a bailout – namely the methods and processes of getting out of the situation that we are in –  we must reflect on our fundamental values and practices – the very ones that brought us where we are now. The sacrifices that, we are told, must be made by the Greek citizenry should be sacrifices towards an entirely different state of affairs. This is tantamount to abandoning our fixation with our so-called way of life that is repeatedly presented to us as a given because, at some point, it was decreed to be so.

Economic theory is not objective and, as Joseph Stiglitz eloquently put it, Adam Smith’s invisible hand was not, in fact, invisible; it just wasn’t there. Our collective decisions should not be the result of docility in the face of the constructed objectivity of the “facts” of economic theory, but the product of subjective and collective ideological resolutions. If nothing else, this will reinstate our status as ethical agents, answerable and responsible as citizens in the proper sense. Politics must be reinvented as the main point of reference of our collective coexistence and not be reduced to the muscleman of capitalism, an institution that simply enforces and legitimises financial decisions and objectives. The claims of ideology should trump the authority of statistics.

Whether it’s called “motivational deficit” or “learned helplessness”, many people in the west see themselves as incapable of effecting social change and resign to improving their particular condition, satisfying their pleasures and bettering themselves. But, the recent protests in Athens, where tens of thousands took to the streets, have shown that collective action and massive mobilisation can still exert pressure. Predictably, a large number of columnists patronised this event in various ways. The liberal’s dream world is one where every person individually is allowed to pursue his or her own flourishing, free from constraints and obstacles. In essence, the liberal just wants to be left alone and at peace. Demonstrations and protests are, obviously, not conducive to such ends. A widely circulated cartoon exemplifies their response: in the background, the Greek communist party has hung on the Acropolis hill a banner that reads “Peoples of Europe rise up” and, from below, a group of western liberals are responding: “Peoples of Europe say: Go back to work”. In other words, they are calling for a stop to the obstruction of the normal flow of things, whether in times of peace or, in this case, during crisis. They see this crisis not as a structural deficit of their own values, but as a temporary disruption that can only be overcome through obedience to the rational prescriptions of free-market economy.

There is a widespread attitude towards the left that criticises it for failing to deliver a viable, reliable alternative. A good majority of those who voice this concern endorse, in principle, many of the accusations that the left makes on liberal market economy but, having nothing to work with, prefer inactivity. This is detrimental, not only because passivity results in the strengthening and perpetuation of the hegemonic belief, but also because resistance, as much as endorsement, is a fundamental and ultimate duty of an ethical subject. There are a number of situations, globally and locally, that demand from us to take sides, to speak and act for or against them, not out of abstraction or mere fancy. There are causes we endorse and actions we condemn and we have a moral obligation to commit ourselves to them, lest we become removed dilettantes. Greece is one of them.

Greece – and, not to underestimate the importance of international politics, Europe too – is at a sorts of crossroads. The time frame within which to imagine, contemplate and put into action a different future for it is closing rapidly. We must not squander this unprecedented opportunity and end up with a short-sighted and short-lived solution. We must soberly examine all possible alternatives, radical or not. We must consider the long-term effects of our decisions. We must instigate debate and actively engage, following ideological convictions and visions without merely carving out an escape route from an uncomfortable situation that might turn out to be a dead end. There is work to be done from the ground up, and we will have to do it. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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