Neoliberal moralism and the fiction of Europe: a postcolonial perspective

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SADIA ABBAS 16 July 2015 published at OpenDemocracy.net
The Greek crisis reveals the way in which neoliberalism continues the instrumentalisation of internal critique that colonialism and neoconservatism have perfected.

Both in and out of Greece, much has been made in recent weeks of the amateurishness of the current Greek government, of its brinksmanship, of its confrontational style, of its inability to understand rules, of it’s squandering of trust. Let’s grant all this for a moment. However, if we take this critique seriously, then EU officials look worse not better than before.

They come across as petulant incompetents unable to deal with an unruly colleague (Yannis Varoufakis), annoyed at people who don’t wear ties, intrusive in their insistence that Alexis Tsipras wear one, so unprofessional that they let the fate of nations hang in the balance, destroying societies and lives because they are caught up in a squabble with a few colleagues they don’t like.

Moreover, the invocations of etiquette, codes, rules, and the repetition of cliches of fiscal rectitude and household thrift are part of the moral economy of a neoliberalism that manipulates people into thinking that nations can be run like households and life is a tea party, where all will be fine if one sticks out ones little finger while holding a teacup with delicate poise.

One of neoliberalism’s biggest successes has been to persuade people that if everyone just behaved with propriety and thrift, life would be better. If people have fallen for this story, it’s because this gives them the illusion of agency in an environment where there is a premium on precisely that agency. Capitalism tells us that we are in control of our destinies and can invent and reinvent ourselves at will, making money into the bargain.

That this is not really borne out by current events is beside the point. If the fictions of economic agency and responsibility have been so internalized, it’s not so surprising that people wish to believe that they have some control over the fiscal realities that govern their lives, and how empowering it must be, if one can believe that Tsipras wearing a tie and Varoufakis smiling nicely and speaking in tea party platitudes could make the crisis go away.
Tspiras’ visit with President Schulz. Photo via European Union 2014 – European Parliament, rights reserved.

The rhetoric of trust is perhaps most frightening of all. The Greeks are accused of having squandered trust, which assumes, of course, that they had it in the first place. Timothy Geithner’s revelations about Wolfgang Schäuble suggest that Schäuble had not forgiven Greeks for cooking the books in order to get into the Euro.

So the claim of squandered trust is a red herring, for there appears there was none for the Greeks to squander going into the room five months ago. But more important is the trust that Greeks (and the European people) are supposed to have in the Euro group and Schäuble and Angela Merkel–its most powerful members. This trust remains unnamed and is never allowed to be at issue. It looks suspiciously like faith – faith alone.

What’s being asked for is absolute faith in German power. This demand masquerades, however, as a demand for assent to the moral code of fiscal rectitude. Such assent would indeed be a form of faith – a submission to an inscrutable power that covers that demand in the language and law of social virtue.

Much has been made of the fiscal virtue of the “Protestant Northerners”, although I have seen no mention (surprisingly) of the Anabaptists of Munster. Apt surely? What needs to be remarked is that the fiscally virtuous leaders of Europe seem to demand the faith (trust) usually expected by a Protestant God.

Moreover, it’s hard to deny the feeling that German vindictiveness has much to do with the fact that the Greeks have exposed German hypocrisy and asked Germany to confront its own past, forcing open the contradiction in Europe in the process.

Perhaps in negotiating with infinitely more powerful partners with no accountability and having (on the Greek side) no power to enforce any violations of law (assuming that such protective laws exist) SYRIZA ought to have been more cautious and humble (funny the way pride and arrogance keep being mentioned as if all will be okay if humiliation is internalized). But what such a demand assumes is that abjection is the only acceptable posture in the presence of power.

If that is what Europe requires, then Europe is vicious. But then those from the colonies always knew that and the vindictive violence on display at the Summit is unsurprising to those who pay attention to Europe’s colonial history. From that view, Europe qua Europe has merely played true to type.

Europe has always been a fiction. From the point of view of the colonies, it has also been a vicious fiction. When Europeans talk about the ideals of peace and prosperity, of forgetting the violence of the two world wars, it is hard not to see this as a remarkable exercise in the creation of a collective innocence fully dependent upon an erasure of the past.

We are not to think of settler colonialism, racial slavery, the immiseration of the South and the East, the touting of the civilizational burden of what was in truth white supremacist colonialism, of the Congress of Berlin…. but instead are to fall for a romance of a European union based on rights, law, social democracy (which increasingly seems like a blip in the history of the world) and the ability of the European nations to befriend their past enemies from the two catastrophic world wars.

A significant element in this fiction is Europe’s ability to overcome its differences after the systematic eradication of populations within its own geographical space in World War Two (having already pursued such policies in the colonies). The romance of the European union was always to enable a certain amnesia, so perhaps it is not surprising that when asked about the analogy to the treaty of Versailles being made regarding the “deal” at the summit, the German Chancellor Merkel is reported to have said: “I never make historical comparisons.” Of course not!

The Greek crisis has also masked another huge challenge to Europe in the form of the refugees and immigrants arriving in Greece and the absurd burden the Dublin Regulations have placed on countries like Italy and Greece. Matteo Renzi’s outburst suggests that the immigration issue is as large a challenge to the limitations and brutal failures of Europe as the Greek crisis. Of course, the numbers of refugees arriving in the Greek islands is part of the crisis facing a government that simply hasn’t been able to govern. But the economic crisis has also enabled the question of the refugees to be sidelined.

Historical examples have abounded in the current crisis. For what is Europe without the heavy symbolism of destiny and history? And what is German thought without the symbolic importance of Greece to Herder, Winckelmann, Hegel? Sometimes the virulence of the German response seems to suggest that the Germans cannot forgive actually existing Greeks for being inconveniently and insistently who they are, given the importance of ancient Greece to the German intellectual imagination. At the risk of being florid, it’s inconvenient for that imagination that Greeks are not just broken statues, stripped of paint, in the world’s museums.

At the same time, references to Sarajevo before World War I, and the Sudetenland have swirled in the media and in many a conversation in Greece these past few weeks. For a project meant to fix history will, of course, summon historical analogy. And I have to say that I have found myself reaching for many historical references over the past few weeks.

At the moment, when I hear the language of rules and codes and etiquette, it seems to me that Eichmann in Jerusalem ought to be required reading. At the same time, all week it has seemed that an apt analogy for what’s happening in Greece is, in fact, Chile 1973 without the blood – the hashtag #ThisIsACoup seems right.

If we hold Varoufakis’ confrontational style and SYRIZA’s ostensible naivete responsible for all of this, instead of seeing the larger systemic tendencies and codes of which we should be taking careful stock, we will indeed be participating in yet another re-minting of colonialism.

This is not to say that corruption and cronyism are not endemic in Greece, but to keep in mind that, in using these problems as the sticks to beat Greece, neoliberalism merely continues the instrumentalization of internal critique that colonialism and neoconservatism have perfected.

For two weeks Greece has been held hostage and the very notion of sovereignty has been dying in plain sight and the world watches. It’s a situation familiar to the global South and the colonies. That its happening in Europe (yet again) although without a formal declaration of war makes every ones helplessness all the more visible.

If we can blame the least powerful leaders in Europe, we can retrieve the fiction of the benign truth of Europe and feel that we are indeed in control or, perhaps even part of the Elect. Apparently, we all have to be Protestants now. Onward etc., but most of all Sola Fide!

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