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In January of this year the Coalition of the Radical Left, known by its acronym Syriza, became the largest party in the Greek parliament, and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, became prime minister at age 40. In 2009, when Tsipras was first elected to parliament, Syriza had polled just 5 percent, but in the intervening period the political establishment had lost all credibility. Greece was onto its second bailout and the boat still seemed to be sinking: unemployment was over 25 percent; hospitals were scrambling for medicines; graduates were emigrating; a fascist party had sprung up. The election promised to change all that, as Sarah Leonard reported for The Nation:

“Hope is coming!” That’s the slogan that Syriza, the left-wing Greek coalition party, used throughout the campaign to distinguish itself from its fear-mongering opponents on the right. But on the night of January 25, as Syriza won almost 36 percent of the vote and ascended to power, the slogan could have spoken for all of Europe. In a tent in Athens’s Klafthmonos Square, a marble plaza dotted with Coca-Cola kiosks, banners from all the rising left parties in Europe—Podemos of Spain, Die Linke of Germany, the Left Bloc of Portugal, as well as various social movements, including the rainbow LGBT flag—waved proudly. Greek leftists and their European allies broke into a riotous rendition of “Bandiera Rossa,” the Italian socialist anthem. Die Linke members carried signs reading “Change in Europe Begins in Greece.” The international left seemed raised from the dead. Athens was celebrating a miracle.

A few months on, the miracle looks more like a mirage. Syriza took charge in the midst of a liquidity crisis; creditors refused all appeal to their better instincts; the treasury requisitioned cash reserves from universities and embassies as if squeezing the toothpaste one last time; prominent party members began sniping at the leadership. Elsewhere leftist parties received batterings in France and Britain, partly at the hands of the far right. Hindsight is of course cheap. But it’s still worth reflecting on the euphoria surrounding what was, at bottom, merely a democratic election in which (simplifying only a little) the portion of the electorate that used to vote for the old socialist party, PASOK, decided to vote for a new socialist party untainted by compromises and corruption.

The sudden enthusiasm for Greek politics in certain quarters—Jacobin has devoted at least ten opinion pieces to Syriza in the last five months, while In These Times published a primer offering eight lessons for American progressives—seems to derive from a perception that American radicals once again have a team to root for, or at least to feel betrayed by. From an economic perspective, however, Syriza’s manifesto, the so-called “Thessaloniki Program,” consisted mostly of common-sense Keynesianism—fiscal stimulus, welfare increases, schemes for job-creation, suspension of foreclosures and so on—combined with a promise to arrest privatizations and revive the national broadcaster.[1] Relying on massively enhanced tax collection at the national level, the holy grail of Greek public finance since time immemorial, and debt forgiveness at the European level, which would almost certainly cost Angela Merkel her next election, the plan was radical mostly in the sense of being unrealistic. “I asked one Syriza member about the impossibility of the party’s position the night before the election,” wrote Leonard. “‘At each stage,’ he told me, ‘we have created our own reality.’”

If Syriza encouraged the electorate in the fantasy of moving mountains of debt through sheer willpower, it also spoke to the Ur-fantasy of politically engaged intellectuals: politics as seminar. It is true that a bad loan implicates the lender as much as the borrower. It is true that the average European citizen would benefit from allowing Greece to recover before repaying. It is true that a trade surplus somewhere requires a trade deficit elsewhere. It is true that Germany’s desire to have monetary union without fiscal union represents a refusal to commit to the European project on whose virtues it is so quick to lecture others. And it is certainly a great pleasure to have these truths spoken to power by a dashing rogue like Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister. The trouble, as we have been discovering, is that it is unclear what role the expression of truth actually plays in political struggle. At times it threatens to become an end in itself, a closed loop that gratifies our intellectual pride at the cost of short-circuiting the process of achieving real change.

Not that everyone in the seminar is on board with Varoufakis, mind you: some of his colleagues point to another truth, that national sovereignty and the euro cannot coincide; others worry that an “erratic Marxist” (as Varoufakis describes himself) is really no Marxist at all. For Syriza turns out to be ideologically disparate in rather complicated ways, having been formed through the merger of sixteen different leftist parties, some of which—like Tsipras’s faction—were already coalitions composed of several warring elements. And Varoufakis is not even a member, though he does sit with the group in parliament. Such labyrinthine complexities are of course common in political groupings driven more by theoretical concerns than the desire for office. (What have the E.U. ever done for us?) Little wonder, then, that so many of Syriza’s politicians are academics by trade—many seem to have been based abroad until recently—with ministers being drawn from disciplines including economics, physics, criminology, ecology, philosophy and history. As Alexander Clapp put it in the London Review of Books, “Tsipras’s cabinet is full of people with Ph.D.s more familiar with ‘governmentality’ than with governing.” Given that a sizeable majority of these people seem to have passed through Anglophone leftist academia, their milieu is effectively equivalent to that of the average Anglophone literary journal. Little wonder, then, that we were so optimistic in January: we finally felt represented!

There may be a sense in which the Greek crisis is indeed our era’s Bolshevik Revolution or Spanish Civil War, namely that it has become the destination of choice for what we might call “political travel.” Political travel involves immersing yourself in the domestic concerns of another country on the basis of their putative significance for the world at large. This can involve the desire to be there when it all happens, but it doesn’t have to—what is crucial is the desire to throw your heart and soul into mastering the internal complexities of a far-off land, in hopes of being there intellectually when it all happens. Political travel is easy to mock, but at root it reflects a perfectly respectable desire to understand your world and to change it. The problem is that like any travel it runs the risk of turning into tourism: the consumption of an “other” neatly packaged to fit into our existing mental landscape without disturbing or unsettling it.

There was a lot of (mostly leftist) political tourism over the last century, from extreme cases like Foucault on the Iranian Revolution to more forgivable ones like Chomsky on Chávez or Zizek on the Arab Spring. But the archetypal political tourist was probably Lord Byron, who joined the Greek struggle for independence in 1823. For the Romantics, Greece had become more of an ideal than a real place. In the preface to Hellas, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed that “the modern Greek is the descendant of those glorious beings whom the imagination almost refuses to figure to itself as belonging to our kind, and he inherits much of their sensibility, their rapidity of conception, their enthusiasm, and their courage.” Byron adopted his friend’s view that the struggle for Greek freedom represented the struggle for human freedom in general and decided to do what he could. He arrived to find that the war of independence had degenerated into a civil war. Despite his complete lack of military experience, he took into his employ three hundred soldiers—who seem to have viewed him as little more than a checkbook—and prepared for an assault on the Ottoman fortress of Lepanto. A few weeks later he took ill, and a couple of months after that he died. Contemporary Greece treats Byron as a national hero, but his contribution consisted mostly in persuading the British public to issue massive “loans” that were largely wasted on corrupt warlords and extravagant equipment.

Not everyone who travels to Greece in search of political action is a Byronic tourist, needless to say, but his example should still give us reason to watch our step. The Greek debt debacle provides a good test case. For some it shows how the welfare state can harm public finances; for others it shows how public finances can harm the welfare state. There are many more positions, obviously, but the question in each case is whether the view represents a genuine effort to come to terms with the particulars of the situation or an attempt to subsume it under an imported schema. Sometimes the facts on the ground really will confirm your prejudices; more often they will only appear to—that is, after all, the way that prejudices work. We make no claim to expertise on Greece; we know only what we have read and seen. But it is notable that among the theories that we have encountered there is one that seems to have been almost completely absent from leftist discourse.

It’s all very well saying that national debt isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be, that national finances can’t be compared to household finances, and so on, but absent a crisis there are surely good reasons to avoid racking up too much debt. It is therefore worth asking where the Greek debt came from before the recession. The most common answers are that the introduction of the euro allowed the government to borrow at artificially low rates and that the relationship between center and periphery within the Eurozone will tend to create surplus in the former and debt in the latter. Both may be true, but between 1993 and 2008 the Greek debt-to-GDP ratio only rose from 100 percent to 113 percent. (It now stands at 177 percent.) In 1980, by contrast, the ratio was only 23 percent. The real question, then, is what happened between 1980 and 1993.[2] An econometric study by George Alogoskoufis found that the primary cause of debt accumulation from 1979 to 2009 was a steady increase in primary public spending (i.e. excluding interest payments) of around 0.4 percent per year as a proportion of GDP, coupled with “positive shocks” during election years, regardless of which party was in power, of an additional 1.4 percentage points on average. Why did primary spending rise so much in election years?

In Political Order and Political Decay—reviewed by Daniel Luban for this issue of The Point—Francis Fukuyama points to a 1997 paper by the political scientist George Th. Mavrogordatos that demonstrates a “quantum leap in party patronage” which took place when PASOK, the Greek socialist party, took power in 1981. Beforehand the system for public appointments and promotion had been largely meritocratic, with competitive examinations that allowed people to be appointed regardless of their political allegiances; there was small-scale clientelism, whereby individuals benefited subordinates in return for loyalty, but this was restricted to posts at the very top and the very bottom of institutions. PASOK abolished the meritocratic elements completely and instituted a form of machine politics, in which the party becomes a collective patron that gives jobs (often tenured) to its supporters. When a new government is elected the easiest way to redress the balance is simply to hire its own partisans on top of their opponents. Mavrogordatos estimates that by 1997 at least 40 percent of National Bank of Greece employees had been recruited through clientelistic channels; a precise number was impossible to find, with the bank’s deputy personnel manager declaring that only a court order could force him to divulge the figures. In 1994 a law was finally passed to clamp down on the practice, but a 2012 study found that Greece still ranked first in Europe in terms of party patronage.

So much of Greek economic life is hidden from the state that Varoufakis calls the country “a libertarian wet dream.” But that itself raises a disturbing possibility for the left: that libertarianism might sometimes be justified. If two out of three Greek workers either understate or fail to report their earnings, as has been reported, might this not represent a reasonable response to a state whose use of tax revenue has often been illegitimate? To pay your taxes in such circumstances might seem more like coughing up for pirates than doing your fair share for the collective. Not only that, but the “neoliberal” demand to deregulate and privatize starts to make more sense when you realize that the industries in question are among the main sites of machine politics: aside from handing out jobs and pensions, parties have also used byzantine regulations to permit de facto monopolies (with minimum profit levels) in at least 130 different professions, from law and architecture to hairdressing and even private investigation.

These arguments are hardly definitive—it might be hard to point to a government that is not illegitimate by some metric, and there remain plenty of reasons to oppose deregulation and privatization—but a left that was intellectually open would take them seriously. If there are conditions in which de facto libertarianism is more than simply a disease of the selfish, the left must ask itself what it would take to avoid creating such conditions, and not just in Greece. Fukuyama’s account of the importance to political order of “impersonal institutions” might be a good place to start.

Passion has its place in politics—you can’t always be considering the other side of the argument. The task for the political traveler—as opposed to the tourist—is therefore to balance passion with openness. The anti-Byron, in this respect, might be George Orwell. Orwell was certainly idealistic about the Republican cause in Spain. He begins Homage to Catalonia by describing his giddiness at arriving in a town “where the working class was in the saddle,” where cars had been commandeered for public use, loudspeakers were playing revolutionary songs on the streets and customers and waiters treated one an as equals. When he tells of the affection he instantaneously conceived for an illiterate Italian comrade, he seems drunk on equality: “It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy.” Yet the voice of cool self-awareness undercuts his joy immediately: “But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.”

It’s a minor moment but somehow it conveys exactly what sets Orwell apart. He was no genius, either as a theoretician or as a writer; he just had the courage to believe and to question at the same time, and to do so sincerely. What made him successful as a political traveler, that is, was his willingness to be an intellectual traveler. He may not have gotten everything right—he remained over-optimistic about the capacity of a militia to defeat an army—but the drama of the book consists precisely in his realization, and acknowledgment, that the assumptions on whose basis he came to Spain were false. “I had accepted the News ChronicleNew Statesman version of the war as the defense of civilization against a maniacal outbreak by an army of Colonel Blimps in the pay of Hitler,” he wrote, yet “the Spanish working class did not, as we might conceivably do, resist Franco in the name of ‘democracy’ and the status quo; their resistance was accompanied by—one might almost say it consisted of—a definite revolutionary outbreak.” It took him months to work out that disputes between Stalinists, Trotskyists and Anarchists were not just a “domestic squabble” but absolutely fatal, and the fact that he hoped he was wrong did not alter his judgement.

Intellectual travel—the ability to truly consider the merit of modes of thinking that appear foreign to your own—is itself subject to the debasements of tourism, as when ideas are treated like culinary delicacies, necessary for the development of a sophisticated palate, but by no means to be taken too much to heart (think of the undergraduate survey course, or the New Yorker). But there is also a danger of becoming so attached to a particular intellectual vantage point that it turns into a second home. A point of view is a precious thing, and repairing to it in times of controversy can elevate you above the collective jerking of knees. The danger is just that, over time, it can replace the desire to learn with the desire to lecture. At times it may be necessary to take a trip back in time, or an expedition into what seems like enemy territory. But you are only taking that trip—as opposed to touring—if you allow that it can be a painful business with long-term consequences. For intellectual travels are like any other: you can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way. That is both the risk and the thrill.

This is the editorial from Issue 10 of The Point, with a symposium on travel. To get the rest of the issue in print, subscribe here.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The forty-point plan of 2012 was considerably more aggressive, calling for a 75 percent tax rate for those earning more than €500,000 and the nationalization of banks, railroads, airports, hospitals, postal and water services, as well as disestablishment of the Orthodox Church and withdrawal from NATO.
  2. To put these figures in context, in 1993 both Spain and Portugal had debt-to-GDP ratios of around 55 percent.
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