The economic crisis seen from the everyday: Europe’s nouveau poor and the global affective implications of a ‘local’ debt crisis

Excerpt from Maria Kaika

Nationalist narratives fail to explain away the disposession and poverty imposed on Greece; the same trick being mobilised against all of us. It is time for transnational solidarity!

Photo: Manos Daskalos, 2010.

How can we transcend the politics of fear, which draw new boundaries around European populations, and around everyday urban experience? Photo: Manos Daskalos, 2010.

[T]he shock waves that the dire social consequences of the Greek crisis send down Europe’s spine are due to a large extent to the fact that this crisis concerns our poor. This is the first time that a European Union member country is faced with a humanitarian crisis. This is the first time that the population of a European Union country suffers the consequences of a debt crisis in exactly the same way that Africans, Indians, or Latin Americans do: technocratic governments; demands for appointed ‘commissioners’ to govern the ungovernable Greeks; demands for austerity and asset privatization in return for cash flows; demands for constitutional changes that prioritize debt servicing over servicing the population’s basic needs; all these are well established practices in debt ridden countries. But this time, it is Europeans who are treated like Africans or Latin Americans. And when these practices are transposed into the European context, they become shocking and widely publicized. And they bring the message of a debt crisis home. And they make it louder. The presence of the new ranks of ‘deserving’ poor in the streets of Athens generates unprecedented pity and empathy in publics inside and beyond Greece; it generates noble and charitable feelings that move beyond national boundaries. However, the view of the new ranks of poor in the streets of Athens generates also a set of more insidious affective reactions in Greece and across Europe (Tsalikoglou 2012, 1) that have serious political and social consequences.

First, it generates a soothing and reassuring effect, to those who are not touched by poverty: I do empathize with their suffering, but their suffering also acts as a reminder of how lucky I am. I still have a job; I can still feed my children; I’m OK.

Second, it generates desire for social and geographical distancing: Their suffering is inherently linked to their ‘Greekness’. It is close enough to me, but thankfully cannot touch me, because I am not Greek; it remains outside my own country and my own home, and I want to keep it this way; I want to distance myself and my country as much as possible from ‘them’.

Through this set of affective reactions (empathy, reassurance, and desire for distancing), the shock of poverty and misery brought home to Europe by the Greek crisis becomes, at best, a focal point for display of human compassion, and, at worst, a focal point for the display of xenophobia.

When the shock of poverty becomes the focal point for human compassion, Greeks do not deserve what they get, because they have suffered enough, because they are the ones who gave the world democracy, or because they fought on the right side during the Second World War, etc.

“If … the country who gave the world the candle of democracy [defaults and gets expelled from the Euro zone], this will spell trouble for all generations.” (Nilson, 2011, n.p., 2)

When the shock of poverty becomes the focal point for xenophobia, Greeks deserve what they get, because they are lazy, crooks, incompetent, etc. Indeed, self-righteous xenophobic discourses proliferated in European populist media over the last year, like never before. From ‘outraged’ journalists to ‘concerned’ readers, everybody now has an opinion on how best to teach lazy, unruly Greeks a lesson.

“Watching the sad scenes of Athens burning …  I wonder if the price of yet another bailout of Greece could lead to the transfer of the remaining portion of the Parthenon to London, where it could be reunited with the pieces removed by Lord Elgin to the British Museum for safekeeping?” (Reader’s letter, METRO. METROtalk, Tuesday 14th February 2012, p. 14)

Discourses generated by ‘experts’ are not necessarily more nuanced. Harvard economist Alberto Alesina asserts that:

“Greece deserves the punishment it receives. …Because when she [sic!] was a small child, she was not taught right from wrong early on. Now, punishment has inevitably arrived, but it arrived too late; and it is severe. But, at the end of the day, Greeks do deserve this punishment!” (quoted in Hekimoglou, 2010, n. p.; original emphasis, 3).

However, although compassion and xenophobia appear to be at the opposite ends of the spectrum of political and social reaction to this crisis, they are in fact, part of the same, Janus faced political stance, which allocates empathy or hatred, sympathy or despise, only after it places human beings into unified categories. It is only after othering all Greeks as crooks and lazy PIIGS that I can express xenophobic views about them. But it is also only after labelling all Greeks as deeply democratic and suffering people that I can feel compassion for them. Whilst xenophobia and racism transforms human beings into de-humanized bodies, compassion transforms them into dependent bodies. Both cases confirm that debt is the end of freedom (Graeber, 2011, 4). And an un-free human being -worthy of compassion or not- is a de-humanized being; a human being who can no longer produce his/her own history.

Learning from global capitalism: Trying again and failing BETTER next time.

If we take seriously Hannah Arendt’s (1998, 5) claim that History is the making of meaning, and totalitarianism the production of meaninglessness, we are currently in a moment that produces meaninglessness. In this disconcerting moment, when the project for salvaging a Europe that can stand united beyond nationalism, is left to a group of nationalistic political elites, group stereotypes propagate. Inside Greece, incongruous nationalism presents other Europeans as villains, and the return to the drachma as the only way to save Greece from the ‘evil’ grip of foreign creditors. Greece’s dynastic political elites, all members of the wealthy upper classes, have twice now failed to negotiate Greece’s debt properly, and have twice now chosen to default on Greece’s people, rather than default on Greece’s creditors (Harvey, 2012, 6). Yet, they blame the evil Europeans, rather than themselves, for what the Greek population has to suffer. Outside Greece, equally incongruous nationalist ramblings present the economic crisis as a problem predominantly linked to Greece, and argue that the solution to the crisis dwells in throwing Greece out of the Eurozone, because they will fail to deliver their promises.

Of course, as Trivizas (2011, 7) puts it, the claim that all Greeks, Portuguese, Italian, Irish and Spanish are lazy PIIGS, who can only live on subsidies, is nonsensical; it is as nonsensical and as dangerous as the claim that all Germans are Nazis. But reverting to nationalism proves, so far, beneficial to Europe’s feudal political and petty local economic elites. It keeps them in power by posing false dilemmas, and constructing straw enemies. In the May 2011 elections, Greece’s extreme right wing party won parliamentary seats for the first time, following similar shifts of the electoral towards the extreme right across Europe. However, whilst European populations and parties become increasingly entrenched in petty nationalism, capital becomes increasingly internationalized. Capital has never been nationalistic or patriotic: this is why it survives and thrives over time.  In the midst of the crisis, Greek capital invests in multi-million mansions in London; Chinese sovereign funds buy large parts of Greece’s main port (Piraeus); Qatar Holding invests in gold mining in Greece; and Abu Dhabi’s sovereign fund negotiates investing in Greek tourism infrastructure.

There are good lessons to be leant from the movements of international capital. If we could see beyond the nationalistic parapets that Europe is currently building, if we could see nation-states for the social historical constructs that they are (the way global capitalism sees and uses them), we would nod at German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s assertion that “our responsibility no longer stops at our countries’ borders” (The Guardian, 14 November 2011). If we could see beyond the nationalistic parapets that Europe is currently building, we could divert our attention away from government debt and EU subsidies, and towards a remarkable fact that receives little attention: that the Eurozone’s greatest build up of debt is not with the governments of Greece, Portugal, Italy or Spain; it is with the financial sector. The financial sector’s debt currently runs at 20 trillion Euros, but receives little media attention or political debate, compared to Greece’s debt of 340 billions which makes daily headlines across the world, and has claimed thousands of wo/man hours in debate and research time at the European and national parliaments. The financial sector’s total debt doubled over the last 10 years: from 155% of the EU’s actual economic output in 1999, to 222% in 2012. In the UK, the financial sector’s debt increased from 60% to 194% of GDP over the last 20 years. Whilst in 1990, the debt of the Financial sector was lower than that of the Household and Non-Financial Business sectors (65% and 66% of GDP respectively), by 2009, the financial sector’s debt jumped to a remarkable 194%, which was much higher than the Household (103% of GDP) and Non-Financial Business (110% of GDP) sectors’ debt during the same year (see Table 2; see also Jones et al., 2012, 8).

Evolution of UK Debt as percentage of GDP. Compiled by the author, based on data from: Global Finance (Aridas and Magno, 2012, 9), McKinsey Global Institute (Roxburgh et al., 2010, 10) and (Chantrill, 2012, 11).

If we could see beyond the nationalistic parapets that Europe is currently building, we could start searching for the basis of our commonality, and on how it is ‘all coming together’ (Catterall 2011, 12). As poverty hits European populations regardless of their ethnic origin, gender, or nationality, we too, have to transgress these categories in fighting it. If, as a Greek passport holder, I wanted to develop my understanding of the crisis in a way that goes beyond false dilemmas, I would first have to declare that I am not Greek. I am not Greek, if being Greek puts me in the same category as 14,000 or so crooks who are now documented to have embezzled Greek public funds, who drive around in SUVs, live in luxury villas, and avoid paying taxes, calculated at a total of 36 billion euros. I am not Greek, if that puts me in the same category as the thugs who beat up migrants in the streets of Athens in the name of ethnic cleansing.

But, at the same time, we are ALL Greeks. Like the vast majority of Greek citizens, who did not embezzle public funds, the vast majority of European citizens collectively foot the bill for bailing out indebted banks; collectively see their pension funds threatened as they become gambling tokens in the global stock markets; and collectively see those who have gambled with their pension funds receive millions in bonuses and Royal Titles. If we took the rhetoric of the market to its full consequences, the fact that we are all consumers and tax payers can form the basis for our commonality (Bauman, 2012, 13).

So, addressing you as fellow global consumers, I would urge you to go to Greece for your next holiday. It will be an act of pleasure; you can enjoy the sun and the sea, and you don’t even have to face poverty if you stay clear off the main streets of Athens. It will also be an act of compassion: you will be contributing to a country’s troubled economy.

Addressing you as critical thinkers and active citizens, I would still urge you to go to Greece for your next holiday. But I would advise you to walk off the beaten tourist track; walk the main streets. It will be an act of comprehension; it will bring home an understanding of why compassion and charity cannot work as a tool for social change. Because they are predicated upon the construction of divisive lines and divisive identities. Charity is for the middle classes. The only tool left to the poor is Politics. But, at this moment, when centre, right and left party politics revert to primitive forms of nationalism, real politics reverts to its rawest and most desperate form; politics as rioting. The recent burning of historical buildings in Athens during rioting was an act as nonsensical, and as scary, as the burning of the African American ghettoes in the 1960s. It was an act performed within a political moment that produces meaninglessness and fear.

Today, we are all numbed by fear (Catterall, 2009, 14). Fear that our country may be next in line, our city next to be hit by the crisis, our household next on fire, our children next to suffer. Fear of failure of any new attempt to think or act differently (Keil, 2009, 15). However, this moment of meaninglessness and social disarray is also the best moment for transformative thinking. It is the moment when new radical imaginaries stop being an abstract intellectual exercise, and become a social necessity. If we take seriously Cornelius Castoriadis’ conceptualization of history as the creation of new meanings and new social imaginaries (Castoriadis, 1987, 16; Kaika 2010, 17), there is no better moment than now for creating a new social imaginary for our commonality.

The full article is available in CITY 16.4 here.

Maria Kaika is Professor of Human Geography at Manchester University, and editor of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

Photo by Manos Daskalos, 2010.


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