Lessons from Greece (Part 1 of 2)
Day 115: Saturday, February 8, 2020
How TINA Won (For Now)
To pen a piece about the relevance of Greece for today’s Lebanon, I did not have to dig deep. Decade-long memories of austerity rounds, hectic bankruns, debilitating capital controls, and looming deposit haircuts are still painfully alive. Thankfully though, the economic collapse is only half of the story. Popular awakening is the other half. Having closely experienced the Athenian “indignant” protests and strikes (May-November 2011), my déjà vu went full circle during last October’s uprising in Lebanon’s main squares.
Revisiting writings of my … Athenian period, I turned on a time machine, powered by identical questions: who will foot the bill, how to make people’s demands heard, what is to be done, and … back to the future, what is there to learn from each other? Comparisons between different contexts and countries are tricky. Yet, faced with a fortuitous sense that History is watching, they seem inevitable. With this caveat in mind, I share a few lessons from Greece, translated hopefully into street-friendly Lebanese.
I focus on the moment when the masses regain faith in their own emancipatory strength. Reacting to this prospect, rulers tend to unite and promote versions of the Thatcherian dictum “There is No Alternative” (TINA), i.e. other than the return to peopleless sovereignty in one way or another. Indeed, the debt crisis and the protest movement in Greece featured a constant struggle between an increasingly self-confident, politicized society and an establishment systematically trying to crush it. Today, it seems that the TINA dogma – deployed through diverse tactics – has prevailed. Yet history is still unfolding as I write; this text captures a momentary snapshot.
[W]hen the masses regain faith in their own emancipatory strength ... rulers tend to unite and promote versions of the Thatcherian dictum 'There is No Alternative' (TINA), i.e. other than the return to peopleless sovereignty in one way or another.
The Pitfalls of Delegation
When masses take to the streets, many get politicized almost overnight. In these moments, politics becomes a way of life and a collective experience of power, as Hannah Arendt put it. Abrupt mass politicization has several beautiful aspects. Family dinners and university classes become tensely entertaining; streets turn into vehicles for radical visions; old — material and metaphorical — walls are rendered obsolete; and those already political all along, finally find some solace (alas, often missing the chance they have been waiting for, because they too are overwhelmed by the weight of the moment).
Yet mass politicization often has a major drawback: an intense desire for instant success. Awakening from a long slumber, the people in rebellious trance — while consciously interrupting the elites’ lifelong party with power — often look for quick fixes. Terrifyingly aware of the momentous but equally momentary apnea, they shout at the top of their lungs: Bring down the Bastille! Storm the Winter Palace! Or, alternatively: Call in the troops! Bring in the technocrats! These latter desires, by trading direct action for power delegation, are self-destructive for any popular project of political emancipation.
In Greece, cheering for the technocrats invited a politics of delegation aimed at captivating restless minds while rebellious bodies were continuously bruised and tear gassed in the streets. The regime called upon the country’s national bankers to form a technocratic government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to implement a structural adjustment program. These effectively destroyed the last remnants of the welfare state, the pension system, and other labor-friendly regulations.
The IMF promoted a massive privatization of state assets, such as airports, energy, land, and public services. The labor market turned into an employer-run jungle. The minimum wage collapsed and informal employment skyrocketed. In sum, delegating power to technocrats proved the safest shortcut to the status quo ante — with the essential difference that these experts cannot be held accountable. Presented as neutral and incorruptible saviors, their power is totally unchecked.
Hope in technocrats is premised on the misplaced belief that their loyalties lie solely with their techne, economics, which in neoliberal jargon assumes the guise of the natural sciences. This effect is the result of a systematic campaign of desocialization of modern economics, i.e. drawing it away from social sciences and society, and metamorphosing it into abstract mathematics.
[D]elegating power to technocrats proved the safest shortcut to the status quo ante — with the essential difference that these experts cannot be held accountable. Presented as neutral and incorruptible saviors, their power is totally unchecked. Currently, technocratic economics tends to model social reality upon its assumptions, not vice versa. If the reality clashes with the model, the onus is on reality. Desocialized economics begets political disorientation, which in turn begets delegation of popular power to desocialized economics. The Greek crisis showed that moments of mass politicization are rare openings of profane popular consciousness, too precious to be left to technocrats.
The Politics of Blame Distribution
Economic technocrats exercise control through the circulation of cryptic digits and complex charts. Yet words do not escape similar control mechanisms. When people mobilize against the system that rules them, at first they tend to analyze their predicament through familiar concepts, whose meaning precedes the mobilization. As such, the words used necessarily reflect unfavorable relations of linguistic power. During uprisings, although new slogans and popular humor flood the streets and social media, old analytical concepts tend to retain their prowess as channels of narrative and rage.
In Greece, as the IMF pursued the aggressive privatization of social assets, regime-allied politicians, along with national and international media, sought to socialize the blame among society. Thus, a lifelong minister cunningly transposed the streets’ cri de colère — calling out elites as “thieves” — into the moralizing motto: “ολοι μαζι τα φαγαμε” (“we ate it all together”). The aim was to trickle the blame down; to distribute guilt about squandered funds equally among givers, receivers and non-receivers.
Anxious to cement popular support for aggressive austerity policies in the South, North European media joined in the blame game, unleashing orientalist and racist imaginaries of lazy Greeks. Culturalist idioms crafted in western expert labs, such as an ahistorical and highly moralized notion of corruption, led to the self-orientalization of the population. Thus, many could not see the forest — a disastrous global capitalism distributing accumulating losses within the EU periphery — for the tree of local corruption.
As a result, working class people in other parts of Europe and the world were duped into cheering for the lesson that Greeks had been forced to pay for “living above their means.” Punitive narratives displaced the blame either onto the entire population (culturalization) or onto a few rotten apples at the top (moralization). In this, the “cradle of European civilization” was given a taste of its own medicine after two decades of racializing and suppressing hard-working Albanians in Greece. Paying attention to the paralyzing power of moralizing analytics crafted in expert labs is another lesson from Greece. This brings me to a final point.
The Iron Cage of Geopolitics
Greece and Lebanon are relatively small and far corners of much greater regional constellations, the European Union (EU) and the Middle East, respectively. During the “crisis and resistance” period in Greece, the EU’s long and lasting shadow inevitably framed almost the entire debate in the streets about what should and could be done. Again, establishment figures and media consciously raised existential fears, forcing upon the society a Manichean choice of Grexit or Gremain (or rather Grelinquish).
In Greece, as the IMF pursued the aggressive privatization of social assets, regime-allied politicians, along with national and international media, sought to socialize the blame among society ... The aim was to trickle the blame down; to distribute guilt about squandered funds equally among givers, receivers and non-receivers.
Combined, the nationalist prism and an emergency imaginary, tended to suffocate other emerging creative, emancipatory options. These included a transnational social front against austerity and the imposition of elite choices on the rest of society, and a broad-based solidarity alliance that created parallel structures to support the poor, the refugees, and one another in the popular movement.
Adding insult to injury, this TINA story ends with a social-democratic party (SYRIZA) emerging first as a pressure relief valve for popular anger, and later as a regime-approved representative of street-delegated political power. In hindsight, SYRIZA constituted TINA’s most successful application. Its rule was TINA applied with crocodile tears. SYRIZA implemented austerity, while exposing self-hating sentiments; it expanded the country’s strategic ties with Israel, while lamenting Palestinian misery. Finally, together with its new friends, the IMF, it declared the country a success story. Yet today, most Greek youth are unemployed, underpaid, or in economic exile; pensions and basic social services are low or non-existing. TINA seems to have won the first round.
But none of this means that local movements do not go on to create and deploy emancipatory political imaginaries on the ground and on paper. To this day, grassroots initiatives continue to diffuse sovereignty and expand solidarity, to resist TINA and other forms of capitulation to the politics of delegation. This part of the story is ongoing, and hence worth narrating. More on them in Part 2.