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Bravo Greece!

The outcome of the Greek referendum on whether to accept the stringent conditions for another “bailout”, laid down by its creditors, should be applauded as an unambiguous manifestation of the democratic public spirit that refuses to continue allowing the neoliberal economic regime to put money before people. It also testifies to historical amnesia on the part of capitalists.

The first thing that they conveniently forget is that, as David Harvey points out in The Enigma of Capital (Profile Books, 2010, p. 8), hundreds of financial crises have occurred globally since 1973, when the deregulation-oriented neoliberal regime replaced financial regulation-based, Keynesian economics, in contrast with very few during the time of the reign of the latter, between 1945 and 1973. This should already tell people something about the link between neoliberalism and economic hardship.

Secondly, when the financial crisis broke in 2008, Harvey reminds us (p. 5), it took a massive $700-billion government bail-out of the banking system in the United States to save the day — and George Bush, yielding to Goldman Sachs’s demand for this bail-out, transferred all this money, WITHOUT ANY CONTROLS, to the financial institutions that he regarded, notoriously, as being “too big to fail”. Where did this money come from? It is easily and conveniently forgotten that it was public money. Taxpayers bailed out the banks (Harvey 2010, p. 30), but instead of using it to rescue thousands of homeowners from losing their homes, the banks used it to “reduce their leveraging and to buy other banks” (p.31). And then the conservative capitalist media had the nerve to reprimand homeowners for taking on a financial burden they could not shoulder.

I mention this because people conditioned by capitalist thinking easily forget that (as Harvey says) when capitalism hits a crisis it is usually taxpayers who have to rescue capital. This is essentially what Greece’s creditors expect ordinary Greek people to do, again, and I salute the Greek people for refusing to cave in to their demands.

The other thing that people critical of Greece forget — assuming they ever knew of it — is that the economic powerhouse of Europe, namely Germany, contributed significantly to Greece’s economic woes during the Second World War, and when Greece recently alluded to German “war reparations” owed to it, this was not far-fetched. In his recent article, “Germany Ravaged the Greek Drachma”, Steven Butler observes that:

“When the Nazis occupied Greece during World War II … they didn’t just brutalise and starve much of the population; they also grossly mismanaged the Greek economy, especially the currency, the drachma. After all, why not pay for the occupation by just printing somebody else’s money? … Germany stripped the economy bare … as a result of that, and massive disruption of the economy, tens of thousands died from famine through the winter of 1941, and as many as 250 000 perished throughout the occupation from lack of food, according to figures cited by Columbia University historian Mark Mazower in Inside Hitler’s Greece.”

Ironically, the hyperinflation that followed was similar to what Germany had experienced during the Weimar Republic, following World War 1. As Butler admits, Greece must take responsibility for some of the causes of its current economic difficulties, and yet, should Germany not show some sympathy, given its own chequered history of mismanagement, of not only its own, but also Greece’s economy? After all, today Germany wields enormous economic power over Greece.

I know full well that most readers would excoriate me for siding with the Greeks; I expect nothing less. Censuring the Greeks — which has been happening in comments on reports about the referendum result — is an expression of the success of what Michel Foucault would call neoliberalism’s regime of “governmentality”, which is at the basis of most people’s sense of self, or rather, their lack of it.

What I mean by this is that the neoliberal economic dispensation inculcates in people the notion that, to be a self, entails the development of ruthless competitiveness with others and the willingness to skill oneself in such a way that, through economic productiveness, this economic regime is maintained and extended. They simply accept uncritically the dictum that homo economicus is all we were ever cut out to be. In other words, one must relinquish all desires or ideals regarding fashioning a sense of self as something different from, or in opposition to, the “normal” capitalist order. Instead, the highest ideal one could strive for is to successfully “brand” and “market” oneself — as if that were a guarantee for living a fulfilling life. This ignores centuries of human experience of different ways of living that offered the kind of fulfilment neoliberalism could never dream of offering, given its one-dimensional economic character.

People who buy into this neoliberal ideology (and this is unfortunately the majority today) never stop to reflect that it amounts to the obliteration of any sense of self — after all, simply swallowing the dominant order wholesale is to allow one’s economic environment, and not your sense of having a self, to dictate the way you live. In contrast with this Foucault (and other thinkers such as Félix Guattari) has put forward alternative conceptions of the self, which Foucault, drawing on ancient Greek models of the self, has articulated as “epimeleia heautou”, or “the care of the self”.

Without going into too much detail, and on the assumption that there will at least be SOME readers who are receptive to this, suffice it to say that such “care of the self” in antiquity was wholly incompatible with the kind of preoccupation with the self-witnessed in the capitalism-serving glossy magazines of today. These include articles on the latest fashion in self-enjoyment, from aromatherapy and reflexology to reiki for the leisurely rich.

By contrast, the ancient “care of the self” was demanding and austere, in so far as it was aimed at cultivating a kind of quasi-autonomy characterised by “mastery of the self” in the face of any eventuality, no matter how disruptive or painful (including painful economic circumstances), that may befall one in the course of one’s life. The “care of the self” as systematic practice in the Hellenistic-Roman era was therefore predicated on human fallibility, finitude and relative powerlessness in the face of forces that invariably exceed one’s own power. This in contrast, again, with the technological illusion, accompanying capitalist development, that such human finitude can be overcome through technology.

However, “care of the self” also signalled a belief in the capacity of individuals to develop one’s own “power” in the form of self-mastery. This was to prepare and enable one to endure whatever unexpected suffering the caprices of life might inflict on you, and to equip you to resist or thwart overwhelming forces if it was humanly possible.

In light of this brief elaboration on Foucault’s recuperation of the ancient “care of the self” as a desirable ethos in the place of the enslavement ineluctably accompanying neoliberal capitalism, it should be clear that, whatever Greece’s people decide to do — to opt out of the Eurozone and return to their own currency, the drachma, or to stay in it on their own terms — it need not be the case that endless misery will be their “fate”. They are capable, like all people, of cultivating their own collective and individual version of the “care of the self”, and even if economic hardship will accompany this, it does not mean they have to subject themselves to the heteronomous, infantile version of the self found in neoliberalism.

Personally I hope Greece returns to the drachma — I, for one, would love to visit Greece under those circumstances, which would be a far cry from the exorbitant costs, for visitors, that they experience in euro-countries. And it would encourage many more visitors to head for Greek shores.

Anyone interested in a lengthier treatment of this theme, could read my paper, “Foucault and individual autonomy”, South African Journal of Psychology, Vol. 40 (3), September 2010, pp. 292-307.

Author

  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.

20 Comments

  1. Nuance Nuance 7 July 2015

    Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Thought provoking and insightful. Wonderful!

  2. glynnerasmus glynnerasmus 7 July 2015

    While I agree on the whole with your thoughts about Greece, there seems to me to be a disconnect between what you say, and what you do; that you are happy to let the taxpayer pay your multiple University/government salaries, while seemingly denouncing people who are earning independent incomes through business- people practicing the autonomy you advocate (bank bailouts aside), while you rely on taxpayers for your income. Seems hypocritical to me.

  3. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 7 July 2015

    Once the ‘neoliberal’ and other Chairmain Mao comes out, I tend to become a bit reluctant to read further … but I did

    The Greek crisis is not a Greek matter, it has to do with the currency of all of the countries in the EU. Once Greece went from using the Drachma to using the Euro, their finances were no longer a private matter. The stability of the entire Euro-zone is affected

    Greek financial irresponsibility has nothing to do with any of the World Wars. If Germany forgave the debt today, the exact same problem would occur within a relatively short period of time. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is simply not a financially sustainable solution in any scenario. Either your income is greater than your expenses or it isn’t. That is nothing to do with ‘neo-liberal’ or anything else, it is pure math.

    Two appropriate quotes come to mind:

    “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarch” – Alexis de Tocqueville
    and
    “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” – Margaret Thatcher

  4. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 8 July 2015

    Glynn – the meaning of autonomy is existential; NOT financial. You remind me of those people who think that freedom means economic freedom.

  5. Odge Odge 8 July 2015

    Agreed. The Greeks finally are doing the right thing. Rejecting debt. Debt is a very basic ‘sin’ and money lenders should be ‘whipped’ out of society. It gives one the illusion of progress but is actually the cause of much personal stress. It is a form of slavery. Once debt enters a society, the society becomes geared to the debt and the moment adverse conditions prevail the gearing unravels and then pure greed prevails.

    Sadly, the French and German taxpayers paid too much for the Greek debt 6 years ago. So the Greek debt has become a nation vs nation problem instead of a ‘greedy bank’ problem. Basically the Germans were stupid to buy the Greek debt and forgot the basic rule in an auction which is ‘buyer beware’.

    However, I disagree that neo liberalism debt is a new problem. Debt, money lending and interest was evil 2000 years ago and nothing has changed man’s basic behavior since.

  6. johnbpatson johnbpatson 8 July 2015

    The sense of the self, and modern technology, have certainly contributed to Europe’s people turning against Greece.
    How could they not when with a few clicks of computer they see they are being asked to support a system which sees nearly half Greeks retire aged 50, under a pension system (paid for by those other Europeans) which almost guarantees they will get more in their pensions after five years than they got in their paycheques?
    While most other Europeans are now looking at 67 as a retirement age.
    Apart from all that, it has been very amusing seeing university Marxists, mainly on the Trotsky side of the great schism, propelled into government.
    The now former finance ministers taping everyone in meetings without their knowledge and boasting about it afterwards? I have seen university senates like that. And even one Vice Chancellor, convinced he would get racist language and thoughts on tape. He ended up complaining about racist hegemony….

  7. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 8 July 2015

    The whole living above their means with other peoples money for 50 years and more, needs to be part of this discussion. This has nothing to do with just following the main stream thoughts, it’s a fact.And that’s not some of the Greeks fault, it’s most of it.

    And while I agree with your points (well many of them), defending years of reckless behaviour, rampant corruption and tax evasion to the tune e of 30 billion a year, your blame on Germany cannot be taken seriously, especially since after the war the German’s economy was non existent not just ruined.

    Not a balanced article at all I am afraid.

  8. Gerasimos Komnenus Gerasimos Komnenus 8 July 2015

    Of course you would not agree……but it does provide the other side of the story. There are always two sides to a story.

  9. Rory Short Rory Short 8 July 2015

    It would seem that the Greeks have been living in a financially profligate way and, through borrowing, at other people’s expense. This behaviour may or may not have been fostered by a neo-liberal mindset both in their creditors and in themselves but the reality is that they are going to have to reign their public spending in if they are ever to come right. Hopefully returning to the drachma will help them in their return to economic reality and to “care of the self”.

  10. Henri Lyons Henri Lyons 8 July 2015

    The only thought it provokes is that all rationale is suspended when leftists start to talk about banking, credit and debt.
    One wonders how they think their advanced standards of living arose. Certainly not from pie in the sky alternate economics.
    The Greek issue is simple.
    I borrowed because it was cheap and available.
    I consumed and frolicked with socialist benefits for all.
    I demanded more money to throw down the drain.
    I wanted my old debts written off.
    I refused to change my profligate ways because a communist always thinks he is right and the whole world is wrong.
    I voted not to accept the offer on the table because I believed my lying leaders that a better offer would come.
    I didn’t realize that my creditors also had a vote.
    I went back to the table and begged for the offer to be reinstated.

  11. CapnVan CapnVan 8 July 2015

    Bert, there’s a lot to parse here, but one thing stands out: The Germany-WW2 thing is really pretty dumb.

    I mean, by that logic, the Germans should be sending every free pfenning straight to Russia, and as for Israel, boy howdy!

  12. CapnVan CapnVan 8 July 2015

    “It is a form of slavery.”

    You know, Bert uses that in his post as well, and frankly, it’s really pretty offensive.

    *Slavery* is slavery. Neocapitalism, debt, metaphysical ennui, or anything else you can think of, isn’t.

  13. Sam Dixon Sam Dixon 8 July 2015

    The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money – Margret Thatcher

  14. Richard Richard 8 July 2015

    The whole sorry saga is really a salutary lesson in the effects of greed. When Greece was admitted as one of the eurozone countries, it did so based on false accounting. That it was false was almost certainly known to the nascent European Central Bank, and certainly known to Greece, but the political imperative was such that the economic arguments took second place. The desire to create a European political superstate was more important than the economic performance deemed necessary for admission.

    For Greeks, it allowed them to participate in the economy of a much more sophisticated country – Germany – without having to mimic their economic behaviour (frugality, working-hours, etc). For the Germans, it allowed the euro to be somewhat devalued, by the participation of Greece in the scheme. This made German exports cheaper.

    There was no way that Greece and Germany could ever be joined economically in any rational schema. It was only by subterfuge and huge political will that it occurred. To me, it is a prime exemplar of issues surrounding Kant’s Categorical Imperative, where you should measure your behaviour as if everybody acted in the same way. In other words, if I steal something, what would it be like if everybody stole? Could a society exist in which everybody stole? Would I wish to live in such a society? Presuming the answer to be no, I would them modify my previous behaviour and stop stealing. Now, in Greece, corruption and non-payment of taxes is widespread. In Germany, those two things are much less prevalent. So, what the eurozone project has done is to bring together into the same system two widely differing behavioural norms, and expect them to work together. In Greece, people may well ask, well, if nobody else is paying taxes, why should I? In Germany the question would be, if everybody is paying taxes, why shouldn’t I?

    I think it shows the folly of the assumption that everybody within a system will be operating according to the same values, something I suggested in another post about Western expectations of voting patterns in Egypt (where people will vote according to how likely it is for a political party to bring about more Islam in society, rather than for people to vote according to particular non-religious policies of a party, as we find in the West), which has brought similar problems. The Egyptian issue has been “resolved” by what is essentially a military dictatorship. In Greece’s case, the solution is either economic dictatorship, which the Greeks seem unwilling to accept, or retreating to working within their own framework of values, and accepting the drachma again. The drachma option will essentially be working according to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which makes more sense on the level of society as a whole. However, in this age of individualism, people will simply decamp to other parts of the EU, and claim exemption. Mass migration from Greece to other EU states will precipitate huge problems in both areas, leading one to question the validity of any sort of choice in this matter.

    A complex issue, to be sure.

  15. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 9 July 2015

    Richard, thanks for that excellent analysis, which is customary for you. I agree that, thinking in terms of Kant’s categorical imperative, it does point in the direction of Greece returning to the drachma as being what might be called a “just” move.

    To all those who have criticised me from a capitalist perspective: our presuppositions and basic values differ. For me people matter; not money. If rich countries can, and usually do, come to the assistance of people experiencing hardship or famine in poor countries, why insist that Greeks suffer such hardships through all manner of “austerity measures”? It amounts to a kind of sadism. Besides, what capitalists never stop to consider, is that something originally invented by human beings to facilitate economic exchanges, namely money (which Richard recently wrote about eloquently in response to one of my posts), has come to dominate them like an abstract demon. Return to Keynesian economics, where the abstract demon is put in its place through human intervention and regulation when it castigates people through the “markets” (that way capitalism’s ecological excesses can also be reined in)! How I hate that concept, “markets”, which concentrates all the stupidity of people in it, insofar as it is the “abstract demonic” mechanism that they worship, and which wreaks havoc in the world when allowed to operate “by itself”, without human regulation. And ironically, for all its abstractness and ostensibly “rational” functioning, what really triggers changes in it is human sentiment, or (lack of) confidence, in other words, IRRATIONAL phenomena, as currently demonstrated in China. Read Harvey’s book to discover the horrors that followed in the wake of “deregulation” in the US – horrors for ordinary people, while the criminal bankers were rewarded for their irresponsibility and profligacy instead of being punished for it. And you try to justify a system like this!!!? Communism had its horrors, yes, and I’m certainly not a fan, but capitalism has horrors all its own, just better disguised. Heed Michael Moore’s words at the end of his film, “Capitalism: A Love Affair”, where he says: “There is an alternative to capitalism; it is called DEMOCRACY”. If democracy were to be practised consistently, the people would come first, as they do in the Freedom Charter too; NOT money and the corporations. This is why I applaud Greece for its stance. Ever wondered why capitalism promotes egocentric individualism and not a sense of community? (Look what it has done to the spirit of Ubuntu in South Africa.) Because it encourages ruthless selfishness and self-enrichment at the cost of community-care and upliftment – something which our government has forgotten in its embrace of the neoliberal model.

  16. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 12 July 2015

    Firstly, let us look at what ‘money’ is. It is a promissory note and its value is determined by various factors, including trust. Unless we are all going to walk around with livestock and produce, it is the simplest way to conduct trade.

    Using the barter analogy, Mr A asks Mr B to ‘lend’ him some carrots because his carrots are not yet ready for harvesting. Mr A then doesn’t even plant any carrots. When Mr B asks Mr A when he can expect his carrots back, Mr A goes to Mr C and asks him for some carrots (to repay Mr B) and promises to pay him back when his crop comes in. Mr A is happily munching on carrots whilst doing NOTHING. That is not humanist, that is selfish and should be discouraged

    NOW – unless Mr B and Mr C become charitable concerns, Mr A needs to start planting some damn carrots already. To place it back into financial terms, either Greece must start harvesting their taxes and planting some financial responsibility or the rest of the EU has to watch the Euro lose trust and the other countries become charity organisations.

    If we are going to talk about being fair and treating people in a fair way, then we have to remember that there are more people in this than JUST the people of Greece. All of the people, of the EU, need to be treated fairly.

  17. Roy Martin Roy Martin 13 July 2015

    Maggie was right Socialism is just another out of control Ponzi scheme

  18. Maria Marquez Maria Marquez 1 August 2015

    Bravo Bert! The world needs more people who would bravely speak out against an inhuman dispensation that worships filthy lucre. I’ve been away from my PC for too long; it’s time I started following your posts again.

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