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.


  • 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.


Bert Olivier

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...

Leave a comment