A Laboratory Sitting on a Graveyard: Greece and the Neoliberal Debt Crisis

By Bruce RobbinsJuly 5, 2015

What Does Europe Want? by Srećko Horvat and Slavoj Žižek

AS I CAME UP THE STAIRS of the Athens metro at the Syntagma station recently, I found myself facing a crowd of people aimlessly milling around the exit. My way was blocked. I was in a hurry and got annoyed. When I met the friend waiting for me outside, she explained what was happening. Many would-be subway riders entering the station no longer had the 1.20 euro to pay for a ticket. Many of the people leaving the station were holding tickets that still had enough value to get them, or someone else, a few more stops. They had started pausing spontaneously beyond the turnstiles to seek out someone who was not too proud to accept their still-valid ticket. Those arriving from the street had to decide whether or not to pause, make eye contact, wait for an offered ticket, take the ticket if offered. The system involves hesitation and confusion, but they say it has been successfully connecting people (and by non-digital means!) at least since the crash of 2008, which began elsewhere but came down so hard on Greece.

Anyone who has followed the seemingly endless Greek debt crisis — lurching from headline to headline, deadline to deadline, and, now, the bombshell announcement of Greece’s July 5 referendum, bank closures, capital controls, and the much-discussed threat that it will leave and eventually destroy the eurozone — has been caught in a nerve-racking marathon. It has gone on for weeks, months, years. The day doesn’t go by without another surprise, another ultimatum. 

In Europe at least, establishment feeling holds that yes, Greece is suffering — what other European country in modern times has seen a quarter of its economy disappear overnight, legislated out of existence by foreign creditors? — but that it brought this situation on itself. The country, goes the narrative, spent beyond its means, letting the state sector get too big while failing to tax its citizens efficiently. Greece has placed the burden on its neighbors; its neighbors are not happy, and who can blame them? Whose sense of fairness is not offended by hearing that Greece needs a “bailout” because it has not “reformed,” has not been “playing by the rules”? The moral of the story is implicit in the terms of its telling. If you are being rescued with someone else’s money, you should be grateful. If you have incurred a debt, you should repay it. If you want to be a member of the club, you have to play by the same rules as everyone else. Accept your responsibilities. Grow up. Act like an adult. 

While outside observers are exasperated by what they see as Greece’s childishness, the Greeks themselves have been driven to nervous exhaustion by crisis after crisis, each one bringing with it more dramatic negotiations, and last chances — all of it against the quiet desperation of unheard-of unemployment rates and suicide rates, and pretty much any other rate you can think of. To be fair, the media has diligently recorded these signs of everyday misery. It’s not as if we haven’t been informed about what years of externally mandated austerity have produced: the shuttered stores and soup kitchens, the people in nice neighborhoods and decent clothes picking through garbage bins, the patients in hospitals told to bring their own food, aspirin, and bedsheets — the list goes on.

What the media has pursued less avidly is the story behind the moralizing. Why, exactly, are Greek crowds milling around in a chaotic swirl of fear, pride, and ambivalence in front of the Grexit?

The authors of What Does Europe Want?, Slavoj Žižek and Srećko Horvat, are astute observers of ambivalence, especially Žižek. But the primary task they set themselves in this book is to expose the limits of Europe’s annoyed common sense as applied to its troubled southern tier, and to offer a more persuasive argument. Greece’s creditors don’t sound very mature or reasonable, they argue, from the viewpoint of more marginal Europeans like themselves. Žižek, who is from Slovenia, is arguably the most famous intellectual now alive. Horvat, who is from Croatia, is a respected columnist, TV host, philosopher, and co-founder of the Zagreb Subversive Festival, where some of these short, punchy, eminently readable chapters originated. It must have been quite a festival.

Pieced together from jokes, anecdotes, and riffs on The Dark Knight Rises, The Sound of Music, opera, and various Balkan political figures now under indictment, their story runs something like this: For their countries, realizing the dream of EU membership did not mean achieving liberal democracy, as advertised, but being thrown to the wolves of neoliberal capitalism. Local elites made a killing out of the so-called “transition” — for example by selling off public resources for private profit and taking a cut from the very expensive military hardware they ordered from French and German manufacturers. In this they were unsurprisingly aided and abetted by French and German bankers who were doing very nicely from it as well. That’s how huge debts piled up in all these countries — the debts whose origin is obscured by talk of “playing by the rules.” And it’s why austerity has now been imposed on them — in other words, why local taxpayers have been left to pay the bill through further cuts to their salaries, social services, and general standard of living. The Greek story differs in some details, but it is one of many. 

Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s current prime minister (as of the publication of this article, at least), is this book’s charismatic hero. Tsipras was elected in January 2015 by pledging to end the policy of austerity that almost everyone in the country, and not just those who can no longer afford the price of a metro ticket, sees as a disaster, and to get rid of the corrupt elites who, together with the EU, were largely responsible for that disaster. Along with one interview (by Horvat) and one debate (with Žižek), Tsipras also contributes a foreword: “The Destruction of Greece as a Model for All of Europe: Is This the Future that Europe Deserves?” Written 18 months before his left-wing Syriza party swept to power, the foreword tells a tale with a very different moral:

The economy is like a cow: it eats grass and produces milk. It is inconceivable to take away a quarter of her grass and expect her to produce four times more milk. The cow will simply die. The same is now happening to the Greek economy.

As Žižek puts it, Europe is “putting pressure on Greece to repay debts, but at the same time ruining its economy through imposed austerity measures and thereby making sure that the Greek debt will never be repaid.” If the idea of paying what you owe seems self-evident, it helps to remember that banks don’t really want their money back. If they make no loans, they make no profit. What they want is indebtedness that goes on and on, however humiliating it may be to the debtor. And up to now that’s what they’ve gotten. 

There is no doubt that Tsipras and his party are being punished by the so-called troika or “the institutions” (the EU, the IMF, and the European Central Bank) — punished not for taking those loans in the first place (they didn’t) or not negotiating in good faith (they have), but for mounting a successful political challenge to the reigning ideology of austerity. The ECB, supposedly charged with maintaining financial stability, has been guilty of “consciously and deliberately accelerating a financial crisis” in Greece, as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard noted acerbically in The Telegraph. Except for one slip from the IMF acknowledging the failure of its earlier policy, all three institutions have neglected to mention their own responsibility in rendering Greece’s debt unpayable, now or ever. They want it to look like simple economics, but it’s politics. Until Tsipras called for the referendum, one heard the creditors’ goal described as slow-motion regime change. Now it’s speeded-up, and it’s gunboat diplomacy. They want Tsipras gone.

What Europe itself wants is not a simple thing. Its present custodians are afraid of all the other places where similar revolts against austerity have shown signs of emerging and succeeding, like Spain. But they are also afraid that if they keep up their hard line, history will blame them as the ones who let the EU fall apart on their watch. What ordinary Europeans want is even more complicated. Though it sets interest rates for the whole eurozone, the European Central Bank doesn’t have the Federal Reserve’s commitment to sustain employment or its duty to report to Congress; to ordinary Europeans, it is distant, obscure, mysterious — not an agent of their will at all. It’s true that citizens of other European countries flinch at the idea of their taxes going to bail out the Greeks, and one can understand why. But that’s not what’s happening. In fact A) 90 percent of the so-called bailout money merely passes through Greece, ending up back in the pockets of the European banks, and B) the citizens of Europe should not be on the hook for bad investments made by financiers, just as Greek taxpayers should not be held responsible for shady deals cut by corrupt politicians in cahoots with Wall Street. The banks made an investment they knew to be risky. It must be nice to lose money on a visit to a casino and then make the locals pay for your losses. 

What Greece wants — assuming the main point of personifying a country is not to be able to blame one set of Greeks for acts committed by an entirely different set of Greeks — is also complicated. Outside the metro station, in Syntagma or Constitution Square, there had been a demonstration the night before in support of the Syriza government. Later that day, however, there would be a demonstration in favor of Greece staying in the eurozone, which was also part of Syriza’s platform. The pro-euro demonstration seemed to undercut Syriza’s de facto bargaining position: namely, give us a plausible way out of endless austerity or face the possibility of a Grexit and the collapse of the eurozone. But it probably did reflect the opinion of the Greek majority. Wanting to remain part of Europe seems natural enough when you have been taught over and over in school that during the 400 years of Ottoman rule you were not permitted to be a part of it.

Greeks also want reform. (What else can you say when the highest body of the Greek Orthodox Church declares, as it just did, that for Christians the practice of yoga is unacceptable?) Tsipras himself, too young to have participated in the systematic favor-mongering of the old political parties, was elected in no small degree to get rid of clientelism — to throw the bums out, as East Coast Dodgers fans used to say. But the hard line taken by Greece’s creditors over the past months has shown that what they mean by “reform” is something different. In practice, reform has meant privatization, or the forced selling off of national resources to international investors. As a target, it means further reducing the pensions of people now living on somewhere between 300 and 350 euros per month — the cost of one less-than-lavish dinner for Schäuble or Lagarde and their companion of choice. Eyebrows were raised when the troika demanded that these pensions be cut further at the same time as the IMF complained about the Tsipras government’s plan to raise taxes on the rich. The bankers and financiers who presently speak for Europe are not trying very hard to hide their true commitments.

Horvat sometimes sounds like a Žižek wannabe, alluding to Lacan or Hegel at inappropriate moments, telling (and retelling) jokes that were probably funnier in Croatian, and throwing off dazzlingly counterintuitive and perhaps unreliable interpretations of Hollywood (the Batman of Dark Knight Rises as true representative of the 1%). But the two also disagree at points; one of them is whether you can ever know what you want. Horvat, who has Occupy-style hopes for direct, perhaps even leaderless democracy, is angrier at the existing elites who made out like bandits while leading Greece and some of the former Yugoslav republics into the European Union, leaving the taxpayers to clean up their mess. Žižek, who has become an intellectual crowd-pleaser in part by applying the insights of psychoanalysis where they seem irrelevant, thinks the left needs leaders because ordinary citizens are often blind to their real desires. In a chapter originally published in the New Statesman, “We Need a Margaret Thatcher of the Left,” Žižek abandons political pieties for Freudian complexities. In politics, he says, people think they are deciding freely. In fact they (he includes himself in this group) prefer to have others arrange things more or less fairly and efficiently so that they can get on with their lives. Do people really know what they want? No, he says, “they don’t, and they don’t want to know it. They need a good elite.” In other words, they need a leader who will enable them to discover “what they ‘really want.’” 

Neither Žižek nor Horvat spits on the idea of Europe. Indeed, Žižek declares himself (perhaps tongue in cheek — one never knows) a Eurocentrist. By this he seems to mean that like many others, he is looking for a way to live that would follow neither the US (or capitalism in its consumer-hedonist style) nor China, which is to say capitalism in its authoritarian style. He identifies Europe with “the idea of radical egalitarianism, of radical democracy, feminism, etc. This is at the core of European identity.” How radical? That’s the question around which the subtlest sections of the book enter into a debate, for example with Étienne Balibar. Žižek’s tendency is (a bit self-contradictory, in my own view) to say that what’s needed is absolute rupture with Europe’s past. In the Derridean language he uses, this means not a “future” (a predictable outcome of what we already see) but an “avenir” or “à venir,” to come. The word “utopia,” rising toward the end of the book, indicates something entirely different. Predictably, Tsipras is less utopian, like Balibar more respectful of the existing machinery of the state without which it’s hard to imagine supplying citizens with those social services of which they have been deprived. “The privatisation of social services,” he writes, “is not good for anyone.” 

The usual stereotypes about lazy, irresponsible, overspending southerners are intended to make Greece seem like an aberration. For Tsipras, as for Žižek and Horvat, Greece is not a special case but a laboratory where proponents of savage neoliberalism have been trying out a policy they hope to extend as far and wide as possible. In Dark Continent, Mark Mazower quotes Tomáš Masaryk’s line about Europe as a laboratory sitting on top of a graveyard. Americans will take the point that there are a lot of bodies buried beneath those gleaming skyscrapers and renovated castles where the governing of a peaceful continent is now performed. But in this context, what matters is not Europe’s unspeakable past but its unspeakable present. The rest of Europe deserves something better, Tsipras argues in his statesmanlike way, just as Greece does. What is needed is not handouts that will keep Greece on its knees, permanently infantilized, forever coming back to beg for more, but a long-term solution to the disaster that is austerity.


Bruce Robbins is the author of Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (NYU, 1999), The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below (Columbia, 1986; Duke pb 1993) and Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (Verso, 1993).

LARB Contributor

Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His books include Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012), Upward Mobility and the Common Good (2007), Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999), and The Servant's Hand: English Fiction from Below (1986). His essays have appeared in n+1, The Nation, Public Books, and the London Review of Books. He is also the director of a documentary, Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, available at bestfriendsfilm.com.


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