In the birthplace of democracy

“The mortgage-stones that covered her, by me Removed, — the land that was a slave is free;
that some who had been seized for their debts he had brought back from other countries, where
– so far their lot to roam, They had forgot the language of their home;
and some he had set at liberty, – Who here in shameful servitude were held.”

                                                                                                                      SolonPlutarch’s Lives

When the history of the conflict between the market and democracy is someday written, the events in Greece this Sunday will almost certainly be seen as a major victory for market forces. There, the Greek parliament, under enormous pressure from the financial markets along with Germany and France committed what may amount to political suicide in the upcoming Greek elections. Members of the Greek parliament are willfully taking the country into what is in effect a deflationary induced depression in order to avoid the default and exit of Greece from the Euro-based economies.

Opposition to the draconian cuts necessary to secure funding support by bond holders, European governments and the ECB quite literally set Greece ablaze.

As in the ancient myth, Greek society is caught between Scylla and Charybdis.  Their only choices seem to be that of the chaos that would likely be the result of  a default, and a self-induced economic depression. The latter might prove preferable if it were likely to work in the long-run to restore, and  therefore secure the long term prosperity of Greece.  Such an outcome, is sadly unlikely.

The democratic process is now dictated by the electric speed of the international markets. Greek politicians were in a race against the clock before markets opened on Monday.

 Despite the German’s ridicule of the Greeks’ spendthrift ways, the Greek social system has its origins in the history of the country, which for decades endured brutal right-wing rule opposed only by a defiant left. The social-rights of Greeks were in effect the price to be paid for the left’s acceptance of the fact that Greece was to be a normal rather than a revolutionary country. Dismantling this system is a denial of history, and on par with the most utopian of top-down social transformations. Here the market is at war not just with democracy, but with history itself.

The German view of “lazy” Greeks also fails to take into account the very structural imbalances between Germany as an export economy and almost everybody else in Europe as playing a major contributing  role in the crisis. German exporters are greatly helped by the weakness of a currency they share with backward countries such as Greece. The Greeks get no such benefit, suffering a much stronger currency than would otherwise be the case. The real gain of Greece sharing a currency with mighty Germany has been Greek access to cheap debt. That is over now, and turned out to be not such a good thing, after all.

Rather than being isolated, the Greek crisis is symptomatic of the current state of capitalism, both globally and in Europe. As Robert D. Kaplan pointed out way back in 2009, as Greek riots were already starting to occur before the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street movements had even been imagined:

It’s tempting to dismiss this as a purely Greek affair that carries little significance to the outside world. But the global economic crisis will take different forms in different places in the way that it ignites political unrest. Yes, youth alienation in Greece is influenced by a particular local history that I’ve very briefly outlined here. But it is also influenced by sweeping international trends of uneven development, in which the uncontrolled surges and declines of capitalism have left haves and bitter have-nots, who, in Europe, often tend to be young people. And these young people now have the ability to instantaneously organize themselves through text messages and other new media, without waiting passively to be informed by traditional newspapers and television. Technology has empowered the crowd—or the mob if you will.

Likewise, a European Union that could have served to shelter the European social system from the relentless leveling of market forces has shown itself instead to be the most powerful instrument in the hands of such forces able to bring, despite the resistance of history, whole governments, and the societies upon which they rest to heel.

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Eulogy for the European Union

Pericles, the last of the European Commissioners, appeared before the crowd in Athens. The mass was silent as he took the stage in the cool, dark December evening with yellow lights from the crowd flickering like fire-flies. He was there to announce the dissolution of the European Union.

“What sadder, and yet more relevant place, to announce the end of our grand European project than here at the very birth place of our civilization? From Hellas, and especially from Athens, came the seeds greatest and most unique contributions of our civilization to the inheritance of the world; our philosophy; our science; our democracy and love of freedom.

Our civilization was united only once under the stern, lawful dominion of Rome. A rule that appeared eternal, but like all that is human, or the work of human beings, did not last forever. What Rome left us was a dream of unity, a dream that was adopted even by the Germanic tribes that shattered the empire, and began the story of new European peoples.

The Roman dream was also kept alive by the Catholic Church which preserved for all Europe the grandeur and tradition of Rome, while, as it always is with irony and cunning of history, lit the kindling in the hearts of men, which burned with the desire of egalitarianism and individualism, and burst forth in the fires of the Protestant Reformation. The end of the Wars of Religion meant that Europe would never be united under a single spiritual banner.

Even in the midst of the howling winds of chaos the light of reason lit first by the Ancient Greeks was kept alive and grew bursting forth with modern science, exploration and discovery; enlightenment; capitalism and industrialization: European legacies that have so changed the world that it will never be the same again.  Under the powers brought by its knowledge Europe very nearly conquered the whole of the earth and brought at last Nature herself under man’s dominion. The reign of the West was littered with  contradictions: that of prosperity and enslavement; health and barbarity; power and impotence. But even though it ruled a world Europe still remained divided within.

The new Cesar, Napoleon, emerged and with his armies almost united Europe. Here too, the contradictions of history brought themselves to the fore. Here a republican army led by an autocratic dictator brought free government to Europe through the force of arms. Yet, rather than create a united, free Europe, the French lit the fires of nationalism that would seemingly divide the continent forever.

The First World War was yet a second attempt at uniting Europe this time under the banner of the ascendant Germanic peoples. The Great War was an unparalleled disaster for Europe and cast it from the pedestal of world power it had occupied since the beginning of the modern age.

The new chaos which descended upon Europe brought forth demons from the abyss- Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism- that sought to solve the contradiction of the need for European unity and the diversity of its peoples by destroying all of its differences.

It was only here, during the Second World War, that a truly democratic movement for the foundation of a united Europe, based on the diversity of its peoples, truly existed in the form of the European resistance movements to Nazi rule. There, in the words of Hannah Arendt”:

“As Jews we want to fight for the freedom of the Jewish people, because ‘If I am not for me- who is for me?’ As Europeans we want to fight for the freedom of Europe, because ‘If I am only for me who am I?’ (Hillel) [first century A.D. Jewish sage]. (Jewish Writings 141-142).

 “If any monument to the war dead of the European Union had been built it should have been dedicated to these martyrs for a free and united Europe.

The hope that such a world would emerge out of the ashes of the War was smothered by the big powers at the War’s end who wished for no new political structures in Europe, and instead saw Europe split in two by an iron wall.

It was in the wake of War that it was decided that the fate of Europe was best left to its elites. This too was part of the European tradition. Plato, who walked here, had his Guardians, the Church bound Europe with its in a trans-European clerical elite, the brotherhoods of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were pan-European in nature.

For the modern denizens of unification from above by the steady hand of the more Enlightened, globalization seemed to show the way. What was needed was a single market rather than a single demos, what was required was a shared currency, not a shared parliament.  Some, and I count myself among the naive here, thought the European Union, offered a hint at the solution to the contradiction of modern politics- how to have a democratic form of society in a globalized world. In the end the Union seemed to offer little but the oppression of the small by the big powers, and the subservience of both to the all powerful global markets.

And thus it was, after the default of Greece and its exit from the Union was followed by similar events in Italy, Ireland and eventually Spain, that our project came to a tragic end. Unable to make our new empire as free and our loyalty to it as strong as that in and for our traditional nations, we returned to more narrow visions as the source of our aspirations, with the idea of Europe extinguished until futures far distant.”

Here Pericles ended his speech to crowd who remained silent.

Rick Searle

November, 21, 2011