The Counterfeiters (part 1)

‘As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as individual, nor I against them. They are “only doing their duty”, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted men who would never dream of committing murder in private life’.  Thus wrote George Orwell in his 1941 book-length essay The Lion and the Unicorn, and although I am not scribbling away in times of war nor am I threatened to be killed, much of Orwell’s sentiment abides in me with respect to notions of ‘enmity’, ‘duty’ and virtuous ‘private lives’ that turn sour in the public domain each time the ‘Greek crisis’ debate unfolds in its various guises. What follows is not so much a sociological analysis of the ‘Greek crisis’ per se but rather an account of a young sociologist and a Greek citizen writing about a ‘crisis-ridden warzone’ like a frustrated NASA team member observing a precarious space shuttle before lift-off. The title of this article is borrowed from another novelist across La Manche; symbolist André Gide whose 1925 Les faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters), has been playing second fiddle in my mind as I write. Gide’s tormented prose lends a literary metaphor and a double perspective for us to interpret a phenomenon that is neither ‘Greek’ not ‘European’ in its origin but both in its manifestation; a global financial bubble which has burst open and spread like a ‘spectre that hangs over Europe’ as Marx and Engels would have it in the preamble of The Communist Manifesto.

The main theme of Gide’s novel revolves around a plot of counterfeit gold coins on one hand and the portrayal of the characters’ feelings and relationships on the other often allowing an external and an internal reading of the book, very much like a novel-within-a-novel. This is potentially a good way to relate to the Eurozone crisis as a phenomenon that unmasks a double process of counterfeit, one European and one Greek. The position held here is that both Europe and Greece are guilty as charged for actively pursuing a politics of brinkmanship, pushing dangerous events to the verge of, or rather brink of catastrophe in order to achieve an advantageous outcome which is no other than the cheap purchase of power at a rather heavy cost. In order to substantiate such a claim an analysis of the argument is attempted, first at a European level and then at a specifically Greek context in the hope that the dialogue that has been avoided in the parliamentary corridors of Brussels and Athens can occur in a sociological forum instead.

Too big to fail?

Is Europe too big to fail, both as an idea and as a political institution? To paraphrase the Latin poet Virgil; fortunate is she who is able of things to know the answers and the causes too. Economists and political commentators alike may not have the solution to the enigma of causes but they have luxuriated playfully in asking, like Shane Swift has, When Does Too Big To Fail, Become Too Big To Bail?, an existential question that has become part of the problem of Europe, and its financial wing (the Eurozone) since the first signs of recession manifested themselves in 2008. The residual sociologist in me compels me to steer away from an economistic view of what we have come to routinely call the Eurozone crisis and rather favour a more social and political interrogation of whether Europe is failing and if so why. My disciplinary education and sensibility reveal an understanding of the EU crisis as fundamentally if not intrinsically socio-political, and one that dates back to its very formal formation in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 which created the European Union and led to the creation of the single European currency, the (now deflated) euro. The problem of course is not the drafting of the Treaty but rather the belated realisation that the European Union and its currency were launched with a huge democratic deficit; what seemed like a rose-coloured, romantic union now appears more like a felony and betrayal turning much too quickly from infatuation to disillusionment, seeking composure but not finding equanimity.

This cannot be more clearly manifested than in the embittered character and brisk tone of reaction towards the sudden emergence of ‘our’ Union’s failing currency, a moment which revealed deep cracks and fissures in the European dream and led to stark, irreconcilable divisions where it should have shown power in unity. The very orientation of the whole ‘crisis’ debate on a European level as a purely economic, financial and fiscal one automatically projected veritable weaknesses in marshalling the political in the aid of the financial, resorting instead to managerial solutions to a broader problem than mere number-crunching.  Out of such an atmosphere of miscommunication arose a ‘chaos according to plan’ paving its way through bailout agreements, austerity measures and memoranda which were at the outset morally reprehensible and therefore naturally destined to fail. The fiscally strong North harassed the Union’s Southern weaklings demanding that they kick themselves into shape through a series of abominable formulae passing on as solutions eventually becoming the current nightmare of member states who fear contagion and the breaking up of the euro. The dominant narrative explained this new toxic state of affairs in divisive and oppositional terms alluding to Aesopian moralising tales of frugal ants such as Germany, France, Netherlands and Belgium lending frivolous grasshoppers such as Greece, Italy, Portugal, Ireland and Spain.

The problem with this story-telling is that it forgets how little sense it makes to operate on a binary logic within a monetary union, a paradox identified by a host of Nobel Prize winning economists from Joseph Stiglitz to Paul Krugman who poignantly described Greece as a ‘victim’ in a recent op-ed of his for the New York Times explaining how ‘the origins of this disaster lie farther north, in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin, where officials created a deeply — perhaps fatally — flawed monetary system, then compounded the problems of that system by substituting moralizing for analysis. And the solution to the crisis, if there is one, will have to come from the same places’. Krugman is not alone in decrying this bailout regime nor does he stand out as a solitary voice in identifying the paradox of agreeing to operate within a monetary union but at the same time seeming unwilling and uncooperative in finding imaginative and mutually beneficial solutions for helping not just the fellow members of your union but that very union itself. Yanis Varoufakis, Professor of Economics at University of Athens and Visiting Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson Graduate School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, has repeatedly asked the vexing question of whether other monetary unions such as the US dollar have ever, in times of prosperity and/or crisis, witnessed accusations where New York would, say, criminalise Ohio for being a fiscal burden and therefore threaten with scenarios of exit from the union and disorderly default. The answer comes from Paul Krugman who invites us to ask ourselves; ‘why does the dollar area — also known as the United States of America — more or less work, without the kind of severe regional crises now afflicting Europe? The answer is that we have a strong central government, and the activities of this government in effect provide automatic bailouts to states that get in trouble’.

What is at stake here is not a problem of remuneration and book-keeping but rather an inability to reach political consensus preferring instead methods of racketeering by means of extortion and loan-sharking, thus creating a threat and then charging for its reduction through a series of unsustainable political decisions that memoranda and bailouts have proven to be. The framing of the story of the failing euro in such terms soon morphed into everyday rhetoric influencing popular attitudes where habitual disparagement of Europe’s southern states as ‘PIIGS’ as an acronym used to refer to the economies of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain has become a common joke graduating to even more abusive terms employed in the mainstream media like Jeremy Paxman’s allusion to Greece on BBC’s Newsnight as a ‘bad kebab being vomited up’  or Christine Lagarde’s  differential sympathy for victims of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa but not for Greeks hit by the economic crisis. This insensitive mud-stream of slander towards and renunciation of 31-year old EU member states, cannot be interpreted merely as exaggerated, offensive and distasteful satire alone, but rather denotes a profound deficiency in the European identity where Union members feel less like beneficiaries in a common socio-political enterprise built on trust and more like opponents occupying a space of ethnic bigotry, public misapprehension and moral usury.

Only a shift in the European political imaginary would usher in a period of more harmonious coexistence where consensus is made out of consent and dissent locked in their interdependence, where synergy and not rivalry justifies their union with the powerful acting in similar ways to Karl Marx’s observation in the preface of Das Kapital that ‘[t]he country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future’  celebrating a unity that produces and is based on community of interests, objectives, and standards. Yanis Varoufakis and Stuart Holland’s Modest Proposal for resolving the Eurozone crisis works towards this direction where the crisis is envisaged as an intrinsically European problem which can be reframed as a European political and civic asset by treating any debt as commonly European and not exclusive to a(ny) member state while at the same time setting up a mechanism of surplus recycling where the strong would aid the weak precisely in the fashion that Krugman suggested with reference to the American example. Any such paradigm shift would not only lift the Eurozone’s civil mood up but would radically lead to a re-interpretation of the terms of discussing the crisis where the strong don’t throw loans at the problems of the weak, nor do they behave hegemonically by setting the tone and wielding the decisive power at the expense of the benighted Eurozone members who fear any deviation from the dictates of their northern neighbours. Krugman, Varoufakis and Holland are not solitary exceptions in opposing the savage squeezing of wages and livelihoods in favour of faulty rescue plans and profit-making machinations; from Slavoj Žižek’s depiction of Greece as a ‘humanitarian victim’ and Die Linke’s Sahra Wagenknecht opposition to the European fiscal treaty as ‘an enemy to democracy’ to Amartya Sen’s warning that ‘austerity is undermining Europe’s grand vision’, not to mention the numerous petitions and statements of solidarity from Europe’s intelligentsia influencing the ‘We are all Greeks’ rallies.

This climate of political disjunction amounts to the first existential crisis of post-modern Europe since the profound shock on the Old Continent’s conscience facing the rubble of World War Two. The implicit agreement in the upshot of the war then was the recognition that ‘we, as Europeans do not wish to re-live history in such a light ever again’ coupled with the romantic vision of a united avowal to that promise. The cultural and socio-political climate in whose orbit we find ourselves twirling today however, feeds precisely on the raw materials that inspire discrimination, prejudice and hostility on the brink of warfare, not by ammunition but by a cold and calculating militarisation of the European spirit mediated and serviced by financial institutions. Europeanness seems to be running low on imaginative and institutional resources in upholding its exalted image of oneness, nor does it seem to democratically celebrate its diversity in the way that Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographic portrait of ‘The Europeans’ found and showed evidence of a greater identity, a family likeness shared by the people and the landscape beyond nationalism and the particular characteristics of each nation. Cartier-Bresson’s Europeans are seen at work, in the streets, travelling and gossiping. Sometimes they are lone figures; a photograph may show only a single gaze, a glimpse of a face. Often, however, Cartier-Bresson turns his camera to couples, mirrored individuals, linked solitudes or crowds, gathering to celebrate or to protest. Is this image relevant, applicable or representative of today’s lived reality of and in Europe?

A cursory re-reading of Gerard Delanty’s (1995: 1) Inventing Europe helps us orient ourselves around the mirage of our Europeanness by recognising that ‘every age invented the idea of Europe in the mirror of its own identity: Europe is as much an idea as it is a reality, but it is also a contested idea and it was in adversity that European identity was constructed as a dichotomy of Self and Other’.  My personal reading of Delanty’s book isolates a number of cautionary points that I feel are useful nodes towards a brief commentary on the current existential crisis of the European experiment. The first is that Europeanness probably never managed to forge emotional ties analogous to the imaginary idea of nationhood. In its effort to overcome nationalism and mould a sense of identity and community, Europe used the same tools (flag, anthem, passport, common/shared history) but without much success. The second point is that the process of unification in the name of Europe and its associated ideology arrived with a top-bottom configuration by means of political decisions (of an elite) and not through social, political and civil struggle, thus showing a remarkable gap in political representation. The third ambition of the book seems to be the deconstruction of the idea of Europe as ‘one’, interpreting its identity not simply as an imagined community but as intrinsically divided. That point is advanced further with the claim that the reality of the European continent has at the outset been the preparation for war, not representing unity but opposition and conflict expressed by means of racial, religious, cultural and ideological exclusion of ‘the other’ be it heretics, Muslims, Jews, Slavs or unwelcome arrivals from the New World. Communism was also featured in this gallery of evils upgrading to the threat of Islam(ism) in the post 9/11 climate.

This bleak or crudely realistic, depending on viewpoint, image of Europe, compels us to imagine Europe more as a Union of profound divisions rather than a romantic project inspired by a strong sense of unity.  The recognition of the above leads us to an image of Europe as a phantom category a zombie political realm to which we still remain faithful for no apparent reason, save for its dissolution which we are witnessing today. If we are to agree with Delanty’s analysis of the idea of Europe ‘judged by how it treats its minorities and not by reference to ambivalent notions of unity’ and recognise the need for any idea of Europe to be ‘linked to a new politics of collective responsibility based on post-national citizenship’, it may be worth to risk the assumption that the PIIGS start looking very much like the minorities of which Delanty speaks about, and it is to one of those domestic omnivores that we shall devote the remainder of this text.

Lambros Fatsis is a final year DPhil student at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis concentrates on discussions of public sociology, the role of the University and intellectuals, while other research interests include black music, urban culture and the history and sociology of the Jamaican soundsystem. He also performs as a reggae selector/radio presenter under the name Boulevard Soundsystem and is a contributor of Billboard magazine on reggae music.

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