Why the EU is treating Greece as a moral punchbag

In a speech in Athens, Brendan O'Neill argued that it is the EU's crisis of moral authority that has made it so hysterically anti-Greek.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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On 24 February, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill spoke in the Institute of Ideas debate ‘Beware of Greeks bearing votes?’ at the Hellenic American Union in Athens. His speech is published below.

Pretty much every commentary on the EU’s interventions in Greece mentions the fact that Greece was the birthplace of democracy. They all talk about how ironic it is that this country where democracy was first conceptualised should now be subjected to such stringent external intervention. Once the birthplace of democracy, Greece is now its graveyard, we are told.

But I think there is another Ancient Greek tradition which it is more appropriate to call upon in our discussions about the EU and Greece. And that is the Ancient Greek tradition of theatre, of masked theatre in particular, Greece’s historic role in developing the art of performing human emotions. Because it seems to me that the EU-Greek crisis is being played out as one giant piece of theatre, as one giant performance. Both sides in this clash – both the EU officials who are imposing austerity measures on Greece and the Greek opponents of those austerity measures – seem to be driven more by a performative instinct than by a political instinct, by a preference for theatrical gestures over serious political debate.

So I think what we are seeing with the Greek crisis is not only the EU’s disregard for the democratic set-up in one particular nation, but something more profound than that – we are seeing the demise, and possibly the end, of serious politics and serious morality.

Let’s start with the EU side, with the troika – the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission, who seem to think they have the moral authority to determine Greece’s destiny. More and more people are starting to argue that the troika’s plans for Greece are going to make the economic situation worse. Even EU-friendly economists now admit that the €130 billion bailout package recently agreed for Greece is not going to solve the Euro’s problems or Greece’s problems. One economist has described the package as ‘an exercise in make-believe’.

In fact, even the troika, even the three institutions themselves, seem to have their doubts. In a recent internal report, they raised the possibility that Greek debt could reach 160 per cent of economic output by 2020, which would be way over the stated goal of 120 per cent, and of course would be disastrous. So there is a lot of recognition that the heavyhanded intervention into Greece is not going to make things better and could very well make them worse.

But I think it is wrong to look at this in terms of whether or not it will work. Because that is to accept the idea that the EU’s aim is to ‘fix’ or ‘correct’ or ‘punish’ Greece, when in fact its interventions in Greece are driven by something else entirely. The EU’s austerity assaults on Greece are not about addressing a practical problem in Greece; they are about trying to address a profound existential problem in Brussels. They are not really about trying to reshape Greece, whether by making it more ‘neoliberal’ or more compliant with Brussels; they are about trying to reshape the moral mission and the moral authority of the Brussels elite.

The best way to understand how the EU is treating Greece is as a kind of stage, a theatre, in which EU officials can make a performance of being tough and resolute. They might be incapable of addressing the underlying weaknesses of the Euro currency; they’re definitely incapable of addressing the structural disarray of modern European capitalism. So what they have opted to do instead is take part in a massive displacement activity: attacking Greece. They are effectively exploiting the isolation of Greece, and the fact that it screwed up pretty badly in economic terms, to turn Greece into a kind of moral punchbag.

I think this goes hand-in-hand with the EU’s treatment of Hungary. Hungary and Greece have both become key theatres for EU officials in recent years – Hungary for cultural reasons and Greece for economic reasons.

So in Hungary, EU officials are continually trying to determine the cultural and political agenda. They constantly attack the right-wing government there and accuse it of reneging on EU values. The EU effectively issues cultural ultimatums to Hungary, instructing it on what a modern European society should really look like. And it’s playing the same trick with Greece, only in economic terms rather than cultural terms. It is issuing economic ultimatums, about what a responsible, decent Euro economy ought to look like.

In both instances, in both Hungary and Greece, the driving force is the deep malaise within Brussels itself. It tries to disguise its loss of cultural authority by attacking Hungary’s alleged cultural crimes. And even more frighteningly than that, it tries to displace its cluelessness about the economy and its cluelessness about the Euro crisis by dictating to Greece. There is a really performative instinct here, where the aim is not actually to remake Hungary’s cultural sphere or to ‘fix’ Greece’s economy – Brussels doesn’t really care that much that there are some homophobic people in Hungarian towns or that Greece is in an economic mess. No, the aim is to offset the cultural and economic crisis and indirection within the heart of Brussels by creating theatrical scenes in some of the Empire’s faraway, isolated lands.

Of course, it’s a performance that has very real consequences. And the main real-world consequences is the severe loss of democratic sovereignty in Hungary and Greece – that is the price these nations must pay for having been turned into the EU’s cultural and economic whipping boys.

But then on the other side, among those who oppose the EU’s austerity measures, there is also a very performative thing going on. The radical Greek opposition to EU austerity shares something very interesting in common with the EU itself: a preference for theatrics over politics.

For me, as an outsider, the most striking thing about the Greek opposition to the EU is how dramatically it fluctuates between extreme anger and extreme passivity. So one day, there is a ‘Greek rage’, and the entire European left, including in Britain, will prematurely speculate about the rebirth of radicalism. And then the next day it’s gone, it has disappeared, and the radicals go back to writing graffiti on walls saying ‘Wake up!’ or ‘Do something!’, which really expresses their frustration and disappointment with the Greek masses.

The reason anti-EU protesting flits between extreme rage and extreme passivity is because it is an uncontained, unanchored form of opposition. It is not driven by a coherent political orientation. It is such a depoliticised, ungrounded form of opposition that it can explode and fizzle out in a matter of days or even hours.

That is very interesting, because it suggests that what the radicals share in common with the EU troika is an absence of vision, of ideology, of any serious political plans or proposals, which they try to disguise with performative displays of rage. That is also a kind of displacement activity. So rather than rethink, regroup or reformulate their political outlook, they express their angst in a very public, theatrical fashion. The physical intensity of these fleeting protests disguises the political impotence that lies behind them.

We are seeing a very interesting dynamic among the Greek left and various other groups across Europe opposed to EU measures – which is a process of self-infantilisation. We know that the EU infantilises nations, in particular Hungary and Greece. But what is striking is how much the opposition plays into this game and accepts the label of ‘infant’, sometimes even behaving as such, behaving like a child angry at its parents, with its emotions ranging from rage to sulking, rather than behaving as adult vs adult.

What I find most interesting is how both the EU and the anti-EU sides in this discussion seem very disappointed with the masses, with ordinary people. So the EU elite looks upon Greece as being economically lazy; it thinks Greek people don’t work hard enough and lack a good, German-style work ethic. And then Greek radicals look upon the masses as being politically lazy, as apathetic. A great deal of the graffiti in Athens says things like ‘Wake up!’ or ‘Stop being slaves!’, expressing a real sense of frustration with everyday people. That is the final, sad thing that both the EU and its opponents share in common – they collude in the elbowing aside of ordinary people from this discussion, and in the transformation of a very serious political and economic crisis into a piece of theatre to which we the people are merely spectators.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

The above is an edited version of a speech given in Athens on 24 February 2012.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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