Παρασκευή, 19 Ιουνίου 2015

Grexit as sacrifice


Rational players understand it: a Greek exit from the eurozone is in nobody’s interest. But this is no guarantee that it won’t happen, even if yet another agreement between the Greek government and its creditors is reached, hard as it is to imagine right now. Great undertakings, such as the euro, involve more than calculative behavior. The monetary union is not just a technical arrangement, but also the expression of a deeper desire for more integration in the continent. Great projects are often existential in nature: they define what people care about and how they are oriented in the world.

Rational calculations tend to obscure existential concerns. There are times, however, when calculations do not suffice and the game itself may be called into question. What is it for? What should its rules be? How should it be played? When such existential questions arise, they prompt players to significantly evolve their common undertaking. It is far from easy: since the stakes are high, players cling more even tenaciously to the views they already hold, which have brought them thus far. Stagnation is often the outcome.

Greek tragedy helps us grasp the predicament of existential projects and the conflicts they create. In Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces in the Trojan War, is ready to set sail for Troy. However, he cannot move his fleet: goddess Artemis is vengefully withholding the winds because Agamemnon has offended her. To appease the goddess, Agamemnon is told that he must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. It is a dreadful dilemma and he knows it. Whatever he chooses to do will be wrong. This is what philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls “tragic conflict”: both alternatives contain serious wrongdoing.

Look now at the crisis in the eurozone again. ‘The rules must be respected and agreements honored’, argue the three bailout monitors (the European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF, popularly called “troika”). ‘You must respect the people’s democratic will that brought us to power’, argues the Greek anti-austerity government. Both sides are right. Contrary to troika’s predictions, the consequences of their bailout program for Greece have been devastating. But to have a future as a modern country, Greece must change fundamentally: it cannot carry on pretending to be a modern country while keeping modernity at bay through the endemic practices of crony capitalism and a clientelistic, incompetent, and party-political dominated state.

To choose any of the two sides means to neglect the truth of the other side. This is the essence of tragic conflict. Understanding it and asking the “tragic question” requires, notes Nussbaum, “assuming a possible burden of guilt and of reparative effort”. None of the two sides is prepared to do it. The troika reluctantly concedes that mistakes have been made in the Greek rescue program but does nothing radical to correct them by offering what is most needed – debt relief. The Greek side does what is historically used to doing: playing the victim of fiendish foreign powers, while resisting modernization of its anachronistic institutions that brought about its bankruptcy.

Tragic conflict cannot be avoided. As soon as this is understood, the players are motivated to submit themselves to critical self-scrutiny and change their habits. But Greek tragedians were pessimistic: they knew that human beings change their ways the hard way – through suffering, rather than reason. Suffering reveals what reason obscures.

The Greek gift to the eurozone has been to expose the latter’s flaws – the folly of creating a monetary union without common political institutions to support it. But fixing the flaws involves more than financial engineering: the underlying understandings would need to be boldly reconsidered and adopted policies appropriately modified. Mr. Schäuble certainly does not see it this way. Germany bears no responsibility for Greece’s problems, he keeps saying.

On the other side, the consequences of harsh austerity and the embedded culture of victimhood have turned Greece inwards and made it more desperate, even irrational. Defense Minister Kammenos threatens to make the country a suicide bomber: he proudly tells a popular, early-19th-century story from the Greek independence struggle about how monk Samuel blew up the powder keg, killing himself and his captors, rather than surrender to the Ottoman enemy! Implied message: we will take you down with us.

Existential projects involve high stakes. When stalled, sacrifices push them forward. A Grexit may be such a sacrifice for the eurozone; irrational, certainly, but an existential necessity nonetheless. The suffering it will cause will likely make each side see what it presently refuses to see and ask the hard questions to itself it avoids asking. As Sophocles puts it in Antigone, “big blows teach wisdom”. Regrettably, when this happens, it is usually too late.

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