Greek stuff, or, Hélas Hellas

Once I went to a post office on a Greek island. I asked the man at the counter whether he spoke English. Looking at me blankly with bored, heavy eyes, he lifted his chin with a slow jerk: όχι. No.

A younger me would greet the triumph of Syriza with unalloyed glee. With my more advanced years I’m nervous about the consequences. Democracy is disrupting history.

We assume that failure en masse to repay ones debts will cripple society and the economy. But at some point a consensus emerges that accumulated debts must be forgiven. Tsipras cannily reminds Germans that they benefited from this magnanimity after the Second World War. The moral force of that argument is indisputable. But motivation for German debt forgiveness lay in the Manichaean geo-strategising of the Cold War. Germany’s geographical position made it America’s bulwark against the Soviet menace. Greece, and by logical extension all weakly-performing economies of the EU, will have to rely on less compelling forces.

Yesterday Giles Fraser said, following David Graeber, that the concept of debt had its origins as a means for conquering armies to subjugate populations and then to transfer moral guilt onto the oppressed. That may be why the Vulgate Jesus, perhaps following Socrates, taught his disciples to pray God to ‘forgive our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ Also yesterday the chief economics editor of the Financial Times said the ‘proposition …that the Greeks borrowed the money and so are duty bound to pay it back, however much it costs them… was very much the attitude that sustained debtors’ prisons.’

A Hegelian reading of Europe’s predicament would demand an antithesis to the stale orthodoxy of austerity which has been prescribed by Europe’s ‘reluctant hegemon’. It is better for the radical left to deliver such a riposte. Better than the far right which always aims to make a virtue out of targeting the weak; but they are waiting in the wings.