We went to our favourite taverna for a meal last night. We were the only customers. It has had virtually no trade since opening for Christmas. It is rarely busy at this time of year, but there are usually knots of people in there either eating a meal or gathering with a beer or a little wine to watch football on the TV. This year - nothing, nobody. Welcome to austerity Greece.
Greece has a threefold crisis. Caught in the systemic failures of the banking and credit crisis, exacerbated by the malfunctioning of its political system and constrained by the structural weaknesses of the architecture of European monetary union, political leaders can find only one answer - cuts.
Others have noted the irony that a crisis precipitated by neo-liberal economics has resulted in its replacement by, er, neo-liberal economics. It seems crazy, like the general in Tolstoy's War and Peace who insists that the disastrous results of his strategy is solely down to the failure to implement it properly and so continues with it. However, there has been a change. Neo-liberalism is a set of assumptions about political economy. As Adam Smith would have recognised, its implementation rests on more than economics, policy is shaped by an underlying moral narrative. For a long time this was an orgiastic celebration of wealth and conspicuous consumption, underpinned by amoral 'greed is good' assumptions occasionally justified by a misreading, in my view, of The Wealth of Nations. Now, we have another moral narrative; Scrooge is back in charge.
Never underestimate the mean and miserable streak in British political life. Dickens's satire was not based on fantasy, but on an exaggeration of existing attitudes. Those quintessential Victorian virtues of thrift and parsimony, masquerading as self-help, persist to this day, reinterpreted as a response to the credit crunch. And austerity as a doctrine is not confined to the right. It has its attractions for the left too. The Methodist heritage, with its embrace of temperance and moral rectitude, is strong and is now being restated in Maurice Glasman's Blue Labour, a response to Philip Blond's incoherent Red Toryism.
Glasman advocates "a deeply conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity." That is just what is needed to energise the left, a dose of Victorian sanctimony. And it is proving influential. Depressing.*
Scrooge was haunted by a different possibility, not hedonistic greed, but another traditionally English notion of Christmas. This too was rooted in a moral tradition; one of enjoyment of life, warmth, hospitality and, above all, generosity. Asceticism and suffering were eschewed in favour of hearty pleasures shared by all. This is the moral narrative that the left needs to build an alternative political economy on, rather than more preaching about obligations and respect, faith and family. It is hugely attractive.
How I would like to see the Christmas ghosts lurking in the corridors of the IMF and rattling their chains round the comfortable beds of Merkel, Cameron, Osborne and Clegg, unsettling their sleep and changing their self-satisfied approach to the crisis. Instead, I can feel an omnipresent, chill spectral wind as it seeps through a taverna in Greece, pointing to the damage caused to well-run, viable businesses and livelihoods by the artificial and joyless withdrawal of demand from the economy in the name of a supposedly redemptive austerity.
*For more reasonable reflections on Blue Labour see here and here and for an account of why this is a natural moral opponent to turbo-capitalism see here. And it is worth noting that a welcome revival of interest in mutualism in the Labour tradition is underway, though Glasman is no Colin Ward.