Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On the front line

OK - not quite at the front. I'll give you that.
Riots in Athens, hyperbole everywhere, a general strike today and, back in the UK, a big public sector strike on the future of pensions will take place tomorrow. And I am here, already drawing my pension and feeling incredibly lucky.

When I first came to Greece on holiday, I was sold the usual line. It was a faintly mocking one. There was the 'laid back lifestyle', 'slow pace of life', together with the gentle comedy of the ways of those curious Greeks. The favourite cliché peddled at the time was that 'everything worked on GMT - Greek Maybe Time'. It made visitors feel comfortable, patronisingly romantic and not a little superior. I got my first reality check when I strolled to the bus station only to find that the buses depart bang on time and that I had missed mine. I soon realised that, though the country will never be a model of Teutonic efficiency, what was happening was that people were working ferociously hard to make mass tourism work on a limited infrastructure. I gained a lot of respect for them.

Now those same people are staring at an economic crisis that seems scarcely credible. Facing massive state indebtedness, those who worked so hard are now looking at tax rises and at losing significant chunks of their income, if not their jobs. This would be bad enough if it wasn't for the the old stereotypes being trotted out again and again to explain it, basically seeing the crisis as the consequence of the moral failings of the natives. This is why it is nice to see the stereotype being challenged, such as in this refreshing post, even if some of the widely circulated figures are a bit dodgy and brushes with bureaucracy can give another impression.

Now, there is certainly some contributory negligence on the part of the Greeks and there are a couple of good pieces that highlight the history here and here. However, what we are seeing both here and in the UK is a clash between two models of political economy, with a resultant technical argument about how best to resolve problems (with the IMF and ECB's preferred model of austerity looking increasingly non-viable, both politically and economically - even the Economist is arguing for a managed restructure/partial default), and a wider debate about democracy, populism, and the broader purposes of the economy.

The thing that depresses me most is that policies are being presented as if there is no choice at all, as if, to use that lamentable phrase, there is no alternative. The clash of ideas is the very stuff of politics and the lapsing into some sort of post-ideological intellectual mush is one of the great failings of our times. It leads ordinary people to a sense of resignation and to the hubris of political leaders and technocrats alike, convinced that they are being bold when acting cautiously and wise when perpetuating errors. It is one of the oddities of the contemporary left is that foreign affairs have animated a debate (however grim), yet domestic economic policy has been allowed to lapse into consensus.

That consensus has contributed to a political stasis, a failure to deal with the real conflicts that affect everyday lives. Aditya Chakrabortty gives a perfect example of how this works, arguing for the importance of effective, confrontational trade unionism to the health of capitalism.
What's so odd about the current debate on inequality is that everyone deplores it and yet very few will come out and support the mechanisms to tackle it. Perhaps a CEO catching a thought-provoking discussion on Radio 4 will decide to shower his or her staff with payrises. And perhaps one day a plebiscite of turkeys will vote for Christmas.
With the debate on public services being dominated by models of consumer choice, we are forgetting that the bigger choices facing us are about the type of societies we live in, of how we distribute wealth, and on this the political class seem curiously silent, even as crisis engulfs a small, beautiful European country with a rather wonderful climate and hard-working people who deserve better.

1 comment:

Manos said...

Many thanks for citing my work - very much appreciated!