Last weekend’s elections in Greece were depicted as a massive ideological punch-up of the sort we no longer see very often in politically bland Europe. On one side there were anti-EU leftists like SYRIZA, railing against Angela Merkel and her stringent bailout plans, and on the other side more right-leaning parties, who insisted that austerity is the only solution for deeply indebted Greece. Meanwhile outside of Greece, everywhere from Berlin to London, there was a seemingly sweeping divide between pro-EU people telling Greece it had to embrace austerity, and anti-EU people suggesting Greece should reject the bailout package and give Brussels the finger.
Yet for all the fantasies about a return of Politics with a capital P, the most striking thing was how much the two sides in the election debate shared in common. Both inside Greece and outside it, on both the right and left, in both the pro- and anti-EU camps, the overriding political instinct among all protagonists and observers was to infantilise Greece, to treat it as a hapless child. The right and the Brussels brigade did it by depicting Greece as an immature entity incapable of governing its economic affairs. And the left and the anti-Brussels brigade did it by painting Greece as the pitiable victim of ‘other people’s hubris’. These alternative forms of national infantilisation reveal a lot about what is wrong with the politics of the EU and with what now passes for being ‘anti-EU’.
In the Brussels set and also among right-wing political observers, there has long been a tendency to denounce Greece as unfit for governance, especially economic governance. The Greeks, in contrast to Germans, are a bit too feckless, emotional and corrupt to do economics properly, we’re told. In the run-up to the elections, one economic magazine reported that German officials and Brussels bigwigs, speaking anonymously, describe Greece as a ‘broken bureaucracy… incapable of implementing decisions taken at the top’. In short, it’s a wilful child, which needs clear rules and occasionally a firm slap from Mother Merkel and other outsiders in order to keep it chugging along.
Yet such infantilisation of Greece is apparent on the left, too, among those who profess to be pro-Greece and anti-EU. Indeed, the instinct to infantilise Greece is even stronger in this camp than it is in Brussels and Berlin. To these people, Greece is the ultimate victim, whose every tribulation has been foisted upon it by external forces, whether they be dastardly Germans, wicked neoliberals or just ‘globalisation’, that empty buzzword used to describe bad stuff. This view was summed up in a popular Paul Krugman column in the New York Times, headlined ‘Greece as victim’. Like the critics of Greece, Krugman also says ‘Greeks can’t resolve [their] crisis’, but from his point of view it is because they have been hamstrung by wicked people ‘farther north’. ‘Greece will basically go down in history as the victim of other people’s hubris’, he says.
What is remarkable here is the shared view of Greek incapacity, with a whole nation treated either as naughty child who must be reprimanded or victimised child who must be cooed over and cared for. This dual process of infantilisation could be seen within Greece itself, among the parties vying for votes. So New Democracy, the centre-right, pro-bailout party which got 29 per cent of the vote and will now set up a coalition government, doesn’t take real moral responsibility for its actions. Instead it says these things must be done in order to appease the Troika, the Brussels-based powers overseeing the bailout of screwed-up Euro countries. The radicals around SYRIZA partake in a similar deflection of moral responsibility away from Greece to the apparently all-powerful Troika, blaming that entity and others in Europe for plunging Greece into penury.
Both the right and left in Greece indulge in a woeful spectacle of self-infantilisation, presenting their nation and themselves as beholden to or battered by external actors. The election was not a clash of alternative visions, but rather of competing claims to childlike status, with voters effectively asked to pick between Greece being a good child and obeying the Troika or a naughty child who would defy it. With New Democracy deflecting its responsibility to lead Greece by promoting the idea that the Eurozone must be appeased, and SYRIZA whitewashing Greece’s past moral responsibility for deciding to join the Euro and partake in the EU project in the first place, the Greek election was less a fight between potential leaders than it was a competition of responsibility shirkers. The heated, divisive rhetoric could not disguise the overriding philosophy that all sides in Greece now subscribe to: Responsibility Avoidance.
In this regard, SYRIZA was even worse than New Democracy and the other parties. It is now becoming clear that SYRIZA didn’t really want to win the election and assume responsibility for Greece’s future. As the BBC reported, the atmosphere in SYRIZA’s offices after it discovered that New Democracy had won was relaxed, with one supporter saying: ‘We have lost. It’s great for us.’ SYRIZA backers in the media argue that losing was a ‘victory for SYRIZA’, because in opposition it can become ‘a formidable force of resistance’. This party doesn’t want power. Everything it told its supporters about cutting Greece loose from the Merkelites and going in a new direction was a lie, a delusion designed to stir up understandably angry Greeks. SYRIZA prefers to be in opposition because its aim is not to lead, or to think, or to come up with alternatives, but rather to be a naysayer to ‘neoliberalism’, an infantile block against measures designed to try to remedy the recession – exactly the role played by Geert Wilders in Holland recently.
This depressing spectacle of external infantilisation and self-infantilisation captures what is wrong both with the EU project and with the new forms of EU-bashing that are in the ascendancy in respectable circles. It confirms that the existence of the EU allows visionless national governments, not only in Greece but across Europe, to offset their sovereign responsibility to lead their nations and to create prosperity by instead hiding behind the walls of Brussels and, like a child, saying ‘The Troika made me do it…’. And it confirms that being anti-EU now plays a similar role for other parties around Europe, allowing them to deflect their nations’ responsibility for agreeing to create the comfort blanket of the EU and the doomed Euro project by instead turning Merkel into a modern-day Hitler who has ruined everyone’s lives. This is, as Kant might have put it, self-imposed immaturity. These European elites and self-styled radicals need enlightenment.