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Greece against Europe: a war of narratives—Christian Salmon

Miri Davidson12 June 2015

Image for blog post entitled Greece against Europe: a war of narratives—Christian Salmon

When Yanis Varoufakis announced on Tuesday that Greece's creditors have turned the negotiations "into a war", he's no doubt right, although it's perhaps becoming less clear as to who constitute the opposing sides. But for Christian Salmon, author of Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, this war also takes place on the narrative terrain, with mixed metaphors and statistical ambiguities as its weapons. As he reminds us, '"You start by ceding words,' said Freud, 'and you end up ceding on the thing.'" Translated by David Broder; read the original French article here.

By Christian Salmon, 27 February 2015 

The battle over numbers, the quarrel over words, the fight over images and the dispute over values: these are the four ingredients of the war of narratives, seeking to transform the economic and financial compromise Syriza landed in Brussels into a political defeat.

After a TV debate in 1984 in which Ronald Reagan had been dominated by his opponent Walter Mondale, Reagan advisor Lee Atwater declared “Now, we're going to want to go out there and spin this afterward”. The “afterward” in question was the “debate over the debate” – which is today as important to presidential contests as the debate itself – allowing Reagan to end up being declared the winner, after an intense spinning operation.

After the 20 February agreement between the Eurogroup and Greece we’ve seen a similar spinning campaign. Invading the newspaper columns and social media, this campaign seeks to transform an economic and financial compromise into a political defeat. It is a battle of interpretation: and it does not concern the consolidation of Greece’s debt in the eyes of its creditors, so much as Syriza’s political credit in the eyes of the European voters.

This struggle for credit takes the form of a series of performances, involving not just narratives but also rhetorical instruments of persuasion, framing effects, and institutional forms and rituals. Here the model is less the TV series or the soap opera than the different “levels” of a video game. Rather than sequences following one after the other in a linear chain, this symbolic battle – a logo-economic struggle – can more easily be understood as a series of performative offensives, simultaneously deployed across five different levels:

1. The battle over numbers

The clash between Greece and Germany is most ambiguous on the terrain of numbers. Athens wanted to set itself the objective of a primary surplus (the budget surplus before the cost of the interest on the debt is taken into account) of 1.5% of GDP; Berlin wanted it to stick to the goals set in 2012, that, is, a primary budget surplus of 3% of GDP in 2015 and 4.5% in 2016. The Eurogroup statement explained that Greece will have to find a way to achieve “the appropriate primary fiscal surpluses or financing proceeds required to guarantee debt sustainability in line with the November 2012 Eurogroup statement.” This programme is however “reviewed”, in that the primary surplus objectives will be adapted to “take the economic circumstances in 2015 into account”. Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis commented that he saw this as a “constructive ambiguity” that would allow these objectives to be adapted to the future situation. The two camps reached a compromise; but the abandonment of fixed primary surplus goals is a clear defeat for the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Even so, commentators spoke of Greece’s “capitulation”, claiming that it had folded in the face of German pressure.

2. The quarrel over words

“We have agreed to disagree”, Wolfgang Schäuble stated in the press conference he held together with Yanis Varoufakis. “We didn’t even agree to disagree from where I’m standing,” the Greek finance minister replied, with a broad grin on his face. This left the door open to misunderstanding, but all commentators presented Varoufakis’s comment as a provocation. One of the points of disagreement between Greece and Germany concerns the role of the “Troika”, the harness formed in February 2010 by the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF to supervise the realisation of the plans to save Greece. Strongly criticised as undemocratic in character, the Troika has become the symbol of Greece’s subjection to a protectorate run by a clutch of international functionaries, some of whom were not even European. And getting rid of this Lernaean Hydra was one of Syriza’s campaign promises!

At the end of the negotiations Athens had to accept four further months of supervision, but in exchange it insisted that the term “Troika” be replaced in all official documents by the words “the institutions”. Similarly, the Greeks did not want any talk of the “extension of the aid programme” but rather a “temporary framework” or “modified programme”.

Manolis Glezos MEP, hero of the Greek Resistance to Nazism, mocked these semantic changes: “Changing the Troika’s name to ‘the institutions’, renaming the memorandum an ‘agreement’ and the lenders as ‘partners’ in reality changes nothing, as compared to the previous situation.” But is that so certain? “Wars are conducted for words on a semantic terrain,” the novelist and essayist Arthur Koestler once said. And diplomats are very well aware of the importance of words to international negotiations. “You start by ceding words,” said Freud, “and you end up ceding on the thing.” If you want to change things, you have to start by changing words. Getting rid of the term “Troika” is a prerequisite of breaking the symbolic domination established by the arbitrary fusion of these three illegitimate bodies, just as Alexis Tsipras told his voters in the aftermath of his victory.

Faced with the encryption hiding what issues are at stake in the European crisis, creating a new political lingua franca is no simple task. Caught in the rhetorical webs that the neoliberal revolution has been weaving for more than thirty years, Greece had been kept in the same situation as the colonial élites compelled to translate their own experience into the coloniser’s language: a form of neoliberal acculturation. The Greek government has tried to put an end to that, with this semantic guerrilla operation. That’s a struggle of no little significance.

3. The fight over images

Up till now the European stage had been shared by two types of actors: on the one hand the real power, an anonymous, invisible power in action – Brussels, the Troika, the markets, the multinationals, the ratings agencies, the supranational institutions, the central banks, the IMF – and on the other hand the highly visible yet impotent ones.

Syriza’s election victory and the appearance on the world stage of political leaders like Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis have shaken up this set of roles. This has forced the European negotiators to come out of the shadows, projecting a sharp light onto what are typically obscure negotiations. The curly-haired baby face of the Eurogroup president, the Dutchman Jeroen Dijsselbloem, has become familiar, as has the face of the inflexible German finance minister Wolfgang Schaüble in his wheelchair. Two figures, these, opposed to that of Yanis Varoufakis, whose non-conformist look soon hit the front pages, even in Germany, where for historic reasons the media are less given to storytelling than elsewhere. Compared to Bruce Willis by German state broadcaster ZDF, congratulated for his “classical virility” by the weekly Stern, and termed a “sex icon” by the daily newspaper Die Welt – close to Angela Merkel’s conservative electorate – Varoufakis united the media in recognising him as an “interesting character”, as “a story”. The top prize has to go to Stylebook magazine, which explained that “his cool style is unmissable”, in an article titled “Poor but sexy!”

But with the negotiations becoming harder-fought, Varoufakis’s style blitzkrieg was followed by trench warfare against his “nightclub bouncer” look. As Britain’s Financial Times explained, “The casual dress favoured by Mr Varoufakis, and other Greek ministers, is more than a style choice. It is a statement that Syriza, the radical leftist party that dominates the ruling coalition in Athens, is an anti-establishment movement intent on challenging German-led economic orthodoxy.” Fashion columnists and style experts gave way to political commentators, who were quick to see the danger of the growing “Varou-mania”. Le Monde was the first to ring the bell for the end of fashion week. What had been seen as surprising now became out of place. Radical chic gave way to talk of “the Varoufakis shock-effect” and the “cool” the media had so cherished became a lack of taste on “the very ‘policed’ scene of Europe’s great money-men”.

There is just one small step from dress code to attitude or even habitus, and Le Monde’s correspondent was quick to see it: “[They have] neither the same codes, nor the same reference points, nor the same way of behaving …” in Brussels many think that “the attitude of this brilliant Greek-Australian economist, with a huge presence on social media … has done nothing to help the resolution of the conflict between his country and the rest of Europe”. To say the least, there is a “Varoufakis shock-effect”: “Mr. Varoufakis’s rock-star look, his Bruce Willis side – the shaven head, the athletic figure, the open shirt and the upturned collar – with his air of entering the boxing ring every time he arrives for the Eurogroup meeting, thus does him a disservice”, the Le Monde journalist concluded, forgetting to say that the inverse was no less true. So, a “culture clash”; at least it’s not the clash of civilisations.

4. The dispute over values

After the collapse of communism and the end of great narratives of emancipation, politicians of both Right and Left have conceived of politics as a morality play of clashing “values”. From the social to the societal, and from economics to diplomacy, they have set themselves up as ardent defenders of humanism, secularism [laïcité], the right to intervene, honesty, rigorous accounting practices etc.

When George Papandreou’s PASOK government came to power in October 2008 it was faced with the stark reality that Greece was going bankrupt. The budget deficit was exploding, as was the debt. It wasn’t 6% of GDP but 8.3% (and it would climb to 9.9%). Whose fault was this? The dishonest bankers who doused Greece in liquidity in order to pay for French or German exports? The Greek beneficiaries of European largesse who organised tax evasion? Goldman Sachs, which airbrushed the Greek accounts in order to allow it to join the single currency? Or the Greek population, accused of all sorts of ills and called on to reform itself and atone for its failings? It’s the fable of the Greek grasshopper and the German ant, repeated again and again by the German government and its accomplices for years.

Germany has managed to transform a flaw in the construction of the Eurozone into a moral failing (the word debt in German, die Schuld, also means culpability, a failing). It has managed to make an unbalanced power relation between the countries of the North and the countries of the South – contemptuously termed "club Med" – into a morality play contrasting the virtuous Germans with the fraudulent Greeks. Greece has become to blame for its debts, and paying them off has become a moral obligation. "Greece is determined not to be treated as a debt colony doomed to suffering" was Yanis Varoufakis’s response upon taking office.

"For three years", the Greek finance minister explained in his book Le Minotaure planétaire, "the German population has been convinced that Germany has escaped the worst of the crisis because unlike the free-spending Southerners the Germans work hard and know they have to remain within their means … Such a way of thinking is accompanied by a total incomprehension of what assured the Eurozone’s success and underpinned the German surplus up till 2008; that is, the way in which the global Minotaur for decades generated the demand that allowed countries like the Netherlands and Germany to be net capital and consumer-goods exporters, both toward the Eurozone and the rest of the world". A first step in changing the European narrative…

5. The war of narratives

"What would a family with too much debt do?", the advocates of austerity have been arguing for the last several years. It would negotiate a delay in paying back its debt and then tighten its belt so as to repay it. And there is just one small step from that to the idea that nations with too much debt should do the same – a step that the defenders of the golden rule are all too happy to take. "Didn’t governments of both Right and Left buy social peace over these last thirty years by racking up debts? Isn’t it now time to pay it back?", the hypocrites of sovereign debt complain. The German ant hasn’t finished giving moral lessons to the Greek grasshopper. And its sisters in Spain, Portugal and Italy are also exposed to Ant-gela Merkel’s condemnation.

But, as the 2008 Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman asks, does this metaphor of the family in debt really make sense? The answer is simple: in a family, income is independent from expenditure. So you can reduce how much you’re spending while maintaining the same level of family income, and hope to get out of debt by slowing down the repayment schedule. That’s not how it works at the national scale, since some people’s expenditure constitutes other people’s income. If you think cutting expenditure is the way to get the country out of debt, then you will reduce some people’s income because others are spending less, and vice versa. The falling incomes that follow aggravate the debt problem. Even Keynes saw that "The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury". So why continue insisting on austerity?

In Europe the whole terrain of economic policy has been left to Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism (deregulation, state intervention, financialisation) and German ordoliberalism (the reign of "norms", debt-as-failing, and reparatory fiscal rigour…). The contradictions between the IMF and an EU under hegemonic German influence – contradictions that are today flowering – can be explained in terms of the opposition of these two great neoliberal narratives. The hegemony of the German ordoliberal narrative among bureaucratic elites owes not to bad faith but to their faith itself, that is, to their collective belief in the effectiveness of the juridical norms contained in treaties. They invest their faith in Treasury officials, jurists, and the top functionaries, who are very competent in implementing norms, but are certainly not economists.

All this has had the effect of displacing analysis of the sense of the EU’s basic mechanisms and of economic laws into the legalism of inter-European diplomatic negotiations. This is the empire of accountancy and juridical norms, inherent to the European treaties themselves. Rather than knowing about economic laws they prefer invocations borrowed from EU Newspeak: restoring confidence, repayment, effort, serious… A grammar of blame and punishment, which percolates through bureaucratic and media elites. "One of the great ironies of the Eurogroup is that there is no macroeconomic discussion", Yanis Varoufakis explained a few days after the end of the negotiations. "It’s all rules-based, as if the rules are God-given and as if the rules can go against the rules of macroeconomics. I insisted on talking macroeconomics".

As opposed to Europe conceived as a corset of moral rules, Yanis Varoufakis advanced the idea of a "decent" Europe, borrowing this term from George Orwell, who believed in the "basic honesty of the average person" – a form of natural honesty that hardly needs to look to certain authorities in order to be able to act morally. After having reminded the Germans of the forgotten episode of the cancelling of their war debt to Greece, the Greek finance minister decided to turn to the scandal of the bribes that a number of German industrialists (possibly supported by the government) made in order to be able to sell their goods to the bloated Greek military. As the philosopher Michel Feher noted, in this regard it is notable that the Troika’s demands have never included a reduction in Greece’s military spending – the fourth largest in Europe!

For Angela Merkel and her finance minister, the opening of court proceedings over this corruption would above all present the problem of undermining Berlin’s much-cherished identification of economic austerity and moral rigour.

Syriza’s victory in January has opened up a battle that is only seemingly a conflict between borrowers and lenders over the repayment of the Greek debt. It’s not simply a tug of war between the German Schaüble and the Greek Varoufakis, with one embodying the rules and the other transgression or even extravagance; with one imposing his law and forcing his adversary to bend to it, with the other mounting the famous challenge to the strongest by the weakest… Such negotiations have to be secret for those involved not to lose face, and that’s no longer the case. Now we have total transparency – and social networks lay down their own law. This is a realpolitik of a new kind, which has to take into account new kinds of weaponry that are deployed in new theatres of operations.

The political scientist Judith Shklar, who renovated liberal political thinking, often said that if you wanted to understand how political affairs played out it wasn’t enough to study the rational behaviour of the actors involved, as political science normally did. Rather, it is necessary to mount a far more ambitious interpretative effort, in order to give account of such crucial considerations as ritual, social exchanges, and the cultural and theatrical dimension of interventions in public space. That is even more true today, with its 24-hour news channels, the social networks that provide an echo-chamber for public debate and the performances of political actors engaged in a true war of narratives, playing out worldwide and in real time. And what is at stake in this war is their political credibility. What worries Berlin and Brussels isn’t so much Greece’s debt, but Syriza’s "credit", the credibility of a speaker trying to adapt its political discourse to the lived reality of the Greek population. This credit is contagious, which is why it is necessary to do everything possible to discredit it. Such are the stakes of the war of narratives that is currently raging, to which we must remain attentive. As Michel Foucault used to say, "we must hear the distant roar of battle".

An epilogue, in the form of a fable from Godard

Jean-Luc Godard, who we never hear enough of, has proposed a simple and original solution to the Greek crisis. It is based on a re-evaluation of the very notion of debt: no longer meaning the sovereign debt that’s strangling the Greeks, but the huge debt that we owe to Greece for its language, its philosophy and its democracy. As he puts it, "The Greeks gave us logic. We owe a debt to them for that. It was Aristotle who gave us that, with his famous 'Therefore'. Like when we say 'You don’t love me any more, and therefore'… Or else 'I found you in bed with another man, and therefore…'" That’s a very Godardian way of teaching Aristotelian logic and his famous syllogism "All men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal".

This valuable conjunction, which was also very useful to Descartes in formulating his cogito ergo sum ("I think therefore I am") is central to human exchange, even more so than the euro or the dollar. We use this word millions of times. It helps us take the most important decisions in our lives. In a period of crisis it takes on the austere guise of "rigour". "Therefore" – now the politicians are using it ruinously. And Godard says it’s time to pay up! "If every time we used the word 'therefore' we had to pay 10 euros to Greece, the crisis would end overnight and the Greeks would not have to sell the Parthenon to the Germans. Every time Angela Merkel told the Greeks: 'We lent you all this money, therefore you have to pay it back with interest', she would first have to pay them the royalties for the 'therefore'".

What Godard is proposing is nothing short of a Tobin Tax on verbal exchange. And the Godard Tax isn’t as much as a fantasy as it seems. Don’t people already pay for words on Google, for advertising use? It also has the merit of simplicity. Nothing is easier than scanning official discourse for unscrupulous instances of this conjunction. Taxing the word "therefore" would also have the advantage of making the fallacious reasoning that so frequently appears in political discourse ruinously expensive. It would slow down the pace of the precarious deductions that some people venture, and which end up with the poor having to pay the debts of the "casino" economy. After all, today language is suffering from the same ills as credit. Political discourse is polluted with euphemisms and false syllogisms, just as banks’ balance sheets are polluted with bad debts. They are corroded by the lack of credibility. Orwell warned us "Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind … When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink".

It is time to restore confidence to public debate. But how to start? We could reform the ratings agencies, re-baptising them de-ratings agencies. Their mission? To evaluate the credibility of political discourse, just as they do for sovereign debt, and if need be to downgrade the credit of the governments responsible for ruining confidence in our common language.

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