Monday, 6 July 2015

Either/Or: the Greek Democratic Pharmakon in the Age of Austerity

In a seminal essay titled 'Plato's Pharmacy', Jacques Derrida engages in an extended discussion of one of Plato's less well-regarded dialogues, the Phaedrus, expounding on the ambiguity of one word - pharmakon - which is repeatedly used as a metaphor in the text. Often translated simply as 'drug' or 'medicine', to the ancient Greeks pharmakon could in fact mean either medicine and/or poison:

Pharmacia (Pharmakeia) is also a common noun signifying the administration of the pharmakon, the drug: the medicine and/or poison. "Poisoning" was not the least usual meaning of "pharmacia." (p. 70)

But the ambiguity evoked here is not merely linguistic or semantic - it goes to the very heart of nature itself, and distills to its very core the famous slogan attributed to the ancient Greeks - 'everything in moderation'. Every medicine can be a poison at a given dosage or formulation, and vice versa - some of the deadliest venoms on the planet are today the subject of ground-breaking research into a wide range of potential therapeutic uses, for instance - new drugs derived from venom for everything from heart disease and diabetes to autoimmune diseases, cancer, and pain could be available within a decade. “We aren’t talking just a few novel drugs but entire classes of drugs,” according to one researcher. And the properties that make venom deadly are also what make it so valuable for medicine.

Taken metaphorically in the economic arena, fiscal discipline is a pharmakon; fiscal austerity, on the other hand, is fiscal discipline taken to a level where it becomes poison - where it kills, rather than heals. When fiscal discipline becomes an ideological end in itself, rather than a means to an end, it becomes toxic. And it becomes all the more dangerous when those who administer it, failing to distinguish between the divergent effects of this pharmakon at different dosages, are utterly, fanatically convinced of the purity of their cause.

Contrary to the widely propagated (in the West, at least) perception of 'lazy Greeks' living off the welfare state and so forth (more on that here and here - Greeks work longer hours than Germans and the Greek welfare state takes up a smaller percentage of GDP), a closer examination shows that it is in fact the Troika and the Eurozone finance ministers who are the epitome of intellectual laziness and incompetence, and ideological fanaticism - like a doctor who fanatically believes in a particular drug or form of therapy and administers it recklessly with no concern for dosages or formulations and no interest in the finer points of fine-tuning treatment, in the process killing or seriously harming his patients. Or as Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman put it, "Europe’s self-styled technocrats are like medieval doctors who insisted on bleeding their patients — and when their treatment made the patients sicker, demanded even more bleeding." Greece didn't even get a real bailout or any kind of stimulus in exchange for being forced to undercut its own growth (and hope of recovery) through austerity measures - as economist Mark Blyth points out, most of the bailout money ostensibly loaned to Greece simply went right back into French and German banks, who were the real target of the bailout - Greece merely served as a conduit for European taxpayers' money to be funneled into European private banks. This is either a colossal policy failure or a cynical neoliberal conspiracy against the public on an equally colossal scale.

By contrast, it is precisely the Greek Syriza government, and perhaps most of all its controversial finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, that emerge as thoroughly modern (or even post-modern) proponents of intellectual rigour, method, and rational economic discipline - insisting on precise policies that produce the right outcomes, and which are supported by measurable evidence as well as a democratic mandate. Varoufakis' economic background is in cutting-edge academic game theory, and he has worked for several years as a consultant for Seattle-based video game developer Valve Corporation (incidentally, on scaling up virtual economies and linking multiple economies together on the Steam digital delivery platform, looking at exchange rates and trade deficits). And he has, according to BBC's Paul Mason "templated a style of politics that may be equally adaptable for the right as on the left, for those with the will to try it: operating from principles, being as open as possible with information, engaging the public in language they can understand, and putting his entire persona on the line." Last but not least, the Greeks have been more adept than any current European political figure at using technology and social media.

Even Varoufakis' resignation, following the insistence of Eurozone finance ministers and despite Syriza winning the popular mandate by a landslide in the Greferendum, is not only a brilliant tactical move (unsurprising given the game theory background), but shows just how serious Greece's new government is about doing right by its people. They understand the momentum of the crowd, the dynamics of the herculean task in front of them, and the discipline required to complete it - Varoufakis is like the star football player who has scored a potentially game-changing goal (in calling the referendum) but must now be sent off the pitch in order to preserve the lead as he is disliked by the petty referees. He walks off the pitch smiling and upbeat, having served his purpose - no arguing with coach Tsipras - and writing on his blog: "I shall wear the creditors' loathing with pride."

And it is interesting to consider where this loathing comes from. I cannot help thinking that there must be a component of jealousy involved - seething, burning jealousy. Syriza enjoy popular support of a kind that most European politicians can only dream of - and I don't mean simply that they won an election. They walk into packed crowds on busy public squares to heartfelt hugs and kisses from throngs of supporters. They are for the people, of the people. And despite their casual attire, which only makes them that much cooler and more approachable, they are in fact the rigorous, methodical, rational moderates - there is nothing especially radical about what they are pushing for - while the eurozone finance ministers and the Troika are the incompetent, petty, bumbling ideological fanatics in suits and ties, advocating policies that virtually every credible economist in the world has declared unsustainable and lacking economic sense - and admitting at the 11th hour before the referendum that they were, after all, mistaken. We should not be misled by Syriza's name, either - Coalition of the Radical Left - which only has meaning in a specific historical and political context where the 'centre' has become a morbid and inhuman techno-capitalist normativity. And anyway - moderation, after all, in the sense in which the ancient Greeks meant and practiced it, is less about substance and more about form - it is not about your choice of pharmakon so much as how you take it, in what dosage, and how it relates to the symptoms you are treating.

But Syriza is about chemistry in more ways than one - it is "a coalition whose colours are red for socialism, green for ecology and purple for feminism." It is a united left front that has managed to rally over 61% of Greek voters in the referendum behind it, in a leap of faith into an uncertain future, in a country in crisis, on the brink of collapse, experiencing food and medicine shortages, caught between a rock and a hard place - no mean feat, given the internal fractiousness of leftist movements in general, and the external pressures acting against this one in particular. To accomplish this kind of synthesis, and go on to win an election, and a referendum (by a landslide) in a maverick negotiating move, and quite possibly overcome overwhelming odds against an army of international creditors led by hard-line pro-austerity conservative governments to win a better deal for Greece, and without actually compromising one's political ideals - this requires a very delicate yet bold balancing act.

In the wake of the Greferendum, the latest word from London-based bookmakers William Hill (as reported on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme this morning) is that they have 'closed their market' on whether Greece will leave the Eurozone before 2016 - a spokesman for the company said that "in such a volatile situation, in which events can move very quickly, it is very difficult to be confident that our odds are accurate."

In other words, all bets are off - quite literally. The Greek referendum has introduced a genuine state of exception, something genuinely new into politics, where 'what comes next' is so unpredictable that even the world's biggest bookmakers, seasoned professionals who make a living from betting and setting odds on everything under the sun - from sports matches and horse races to election outcomes and royal weddings - are holding their breath. This is a ball balanced on a knife edge, a chemical reaction at the quantum level that calls to mind the Heisenberg uncertainty principle - it could go either way.

"Syriza does not have a mandate to take Greece out of the eurozone, nor does it have a mandate to apply unworkable austerity," says Euclid Tsakalotos, Syriza's new finance minister. Everything hangs in the balance, and something's gotta give. But despite his posh British accent and Oxford training, creditors and Eurozone finance ministers will be disappointed if they expect this man to be a pushover - unlike Varoufakis, he is from the more radical Marxist branch of Syriza and a bit of a Euroskeptic. (Also, he was drawn to the euro-communist left during his student days at Oxford largely on account of Britain's bloody postwar betrayal of the Greek left, their wartime allies.)

It is worth remembering here that the Greeks have a long tradition of questioning the status quo and arguing the exception, going back to the ancients. As classics scholar Edith Hall, writing in the Guardian, reminds us (in a piece unrelated to the current political situation):

The Greeks, more even than the Romans, show us how to question received opinion and authority. The earliest myths reveal mankind actively disputing the terms on which the Olympian gods want to rule them, and the philanthropic god Prometheus rebelling against Zeus in order to steal fire – a divine prerogative – and give it to mortal men. Sophocles’ Antigone refuses to accept her tyrannical uncle’s arbitrary edict, draws crucial distinctions between moral decency and contingent legislation, and buries her brother anyway. Aristophanes, in his democratic comedies, subjected politicians who wielded power to satire of eye-watering savagery. Socrates dedicated his life to proving the difference between the truth and received opinion, the unexamined life being, in his view, not worth living. No wonder Hobbes thought that reading Greek and Roman authors should be banned by any self-respecting tyrant, in Leviathan arguing that they foment revolution under the slogan of liberty, instilling in people a habit "of favouring uproars, lawlessly controlling the actions of their sovereigns, and then controlling those controllers".

Whatever happens next, unpredictable as it is, even if Greece buckles under and bows to the demands of creditors - for Greek history is rife with both victories and heroic defeats against vastly superior opponents (one never can tell), fought by vastly outnumbered Greeks - this is surely an exceptional moment, which may well signal decisively the beginning of the end of capitalism, in the long run. Perhaps as some on the French progressive left have been saying, nous sommes tous des Grecs européens.

Everything in moderation, as the ancients had it - even a dose of Varoufakis, antagonizing and divisive as he may be for some, has its place and time, like every good good-cop-bad-cop routine. And in all things we must - in the words of Walter White of Breaking Bad fame (a.k.a. Heisenberg) - 'respect the chemistry.'

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