The most central and constant dilemma in modern politics has been the choice between the political desires and demands of citizens versus the policy expertise and prudence of bureaucrats and specialists. For the more democratically inclined, those like Machiavelli and Aristotle, the judgments of the many, as flawed as they often may be, are nonetheless more trustworthy than the commands of the elite. The few, no matter their credentials or honors, are never able to match the collective intelligence of the multitude.
For others, including those who drafted the US Constitution, the whims and desires of the many are a great threat to social order, and the special few must stand as a moderating force between them and the levers of government.
Recent events in Greece have hinged on this tension. The Greek economic crisis is often presented as a product of too much democracy, of politicians bowing to the demands of citizens for jobs, pensions and low taxes. The troika of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank (ECB) and European Union have stepped forward to undo this damage by attempting to break the ties between the residents of Greece and those who govern them. The troika has imposed strict policy guidelines, formulated by economists and other specialists, and closely monitors the implementation of these policies by the Greek government. Most recently, they have demanded written guarantees from all political parties in Greece that the austerity programs will be continued regardless of any future elections. Any “regressive” movements toward the demands of the Greek people provoke swift retributions from the troika.
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Indeed, the surprising though half-hearted call for a referendum on the debt by Prime Minister George Papandreou last November brought his immediate ouster. Papandreou, technocratic tendencies notwithstanding, obviously felt some obligation as an elected official to appeal to popular support. Papandreou's replacement, Lucas Papademos, was, de facto at least, appointed by the troika for his technical capacities and his dedication to IMF and ECB principles. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more credentialed or vetted technocratic specialist than Papademos, who has a PhD in economics from MIT, taught economics at Columbia University as well as the University of Athens, and was vice president of the ECB. Freed from the fetters of thinking about re-elections, and without any significant formal opposition (the Papademos government is a coalition of the two major parties, plus the far-right; only the two leftist parties, with a meager 30 out of 300 seats, are outside of the coalition), Papademos was put in power to fully implement the cuts and reforms deemed necessary to address the crisis. Finally, prudent governance would replace reckless populism.
It should be emphasized that it is not only the Angela Merkels and Mario Draghis of the world who desire to minimize the ties between the Greek state and its residents. A great many Greeks also argue that the basic cause of all the current problems in Greece is too little distance between policymakers and common citizens. In a recent seminar titled “For Greece, Now!” which consisted of a small group of well-known academics and politicians warning of the disaster that would follow if Greece were to leave the euro zone, populism was presented as the key source of Greece's problems. Many preposterous suggestions were put forward: that university professors should also teach some hours each week in a school, and those who have extra money should donate it in order to help alleviate the financial crisis. And the once respected legal scholar Nikos Alivizatos made the laughable argument that the political elites of Greece cannot be held responsible for the present crisis since it was completely unexpected given that even the credit agencies had rated Greek bonds AAA as recently as 2007. Nonetheless, the overarching point of the presentations was that now is the time to finally end populism in Greece and to institute the widespread reforms and transformations needed to make Greece economically competitive.
Whether voiced by German politicians or by Greek academics, the argument against popular democracy hinges on two key points: that Greece's problems fundamentally derive from politicians pandering to the demands of the citizens, and, even more importantly, that the only proper judge of what is prudent and proper as policy is “the markets.” Only by appeasing the so-called markets can Greece hope to emerge from otherwise certain ruin. As such, dispassionate and pragmatically minded specialists are the ideal policymakers. Common people, blinded as they are by their self-interests, cannot be trusted, nor are they fully capable of understanding the policy necessities of the moment. The more autonomous that policymakers can be from popular pressures, the better.
The first wave of actions taken by the Papademos regime gives a very good indication of the kinds of policies such a detached and dispassionate group of policymakers would institute. One of their first innovations was to modify a policy first proposed by Papandreou in November of last year, a set of cuts to the pensions given to the disabled. The Papademos administration, in addition to deepening the previously proposed cuts, added a list of additional potential disabilities that included pedophilia and pyromania, among many others. Many foreign newspapers featured reports on this as, once again, a symptom of Greek pathology and mania for pensions and wasting money. Government representatives quickly corrected such reports by noting that it was simply a list of possible disabilities, not disabilities that would be eligible for public pensions. One can easily imagine the meeting where Greece's top policy gurus, likely armed with advanced degrees in management and finance, came up with the cynical idea that such a modification would deflect any serious discussion about the merits of cutting pensions to the disabled. This obvious, clumsy and despicable attempt to foreclose any serious discussion and criticism of the proposed law clearly demonstrates how the many are viewed by the few.
Far more significant, however, are the laws passed just a few days ago, February 12 (at midnight, so that the results were out in time for the Asian “markets”). In addition to the latest austerity package demanded by the troika, with its many cuts to wages and pensions and its plans for decreasing the number of public employees, there was also a repealing of many of the labor laws that existed at the time. Most of the protections and regulations that working people had fought for and won in the last four decades were eliminated, without discussion, in one night. As tens of thousands of protestors were tear-gassed and chased from the center of Athens, decades of laws were undone on behalf of the markets.
These policies are foolish because not only is it a mathematical certainty that such cuts to wages and employment will result in a greater economic downturn, fewer tax revenues and the deepening of the debt crisis, but it is also a certainty that a happy “market” does not equal job growth. The experience of the United States and most of Europe in the last 20 years has been of a great expansion of financialization and speculative capitalism, together with rising rates of unemployment and underemployment. Through automation, there has been a continuing and relentless decrease in demand for labor by capital.
Stanley Aronowitz and William DeFazio have aptly described this process in The Jobless Future, and there is no indication so far that they have been incorrect in their diagnosis. In Greece, this is doubly true, because never in its entire history has the private-sector labor market ever been more than 25 percent of all employment. Indeed, people who are self-employed in Greece, a staggering 30 percent (the highest rate in the world), outnumber those who work as employees in the private sector. If capitalism was unable to create jobs in Greece during the economic booms and expansions of the post-war era, why should we expect Greek capitalism to suddenly become a job creator now? With official unemployment already at over 20 percent, one can only imagine how dire the situation will become in the months ahead.
Democracy in Greece (and beyond) is thus under attack on two fundamental fronts. On the one hand, and most visibly, external and internal forces are attempting to eliminate the views and demands of the Greek people from the policymaking process. In this way, experts and their technocratic ways would come to displace popular agency. Here, “democracy” would be reduced to some procedural shell, respecting the rule of law rather than the rule of the people (two years of protests, strikes and collapsing support for all of the major political parties has resulted in no modification to the austerity policies).
On the other hand, and on a much deeper level, the attack on democracy – indeed, on politics itself – is being waged through the perceived impossibility of human beings as those who actually decide questions of just and unjust, good and bad. As already noted, it is markets that are seen as the inescapable judges of which policies are necessary and proper. No political considerations can overcome them. Thus, for example, Ed Miliband, head of the Labour Party in Britain, acknowledges that if he were prime minister, he also would cut spending to decrease public debt because the “markets” demand it. It is the same in Spain: neither of the two main political parties present any alternative to following the demands of the markets. The examples of this thinking are too numerous to list. Here, the democratic principle that we as a community are autonomous (self-governing) gives way to the belief that we are governed by something other than ourselves (heteronomy). All questions about what kind of education is best, how much to tax corporations and so on down the line are now understood as decided by markets. For example, a good policy on education is one that produces individuals with the skills and capacities “demanded” by the labor market.
The people of Greece find themselves in this double bind, increasingly isolated from state power and caught within the trap of heteronymous thinking. The democratic call to be active in political life and to understand society as self-created and autonomous is in serious jeopardy. Pushed into a position of passivity, they can do little more than beg and demand pity. Blinded by the perceived omnipotence of “markets,” rather than political communities, they see no viable alternative to its dictates.
However, there are many in Greece who still can recall the democratic impulse. They recall the refusal to accept some perceived historical necessity, and they remember being the first people to successfully repel an invasion by an Axis power. They recall the courageous group of students who stood up against the guns and tanks of the Greek Junta. They recall the words of many of Greece's great poets, who expressed love for freedom and truth. They see the bravery of some public intellectuals, such as 86-year-old Mikis Theodorakis, once again facing off against riot police and giving voice to a fight against authoritarian rule.
The possibilities are there for the citizens of Greece to recognize their superiority to both Greek political elites and the troika technocrats. Rather than demanding pity, they need to remember that they are the authors of society. Recall that in James Cain's famous novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” it took two attempts to kill “the Greek”; the first failed but impaired his memory. With his memory damaged, the second attempt proved successful. Greeks need to remember their power, their capacity to rule themselves and create their society according to principles of their own choosing. Otherwise, the heteronomy in their head will doom them to a nasty, brutish and long future of being managed by specialists and ruled by “markets.”