A few days ago I found myself watching a TED talk by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie is as engaging a speaker as she is a writer and she took to the TED stage to discuss what she calls the notion of a ‘single story’. The idea is a simple one: a single story is created by showing a nation (or continent) and its people as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again until that is what people believe them to be. To illustrate the point, Adichie uses an example close to her heart, that of the poor, sick and war ravaged Africa, crying out for the help of the benevolent white man; a narrative that treats Africans as unfit to control their own destinies. She also points to the stereotype of the lazy Mexican immigrant, any US Republican voter’s worst nightmare. In both cases, the story is blind to the realities of the individuals and communities tarnished by this lazy stereotyping. But within this critique lies the purpose of this single story. Whoever writes the past can control the present, and whoever illustrates the characters can also define the plot. The single story of the Mexican immigrant may be a depressing generalisation but it is also a powerful weapon for the American far right.
As events unfolded in the seemingly never ending Greek ‘crisis’ over the last few days I kept coming back to this idea of the single story. Since the crisis began we have been constantly told that the bloated Greek public sector must pay the price for years of mismanagement; that the Greek people must stop shirking blame and face the full consequences of living beyond their means; that the Greek government must not expect something for nothing from its friends and partners at the eurozone negotiating table; and, most importantly, that the responsibility for the entire mess lies in Athens. While a quick glance on social media sites will of course show that many people have seen beyond this myopic version of events, it is still the voice of the mainstream media that holds influence in the majority of countries. Controlling the narrative is the key to political success.
This is why, despite widespread demonstrations in support of the Syriza mandate, there is still an underlying feeling throughout much of Europe that the Greeks must simply take their medicine. In Portugal, the terms of the new Greek agreement are seen as vindication for the fact that the Portuguese people have quietly tolerated their own austerity measures. In Spain, the optimism accompanying a resurgent left has been transformed to fear, with Podemos now polling 20 points behind Rajoy’s PP. Despite a clamour for the removal of the austerity straight jacket, it is far easier for people to fall back on the Greek ‘single story’ to justify their own hardships than to stand together in opposition.
But crucial to the impact of Adichie’s single story is the point where the story begins. If, for example, the story of the failure of many modern African governments begins not at the moment of independence but at the beginning of European colonisation then the history of Africa looks very different; and if the narrative of the failure of the Greek economy begins not in the last few years, but in 1981, or even 1953, when Greece was magnanimous in agreeing to German debt relief, then things too look different. Likewise, perhaps it should not be the single story of Greece that is worth discussion but the single story of the EU itself. And where would this start? 1945, 1957, 1993, 2002, 2009…? Whenever we change the starting point of the story, we reveal a different narrative.
In the context of European politics, the ‘single story’ may add some nice new terminology to the debate but it is nothing more than the grinding gears of the propaganda machine that has been so widely used over the years by dictators and spin doctors alike. As Naomi Klein has often pointed out, this propaganda is a crucial weapon in the neoliberal arsenal and is regularly rolled out to support the ‘shock doctorine’ of crony privatisations and free-market madness in post-crisis states. Supported by a well-defined ‘single story’, a narrative is often formed in a time of uncertainty that can quickly silence public and national resistance. Anyone doubting this latter point should note Marcel Fratzner’s (@MFratzner) tweet this morning claiming that 87% of Germans think that the incredible terms agreed forced on Syriza on Sunday were either adequate or too soft – the frivolous, irresponsible Greeks must have dug their own grave! Maybe it would be different if the predominant Greek single story began in 1953 with their participation in the London agreement on German external debts rather than in 2002 when they adopted the euro…
But the point is this: there could only ever have been one outcome from the Greek negotiations since Syriza came to power. The EU is writing its own single story and it is one that has no space for even the most basic tenets of socialism. Market fundamentalism is all the rage across Europe and Governments must toe the line or face the consequences. Workers may even have to pay for the privilege of being sick in the near future (if the Tory party in the UK have anything to do with it). Public ownership and welfare states are the problem and neoliberalism is the cure. Or so the story goes.
Greece has a richness of history that few other nations can match. At various junctures it has taken the role of innovator, leader, warmonger and victim. Beginning a story at any of these moments in time would reveal a fascinating and varied past. In the most contemporary version of its story, written and promoted by Europe’s neoliberal hawks, it is shown to be a reckless and irresponsible outlier, an economic rogue state. But in this most recent narrative, it should not be alone. Much of Southern Europe has maintained working and state practices far removed from that of some of their Northern European neighbours. But does anyone really think that under similar circumstances Italy would have been victimised by its European partners in the same way as Greece? If it was the Italian economy on the line, would European leaders be so prepared to offer a ‘temporary euro exit’ to prove a point? Of course not. The single currency and the neoliberal vision of a united and unrestrained European market could never risk the might of the Italian economy, no matter how corrupt and inefficient it may be in parts. But Greece is very different. Greece lacks the economic and industrial might to stand its ground in negotiations and so makes an ideal single story for a single purpose: to show the left across the continent what happens when you defy the new masters of Europe. Greek negotiations have never truly been about money (with Greek bailout money being only a fraction of that doled out to refinance private banks post-2008), they have always been about politics.
No one could argue that the Greek state was not in need of reform, with public salaries, corruption and cronyism all running at clearly unsustainable levels. No one too could claim that both Tsipras and Varoufakis have not made mistakes in negotiations since coming to power. But only the most indoctrinated of observers could claim that the package of austerity and privatisations imposed on the Greek people is anything other than a vindictive act of aggression; comparisons with the Treaty of Versailles are not too wide of the mark. But such is the power of the single story that the prevailing narrative in political circles is that the Greeks have dug their own grave and must now suffer the consequences. And fear of these consequences is the reason why the majority of Europeans have moved to the right in support of austere, neoliberal conservative movements. The power of this one single story is laid bare for all to see.
Perhaps Syriza’s biggest tragedy was that, from the beginning, it has been up against not one, but two ‘single stories’ – the story of the lethargic Greek system, and the traditional rightwing story of the “evils” of socialism. The submission and humiliation of Greece has been a crushing victory for the neoliberal vision in more ways than one. And if the European left does not unite and try to write its own narrative in the coming months it may be swept clean form the European landscape for generations to come. It is not too late to turn back the tide of EU-sponsored neoliberal fanaticism spreading across Europe but the left must start to change the narrative, and write a different story for the future of Europe before it’s too late.