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.
It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks in European politics. From a socialist perspective these are encouraging times and the victory of Syriza in Greece, along with the quarter of a million people marching for change with Podemos in Spain, have shown that there is a real possibility of political change on the horizon. But as always in politics things are far from certain and these popular leftwing movements need to defend themselves from attacks from both inside and outside their own countries. It is already clear that the leaders of these parties recognise the importance of solidarity and support for each other, with Pablo Iglesias’ pre-election appearance in Athens being a notable example. But it is not evident yet how pan-European this revival of the radical left is. At some point in the future I plan to write down a few thoughts on why radical (or in some cases revolutionary) spirit can catch on in one country but not another. In other words, what are the forces containing or spreading this political awakening of the people? But in the meantime, I thought I’d take a quick look at Spain’s neighbour on the Iberian Peninsula to consider why the left has failed to capture the public imagination in Portugal in the same way that Podemos has in Spain.
As the new Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, travels through Europe to set the ball rolling on Greek debt negotiations, now seems like a good time to remind ourselves that there are more problems within the Eurozone than southern European debt. One of the things that stands out from reading the popular media and internet discussions is that debt reduction is a polarising issue. On the one hand are those who recognise the madness in continuing austerity policies and acknowledge that flexibility on publicly held debt is a pre-requisite for recovery. On the other are those who claim that it is morally and financially unacceptable that hard-working northern Europeans should have to continually bail out southern Europeans from a mess that was of their own making.
My aim here is not to rehash the many, many reasons why this type of austerity policies has been proven to be politically, economically and morally bankrupt. Instead, with Varoufakis in Europe, I’m going to bring up Germany’s colossal current account surplus and ask why Germany feels able to call for structural change in Greece when it refuses to address the imbalances in its own economy.
Predictably, after last week’s Greek election it has not taken long for the aggressive war of words to begin in the rightwing media’s attempts try to undermine Syriza. Today’s Economist magazine sets its stall out in no uncertain terms with this pearl of wisdom:
“This newspaper’s solution: get Mr Tsipras to junk his crazy socialism and to stick to structural reforms in exchange for debt forgiveness…A very logical dream until you remember that Mr Tsipras probably is a crazy left-winger.”
What, I wonder, is so crazy about Syriza trying to implement the policies that brought them to power? Clearly the Economist thinks that it is ridiculous that the Greek people should be allowed to have a say in their own destiny. And the type of language used adds nothing to the discussion and only serves to belittle anyone who thinks that there may be an alternative vision of European politics. Maybe its time to face the fact that if Greece were to ultimately leave the Eurozone, NOBODY knows for certain what the medium-term political and socioeconomic outcome would be. We can be sure of some of the short(er)-term economic impacts such as:
To round things off after Part 2 yesterday, here is the third and final part of this essay looking at our internal class conflict and its implications for radical left-wing political alternatives in Europe and beyond…
The Inner Class Divide
That we as individuals are subject to various stimuli contributing to development is nothing new. Much has been written on child development and much of this can extend also into adult life in terms of continuous learning and development. Where things have changed in recent years is in the increased intensity and aggression of stimuli relating to late stage capitalism. On the one hand we possess a social brain, allowing us to feel empathy and make emotional connections, and a character forged through a myriad of social connections and interactions. Many of us experience a fundamental need to share our lives with friends, family and community. But on the other hand, we are bombarded with advertising signals and media messages telling us that consumption is the ultimate goal and that this must be driven by aggressive, competitive activity in the market place. Much of what we experience through advertising relates to consumption or the adoption of an idealised version of self to which we should aspire. We are told that that we can have everything as long as we consume. In a ‘post-religious’ world it is salvation through consumption. Our participation in society can be bought instead of fostered through genuine social interaction.
But we are the recipients of contradictory messages. Identity formation through the solitary pursuit of commodities in order to satisfy a conditioned super ego is at odds with our more basic needs as social animals. Capitalism relies on competition whereas our early development engenders the value of cooperation. The (cultural) super ego tells us that to succeed at life we need to compete in the market place, earn money as efficiently as possible, and construct our idealised identities. But our innate characteristics and our basic human needs show us the importance of people over the market. This is class warfare in every sense, with the mind being the battleground. Many individuals therefore experience a subconscious, inner class tension, with a consuming, competitive, aspirational self striving to keep up in the market, and a social self yearning for cooperation and interaction. This ideological battle is internalised and fought daily in a way that has far greater implications than the debate in the political arena.
This Saturday thousands of supporters of Spain’s Podemos party will meet in Madrid to participate in a ‘March of Change’. I will be joining them and I will try to share some thoughts here afterwards on the experience and the mood among the people.
In the meantime, although I don’t intend to do much reposting of other people’s work on this blog, I thought it would be interesting to share the article below. There clearly is a discussion emerging about whether Podemos is beginning to compromise on some of its original principles. However, the success that they have had in creating the citizen ‘circles’ and offering genuine citizen participation in shaping the political debate means that this party will live or die by its accountability in front of the people. If this is really a new era of politics in Spain then the working class and the electorate will hold them to their word. How much of this is possible still remains to be seen but it will be very interesting to see on Saturday how things are shaping up.