The great events of world history occur twice, said Hegel. “He forgot to add,” corrected Karl Marx, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
But perhaps Hegel was right. The Greek trauma shows history repeating itself, but as Dudley Moore once put it, “I can’t see the bloody joke.”
In the 1930s, as the Great Depression spread, the liberal market civilisation that had reigned for a century, swiftly broke down. Into the vacuum came two forces. One was a civilised response to suffering, the conscious subordination of the capitalist economy to the needs of democratic society, exemplified by the American New Deal. The other was Fascism, which caused, in the words of the contemporary historian Karl Polanyi, “sickness unto death”.
In Greece now you have a left-wing grouping, Syriza, falsely labelled “far left”, expressing mass opposition to the austerity of the March Eurozone bailout, that is systematically dismantling the features that made society liveable.
As they rise, so too do the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, a very different response to the same breakdown. Syriza offers the hope, writes one Greek economist, of avoiding “a disaster than might truly lead to the rise of fascism.”
In the 1930s the upholders of the old order – the economic liberals, the free-marketeers of their day, believed everything would be fine in the end provided people just grinned and beared it. Wages had to be cut, social services slashed and jobs destroyed but if the pain was stoically endured, the economy would eventually return to health.
But this belief in super-human stoicism was always a fantasy. “To expect,” wrote Karl Polanyi, “that a community would remain indifferent to the scourge of unemployment, the shifting of industries and occupations and to the moral and psychological torture accompanying them, merely because economic effects, in the long run, might be negligible, was to assume an absurdity.”
Now we are asked to believe in the same absurdity. The intransigent role of the ‘30s economic liberals is now played by the German government. “The Greek nation knows what it has to do,” said the German finance minister Wolfgang Schaüble last week. “Most Greeks want to stay in the euro. We need to make it clear to them that the terms for that are the fulfillment of the reform requirements of the aid programme.”
What the “reform requirements” mean for ordinary people was brought home by a Greek film-maker, Constantine Giannaris in The Guardian newspaper on Saturday.
“The scenes here at the moment are horrifying, the kind of scenes unthinkable in London or Berlin,” he wrote. “Not third world, but fourth world. Many immigrants and asylum seekers here are looking through rubbish cans [for food], and now impoverished workers, hundreds of them, are having to sift through recycling, taking the scraps of metal and paper to sell in order to make ends meet. We have junkies with no methadone or needle programmes, and prostitution is rife.”
Everything will be alright in the long-run says the German government, echoing ‘30s economic liberals. But in the long-run, as John Maynard Keynes observed, we’re all dead.
Syriza’s “far left” programme, its response to this unnecessary suffering, isn’t radically left-wing. The programme’s features – a moratorium on debt repayments, a debt audit, redistribution of income, bank nationalisation (perish the thought!) and an industrial policy to rejuvenate manufacturing – would have been considered fairly centrist after the Second World War. It’s less radical, in some respects, than the American New Deal.
In Greece now, the orthodoxy has been scorned by most people for the callousness it entails. The centre has been exposed as extreme and unyielding. Into the void comes both a new form of the extreme Right and the radical Left. They are both a rebellion, as Polanyi understood, against the same determinism. But they are completely different.
One side wants a humanitarian response to suffering. The other just wants to take it out on other people, often immigrants. According to the Golden Dawn leader, “The new Golden Dawn of Hellenism is rising. For those who betrayed their homeland, the time has come to fear. We are coming.”
What is happening in Greece may be an extreme example, a 21st century repetition of the political dilemmas of the 1930s. Or it may be a foretaste of things to come. The awaiting fate of Spain, Portugal and Italy, for example, which all have their own histories of fascism.
But if history is repeating itself, we have the freedom to learn from last time. If they win the next Greek election Syriza will, to be honest, play a role of saving capitalism from itself, as the New Deal did in the thirties. The rationale will be to alleviate colossal suffering and, because the alternative to doing nothing, fascism, would be far worse than neoliberal capitalism.
But after you have preserved civilization, you have to question the logic of reforming and making human an economic system that periodically plunges humanity into unnecessary suffering. The real tragedy would be to humbly wait for the next plunge.