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Opinion: Greece and the Return of Ideology | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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epa04840788 Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras walks in the Greek Parliament, in Athens, Greece, 10 July 2015. Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos briefed in detail the SYRIZA parliamentary group on the latest developments early the same morning. The proposal submitted by Greece to Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem and the institutions has also been tabled at the parliament’s legislative service. The document is into 10 July’s daily agenda, so that the plenum can decide with emergency procedures on whether to authorize Prime Minister Tsipras, Government Vice-President Yiannis Dragasakis and Finance Minister Tsakalotos to negotiate the proposal. The new proposals are closer to creditors’ demands than previous offers in the areas of VAT and pension reform, as well as tax rates for the country’s islands, according to media who had seen a copy of the document. EPA/PANTELIS SAITAS

Ever since the Soviet Empire collapsed, a mantra of Western political analysis has been “the death of ideology.”

The argument is that, having experimented with a variety of ideologies, from nationalism to Fascism and Nazism and, more recently, Khomeinism, mankind has concluded that trying to organize and regulate its life based on ideological tenets is dangerous in the short-run and deadly in the long-run.

But what if ur-ideology is making a comeback in new forms, indicating that organizing human life, solely on the basis of rationality, may not be as easy as we thought a decade ago?

By the 1980s it was generally assumed that “Red” China had moved away from Communist ideology, preferring the delights of get-rich-quick capitalism. In the past few years, however, the new and far more prosperous People’s Republic has been groping in the dark for new ideological self-expression. President Xi Jinping and his team seem to have found it in a mixture of Maoist sentimentalism, nationalist ambitions, and Confucian shibboleths.

The People’s Republic is flexing its military muscles, trying to build a blue-water navy, grabbing atolls where it can, and putting old anti-American and anti-Japanese themes back into circulation. Through the so-called Shanghai Group, it is also hoping to build a new alliance capable of filling part of the gap left by the American strategic retreat under Barack Obama.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is experimenting with a different version of the same recipe.

He has invaded and annexed large chunks of territory in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine, increased the military budget by a whopping 20 percent, and revived some of the old themes of the Cold War. His ideological cocktail contains a variety of ingredients, some contradictory, including Orthodox Christianity, Leninism, Slavophilia (of the type developed by Khomiakov), and modernization as defined by Herzen and Belinsky.

Countries still trying to absorb the aftershocks of the “Arab Spring” are also looking for new forms of ideological self-expression. The Islamist version has been discredited because of horrors committed by Khomeinists, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and, more recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). That leaves pan-Arabism and a range of dusted-on-shelf leftist narratives.

It is not only so-called developing nations and emerging powers that are afflicted by this new thirst for ideology.

Today, the political discourse in Japan echoes the pre-war melodramatic narrative of fear and hubris at the expense of the democratic and liberal discourse of the post-war decades.

In many European countries, ideologies of both right and left are making a comeback.

Under a radical right-wing leadership, Hungary today is the mirror image of what it was under Communist rule.

In much of Western Europe, radical right parties are making an impression they couldn’t dream of a generation ago.

In Britain’s recent general election almost 4 million people voted for a rightist nationalist party.

In France, the prospect of an extreme right candidate winning the presidency in two years’ time is no longer regarded as a bad joke.

In the United States, part of Obama’s “success” is due to a dose of leftist ideology. His attempt at nationalizing the health service, some 15 percent of the US economy, his increase of the minimum wage, and his passionate defense of gay and lesbian marriages are due, at least in part, to his determination to move the US as far from the “old system” as possible. His normalization with Castrist Cuba and the Khomeinist regime in Iran is designed to give the two fingers to “American imperialism.”

Today, the most spectacular return of ideology can be witnessed in Greece where a coalition of radical left and radical right offers a cocktail of xenophobia, class warfare, raw nationalism, and utopianism.

Sadly, the outside world including Greece’s partners in the Eurozone insist on analyzing the crisis in technocratic rather than ideological terms.

It may shock experts but I believe that economic issues are not the cause but the effect of the Greek crisis.

Much is said about the need to write off the Greek debt, which is equivalent to 1.8 years of its GDP. However, the issue of debt repayment does not kick in until 2025 and, for part of it, until 2060. Leaving aside the problem of short-term liquidity, none of Greece’s banks are in danger of collapsing as was the case with Irish, Spanish, and Portuguese banks.

There is also no material reason for Greeks to be angry at the European Union. Since it joined the European Community, now the European Union, Greece has benefited from almost a trillion dollars in aid and direct investment. The whole of Greece is dotted with plaques claiming projects financed by the EU.

Many Greeks resent the status of their country as a bit player in a grand European piece dominated by giants such as Germany, France, and Great Britain. They resent that the EU and its central bank dictate their economic policy, a resentment shared by many in other member countries.

The nationalist and socialist discourse of the radical left–radical right coalition government in Athens also contains echoes of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist themes popular in the so-called Third World in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout 1970s and 1980s Greece was a hotbed of anti-West, especially anti-NATO, activities including terrorist operations.

Greece owes its creation as a state to European schemes against the Ottoman Empire in decline in the 19th century. When Greek independence was declared in 1830, the British wrote its first constitution and provided the money needed to get it going. Greece was formally established as a new state in the London Hellenic Conference of 1832. Bavaria provided the new country’s king, the 17-year-old Prince Otto, who didn’t speak a word of Greek and, worse still, who was a Catholic while most Greeks are Orthodox. (At that time Germany did not exist as a state but various German principalities contributed to the creation of Greece.) After that, princes from various German and Danish royal families reigned in Greece.

British, French, and German scholars also helped establish, and codify, modern Greek as a language and link it with ancient Greek, which 19th-century Greeks could not understand.

Today, Greece is craving for self-affirmation as master of its destiny and not a pawn of European empires against the Ottomans or an extra in a European Union led by Germany.

The crisis is psycho-political rather than economic, reflecting the return of ideology as a matrix for national policies. This new ideological craze will not last long. But while it is there, it would be wise to take it seriously and deal with it in an intelligent way.