From the Series: Greece is Burning
The United States has no idea what it means to be in a monetary union. Some days ago, I said to my friend Jack Lew that we will take Puerto Rico into the Eurozone if the U.S. takes Greece into the dollar union. He thought I was joking.
Just a few days after Greek citizens delivered a resounding “no” to a new bailout agreement, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s jocular remarks garnered a warm response from the audience of a Bundesbank conference in Frankfurt. By this point in the course of those dizzying July days, Greek people’s rejection of the third bailout had morphed into the government’s acceptance of a third memorandum, and the controversial Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis had resigned. Skepticism of Greek intentions, nonetheless, remained high in Brussels and Berlin, or had even increased due to the about-face. Thus, Schäuble advised the new finance minister Euclid Tsakalatos that to regain trust (the keyword of the negotiations) he should “just do it”: namely, pass a new round of tax increases, pension cuts, privatizations, and restructurings through Parliament. As encapsulated in the Nike corporate mantra of self-empowerment and transcendence through personal determination, this neoliberal postpolitical approach recast the crisis as opportunity or, simply, as the Greeks’ own problem.
Indeed, Schäuble’s comments were no joke. If the German handling of debt negotiations revealed anything, it was that Germany would no longer take directives from the United States. The Greek crisis has proved the grounds (together with the war between Russia and Ukraine) for the unabashed assertion of German hegemony in Europe and disengagement from U.S. tutelage. A month earlier, Schäuble had snidely informed Lew that if the United States really wanted to save Greece, Americans should stop prodding Germany and cough up €50 million themselves.
Schäuble’s joke also was shockingly true in that it raised the specter of Euro-American colonial pasts usually banished from public discourse—what Walter Mignolo (2011) calls the darker side of Western modernity—though, of course, from the vantage point of the exasperated sovereign. Schäuble’s affect of irritated impatience echoed German taxpayers’ sentiment of always having to be the ones to "help" and then being called a Nazi on top of it. The Syriza-led Greek government’s negotiations with its creditors during the first part of 2015 brought a discourse of German victimhood (Niven 2006), which had been smoldering domestically for years, into global view. The emblematic moment of this fabrication—a media coup that prefigured the July capitulation—was the memeification of multiply decontextualized footage of Varoufakis “giving the finger” (or Stinkefinger) to Germany. Outside the bubble of German public discourse, this victim rhetoric surprises, if it does not gall, given Germany’s history of aggression and status as the biggest debt transgressor of the twentieth century and recipient of massive debt forgiveness (in 1953 and again at the time of reunification in 1990). Even if every charge leveled at the Greek state and citizens over the course of the crisis (inefficiency, corruption, living beyond their means) were valid, one wonders how these deeds could constitute unforgivable crimes.
While to a German audience Schäuble’s joke might have seemed a wry reflection on the "white man’s burden" and the sovereignty disputes of rival nations (the 1884–1885 Berlin Congo conference that parceled out Africa among a European club of nations comes to mind), to Greek ears these comments were offensive. Instead of speaking back to power in Europe (Syriza’s goal), the injurious speech of the sovereign had interpellated Greece outside of European space. Rather than romanticize an underdog position of resistance (which might be tempting to do at this point), it is critical to understand how Greeks' sense of affront could stem from the same source as that of the Germans: namely, the racist political ontology of the European nation state. Greek modernity has been shaped through identification with a European discourse of racial superiority based on a construction of the ancient Greek past. The Greek War of Independence, thus, appears in school history books as a derivative of French and American Revolutions, rather than as an uprising as unthinkable as the Haitian Revolution (Trouillot 1995), which indeed inspired Greek revolutionary intellectuals of the time (Gourgouris 1996). Within a Eurocentric framework, however, the fact that Haiti was the first state to recognize Greek independence seems like an odd piece of trivia rather than a critical transnational link. Orientalized at every turn, yet self-colonized (Calotychos 2003), for Greeks to identify now with Puerto Rico would to be to call into question their Europeanness (and whiteness) or—depending on how one looks at it—to repudiate European racist legacies.
Despite the prevalence of the term debt colony in Greek left-wing discourse, the usage of this phrase is often ironic, proleptic, and nationalistic (the Europeans who “want to turn us into a debt colony.”) Schäuble’s joke, however, touched on a long history of debt as a colonial technology of power that warrants critical, comparative, and historical perspectives. A stunning example is the crushing Independence Debt saddled on the new Republic of Haiti to compensate France for "lost property" (plantations and enslaved Haitians) after a remarkable slave revolution ousted French colonists from the island. In short, there actually is much to be said for examining colonial legacies of Western economic custodianship and bringing into dialogue the debt crises of Greece and Puerto Rico, two political entities trapped in a legal netherworld. Neither allowed to default nor deemed worthy of relief, both appear as an outrageous assault on—and a contagion to—the political and economic order of things that boxed them into their untenable positions in the first place.
After the November terrorist attacks in Paris—and despite the high degree of Greek public skepticism regarding the jingoistic French reaction—the Eiffel Tower peace symbol and the tricolor filter flooded Greek social media space. If pledging allegiance to Je suis Parishomogenizes difference into a socially mandatory, trendy/trending identification with the right team and empties out the radical possibilities of solidarity with others, hearing Yo soy puertorriqueño/a or Je suis Haïtien/ne in Greece would be another matter. Such a joyous reclaiming of the traumatic appellation could pave the way for imagining broader alliances beyond European geographic space, across racial and cultural differences and outside the parameters of national pride, so as to work together to dismantle European mythologies of debt.
The title of this essay is borrowed from a tweet by the financial blog Zero Hedge.
Calotychos, Vangelis. 2003. Modern Greece: A Cultural Poetics. Oxford: Berg.
Gourgouris, Stathis. 1996. Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Mignolo, Walter D. 2011. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Niven, Bill. 2006. Germans as Victims: Remembering the Past in Contemporary Germany. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.