The State of Exception as Precondition for Crisis

From the Series: Beyond the "Greek Crisis": Histories, Rhetorics, Politics

Photo by Georgios Giannopoulos, licensed under CC BY SA.

It was after the elections of 2009 that Greece entered into economic “crisis.” The pronouncement came from the lips of the newly elected prime minister himself, who declared that Greece now was in a “state of emergency.” On his invitation, consultants from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund arrived in Athens in no time to help the government take the necessary steps to decrease the deficit and improve the economy overall. This governmental discourse on Greece’s “state of emergency”—as Greece’s state of exception from the markets—was necessary for today’s crisis to take shape and, of course, for sustaining a discourse on the “modernization” and change of Greece that otherwise would not have been possible. From this perspective, the crisis as “state of emergency” constitutes a political tool: a technology of affective manipulation and a mechanism for organizing the Greek—and the European—future.

The declaration of Greece’s “state of emergency” entailed the condemnation of its recent political and economic past. This incrimination also made it possible for the government to push for the abrupt importation of a set of extreme reforms. The main target of governmental censure was the bloated—in personnel and services—bureaucratic state that was inhibiting individual effort and entrepreneurial activity, along with the “Greek mentality” that allowed the growth and maintenance of this paternalistic regime. The prime minister while outlining the country’s problems in terms of a wide range of state deficiencies, announced his determination to undertake the difficult task of reforming the tax system, insurance provisions and labor laws, as well as the overall administrative structure. That these institutions and legal frameworks were presented as culpable for the crisis was not a surprise. To the contrary. For the past two decades they had been continuously circulating in the Greek collective imaginary as the causes for the woes of Greek political and economic life. Any attempt at state “improvement,” though, was received by the public as tied to the fictions of liberal ideology and despite the common belief in the need for change, these “reforms” were totally rejected by the vast majority of the Greek population.

What the new government succeeded in doing in its first days, however, was to bring about the international condemnation of Greece’s fiscal aberration, something enabled by its public announcement. Above all, they succeeded in making the Greek public accept and internalize this assault towards Greece through the embrace of the condemnation, as well as of the imperative to exorcise the “disgrace,” which took on the characteristics of a “safeguarding of our national hegemony and pride.” The aforementioned publicizing of the budget deficit, however, was the third made by a Greek government in the last decade. The first two, as unprecedented as they were by international standards, belonged to the context of an internal political conflict: that is, the revelations were made to humiliate the prior governments (the opposing parties). The third one however was part of this venture in condemning the whole economic-political structure that shaped the last thirty years of the Greek state’s history. Thus, the prime minister’s rhetoric about “fiscal improvement” lost its prior relation to liberal ideology and started, firstly, to be identified with the moral condemnation of the country’s economic failure and the “culpable agents” responsible for it and, secondly, to be articulated as a national “awakening” to the need for “sacrifice” in order to achieve a “European” and “modernized” future. Indeed, during the first period of the new government, the majority of the Greek population acquiesced to the prime minister’s arguments, and he himself used to—and in fact continues to this day—say that he “was not elected to administer the state but to change it” and that he is “planning to keep his promises regardless of the political damage.”

We can see that the prime minister’s strategy of incrimination obscures the political desire to place the Greek economy in a state of exception through the enchantment of participation in a well-regulated, functional market. This situation discloses the “modern state” as the rule through which the relation between this prospect and the state of exception is sustained. Thus, the placing of Greece in this extreme state as a supposed precursor to a better future produces the collective feeling that the whole population wanted these changes, despite the fact that the government alone—without a mandate— decided to undertake them. We need to have this in mind, otherwise the “state of emergency” appears to be the arbitrary act of some fanatics whose dismissal would be enough to restore economic and political stability. Thus, the ability of this government to undertake such vast socio-economic changes where no others for the last two decades were able lies in the fabrication of an affective condition grounded in the population’s unconfessed complicity for the ordeals of Greek political and economical life.

I believe, though, that the placing of Greece in a state of exception does not entail a politics aimed at its true socio-economic transformation. It is more a matter of establishing a paradoxical threshold, as Greece is being driven to its limits through sacrifice. This sacrifice is deeply associated with the blackening of Greece’s recent past and the consequent introduction of crisis as an “opportunity” for Greece’s transformation. From this perspective, we can say that crisis is not the symptom of prior political or economic policies, but rather an aftereffect of the abrupt importation of extreme reforms aimed at Greece’s transformation. I dare to argue this because it is only through the regime of the state of exception that “Greek problems” can be defined in perfect accordance with the failure of an economic policy that marks a whole epoch already being felt as “former.” Thus, the placing of Greece in a state of emergency is not only a symbolic act, but also produces a metonymic power that drives Greece to its socio-economic abyss. Thus, the major political gesture of this government was the fabrication of a regime of terror on a domestic level capable of making the population accept the necessary reforms, while producing a vision of a lawful and congruous state in the market context as the only imaginable option. In a recent press interview and after a related question, the prime minister stated: “If we believe that we are facing a problem with the I.M.F. then we should immediately remove ourselves from its guardianship. But is this the real matter of concern? Are we going to solve our problems just like that?” Such “self-evident” and “reasonable” statements reveal just how unimaginable it is to seek after other options and the (bio)politic dominance achieved through this affective terrorism.

The Greek “crisis” certainly will lead to a wider examination of the (bio)political manipulation of societies through affective dominance and, thereby, of the governmental ability to create fiction-making mechanisms that produce precarious realities through terrorizing and terrifying narratives of economic bankruptcy. These issues also relate to the aporia of how a vision of the future is articulated through discourses of crisis and, ultimately, how crisis can become a space for the custody and organization of a society’s future. Thus, crisis is not only an objective social and economic matter needing attendance, but a laboratory of key signifiers that connect everyday life with the projection of the future. The crisis, that is, becomes the site par excellence of and for transformation wherein the experience of danger and uncertainty produces the predisposition for complying to new realities.