Friday 10 July 2015

Greece as Sisyphus?

I don't often do reaction pieces to other people's articles, but I believe that this article about Greece from the Guardian's Larry Elliot is quite well written, but raises some important issues too.

I'll begin with a quote from the article:

"Greece is like Sisyphus, the king of Corinth who according to legend angered the gods and was condemned to push an enormous rock to the top of a hill. When Sisyphus neared the summit, the boulder would slip from his grasp and tumble back down to the bottom of the slope, forcing him to start again. 
Alexis Tsipras, too, has angered the gods, in this case the European commission, the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and most of the 18 other countries that are members of the single currency. His punishment for his five-month show of defiance will be to have Greece’s boulder replaced by an even bigger one."
Whether you like Larry Elliot's political analyses or not (I don't particularly) this is undeniably a good piece of political writing. It creates a strong narrative that illustrates a highly complex situation in an easily graspable manner. It skilfully explains the magnitude of Greece's debt burden and the sheer impossibility of paying it off.

Where Larry Elliot goes wrong is the way in which he then goes on to paint the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as "foolhardy" for having dared to stand up to the impossible power of the ECB, IMF and European Commission troika, only to later admit defeat and cave in to their terms. Elliot goes as far as accusing him of "hoisting the white flag over the Parthenon" deriding him as "a much-diminished figure as a result of the events of the last two weeks" and claiming that he ought to "pay a heavy political price" for it.

The first thing that makes this portrayal of events look so ridiculous is the fact (pointed out by someone in the below the line comments) that just ten days previously the very same Larry Elliot was lauding Alexis Tsipras as a hero who was outwitting and outmaneuvering the troika. Here's a direct quote.

"What Tsipras has done is seize the initiative, something he has proved adept at doing in the five months since he won the Greek general election in January. He has run rings round the troika and continues to do so." [source]
The fact that Larry Elliot has described Tsipras in terms of being a bravely defiant hero one week, and then a hopelessly defeated charlatan the next shows us that he is far more adept at constructing appealing little stories than he is at actually describing the events in a detailed and non-contradictory manner.

The second thing that weakens this portrayal of events is the simplicity of it. Elliot cannot help himself from fitting such a complex situation into a simple story of victory and defeat. The highly emotive imagery of the white flag being raised conjures a scene of total and catastrophic defeat, when in reality Tsipras remains the Prime Minister of Greece. What is more is that he has done something no Greek government has done before him. He has aligned himself with his people. When previous government acted as collaborators with the Troika against their own people, Tsipras has found unity with them. He didn't want to accept the impossibly harsh and ideologically driven terms of the next bailout package, and after the referendum it is proven that the overwhelming majority of Greeks agree with him. Thus it is abundantly clear to the Greek people that even though Tsipras is powerless to stop them from continuing their ideologically driven vandalism of their countries economy, Tsipras is on his people's side, not on the side of the Troika.

Tsipras and the Greek people are absolutely right to oppose the economic sanctions that are being imposed upon them by their creditors. Not only is ideological austerity a quack medicine that makes the symptoms of the economic disease worse, not better, the terms of the deal contradict what is what I consider to be one of the fundamental laws of economics: A debt that cannot be repaid, will not be repaid, which brings us back to the comparison with Sisyphus, which is a good piece of political storytelling.

As I said before, I don't fully dislike Larry Elliot's analysis, it's reasonably informative and well written, it's just that it commits the error of oversimplification in order to mould complex events into an easily intelligible narrative. This kind of narrative oversimplification of politics is rife in mainstream media coverage, and once aware of it the reader should always be on their guard to recognise it for what it is: A very convincing method of coercing people into believing simple stories about complicated political and economic events, because more complex and accurate analyses might raise awkward questions.

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Pablo Iglesias and the appeal of Podemos
George Osborne has created more debt than every Labour government in history combined
How Labour completely lost the plot in Scotland
The Tory ideological mission
The post-IMF economic recovery in Argentina
Margaret Thatcher's toxic neoliberal legacies