The space where the social overlaps with the economic is seeing a flourishing of social movements right now in Greece. This probably comes as a surprise to no one; most international discussion of the country’s political and economic situation touches on the dramatically climbing unemployment, the plummeting wages, and the crushing squeeze brought about by the past four years of recession and the austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, which are meant to save Greece from its sovereign debt.
You’ve perhaps seen coverage of Greece’s “I won’t pay” movement. It began as a local protest against sharp increases in the toll prices on a specific stretch of deteriorated and dangerous road. The protest spread quickly and on a national scale, following the logic of rejecting the increasing costs of services and public goods (especially those already taxed): other toll roads, public transportation, new property taxes, and beyond. The “potato movement” is another movement, directly connecting producers of goods to consumers and bypassing the middlemen who raise the costs several times over. It’s an activity that again started locally with a few potato growers and which spread quickly to other goods and across the country. In a third category are the plethora of barter and exchange networks that have developed over the past four years: alternative currencies, time banks, and direct barter systems. The international news coverage of these different movements is mixed: “I won’t pay” supposedly speaks to something ingrained about Greek rebelliousness and rule-bending (in the Financial Times and on MSNBC), the potato movement is apparently a useful market corrective (in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Business Week), and barter and exchange networks are bright happy spots of community and inventiveness during a dark time (in the New York Times and NPR).
What’s missed in the journalistic coverage of these social movements are the critiques they all explicitly give of the shape that economic life in Greece has taken over the past near thirty years, years during which Greece has been remade in the EU’s image. And although almost all of these movements developed after 2008, correlating with these years of recession and financial crisis, the public conversation about value and its connection to prices, labor, markets and morality has been going on for a lot longer.
Of the many things that changed in Greece on January 1, 2002, when bank machines began spitting out euro notes instead of drachmas, one of the more subtle was that openly complaining about the price of things in polite conversation lost its taboo. The months following the changeover saw an expected confusion in dealing with a new currency, where one doesn’t have an experiential sense of the value its numbers suggest, and an unexpected rapid rise in the prices of consumable goods. In this context, conversations about price and value became part of everyday discourse. And suddenly, nobody worried about looking cheap (a rather weighty concern) when they participated in this collective lament. Why had prices gone up so quickly? What did those prices represent (production cost? value? price-fixing? politics? Europeaness?)? Who was at fault and what could be done? These all became forefront topics of concern. The switch to the euro currency pushed these conversations about price and value into the fabric of everyday life, and they’ve been continuing ever since. The social movements after 2008 are actions built out of this conversation, not just out of the more recent events; “neoliberalism” went from being a rarely-heard term before the euro, to now sitting at the center of arguments and criticism.
The switch to the euro currency pushed these conversations about price and value into the fabric of everyday life, and they’ve been continuing ever since. The social movements after 2008 are actions built out of this conversation, not just out of the more recent events; “neoliberalism” went from being a rarely-heard term before the euro, to now sitting at the center of arguments and criticism.
This past winter, the NPR program This American Life ran an episode dedicated to this recent crisis of the euro currency that Greece’s debt has precipitated. One of the segments, a shorter version of which also ran on NPR’s Planet Money , tells the tragicomic story (in the mode of the absurd) of an E.U. technocrat sent in to take charge in the Greek statistical bureau and discover the true figure of Greece’s deficit, only to be faced with suspicion, aggression, and eventually criminal charges. Shockingly–to the technocrat and the reporter–the employees in the bureau wanted to vote on the number released. To the listener, the story is meant to evoke the potential futility of bringing the Greek state under external budgetary control. What can you do with a state where people think statistics are something that should be voted on?
Yet, while the Greek statistical bureau is indeed generally recognized as a politically motivated agency, locally there’s nothing shocking about the fact that numbers are political. What is rejected in Greece in this situation is the technocrat’s assertion that his own calculations are somehow not. Just as the earlier conversation about the euro and value connected market prices to politics, this has also been part of the public conversation in Greece about the sovereign debt and the IMF’s involvement from the very beginning: what are the processes that create Greece’s economic figures, and what motivations and goals do these figures represent? Here we find an idea that qualifies as “common sense” in both the discipline of anthropology and in everyday life in Greece, that financial figures are not representations of an objective reality. Apparently, however, to the financial reporter and the technocrat, the idea that the production of financial data has a political context belongs to the realm of the irrational (a favorite place to locate Greece these days, in trying to “understand” the debt crisis there).
Where did the number that indicates Greece’s level of sovereign debt come from? How was it produced, and in whose self-interest? Theories abound. Little of this conversation escapes Greece, however, because it becomes conspiratorial when reframed in a discourse that assumes there’s a “real” number to be found somewhere, if we would only trust the technocrats. This is something to keep in mind when following the results of Greece’s recent elections. Much has been made of the high percentage of Greeks who support staying with the euro currency, but who also oppose the austerity measures that are coupled with the current loan packages to Greece. It’s frequently described as a paradox. That a population might be engaged in a public conversation that challenges the authority of experts (and their ability, and their intent) to draft an economic future that’s in the populace of Greece’s best interests, is not paradoxical at all. It’s also a population asking questions like those discussed above, questions which overlap with what anthropologists of finance and economy have to contribute to the conversation.