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Beware of gods bearing gifts

Wednesday, February 15, 2012  |   |  Tags:

When Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gifted it to man, he probably didn’t expect it would be used to light Molotov cocktails that would set Athens ablaze. The protests in Greece this week were the worst the country has seen in years. While some 80,000 Greek citizens rallied peacefully against the adoption of a new austerity policy, it was a violent, extremist minority that etched images of smoke reaching for the sky and police officers engulfed in flames. As messaging expert Peter Economides has pointed out, those gasp-inducing images have done more to shape Greece’s brand around the globe than any paid marketing effort could ever accomplish.

Such is the power of grand gestures; they are by definition spectacles that drive debate even when executed at the hands of a very few.   While Athens burned, grand gestures also took place inside Greece’s parliament as embattled politicians swallowed the razor-blade coated pill of a new austerity package. The vote was not close: two-thirds of MP’s approved the deal, and those who didn’t were summarily expelled from their parties.

The vote was a choice, Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said, between the bailout or chaos, as if catastrophe wasn’t already chanting outside by the tens of the thousands, as if there was really a “choice” to be made in a marionette democracy that is indentured and bound to do the bidding of its foreign debtors.

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or all the votes and all the protests, all the pretense of a sovereign free will, there is little doubt that the line between domestic and foreign economic policy has completely evaporated. Conservative New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras and leader of the socialist PASOK party George Papandreou both sent letters this week to Greece’s foreign creditors promising to abide by the terms of their bailout deal, even after elections.

No one expects the latest round of poverty-inducing measures to save Greece. The five-year recession shows no signs of letting up, and Greece’s economic crisis will possibly go down in the record books as being the worst a country has ever seen in modern times. As Der Spiegel has outlined, the troika’s policies have failed. They were grafted upon a broken political framework and did little to address the rampant corruption, bloated regulations and general dysfunction of the Greek political system. Still, austerity demands upon the people of Greece continue. What more is there to give?

Prometheus having his liver eaten by an eagle. Painting by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1640

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n the Prometheus legend, Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock. Every day, a giant eagle would descend and eat his liver, and every night his liver would regenerate. In the morning, the eagle would descend to feast again, condemning Prometheus to an agonizing, eternal cycle of being eaten alive on daily basis.The day after Greece passed another slash and burn austerity package, the giant eagles descended again. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that the new package was an “important step” but stood resolute against any future easing of austerity measures. Meanwhile, European Central Bank Council member Ewala Nowothy said that “future steps were needed” before the ECB would release the next tranche of funds.

There will always be “steps” that Greece must take to satisfy foreign creditors and fellow eurozone members. Yet steps toward what? Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman has stated flatly that Greece will default, pointing out that the country has already defaulted on its debts and proclaiming the situation in Greece to be “essentially impossible.”

The goal of each draconian step now is not to save Greece but to contain her. As Floyd Morris reported in The New York Times, “Europe is prepared to pay what it needs to save its banks. But not to rescue Greece.” A leaked German memo, Morris points out, emphasizes the desire that Greek revenues “are to be used first and foremost for debt service.”  Indeed, an analysis last fall revealed that most bailout funds received by Greece went to pay off European bondholders, not to help the people of Greece or to directly stimulate Greece’s economy.

As we approach the endgame, it’s become clear that the recent measures demanded of Greece were less about saving her people than about buying time for the eurozone to fortify itself against a Greek default. In that sense, the troika’s policies have not completely failed. The prospect of an “orderly” Greek default is more palatable now that the environment has been constructed whereby Greece will collapse into her hollow self rather than explode and take the whole global economy with her. It’s not surprising in this context that days after the Greek austerity vote, German’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble warned “we are not going to pour money into a bottomless pit.”

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ith the contagion relatively contained, some of Greece’s eurozone partners are signaling they’re willing to let Greece undergo the “orderly” default that’s long been anticipated. “Orderly” to outsiders. Fated and catastrophic disorder for those who reside inside Greece.  Kathimerini’s Nikos Konstandaras argues that if a default were to cast Greece outside of the eurozone, Greece “will be defeated, humiliated and alone,” with her identity and civilization at risk.

In the Prometheus myth, Hercules unchains Prometheus and frees him from his anguish. Greece has no Hercules. She has no hero to save her. Kathimerini’s Nick Malkoutzis has eloquently painted the macabre landscape of the collapsed Greek political system, writing that “the parties have lost their relevance,” “are devoid of ideas” and “offer Greeks no inspiration or shelter for voters.”

There is no hero in this story, no Obama-like leader to inspire the masses, no genius of policy or persuasion to feed the impoverished Greek spirit and to carve out any solution that eases pain. There are only external forces, decreeing policy from above, promising salvation with gilded fingers crossed behind their backs.

As Aeschylus wrote in Prometheus Bound, “it is an easy thing for one whose foot is on the outside of calamity to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer.” But how much suffering should the Greek people endure? Whatever sins they have committed in the past by electing corrupt officials, by tolerating a dysfunctional political system and by being complacent as their democracy decayed around them, how many pounds of flesh must be extracted before the international community ceases to cheer the punishment and shifts to saving an emaciated nation that has saved so many in its own past?

Greece herself will never die but she will, years down the road, emerge transformed. The Greece that is born out of the ashes of this economic conflagration depends on the will of the Greek people. Can they, not just in their words but in their actions, create a new Greece worthy of her ancestors? Can they summon enough courage to not only survive one of the worst economic crises in modern history but to defy international expectations and emerge reborn, ready to thrive?

If there is any nation that can accomplish such an act of legend…it is Greece.

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