Neoliberalism Identification Process and the Dialectics of Crisis

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Volume 34.1 March 2010 210–16 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research DOI:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2010.00950.x Neoliberalism, Identification Process and the Dialectics of Crisis CHRISTOS MEMOS Abstract ijur_950 210..216 In Athens, on 6 December 2008, a policeman shot 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos in cold blood and killed him. After the killing, spontaneous protests began in the Greek capital and within days the insurrection had spread all over Greece. Radical actions took place
  Neoliberalism, Identification Processand the Dialectics of Crisis CHRISTOS MEMOS Abstract ijur_950 210..216  In Athens, on 6 December 2008, a policeman shot 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos incold blood and killed him. After the killing, spontaneous protests began in the Greek capital and within days the insurrection had spread all over Greece. Radical actions took  place even in the more remote and politically conservative areas. The Greek insurrectionwas not an isolated and temporary episode, nor an abstraction. This essay reflects on therevolt and endeavours to shed light on the context in which it broke out. It considers it as a result of the crisis of capital and neoliberal values and, at the same time, of our negation of capital and its state — the crisis of capital being produced by our strugglesand refusal to identify ourselves with neoliberal norms and values. Considered dialectically, the crisis intensifies our struggles and reproduces the crisis of identificationwith capitalist bearings.  Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear  Motto on the walls of Athens, December 2008 Why did the Greek people rise in revolt? Why did the uprising take place in Greece andat this particular moment, that is, after the murder of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulosby a special guard on 6 December 2008? The history of revolutions, revolts andrebellions suggests, according to Aristotle (1996: 125), that ‘occasions may be trifling,butgreatinterests areatstake’. In thecaseoftheGreek revolt, however, who would arguethat the horrific murder of a boy committed by a policeman is a trifling occasion? Canthere be anything more significant for our humanism than the life of every human beingif we espouse the doctrine that ‘for man the supreme being is man’ (Marx, 1992: 251)?Contrary to any sense of humanity, the great scandal is that in our brave new globalizedcapitalist world thousands of children die every day of poverty, starvation and curablediseases, or are murdered in wars in Iraq, Gaza orAfrica.The crucial question that shouldbe addressed, then, is not why the revolt broke out in Greece, but why people all over theworld do not revolt against the inhumanity of capitalism, against the everyday killing of thousands of innocent children.Seven years earlier, on 20 July 2001, in the international protest against the G8summit taking place in Genoa, a young protester, Carlo Giuliani, was shot dead by theItalian carabinieri. For his family, the physical loss of their boy is tragic, horrific andunfortunately irredeemable. It is a poignant grief, an unsustainable pain. As Giuliani’sparents commented, ‘nothing is worth the life of a child. Nothing can bring him back tolife for us — or for the young people like him’ (Sternfeld, 2002: 80). For the rest of us,the murders of Carlo, ofAlexis and of thousands of young people every day also hurt ourfeelings and wound our humanity and dignity. It is a poignant and painful reminder that,as Benjamin put it espousing Strindberg’s idea, ‘hell is not something that awaits us, but Volume 34.1 March 2010 210–16 International Journal of Urban and Regional ResearchDOI:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2010.00950.x © 2010 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2010 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published by BlackwellPublishing. 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main St, Malden, MA 02148, USA  this life here and now ’(2006: 161, italics in the srcinal). The most distressing fact aboutthe Greek case is that commentators, journalists, academics and both right- and left-wingscholars concur in arguing that the murder of the 15-year-old boy was the occasion forand not the greatest cause of the social explosion on the part of young people. Theyrefuse to accept that there is also ‘a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded’and ‘through this wound a man’s real man-hood’(Thoreau, 1960: 246). They appear notto understand that the murder of a child was the foremost reason for the breaking-out of the Greek revolt. For the functionaries of the neoliberal capitalist order, the everydaymurder of thousands of children is not a scandal. For them, feelings, sensitivity,conscience and human dignity are a scandal.Murders. Blood. Death. Children’s blood? ‘Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like’,as Marx (1970: 233) very vividly expressed it, ‘only lives by sucking living labour, andlives the more, the more labour it sucks’. Capital lives by sucking living child labour allover the world. Paraphrasing Marx, one could argue that a great deal of capital, whichappears today in the United States and Western Europe without any birth certificate, isthe capitalized blood of children in Africa, Asia and Latin America (ibid  .: 756). Though‘capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt’ (ibid  .:760), the new capitalist world order and, more specifically, Western capitalist societieshave a very discriminating and selective relationship to death. Death, the death of children, occurs in remote and ‘exotic’ continents. It concerns children in Africa or themurdered street children in LatinAmerica. Images of tortured and dead young bodies donot concern ‘us’, the ‘Western and civilized’, but ‘them’, the ‘alien’, the people of another religion and colour, or the immigrants who live in the West. Death happenselsewhere, in a different world. For Castoriadis (2003a: 85), ‘the ultimate truth of contemporary western society is evidently to be found in the desperate and bewilderedflight before death, the attempt to cover over our mortality’. A thorny and unavoidablequestion arises: would the young people of Greece react in the same way if the murderedboy was a migrant, an ‘alien’?Young people in Greece grew up with the feeling that death has nothing to do withthem, that it does not affect them directly. Death relates to the ‘others’ insofar as it ispresented as a spectacle in the mass media and the movies; as a reality it concerns theelderly, their grandparents and parents. The violent death of 15-year-old AlexisGrigoropoulos, his murder by a policeman, disrupted the ‘right order’. Young peopleidentified with the murdered boy. Alexis was one of us, one of the Western citizens; hewas one of them, a young Greek. In theory, any of them could have been in his position,anyone could have been there. In their effort to understand the horrific, insane andshocking murder they had to explicate it. They had to give a meaning toAlexis’s violentdeath. This process of understanding and explaining led them to question the ‘world’of the neoliberal society within which they live. The young people were well aware of thefact that the political and social system oppressed them hard and treated them unfairlyand hypocritically. But would it go so far as to kill them?Reflection on the murder, identification with the murdered boy and the effort tounderstand set in motion the process of thinking and questioning. And ‘thought itself isalready a sign of resistance, the effort to keep oneself from being deceived any longer’(Horkheimer, 1978: 116). Not to be deceived once again. For them, thinking meant thenegation, the refusal of the existing social and political order. It meant comprehendingthe social reality, asking political questions, getting politicized. But in order to becomepolitical and to attempt to comprehend reality they had to go beyond the ‘facts’, to‘comprehend what things really are’and to reject ‘their mere factuality’(Marcuse, 1978:446). For once, they did not run away from death, but they stood out against those whocaused the death of the young boy. This in turn led them to connect this death with thedeath of their everyday life.Their inability to give a meaning to the violent death revealedthe difficulty they had in giving content and meaning to their life, their own world. Onthe other hand, this disclosed their difficulty and refusal to identify themselves with thedominant values of the neoliberal Greek society and brought to the fore the crisis of the Debates and Developments 211 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34.1© 2010 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2010 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  latter. And this crisis of contemporary Greek society, as Castoriadis (2003b: 208) put it,‘produces the crisis of the identification process, and at the same time it is reproducedand aggravated by the crisis of identification’.The crisis of Greek society belongs to a more general crisis characterizing modernWestern neoliberal societies. It has its own marked characteristics and peculiarities,however. More precisely, after the demise of the Soviet-type societies in 1989, the Greek ruling class made an effort to impose on the working classes the liberal market norms,bearings, motivations and values: individualism, career, productivity, efficiency,privatization, free market economy, globalization, lifestyle, flexibility, gain, cynicism,social and political apathy, consumption and superficiality. Its main objective was toachieve and maintain the social cohesion necessary for Greek capitalist development andexpansion. It was a social and cultural ‘revolution’of the rich against the working classesin an attempt to re-orientate the content of their lives by filling them with new social andcultural values. By means of mainstream media, political and social changes on a globallevel and a neoliberal economic and credit policy, a very particular type of individual wasproduced in massive quantities and an endeavour was made to institute a new‘anthropological type’. The new liberal and modern individual had to work hard, tocalculate and not to think or reflect, to be efficient and not creative, to substitute quantityand velocity for quality. Every action that was profitable was morally accepted andsocially valued. As Polanyi (1957: 57, 77) put it, a market economy can exist andfunction only in a market society.To be more precise, all these neoliberal values and norms existed in Greek societyafter the end of the second world war. But never before had these bearings beendominant over the vast majority of those who live from their labour and the sale of theirlabour power. Yet, however much the Greek bourgeois class with the support of theprivate mass media attempted to present neoliberal ideals and attitudes as natural,immutable and eternal, they remained abstract, one-dimensional and non-natural. And,as Hegel (1963: 425) argued, ‘to make abstractions hold good in actuality means todestroy actuality’. Twenty years on, the imposition of neoliberal abstractionsprecipitated social dislocation and the destruction of social reality, of human socialrelations. It left a ‘cultural vacuum’ and caused a psychological and moraldisintegration. The endeavour to subordinate both human beings and nature to themarket mechanism, to the laws of the market where the sole value is money and profit,caused a ‘general fragmentation of social relations’ and ‘created a chaotic, dis-articulated’ situation (Holloway, 2005: 184). Greek society, a society with a richhistorical, cultural and political tradition based on social connections and verydistinctive religious and cultural characteristics (even on living and eating), showedelements of decomposition and a total evanescence of values.Neoliberal economic policy and market liberalism promoted privatizations, labourflexibility and the liberalization of prices. Basic labour rights were weakened andundermined. After the neoliberal reconstruction of human and social values, the Greek ruling class made its economic ‘revolution’ against the working classes. On January2009, in a country of 10 million, 21% of the population was classified as poor, which isthe second highest poverty rate in the European Union after Latvia and 5% higher thanthe European average; 460,000 children were living below the poverty line and youthunemployment was the highest in the European Union at approximately 28%. The newand promising neoliberal policy created new forms of poverty, deprivation, socialexclusion and misery. In August and September of 2007, the wildfires that broke outmainly in southern Greece razed dozens of villages, thousands of hectares of forests andkilled more than 60 people. Paradoxically for Greek political and economicneoliberalism, the laws of the market did not function at all in order to protect the naturalenvironment and save human lives. Capital, the neoliberal Greek government and thecorrupted and highly bureaucratized capitalist state were the sources of the problem andnot a part of its solution. Subordinating society and nature to the laws of the marketinvolves social and ecological calamity. 212 Debate International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34.1© 2010 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2010 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  And the Greek intellectuals? Where have all the Greek scholars gone? Throughout allthis period, which was marked by the dominance of normative liberal values, reason, asrepresented by the Greek intellectuals, was, once again in human history, ‘a poor ally of reaction’ (Horkheimer, 1972: 271), which in its neoliberal manifestation denied ‘reasonits historical role . . . of provoking insubordination and destroying horrors’ (Agnoli,2003: 26). With a few exceptions, the Greek scholars laboured in the service of theexisting capitalist reality and performed the systematic function of stabilization. Theycontributed forcefully to the championship of the neoliberal institutional structures,reproducing all those human relations ‘in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglectedand contemptible being’ (Marx, 1992: 251). Being part of the capitalist misery andcorruption, the Greek scholars denied their mission, lost their own foundations, lost theirreason and conscience. And the so-called Left or Marxist scholars? On rare occasionsthey reaffirmed the role of scholarly work as negation and destruction of the existingcapitalist order. In most cases, their work is intelligence without any content, let aloneradical content. Their only radicalism is expressed in finding out more ‘radical’ways topromote favouritism, to be cliquey and corrupted, to be conformists and hypocrites.Jacoby (1999: 114) has very aptly put it: ‘once intellectuals were outsiders who wantedto be insiders. Now they are insiders who pretend to be outsiders’.The crisis of human and social values was reflected in the crisis of the traditionalform of the family and its partial disintegration. This crisis is not only indicated by thesharp rise in divorce rates, but ‘what is at issue is the crumbling and disintegration of the traditional roles — man, woman, parents, children — and the consequence thereof:The formless disorientation of new generations’ (Castoriadis, 1997: 259, italics in theoriginal). Very important aspects of the socialization and orientation of the newgeneration were assigned to private mass media and this had devastating and dramaticeffects upon the younger generations. In turn, this process caused a tremendous crisisof socialization of young people, which was sharpened by the expansion of the use of the internet. Both capital and neoliberal governments found this movement towardsprivatization and depoliticization convenient and saw in it a complete prevalence of theneoliberal values and meanings of life. Children grow up within this miserableneoliberal model of life and withdraw into themselves, living a life full of the void,without any positive human values. In this context, Greek young people, and inparticular those aged between 13 and 30 who took part en masse in the uprising of December, experience every day greatly increasing mental pressure and stress. Up tothe age of 18, Greek students are the most oppressed and hard-working of Greek citizens. Their daily schedule consists of 7 hours in their school, 2–3 hours of additional private classes and at least 4 hours of homework. As in other countries suchas India and China, Greek families see education as the basic means of social mobilityfor their children. The competition is harsh and demands sacrifices from both parentsand students. What is distinctive as far as current Greek students are concerned is thefact that they can now see the results of the struggles and sacrifices of formergenerations. The high rates of unemployment and the monthly salary of 700 euros of those who do manage to get employed (for this reason they are called the ‘700 eurosgeneration’) leave no room for optimism as regards their future.Greece has the highest graduate unemployment rate in the European Union and youngpeople with university degrees, graduate studies and knowledge of at least two foreignlanguages remain unemployed. The vast majority of young people are fearful for theirfuture and believe that nothing will change. On top of that, due to the high rents and oneof the highest costs of living in the Eurozone, young Greek people live with their parentseven up to the age of 40. In many cases, grandparents, parents and children share thesame flat for many years. This has a double, contradictory or paradoxical effect on thecharacters and the personalities of the younger generations. On the one hand, they mayfeel oppressed or that they are becoming spoilt and overprotected. On the other, theyundergo a peculiar socialization and go through a subterranean politicization. They arevery well aware of the everyday struggles of their parents, the stagnant wages, the rise in Debates and Developments 213 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34.1© 2010 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2010 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
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