Should “Greece” charge the rest of Europe for its “past contributions”?

by Akis Gavriilidis

Recently, the anthropologist David Graeber suggested through Tweeter that “Greece should charge the rest of Europe for it past contributions”. He even made concrete quantified proposals as to how much should be charged: “100 billion euros for Aeschylus” and “200 bil for Socrates”.

A similar suggestion was made some time ago by the veteran French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.

These statements were no doubt made in good intention: they were meant as a display of solidarity for the bullying the Greek society has been submitted to the past 5 years due to the debt crisis. It is also true that their authors were addressing mainly the European public opinion, especially its sections which have proven vulnerable to cultural racism against the allegedly lazy, good-for-nothing Greeks. However, when somebody is speaking about a certain country, they should give some consideration to how this speaking will sound in the country itself. And in Greece these statements sound quite nasty, believe me. As a person who is trying to fight in Greece against the austerity regime and the neoliberal blackmail from a transnational/ transformational perspective, I do not feel Graeber’s intervention empowers me; on the contrary, it complicates my task.

One of the reasons for this is that this intervention is based on a well known rhetorical technique: as a first step, it (seemingly) accepts a certain premise of the thesis it wants to undermine, in order to then show the absurd and inadmissible conclusions it may lead to. The problem, however, is that different audiences may not perceive the sarcasm and the subversive intention, and take the acceptance at face value. Precisely this is what happened with everybody who read this “charging Europe” idea in Greece. Nobody construed it as an effort to performatively refute and satirize the Eurocentric hierarchy of values and the central position ancient Greece acquires in this context as a foundation for the Western colonial enterprise; quite the contrary, everybody, including –if not most of all- rightwing nationalists, took it quite literally, and considered it a great idea that should seriously be pursued. Whereas Graeber’s intention was to imply to his audience “the conclusion is absurd, therefore the premise should be considered absurd as well”, in Greece everybody read this as “since the premise is self-evidently valid, so must be the conclusion”.

But another, more serious reason, is that the word “Greece” here is being used to denote two –or more- very different things, and this crucial difference is erased by the apparent simplicity and uniformity of a single term. Because the “Greece” for which one can say in any meaningful sense –even a playful one- that it should “charge” anybody for Aeschylus or Socrates, is not the same as the “Greece” where these people lived in and “belonged to”. The former is a modern, unified nation-state, with a capital city, a constitution, a territory, a border … The latter is something quite different, or, arguably, nothing at all. No single political entity existed during the 5th century BC –or any other century after that, until the 19th– under the name “Greece”. This name was used to describe a loose geographical area –in any case much smaller than what we mean today by “Greece”- including several different power formations, the polises [city states] who had a certain feeling of cultural commonality between them, but who also fought long and fierce wars against each other[1].

One could object here: OK, but is this difference so important to point out? Well, yes, it is. Because, as incredible as this may sound to Greece’s friends abroad, there is such a thing as a (modern) Greek nationalism. The cornerstone of this nationalism is the axiom of the “unbreakable historical continuity” between these two Greeces conflated in Graeber’s tweet. For the past 3 years, this current is amply represented at the Greek parliament by Chryssi Avgi [Golden Dawn], probably the strongest neo-Nazi party in Europe, if not the whole world. But, apart from the neo-Nazis, the same axiom about (modern) Greece being the legitimate heir of Pericles & co. is being repeated ad nauseam all over the Greek cyberspace, in variants maybe less violent and dangerous but equally irrational and ridiculous. In innumerable sites, in Greek and English, we find always the claim that “Greece” has produced the most perfect civilization ever, so the rest of the world owes it a favor[2]. I am sure David Graeber wouldn’t be glad to know he now serves as a justification for such megalomaniac posts and that these people will now add him to their references –especially as he is somebody “beyond suspicion” and he can confer them added value and credibility.

The same reasoning could be repeated as regards the rhetorical acceptance of the international patents system principles. This appears in an even clearer way in a second tweet by the same author, an explicit follow-up to the previous one, which reads: “or maybe Greece should just declare copyright on all ancient authors & charge for 2500 years of outstanding royalties”.

This too was obviously meant as a parody. But the inherent problem with all parodies is that they have necessarily to be a form of identification in the first place, in order to function. If one misses the implicit irony and the distance intended in this one too, one would be lead to the catastrophic conclusion that the author endorses not only a nationalist, but also a possessive-individualist conception of collective identities. Which is too high a price to pay for a doubtful gain.

Not least because, here too, this supposed gain, the undermining of “Western hypocrisy”, could easily be outweighed by a similar argument to the opposite direction: if one accepts, however seriously or jokingly, that “Europe” owes “Greece” royalties for using terms and ideas from ancient authors, then one should equally accept that Greece –without quotation marks, i.e. the modern nation-state- owes royalties to Turkey, Iran, Italy, the Arab and Slavic peoples, and many others, for having borrowed bouzouki, baglama, rembetiko, ciftetelli, hasapiko, zeybekiko, moussaka, dolmades, taramosalata, dzadziki, ekmek kadayif, baklava … not to mention “Zorba the Greek”, who actually was not really a Greek but an ethnic Macedonian, and whose tomb can still today be seen in the cemetery of Skopje. All of these terms –and, importantly, not only the terms but also the respective cultural practices- are crucial for the Greek tourist industry; so, if both hypothetical royalties were to be paid, it is not sure that the balance would be favorable for Greece.

I think it is possible, and preferable, to find better –which means, universalizeable- arguments in favor of alleviating Greece’s sovereign debt, than Greek exceptionality and superiority. This argument may seem to work as regards Greece, but it is also exclusionary, as it seems to imply that, say, Ireland, or Bulgaria, or Ecuador, or any other country which cannot boast for such important “past contributions” to Western or global civilization, may be left to their fate without guilt, and are not worth of our solidarity.

[1] On the other hand, if we conventionally accept, for the sake of the argument, to talk approximatively about a “Greece” where Socrates lived and taught, then, following the same logic, we should also admit that this Greece condemned him to death, and it would be hypocritical to appear as the heir of somebody you have killed yourself. Not to mention, of course, that there is no concrete body of work to charge anybody for, since Socrates did not write one line of text in his life –he only taught orally.

[2] For an analysis of this phenomenon and several examples, some of which rather hilarious, I refer the reader to my article The perpetual return of the living-dead (languages): Spectres of (dis)continuity.




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