Greece vs. the EU: recreating democracy and openness

Last week’s shocking interview with Yanis Varoufakis about the reality of the Eurozone’s core management structures has awoken me to the fragility inherent in democracy.  Varoufakis reports that the meeting of Eurozone finance ministers absolutely refused to discuss finance or economics. The main power-brokers centring on Germany’s Wolfgang Schauble did not need to discuss anything of substance or engage in order to find common ground.  Instead they went ahead and bulldozed the Greek team.

To have very powerful figures look at you in the eye and say “You’re right in what you’re saying, but we’re going to crunch you anyway.” … there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. …

As an Australian brought up on the anglophone view that political deliberation means adversarial competition between two simplistically opposing views, the Europe project has long fascinated me with its admirable struggle to find ways of living together on the basis of accepting difference.

The continent’s terrible history has awoken Europeans to the obvious fact that we are all here together, and we have to find ways of living co-operatively with each other.  We might not like our neighbours; indeed, we might hate their guts, and that might have been mutual for generations. But if we start fighting, we all know where that leads – and definitely none of us want to go there. So we’ve got to find a way to do it without fighting. Which, over the last 60 years has meant engagement and discussion and, above all, respect for differing views and the differences in situations.

Sure, the current EU as it currently stands is incredibly messy.  Sure, many people do still feel excluded. Obviously the project is not finished.  It took Europe several hundred years to start a democratic process – and it is not quite there yet.

Indeed Varoufakis reports that one of the EU’s core governance functions – management of the Euro – has no connection with democratic values or democratic processes at all. Varoufakis found that the Eurogroup, the Euro currency’s governing body, is

… a non-existent group that has the greatest power to determine the lives of Europeans. It’s not answerable to anyone, given it doesn’t exist in law; no minutes are kept; and it’s confidential. So no citizen ever knows what is said within. … These are decisions of almost life and death, and no member has to answer to anybody.

It often happens in new situations that new processes and governance systems simply emerge. At one level this is legitimate since newness is, by definition, unknown and so it’s not possible to plan every little detail of something that is not yet fully in existence.  A new system created on the fly can work out well when it stays close to the project’s original values, remains transparent, and is soon formalised once its shape becomes clear.

Clearly this has not occurred with Eurogroup governance. What was a democratic space has become closed out and replaced by a static and opaque power structure.

Varoufakis’ revelations alert me to a core quality of democracy, and in fact of any spaces in which respect, openness, transparency and acceptance are core values:  democracy and openness must be actively created and, once created, must be actively recreated against attempts to silence, to obscure, and to close down the space.

Doing nothing allows the forces of closure, injustice and domination to fill up and choke our communal space, our relating-space.  As Edmund Burke said in 1795:  “All it takes for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”

So we must do something – but what might that be?  It is common to claim that democracy must be fought for.  This perhaps has been true – maybe.  But I am increasingly of the mind that, as they said in the 70s, fighting for democracy (or peace, or openness) is like fucking for virginity. Indeed, I would argue that fighting is precisely the thing which Europe has collectively learned actually doesn’t work.

What’s the difference between fighting and active recreation? Fighting is driven by anger, which is a reaction to forces of closure.  It’s a very natural, sensible and at one level wholly rational reaction to closure.  It’s a necessary reaction too, since anger is an energizing emotion which moves us to break free of restraints.

But when we engage by bringing anger we are also bound to the source of our anger, since without that source our energy evaporates. So we are reliant on the closure or tyranny continuing.  This is why so many protest movements eventually evaporate:  their driving energy actually comes from the existence of a specific situation. Once that situation changes the protest movement has no cohering focus. So protest movements do not continue for long enough to shape new realities or bring new forms into being.

Anger in response to tyranny or closure is natural and inevitable. But rather than use our anger as our driving force, we can use it as a very reliable telltale that something else needs to happen. We can rely on our anger to alert us to the need for affirmations of values, affirmations of goals, affirmations that democracy, openness, transparency are possible and are more important to us than the present forces of closure.  In this way we actively recreate what is of value to us, and actively recreate the future we want in the present.

It is very sad that Varoufakis resigned.  He has a richly elaborated vision of what is possible and a considerable skillset to enact that vision.  Despite the support of millions of people both in Greece and in many other countries, he was undermined by the large group of people who are cowed by the forces of closure and who would rather accommodate the pain of tyranny than affirm the possibilities of openness and democracy.

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