Can Europe Make It?

From ‘utopia’ to dystopia and resistance, a short run

The latest mutation of the neoliberal doctrine is turning Greece into a real life dystopia, but resistance can still save the day.

Costas Douzinas
16 December 2013
Demotix/Socrates Baltagiannis. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Socrates Baltagiannis. All rights reserved.

Michael Anderson’s film ‘Logan’s Run’ (1976) opens with the following statement:

“Sometime in the twenty-third century, the survivors of a war, overpopulation and pollution are living in a great domed city, sealed away from the forgotten world outside. Here, in an ecologically balanced world, mankind lives only for pleasure, freed by the servo-mechanisms which provide everything. There’s just one catch: Life must end at thirty unless reborn in the fiery ritual of carousel.”

The first part is a description of pretty much every utopia.A society cut off from a threatening outside world, that lives secluded in peace and plenty. There is no conflict, people are happy, nothing disturbs their existence, their needs and desires are fully catered for. People can call in sex partners or go to orgy rooms but they cannot have long-term relationships.

As is usually the case, all utopias have a little flaw that turns them into dystopias. The dome dwellers are conditioned to accept that life will be ‘renewed’ at the age of 30. Implanted with ‘life-clocks’ of changing colors, in accordance with the advancing age of their holders, they are prepared for ‘lastday’, their thirtieth birthday. Assembled at the ‘carousel’ to be ‘reborn’, they are exterminated.

The ‘utopia’ of cosmopolitan peace, global collaboration and a life of plenty was the promise at the ‘end of history’ in 1989. It was to be delivered by a new intimate link between private interests, freedom of choice and the common good. After the flight of industry and agriculture to the developing world, debt for consumption became the growth strategy of the west. Indebtedness and consumerism was the order of the day, ‘iPhone or Blackberry’ the ultimate existential dilemma. Both were affordable through the endlessly available credit. Life-long savings were turned into financial ‘products’, working people became shareholders directly or though the investments of insurance and pension funds. The indebted worker with a small shares portfolio accepts consumer choice and personal responsibility as the main criteria of success.

Proliferating individual and consumer rights deepened socio-economic integration further. The dominant ideology declared that every desire could become an entitlement, every ‘I want X’ an ‘I have a right to X’. The interests of working people started gradually approximating those of capitalists, despite the income differential which grew to unprecedented levels. The sub-prime mortgages showed that financialised capitalism had to ‘invest in the bare life of people who cannot provide any guarantee, who offer nothing apart from themselves.’ [1]

The message was clear: invest your money in stocks and borrow, spend and be happy. I recall being told by a Greek banker to buy a particular financial ‘product’ called ‘repos’, because it was a ‘safe investment with high return.’ I asked him what these ‘repos’ were but he was vague. When I added that I do not own stocks or shares, he was incredulous. ‘I thought that you must be a smart guy being a London professor. I am no longer sure.’Conspicuous consumption was the promise of the neoliberal dream. Easy and cheap loans, rewards for market speculation, rapid increase of real estate values became instruments of economic policy as well as criteria of social mobility and individual well-being. The moral imperative of the period was ‘enjoy’, ‘buy’, ‘live as if this is your last day’; ‘mandatory pleasure’ was the policy drive.

Greece: At the forefront of decay.

Greece is a textbook case of the complex entanglement of population control and the disciplining of individuals through the surface promotion of freedom.After entry to the Euro, the government-promoted consumption and hedonism, became the main way to success. The distorted economic growth, based on borrowing and a financial bubble, came to an end in 2008. The austerity measures reversed priorities, imposing a novel and brutal administration of population and individuals. The ‘rescue’ of Greece is seen as a return to fiscal ‘probity’. Public spending cuts, tax hikes and privatizations are the tools. People were told for some twenty years that the main concern of power was the economic success and happiness of individuals. Now the earlier policies were overturned. The politics of personal desire and enjoyment were abandoned for a strategy of saving the nation, literally its DNA, by abandoning its individual members. Population is everything, the individual nothing. Mandatory individual pleasure turned into a prohibition of pleasure.

At the collective level, austerity divides the population according to work, age, economic, gender and race criteria and demands of the individuals, radical behaviour reform for the sake of fiscal probity and competitiveness. The measures cover every aspect of life from basic food consumption to health, education, work and leisure. People are asked to align their behaviour with the ‘needs’ of the nation and to be subjected to extensive controls, which aim at recovering ‘social health’. The behavioural change was initially demanded of the low paid and pensioners; it eventually spread to everyone. Every new austerity wave extended the measures to ever increasing groups of population, pulling into the vortex the middle class with huge property taxes.

Population strategies had to be supplemented with extensive interventions at the individual level. Twenty years of hedonism had to be brought to a rapid end. To do that, an extreme version of the ‘shock doctrine’ recipe was imposed in the hope that the violent introduction of austerity would reduce resistance and re-arrange behaviour.Its economic strategy is to create huge scarcities in social provision and to individualize the disciplining process. Money, work, rights, security and aspirations become rationed and people are asked to find private replacement for hitherto public services or to accept that the sudden reversal is the just result of their sins and guilt. The results are unprecedented in peace time: 25% GDP contraction, 27% unemployment, 60% youth unemployment, a humanitarian crisis, huge increase in disease, suicide, preventable death, rise of neo-nazis attacking immigrants, leftists, gay and Roma.

The grandchildren of history

The 2006 dystopia ‘The Children of Men’, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is an extreme version of the Greek predicament. Humanity is facing extinction after a long period of global infertility. Britain has been deluged by refugees and has become a police state with concentration camps and a brutal war between the government and bands of immigrants. Kee, the only pregnant woman alive, is escorted by a state bureaucrat and radical immigrants through the war zone and the camps towards the sea where a ship will take her to a ‘human project’ trying to reverse infertility. Kee gives birth in a room provided by a Roma woman and eventually makes it to the ship called ‘Tomorrow’ and the possibility of redemption.

Almost in the same vein, the Greek austerity governments used migrants and women to display toughness and ideological purity. During the May 2012 election campaign, the Ministers of Health and Public Order launched a campaign to remove immigrants from city centres, calling them ‘human trash’ and accusing them of spreading infectious diseases. It was just a show; those arrested returned soon to the city centre. The right-wing government elected in June 2012, responded in kind promising to ‘re-conquer’ central Athens from the ‘invaders’.Once in power, it launched a campaign called ‘Xenios (hospitable) Zeus’ to arrest and remove immigrants from cities. Detention camps named ‘reception centres’ were established all over Greece. Calling the rounding of immigrants ‘Xenios’ can be explained as either ignorance of the meaning of the word or postmodern irony.

Again before the May 2012 elections, ministers launched a disgraceful campaign against ‘foreign looking’ sex workers. Women were rounded up, tested for HIV and detained pending trial for unspecified crimes.Their names and photos were publicised in newspapers and websites. The practice copied the infamous British Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s, which authorized the rounding up of prostitutes and women judged to be promiscuous for mandatory venereal diseases testing and subsequent imprisonment. The nineteenth century operation was universally condemned and contributed to the rise of feminism. As Joanna Bourke drily comments, ‘the legislation treated women as a whole as nothing more than contagious animals, while at the same time they identified the real “mute creatures” in class terms.’ [2]

The contemporary operation added race to class and gender and offers a shameful symbol of the cynicism of power. It allegedly aimed at protecting the ‘health’ of the Greek nation by targeting, humiliating and punishing racially ‘inferior’ women. The government was saving men from foreign sex ‘predators’ intent on destroying the Greek gene pool. When it became known that almost all detained women were Greek and most of them not sex workers, the publicity subsided. In the nineteenth century, middle class women rallied to the cause of their persecuted sisters.In the twenty-first, only the Left defended the dignity and privacy of these women. In late capitalism, the proud liberal traditions have been abandoned by the neo-liberals and are kept alive only by the radicals who have created extensive solidarity campaigns for the excluded and persecuted.

From utopia to dystopia, and back again.

Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Giorgio Agamben have explained how power is now exercised over life. It extends from the depths of consciousness to the bodies of individuals and whole populations targeted on the basis of characteristics such as gender, race, health, age or profession. Collective technologies of power are supplemented by ‘technologies of self’. People are asked to adjust their behaviour through practices of self-improvement and discipline in the name of individual happiness, health, success and collective well-being. Biopolitical capitalism produces not just commodities for subjects but subjects, first and foremost, the free subject of desire and rights.

The self is the target and product of two strategies. The first, inscribes needs, desires and expectations in the individual, making it feel free, autonomous and creative. Only as disciplined by the symbolic of power do we acquire the imaginary of freedom. The second, concerned with the strength of populations, applies policies around birth rate and life expectancy, sexuality and health, education and training, work and leisure. The individual is of little interest here. This double register has a common aim, the disciplining and controlling of behaviour. Power is indifferent towards ideas: you may be a communist, anarchist or trotskyist as long as your behaviour and comportment follows the prescription. Is there an escape?

The direct integration of the working person into the economy of debt is the Achilles heel of late capitalism. The worker can withdraw abruptly and violently, if one of the links in the chain of integration breaks. This can happen through the sudden loss of job, major deterioration in conditions of life or expectations, frustration of desires or promises.This is what the protests and insurrections around the world from Tahrir to Syntagma and Taksim are achieving. Resistance disarticulates identities from the circuit of desire-consumption-frustration and helps the emergence of disobedient subjects. When life becomes unlivable and subjection intolerable, the refusal to obey law and policies and the invention of new types of resisting action turns disobedience into a ‘political baptism’. It releases the subject from the consolations of normality and the numbing of normalization. In Greece, the baptism of resistance has moved much faster than in the other targets of neoliberal austerity. [3]

In Logan’s Run, those who realize that the carousel ‘renewal’ is a ruse leading to mass extinction escape the city. They become ‘runners’ seeking a ‘Sanctuary’ beyond the city. They are pursued by ‘sandmen’, special policemen, authorized to exterminate. Logan, a sandman pursuing a runner, realizes that there is no sanctuary and returns to the domed city leading to its demise with its citizens released onto the outside. The Southern European utopia, turned dystopia of unemployment, poverty, disease and suicide. Like Logan and Kee, the only answer is escape, exodus both from the false paradise of obedient consumer happiness and the state of exception of camps, riot police and the undeclared war against the majority of the population.

Utopias turn soon into dystopias, as their ‘truth’ is revealed to be their fatal flaw. Dystopias on the other hand are a fertile ground for disobedience and resistance. The Greek people have seen through the myth of ‘happiness’. If they continue on the road of resistance, a difficult and conflict-ridden path they have travelled a long way so far, Europe may still be saved.

[1] Christian Marazzi, The Violence of Financial Capitalism (Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2007), 40.

[2] Joanna Bourke, What it Means to be Human (Virago, 2012), 98.

[3] Costas Douzinas, Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis (Polity, 2013).

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