In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell writes that “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” He contends what it argues “can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Though written in 1946 as the original introduction to “Animal Farm”, Orwell’s words have far greater prescience in light of the recent crisis occurring both in Greece and down the street from Strommuses at the European Commission and Parliament.
To those that have missed the firestorm, the European Union, more specifically the lead creditors, appear to have little qualms with cementing a precedent that is widely recognized to risk ripping the monetary union apart. This comes from a failed economic policy causing rampant unemployment and civic unrest devolving into unbridled chaos; it comes though the creditors themselves plead guilty of malpractice; it comes despite admissions that the demands made for repayment can never conceivably be made; and finally, because no tragedy would be good without a farce, it comes in the face of shameless hypocrisy. The way currently depicted as “forward”, in short, is the very indefensible practice which the introduction refers to so vividly.
In the realm of political discourse, the use of poor language itself can “become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” All this leads to idiotic arguments over deficits and responsibility when instead the real questions lie in finding solutions. Thus, what is more surprising to Strommuses is not the ongoing fiscal crisis in Greece, but the appallingly bad coverage of the crisis in the news.
The way currently depicted as “forward”, in short, is the very indefensible practice which the introduction refers to so vividly.
But before we approach this in greater detail, lets get the history straight.
The narrative of Greece is not that difficult to discern; the government had Wall Street hid its debt to enter the Euro, benefitted from the cheap credit, then suffered from its reliance upon industries poorly suited to weathering the crisis, with the temperamental tourism sector alone accounting for 18% of GDP. Consequently, Greece proved unable to maintain a balanced budget, a problem compounded by being tied to the Euro and hence ceding monetary control. Because it is on the euro, and because countries benefitting from the current regime such as Germany continue to begrudgingly buoy the troika in funding Greek debt, there is now a standoff between the creditors and debtors.
Meanwhile, life in Greece has become intolerable. Since their economy has been unduly harmed by troika policies which undermined their tax base, the monetary regime allows for no recourse to debt devaluation, and they have been shut out of bond markets, the Grecians have appealed to a joint policy of stimulus and a crackdown on tax evasion, raising VATs (though less initially than what the troika demanded on vital industries) and a reasonable amount of debt relief for all that above what could reasonably be expected to be repaid. In effect, the Grecians have elected a government to reverse the contractions by a standard Keynesian spending regime.
And yet, though almost all of these policies are exactly what good economics would call for, they have been rejected. Why? Simple; because the Grecian example sets a dangerous precedent for EU governments and voters: if you vote for a party that won’t toe the EU line, no matter how insane the line itself is, you might be able to negotiate on better terms. The result has been a vociferous ideological war between the creditors and debtors, each vying for the sympathy of Europe’s heart. We hear little about how the Greeks own proposals, desperate to preserve the EU, have effectively buckled to the demands for more austerity, and are instead told that Greece is not being “serious” and that “tougher” measures are needed.
This is when we get to the abominably bad coverage of the Greek crisis. In the high brow press, all of this is buried under accusations and name calling that are absolutely infantile. In “Politics and the English Language,” this phenomenon is explained with brilliant simplicity: “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The worst offenders are, unsurprisingly, those most closely connected with finance, but one stands out above all the rest: London’s Economist Magazine.
Though loved by many as the handy primer of the establishment elite, The Economist has fallen out of form recently by being a little too obvious in its hand wringing over Greece finding a third way between default and austerity: or, between a rock and a hard place. Its solution appears to consist of pretending that they do not understand anything that is going on in the country other than the debt and the need to find any way to pay it, and to constantly act puzzled at the demands of the Greek people; the better so as to ridicule their condition. They first derided the Greek referendum which, although hastily planned, nonetheless was a sincere move to determine whether or not the government should break their most important plank and acquiesce to more austerity. The next day, they blamed the consequences of austerity on Syriza in the face of blatantly obvious evidence to the contrary.
The consummation of all this terrible misinformation came to the fore in this week’s front page “Europe’s Future in Greece’s Hands” where Orwell’s observation that “the inflated style” of this brand of political writing is “itself… a kind of euphemism” again rang true. We learn that the crisis is driven, not by Europe’s absurdly skewed debt dynamics or profligacy in the past, but by Greece’s current “hard-left Syriza government and its absurd referendum.” We also learn that the belief of Greece’s “ragbag of leftists” (as the coalition in Parliament is now called) that people ought have the vote on an agreement that will affect everything from their collective bargaining rights, to the pensions, and beyond are predicated on a “fantasy.”
Finally, the magazine gives up any premise of objectivity, fuming that Greece simply “needs a new prime minister” other than the “devious Mr. Tsipras.” Never mind that acquiescence to the creditors has meant that Greek Prime Ministers have been turning over more than any other head of state in Europe– six in the last seven years. We instead are left with a flippant Economist bemoaning that the “proposals” of those seeking further integration are too “modest” owing to the rise of “anti-EU populists” another pejorative without any substance: hinting perhaps that adding one failing economic policy with one unelected enforcement mechanism might be too much for the Economist to make two.
The tragedy of Greece is not that its problems were unsolvable, precisely the opposite; the answers were almost as clear as the blatant self interest. Greece is to submit its proposal for action tomorrow, but the rhetoric leveled at it if it presents anything but pure submission can already be guessed. If Europeans cannot learn the costs of their fractious and accusatory ways, then perhaps the anarchy of the past is but a mirror of a future fraught and divided Europe. Nobody wants that; but it certainly gets easier to look at if you add a little smoke.