The Future of Greece: Ideology with Equations

Discrediting Greece’s leftist government as “ideological” has become a standard rhetoric in the on-going eurozone crisis. Framing the troika’s proposals as unideological, logical and inevitable is the real threat to the future of a democratic Europe.


June 29, 2015

Turmoil hits the international financial world as Greek banks shut for a week, triggering a new phase of the eurozone crisis. What has motivated Alex Tsipras to break all rules of diplomacy and call for a referendum on the country’s bailout deal? Ideological delusion, seems to be the universal answer.

Even Martin Schulz, who had previously called for “an ideological disarmament on both sides”, was visibly perplexed: rejecting the EU’s generous proposal “is rationally incomprehensible and only explicable through blatant ideology”.

Today, when your policies are declared ideological, you ought to feel insulted. For the accuse most probably implies that you have been hindered or obstructed by a range of preconceptions. You failed to see the “true” picture because you were too immersed in some dogmatic beliefs.

Irrational and ideologically blinded, is precisely how the Greek position has been portrayed ever since the election of the leftist Syriza party in January this year. When negotiations hit a first deadlock in February, European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici urged that “we have to be logical, not ideological”.

The image of a stubborn and inexperienced Greece, found its epitome when Christine Lagarde of the IMF moaned that we could have real negotiations if only there were “adults in the room”. The message is clear: the Greek government is refusing — for ideological reasons — to accept an austerity programme that will allow it to repay its debts.

Ideology is what the other person has

This constant reference to ideological delusion is rather peculiar. Through-out the 2000s, scholars of ideology were busy refuting the hypothesis that we are living in a post-ideological time. With the end of fascism, Nazism, and Stalinist communism, the idea was that “ideologies” have ceized to be. The election of Yanis Varoufakis, a self-declared “erratic Marxist”, has apparently led to the belief, that we are seeing a revival of 21st century ideologies.

Calling Greece ideologically blinded, however, says more about EU leaders, than it does about Varoufakis. In conceptualising ideology as misrecognition and illusion, EU politicians are unknowingly referring to a classical Marxist formula. In the words of Marx: “they do not know it, but they are doing it”. According to this logic, Greece has to escape their conceptual prisons to gain an objective understanding of the way things are.

This particular understanding of ideology is problematic in itself. Who is to say what counts as ideological? And from which perspective can we ever make such a distinction? It also suggests a rather troublesome approach to politics. Using ideology as an insult assumes that nonideological politics are the existing norm and that they are a desirable state of affairs.

There is no logical solution to a political crisis

The possibility of nonideological politics is epitomised in the belief that there is a single rational and adult solution to the eurozone crisis. The inability, or rather the refusal to accept the logical solution, is what caused Martin Schulz to call Tsipras ideological in the first place. According to Schulz, any rational government would urge its people to vote “yes”, and thereby accept the Eurogroup’s demands.

But is it entirely irrational to reject the creditors’ offer? Two Nobel laureats in economics have publicly expressed their concern over accepting the troika’s terms. Paul Krugman has called the political implications of a “yes” vote “deeply troubling”. The troika “made Tsipras an offer he can’t accept”, and there are good reasons to believe that they did so “knowingly”. Joseph Stiglitz described the economics behind the troika’s past programs “abysmal, resulting in a 25% decline in the country’s GDP”.

Even for those who do not agree with Krugman’s assessment, it should be apparent, that even economists disagree about what constitutes a rational solution. Portraying any particular solution as rational, logical or inevitable naturalises, and thereby depoliticises the debate. In the words of this guy from Twitter:

Ideology with Equations

This leads to the second question, whether ideology-free politics is even desirable in the first place. Michael Freeden, a scholar of ideology suggests that ideologies are “conceptualizations of the political worlds we already inhabit”. Every reasonable adult, no matter how sophisticated, possess a conceptualisation of the political world: “an unideological person is simply one who has sadly passed away.”

Yanis Varoufakis has expressed an interesting perspective on this issue in an interview with a Spanish TV station in April:

We economists like to pretend that we are scientists, but we are not. In the natural sciences and in engineering, there is a very clear demarcation between the world of ideology and the world of practical science.
So you and I could be physicists and you can be extremely right wing, and I could be extremely left wing, but that doesn’t matter when we talk about physics. In economics that is absolutely impossible. Economics is the only science, or disciplines where you can have two nobel price winners and one thinks the other is a scharlatan.
Let me put it differently: if we were truly the master technicians of political economy, we should ban democracy. We shouldn’t have democracy. There should be no election to decide who is finance minister, or what economic policy is pursued. We should have the technocrat, sitting in his office, running the economy efficiently.
But my point is that politics is essential, because economics is not a science. At best, it’s a kind of ideology with equations. You need logic you need analytical reasoning in order to discard falsities, things that are wrong. But you can’t find out what is right through a technocratic process. And because you can’t, that’s why you need democracy.

The Future of Europe

Throughout the last months, the Greek government has been portrayed as Europe’s deviant, erratic child. Blinded by the ideological imperatives of their radical leftist ideology, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras simply does not understand the severe implications of his behaviour. In a somewhat naïve fashion, Yanis Varoufakis honestly believes that there is an alternative to the generous demands of its creditors.

The current crisis is the perfect illustration of why economics is not a science. There is more than one rational answer to the current crisis. We need democracy and dissent, to find a common solution. The biggest threat to the future of Europe might not be a Grexit, or the end of the eurozone as we know it; depriving economics of politics, and killing dissent by collectively ridiculing political opponents poses the real threat to democracy in Europe.