Greek debt crisis: When Sociology does the right thing, for the wrong reason

By Lambros Fatsis

Rapid Response: Greece, Debt and Europe in Crisis

As the tense cut and thrust thriller of Greece’s financial and political woes still unfolds, albeit with considerably less agony since the Greferendum graduated to an ‘agreekment’, pressing questions about sociology’s currency in handling “the Greek crisis” hover anxiously in the background. The remainder of this article takes issue with the careless language, and the often clumsy hermeneutics of recent sociological responses to Greece’s debt crisis, wondering whether sociologists are offering adequate interpretations of the issue in question. It will be argued that the current sociological “crisis talk” generates more heat than light, by turning an opportunity for imaginative, critical analysis into a degradation ceremony where words lose their meaning at the expense of reasoned political deliberation, and sociology’s own interpretive potential.

If Michael Burawoy’s diagnosis about the ‘scissors movement’ according to which the world is moving “right” and sociology tilts towards the “left” is right, the prognosis for sociology is poor, alerting us to the possibility that the crisis in and of Europe, mutates into a crisis for sociology as well. If we are to accept or admit, as Burawoy all too readily does, that sociology goes hand in hand with the Left, we are faced with a series of tricky questions that demand our critical attention. Given that much of the sociological rhetoric on the Greek debt crisis comes from the Left (examples of which can be found here), we are left to grapple with a host of ontologicalepistemological as well as ideational problems, which are tackled in turn. 

Starting with the ontological hurdle that plagues many sociological commentaries on Greece, what often seems like a facile and often uncritical identification with Syriza, circumvents critical questions about who and what sociologists are, or may be as well as whose side they are on. And while it is clear that there exist no views from nowhere, and that “we” always speak from somewhere, speaking in the name of the Left in order to explain what is happening in Greece proves immensely problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, such a stance runs the risk of suggesting that there is something called “the Left” that thinks in a uniform way is problematic. Furthermore, it papers over important nuances much too quickly, and with little desire to find out exactly what kind of Left, Syriza may be, thereby ignoring the question of whether Syriza is what it proclaims to be, and whether what it proclaims to be is what it actually is.

Accepting that any kind of Left is fundamentally “good” or “right” automatically bestows on the Left the exclusive ‘right of speaking in the capacity of master of truth and justice’, as Foucault put it in Truth and Power. The danger here is not merely ontological however, as it also invites questions of whether anyone on the Left is happy to accept Syriza’s particular brand of national-populist Left which openly flirts with the clergy, has no qualms about forming a coalition government with the far-right Anel party, and does not shudder at the thought of earning itself votes of confidence from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, during the recent referendum. 

The first casualty of such an ontological predisposition is context, the second is solidarity. To support Syriza so openly with no further questions asked, is to also support the party’s divisive rhetoric, and politics of smokescreens both at home and abroad. In terms of context this translates to sanctioning the hostility that results from this in a country whose modern history is soaked in fratricidal blood during the civil war of 1946-1949, and the military junta of 1967-1974. In terms of solidarity, this turns the country into an experiment of revolution by proxy, where flippant comments about “Nazi collaborators” and coups d’état abound without due regard for the sensitivities affected. In doing so, solidarity quickly loses its mutualist spirit and turns into hubris, resembling the neo-colonialist attitude that Germany and Co. were accused of in the aftermath of Greece’s most recent conditional bailout deal.

On the epistemological front, rummaging the lexicon of our ideological preference in search for interpretation and meaning, presupposes that we might already know what we think, rather than making use of our critical-analytical faculties to think afresh of how to make sense of the issues, problems and debates we are trying to explain. In doing so, we end up imitating journalists by playing buzzword bingo; using terms such as “austerity” and “neoliberalism” in a most vague and catch-all manner, which does not do justice to sociology’s unique way of rendering knowledge and understanding in an original, thoroughgoing and independent manner, that is suffused with rigour, imagination and personality.

Resorting to perceptual shorthands as opposed to choosing our words carefully, inevitably leads to the danger of emptying important terms of their significance, thereby allowing rhetorical inflation to triumph over analytical deflation and critical judgement. Worse still, we take for granted the meaning of terms that are under-theorised, and actually tell us very little except about the person using them; denoting as they do not so much the complex phenomena they try to simplistically describe, but rather their user’s attitude towards political rivals. Words like “austerity” and “neo-liberalism” carry little analytical weight other than as swearwords devised to describe somebody else’s ideological stance, rather than offer a concrete understanding of what exactly they refer to, in a manner that does not simply describe the world in our terms alone.

Ideationally speaking, treating sociology as a handmaiden of left-wing ideologies denies both sociology and the Left their independence of thought, while also disrespecting their common historical roots in the progressive mission of the Enlightenment, the post-Revolutionary utopian socialist thought, as well as the venerable tradition of immanent critique. The responsibility, task, promise and gift of sociology, since its very inception, is to create the possibility to ‘think differently, rather than legitimating what is already known’, recognising that ‘last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice’.

Building on these two quotes from Michel Foucault and T.S. Elliot respectively, it can therefore be argued that what is uniquely important and distinctive in sociology as a critical discipline is its ability to articulate a language, and foster a logic that we can actually do something with, rather than curse away what we dislike. This involves acting neither as a fervent apostles of the EU’s shameful balance-sheet approach to political decision-making, nor as convinced disciples of Syriza’s peculiar brand of the Left. Choosing one or the other would simply lead us to emulate both parties’ tragic failures, when what is at stake is the desire and possibility to move beyond such interpretive traps that bait the hook and keep us captive of their perverse rhetoric, rather than allowing us to develop our own arresting insights into what politics in Europe is, may be or can be. 

As sociologists we have to heed the poet’s advice by resisting the temptation of ‘doing the right deed for the wrong reason’, that is support Greece in ideological terms alone. Instead we may be able to help an ailing country more in sociological terms, by becoming sociologists “of crisis” who possess an acute ability for “crisis-as-judgment” (= krisis), as an antidote to “crisis-as-endgame”, thereby returning to sociology as a vital resource of hope rather than fall victims of ideological or (social) media hype.

Dr Lambros Fatsis teaches Sociology at the University of Sussex. Since 2012, he has been writing about the Eurozone crisis at The Sociological Imagination online magazine, and more recently at the European Politics and Policy (EUROPP) blog of the LSE, and the Greek daily morning newspaper, Kathimerini. 

Originally posted 17th July 2015

Photo credit: By FrangiscoDer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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