In Plato’s cave

Like the shadows described by the Athenian philosopher, the solutions adopted to prevent the Greek debt crisis from taking down the euro with it are Greek paradoxes that Europeans do not wish to see. The deputy director of El Mundo weighs in.

Published on 30 June 2011 at 14:36
Does this look like a parable? Protesters fleeing tear gas at Syntagma metro station, Athens, 29 June 2011.

Greece’s adoption of the austerity package won’t set the belltowers of Europe pealing with joy. What’s going on here rather echoes the Myth of the Cave, the famous allegory in Plato's Republic. We Europeans are slaves, chained from birth, that can gaze only towards the shadows cast on the back of the cave by the objects carried in the hands of the servants parading behind the wall outside. And so we’re convinced that there is no more to the Greek reality than these shadows.

In the Greek reality, it so happens, the quota of contradictions that one can bear has been exceeded. For the first time, for example, a country that is technically in default is being held up as solvent. The EU is insisting on rescuing a ruined country with a fiscal deficit of 10 percent of GDP and a debt of 350 billion euros, which is 150 percent of the wealth the country produces in one year. Not even privatising all state assets (assuming someone wants to buy them) can wipe away the debt.

This contradiction is explained by a much larger one, which is that, according to Merkel and Sarkozy, what is voluntary is in fact an obligation. The contradiction has been confirmed by the German and French banks, which have been invited to forgive part of the Greek debt. In the end, in the strict sense, it hasn’t come to any write-off, but to a generous rescheduling of the debt.

Another paradox is that the adjustment is actually a maladjustment. Greece has already received 110 billion euros, last year, and that money went straight down the drain. George Papandreou's government, which the world has been so quick to exonerate, was to have brought in a strict austerity plan. Yet despite the universal anger at the lashings dished out to the Greeks, this plan seems to have been nothing more than a distorted shadow of reality. MEP Antonio López Istúriz revealed a few days ago that instead of getting rid of 55 public enterprises to reduce the fiscal deficit, Athens created 41 new ones over the same time.

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A fourth paradox is that the rescue of the country ends up drowning it. Greek Conservative Party leader Antonis Samaras isn’t missing anything when he says that the tax hike will bring down the economy and increase tax evasion even more. If Papandreou had been bolder, he would have slashed the bureaucracy not by 15 percent but by 25 percent and would have limited privatisation not to 50 billion but to 300 billion of the available assets. Only radical measures can straighten out the numbers in the Greek hoax.

In Plato's allegory, a slave could leave the cave, grasp the reality in the outside world and return to the darkness to explain to his colleagues that the shadows were not the truth – that, on the outside, there were things that were the ultimate cause and source of those shadows. The slaves would at first mock him and then, when he insisted on freeing them from the darkness, start to think about killing him.

Samaras is the only one so far who has left the Greek cave, and for that he is being called irresponsible. Papandreou, blinking, is only half way out. But most Greeks and Europeans are still blinded by the sun.

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer


Yes to austerity for all

“ναί!”, – “Yes!” in Greek – leads Die Presse following the vote that saw Greek parliamentarians adopt the first part of the austerity plan of 78 billion euros that, it is hoped, will save the country from bankruptcy. That “yes,” according to the Vienna newspaper, holds true for well beyond Greece’s borders: in fact, for other European countries that are potential bankrupts – Portugal, Ireland and Spain, and even Italy – “radical cuts are the only way out.” “The protests are violent,” admits Die Presse, “but the obligation to cut back is inescapable. Governments are falling and new governments that were loud in protest on the opposition benches are being forced to bring in the same policies their predecessors had to abandon. All of them are facing the same rusty structures, inflexible and inefficient civil services, perks and sinecures defended for far too long by their beneficiaries, and social welfare systems that are no longer viable.”

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also pays tribute to “the Greek example”, and in particular the Prime Minister in Athens: “No prime minister will want to pay the price the Papandreou government must pay,” writes the German daily. “The Greek government has been forced to surrender national sovereignty to an extent far beyond what is usual and necessary for a Member State of the European Union. For months now, the representatives of the Greek people, though elected, have been unable to make critical decisions independently.”

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