For some time now, the obsessional recourse to negative images of Southern Europeans, who are portrayed as lazy and irresponsible, has been increasingly prevalent. These characteristics are not only projected on individuals, but also on the governments of Italy, Greece and Spain.
According to the myth that accompanies these portrayals, national vices are at the origin of the crisis that has engulfed the European project. Videos of lazy Greeks are blithely circulated on YouTube, and the cliché of a Mediterranean lolling in the sun has become a mental reflex when trying to explain the cause of the crisis in the eurozone.
Fables about the south
Take for example the heavily spun assertions about southern laziness and extravagance, particularly directed against the Greeks. Data from the OECD clearly shows that Greek workers put in more hours per year (an annual average of 2,109 hours worked) than other Europeans — and in particular the industrious Germans (1,419 per year).
Of course, it is easy to say that the number of hours spent at work and hours that are effectively utilised may not be the same, and that it is possible to spend half of a 12-hour day at the office looking up exotic recipes on the internet.
However, this type of argument invariably means that discussion becomes bogged down over the issue of productivity, which is more difficult to calculate because it depends on factors that bear no relation to the level of diligence (type of technology used, the quality of management, etc…)
Yet another fable has been circulated about retirement age in Greece. Eurostat figures show that the average retirement age in Greece, 61.7 years, is higher than it is in Germany or France. It is true that Greek civil servants can retire on half-pay after 17.5 years, but this is just a detail, isn’t it? Rumours about the “disproportionate size” of the Greek public sector are also contradicted by official figures. According to reports published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Greek civil servants account for 22.3% of the workforce, whereas this figure stands at 30% for France, 27% for the Netherlands, and 20% for the United Kingdom.
In one of his recent posts, blogger Costi Rogozanu has drawn attention to the demonisation of economic populism — which is defined as any form of opposition to neo-liberal policy — at a time when nationalist populism is increasingly glorified.
Industrious tax payers and austere Teutons
Strange as it may seem, there is nevertheless a neo-liberal economic form of populism also. In as much as populism establishes a fundamental opposition between the virtuous masses and a deficient minority, European neo-liberal discourse is a form of populism.
Stigmatising and inciting economic hatred of state “elites,” the “privileged beneficiaries” of welfare handouts, the extravagant Greeks and Italians, this discourse then contrasts these groups with a mass of industrious tax payers and austere Teutons. Neo-liberal economic populism identifies certain social segments, which it aggressively demonises and presents as a target for the anger of the masses, so as to avoid questioning the popular legitimacy of its own draconian policies.
While common or garden economic populism derives most of its force from the antipathy that occurs almost naturally between rich and poor, neo-liberal economic populism is more perverse: manipulating human impulses and weaknesses, which it channels in line with needs dictated by the markets.
Normally, poverty should inspire feelings of compassion. But neo-liberal economic populism succeeds in extirpating such sentiments, which are replaced by a mixture of anger and holier-than-thou revolt, expressed as a single order: get a job!
Underlying this process is the deliberate conflation of poverty and the absence of merit. In the same way that anti-neoliberal economic populism affirms that Wall Street speculators and bankers are parasites who do not deserve their salaries, neo-liberal populism insists that the poor and the retired are guilty of abuse because they depend on the wealth created by those who work.
Populist litanies and endless speculation about the lazy culprits who are responsible for the crisis bring to mind the situation which prevailed in early 19th century England. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, the emergence of capitalism led to an explosion of poverty. The issue of “the source” of this poverty became a major preoccupation.
Some of the causes identified among others were: the emergence of a new breed of extra large sheep, an excessive number of dogs, the excessive consumption of tea, which if it were outlawed would eradicate poverty. The real cause of the problem — invisible unemployment and changes resulting from industrial capitalism — escaped the attention of all of the observers of the period.
Perhaps in a century’s time, contemporary speculation about the laziness of Southern Europeans will appear as vain as these historical musings, which were superficial distractions designed to hide the emergence of threatening undercurrents in the ocean of history.
The right balance of populism and democracy
What is populism? For Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau, one of the leading theorists of populism, it is not a pejorative term but a neutral idea. In French daily Le Monde he explains that –
The word has today become a foil, somewhat like the word ‘democracy’ in 19th Century Europe. […] Populism is a way to build a politician. He plays the base against the top, the people against the elites, the masses against entrenched official institutions. Mussolini, like Mao, was a populist. As are Viktor Orbán and Hugo Chavez, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon today. […]
In western and eastern Europe, most of the populisms are on the right, from Silvio Berlusconi to Geert Wilders. For them, rejecting both immigration and multiculturalism, coupled with declarations of national identity, overshadow social demands. In Europe the working class has turned away from the established left, seen as too similar to free-market conservatives. […] A living democracy must be able to create a balance between institutions and popular demands, which are sometimes expressed through populism.