The Politics of Austerity and the Ikarian Dream

As a long-time fan of the leisurely aspect of European culture, I am always thrilled whenever it makes its way onto the radar screens of Americans, who are, it’s clear, grievously overworked by comparison. Too often, images of Europe are portrayed in the context of a grim new “common sense” about the European lifestyle that say it is (a) an unsustainable anachronism and (b) onerous and not something Americans would want anyway. When more celebratory images of Euroleisure emerge, I like to think that Americans wonder why we can’t have what European workers have successfully pressed for—long vacations, relatively short hours of work, and the generous social wage that makes free time enjoyable rather than stressful. And when Americans start asking themselves these questions, all kinds of liberatory possibilities open up. In the context of the current continental battle over austerity, which is more than anything a speed-up imposed on the European lifestyle, these images and their reception here in America become especially important.


This is why the buzz around one recent article in particular really warmed my heart. On October 24, 2012, the New York Times Magazine profiled a small Greek island where, as the title proposes, “People Forget to Die.” The author investigates the extraordinary health and longevity of the residents of the island Ikaria, and finds that their secret is pretty simple—in addition to eating a plant-based, legume-heavy, locally sourced, generally organic diet, the residents of Ikaria are just amazingly relaxed.


Ikarians have no alarm clocks; they start the day when they wake up. They work at a leisurely pace and take long lunch breaks and daily naps. Meals are always an occasion for socializing and wine. Life, according to this profile, is relatively carefree and filled with the pleasures of friends and family. The Ikarians’ relationship to time is the polar opposite of ours. A typical resident is quoted: “People stay up late here…we wake up late and always take naps. I don’t even open my office until 11 a.m. because no one comes before then.” He took a sip of his wine. “Have you noticed that no one wears a watch here? No clock is working correctly. When you invite someone to lunch, they might come at 10:00 AM or 6:00 PM. We simply don’t care about the clock here.”


The article points out that the typical Ikarian has never really experienced the stress of being late.


In terms of the incredible longevity of the Ikarian people, there are a number of interlocking factors at work: exercise and healthful food; a feeling of communal solidarity leaves no one at the mercy of isolation and loneliness (unlike in the U.S., where we warehouse our elderly in grim wards); everyone gardens and walks a lot, but, most important is the simple fact that the central pursuit of Ikarians seems to be enjoying life. Where Ikarians make pleasure—relaxing, eating, and drinking wine with friends, dancing—the center of their lives, Americans have accepted the idea that relaxation and pleasure must be marginal to the real center of life—paid labor and its associated stresses.


The differential effects in terms of health and happiness are clear. The article begins with a story of an Ikarian immigrant to the U.S. who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, moved back to the island, stopped stressing and started hanging out with his old friends, and regained his health. Here in the U.S., we see this kind of lifestyle as “unrealistic.” What is realistic to Americans, though, is actually quite unreasonable—overwork, stress, and an epidemic of preventable disease. Maybe it’s time to rethink our definition of realistic.


The Ikaria profile was the second-most emailed and tweeted about article in the magazine during all of 2012. The affluent, nutrition-obsessed sector of Americans was quick to consume other articles, like “How to Eat Like an Ikarian.” The BBC did a story on Ikaria in the wake of the Times piece. And although almost all of the online commentary waxed nostalgic about this seemingly idyllic, pre-modern lifestyle, not one commenter made the connection between the Ikarian lifestyle and the struggle currently raging in Greece.


Which is strange, given the fact that it’s a more modern and cosmopolitan version of just the kind of relaxed lifestyle identified in the Ikaria article that is precisely the object of the European banking troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF) and its insanely punishing austerity policies. The very week that the Ikaria article came out, the Times coverage of the Greek crisis included a story on the attempt by the troika to link changes in Greek labor law to a new round of so-called “aid” from the ECB (85 percent of which goes to recapitalize banks, not to the people who are made to pay for it). In exchange for billions of euros that will keep Greece tied to its European lenders, the government is to continue to sell off public assets, raise taxes, raise the retirement age, cut pensions and public services, and “streamline” “rigid” labor laws that keep the country from being “competitive.”


In the midst of the heated negotiations going on between the Greek government (tilted leftward since last summer’s elections) and the troika, the Greek people continue to demonstrate and resist. Sadly, the American people—potential allies similarly subject to policies of public-sector austerity and the imperatives of private-sector “competitiveness” (also known as profitableness for corporations and banks)—seem to be buying the bankers’ analysis of the crisis in the Euro zone. According to this analysis, the Greeks in the streets striking and rioting against this punishment are somehow being unreasonable. This logic insists that they should stop complaining, suck it up, and get to work.


It’s not surprising: all of the “legitimate,” supposedly unbiased news sources approach the issue with the same tone of disdain for the Greeks, who, in this narrative, actually caused the entire European crisis with their “lazy, profligate ways.” According to the story told by the New York Times, NPR, and the rest of the mainstream media, Greece lied its way into the Eurozone, borrowed beyond its means, blew all the money, and is now refusing to work off its debts.


This story of a lazy and irresponsible culture is best told by influential lightweight Michael Lewis in his Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. His chapter on Greece, disparagingly titled “And They Invented Math,” identifies Greek dishonesty and overborrowing as the problem, and Greeks buckling down to pay the piper as the only possible solution: “But this question of whether Greece will repay its debts is really a question of whether Greece will change its culture and that will happen only if Greeks want to change.” Lewis calls what’s happening in Greece in the wake of the crisis a “total moral collapse” of the society and ends the chapter with a crescendo: “Even if it is technically possible for these people to repay their debts, live within their means and return to good standing inside the European Union, do they have the inner resources to do it? Or have they so lost their ability to feel connected to anything outside their small worlds that they would rather just shed the obligations?”


The only major challenge to this obnoxious discussion in the mainstream media has come from reliably Keynesian leftish economist and NYT columnist Paul Krugman, who, importantly, corrects the narrative regarding the responsibility of the European banks for the crisis in Greece, but only at the expense of leaving Greek culture out of the matter entirely. And, it seems to me, the culture of the Greek working class is precisely the point.


Although Krugman mistakenly takes the austerity hounds at their word that the policies are therapeutic rather than disciplinary—even in the face of the reality that austerity is actually increasing Greek debt by shrinking the economy—he points out some basic facts that everyone should understand: “Fifteen years ago Greece was no paradise, but it wasn’t in crisis either. Unemployment was high, but not catastrophic, and the nation more or less paid its way on world markets, earning enough from exports, tourism, shipping, and other sources to more or less pay for its imports.” 


In other words, before central bankers in Germany and France decided that money could be made by bringing Greece and other mellow European countries into the Euro, Greece was fine. Unemployment was relatively high, but unemployment is a far less threatening matter when extended families live together, government pensions are generous, and “unemployed youth” are happily sipping coffee at the café with their friends all day. “Greek culture” simply wasn’t anybody’s problem, in fact, it was a major tourist draw. The country basically had enough to pay its own way and distribute its surplus however its internal class struggle determined. Which was, given the militance of the Greek working class, pretty generous as far as the people were concerned. This was never anyone else’s business, until Greece joined the Euro, was flooded with cheap money, and spent it. Now, the logic goes, the Greeks must suffer for their sins.


Anthropologist and Occupy movement member David Graeber, in his 2011 Debt: The First 5,000 Years, lays out the ways in which debt has traditionally been used by those in power to accomplish two things: to make people work and to create markets. This was especially true of the European colonial powers taxing their subjects, but Graeber’s analysis traces this dynamic to the economic beginnings of the colonial powers themselves. Debt has always been used as a mechanism to bring people to heel.


Today’s massive lending and its aftermath—the drying up of credit—is having precisely this effect. Like the Third World debt that preceded it, Greek debt is a means to compel the Greek people to work harder and longer now that the Euro has linked the largely self-sufficient Greek economy to the larger market of Europe much more intensely. Cheap money and economic integration encouraged Greece to import all kinds of new goodies as well as necessities like food that used to be produced at home, and the withdrawal of credit by international markets is, as we are all witness to today, resulting in a punishing burden of austerity, the object of which is twofold.


First, austerity in public budgets means that public services become unsustainable and selling them off to the highest private bidder seems the only possibility—sound familiar? From water to airports to government services, the Greeks are indeed being pressured to sell off public assets to pay their bills. So creating indebtedness is, in this case and others, a privatization strategy, attempting to transform public goods into privately profitable ones. Second, the artificially-produced scarcity that austerity policies induce functions as a means to compel populations to work—and work harder. Scarcity breeds desperation and desperation kills cultures like the one in Ikaria, in which people work to live instead of living to work. So indebtedness and the austerity that results leave only two possibilities for its subjects: stop enjoying life and start hustling to work off the debt—or resist.


In light of all this, Krugman’s analysis of Greece as victim of the Euro and his resulting anti-austerity position, is a welcome corrective to the moralizing about Greek culture that stands in for economic analysis in the American mainstream press. It can help Americans to understand that the Greeks didn’t break Europe. If anything, Europe broke the Greeks. Thus, it’s not really fair to extract payment for northern European lenders off the backs of the Greek people.


However, Krugman’s position discounts the cultural question to avoid “blaming the victim,” but at the expense of understanding the important contours of the struggle. The class struggle, in Greece and elsewhere, rages between the logic of capital, on one side, and, on the other, the counterlogic of the working class, which dreams of life on Ikaria, among other things. Culture is central to the economic battle raging in Greece and around the world; in fact, the culture of leisure and pleasure and people’s autonomy over their own time is precisely what opposes the imperatives of capital to make every moment of life and every iota of life into a means to the end of profit.


The story of the struggle against austerity in Greece, and the attitude that similarly-situated Americans ought to have toward Greek resistance, can best be understood when we’re thinking about how smart the Ikarians are to enjoy their lives with friends, food, wine, and plenty of rest and sunshine and how stupid we are to waste our precious lives stressed out and working ourselves to death. Gardening your own food is not for everyone, and many of us prefer big-city life to the old-fashioned village. But these are cultural preferences that come to the fore when people are free to constitute time on their own terms. The Ikarians are an image of a culture that privileges pleasure over labor and that’s the key political point, in Europe and beyond.


Simply put, there is a hidden politics to Ikarian culture that goes unmentioned in the New York Times Magazine, that Ikaria is one of the most consistently communist-voting blocs in all of Greece, and among the most militant in resisting the new taxation schemes designed to pay bank debts out of the peoples’ incomes, which are already estimated to be down by 30-40 percent.


In tracing the origins of capitalism, Marx explains the centrality of human desperation to the ability of capital to generate profit, that is, to exist. From the British enclosure movements that privatized common village lands and thus left the peasants little choice but to look for work to survive, to the contemporary privatization of public goods all over the world, especially in the U.S. (frequently framed as a result of the necessity to pay back debt). Capital needs a population with nothing but their labor-power to sell on the market in order to have a reliable, reliably profitable, working class. Artificially created scarcity breeds docile workers; austerity is the creation of this scarcity. Overworked, stressed-out Americans would do well to understand how much the fight against austerity is our fight too.


This is also the story of what’s happening in Greece right now. George Caffentzis explains it best: “This experiment [austerity] is being run because the last century of social and class struggle in Europe has made the rate of exploitation and profit too low for capitalists in the Europe of the 21st century. The introduction of the Euro a decade ago was a failed experiment aimed at increasing the profitability of European capital (i.e., capital employed in Europe). It has been a grave disappointment to capitalists. The currency manipulation and the cutting of ‘transaction costs’ the euro allowed were not able to challenge the structures that workers over many strikes, street demonstrations, and eventually war have built to make their lives safer, less risky and longer (and cut the profits of their bosses).


“For European capitalism to survive this period of globalization, wages must be reduced, public property, instead of becoming common, must be privatized. Whatever wealth workers have accumulated to deal with emergencies must be taxed away to pay the national debt that has been generated to prevent bank failures. Workers of all sorts, industrial and service, skilled and unskilled, undocumented and documented, material and immaterial must be made to cut their demands and accept the minimum (with thanks!). This crisis experiment is a desperate move on the part of the capitalists, of course, but its success depends on treating each country and working class one-at-a-time and keeping them separated as much as possible.” 


 One way to keep the working class of each country separated is to make sure that they never see their struggles as one and the same. The manipulation of the German public into us-and-them with the Greeks has been a victory for the ruling class on this front. The increasing popularity of the fascist anti-immigrant right wing in Greece itself is a troubling—if not exactly surprising—result of us-and-them divisions. However, the rejection of this strategy by the French, who decisively refused the divisive politics of austerity and its scapegoating of the Greeks in their spring 2012 presidential election was a victory for anti-austerity forces and the solidarity they require. A recent daylong continent-wide general strike to protest austerity policies is an exciting sign that the European working class is resisting the divide-and-conquer strategy of the capitalist class.


What the anti-austerity forces need now is for the Americans to see their own budding struggles—for the eradication of student debt and for a restoration of decimated public services especially—as part of an international movement. Painting the Greek people as “irresponsible” for refusing the austerity that would make them desperate and thus docile workers, while encouraging Americans to identify with the interests of corporations, banks, and the seemingly impartial “economic growth,” has been a pretty effective cultural strategy to subvert this potential solidarity.


Americans ought to read articles like the one about the health and happiness of the Ikarian people with the understanding that the goal of capitalist austerity is precisely to bring an end to these last places of freedom, to make us all believe that it’s simply not realistic, that killing ourselves working rather than enjoying life with friends and family and good food and wine and dancing, is the way life just has to be.


I submit that Americans will only have a fighting chance in the face of this attack if they take impulses like the happy fascination with the people of Ikaria and translate them into a politics of life and freedom against the austerity for the working class that makes profit for corporations.



Kristin Lawler is Assistant Professor of Sociology at The College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City and the author of The American Surfer: Radical Culture and Capitalism, 2011.