Robert Appelbaum,  March 5, 2015

A Work in Progress

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Photo by Marion Appelbaum
/ Marion Appelbaum

It took about thirty years for the major temples of the Acropolis in Athens to be built in the fifth century BCE. It has been forty years since the Acropolis Restoration Project was founded, and it is not known when its work will be completed. What the casual visitor sees on the Acropolis today is as much a construction site as a monument, and access to the inside of the temples is forbidden.

I was lucky enough to see the Acropolis in 1975, before the work began, and so I know what it feels like to walk across the ruins of the floor of the Parthenon, which was heavily damaged by Venetian bombardments in 1687. When any visitors will be able to experience this vertiginous encounter with ancient history again is hard to tell.

Trying to understand Greece’s economic problems from 2008 to today is quite a challenge, for while the problem is, in a word, economic, it encompasses a lot of other things for which economics cannot provide an answer. Going over economists’ studies today, looking for answers, and comparing Greece yesterday and today, I see a discipline that has lost its bearings.

So many theorems and theories, so many demonstrations and statistical tables, and so little sense: in almost every study or argument, it is apparent that the economist imagines certain assumptions to be incontrovertible truths, but which are obviously the products of ideology and disciplinary convenience. The results are notorious. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith was saying the same thing in the 1950s—but Galbraith was respected more by the public and his political allies than by his professional colleagues.

There has been a pushback lately by that rare breed of creatures, left-wing or “liberal” economists. Curiously, a team of German economists have recently ascribed that pushback, with its idea that “austerity has failed,” especially onto “commentators” of “the Anglo-Saxon world and in the European periphery.” What a choice of words! In the words themselves, where adversarial economists are called “commentators,” where people who speak English are called “Anglo-Saxons” (tell that to my late Ukrainian-Jewish grandmother) and where people in Greece and Spain (and maybe even France) are located on a “periphery,” one can see that something more than cool reason is at work in the economists’ observations.

To a humanist like me, the main flaw in the economics profession is its addiction to quantitative system theory. Economists study economic systems, either on the macro or micro level. Looking at numbers, they talk about inevitabilities, necessary measures, probable outcomes, absolute “fundamentals,” easily projected “rates of return,” and most important (as Galbraith stressed), universal “conditions for growth.”

What economists seldom talk about is history—and by that I mean not just the history of business cycles and the systems that frame them, but the history of people. Instead of remarking that something has happened, the economist is more likely to say this happens. Instead of saying, in the past, the economist often says, under such conditions—as if such conditions will continually be the same, and have always been the same. Whether economists are for or against “austerity,” they are positioning their ideas with respect to a policy and a set of conditions that are always taken to be mathematically the same, whatever the immediate circumstances. And so austerity in Greece in 2015 is the same as austerity in Germany in 1950; although with the difference that Germany’s creditors eventually forgave the country’s debts in the interest of rebuilding it as an economic power.

This is not to say that there are not valuable uses for economists and economic thought. Somebody has to add up the numbers. Somebody has to decide how much money a government should print, or how much money should be put aside for a pension. And somebody has to calculate the costs for building a road or bombing a foreign enemy. But one of the most refreshing things about economist Yanis Varoufakis, the current Minister of Finance for Greece, is that he understands the world historically.

Varoufakis’s book, The Global Minotaur, is not a masterpiece of economic science. It is a popular book in the tradition of several of John Kenneth Galbraith’s major works, critiquing what Galbraith was the first to call “conventional wisdom.” (Not coincidentally, one of Varoufakis’s closest allies is James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas, the late economist’s son, and a pioneer in inequality studies.) But whatever its limitations, The Global Minotaur is keen to show how modern capitalism has operated as a historically situated institution, whose arrival was recent and contingent and whose survival is uncertain.

Varoufakis and his colleagues in government are working earnestly at once to placate the European powers and to address the needs of their people—many of whom aren’t happy with their making concessions to those powers. There may be some hope for Varoufakis, according to Nick Malkoutzis, a Greek journalist, and Paul Krugman, the Keynesian economist and columnist, who think that Greece has made an advance in its negotiating position. Greece has bought some time, and concessions about its aims for the future. But as the Acropolis will never be what it was, even after restoration, Greece will never be what it was. Nor will the European Union. But for Varoufakis and his supporters, that’s a good thing.

Robert Appelbaum is professor of English Literature at Uppsala University, Sweden. His most recent book is Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption (Zero).

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