We have gone bankrupt


The Greek crisis and the problem of community


Philippe Theophanidis


In an essay titled ‘Exile (Italian Diary, 1992–94)’ Giorgio Agamben quotes the following words which English novelist E.M. Forster once attributed to the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy:

‘You English cannot understand us: we Greeks went bankrupt a long time ago’ (2000: 141) [1]

Agamben then makes the following comment, based on that quote:

I believe that one of the few things that can be declared with certainty is that, since then, all the peoples of Europe (and, perhaps, all the peoples of the Earth) have gone bankrupt. We live after the failure of peoples, just as Apollinaire would say of himself: ‘I lived in the time when the kings would die.’ Every people has had its particular way of going bankrupt, and certainly it does make a difference that for the Germans it meant Hitler and Auschwitz, for the Spanish it meant a civil war, for the French it meant Vichy, for other people, instead, it meant the quiet and atrocious 1950s, and for the Serbs it meant the rapes of Omarska; in the end, what is crucial for us is only the new task that such a failure has bequeathed us. Perhaps it is not even accurate to define it as a task, because there is no longer a people to undertake it. As the Alexandrian poet might say today with a smile: ‘Now, at last, we can understand one another, because you too have gone bankrupt.’ (2000: 141)

Two crucial elements in Agamben’s comment are worth highlighting in the context of the ongoing Greek debt crisis. Those elements are, as it will be suggested, intimately entangled with one another: the idea that ‘every people’ have gone bankrupt and the cryptic statement according to which we can now ‘understand one another’ precisely because of this common bankruptcy. The idea here is not to provide an in-depth analysis of the Greek debt crisis, nor to lament or to prescribe solutions, but more modestly to provide some remarks which may enable further thinking about the complex problem it constitutes for all people and not only for the Greeks. The central theme of the following explanation is the problem of our ontological togetherness or, in other words, the problem of community: the fact that humans, as beings in this world, are always already engaged toward each other, never totally in agreement, nor totally alone, but always constantly struggling to find a way to exist in common. Although the pretext for the following comments finds its source in Agamben’s quote, the material mobilized here is mostly drawn from the work of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.


A crisis of community

For the sake of the argument, let us temporarily trace the traditional distinction between the object and the subject of the crisis although, as it will soon be suggested, such a clear separation is actually blurred. The first observation then has to do with the object of the crisis: what it is all about.

The financial aspects which provide a global character to the issues at hand here are certainly the first and the easiest ones to grasp, at least in their general outline. They are also the ones which get the most exposure in the media. The problem of debt, for example, is indeed a problem of endemic proportions shared by a great number of nations. Although sovereign-debt and European nations have occupied much of the attention in recent years, the issue can also be traced to the United-States where it takes various forms. The 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, the student debt debacles and the sharp rise of the national debt in the past years (it has doubled since 2006) are all indicators that the problem is widespread and affects numerous systems in the nation, from the macro level to the micro level[2]. In Canada, the situation isn’t better: the ratio of household debt to personal income has jump from 66% in 1980 to 150% in 2011 (Chawla & Uppal, 2012). It is no coincidence that the very concept of debt has found a renewed interest in recent years[3]. One can also see how the perspective of an entire country defaulting on bond payments where the bonds are owned by a variety of transnational interests raises the threat of a rapid contagion of the crisis beyond the borders of a single national entity.

Those financial aspects all hint at the dynamic structure not of a single country, but of the entire contemporary world: its so-called globalization. After 9/11, it would have been a significant mistake to believe that what had happened was strictly an American event: in the months and years that followed, the effects of the attack unfolded in truly global proportions. When Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, planes were grounded all over Europe and we discovered with surprise how the volcanic activity in Iceland could have a noticeable impact all over the planet. When the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant was damaged by an earthquake followed by a disastrous tsunami in March of 2011, Americans on the West Coast rushed to buy anti-radiation tablets.

Jean-Luc Nancy recently called this phenomenon ‘l’équivalence des catastrophes’ (2012) This ‘equivalence of catastrophes’ does not mean that all catastrophes are the same or that they are equal. It means that in recent times, humanity has put itself in a situation where a catastrophe –natural or technological: the distinction is now blurred – is always and quite immediately felt as a global threat to human existence.

The Greek crisis certainly is a financial one, but both its causes and the chain of repercussions it provoked reach far beyond its financial implications. This fact is currently being illustrated by the significant social unrest that followed the extension of the bailout program back in November 2012[4]. The crisis therefore was never simply financial, for the sphere of economy does not evolve independently from the lives of human beings. This crisis has always also been –and still is– a coexistential crisis. In other words, it is concerned with global community: human beings trying more or less successfully to manage their coexistence throughout the world. A decade prior to his book about ‘the equivalence of catastrophes’, Jean-Luc Nancy had already pointed out the fact that the economic crisis was in fact the corollary to this problematic phenomenon of limitless globalization:

The enormous economic disequilibrium, that is to say the disequilibrium of life, of hunger, of dignity, of thought, is the corollary of the development of a world that is no longer reproducing itself (that no longer renews either its own existence, or its own meaning) but that produces an illimitation of its own worldness, in such a way as to appear able only either to implode or to explode (…) (2003: 27–28)

What is left is a global runaway process which is (or is about to become) uncontrollable, a process of which ‘bank runs’ are only but one of its numerous expressions. From this perspective, the object of the crisis –what is indeed in crisis– isn’t only financial markets: it is us.


A community crisis

As the first observation should already clearly suggest, the so called Greek debt crisis is not specifically a Greek crisis. That is, the subjects of the crisis –those who are experiencing it– are not the Greeks alone. This crisis certainly has its national specificities, but to a certain extent we are all engaged in it whether we are Greek or not. The crisis is shared as a community crisis. This point was made very clear in a collective statement about the Greek situation signed by a number of European intellectuals and published on February 2012:

It becomes more than urgent to demystify the racist insistence on the ‘Greek specificity’ that allegedly is the supposed national character of a people (laziness and cunning at will) the root cause of a crisis in global reality. What matters today is not the specifics, whether they are real or imaginary, but the common: the fate of a people that will affect all others. (Skoumbi et al., 2012) [5]

The world in its becoming-without-limits also has become incommensurable to our understanding. It presents itself with a meaning that seems to be more and more outside the reach of the kind of understanding human beings are capable of. This also is true of everyday life experiences. From the senseless questions asked by a customs officer to the complex structures regulating (or not) the market of government bonds, how many can say with assurance that they understand it all? Recent history provides examples of a wider scope. It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine the systematic killing of millions of human beings during the Second World war. Rationality is somehow at a loss when it comes to the immediate effects produced by the explosion of an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, on the sunny morning of August 6, 1945. One may know of numbers and detailed facts, but how is it possible to firmly grasp the meaning of those events? Reaching back to the Pythagoreans, Maurice Blanchot once linked this disruptive experience to the Greek tradition:

The Greek experience, as we reconstitute it, accords special value to the ‘limit’ and reemphasizes the long-recognized scandalousness of the irrational: the indecency of that which, in measurement, is immeasurable. (1995: 103)

And yet, our situation differs significantly from the discovery made around 500 B.C. by the Pythagoreans (Theophanidis, 2013). For them, it had to do with just that: a discovery. In contemporary times, human beings are actually producing the incommensurable: it is intimately associated with the actual forms and conditions of human togetherness[6]. This production, as it was suggested in the examples previously mentioned, is also a production of death. The global way of being-in-common is today characterized by the fact that it produces, in one way or another, death. In more succinct words, we are the objects of the the crisis we are producing as subjects. Therefore, the Greek debt crisis, before being a Greek crisis and before being a financial crisis, is first and foremost a crisis of the ‘we’ itself. How are ‘we’ –if such a thing can be said to exist– to find a way out of this situation, ‘we’ who have lost our way? There are no simple answers to this question, as we will see, for the problem is to a large extent caused by the very attempts which are made to resolve it. As it happens, the situation in Greece offers a worrying but exemplary illustration of this apparent contradiction.


The problem with solutions

The task of thinking the problem of community has been one of Jean-Luc Nancy’s foremost preoccupations since the early 80s. In his seminal essay ‘The Inoperative Community’[7], the French philosopher approached the idea of human coexistence in radically different way. He launched an ontological inquiry about the concept of community in order to try to understand what it means for human existence to be first and foremost coexistence. In doing so, he clearly showed how most major attempts to answer this problem have produced dangerous results. He thus developed an understanding of community that explicitly avoids traditional perspectives. His views explicitly reject ideologies (religious, political, humanist) and refuses the nostalgic longing for a more intimate community (be it the polis of ancient Greece, the christian community or Ferdinand Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft). Furthermore, his thoughts on community do not find answers in the worn out cliché of a human ‘social nature’ which is usually posited as an axiom rather than exposed as the issue it really is.

One could say that where Martin Heidegger sought to investigate the forgetfulness of being, Jean-Luc Nancy’s personal and ongoing efforts aim at investigating the forgetfulness of being-with[8]. He is concerned with the forgotten fact that being, for humans, is always already being-with-one-another. For Jean-Luc Nancy, in other words, before there is something –a subject, a humanity, even being itself– there is togetherness: everything happens and circulates between ‘us’. This ‘between’ in turn should not be understood as a third essence linking two terms:

This ‘between,’ as its name implies, has neither a consistency nor continuity of its own. It does not lead from one to the other; it constitutes no connective tissue, no cement, no bridge. (Nancy, 2000: 5)

The forgetting of this coexistential condition is twofold. First, it is the forgetting precisely that being-with-one-another is a condition before being a value, a meaning, or a property. Therefore, it must not be understood as a given solution or a positive quality (an essence, a substance). Second, it is the corollary forgetting that this coexistence, if it is to be thought of in and of itself (i.e. without being subordinated to a preexisting substantial subject or predicate) is a gap or a béance, as Nancy would often write, open to that which is not the same. Therefore, what defines our fundamental disposition toward one another is not a shared ground where we could gather in communion and disappear into a single totality, but rather a common groundlessness. In other words, we share the gap that separates us[9]. We are in circulation in this space, in a delicate equilibrium between conflating into a single fixed unity (one thing only) and being scattered into loneliness as unrelated particles (nothing at all).

When this fundamental groundlessness of humans’ coexistential condition is overlooked or forgotten, attempts are made to bring into reality a mode of being-together grounded or founded on some essential, shared quality. What Jean-Luc Nancy has demonstrated in ‘The Inoperative Community’ is how a community founded on the realization of, or the participation in, a shared essence creates the conditions for a being-in-common that actualizes itself in violence and ultimately in death. This shared essence can take various forms: a political allegiance, an ideological movement, a religious belief, an ethnic identification, financial practices, territorial considerations, etc. The worst of those attempts ended up in the deadliest forms of totalitarianism our history has ever witnessed[10]. Similar attempts are still being conducted today with extreme violence in various regions of the world [11]. Indeed, in this configuration, the community is defined as a class of individuals who share the same propriety or set of properties: the common is problematically defined by or identified with a proper[12]. This way of answering the problem of coexistence can only exist in so far as it nullifies everything which threatens its absoluteness, i.e. everything that is not proper to its ways of being-in-common. Such a form of togetherness, because it cannot open itself to relations without risking its immanent integrity, exists in a permanent state of war:

Such an incarnation of humanity, aggregating its absolute being beyond relation and community, depicts the destiny willed by modern thought. We shall never escape the ‘unappeasable combat’ as long as we remain unable to protect community from this destiny. (Nancy, 1991: 5)

In Greece, the fact that similar solutions are attempted is perhaps most worriedly illustrated by the recent rise of the right-wing extremist party Golden Dawn, which currently holds 16 seats in the Hellenic Parliament (out of 300) (Hellenic Parliament, 2014). The solutions proposed by the party to fight unemployment are largely based on the promotion of a strong ethno-national identity. The Greek community will cure itself, the rhetoric goes, if it fights the threat immigrants are believed to represent. This so-called answer to the crisis, far from solving it, breeds extremely violent actions mostly perpetrated by Golden Dawn party members, but also against them. Hate crimes, beatings, bombings: it is factions against factions, communities against communities in a mode of being-together that is inherently self-destructive in spite of the fact that it is promoted to save this very mode of being-together. From this perspective, those solutions appears to be irresolvable internal contradictions: expression of the crisis rather than ways of addressing it. They are not simply problematic, they are aporetical.


Experiencing the aporetic community: the smile of the Alexandrian poet

It should be stressed that this aporetic mode of being-together is far from being exclusive to the action of the Golden Dawn party. In order to protect the financial integrity of the European Union, Greece is currently facing politics of austerity of such proportion that they threaten the life of a large part of its population. Under those conditions, the realization of this so-called union by the means of an alleged financial rescue seriously raises the risk of a destructive disunion. In the turmoil that ensues, various groups turn against each other in dramatic confrontations: students, workers, policemen, bankers, politicians, party members, etc. Nor is this motif exclusive to right-wing politics: the fact that the crisis is common –as suggested earlier– also means that it is shared by the entire political spectrum. It is present in each attempt to form an association, a party, a community, for the process of inclusion drives on a process of exclusion[13]. In his book Aporias Jacques Derrida offers this cautionary advice:

When someone suggests to you a solution for escaping an impasse, you can be almost sure that he is ceasing to understand, assuming that he had understood anything up to that point. (1993: 32)

The Greek debt crisis is without a doubt a burden especially for those who suffers directly from its effect. What should be clear however, is how even greater a danger lies in the implementation of expedite solutions brought forward by groups of interest of all horizons which not only failed to address the aporetical nature of the issues at hand, but by doing so worsen it to a lethal degree. Therefore, and parallel to the financial aspects of the Greek debt-crisis, this aporetic situation must be taken into careful consideration if more destruction is to be avoided :

This work of thinking is imposed on us by a terrible motif that the history of our (because it is ours) century holds out to us incessantly, to the point that the memory of it is as tiring as it is inevitable. Humanity—but first of all in Europe—has shown an unsuspected talent for self-destruction, in the name of community. (Nancy, 2010 : 101)

It is now time to go back to Cavafy’s comment and Giorgio Agamben’s reading of it, for this talent for self-destruction is precisely our common bankruptcy. It is a bankruptcy which does not translate strictly into financial losses, but also into death (Agamben mentions Auschwitz, the Spanish civil wars, French collaboration, Omarska). It is a bankruptcy that is not proper to the Greeks, but common to all human beings (‘every people’ says Agamben, ‘had its particular way of going bankrupt’). It is also a bankruptcy, one could add, that is caused and maintained by all the measures deployed to deal with it. It is the bankruptcy of human community. This is very much in line with the etymology of the word ‘community’ itself (com + munus), as Roberto Esposito has shown:

As the complex though equally unambiguous etymology that we have till now undertaken demonstrates, the munus that the communitas shares isn’t a property or a possession [appartenenza]. It isn’t having, but on the contrary, is a debt, a pledge, a gift that is to be given, and that therefore will establish a lack. (2010: 6)

Therein lies, I believe, the meaning of Agamben’s last sentence.

As the Alexandrian poet might say today with a smile: ‘Now, at last, we can understand one another, because you too have gone bankrupt.’ (2000: 141)

We may very well have failed –gone bankrupt– in regard to our ability to ground our coexistence on some shared quality, but this failure nevertheless remains ours. That’s what we ultimately have in common, in spite of everything: not a thing precisely, nor some value or an identity, but the forgetting of the groundlessness of our being-in-common which we have translated into a talent for self-destruction. The task of addressing this forgotten condition in order to avoid self-destruction is what we have imposed on ourselves through our contemporary mode of coexistence.

If we accept, as a ‘we’, to face this condition as such –i.e. not to forget about it– it could very well allow us to ‘understand one another’, as Agamben writes. This wouldn’t necessarily mean however that we should expect to find in this understanding a mode of togetherness cleaned of all forms of conflicts and oppositions, of all relations of power. Such a desire was expressed in some of the slogans used during various protests in Greece recently: ‘για την κοινωνία / οχι για την εχουσία’. Jean-Luc Nancy’s argument belongs to a long tradition of thinking for which conflict plays an important role in human interactions. What should be clear by now is how important the task has become to think about forms of life that would allow us to face each other in the gap that separates us without letting this confrontation transform into destruction:

That this confrontation with self may be a law of being-in-common and its very meaning, this is what is on the task sheet for the work of thought— immediately accompanied by this other project of thought: that the confrontation, in grasping the fact of itself, grasps the fact that mutual destruction destroys all the way along to the very possibility of confrontation, and with that destruction the possibility of being-in-common or being-with. (Nancy, 2003: 25)

Furthermore, it should be acknowledged that this task, really, is without end. It is never to be resolved –by abiding to already given solutions– but continuously put to examination, relentlessly assessed, always confronted and reinvented in order for it not to be taken for granted and forgotten again. This is, one could argue following Jean-Luc Nancy, the nature of our contemporary being-in-common: living together is what happens when we’re collectively trying to figure out how to do it.

Aporia is usually understood as an impasse or a dead end: a situation from which there is no way out. However, maybe the question is not about finding a given route out of the groundlessness of our coexistential condition in the first place. This would still mean an attempt to close the gap or to ground the groundlessness with solutions that are already familiar and available to us, with the destructive results we have seen. It would still mean to try to realize some idea (if not some ideal) of a way of being together that is already given, finished, and therefore closed to future transformations (closed to what would not be proper to it).

The challenge instead could be about experiencing the groundlessness as the opening that is our being-together as such. From this perspective, experiencing the aporia of community, as we are now, could involve creating or inventing a journey where no preexisting path exists, a journey that would not be pre-established in advance –no real journey is– but that should continuously remain open to unknown negotiation and transformation[14]. The ‘place’ for this community, then, would be a movement without end, an odyssey without Ithaque, toward something that has not yet been hoped for or dreamed of.

What is offered if we are to accept this radical opening toward what has yet to become is not hope, but despair. However, despair here is not to be reduced to a negative affect. It is to be understood as the attitude which, in the absence of hope in things already defined, remains open to possibilities that have yet to be thought. Similarly, what is exposed under those circumstances are not solutions, but uncertainties. But then again, as Jean-Luc Nancy once wrote, ‘Where certainties come apart, there too gathers the strength that no certainty can match’ (1997: 152)

This is the reason, I would like to believe, why the Alexandrian poet in Giorgio Agamben last comment may have nonetheless been smiling.




  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 17 (09.2014)