Why Greeks should be unhappy about the government’s ‘happiness’ agenda
Story #1: For the last two years, Greece has been experiencing a massive financial and social crisis. The social-democratic government, under the custody of ‘Troika’ (the International Monetary Fund, European Union and the Central European Bank) has been imposing austerity measures unprecedented in the history of Western World. In an application of Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’, almost every week harsh new taxes, wage reductions and deregulation of the social state are announced, leading even commentators once loyal to the political elite to declare an ‘Indian-isation’ or ‘China-isation’ of Greece. Social reactions are met by fierce police repression; and politicians constantly affirm the mantra that ‘we are all in this together’. Our greed created this mess – it’s pay-back time. The ‘party’ of affluence is over, they say. What we need are social, economic and moral changes.
Story #2: Some decades ago, Bhutan, a third world country in the Himalayas, decided that measuring GNP was incompatible with the country’s Buddhist national ideology. They decided instead to measure GNH, or ‘Gross National Happiness’, which would be achieved through the promotion of a number of ‘pillars’ of happiness including cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. While often presented as a unique abode of anti-materialist values, and even an example to be followed, what is not often mentioned is that in the pursuit of ‘cultural values’, Bhutan actually purged large numbers of its lower social strata and ethnic minorities. This adversely affected the GDP and certainly caused a great deal of human misery. Nonetheless, the King assured his subjects that it was for their own well-being, and further, that the GNH had actually risen as a result.
What is clear here is the danger of official definitions of happiness: one day you might find yourself on the government sanctioned path to happiness, whether you like it or not.
It seems that the Greek citizens are on a path to IMF sanctioned happiness. However, figures being released- that suicides have risen by 40% and a further 25% are considering suicide as a way out of their financial difficulties – seem to contradict Vice President Pangalos’ assertion that the IMF austerity package is ‘happiness’ for Greece and a means for Greeks to get rid of their greedy past. But could it be that Greeks have simply lost sight of what is really important? Could gaining a better understanding of how to really be happy be the answer to the current situation?
Over the past decade, campaigners in the English speaking world have begun to promote the idea that happiness is less and less linked to the objective conditions of life and that unhappiness is simply a problematic state of mind. People, experts say, can be taught to be happy. Their core teaching is that money and material wealth is not what matters most. Essentially, money can be left to the rich. If society, unjust though it may be, has deprived us of material wealth, all the more reason to find peace in our inner self and find happiness in non-material values and experiences. In the Greek media, voices are increasingly calling for us to re-estimate our values in the light of the crisis. Alienation from our true selves, they tell us, is the principle pathogen, rather than scarcity and social misery.
Greece therefore could be an experimental vacuum not only for the IMF’s policies, but also for the application of some ‘happiness therapies’ that will show us that ‘eudaimonia’- the ancient Greek word for well-being- may not be found in material wealth, but other in factors, abundant in Greece: family ties, a ‘back to the countryside and the agriculture’ movement, the wise use of competitive advantages like the Greek sun, the famous Greek hospitality, and so on.
Does this approach give any hope to the devastated Greek society? Or is it just a clever means of switching from the riot police’s baton to the expertise of the ‘happiness’ advocates who will give people a lesson in apathy when social gains of decades are lost in front of their eyes? Are we unhappy due to our financial misery, or have we become accustomed to a greedy mentality and missed the key held by these enlightened individuals to true happiness? Or is there something very odd at play when anarchist graffiti bears a striking resemblance to Citibank’s 2005 slogan that ‘Happiness (Ευτυχία) is written with an E, not an €’?
The timing of such arguments should alarm us. Throughout the financial crisis, there has been a great deal of propaganda, globally, which has attempted to moralise the problem. It was the greedy bankers that caused this mess, they tell us. It is down to bad people doing bad things and nothing endemic to the capitalist system itself. In Greece, it was not the circumstances of an irrational economic development with a sometimes parasitic national capital, but the laziness of the Greek people, or the dishonesty of tax evaders and maybe some corrupted politicians that brought us here. This attitude calls to mind ideological rationales of the ex-Soviet Union’s economic failures in the 1930s: it was not a malfunction of the socialist building strategy, but a temporary failure due to saboteurs and traitors. Accordingly, a bit of moral rehabilitation would solve the problem.
It seems obvious that an elite-constructed moralization of the financial collapse in Greece is being attempted, part of which is this ‘we’re taking your money – for your own good – and now you can deal with things that really matter in life’ ideological package. This is a prospect that has to be fought by all means. A social warfare operation against the standard of our lives can have only one even worse follow-up: an ideological total warfare against our minds.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Nikos Sotirakopoulos is a PhD student and research assistant at the University of Kent, Canterbury. He is producing the Battle of Ideas Satellite session Is Greece ready for a dose of happiness? organised in partnership with the Hellenic American Union, which takes place in Athens on Tuesday 25 October.Tagged in: finance, greece, opinion
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