Not understanding Greece

This crisis (I’ll call it that. There are better words but this one has a Greek origin) makes you think doesn’t it? It makes you think, among other things, about what a country is, how we see other countries, how they see us. For example, the massive, inarticulate bloody-mindedness of the Greek protestors looks, well, bloody-minded. Also hopeless, doomed, pathetic (in the strict sense). But similar protests here in Britain look more complex, less random, less counterproductive (also more polite, of course – the Greeks look less inclined to line their tents up tidily when asked).

But there’s the point, of course. my perception of the Greeks in crisis is faulty – partial, unhelpful. And it’s likely that the Greek perspective on the British response to the crisis and on our rather decorous ‘occupy’ movement (feature in yesterday’s Standard about an occupy protester who commutes from her tent to a job at Harper’s Bazaar) is just as screwed up.

So, whatever you say about the decades of ‘creeping federalism’, one thing it hasn’t achieved is any measure of mutual understanding between the partner nations.

For all our economic interdependence and our unlimited interconnection, we know as little about each other as we did when the ‘European project’ was mostly about not being eaten by a bear while foraging for berries in the great continental forest.

And anyway, these countries we’re obsessed with are probably the wrong unit of human culture to be thinking about. Jane Jacobs, brilliant urbanist and self-taught economist of cities, was convinced that the deepening decline she observed in the developed economies up till her death in 1984 (that’s the decline that we thought was gone for good until about three years ago) was the result of our fixation on the nation state.

Nations are political and military entities, and so are blocs of nations. But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure, the reasons for the rise and decline of wealth. Indeed the failure of national governments and blocs of nations to force economic life to do their biddingsuggests some form of essential irrelevance. It also affronts common sense, if nothing else, to think of units as disparate as, say, Singapore and the United States, or Ecuador and the Soviet Union, or the Netherlands and Canada, as economic common denominators. All they really have in common is the political fact of sovereignty.

From Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life.

It looks like tying together a bloc of impossibly different nations – nations which were already arbitrary fusions of regional and city economies – to make a continuous economic entity failed and now the rather desparate fantasy is emerging that going back to the old, equally irrelevant national sovereignties will in some way help.

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