There is no better way to drain the lifeblood of politics than by claiming that the future is not a matter of choice: that the shape and direction of our societies are predetermined and that, whether or not we like the way things are going, there is nothing we can do about it.
Of course, it is equally absurd to suggest that politicians and the constituents who elect them have an absolute freedom of decision, especially at this late stage of the nation state’s decline, when trans-national economic trends often set the tone for national politics.
But the pitch fatalism has reached in the latest political discourses in Southern Europe has exceeded all conceivable limits of pragmatic sobriety. The sense is that the most crucial resolutions on the people’s welfare are passed elsewhere, far removed from those who have to live with their consequences.
What we are told is that the capriciousness of world markets, the conjuncture of the global economic events, and the external non-representative and non-elected members of the Troika (composed of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) hold the power to decide on major national issues. They can now dictate by how much taxes should rise and salaries should fall, to determine a later retirement-age or to impose cuts on national healthcare and welfare systems.
The choice is framed in apocalyptic tones: either accept the demands of the Troika or fall into sheer chaos, bankruptcy, institutional collapse and the abyss. The decision is between a controlled (and preferably quiet: not too much whining, please!) descent into poverty for a vast majority of the population and a headlong suicidal plunge toward default. Simply put, there is not much of a choice.
A disconcerting naturalisation of the economic crisis lurks in the background of these formulations. The crisis is construed as though it were a natural disaster, similar to an earthquake or a tornado. In this scenario, politicians portray their actions as damage control in the wake of an unavoidable, devastating natural phenomenon. The across-the-board cuts of social programmes, salaries, education, healthcare and so forth can finally be accepted as a fait accompli, the one and only possible response to a brute piece of unalterable reality. Political action is transformed into a mechanical reaction.
“We are currently witnessing how the strategy of fatalistic demotivation can easily backfire on those interested in promoting it and turn into tragic, often violent action against the dictates of Fortuna.”
All that is left is for us to bow before the goddess Fortuna and to come to terms with the new role of national governments as the semi-divine mediators between her and the faithful subjects. At least, this must be Mariano Rajoy’s fantasy of the Spanish “silent majority”, that is, those “responsible” enough to abdicate their political responsibility and not to participate in the massive street protests that have been intensifying of late. For, how much more pleasant and reassuring it is to think that you are listening to the sound of silence when you are, in fact, deaf!
Laughable as it is, the symbolic relegation of sovereignty to fate is nothing new. It has always been the preferred ploy of rulers who wished to convey to those they governed that the final authority did not really rest in them but in something higher: God, the Nation, or other such chimeras. Now, across Southern Europe, that “something” is the ultima ratio of the naturalised crisis, wrapped in the trappings of Fortuna, an inexorable collective fate determined by a new Trinitarian God: the Troika itself.
No doubt, a part of the problem has to do with the general feeling of hopelessness that pervades today’s social and political landscape. But the other, more significant side of the story is that the aggressive neoliberal agenda of privatisation and the dismantling of the welfare state proceed no longer in the name of ideology but, presumably, due to the weight of the circumstances that crush us with the non-negotiable force of the real. Where possibility and the future it stands for succumb to the seemingly inexorable demands of reality, the old adage “there is no other way” imperceptibly displaces the utopian “another world is possible”.
Collective fatalism is not foreign to the outlook of Southern Europeans. In Portugal, for instance, it is not at all uncommon to shrug off the most upsetting events with a brief verdict of melancholy acceptance, “that’s life, é a vida“. But it is one thing to pronounce this sentence on a small personal misfortune and quite another thing to use it as a basis for (or, at least, as a justification of) a state’s fiscal policy and budgetary programmes.
The other, more promising side of Southern European fatalism is a predilection for “the tragic sense of life“, as Spanish author Miguel de Unamuno famously put it. The key difference is that, unlike fatalists, tragic heroes do not give up in the face of fate; rather, they act against all odds and knowing full well that Fortuna could undo their efforts.
We are currently witnessing how the strategy of fatalistic demotivation can easily backfire on those interested in promoting it and turn into tragic, often violent action against the dictates of Fortuna. It suffices to recall the protests in Spain, Greece and Portugal over the last few weeks and months to observe this transformation.
Humans are not indifferent beings, which means that something else is boiling just below the surface of their fatalism. Indeed, the extreme despair of having nothing to lose can awaken those who experience it from their torpor. Marx’s and Engels’s call to the workers, who have nothing to lose but their chains and a world to gain, begins to resonate today for the millions who have been excluded even from the ranks of the working class. An overdose of fatalism can be lethal, in the first place, to the status quo itself.
Patricia Vieira teaches at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese of Georgetown University. She is the author of Seeing Politics Otherwise: Vision in Latin American and Iberian Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011); Portuguese Film 1930-1960: The Staging of the New State Regime (Lisbon: Colibri, 2011; forthcoming with Continuum, 2013); and co-editor of Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought (New York and London: Continuum, 2011). For more information, check here.
Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism (2009), Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010) and numerous articles in phenomenology, political philosophy and environmental thought. His most recent book, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, will be published later this year. His website is here.