Is Portugal hopeless?

Portuguese must give up their love of fate, stop revelling in misery and self-sacrifice they have come to identify with.

Portugal has had its share of mass mobilisations against austerity and general strikes, the most recent of which took place on March 22 [Reuters]

Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain – In the beginning of 2012, Michael Darda, chief economist at MKM Partners, dubbed the situation of Greece and Portugal “hopeless”. In support of his verdict, Darda cited high debt loads and poor prospects for growth in the two countries. The hopelessness of Portugal, from the perspective of the economists, has to do with what they call “structural problems”: a small internal market, the absence of natural resources, bureaucracy that suffocates innovation, an insufficiently qualified workforce with low productivity levels, a poorly functioning legal system and so forth.

Some of these, such as the size of the internal market, may well be intractable. But other problems can be resolved, given a political will to reform the legal system, to invest in education, and to simplify the bureaucratic process at all levels of the Portuguese state machinery.

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The paradox of the current situation is that the European Union’s bailout package came with stipulations that, once implemented, will only worsen every fixable structural problem on the list. Deep budget cuts to education will ensure the non-competitiveness of the Portuguese workforce in the foreseeable future and tax increases combined with salary cuts will further erode internal demand for nationally produced goods.

Programme of austerity

Rather than object to the conditions imposed by its European partners, the conservative government of Pedro Passos Coelho wholeheartedly embraced the programme of austerity. In fact, last year, the Prime Minister masochistically vowed to exceed the expectations of the Troika and he did precisely that, immediately plunging Portugal into a new recession.

Portuguese political authorities would have done well to take a leaf out of the didactic novels of Marquis de Sade, where those who obey the masters’ commands to the letter and fulfill their orders with great enthusiasm tend to be punished ever more harshly as a result. Why did Portugal adopt a collectively masochistic approach vis-à-vis the European agencies? Structurally comparable to Greece, why did it react in an entirely different manner to the same set of exigencies?  

One possible explanation is that the genuine source of hopelessness is not the objective economic circumstances but, instead, the socio-political and above all, cultural mentality of Portugal.

The predicament is not new for a country that has had for centuries experienced itself as thrust into a perpetual crisis, so much so that it built certain aspects of its national identity around the incompletely mourned loss of the Empire. The notion that a “Golden Age”, the so-called Age of the Discoveries, lies in a distant past and that, thenceforth, Portuguese history has been one of gradual decline and decadence is strongly ingrained in the people’s psyche.

We find the cultural expression of this feeling in the melancholy attitude of saudade –a notoriously difficult-to-translate word, denoting unfulfillable longing – and in the musical genre of fado – derived from “destiny” or “fate” – songs.

Politically, too, melancholy reigns supreme. This is evident not only in the general disenchantment with the political process, but also in the attitude of resignation before the austerity measures that cost many not only their livelihoods but also their lives. This winter, a record number of people, most of them the elderly with drastically reduced pensions, have died in fires due to an improper use of fireplaces that substituted the now unaffordable electric heating.

On the other end of the demographic spectrum, 20 and 30 year olds are known as Geração à Rasca, the Generation in Trouble, thanks to their slim prospects of landing a full-time job or for a better future. Hopelessness permeates the very fabric of the Portuguese society and is a cross-generational affect with dire political implications.

Cultural pessimism

To be sure, Portugal has had its share of mass mobilisations against austerity and general strikes, the most recent of which took place on March 22. But a sense of futility is palpable even in the popular protest movement. For meaningful political action to become possible, passive hopelessness must turn into active despair.

Portuguese to strike over austerity measures

That this has not yet happened in Portugal is, at least in part, due to the customary melancholy acceptance of the country’s economic and political circumstances as though they were its unchangeable collective fate. Calls to make difficult sacrifices to the Golden Calf of the Troika do not fall on deaf ears. Cultural pessimism is responsible for economic hopelessness, not vice versa.

The word crisis that dominates news headlines and café conversations in Portugal triggers a sense of discursive overload. The more ubiquitous talk about the crisis is, the stronger collective resistance to thinking through it and to deciding on how to bring it to an end. It is transformed into a mantra, the ultimate explanation that cannot itself be explained, a code-word for one’s inability to act otherwise than we do, that is to say, reactively and complacently.

At the extreme, we get inoculated to the effects of the crisis when they are normalised, transformed into part and parcel of our everyday reality. This is precisely what happened to the youths of the Portuguese Generation in Trouble, who, according to recent surveys, are less depressed about unemployment than ever before, even though the numbers of the unemployed are steadily growing.

When crisis dons the mask of an immutable given, we no longer experience its effects as symptoms of something that has gone awry and, hence, in need of changing. Hopelessness mutates into sheer nihilistic indifference and paves the way to a perverse adaptation to scandalous economic and political events.

There is, nonetheless, hope for Portugal. On the economic plane, it could become a leader in renewable energy sources, given that, in 2010, these accounted for more than half of the country’s electricity generation. In light of its modest territory and population size, it could also occupy the niche markets of high quality organic agriculture and top-of-the-line handmade products, for which it is already famous (shoes, bags, etc.)

Still, without a cultural shift, the economic situation is not likely to improve. Weighted down by a long tradition and history, which for centuries has been represented as the history of national decline, the Portuguese must let go of their amor fati (“love of fate”) and stop revelling in the misery and self-sacrifice they have come to identify with.

Nothing is more difficult, if not impossible, than rebelling against the core of one’s own identity, let alone the identity labouriously constructed around crisis and loss. But the stakes are too high not to undertake this veritable revolution in cultural mentality.

Across the gulf of time, the example of Portugal’s national poet, Luís de Camões, is especially relevant today. This 16thcentury author of the epic The Lusiads seems to address his future compatriots with the following appeal:

See with what hopes I maintain myself
See how dangerous my safety is!
For I do not fear contrasts or changes,
sailing on the rough sea, my vessel lost.

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. His website is