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Pay What Thou Owest! Greece, Debt and Dependency?

July 8, 2015


Who are the people who take the biggest chunk of other people’s money and refuse to give any of it back?

I did a bit of math.

The conservative estimate of funds held untaxed in offshored accounts is around 25 trillion dollars.  Now people who are able to protect their money from tax still use public services. They drive on roads paid for by other people’s taxes, receive medical attention from doctors whose training has been paid for by the taxation of others and they enjoy the military and police protection provided by the taxes paid by others.  If the megarich paid  a modest 25% towards the cost of services they they everyone else enjoy, a global fund of 6 trillion dollars might emerge which could be used for a variety of exciting and planet saving projects.  Such as these…

As it happens the entirety of Greek public debt adds up to somewhere between 1% and 2% of the total untaxed trillions and somewhere around 6% of the 6 trillion that the mega rich would have to pay were they subject to the effective rule of law. Greece’s poorest have already paid proportionately vastly more than Europe’s richest will ever pay.

John Urry has written persuasively about the sheer scale of the foggy lawless offshoring of the 21st century global economy.

It seems to me that we live in a world where dominated by unprecedented levels of private untaxed offshored wealth and an unprecedented political focus on the “disciplines” imposed by public debt.  It may be that these two phenomena have absolutely nothing to do with one another and are completely accidental.  But I would like a warm reassuring practitioner of the dismal science to prove to me that these trends are completely coincidental.  I would like her to try.

There is it seems, money in the world.  At other historic political crises money has been found.  Except that it’s not about finding the money.  It’s not about Greece paying up.  It’s about Greece feeling bad about not being able to pay up.  Here is Zizek.

If I understand Zizek  (and that’s an “if” that deserves to be chiseled in letters of granite roughly a mile high), then the last thing that any of the Masters of the Universe wants is for Greece to cough up the money.  If they were to show up in Germany tomorrow with a huge bag and a grin saying “guess what we found in the sofa”, it would throw out everything.

If lending money were about some notion of “pure” economic expediency then it would make no sense whatsoever to insist that the debtor nation contracts their own economy, because without growth there is no return.  If I were to lend money to bakery, the last thing think I’d do is insist that the bakery sack half their staff along with most of their ovens.  No, the point of imposing austerity terms on a bailout is to impose something which is officially called “fiscal discipline” but would be better described as “dependency and powerlessness”.

Debt is figured by Zizek as a kind of superego, a kind of projection of regulatory guilt which turns external constraint into a form of willed self discipline.   Debt is also a highly effective means of asserting that Labour depends on Capital rather than the other way round.  For millenia, those who who till and toil and haul and hoist have been told that they “depend” on their Lords and Masters.  Time was when religious justifications were offered for this “dependency”, but the governance of the many by the few has had a variety of crises over the century.  For example, after the Black Death wiped out much of Europe’s population in the 1340s, surviving labourers discovered that their scarcer labour was now valuable, and that by wandering from parish to parish, they could bargain for better pay and conditions.  At various points in history, it’s been discovered that workers do not “depend” upon the Lord of the Manor – the Lord of the Manor depends on workers.

The question then became, in a secular and mobile age, how to revive and sustain the governance of the many by the few? How can an economy be managed for the exclusive benefit of the very very few and still pay lip service to a secular notion of democracy?

Debt is now the religion that is used to stifle any sense of democratic entitlement.  Debt must be paid – not as a one off transaction, or even as a series of transactions – but rather as a looming psychological burden that imposes terms and conditions.  That’s why public debt isn’t going to go away any time soon.

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