The West’s debt to Greece, and the rest

The political drama of Greece’s debt — which has only entered a new chapter with the latest deal in Brussels — kept reminding me of an encounter a friend of mine had with a shepherd on a Greek island a few years ago.

My friend was visiting his father-in-law, an Italian scholar living on the island and translating ancient Stoic texts from the Greek. On one of their walks they ran into a shepherd, and stopped to chat. The shepherd started by asking my friend, “Are you American?” My friend answered that yes, he was. Without a moment’s hesitation, the shepherd replied, “We gave you democracy.”

The West didn’t just inherit democracy from Greece — it received all the essential ingredients that went into making its civilization: philosophy, literature, art, mathematics, how to think about and represent the world and phenomena. Not long ago, knowing Greek was considered a source of pride, a sign of accomplishment and good upbringing. To be sure, part of the heritage was rotten — regarding slavery as natural, for instance — but on the whole, this small place bequeathed to the West a treasure trove of science and culture in the broadest sense.

It’s also important to remember that the West’s debt to Greece is only a portion of what it owes to other nations and civilizations, especially to the global South, for all the  economic surplus it siphoned off during colonial times, not to mention for the bad deeds it committed — genocide, slavery, racism. How much does Belgium owe to Zaire? The United States to native and black Americans? France to Algeria? The United Kingdom to India, the “jewel in the crown” of its empire? And Israel to Palestine? None of this debt has been recompensed.

Are bygones now bygones? How far does the relevant past stretch? A minute, a year, a century, three millennia? Who decides? The Greek shepherd’s reminder to my friend about Greece giving democracy to America suggests that the deep past was alive and well in his mind.

Modern nations, as is now widely thought, are in no small part constructions of imagined pasts, of memory cutting and pasting to make a collage of coincidences appear coherent and inspiring. The West, as it has come to identify itself, marked Greece as its border, east of which were the barbarians — never mind this bifurcation’s total disregard for the antecedent (Egyptian, Mesopotamian) and subsequent (Arab and Islamic) civilizations that gave and took from the ancient Greeks, and passed all that on to this conjured-up West.

The world today reckons with the future, at least rhetorically. The word “sustainability” is fast becoming a global cultural staple, used to think about countries’ economies, commercial enterprises, institutions and even interpersonal relations. Sustainable development is viewed as development that satisfies the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. But if we care about those opaque future generations (who have done nothing for us, to paraphrase Groucho Marx on the subject), why shouldn’t we value the ancestors who actually existed and gifted us so much?

We do in fact esteem the past. Witness our regard for antiquities, like the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Mayan ruins in Mesoamerica and the Acropolis. Millions of euros are spent daily by tourists to see these monuments, and monetary evidence is only part of this valuation. We are constantly reminded of the danger the Islamic State poses to Palmyra, the Nabatean city in Syria, and to other historical sites in this war-torn country and in Iraq. And states have been engaged in a tug-of-war as to whom some relics belong — to the Western museums where they now reside, or to the countries from which they were removed often in unscrupulous circumstances. Greece itself has been sparring with the British Museum over the property rights for the so-called Elgin Marbles.

In a similar vein, countries and communities in the global South had to contend with western corporations over the ownership of past knowledge. These companies have long used medicinal herbal plants from the biodiversity-rich tropics to make patented pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and other products, calling these plants part of the “heritage of mankind” — willfully ignoring the deep histories of local knowledge and practices that went into the identification and breeding of such varieties.

The corporations’ indifference to knowledge and property rights, and their unilateral appropriation of these profits were addressed in the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. The convention recognized the sovereignty of countries over their natural resources, stating that these resources were the “concern,” not the “heritage,” of humankind. It called for equitable and fair sharing of the benefits derived from these resources. Putting those words into practice, though, has proven to be another matter.

How can Greek contributions be valuated?  As a whole, they are probably inestimable, but that should not be an excuse for not valuing them. Economists have developed methods for the monetary valuation of nature and its resources, and quantities of money can be assigned to cultural and other goods, even those from the distant past. Tourist spending on visiting antiquities is one way of valuing the economic worth of antiquities. The equivalent of “relics” in the case of philosophical, scientific and literary knowledge are manuscripts and books. What is the value of royalties, including interest (think banks), on books sold in the West by Greek authors such as Plato, Aristotle and Homer? Likewise, what would be the royalties on plays and films like Iphigenia or Antigone? Shouldn’t these go to the Greeks? Tourists pay Greek hotels and restaurants and cabs and so on to see the Acropolis — so why not pay them for all their books and artistic productions? Or is this, also, the heritage of humankind?

How can we value democracy? If we believe the claims of former US President George W. Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair that their respective countries invaded Afghanistan and Iraq to bring democracy to the two nations, then in this instance, the value of democracy would be at least equivalent to the cost of these wars. I suspect, though, that the Greek shepherd would scoff at the idea of measuring democracy’s worth with money, and so let us leave democracy for qualitative discourse.

Greece has responded to the demands of its creditors in an exemplary way. It held a referendum, as if to honor the system it gave to the West. It used to be that when the conditions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — austerity and associated neoliberal economic “reforms” — were imposed on a “third-world” country, political instability and sometimes a military coup followed. In other places, food riots erupted in the wake of IMF reforms, and people — usually the poor — were killed and injured and imprisoned, as happened in Egypt in 1977. The recent peaceful referendum in Greece, which affirmed “the will of the people,” should have been commended by western governments rather than being frowned at or discounted as a ploy.

There’s more to the Greek debt crisis than the West owing Greece, and much has already been said about the banks’ lack of scruples in their inappropriate lending policies, as well as corruption and bad management in Greece itself. The Greek government is not asking the banks and funds and governments and people who support them in Germany and elsewhere to pay back their debt. It knows that this is not the stuff of “respectable” political dealings, especially if the issue is raised by an exhausted and needy society.

The fraught agreement reached in the Brussels Summit will be taxing for the Greeks, and to swallow it they will have to summon all the stoicism they can. Whatever the Greeks do with the agreement, it’s about time for those in the West who are making decisions about the country’s financial woes and economic future — and for those in the media who glibly dismiss the Greek government as being “radical” and “extreme left” — to temper their smug preaching, and to acknowledge with commensurate gratitude their lasting debt to the Greeks, and so many other nations — and let them develop their economies as they deem fit. 

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Sharif S Elmusa