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Economic Crisis, the "PIGS" and the European "Animal Farm"

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Current European economic crisis and its social repercussions can be viewed and interpreted from a number of perspectives. Here, I have opted to approach them in terms of the concepts and processes of mimetic desire and scapegoating, as these are analyzed in René Girard's work. My specific hermeneutic choice is mainly dictated by my habitual emphasis (as a humanist and sociocultural historian) on a close reading of sociocultural phenomena not as blocked, formalistic, systems of signification but rather as potentially open-ended events -- events in the making, whose significance is constantly redefined according to the different conceptual/ ideological filters through which they are perceived and construed. This means that mine is one of several possible approaches but, I hope, by no means less valid than them. My decision to offer these thoughts is also prompted by my conviction that mere econometrical discussions obscure major parameters of the subject by reducing social relations and human agents to abstract ciphers.

René Girard is an original thinker -- no matter to what extent one disagrees with his approaches to specific sociocultural phenomena. I recently had the chance to revisit his work in the context of a seminar I have been teaching. And once more I appreciated the breadth and potential topicality of his (often provocative) ideas, which by and large have been shaped in close dialogue, mainly with Greek antiquity but also with Jewish and Christian traditions, and other pre-modern cultures around the world. An essay of his entitled "Stereotypes of Persecution" concludes with the following remark:

Stereotypes of persecution cannot be dissociated, and remarkably most languages do not dissociate them. This is true of Latin and Greek, for example, and thus of French or English, which forces us constantly in our study of stereotypes to turn to words that are related: crisis, crime, criteria, critique, all share a common root in the Greek verb krino, which means not only to judge, distinguish, differentiate, but also to accuse and condemn a victim. Too much reliance should not be placed on etymology, nor do I reason from that basis. But the phenomenon is so constant it deserves to be mentioned.

It is true that etymological associations cannot take us far, unless relevant correspondences on deeper and broader notional, ideological, or sociocultural levels may be established. According to Girard, in periods of collective crisis the phenomenon of scapegoating flourishes: specific groups of people (as a rule minorities) or even (marginal) individuals are identified, judged/condemned and persecuted as dangerous subjects, responsible for society's potential or actual disintegration; majority or authorities accuse, expel, or even eliminate them (morally or physically), in an attempt to "remedy" the "miasma," which is supposed to have contaminated the previously immaculate community, and to reverse crisis.

Examples abound in world history: Socrates, "witches" and Jews are characteristic victims of scapegoating. Crisis suspends or subverts hegemonic clear-cut differentiations and divisions within established sociopolitical structures. "Chaos," i.e. the abolition of differentiating criteria and principles, is the resulting state, which is abhorred by those in power as well as, often, by the majority of the people, who reenact, through mimetic desire, the persecuting tendencies of their leaders.

In current European economic crisis, the notorious "PIGS" (Portugal, Ireland or Italy, Greece, Spain), thus shamelessly called by a cast of technocrats sensitive only to the dicta of econometrics, have been attributed qualities of such animalized, "criminal" scapegoats. No doubt, "PIGS'" political leaders have been responsible for a number of scandalous, negligent, or inappropriate behaviors and, most importantly, for sustaining and proliferating highly problematic socioeconomic structures. European "allies" were in full knowledge of all those structural problems when, for instance, Greece was admitted to Eurozone -- as they were perfectly aware of similar issues with regard, e.g., to Italy's economy, when that country was welcome to the same economic famiglia. It is not a secret that "PIGS" became (mainly, but not exclusively, due to their inherent economic vulnerability) easy targets of particular economic headquarters. To the eyes of the vast majority of European citizens, who had no individual interest in resisting their tendency to imitate the similar desires of their leaders, "the PIGS" became the agents of a fatal polluting force eroding the continent's socioeconomic edifice. Irresponsible behavior on the part of specific political authorities were thus metonymically transferred to whole countries and easily manipulated in other parts of the Old World, especially in those that have a long history in institutionalized forms of racism or detrimental colonialism. "Greek" or "Irish tragedy" became trendy concepts, often exploited in sensational, neocolonialist journalism to denote the "dangerous" behavior and liminal state of peoples on the margins of Europe who were threatening to destabilize the very center of world's economy.

Occupying a central (i.e. prominent) position in the group of P-I-G-S, Greeks and Italians are often portrayed in mass media as usurpers of a glorious past and a prosperous (Western European) present/future -- a stereotype that has a long tradition in modern history and is handily reenacted, especially every time Greece and Italy find themselves at the epicenter of negative publicity. In the case of Greece, a carrier of suspicious (cultural and economic) gifts (recall the ancient saying: "timeo Danaos et dona ferentes": "I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts;" also recall: in Mrs. Merkel's language, German, "Gift" means "poison"), a whole society has thus been allotted the role of a modern pharmakos: etymologically related to the term pharmakon (meaning both "poison" and "medicine"), pharmakos is the ancient Greek term for scapegoat. Greece and its people have thus been assigned the function of curing the poisonous miasma -- which they (along with the other members of the PIGS Co) are supposed to have spread all over Europe -- through their quasi medicinal/cathartic role as the target of often unsubstantiated attacks. Given the very simple truth that Greece's economy represents a minute percentage of Eurozone's economy, there is no convincing doubt that its "crime" consisted mainly in exposing (crisis) the weaknesses of fundamental structures of European economy and their vulnerability to even minor assaults on their systemic deficiency.

And once more, powerful European allies lost the opportunity not to relapse to the colonialist and racist mistakes of their past. And once more it became evident that some "PIGS" are more "PIGS" than the others (recall: "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" from George Orwell's always topical Animal Farm), mainly because in the hardcore European imaginary they represent the categories of what I would call "para-marginal" and "para-central:" neither entirely marginal nor entirely central, neither entirely "other" (or sensationally exotic) nor entirely "us" (or naturalized), such entities are exceptionally susceptible, I believe, to being reduced to the role of a pharmakos.

Will the "PIGS"' "crimes" give the European "animal farm" the opportunity to resist the archetypal ritualistic "solution" of pharmakos and invent, instead, an effective pharmakon for its current historic, socioeconomic crisis?