South remembers: Hegel on the Beach or Why the South is its Own Worst Enemy by Stilpon Nestor

Hegel on the Beach or Why the South is its Own Worst Enemy

by Stilpon Nestor

In ‛Southern European’ politics the abdication of responsibilities has resulted in a new version of tribalism, as ancient as the South itself

When I was asked to write about “my” South[1], hubris got the best of me. What a challenge it would be to describe  its intimate vastness in a thousand words; to explore the heady blend of tribalism and wild individualism,  the power of the Mother, the unbreakable bonds of loyalty,  that unique language of physical intimacy, the South’s  particular brand of cosmopolitanism; what fun!.   It took me a just few hours in front of a blank screen to accept defeat.

So, I decided to write a bit prosaically about the South’s greatest enemy:  its (modern) State.   We are not talking about a watchman of a multi-voice civil society or a referee of clashing private interests. Bizarrely enough, most Southern societies ended up with an all-encompassing State that aims to regulate and define every aspect of the lives of its citizens, Hegel’s “universal consciousness” from which all power in society flows. The problem is that this Hegelian State sits very awkwardly with the famously individualistic Southerners. The rest of this piece will argue that the “Ethical Idea” behind this Southern monstrosity is to perpetuate the very selfish interest of its own stakeholders. In fact, this Hegelian beach bum is not defining but devouring Southern societies.

Let us start with a well- known fact: the South is poor, possibly not by Bono’s definition but poorer than the North.  It was not always poor. In fact, the South’s ancient pedigree might be a principal cause of its relative poverty today. Maybe the South is carrying too much baggage from its past. It never concentrated on making things for others, only on trading them.  In its distant heyday, making things was less essential to material wealth creation; it was trading them that mattered. From the North African or Andalusian souk to the ancient roman forum, workshops were backroom accessories to the small trade shops that fronted them.

Also, maybe as a remnant of its long standing quest for beauty –sheer vanity in Northern Protestant eyes, the South loves to consume conspicuously.  When things are going well, Southerners do not invest nor do they save. The EU numbers are instructive on this point: it is domestic demand (along with EU public funds) that drives the southern regions’ GDP more than anything else.  When things go bad, the South cannot adapt because, like the proverbial cricket, it has not saved for the coming winter. Its spending kept the northern ants going in good times. While in bad times, the North has savings and adapt by switching markets for its products, the Southern shops cannot transplant to China and Russia and there are few savings to support their owners. So the crickets turn to the ants for help.  The deal is merciless: the South exports lovers of wealth and wisdom and the myriads of its invisible hard workers (always mistaken by the ants for crickets in disguise). It still has to import most of its goods—and a few brains, often victims of love.

In the second half of the 20th century, the South, in typical cricket logic, thought that it had found the remedy for its small minded fickleness in the form of a big State.  Not that it ever came to love or trust it.  Taxation is there to be avoided and laws to be skirted. But the State became all-encompassing because it increasingly fulfilled three key functions that formed  the essential elements of the 20th century social contract in southern societies: First, in the Southern sea of private consumption and sub-scale  businesses  the State is the only organisation that can (and does) invest.  Second, the State is the sponge that absorbs the abundant excess labour of Southern economies.   Third, the State ensures that the few powerful political  and quasi- oligarchic private economic  players are kept in check  by powerful institutional  labour interests not through the blind rule of law but by an agreed  sharing of the spoils that trickle down to each side’s constituents—what we usually call crony capitalism.

This social contract is at present stuttering but is still in force.  Ambitious reformers ignore this at their peril.

State dominance has resulted in four afflictions that are sapping Southern societies’ creativity and vigour.  The first one is the vicious circle of the state’s permanent expansion.  This expansion has resulted in an absurdly dense web of laws, regulations and state institutions. If these were to be fully enforced and operational, they would have completely chocked both the economy and society. But they are not. Instead, they just manage to significantly slow economic activity and numb civil society. Their half-idle but ubiquitous presence reminds everyone why the state cannot be trusted nor believed; and affords armies of parasitic gate keepers with innumerable corruption opportunities.  This legislative and institutional cancer results in ever-weakening trust between the state and the citizens. And because state institutions such as courts of law cannot be trusted to resolve private disputes, the end result is that the cancer permeates the whole societal body.

The second affliction relates to the fact that the State is often the biggest Southern investor. But given widespread tax evasion and the deficits that result from its perpetual own expansion, the State needs to borrow in order to invest. And borrow it has, to the hilt, hence all the current troubles in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal (not to mention Lebanon and Egypt).  Note here that in Ireland and Iceland (these northerners making deceptive cricket noises) the non-Hegelian state is not guilty for provoking the crisis it was only guilty for being an ineffective watchman.   It was private, not public, borrowing that brought these countries down.

The third affliction is that, in response to the State’s dominance,   the South’s economy is populated by a few dinosaurs and many economic Lilliputians.  The few dinosaurs are either state owned or belong to a few oligarchic families with multiple interests—see the Koc and the Sabancis in Turkey.  Their  presence is often linked to less competition in the market place—and therefore much less wealth for the retail consumer/citizen. It is not by chance that Erdogan’s peaceful revolution resulted in the (partial, as of now) dismantlement of the State’s incestuous relationship with these interests.  The remaining economic agents are tiny. Maybe it is the past again that is to blame—the lasting influence of souks and workshops of antiquity. But there are other reasons: small businesses fly below the authorities’ radar, defending themselves from the rapacious State with pervasive   tax evasion.  Restrictive labour laws, resulting from the “social contract” are another reason that keeps businesses small: businesses do not hire if they know that they cannot fire. The complexity and corruption linked to the State’s multiple gates to economic activity also keep businesses from growing—it is simply too difficult to get all the permissions in time.  Whatever the causes, the net result of smaller size is much lower productivity for Southern workers, compared to the outputs of their Northern fellows. Low productivity is an important contributor to the insistent poverty gap with the North and to the South’s weakness in post-crisis adjustment.  And, just like in Swift’s tale, the Lilliputians (and the dinosaurs, for that matter) do not like big people walking among them. Foreign investment by Northern multinationals , although much praised, is rarely welcome, always tied down by millions of little ropes attached by myriads of civil servants.

The fourth state-related affliction is a lack—and fear– of individual responsibility that permeates political, personal and economic behaviour of most Southerners. In politics, the abdication of responsibilities has resulted in a new version of tribalism, as ancient as the South itself. The names of Greek and Lebanese politicians have been the same for at least a couple of generations.  In art, the civil service mentality has devastated artistic creation by turning artists– these totemic risk takers– into cautious producers of goods clamouring for higher unemployment insurance and better pensions. In civil society, lack of responsibility has resulted in a frightening deficit of civic spirit. Experimental psychology has established that where individual responsibility is diluted people care less about their fellow humans (and their environment).  Last but not least, lack of responsibility has resulted in hydrocephalic, inefficient economic institutions, where all the decisions are taken at the top and where no one expects anything from the people below.  All in all, the State is to blame to a great extent for the lamentable weakness of the South and its people to act collectively for their own good.

It’s been ages since I cut the umbilical cord with the Southern Mother. For a long time, it seemed that loyalty to language, family, friends back home was incidental and largely irrelevant to a citizen of the world like myself. This is of course nonsense and the present hard times have made this much clear. My heart and mind are still at the mercy of salty, balmy, melancholic memories of “whitewashed walls erect on shades of blue”. So there is anger and a desire for a final showdown with the Hegelian beach bum. We need to banish his tyrannical regime forever,  far from the wine red sea. Our efforts and our conflicts should no more be about capturing or even reforming the big State.  We should cut it off like the gangrene that it is, retrace our inspiration to our trading roots of private initiative and rebuild our institutions from the bottom up.


[1] While some of the issues raised in this piece might apply to the global South, the author’s main reference  is the Meditarannean basin and  the countries (or parts of countries) that are adjacent to it. Apologies for the Eurocentric outlook.

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