Humbled in Greece.

Photographer: Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg

Beware of a Humiliated Greece

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides said people went to war motivated by honor, interest and fear. The current Greek government's decision to break off talks with creditors is a clear case of a wounded honor, or pride, driving a momentous decision.

As they prepare for Sunday's referendum on whether to accept the last bailout offer made by their creditors, Greeks should take a little time to recall how powerful -- and dangerous -- this kind of perceived humiliation can be when used to influence political decisions.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras mentioned humiliation twice in a speech on Saturday, as he proposed the referendum, calling the euro area's proposed bailout terms an "extortionate ultimatum that calls for strict and humiliating austerity." In the preceding weeks, he had agreed to most of the measures in that "ultimatum," but he and his Syriza comrades apparently couldn't take it anymore. The creditor institutions last week took the liberty of marking up one of his counterproposals in red font, as if he were a failing student! 

As Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis explained the referendum idea to other European finance ministers on Saturday, he too accused them of having sacrificed common ground "in favor of imposing upon our government a humiliating retreat." This assertion will be an important talking point for Syriza, as it campaigns for "no" vote. 

The manipulation of humiliation has a long and inglorious political history. Hitler used it in "Mein Kampf," written when Germans were smarting from their World War I defeat and the punitive peace terms that followed. Islamic State and other such radical groups in the Middle East explain their extreme actions by saying Muslims have for too long been humiliated by invaders and foreign puppeteers, such as the U.S. In China, recovery from "one hundred years of humiliation" in the 19th and 20th centuries is an important tenet of the current national ideology. The humiliation of the Soviet Union's demise is the starting point for Russian President Vladimir Putin's resurgent aggressiveness. In some areas of India, Narendra Modi's party campaigned last year with promises of revenge for the humiliation of Hindus at the hands of Muslims.

No nation, it seems, is immune. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has described his country's military action in the Middle East after the Sept. 11 attacks as a response to the humiliation of that terrorism. 

"Given the contemporary importance of recognition and 'respect' not only in contemporary philosophy but also in contemporary popular culture and masculinity, it is not surprising that practical concern and conflict over the politics of disrespect -- in its most popular form referred to as the practice of 'dissin' -- is rampant at all levels of contemporary society from the basketball court to the boardroom to the oval office," Paul Saurette of the University of Ottawa wrote in a 2007 paper about the role of humiliation in post-2001 global politics.

Politicians who build their popular support through narratives of wounded pride and trampled honor often have their facts more or less straight. Indeed, there was probably an element of "dissin" in the treatment of Tsipras and Varoufakis by the creditors. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble seemed to feel no need to show respect for the tieless, inexperienced Greek Marxists who went into negotiating rooms as if into a boxing ring. 

Yet the humiliation narrative is, first and foremost, manipulative. It's about apportioning blame, and the politicians who use it usually refuse to accept any. Greeks are being told that their problems -- high unemployment, an overstretched social safety net and now capital controls that limit cash machine withdrawals to 60 euros a day ($67) -- are the handiwork of the evil functionaries at the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Never mind that these problems would remain even without Syriza's bogeymen. That's a deceitful, but attractive narrative. Anger at external enemies, no matter what level of guilt they bear, is usually easy to whip up.

Many Greeks already feel humiliated by their economic tribulations. To hold on to power, Tsipras needs to keep their anger focused on the creditors at least for another week, until the referendum. It may be useful for Greek voters to recall, however, that political decisions motivated by wounded pride have rarely led to good outcomes. More often they have produced chaos, if not bloodshed, and further humiliation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net