European negotiations over the Greek debt crisis have taken a series of bewildering turns in recent weeks. European financial institutions demanded dramatic cuts in social programs as a condition for yet another bailout—Greece’s third in the last several years. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, elected on an anti-austerity platform, held a hasty referendum on their proposal.
Defying pollsters’ predictions, Greek voters roundly rejected it. Tsipras hoped that the referendum would function as a bargaining chip in European negotiations, but the maneuver backfired. Faced with the prospect of Greece’s exile from the Euro—and the chaos that would ensue—Tsipras was forced to propose terms to European leaders very close to those that the referendum had rejected. The Europeans refused them, counter-offering terms still harsher for Greece.
Economists the world over expressed grave concerns about this final European proposal. Not only would it cause a humanitarian crisis, the argument went, but it was self-defeating: so crippling would these terms be to the Greek economy that the possibility of Greece servicing its debt going forward would be null. The question was posed again and again: why would European leaders act so shortsightedly?
The Washington Post expressed a common sentiment when it suggested that European leaders, anticipating similar problems in other overextended EU economies, wanted to “make an example” of Greece. Yanis Varoufakis—the former Greek finance minister who resigned rather than contravene the results of the referendum—wrote in the Guardian, “My conviction is that the German finance minister wants Greece to be pushed out of the single currency to put the fear of God into the French and have them accept his model of a disciplinarian eurozone.” That is, he suggested that the extreme terms were a political ploy to consolidate Germany’s power in Europe.
I would propose a different approach to the question. In his Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that we inhabit a way of thinking in which ‘debt’ and ‘guilt’ are intertwined—and suffering is the way in which the debtor is redeemed. A Nietzschean reading of the baffling European proposal would suggest that it was not simply about consolidating power; it was also designed to make Greece suffer. That is, owing to the psychology of debt, Greece’s pain is not a byproduct, but a requirement.
For Nietzsche, civilization is built on our ability to make and keep promises. Angela Merkel’s comments following on the final European proposal revealed a subtext of anger at broken promises: she used the language of ‘trust.’ After the referendum, she lamented, “The most important currency has been lost and that is trust. That means that we will have tough discussions and there will be no agreement at any price.” After Tsipras agreed to put the final European proposal to Greek parliament, she said, “I think trust can be regained.”
On Nietzsche’s analysis, promise-making depends on our ability to remember past acts of will, and memory is “burned in” by pain and suffering. We remember when we’ve been hurt by another, which motivates us to avoid similar pain in the future. The basic site for the inflicting of pain is what Nietzsche considers the foundational human relationship: that between creditor and debtor.
In Nietzsche’s (speculative) history, if a debtor is unable to discharge his debt, his creditor is entitled to extract payment “in the form of a kind of pleasure—the pleasure of being allowed to vent his power freely upon one who is powerless, the voluptuous pleasure ‘to do evil for the pleasure of doing it’…” That is to say, the payment of the debt-delinquent comes in the form of his suffering.
For Nietzsche, it’s no coincidence that the German words for debt and guilt are the same (Schuld). An unpaid debt is a broken promise, and we punish those who break promises—to extract recompense in the form of the pleasure of making them suffer, and to instill in them the memory that is requisite for the project of civilization.
In recent weeks, commentators have remarked on the ‘moralization’ of what we might have expected to be sterile negotiations over fiscal policy. Nietzsche, though, would have regarded this as eminently predictable. According to the logic of Nietzsche’s prehistory, Europe (and particularly Germany, which has underwritten the lion’s share of the Greek bailouts) is owed, in lieu of money, the pleasure of inflicting pain.
This pain, besides functioning as recompense, will tend to inculcate Greece with the memory that it lacks. Looking at his country’s legal history, Nietzsche remarked on his own countrymen’s past, “[O]ne has only to look at our former codes of punishments to understand… [that] Germans have employed fearful means to acquire a memory…” Having acquired their own memories, Nietzsche might suggest, the Germans seek to bring about the same in Greeks by inflicting pain.
But did Germans acquire a memory after all? Many have noted the irony of Germany’s negotiating position, considering Greece’s forgiving of German debts, after the Second World War. (This is particularly striking since the occupying Nazi regime had forced the ‘loan’ in the first place.) Said economist Thomas Piketty, in a Die Zeit interview highly critical of the German negotiating stance, “Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations.”
Nietzsche might say the absence of German suffering seventy years ago—and the resulting lapse of the memory of the postwar regime—is the enabling condition for Germany’s position today.
Again, we might ask: whose memory, exactly, is meant to be secured by the proposed inflicting of pain? Piketty argues that “[t]he younger generation of Greeks carries no more responsibility for the mistakes of its elders than the younger generation of Germans did in the 1950s and 1960s.”
If we assume the Nietzschean frame, though, the question is not one of responsibility but one of memory-making. But memories reside in individuals; nation-states do not have them. Scaling up Nietzsche’s logic is an incoherent undertaking. In the case at hand, the delinquent debtor is Greece itself; the compensatory suffering, however, will be exacted from individual Greek people, whose memories are not in evidence as deficient.
Finally, most fundamentally: does it dignify Germany to adopt this mentality? Not only might this have undesirable consequences for Greeks—as Nietzsche remarks, “Punishment makes men hard and cold”—it would also seem to debase Germans, returning them to brutishness.
The success of the German economy in the era of the Euro is fabled, and Nietzsche’s narrative envisions that benevolence follows bounty—the “creditor becomes more humane to the extent that he has grown richer… he ends by winking and letting those incapable of discharging their debt go free…”
Owing to his wealth, the creditor no longer smarts when he is not repaid; he can afford mercy. That is to say, in light of Germany’s present situation, Nietzsche would have hoped for more compassion from his countrymen—not just because it is generous, but also because it is befitting of the powerful.