Greek Tragedy

It looked increasingly likely, last week, that Greece would exit the euro. Last night, however, ‘Barack Obama and the other G8 leaders wrapped up their negotiations on the crisis in Europe…with a pledge to keep Greece in the eurozone and to promote growth.’ (Observer) We will see how the financial markets respond next week.

The economic, social and political repercussions of a Greek exit could be enormous, with Italy and Spain potentially next in line. ‘One estimate put the cost to the eurozone of Greece making a disorderly exit from the currency at $1tn, 5% of output.’ (Guardian) A top economic forecaster said in yesterday’s Guardian that the UK ‘may never recover’ from a Greek euro exit.

I’m leading a men’s study group in my Buddhist community at the moment, looking at David Loy’s book ‘Money, Sex, War, Karma‘. One of the chapters we looked at recently was called ‘Lack of Money’. Loy encourages us to ‘Take out a dollar bill and look at it. What do you have in your hands? A piece of paper, obviously.You can’t eat it, ride in it, or sleep on it. It can’t shelter you when it rains, or warm you when you’re cold, or heal you when you’re ill, or comfort you when you’re lonely.’

He goes on to say that ‘Money is a social construction that we tend to forget is only a construct—a kind of group fantasy. The anthropologist Weston LaBarre called it a psychosis that has become normal, “an institutionalized dream that everyone is having at once.” As long as we keep dreaming together it continues to work…’

If this is true, I’m left wondering what is bringing the dream of a common European currency seemingly to an end?

Simon Crichley’s belief, in The Faith of the Faithless, is that ‘there is no way of understanding contemporary political reality without a clear understanding of the nature, history, and force of civil religion.’ He goes on to say that  this ‘finds banal but compelling empirical confirmation in the weird symbolism of the one dollar  bill, complete with the words “In God We Trust”‘.

The UK currency contains something similar: the words Elizabeth II DG REG FD, which translate as ‘Elizabeth II, by the grace of God Queen and Defender of the Faith. Surely, though, the euro is exempt from such theological underpinning. Seemingly not: ‘The European flag, with its crown of 12 yellow stars on a blue background…seems innocent enough with the stars representing the diverse European peoples…’ The flag was designed by Arsène Heitz, ‘a pious and devoted Catholic’, and was ‘inspired by the history of the apparitions of the blessed Virgin in the Rue du Bac in Paris’ and by ‘the Revelation of St. John, “And a great sign was seen in heaven; a woman arrayed with the sun, and the moon under feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1).’

Critchley goes on  to say that the European flag was adopted by the Council of Europe on December 8, 1955, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. He is not suggesting – ‘like a paranoid Rousseau- that the European Union is a covert Catholic conspiracy, but there is at the very least a story to tell and a history that requires uncovering. Without an understanding of the intrication of politics and religion, we have little hope of comprehending the present through which we are all-too-precipitously passing.’

I agree. My view is that the turmoil we see around us is primarily a spiritual issue, rather than a political, economic or social one. Part of the problem is that the shared religious beliefs that provided the foundation for our ethics – as well as our currencies – are crumbling. This, to my mind, is what threatens the collective dream of meaning in society, economy and politics. The reason, then, that “we seem unable to conceive of alternatives,” as Tony Judt put it, is, quite simply, that we are looking in the wrong place.

3 Responses to “Greek Tragedy”

  1. Vishvapani says:

    Hi Manjusiha,

    I’ve enjoyed seeing your pieces here, and I’m sure you’re on to something in writing of the insubstantial nature of money. However, I am not so sure about your argument here or the nature of the spiritual issue you have in mind.

    Money rests on trust, and central banks place religious and cultural figures on banknotes in order to invoke their authority. That’s interesting to note, and yes shared religious values are crumbling in western countries (and, actually, that’s happening in Buddhist countries as well). But to suggest that the answer is a renewed religious consensus sets the bar too high – it’s effectively a counsel of despair.

    I would say that the principal basis for trust in the financial system is the belief that money – in the form of banknotes or numbers on a computer – will be accepted as a token of value. That depends, on the stability of the economic system and recently the stability of our financial systems has been undermined by the expansion of credit and the racking up of debt under the bamboozling influence of globalisation and technology. These fostered a range of illusions, delusions and ideologies.

    It’s no good harking after certainty and stability in economic matters. Instead we need to manage a system that is inherently unstable and contingent. After all, Buddhism recognises that everything, including our sense of personal identity, is insubstantial, impermanent and contingent. Where Buddhism helps is in allowing us to see that contingency, and work with it without being swept along by greed or hypnotised by ideology.

  2. Manjusiha says:

    Thanks for the interesting and stimulating comments Vishvapani. And thanks for drawing out the central Dharmic principle of insubstantiality more explicitly – it had got a bit buried in the piece.

    Regarding God and money, I think it is interesting to note that credit and credos (belief) have the same etymological root (as Niall Ferguson points out in The Ascent of Money).

    Simon Critchley has some very interesting things to say about the theological underpinning of money – see, for example, In Cash We Trust, from the New York Times blog. Here are a couple of quotes from it:

    ‘There is a theological core to money based on an act of faith, of belief… It can… be found in the UK’s opposition to the Euro and to the strange cultural need for money marked with the Queen’s head, underwritten by the power of the sovereign, who is also — lest one forget — the head of the established church.’

    ‘Of course, as ever, Shakespeare elucidated this powerfully. In “Timon of Athens,” the protagonist speaks of money, in the form of gold, as “Thou visible God.”‘

    You say that ‘to suggest that the answer is a renewed religious consensus sets the bar too high – it’s effectively a counsel of despair.’ I think it depends what one means by ‘religion’. Yes, it would be a counsel of despair if we look to the traditional religions (including Buddhism) to find a consensual solution to our economic and societal ills. But if we take religion more broadly to be the views and values from which we live our lives, then it’s difficult to imagine where else we might look for an answer.

    I think we need to find a way of collectively rediscovering our faith in real value and in the sacred. And we need to find a way, collectively, of articulating this belief in a way that can inspire and guide us. We will really have something to despair about, I think, if we do not.

    And it seems this is slowly starting to happen, with titles like ‘Religion for Atheists’ and ‘The Faith of the Faithless’. Even the Dalai Lama has entered this debate, with his recent book ‘Beyond Religion’, which I’m in the process of reading.

    Whether we speak in religious or secular terms, the issue, for me, is the same. The Dalai Lama puts it very well: “The fundamental problem, I believe, is that at every level we are giving too much attention to the external, material aspects of life while neglecting moral ethics and inner values.”

    I think that we, as Buddhists, have such a valuable contribution to make in this area. So often, though, we are not heard, partly, I think, because we don’t fit into traditional categories. That was part of my impetus for setting up this site – to make some sort of Buddhist contribution to what I think is an interesting, vibrant and crucial debate. Thanks for joining in, and for all you do already to this end.

  3. Singhamanas says:

    I learned recently that the words ‘In God We Trust’ were only added to the dollar bill following the conclusion of the Second World War and the concomitant clash of ideologies soviet and ‘western’. Hitherto ‘God’ per se was decidedly absent from the picture, yet of course in the conflict of the Cold War, God was drafted back in by the Americans in order to strengthen the line of demarcation between them and their perceived atheist enemy.

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