Wednesday, July 8, 2015


206. Ideology and language games in the Greek crisis

 The Greek crisis merits an extra item in this blog. Here it is.

What would Foucault have made of the Greek crisis? An important feature of his work is the claim that systems of knowledge are entangled in wider systems of power and authority, forming an ideology. Such systems produce knowledge, but new knowledge, once established, spawns its own institutions, vested with power and authority. Issues of truth become issues of morality. Neo-liberal market ideology is an example.

Wittgenstein proposed the notion of language games. According to his view of meaning as use, meaning is not given outside action but is formed and legitimized in it, in a context that constitutes a form of life.  Having been brought up in that, one takes the rules of the language game for granted, as elf-evident. Non-adherence to the rules is cause of rejection and retribution, and severe punishment when persevered in.

The Greeks and the EU are playing different language games, in different forms of life.
With the EU it is the game of mainstream economics, with the Greeks it is a game of social justice.  

The problem is worsened by the fact that the different language games are played in different national settings and cultures (Germany, Netherlands, … versus Greece), so that parochial altruism also kicks in (see the preceding item in this blog), with internal Greek solidarity and outside suspicion increasing together.

As I have argued elsewhere in this blog (item 180), mainstream economics is not value free, as it claims. It is rooted in a utilitarian ethic, adopted form the English philosophers J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham. It looks only at outcomes of utility/prosperity, not at the quality of motives or at processes, and assumes that different dimensions of value can be brought together under a single, joint measure (utility). It appeals to liberals because it does not meddle in processes and intentions.

This stands in contrast with a virtue ethic, going back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, which looks at outcomes but also intentions and processes, and recognizes multiple dimensions of value, which are not necessarily measurable and commensurable. That requires debate beyond measurement. Could it be that this is the perspective of the Greeks, going back to their own philosopher?

Is some compromise or unification possible?

In my work (see items 31, 35 in this blog) I have developed a theory (if it can be called that) of how invention arises, in a cycle of moving away from established, institutionalized knowledge, into novel contexts of application, adapting it to new demands and opportunities there, adopting elements from the novel context, experimenting with hybrids, to arrive at a more fundamental re-orientation of structures or logics with novel and old elements.

When mainstream economic thought moves into Greece, could it transform itself along such lines? The assumption in the logic is that in order to survive in the new context, the incoming perspective has to meet and accept its limitations or failures there, to be forced to adapt and absorb local elements, as a step towards transformation. But if its power is so large that it can impose the full force of its views, and need not adapt, that will not happen, and learning and discovery will not take place. That is what seems to be happening. Even the resounding ‘no’ from the Greek plebiscite could not sway that power.

Earlier in this blog (item 180), and in a recent book[i], I pleaded for a shift from utilitarian ethics to virtue ethics as the basis for a new economics. But even the Greek crisis appears not to be able to force that issue. Perhaps that will require a revolution.


[i] Bart Nooteboom, 2014, How markets work and fail, and what to make of them, Edward Elgar.