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Greek Economic Recovery Has Nothing to Do With Odysseus

According to the prime minister, Greece is emerging from bailout life like Odysseus coming home to Ithaca. This comparison could use some work.

Menelaos Myrillas/AFP/Getty Images

In 2010, at a picturesque port on the island of Kastelorizo, then Prime Minister George Papandreou announced the start of “a new Odyssey for Greeks”: entry into an austerity-focused International Monetary Fund-European Union bailout agreement to help finance the country’s debt. “We know the route to Ithaca,” Papandreou said, “and we’ve got a map.” Eight years and $360 billion later, last month Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced the end of the third such bailout program. Speaking from a peaceful cove on the island of Ithaca itself—Odysseus’s home and final destination—Tsipras took full advantage of the symbolism to declare the long voyage over.

The analogy was designed to appeal to the country’s love of associating with the grandeur of Ancient Greece, and to flatter its citizens, comparing their troubles with the story of one of literature’s archetypal heroes, whom they study in school. In Homer’s epic poem, it took Odysseus ten years to return to his home island after the end of the Trojan war, making eight years of contemporary austerity a slight improvement. Greek citizens had to face pension cuts and tax hikes, and infrastructure privatization. Odysseus had to fight a Cyclops, survive storms at sea conjured up by the god Poseidon himself, navigate his ship between Scylla and Charybdis, resist the enchanting song of the Sirens, and even pay a visit to the underworld .

But beneath the superficial lure of a mythic analogy, the comparison suggests a worrying degree of confusion in Greek political discourse about what the past eight years have meant, and the lessons the country should draw from them.

Arnold Böcklin’s depiction of Odysseus and the Cyclops
Wikimedia Commons

The Odyssey is a story about the triumph of human agency. Even though Odysseus’s return to Ithaca is aided by the goddess Athena, his struggle is that of a mere mortal against divine powers—a celebration of resourcefulness and tenacity in the face of life-threatening challenges thrown at him by gods much more powerful than he is. The Greek crisis, meanwhile—according to the narrative that the current Greek government itself created—was the story not of a country employing the powers of quick thinking and creativity to come up with clever ways of overcoming the tricky predicament it found itself in, but of a country which had a solution imposed on it from above. The bailout agreements contained detailed rules about the running of the state and its economy, which many Greek citizens perceived as undermining Greece’s autonomy and democracy.

Nor have these last eight years been a story of Greece’s tenacity and determination to overcome its crisis, despite what its citizens have suffered — a 25 percent loss of the country’s GDP, numerous pension cuts, and unemployment rates of 30 percent. Elected officials of this period, despite voting through parliament the terms of one bailout agreement after another, went on to drag their feet throughout their application, often merely pretending to comply with the terms. The behavior resembled Virgil’s less flattering portrayal of Odysseus in the Aeneid—as the crafty con-man behind the Trojan horse—more than Homer’s honorable protagonist.

But, above all, comparing the present moment to Odysseus’s Ithaca homecoming suggests a return to how things were before: something neither possible nor desirable for Greece in the wake of the financial crisis. A return to ‘how things were before’ for Greece would mean a return to a state of ignorant bliss, before the abrupt awakening of 2010, when the severity of the debt crisis became explicit. It would also mean a return to an economy and political class with all the bad habits and mismanagement practices that helped set the country on this woeful journey in the first place. What’s more, despite the official end of the bailout agreements, Greece is still bound by numerous commitments to its creditors for the coming years, including  what many claim are unrealistic growth and surplus targets. It will remain under surveillance for years to come by its creditors to ensure it actually meets those targets. Greece is a long way from returning to a sense of normality, and has yet to regain autonomy when it comes to decision-making about its economy. Even Tsipras contradicted his own analogy with his closing statement: “Ithaca is only the beginning”—a stark departure from the final destination Ithaca represented in Homer’s poem.

“Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control and self-definition,” according to philosopher Daniel Dennett, is “telling stories and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others—and ourselves—about who we are.” It’s a statement as true of politics as of individuals. 

But not all of the stories we tell about ourselves are equally convincing, and some of them might even be damaging. The Odysseus analogy is just the latest in series of Greek narratives since the start of the crisis, none of which helped the country understand how it had arrived near the point of debt default, nor how to fix the situation. On the one hand, there were the ‘grand scale’ narratives, seeing Greece as the victim of global finance or of a rigged Euro structure that benefitted richer, northern countries and punished the poorer, southern ones. That story downplayed any way Greek actions might have contributed to the crisis, therefore also downplaying any Greek ability to improve the situation. Other narratives focused on the mistakes of Greece’s own political class: Some saw Greece as paying the price of hubris for all those years of living beyond its means and for citizens’ tax-evasion, meaning maybe Greece deserved what it was going through. Then there were those who saw the crisis as simply the result of badly negotiated bailout agreements—negotiations a game-theory specialist finance minister, like the one installed later in 2015, could do better at.

These narratives were all one-sided and reductive. The truth is that the Greek crisis was caused by a combination of factors: domestic mismanagement of the economy and budget, the overreaction of financial markets to any new potential threat after failing to predict the 2007 subprime mortgages crash, and the EU’s lack of structures to help manage a country’s bankruptcy. In failing to recognise the numerous causes contributing to Greece’s crisis, the dominant narratives oversimplified the country’s complex predicament. 

The fundamental issue with the reductive narratives has been that they made the crisis seem either impossible to overcome, or something that could be simply solved by the right election or referendum result, neither of which were true. Concrete policies, not merely the signalling of political will, were and are necessary at the domestic level, and better structures possible at the European Union level.

Perhaps looking for narratives about its past was the wrong exercise for Greece during these years. In trying to make sense of the present by looking backwards, these stories served as a distraction or exculpatory narrative. Abandoning these self-serving origin stories, along with the implausible appeals to Ancient Greek myths, would allow Greece to focus on developing a different kind of narrative—one about where it wants to be in the future.  A return to Ithaca is not an option.