AS PEOPLE IN EUROPE are seeking ways to deal with the fallout from the Greek crisis, a common theme emerges in the discourses of very diverse agents: others are to blame. No matter what happens, we end up repeating something similar to what was affirmed by a character from Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, who gave us the maxim that is probably the paradigm of all excuses: “whatever one is / other people are to blame.” This conviction clarifies nothing, but provides a good deal of relief; its purpose is to reconfirm us as opposed to them. It explains in simple terms the tension between the global and the local, creates a comfortable contrast between states and markets, divides the world into heroes and villains, and provides the basic outline for the relationship between right- and left-wing forces. As we can see, these operations offer a very comfortable simplification when the world has become difficult to understand because of its growing complexity.
Some people say that the fault lies with German hegemony and the harshness of the creditors. They are not mistaken, although if they magnify these faults, they run the risk of forgetting the irresponsibility of the various Greek governments that falsified their public finances (with the assistance, of course, of some of those who are now part of the band of creditors), reneged on many of their commitments and failed to reform a state that was economically unsustainable even before the crisis.
Others blame the crisis on the clichéd irresponsibility of Southern countries, as if they did not know the disastrous end results of previous bailout plans, as well as the economic benefits that the single currency has afforded Northern European countries. In addition, if a member state needs assistance after suffering speculative attacks by market forces based on an arrangement for which it does not hold sole responsibility, it makes no sense for the bailout to be compensated with drastic structural reforms in that member state alone. There are many things that should be reformed in Southern European countries, of course, but also in the incorrect design of the euro and its defective governance.
We are facing a typical case of recursive responsibility in which all criticisms have an element of the truth, but none of them reveal the full picture. The bad thing is that, with so many mutual accusations, people find many reasons to stop asking about their own ineptitude, the risks they generate with their decisions or their responsibility toward what we have in common. To the extent that allegations against others increase, self-reflection decreases. When the whole field is filled with conspiratorial explanations, there is no space for interrogation about one’s own responsibilities.
We will not get beyond these obstacles until we manage to see our decisions in the context in which they are adopted and that they influence, in ways that can sometimes be catastrophic. Governing involves making every one of the actors who intervene in the process of decision-making aware of the disastrous possibilities that will ensue if they narrow-mindedly pursue their own interests and inviting them to protect themselves against those possibilities with some type of self-limitation. In the end, it is a question of decision-makers realizing that what they must fear is themselves, their unthinking behavior: that a society is not threatened as much by nuclear arms in the hands of the enemy as by its own nuclear power plants; less by the enemy’s biological weapons than by certain experiments by its own scientific community; not by the invasion of foreign soldiers as much as its own organized crime; not by the hunger and death caused by war as much as the disabilities and death caused by its own traffic accidents. That what prevents plural societies from freely deciding their destiny is not so much an external impediment — or not only that — as much as their own lack of internal agreement.
As Ulrich Beck noted, contemporary societies cannot attribute everything that threatens them to external causes; they themselves produce what they do not desire. The question about one’s own responsibility tends to be glossed over when one finds oneself in the midst of systems whose complexity resides in the fact that there are neither clear and indisputable cause and effect relationships nor decisions without side effects. We need to reject the comfortable innocence of conceiving responsibility as something that always falls upon others. This reflexive reversal of the gaze toward one’s own conditions is very similar to the personal maturation that consists of replacing external accusations with internal reflection. In the same way that children learn not to interpret their conflicts as the whole world conspiring against them, complex democracies should be capable of discovering the ways in which they themselves produce their own catastrophes.