My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
Current affairs across the world raises the problematics of authority and sovereignty anew. Let’s begin with Sunday’s Greek elections. It is now fairly certain that the pro-bailout New Democracy party will lead the new government, although it failed to secure an outright majority. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras is quoted as having said that the victory suggests that “the Greek people voted today to stay on the European course and remain in the eurozone”. In other words, Samaras claims that he and his party now speak with authority on behalf of the majority of Greek people (which in effect amounts to the majority of voters who turned out to vote in the election – 62%). New Democracy translates this turnout further into a vindication of European authority and the authority of the Eurozone. The anomaly here is of course that with this claim, Mr Samaras in fact defers Greek political authority to Europe and the Eurozone. But what is this “Europe” and the “European course” that the Greeks allegedly chose to remain on? In an excellent analysis written before the current elections, Slavoj Zizek wrote that the elections would represent a real choice for the Greeks: the establishment (New Democracy, Pasok) versus the “radical-leftist” Syriza. Zizek argues that the establishment realized that the elections represented a real choice this time and responded to this problem with the politics of fear: “if Syriza wins Greece will be thrown out of the Eurozone, causing the economy to collapse, which in turn will cause the Euro to collapse which in turn will lead to the devastation of Europe and perhaps the entire West as we know it”. As Zizek wrote: “Such predictions are self-fulfilling, causing panic and thus bringing about the very eventualities they warn against. If Syriza wins, the European establishment will hope that we learn the hard way what happens when an attempt is made to interrupt the vicious cycle of mutual complicity between Brussels’s technocracy and anti-immigrant populism. This is why Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, made clear in a recent interview that his first priority, should Syriza win, will be to counteract panic: ‘People will conquer fear. They will not succumb; they will not be blackmailed.’ Syriza have an almost impossible task.”
It cannot be doubted that these threats of total collapse advocated by the European establishment (read authority) caused many a Greek voter to rethink who they were going to vote for – effectively rendering the possibility of a “real choice” unimaginable for many. So in actual fact, Zizek’s hope for a real choice was destroyed in advance. The truth is that the European establishment in fact capitalized on the pre-existing fear on the part of many Greeks that a non-conservative victory would mark the collapse of their economy. Samaras followed suit, framing the election as a referendum on the Euro and continued to sponsor TV campaigns showing a forlorn schoolgirl asking why Greece wasn’t a member of the Eurozone. Time reports that it is the fear caused by this kind of mass-indoctrination that “pervaded the divided electorate”. But it is not at all a given that there is a direct link between, say, a victory for Syriza and economic collapse. It is in fact only the Communist Party that advocates an exit from the Eurozone, a tear-up of the bailout plan and a return to the Drachma and they do not have much support. Syriza consistently said that it supports the Eurozone and wants Greece to remain in it. Samaras’s strategy of pulling the wool over the electorate’s eyes was coupled by European tactics to portray a non-conservative victory as a sign that the Greeks are dishonest people who do not honor their promises to the rest of Europe to abide by the conditions of the austerity packages that have already been granted. Add to this the fact that it is not at all a given that the New Democracy victory will not lead to an exit from the Eurozone. Observers and market analysts have argued that Greece’s exit is “inevitable”. The whole of the Greece v Europe debacle can be viewed as a desperate attempt on the side of Germany (oops, I mean Europe) to establish its authority and supra-sovereignty over those “dissident” and “misbehaving” Greeks. The truth is that New Democracy has no authority other than the “authority” it ironically derives from and refers to that ambiguous signifier called “Europe”.
This brings us to Syria, where the crisis of authority has left more than 14 000 people dead. The Syrian government is no longer a government of authority but one of violence with the army deploying militias (known as “shabiha”) to carry out its more bloody murders. BBC News reports as follows: “As the repression of dissent intensified, the meaning of the word “shabiha” expanded, with people from across Syria beginning to use it to refer to pro-regime militiamen who acted with impunity”. And the UN peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous, has already stated that Syria is now in a situation of civil war. Meanwhile, moving your Google Earth cursor to the recently liberated country of the pharaos and the pyramids will find you a ruling military that has just granted itself sweeping powers aimed at staying in power without having authority after the dissolution of parliament following a court ruling. The Muslim Brotherhood has denounced the step as “unlawful and a coup against democracy”.
And we’re back in South Africa where the spat between the ruling party and the ruling party’s youth league continues to dominate front pages. City Press reports this morning that the presidency has denied rumours that the President quickly flew to Mexico to attend the G20 when he heard that there was a possibility that he would be embarrassed by the youth if he were to speak at a Youth Day event in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. “Detractors”, such as, for instance, the Mail & Guardian, reported on Friday that Eastern Cape ANC leaders were told not to provide the platform at the event to any of Zuma’s potential presidential challengers. And Minister Collins Chabane was no hit as Zuma’s replacement when he told the youth that their participation in service delivery protests are exploitative and that they should rather play an important role in the uplifting of their communities by concentrating on their education. Pardon my ignorance, but I always thought that the two amount to the same thing – especially in a country where children are still going to school under trees and where the government fails to deliver the textbook supply for months.
If you ask me, Hannah Arendt’s contention (way back in the fifties) that the world is undergoing a crisis of authority, remains as true as ever.
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