Mar 22 2013

The Politics of Blame

By Max Hänska

When things go wrong someone is blamed. Throughout the current crisis there have been several convenient scapegoats: the EU itself, southern European countries and Germany, among others. Passing the buck is an all too familiar rhetorical strategy, but it is not constructive. It is not conducive to the diplomacy that a collective response requires, nor does it elevate the public’s understanding of the challenges faced.

During the first act of the sovereign debt crisis in 2010, the German news magazine Focus famously titled that the Greeks were “Cheats in the Euro Family.” The Bild Zeitung reproduced the discourse of Greeks as dishonest and feckless people, by coining the neologism ‘Pleite-Griechen’ (bankrupt Greeks). Bild went on to demand that president Samaras issues his guarantee ‘that Greece will repay all its debt’ in writing. The subtext was unmistakable: they cheated once, that’s what caused the mess, we should never trust them again.

The EU itself has also been blamed time and again for imposing harsh measures on debtor states. Reading some of the press in the UK one would believe the EU is responsible for everything, from sluggish economies, unwelcome immigration as well as the inability to deal adequately with people wanted on terrorism charges. In a recent article Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, lamented what he called a ‘blame game’: a state of affairs in which problems or unpopular issues are presented as European failures, and policies that are popular and successful are presented as the success of national governments (even if they were developed by European institutions).

He recounts a familiar policy with less well known origin. The financial transaction tax, which as a Europe wide tax had its origins in the European Commission and the European Parliament, was implemented by 11 countries in January 2013. When it was implemented it was presented as a Franco-German success, the success of national governments in implementing popular policies. Little mention was made of the fact that European institutions significantly contributed to these policies.

Indeed, an earlier attempt to agree on such a tax, during the Sarkozy government, had failed because Germany and France could not agree its terms. This setback, Schulz writes, was presented then as a European failure, rather than a failure on the part of member states. Schulz argues that this pattern is repeated elsewhere. Successful European policies are often usurped by national government who claim them as their own success. Successes belong to nations, failures to Europe.

This is ironic because areas of European competence, the common market for instance, seem to be doing remarkably well through the crisis. Notably many of the challenges faced across Europe, say in areas of economic policy, financial regulation, or the structure of the banking sector, fall into the remit of national governments.

Scapegoating is a familiar political strategy in electoral politics: blaming someone else to distract from your own failures. Germany too has been blamed. In 2012 the New Statesman called Angela Merkel “Europe’s Most Dangerous Leader.” This anti-German narrative is familiar, as more recent reactions across the European press seem to name Merkel and Schäuble as primary culprits for a bailout characterised by some as  ‘robbery, plain and simple.’ Notwithstanding that it appears to have been the Cypriot government itself that chose to spread the levy across small and large depositors in order to limit damage to its status as an offshore financial centre. The political imperative is to blame someone else and deflect blame from oneself. Enforcing the narrative that brutish Germans are selfishly punishing other European states remains politically more convenient in the short term.

The examples picked above are clearly a small selection, and anyone could come up with dozens more. The narrative of blame in public discourse is hard to miss. Particularly the EU and Germany might one day become the Scylla and Charybdis of popular imagination, threats to be avoided and monsters to be overcome. As politicians everywhere clamour for re-election, politics becomes more about scapegoating and blame avoidance than building alliances and implementing good policies.

The rhetorical strategy of blaming others, might be convenient in the short term and take a government through the next electoral cycle, but it is certainly not constructive. The blame game carried out in much of the press is not conducive to a collective and rational discourse on the crises’ causes and solutions; in fact, it probably does little more than erecting political obstacles that will have to be overcome in one way or another at some point in the future. If the Bild convinces Germans that Greeks are lazy, and the New Statesman convinces people that Germany is a problem to be solved, they are contributing nothing to solving the crisis, all they do is build up prejudices that make the kind of cooperation needed politically ever more difficult to achieve.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

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15 Responses to The Politics of Blame

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  10. Yiannis says:

    The nominalization of blame according to nationality is obviously reductionist and does not allow enough space for critique and understanding of the contradictions of the particular crisis, and of any socio-political crisis. Not to say that it cumulates public spite and racial prejudices as the constant blaming and mockery of Greece and Greeks by media spectacles has shown.
    However, I think that your article lacks an understanding of the power inequalities at play in this crisis. How are we left to conceive the particular crisis? Are all parties in the debate on who to blame equal? The crisis is a capitalist crisis -further related to the crisis of liberal democracy and the advent of neoliberalism. There are preveiling (largely private) economic interests related to the politics followed by particular states that have the power to impose their political agenda in transnational political institutions, such as the EU, who are not as democratic as they aspire to be. We need to name adversaries, avoiding generalizations. This is not hard to be achieved, but one needs to use class orientated concepts in order to approach the identities of those involved in the conflict.

  11. Tadhg de Sales says:

    I think your point about reductionist blame is entirely valid. The anti-German sentiments you describe are a clear example of this.

    After all, it was an emotional and unreasonable public (influenced by irresponsible institutional behaviour) that led to the invincible clamour of the Eurozone lending boom. It would be foolish to think the same public is any less emotional and unreasonable now the boom has bitten back.

    But if we accept that institutional (media, governmental, regulatory) behaviour may limit unreasonable positivity in boom times, surely it follows that they might limit unreasonable negativity and recrimination during a bust.

    It is vital that those who inform public opinion do so with a sober diligence throughout the business cycle. This goes for central banks, government, and the media. Admittedly, how society regulates this balance is a difficult subject.

    But blame is one of the most important implements in the public toolbox. Not only can public blame lance a mischievous Government with a fatal scorn and derision, the threat of impalement by public opinion is quite enough to jolt any mischievous Government, agency, or associated scallywag into prudent obeisance.

    Lets not condemn our blame itself, but the irresponsible commentary and reckless institutional behaviour which is the enemy of the public interest.

    Just like our public finances, the public blame must be austere, stringent, and carefully protected.

  12. Alice says:

    From your further comments, it seems that your concerns lie more with the tendency to blame individuals rather broader structures. I wonder what accounts for this tendency in the popular press. Another obvious example would be vilification of ‘greedy bankers’ rather than relevant interest structures – regulation etc. Are there any crises (or, any type of media) for (in) which individuals have not been blamed?

  13. Max Hänska says:

    The German evening news (Heute Journal) had an interesting piece on anti-German sentiments. A TV reporter offered an account of the mood in Cyprus and recounted the difficulties of getting interviews with people on the street. “People we approached often declined to speak with us saying they want nothing to do with Germans” he explained.

    But not only on the streets, also among Finance ministers are tensions said to be rising. Reportedly Luxembourg’s foreign minister said about Germany: “you accuse Cyprus of having an inflated banking sector, we don’t accuse you of having an inflated arms industry.” These are not good sign. After all, the Eurozone has a long way to go yet. Rising resentment make public diplomacy and working together to reach good decisions ever harder.

  14. Tadhg deSales says:

    Interesting article. Although you have established that we tend to allocate blame quite a bit, it isn’t self-evident that blame is a bad thing.

    Blame is just another term for identifying the underlying causes of an adverse event in a particularly forceful way. Blame in itself can be a constructive criticism.

    Indeed, in Ireland, the Fianna Fáil led Government received such an enormous amount of blame for the diminished effective bank regulation and subsequent recapitalisation, that they were forced out of office. That Government were replaced by one which had to be seen to stand for austerity and prudence.

    This is just one small example of where blame can be an effective way of orchestrating change.

    Governments and institutional agencies of Governments are not individuals. They must learn to accept blame as a valid response to a systemic failure. Without blame and accusation, one wonders if we would even be half as far into resolving the European sovereign and banking crisis.

    • Max Hänska says:

      I broadly agree with you that sometimes allocating blame amounts to the identification of causes, and no doubt sometimes blame is well deserved. However it seems to me that much of the blame we see allocated in the press and public discourse has not been particularly helpful in carefully identifying these causes. Why then speak of blame and culpability, why not speak of causes, if that’s what is ultimately important? There are two reasons why I would prefer public discourses moving away from an emphasis on blame.

      The causes of the current crisis seem to be multiple and complex. Blame is often reductionist: heartless Germans, lazy Greeks, greedy bankers. It distracts us from the bigger picture, and leads us to think that the crisis has a simple cause, and thus a simple solution.
      Furthermore, it seems that many of the challenges we face have to do with the design of the currency union and with structural differences between European economies. Blame generally tries to pick out a culprit, but it is misleading and unhelpful to make individuals or groups solely responsible for structural conditions.
      Generally it just does not seem to me that this discourse of blame is constructive.

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