The current economic crisis seems to be showing no signs of abating. As I write this the Greeks are about to go to the polls for the second time within a month and it’s quite possible they will return a left wing government that will reject the austerity measures demanded by the EU and the IMF, which will in turn signal Greece’s exit from the euro. And not far behind we have Spain, and possibly Italy. Beyond that, who knows.
It’s easy to get caught up in the economics and politics of all this, which is being fuelled by the way the media covers the subject. What seems to be getting a lot less coverage is the human cost of this crisis. And by this I don’t only mean the ever increasing suicide rate in Greece, the families begging on the streets, the soup kitchens and so on. There is also a more subtle and hidden human dimension. By this I’m thinking about the individual and collective dreams and aspirations that are being ground into the dust, the wasted years (and sometimes decades) of unemployment, the lost career and educational opportunities, the foregoing of holidays and nights out.
With every economic crisis there is an interweaving of the personal and the social. There is also the as yet under-explored relationship between capitalism and fantasy: in many ways capitalism can be seen as a way of realising individual and collective fantasises, whilst at the same time creating a perpetual desire for new things, new fantasises. In a severe economic crisis such fantasises are ruptured, thrown into question: people become more uncertain and begin to fear the future. At the same time there seems to be a creeping social amnesia: as if any of this was new, as if there hadn’t been serious economic crises in the past, as if the whole of the twentieth century had not been characterised by revolution, war and violence, whole peoples displaced, and in some cases murdered (it’s too early to tell whether this will be the legacy of the twenty first century).
But this is precisely the nature of fantasy: it has no sense of history. And this is why so many people suffer so much during an economic crisis. It’s not just the economic consequences at the individual and family level, i.e. job loss, lack of income, more stressful work environments as those still with jobs fight desperately to hang on to them. It’s also the sense of bewilderment, the sense of injustice, the idea that someone (else) is to blame for this, that it’s the Other’s fault, that this is not supposed to happen. To take a (deceptively) simple example: a job. With a job comes an income (usually), and a lot more besides. A job gives someone a role, a structure, (sometimes) power over others, a sense of identity, a meaning. Furthermore, the income itself means new opportunities, new choices, options. A job allows someone to construct new fantasises, have new aspirations (leaving to one side for the moment the fact that the job also (re)constructs the individual).
So when this job disappears or is under threat there is a great deal at stake. However, there is also a more personal amnesia at play here. A person’s fantasises did not suddenly appear when they started working and earning money. In many ways the workplace simply provides a new stage to enact old fantasies. Does this mean, therefore, that job loss is of no consequence (apart from the economic consequences of course)? Of course not: on the contrary, losing one’s job can be of profound consequence. However, what matters here is the function that the job played in a particular individual’s life, and the extent to which is enabled them to enact their particular fantasies, to live their particular dream.