The art of the possible

“Politics is the art of the possible.” This old adage has come to mean different things to different people. Its meaning varies depending on whether one choses to put the emphasis on the “art” or on the “possible” part.

If you put the emphasis on “art,” then politics begins to sound more like a possibility: By choosing to reshuffle the cards, by coming up with fresh ideas and looking for new alliances, you can turn around a game that seemed doomed.

If, on the other hand, you put the emphasis on “possible” – and if possible is understood as a lowering of one’s expectations and ambitions – then politics is no longer interpreted as the art of fulfilling rightful claims, but gets relegated to the day-to-day management of ill fortune, to the recycling of mediocrity and to the legitimization of stagnation. In that case, we usually blame “dire reality” for the fact that we concede defeat before we even waged a battle.

To put it differently, according to the more affirmative version, the “possible” resembles a rugged path which, trodden carefully, may well lead you to a clearing. According to the defeatist version, the “possible” is what the Battle of the Caudine Forks in 321 BC was to the Romans. Having been trapped by the Samnite army amid the higher mountain valleys among the Apennines, the Roman soldiers were left with only one option: to put themselves in the yoke in the presence of their foes.

Eight out of ten times, to invoke the saying that “politics is the art of the possible” is to recommend inertia, to dictate inaction that will supposedly bring the kind of reward befitting a quiet, well-behaved child. However, good behavior must not be taken as a synonym for compliance. It does not have a single meaning dictated by History: that of accepting, hands down, an endless chain of precedents that have been set without your active participation; without your will, hopes and needs having been taken into account.

Ahead of the elections, there was a lot of comforting talk of “the Greeks are suffering” variety. Sure, we heard it, but we did nothing about it. We did not make it policy in a bid to rid ourselves of what is making us suffer.

Post-election, and because it would be unethical to discard the clear public mandate, we have heard many voices from outside (US President Barack Obama for one) asking for an end to the policies of austerity. The game is still on. Those who think so understand politics as fatalism. And they are turning a deaf ear to criticism at home as well as the voices of support from abroad.