Greece Today

The recent events in Greece—political turmoil, economic failure of the most devastating kind, and public, often destructive, resistance that testifies to a deep suffering in individual human life on many levels—bring to mind the words of the great sage of Greece (for he continues to remain just that) Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue, The Gorgias. In an encounter with the interlocutor Callicles, Socrates literally and uncharacteristically, yells something like the following: “Tell me Callicles, who of the politicians of Athens has ever benefitted the lives of Athenians, who has educated them and helped them to flourish?” Socrates answers his own question, “None, not even your Pericles.” Many have interpreted this passage as consistent with Plato’s criticism of Athenian democracy, more fully presented in The Republic; but it is also, and perhaps mainly, an integral part of the larger problematic of political leadership raised by Plato in his dialogues, and somehow most applicable to the problems of contemporary Greece.

Greeks today are disgusted and enraged to the point of despair (“despair” is part of the thrust of the Greek word “aganaktimesnoi”, translated as “the indignant” but “hopelessly enraged” might have been a better phrase) by the practices of elected government and political leadership—both present and past in Greece. The Greek people, across a wide political spectrum, are now enraged by the deeply entrenched economic inequality that has been roosting persistently and menacingly in what they supposed was an accountable Greek welfare state. That the “kratos” or “politeia”—the state—was not mainly a welfare state as it turns out, but something else all along, with a few nods to real, genuine (one gropes for words here) communal welfare along the road constitutes, for many Greeks, the great betrayal of the present historical moment and has raised many questions among the informed and engaged citizens of Greece: “Where were we, where have we been, why did we not know what was going on?” “Why did we not stop the graft and the theft by the political elite?”  A new consciousness appears to be awakening in a people who are always talking politics, at home or in the tavern. There is now emerging in informal political talk, privately and in the public media, a deep awareness that a lack of knowledge, information, and vigilance, a lack that can so easily infuse everyday life making it complacent and unseeing, can result, as it has, in a political life of lies and half-truths perpetrated by political parties whose hidden agenda in the last three decades put Greece in the market of corporate greed, instituting a dubious economy of borrowing and spending that has brought on, almost beyond repair, the tragedy that is Greece today. The Greeks are now reduced and alienated; they are abject and powerless, since any meaningful account of “who-we-are” and “how-we-count-in-the world” eludes them. They are discarded from the face of the earth.

To be sure, Greece’s tragedy could be all about the contradictions that have periodically plagued social and economic systems—capitalist mainly, but who knows? The complexities of the euro zone and Greece’s perceived threatening and threatened position in it have invigorated debates and analyses that are as much muddling as illuminating. It is not as if the Greeks are getting a full and clear view of their own condition. But in their pain, which is ever present, they are raising historically abiding questions about social injustice and the conditions for human flourishing, and thus addressing an increasingly global problematic. Recent cataclysmic events have caused Greeks to query their own economic and political life and in the darkness that surrounds them the owl of Minerva once again takes flight, or so one hopes.

The economy has always been precarious in the history of Modern Greece, more of a seesaw than a rising hill with a clear horizon. Thus, for many Greeks still, hope or success in the economic sphere—work, salaries, savings, investments—is usually checked by disappointment and cynicism, a not unfamiliar scenario in a country whose resources have never been properly tapped and whose productivity is more menaced than successful. Greeks are not neophytes in the struggle for the “oikos” or house, but their oikonomia or economy has been more often lacking than resourceful, compelling Greeks to act on short term interests rather than attempting to identify and promote what may be in their interest in the long term.

A few examples of the shaky Greek oikos may be instructive: in the early nineties Greeks were making Nissans with imported Japanese parts in a factory in the city of Volos. The factory was short-lived and since the made-in-Greece Nissan remains one of the best cars on Greek roads many drivers still ask about the fate of the factory but this remains largely unknown. There are other homely narratives: to many Greeks it is still incredible that Greece is not able to export on a large scale what many consider to be the finest olive oil in the world, or that much of the native product is packaged by its good neighbor Italy and then exported by Italy who, to be fair, lists on the label “Packaged in Italy” not “Produced in Italy.” The claim, often made, that there are not enough olives in Greece to launch a major industry of olive oil production challenges credulity.

Greek agriculture has never been adequately supported by either the state or private investment, a scenario matched by other sectors of the economy, for example, manufacturing, which has never soared beyond a certain level, and today to be sure is in total decline. The current economic debacle, though directly caused by unrelenting austerity programs, can be said to be another, albeit more virulent, manifestation of a continuing story: the persistently weak, read: sabotaged and undermined, productivity of Greece. That is a tale that still needs to be told for the history of the economic life of Greece is a story of the non-recognition of work, of the abuse of productivity, of misapplied reforms and misdirected justice. The Greek economy has never been robust, a fact every Greek knows and lives with; it is also true that it has never been given a chance by—for starters—the Greeks themselves, who today are facing the possibility of a permanently diminished economic life brought on by the wild borrowing and spending of their own political leadership, and the public debt they are required to pay.    

The current Finance Minister of Greece, Evangelos Venizelos, has asserted recently that there is money in Greece, thus it is a rich nation and therefore worthy of support by the EU, an argument (!) used to justify the continuing bailout of Greece. The syllogism suggests that the EU exists primarily for the rich which may be the case but if so it is scarcely endearing to a Greek population which has been violated by its own rich elite whose tax-evasion continues unabated and unaccountable. If the Greeks have a place in the EU it is, one wants to believe, because the farmers, the workers in factories, the shop-keepers, the doctors and lawyers and professors, the women and men holding double jobs, where lucky, are all working very hard, paying their taxes, and being no less productive than any other peoples on this earth. That their own finance minister calls their country rich and therefore worthy of membership in the EU qualifies as a vast insult to perhaps the 99% of Greek people.

But so it is elsewhere in the globalized capitalist world: those who labor to live for they have nothing but their labor to sell are viewed and treated as the main taxable population while their productivity is downgraded and treated as dispensable—again a fancy contradiction of capitalism. Greece is the latest animal in the not-so-subtle capitalist trap; there will be more to come but it will not be the fault of Greece, despite the hysterical pronouncements of the media, and the tiddly-winks of EU and world financial markets. Today, finally, many Greeks have awakened to the barbarians at their gates; only now, unlike the barbarians in the great poem of Constantine Cavafis who never come to the city and so it remains in its permanent ennui, the contemporary corporate capitalist barbarians—Greek and foreign—are the threatening presence, and the reason for resistance in Greece. As they have been doing since the imposition, unevenly again, of austerity measures, the Greeks will continue to fight the financial barbarians in their midst though they may die in the process. Can the Greeks ever have a viable economic life, can they be masters of their house, their oikos, and can their works secure a flourishing life or will they be condemned to the bare life that is imposed by the exigencies of globalized capitalism for the majority of the world’s populations? Greeks finally are asking this sort of question today and no amount of bailout funds can blunt the urgency of their ongoing inquiry. For what is at stake is their oikos.

While the economy is in disarray so is the political life of Greece and for practically all Greeks this is the ultimate injury. Political discussion is the national pastime, considered superior to tracking the private lives of celebrities; recently it has also replaced soccer talk which has always been on a par with, or a close second to, political debate.

A source of life-enhancement for Greeks, in the sense that they talk and live politics, discuss, debate possibilities, and see themselves, even in their humble particularity, as potential saviors of the nation, political debate animates the Greek mind in general and lives lived primarily in the public, communal domain. And it is this political life as a range of dialogues, activities, interests, hopes, and ideals that has been wrenched definitively from the Greeks. The current protests of Greek citizens, across a wide political spectrum, constitute perhaps for the first time in Modern Greek history, a reaction to, and a questioning of the very conduct of the Greek state. It is a query not simply of legitimacy (not so simple a matter to be sure) but of competence, accountability and contractual justice, or whatever justifies the existence of the state. The fearful and often violent events of recent months in the streets of downtown Athens are surely about the failing economy but also political and social issues, which for most Greeks are inseparable from economic matters  The state has failed them in more ways than can be clearly perceived at this point. What remains is to look open-eyed at the damage without the usual tutoring of the political party one has voted for in the past. Today no Greek citizen has any respect for the politicians of the country, and that’s putting it mildly.  

The political party of one’s choice in the life of every voting Greek is a powerful influence; it is what makes a person political and is the measure of one’s commitment to the community as well as an identification of self. It repays the supporter’s loyalty with gifts—appointments of one’s self, one’s children or uncles and aunts to permanent jobs in the public sector, financial grants for favorite projects, etc. What recent events have clearly shown, however—as many students of the Greek social formation have argued in academic papers over the past four decades—is that the Party system of Greece effectively undermines real controversy and contestation, and promotes a false popular consensus. It also exerts an influence on Greek political life that could be out of proportion to, and undermining of, any sustainable individual autonomy and dignity, as well as democracy itself. Following the fall of the military junta in 1974 and for a very brief period there was a coalition approach to political problems, and the new constitution was perceived as a great step towards the securing of genuine democracy in Greece. Today, many thinking persons consider this period—a few months in time—the only moment of genuine democracy in the modern cumbersome and consistently conservative Greek state. To be sure there have been other expressions and practices of democracy in Greece in the 20th century but these have not been state-initiated or state-controlled and hence not recognized as having political significance. To these expressions belongs the short-lived but very articulate autonomous feminist movement of the late seventies-early eighties.  For in Greece it appears that what is not originated or caused or promoted by the state—which is controlled by the ruling political party in parliament—is simply not binding, not worthy of pursuit, not of permanent interest. It is a singular characteristic of Greek political life that the state and its leadership is viewed as either charismatic or foolish, as savior or villain, never as the fumbling, hesitant, experimental enterprise that it is in contemporary western democracies. It is no accident then that the party in Greece that wins the majority electoral vote and takes over, as it were, generally or fairly soon in its sojourn undermines at best, revokes at worst, even decent reforms and rulings of the previous governing party. A common complaint in the country is that the law on a certain matter is not clear and this is so, as it turns out, because the law has changed, and may change again in the course of events—a dizzying state of affairs and more importantly a blinder and excuse for cynicism and inaction.

The state—kratos, politeia—is in effect the product of the agenda of one political party. While its control is de facto, every ruling political party refers to its mandate as coming from the Laos—the people—who give it de jure status. This chorus, as it were, of populist rhetoric in Greece, pervasive since the reinstatement of parliamentary government, is always loud, but in the last two years clearly cacophonic. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that from 1981 and the advent to power of the party founded in 1974 by Andreas Papandreou, PASOK, (Pan Hellenic Socialist Movement whose name I suggest uses a very extended, even unrecognizable sense of the essentially contested term “socialist”), both this party and the rightist New Democracy party reneged on their specific agendas, which up to 1981 had been theoretically discernable. Both parties began to respond mainly and primarily to EU exigencies and both promoted with equal gusto the historically entrenched patron-client practices (for some a heritage of the Ottoman Empire but, it can be argued, the common stuff of politics in the age of Pericles) that Greek political parties have always used for amassing supporters and votes. Cronyism was alive and well and the public sector, the civil service of the state, became bloated, the “achievement” of the two dominant parties in their pursuit of savior-style programs. What also happened, however, was a growing mistrust or perhaps disdain of the ruling party even while one enjoyed its “gifts,” the beginning, perhaps, of the shrinking of political life.  

Greeks are still talking, arguing, striking but, simply and sadly, political life in Greece today is a mockery; it has been put “on hold” and all the Greeks can do now, as they are doing, is shout and scream, “J’Accuse.” There is clearly now a cry for life—material and political—by all ordinary Greeks i.e., poor, non-rich, elite, and even the tax-evading fugitives who still elude a decrepit Greek judicial system where, in addition to the self-abrogation of successive laws and the nebulous separation of powers, there is a bureaucratic paralysis and disservice to justice. The cry is ignored by the pressures of austerity programs and the government’s plea or, some would say wimpy excuse, that there is no other choice. For the record, the present PASOK-ruled state has done nothing as a nod, if nothing else, towards the loyal taxpayers, to collect the millions in overdue taxes which are a mere speck of deposit funds secured in Swiss bank accounts by rich Greeks. It has failed to prosecute the known politicians in its own ranks who made crooked deals with foreign banks. It has done nothing to alter the fact that the political and financial elite continue to live lavishly while masses of people pay for the debt which elite life-styles have inflicted on them. The now-resigned prime minister George Papandreou consistently ignored the calls for elections made by MPs of other parties in parliament in the past year; at no point in the tenure of the PASOK government was there an open dialogue among Greek political leaders and economists of possible alternatives and other measures that could be applied to the vast problem of the Greek debt, as though there were only one way out of the quagmire. To be sure some European leaders were talking about the needed restructuring of the Greek debt. The prime minister, however, simply accepted the “solution” of the so-called Troika in order to get bailout monies, which of course sent the debt soaring to new heights, and ignored the increasing paralysis of productivity in Greece and the reduced chances of economic recovery. Greece is required to pay its debts whatever the cost to its life. When Papandreou proposed a referendum recently the real choice facing the Greek people had become, as Communist MP Liana Kanneli pointed out in a BBC interview, a choice between two kinds of death: suicide or murder. The referendum was not held, not because democracy failed as some have recently commented—democracy in Greece has been failing since the late seventies—but  because, apart from the cries of foul play from Sarkozy and others in the EU, there was no point to it at that juncture of events. But the cry for life continues; ignoring this cry is courting the demise of any democratic, political life in Greece in the future if and when the debts are paid.

Perhaps the most tragic moment in the lives of Greek citizens today is their realization that the “politeia” or “kratos,” their state, to which they owe their allegiance, has been wallowing on the seas like the drunken ship of state in Plato’s famous parable in The Republic: the state has taken them off course, and even drowned some of them. The idea that they have been ruled by rotten captains is as painful as the growing pangs of hunger in their bellies, and the economic insecurity that engulfs them. Sometimes the need for dignity is as powerful as the need for money in one’s pockets or food in one’s stomach.

Public life—i.e., the care for, attention to, involvement in, fighting for, and interminable discussion of, public issues, of ordinary Greek citizens—has now shrunk, against their will to be sure, and is transformed into a beggar’s opera. Political leadership has failed them in more ways than can be clearly or objectively discerned at this point. What remains is to look open-eyed at the damage without the usual tutoring of the political party one has voted for in the past. The idea of a savior party is now being eroded, it would seem, once and for all by the enraged, despairing activism of the Greek people.

But many Greeks are also without hope as they see no solution for their economic plight, and like Diogenes the Cynic look for a man or woman of virtue and competence, someone who does not deceive, who does not excuse lies and corruption, someone who can lead them into a better life. The political horizon in Greece today is stark—as of this writing the nation expects that the arrival of a new prime minister, the appointment of a new cabinet and an interim government of national unity can begin a program of recovery even while the harangues, bitterness and false antitheses between the existing parties continue. Like Diogenes of old a Greek citizen today may choose aversion to political life and retreat into contemplation. That no Greek may give a political damn anymore can mark the death of an entire culture, which of course could be in the interests of those foreign powers and banks who view Greece’s economic mistakes and financial failures as grounds for the dismissal (burial?) of Greece, or its transformation into a lovely, peaceful, tourist haven that adds real culture to the traveler’s vacation—the Parthenon, the ancient theater of Epidavros, the Byronic “isles of Greece” and all that. But surely this is not in the interest of Greeks themselves who have always, even if mistakenly, taken their political life to be integral to the way they live and want to live. There is a continuing almost material/bodily connection of today’s Greeks to the philosopher Aristotle who wrote famously that we are all political animals.

Greeks have usually been portrayed by the media as unruly (a charitable view), anarchist (a term stupidly used to mean avoiding political and economic problems, which is far from the reality of most Greeks), or socialist (a characterization used by phony socialists like PASOK to apply to all Greeks, whereas the real socialists in Greece to whom the term actually applies are only an articulate minority). All of these cursory and largely media-inspired notions pass real Greeks by, as it were. Simply, Greeks are human beings trying to live and even hoping and struggling for a good life—neither angels nor devils but just what most of us are in the world as we know it. Greece today merits more careful analysis of the conjunction of events that slowly but steadily precipitated its own financial and economic failures, and unwittingly created threats to a European community that has been celebrated in its culture, and in the rich language that gave Europe its name.


Anna Cacoullos holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University. She has taught at American universities and the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece, in the Faculty of English Studies, School of Philosophy. Her publications include a book on T.H. Green, and articles on ancient Greek social and political thought, contemporary Greek political culture and feminist theory.

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