Redefining Democracy in Greece Today

That the Greek people today have had minimum influence in political decision-making, or that their protests against actions taken by either elected or “appointed” governments are ignored and often treated as terrorist acts, is not news; that they no longer trust what these governments do is news, for it is among other things the story of their democracy’s rape and the death of their political life. On any account it is a tragic loss for Greece, fully commensurate with the stolen economy of the Greek people.
Even in this country of incompetent politicians and tax-evaders whose ingenious thievery is often celebrated by sardonic wits, democracy is still in the minds of most Greek people as they consider what citizens can and should do to promote the common good. This is an old-fashioned idea to be sure, but the Greeks have often been “laid-back” in some areas; in this case perhaps rather refreshingly. For the everyday lives of Greeks, whatever their economic class, have always been implicated in, indeed constituted by, their involvement formally or informally in the governance and critique of political life and not just in the act of voting. But these days, apart from their hunger and homelessness and worries about increased taxes and reduced incomes, Greek people face a void: there is no citizen’s public domain.
Here is what is missing, what is no longer there: there is no forum for the general will and no way to form a political will—what the Greeks name politike boulesis—another old-fashioned concept that the Greeks still respect and to which they refer all the time in their informal discussions. While MPs and prime ministers always evoke the will of the laos or people in their populist rhetoric, they have managed to empty the notion of all its significance. Parliamentary debate in recent times has been mostly repetitive and circulatory, tedious ego-tripping disguised as a concern for elections which are taken to be the sole measure of a living democracy; there are no proposals for radical measures to deal with ongoing problems of tax evasion, unemployment, diminished health care, increased migration with a debilitating brain-drain—all the problems of a country in default. In fact parliament has become largely the protective space of its members whose credibility no longer exists. This is the most recent development in the lamentable history of a party system ridden by patron-client relations and authoritarian practices that constitute the most egregious instances of the betrayal of democracy and of a truly representative body of legislators.
Representative government in Greece today neither represents nor governs. Worse, there is no independent public arena for the competing views of individual wills, no discussion by the many, and most importantly, no place for the marginal and the silent to emerge and be heard. The media studiously report the activities and speeches of political leaders every day and their often dramatically-expressed claims of their “savior” party; comments on and criticism of the austerity measures come and go daily, some actually acute but most missing the mark entirely; “PSI” (private sector involvement) which few Greeks understand is enunciated like a mantra; but, there is no formal public nod towards or recognition of the continuing protests and the general strikes as the “language” of a people seeking to be active in debate in any way they can. The references in the media to whatever people are doing to express questions, disapproval of government action, and their own wonderings about alternatives to the current so-called “resolution” of the Greek crisis are all too occasional. There are “spot” interviews with ordinary Greek citizens about how they are coping with the family shopping, the loss of jobs and diminished savings, but no Greek person as of this writing has ever been asked in the media how she or he sees the big issue that is the country’s very transformation into a non-world (never mind third world) economy. It seems that the people do not count (as democratic participants one supposes) in the present moment, in this time of crisis, given the dictates of the so-called Troika, the EU leadership, whose austerity rules and programs about salary reductions, increased taxes and bail-out funds promise to “save” Greece from default and an exit from the EU. All of these measures we are to believe are for the sake of the people of Greece whose speech and actions are not taken into account.
Thus, in what is left of a public domain, namely the media, there appears to be no awareness of the fact that the people could become, might already be, a “dead public,” so indifferent and cynical that any democratic election held in the next fifty years (a conservative estimate) will not yield a “credible public preference” pace the polls, and this because there is little or no trust in current political leadership. Whoever, whatever is elected will not therefore represent any majority. In the most recent parliamentary election of May 20th this is exactly what happened; no party received the percentage of votes needed to form a government. There may be here some perverted version of Arrow’s great theorem of the paradox of democracy where, however, it is not the multiplicity of choices that defeats the emergence of a clear majority but the lack of real choices or alternatives that make the ordering of preferences either impossible or at best risible. And this is the measure of the great rape of democracy in Greece. This may be, not accidentally, a by-product of what has been called “post-democracy,” or perhaps neoliberalism, a new type of so-called democracy that operates according to the rules of global corporations and high finance that include among a roster of virtues: efficiency, productivity and profit.
For ordinary Greeks these are not the virtues of democracy firstly, though they may be by-products eventually; the principles of democracy for the proverbial “man/woman on the street” still are dialogue, participation, and promotion of the common good as an always continuous struggle. It is the quotidian struggles of the Greek people as a whole that are ignored or reported as fringe, even lunatic movements. Yet it is clear even to many Greek people that their needs and opinions count and that these have to be accounted for in a democracy. Thus it is not solely election-time that evidences the “will” of the people, but all of the protests, strikes, public rallies, and formal discussions in party conferences as well as informal discussions in whatever arena is available. It is in these forums that the general will is likely to emerge, where there is a measure, if any, of democracy. Greeks talk a lot. They do not hide their preferences nor their skepticism or ambiguities. It has been said often that in the heart of every Greek there beats a political leader; this does not mean that they are megalomaniacs; they simply want to be heard. That great defender of liberty, John Stuart Mill, might have been proud of the Greeks today as opposed to current European leaders who are in dread of the outcome of the next parliamentary elections to be held on the 17th of June. For this election is very much about whether Greeks will live in a democracy or in a paternalistic, tutored society where everyone else but they knows what is good for them. And it is this dominant perception and feeling that has given strong public support to Syriza or the Coalition of the Radical Left Party. These elections are not just about whether Greece stays in or leaves the Euro Zone as claimed by the two traditional major parties of New Democracy and PASOK. They are about how Greeks will live with equal moral dignity and economic opportunity. Both of these requirements for a good life have been denied to the Greek people in recent times by events and factors too well known to repeat here. What needs to be seen here is that the rise of the Radical Left at this historical moment in Greece is coterminous with the redefinition of democracy in Greece. The Left as a major political force grew out of this continuing reassessment of democracy by the Greek people.
The debates among major right and centrist candidates in Greece today concentrate, once again, on issues defined as either/or—that is, either Greece stays in the Euro zone and flourishes or is kicked out and fails; either austerity or default, either. . . . This exclusiveness that amounts to closure constitutes a veritable “terrorist” scenario that is taken to be “realistic” by European leadership. The other party—Syriza—with its leader, Alexis Tsipras, described in the western media as young, handsome and tieless (!), is opening the issues and asking questions, taking into account the multiple contestations of the Greek people. That Tsipras seeks the annulment of the infamous Memorandum is part and parcel of his effort to launch a new kind of open society: dialogue and reexamination of the Greek economic crisis in response to the Greek voices the Left hears.
All the protest movements of the last two years—independent non-party aligned citizen groups that include the early Greek aganachtismenoi or “indignants”; organized strikes by angry unions but especially the persistence for months now of the steel workers strike in Aspropyrgos; rallies where public discussion is encouraged (possibly the only struggling remnant of a public domain) held by three parties of the left, Syriza, the Democratic Left, and KKE, the Greek Communist Party—all these constitute and attest to a battle for democracy in Greece. These are not acts of terrorism but movements towards a polity where continual examination, review, and renewal (recall the “revolutionary” ethos of US President Thomas Jefferson) secure isonomia—political equality—the soul and substance of the democracy Greece bequeathed to the world. The question today for Greeks is whether what is going on in Greek political life is democracy, whether it is just the elite—technocratic or otherwise—who can speak their minds and engage in decision-making, whether political equality has been lost forever or can be retrieved, reactivated and reinstated. For, arguably, the greatest legacy of ancient Greece to the world is not simply the birthing of democracy but the necessary conditions of its flourishing.
It is true that Greeks talk all the time, expressing political views in debates where constant interruption of speakers is the rule. Yet what emerges in a comedy of pompous orators is a profound seriousness: it is crucial to be heard and recognized for democracy is not just freedom to speak, it is the equality of speech as well and somewhere in the balance of equality and freedom are the glory and fragility of democracy. In defense of this democracy Greeks organize, protest, reach out for support and in tandem shock the world. But a great matter is at stake: for once again in their troubled country the current demagogues of political parties, the bailouts and the austerity programs or the “wisdom” of the economic experts—the Troika for Greece—have destroyed a democratic way of life that has been constantly struggling to survive in a contemporary Greece shackled throughout the twentieth century by “benevolent” tyrannies, paternalistic conservative governments, and a big time military coup. There is little appreciation in the world today that the Greeks literally cannot live, or at most can live barely and uncomfortably, unless they constantly examine—elenchein is the Greek verb—in whatever way they can, the conditions of their lives. Without this examination and critique (a Socratic idea everybody in Greece learns almost at birth) there is no democracy for Greeks.
The fragility, even exiguity, of democracy today in the nations of the world is widely acknowledged at least by those who nurture hopes and ideals of securing freedom, equality and justice among the abject and deprived peoples of the earth—the 99%. There are those of course who continue to believe that there is enough democracy in the world; indeed, it is argued, the world might be better served by restricting democratic practices since it appears, to them, that the economic and political crises in many societies are due to the taking of democracy in their hands by people whose hands and minds, are largely clueless.
In its current debility Greece can still offer to the world the phenomenon of a people who do not want to be clueless: people can be uniformed, held in bondage but still be thinking, wondering, and protesting, debating even silently among themselves the great idea that democracy as isonomia, political and social equality, and a concomitant economic equality, is always up for defense. In the Greek language, ancient and modern, there are at least five different terms or concepts for the English “equality,” the French “egalite.” These are isokratia, equality of strength or power; isonomia, equality of political rights; isopoliteia, equality of civic rights; isoteleia, equality in tax and tribute; isotimia, equality of privilege or value; and the great generic term: isotes, equality, justice and fair dealing. Greeks are armed with their language that demands equality in its multiple democratic forms. The abiding, underlying issue now in the upcoming elections is the redefinition of democracy in Greece and the question: Is there democracy and equality in those nations that claim to tutor the crushed Greek social formation?

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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