In a politically, economically and socially underdeveloped Balkan country in which corruption, cronyism and clientelism largely constitute the driving forces of “development,” “social mobility” and “social progress,” Greece’s only hope of revival from its moral and social morass is a unified left.
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, social and political anthropologists investigating the economic, political and cultural system in Greece during the time of the nation’s debt crisis under the euro regime will undoubtedly be faced with the following questions: What were the mechanisms, the narratives and the rituals that propelled Greek voters to vote either in support of completely incompetent and obedient-to-foreign-powers governments or to refrain from actions of resistance and rebellion at the most critical juncture in the nation’s modern history – a period dominated by the politics of debt peonage and national subjugation, and by the economics of poverty, misery and social exclusion?
The same questions also apply to the earlier political history of the country, i.e., from the time of the reestablishment of parliamentary democracy in 1974 to the eve of the outbreak of the debt crisis of 2010: For there is no doubt that Greece was and remains largely a politically, economically and socially underdeveloped Balkan country in which corruption, cronyism and clientelism constitute for the most part the driving forces of “development,” “social mobility” and “social progress.”
To a large extent, ideological currents in the country moved along the same shameless trajectory: Pasok, the socialist party that dominated Greek politics throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, rose to power and managed for a rather long time to maintain its aura of “radicalism” over a significant percentage of Greek citizens with empty political rhetoric and outright lies. The Communist Party declared its dedication to the vision of Soviet socialism, but worked ceaselessly for bourgeois social order and stability, even forming a government alliance with the right in the late 1980s. Indeed, the Greek Communist Party maintains its opportunistic stance to this day, refusing to collaborate with the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) as its leadership fears that such an alliance might signal the end of the party altogether from national politics.
Political leaders of both parties used the state not as an instrument for carrying out just and effective social and economic policies, but as a tool for realizing party-based goals, clientelist relations and purely personal interests.
Likewise, trade union apparatchiks moved into leadership positions by embracing pro-working class policies, but instead ended up serving government and corporate interests alike. Indeed, trade unionism thrived in the time of fat cows, when strikes were “free of any cost” and the “radicalism” of the union bosses virtually guaranteed them a future ministerial appointment, while today, when the puppet government of the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) is orchestrating the dismantling of industrial relations and the virtual abolishment of the labor movement, the leadership of the “official” trade union movement, as Lambrini Thomas, screenwriter and producer of the documentary film Palikari – Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, notes in a recent interview for Truthout, “sleeps curled at the legs of its bosses.”
In this context, the kind of political culture that emerged in contemporary Greece and, by extension, the deformities in the nation’s economic order, are hardly surprising. The most immediate effects of this adverse development have been the emergence of a huge underground economy and a plethora of never-ceasing financial scandals, with corruption serving as the single most important source of wealth creation. The two major political parties – Pasok and New Democracy (the conservative party) – alternated power by taking turns locking voters into long-term relationships based not on the delivery of public goods and a just social order, but on promises of targeted resource redistribution to party faithful – all while they followed identical strategies seeking to appease and accommodate the country’s vested economic interests – e.g., bankers, industrialists, shipping tycoons, media barons and virtually every other major or influential business entity in between.
As such, political leaders of both parties, both of which qualify as kleptocratic, used the state not as an instrument for carrying out just and effective social and economic policies, but as a tool for realizing party-based goals, clientelist relations and purely personal interests. Both “socialists” and conservatives engaged in the making and implementation of policies that sought to exploit state resources for the transfer of wealth from the public to the private and to redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top.
Outright theft, wasting money on public sector investments of dubious value, total absence of accountability and sheer administrative incompetence are all hallmarks of the Greek state.
Typical examples, to name but a few, include: 1) the Athens Stock Exchange scandal that took place in 1999, with government provided support. This was a scam of grand proportions that lead to the collapse of the stock market with an estimated 100 billion euros changing hands, mostly from small-scale investors to fat cats, and back then it represented the largest redistribution of private wealth ever in the country’s history; 2) the organizing of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, whose cost was intentionally pushed in the upper stratosphere just a couple of months before the start of the games. The actual cost was never made public, but it is estimated to have been in the neighborhood of 18-20 billion euros. What is worse, most of the sports venues built are idle and nearly all facilities around the Olympic Village completely abandoned; 3) the Siemens scandal, (1) in which the German manufacturing behemoth was bribing Greek officials for many years going back to the 1980s; and 4) the real estate scandal at a monastery in Mount Athos, in mid to late 2000, to the tune of 100 million euros.
Outright theft, wasting money on public sector investments of dubious value, total absence of accountability and sheer administrative incompetence are all hallmarks of the Greek state and striking characteristic features of the way the nation’s two major mainstream political parties have been ruling the country since the reestablishment of parliamentary democracy 40 years ago. As such, analyses which seek to explain the deeply corrupt, unethically manipulative and profoundly anti-democratic nature of the Greek political system by highlighting the special privileges that certain corporate or financial elements enjoy in Greece miss the point: The Greek political and administrative system is so corrupt that it extends its arms to virtually all levels of society.
For example, for many decades owners of private vocational schools were able to use their influence and connections with public officials in order to avoid paying taxes when they were due (mostly through bribes of the local tax authorities), and avoid paying their contribution dues to the nation’s social security system. Scores of such business enterprises owe millions of euros each to the Greek state today simply because unbridled corruption permeated all levels of the Greek political and administrative system. Unauthorized and illegal dwelling construction in Greece has been taking place on a massive level for several decades, with homeowners having no problem securing access to water and electricity services from the public companies themselves.
State corruption remains unchecked, with the Greek public sector remaining as of the end of 2013 the most corrupt in the European Union, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
By the same token, the domestic capitalist class has been a primary beneficiary of the peculiar landscape and mechanisms of the Greek public sector. For one, it has been all along thoroughly dependent on the state and, like any parasitic capitalist class, has lived largely off the state budget. The plundering of the public wealth for the benefit of the domestic economic elite has been done largely in the form of huge public work contracts (always with a hefty kickback to the politicians involved) and massive tax evasion. State protection has also been provided to the domestic business-industrial-financial class for labor law violations, environmental pollution etc.
That was yesterday’s news, some people might say. What about today? The truth is that very little has changed on the corruption front since the eruption of the debt crisis back in early 2010, which forced the country to take refuge in a “rescue” scheme involving the EU and the IMF. The “twin monsters” of global neoliberalism imposed draconian austerity measures on the Greek people in return for the bailouts, but state corruption remains unchecked, with the Greek public sector remaining as of the end of 2013 the most corrupt in the European Union, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The notorious corruption scandal involving a list of thousands of very wealthy Greeks with undeclared Swiss bank accounts (the so-called “Lagarde List”) appears to have been buried forever. As reported recently in The New York Times, mechanisms for immunity and amnesty of public officials involved in corruption practices, including bankers who issued huge loans to the political parties of Pasok and New Democracy, which are both financially bankrupt and owe Greek banks subsidized by taxpayers’ money hundreds of millions of euros each, remain an integral part of the domestic legislation. (2)
In this context, the current Greek crisis is not merely an economic crisis, but also a political and moral crisis, which suggests that while ending the austerity-imposed depression (Greece has lost more than 20 percent of its GDP since the start of the EU/IMF bailout agreements, with unemployment hovering near 27 percent and one in three Greeks living in poverty) and getting the economic engine running again is a top national priority, reforming the political system and reintroducing the philosophy of the common good in the nation’s political culture is of vital importance for a sustainable and democratic future.
They acted as intermediaries of the international creditors and puppets of an imperial European Union applying neocolonial policies rather than acting as democratically elected governments whose first duty is protecting and advancing the public interest.
The Coalition of the Radical Left is the country’s last and only hope. Under the puppet governments of the EU and IMF, the Greek economy and society have suffered a fatal blow which can only be compared with outcomes that occur in times of war. The Greek governments of the last five years are fully responsible for the economic and social devastation that the country has experienced in the course of the crisis because they acted as intermediaries of the international creditors and puppets of an imperial European Union applying neocolonial policies rather than acting as democratically elected governments whose first duty is protecting and advancing the public interest.
Because of the crisis, the Greek governments have also adopted fierce and highly authoritarian measures to counter the challenges posed by grassroots movements and people angry about the way their life has been turned upside down by a plethora of policies which ravage their standard of living, create immeasurable misery and deprive the nation of all its public assets.
Subsequently, the early period of popular resistance to austerity policies has given rise to the risk-fear paradox: More people have retreated into their own enclaves than challenge the state authorities and the brutal measures they enforce. To a large extent, this is also due to the fact that a sizeable proportion of the population seems to feel unable to change the course of the direction the country is taking, and probably feels guilty for having elected the same political characters who destroyed the country. Indeed, the current paralysis displayed by a body of citizens that not long ago was in the habit of taking to the streets to protest at every possible opportunity that presented itself requires psychological as well as sociological analysis.
Still, support for Syriza has increased dramatically in the last couple of years as disappointed supporters of the socialists, in particular, are shifting their allegiance to the Radical Left’s side. Its meteoric rise from a marginal party with less than 5 percent of the popular vote in 2009 to some 27 percent in the May 2014 European elections in Greece is the direct result of the austerity-caused depression and the fact that the mainstream political establishment is now seen as both politically and morally bankrupt. If elections were to be held today, Syriza would emerge as the leading party in Greece, but it would probably need to secure strategic alliances with other political parties in order to gain majority rule.
However, Syriza’s most recent programmatic points for leading the country out of the economic crisis have received mixed reviews. A governing Syriza will raise the monthly minimum wage to 751 euros from 586 euros, will provide free electricity to 300,000 households living in poverty, will distribute food coupons to an equal number of families and will restore the 13th monthly retirement payment for over 1 million pensioners. In addition, it will raise the tax-free threshold again to 12,000 euros, will create 300,000 new jobs and will negotiate a major debt “haircut” with Greece’s international creditors. And it will do all those things while keeping Greece in the eurozone. In other words, the position of the party’s leadership, under Alexis Tsipras, seems to be that it will bring about economic and social change in Greece first by changing Europe.
Perhaps the sources of revenue for kick-starting the crumbling Greek economy and for providing a social safety net to the most needy families can be found without a need for EU approval.
This strategy does not sit well with Syriza’s so-called Left Platform, which represents around 25 or 30 percent of the organization’s traditional base of supporters. The Left Platform is pushing hard for the adoption of a more radical agenda, which includes the immediate abolition of all agreements with the EU and the IMF, the nationalization of Greek banks, and having a Plan B for a Greek euro exit. Not long ago, Tsipras seemed to share some of the current views espoused by the Left Platform for the handling of the Greek crisis, but since the party’s emergence as a major political contender he has clearly opted for a more moderate approach.
Be that as it may, Syriza’s vision remains rather cloudy and it’s anybody’s guess what the party will be able to accomplish once it comes to power or what the reactions on the part of the Left Platform might be if a governing Syriza ends up backing down from some of its earlier promises or fails to find a sustainable way out of the crisis. The issue of the Greek debt is particularly thorny as the EU chiefs, Germany in particular, seem completely opposed to any talks of a deep haircut in the formal sector. By the same token, the Left Platform’s call for an immediate end to all agreements with Greece’s international creditors will put the country on a direct collision course with the EU with consequences that are simply unforeseeable.
Looking at some of Syriza’s programmatic points, the case can be easily made that the aims, goals and objectives its formal leadership seeks to realize are incomparable with the chosen strategy. Being a member of the eurozone and virtually bankrupt, the growth policies and social measures proposed by Syriza are unattainable without a “green light” from Greece’s euro partners. This should be plain enough for any simpleton to see. And lest one forgets, eurozone officials have toughened up budget rules since the eruption of the euro crisis by introducing a new EU “fiscal compact.” But perhaps the sources of revenue for kick-starting the crumbling Greek economy and for providing a social safety net to the most needy families can be found without a need for EU approval. In fact, this is what Syriza seems to be implying when it claims that the revenue will come mostly from tackling tax evasion and from taxes due by the rich but not collected so far.
Let’s be serious. This is not an economic program for exiting the crisis so much as a partial list of things one wishes to do. But, as already hinted above, this is not to suggest that the strategy advocated by Syriza’s Left Platform is necessarily a “better” option. It entails great risks and, perhaps more importantly, it does not seem to enjoy much support among the Greek population. Nor can one claim that Greek society is ready to embrace a more radical agenda than the one proposed by Syriza’s formal leadership if there was a more forceful emphasis in that direction.
As things stand, there are very few options left to Greece and it will require great skills on the part of a governing left to maneuver the country out of the debt crisis but without causing in the process a new and possibly greater crisis of economic and also national security dimensions. For this to happen, the party of the radical left must remain united no matter which strategy (or combination of strategies) it opts to pursue. Indeed, nothing could be worse that a divided governing Syriza. A divided governing Syriza is a left with no prospect of ending the crisis, let alone moving the country in a just and sustainable direction. At this point, with the country still in the eye of the storm and the two major, mainstream political parties – socialists and conservatives – having played a critical role in the destruction of the country, both before and during the current crisis, left unity in Greece is absolutely necessary and essential; in fact, it’s an urgent, historic task.
One would not want to see the failure of a governing left on the list of questions examined by future scholars in Greek politics.
1. Greece, of course, is not an exception. Siemens has a long history of using payments to curry favor with public officials around the world. It has carried out similar bribery and corruption offenses in Russia, Thailand, Nigeria, Libya, Argentina and Norway, among other places. In 2008, the most corrupt company in the world (yes, and it is German!) agreed to a legal settlement with German and US authorities for the staggering sum of 1 billion euros.
2. See Suzanne Daley, “New Immunity Provisions Cast Doubt on Greece’s Efforts to Fight Corruption.” The New York Times. October 16, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/17/world/europe/immunity-provisions-cast-doubt-on-greeces-efforts-to-fight-graft.html?_r=0