Skip to content Skip to footer

To Change Greece Requires Changing the Nation’s Political Culture – and This Could Be a Tall Order, Especially for the Left

For Greece to overcome its crisis, the country’s political culture must be changed, argues CJ Polychroniou, and that implies a new public philosophy, where, first and foremost, rights are accompanied by obligations and a deep sense of responsibility toward the common good.

For Greece to overcome its crisis, the country’s political culture must be changed, argues Polychroniou, and that implies a new public philosophy, where, first and foremost, rights are accompanied by obligations and a deep sense of responsibility toward the common good.

Since the beginning of the eurozone crisis, European authorities and much of the media worldwide have been at pains to stress that Greece represents a “special case.” Indeed, the insistence of portraying Greece as a unique case persisted even when other eurozone nations ended up in the arms of the European Union (EU) / International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue mechanism and were also subjected to ruthless austerity measures as a means of bringing about fiscal adjustment and an alleged return to growth.

In purely financial terms, the description of Greece as a “special case” is fairly accurate: Of all eurozone member states involved in a sovereign state bailout agreement, only Greece was facing a fiscal crisis: In the cases of Ireland, Spain and Cyprus, it was the collapse of the private banking sector that led to national governments in those respective countries requesting international financial assistance from the EU and IMF. As for Portugal, the conclusion that was reached is that this was a clear case of contagion effect, which is probably correct.

To be sure, with the exception of Italy (an industrialized nation with the biggest chunk of its public debt held inside Italy), Greece alone runs a pre-crisis debt level in excess of 100% of GDP – the highest in all of the euro area and mostly foreign-owned. In 2007, for example, while Greece’s general government gross debt was over 105%, in Portugal it was less than 70%. And when, in 2009, Greece’s public debt ratio to GDP reached close to 130%, in Portugal it remained less than 85%.

However, in describing Greece as a “special case,” many commentators insinuate that there is also something “unique” about Greek political culture, which pretty much accounts for the nation’s current financial and economic crisis. This is based on the tacit assumption that while Greece may belong geographically to the west, the contemporary culture and the habits of most of its ordinary citizens lie squarely with non-Western traditions and behavioral norms. Hence, among other things, the pervasiveness of corruption at all levels of society, including the widespread and “honorable” practice of “fakelaki” – cash inside an envelope for the attainment of public services and personal favors; hence also the routine violation of civility norms and a culture of complacency that pervades public life.

Indeed, for decades, the dominant image that prevailed about Greeks among many northern Europeans and Americans was a nation of lazy, uncultured and irresponsible citizens – mustachioed men who spent all their time either inside or outside coffee houses, usually with a cigarette in one hand and a string of beads in the other, while the women worked in the fields. The contributions to world culture of the likes of Giorgos Seferis and Odysseus Elytis (two Nobel Prize winners in Literature), Nikos Kazantzakis and Yannis Ritsos (both nominated scores of times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but rejected because of their communist beliefs), C. P. Cavafy (an early 20th-century poet and widely recognized today as one of the greatest poets of that century), Angelos Sikelianos (one of the most inspiring poets in modern Greek history), Maria Callas (the greatest opera diva of last century), Dimitri Mitropoulos and Mikis Theodorakis (two world class conductors and composers, respectively) were reserved for conversations in polite society. According to the dominant impression, average Greeks lacked discipline and the capacity for self-reflection and were instinctively drawn to populist, charismatic political leaders who promised them bread, butter and honey in their everyday lives, a position (not a job!) in the public sector, and retirement after a couple of decades of working.

In recent times, this caricaturish image of the Greek national character has insidiously resurfaced in various non-Greek newspapers and magazines, with regard to the profile of the typical Greek public employee: fat, lazy, and unshaved, sitting behind a desk with stacks of papers in front of him and with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

The problem of course with political caricatures about the “other” is not that they may at times be offensive to some people, but that they give a unidimensional conception of a culture. Still, they should not be dismissed entirely, for they offer insights into a particular situation which might have otherwise gone totally unnoticed or unexamined. Which brings us back to the question of Greece’s current crisis. Is the nation’s political culture – the civil culture – responsible for the economic and social ills facing Greece today?

Probably to the surprise of those who still hold on to a caricaturish image of contemporary Greek culture, the majority of Greek citizens seem to be convinced that the political culture is indeed primarily responsible for the catastrophic crisis currently facing the nation – although it is uncertain to what extent they all understand, or accept, the idea of political culture as a reflection of the customs and mores of a society. For instance, while tax evasion has been traditionally a national sport for all social classes in Greece, almost everyone expects and demands that the state provide free services in all areas of public life, generous benefits to the unemployed and the pensioners, subsidies to small businesses and farmers, and so on and so forth. Likewise, people may speak of meritocracy, but family amoralism permeates every pore of the national life. As yet another example of distorted values shaping a nation’s culture, students (with the overwhelming majority of faculty on their side) want free access to university education and books free of charges, but no conditions placed upon academic progress and the completion of studies. Hence, students are not required to attend classes, may repeat course exams as many times as they like, and there are no limits to how many years they may remain enrolled in a university program. In sum, lots of rights, but no obligations.

For a nation that throughout its history has fought heroic battles for precious rights and liberties (recall only Winston Churchill’s famous words, inspired by the Greek resistance to the Italian and German invasions of Greece in the course of World War II: “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks!“), gaining rights and privileges but shedding obligations and social responsibilities developed, somehow, into something of a cultural movement in contemporary times in Greece. The roots of this trend can be traced to the immediate period following the reestablishment of parliamentary democracy after seven years of a brutal dictatorship (1967-1973), but it takes off and becomes an institutionalized incentive system of behavior with the rise of PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) during the 1980s and the irresponsible populism of its leader, Andreas Papandreou.

While populism, clientelism and cronyism were ever-present ingredients in modern Greek political life, under the pseudo-socialism of PASOK, they became constitutive of the party’s fundamental strategy: 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 distribution to the party faithful. At least two generations of “leftist” voters were shaped and molded in the Papandreou/PASOK era, including the major syndicalist movement, the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE). Of course, the conservatives relied on the same unscrupulous tactics (thus making it virtually impossible to judge which of the two parties was more immoral, corrupt and dangerous to the nation’s interests), but they did not have history on their side, let alone the fact that they were no match for Papandreou’s political canniness and personal magnetism.

Under PASOK, the public sector became a cash cow to be bled, not just milked – a practice the conservatives also did not shy away from on the few occasions they found themselves in power during the past 30 years. After all, it is far more difficult to change the culture of an organizational setting than to create a new one, especially if the parties involved are the main beneficiaries. Thus, for decades, socialists and conservatives alike were involved in various large-scale scandals centered on exploiting state resources to transfer wealth from the public to the private sector, to enrich themselves and to redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top. Corruption became so endemic that it was perceived as normal for public sector employees in Greece’s tax, urban development and municipal government offices to be bribed and even to confuse at times public finances with their personal finances. It was normal for hospital doctors to be recipients of cash gifts by a patient’s family members who were afraid that their loved one would not otherwise receive proper medical attention. It was normal for people to hold two, three and sometimes even four different paid appointments in the public sector. It was normal for already employed journalists to be simultaneously on the payroll of government ministers.

The end result of the “betrayal” of PASOK was the emergence of a political culture that displayed dangerous levels of self-aggrandizement and social irresponsibility – and eventually the formation of a highly apolitical citizenry. Thus, today, when Greece is experiencing a catastrophic crisis, citizens have retreated into their own personal enclaves, feeling powerless or simply unwilling to stand up to the forces involved in the economic and social decomposition of the nation. They feel that challenging the existing conditions will not produce immediate tangible benefits for themselves. This is the apotheosis of a self-centered, egoistic culture. Thus, labor unions – which in pre-crisis times made a habit of engaging in symbolic protests by calling on their members to strike – are now embarrassed even to organize a strike because no more than a few thousand bother to show up – all this when close to 1.5 million Greeks, out of a total workforce of 3.7 million people, are without a job. The truth of the matter is that Greeks have surrendered totally to the “troika” – the European Commission, IMF, and the European Central Bank – which runs the country. So much, then, for the great myth, circulated mostly abroad, of Greek radicalism.

Still, the flaws of Greek political culture do not end with the public sector alone – as the right likes to claim these days while it methodically destroys public health and public education as part of a strategic goal to replace them and all other public-oriented services with the provision of private services. While Greece’s public sector is indeed mired in corruption and inefficiency, its private sector is probably in even worse shape: uncompetitive, unethical, parasitic and hollow. It is estimated that Greek businesses (many of which are offshore companies, have changed ownership titles or have ceased operations) owe about 70 billion in unpaid taxes to the state. Overall, the rich feel no responsibility for the tragic condition of the country and have shown no willingness whatsoever, as Greece’s international creditors often enough complain, to assist in its bailout. It is the working poor and the middle classes – not the rich – that bear the burden of the nation’s debt.

Yet in Greece, as everywhere else in the capitalist universe, big industrial and financial interests rely heavily for their very survival on the state. (Note, for example, that the Greek shipping industry is “off the books” and pays no taxes whatsoever to the Greek state). As for the service sector of the economy, where Greece allegedly possesses a comparative advantage, the situation is absolutely farcical: poor services, high prices and an untrained and unmotivated labor force (though hardly uneducated) define much of the food, tourism and hospitality industry, as well as the telecommunications industry.

In the peculiar landscape of Greek capitalism, the typical practice for the typical Greek entrepreneur is to pillage the company for private gain – and then to pass the blame for the financial woes of the company or the organization on the employees themselves. In today’s economic climate – where the official unemployment rate is close to 28 percent, and youth unemployment, for ages 16 to 24, stands at 65 percent – workplace violations and the abuse of workers’ rights are both widespread and extremely severe in the private labor market, while unpaid employment has emerged as a distinguishing feature of the way the Greek capitalist class conducts its business operations. But as pointed out earlier, there is hardly any large-scale organized reaction to this “Wild West” phenomenon in labor relations either by the workers themselves or their unions. The stupendous passivity on the part of Greeks to the catastrophic crisis facing them today will surely go down in the political annals as one of the great anomalies in the history of an otherwise brave, courageous and proud nation.

As the rise of the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) may soon represent a new era in Greek politics, addressing the flaws of Greek political culture will be of paramount importance in the struggle for Greece’s liberation from the bondages of peonage and neofeudalism. But indications that today’s Greek Left is either aware of the importance of political culture or willing to step up to the plate over this issue are hardly encouraging. While the right is destroying the entire public sector under the pretext that it is corrupt and inefficient, the left confines itself to an old-fashioned political rhetoric, signaling to voters that when it comes to power, it will restore the old order. Indeed, the fear of many on the left is that Syriza may become a “new PASOK,” especially after so many former PASOK apparatchiks have rushed to join its ranks after having dutifully served in the destruction of the socialist vision in Greece and the conversion of the nation into a banana republic.

Greece faces a rough ride ahead. Changing the political culture – the civil culture – implies a new public philosophy, i.e., a new political and ethical imagination where, first and foremost, rights are accompanied by obligations and a deep sense of responsibility toward the common good. For contemporary Greece, changing the civil culture may require nothing less than the radical reinvention of politics as a vehicle toward the good and just life. Is today’s Greek Left up to that task? Time will tell very soon.