Beg, Borrow or Steal: the Greek Crisis

by Alexandros Stavrakas

The commentary on the Greek crisis has predictably descended into a spectacle of cheap moralisation. Over the past months, we have been bombarded with accusatory tirades aimed against corrupt politicians, greedy bankers, depraved technocrats and more or less anyone who’s had a chance to use and abuse the system in order to advance their personal interests or those of their clique.

Short-sightedness, lack of elementary moral constraints, blatant lying, sheer gluttony, political and financial opportunism, imaginative accountancy, cover-ups; all these, we have been tirelessly told, have resulted in the incontrovertible economical, political and moral downfall of Greece. Downfall is, of course, used loosely here, for it is hard to articulate whence Greece fell. It is, indeed, mind-bogglingly difficult for any person of my generation to try and find a precise point in the past thirty years when the financial and political scene in Greece was, to say the least, in order. Surely, there have been periods of relative prosperity, inflated as the latter could have only been (and this is not only known in retrospect, at least amongst somewhat informed people) – but to act surprised at the present situation can only be one of two things: naïve or fraudulent. Naïve for thinking that the party could go on forever; fraudulent for deliberately advertising this belief.

It’s impossible to presently go into an in-depth analysis of the trajectory that led to the present situation. The inevitability of it (or a very close version of it) is, however, beyond doubt. In a country where notions of citizenship and collective responsibility are largely unknown if not frowned upon, for good historical reasons no less, such predicaments should not cause stupefaction. Corruption in Greece is not an endemic phenomenon and by no means a personality trait exclusive to the political elites. It is a widespread modus operandi stemming out of a well-rooted distrust to institutions. Greeks are accustomed to ‘bartering’ with the state and with each other and their transactions are not conducted in reference to collective institutions or laws. Instead of cemented social responsibilities, they perform out of feelings of camaraderie, friendship and personal association.

The politicians are no more corrupt than the average business person who openly and shamelessly tax-evades (justifying his actions on the premise that his taxes will be pocketed by politicians anyway – so why not outsmart them), the doctor at Greece’s NHS who is bribed to treat a patient promptly, the professor who never shows up for his class. They just have more to play with.

The most trying feature of the academic and journalistic response to the Greek crisis has been the tendency to translate those compulsions into matters of personal sin, private psychological propensities when, in fact, they are inscribed into the very way the society works. A fact that, by the way, accounts for the overall smoothness with which this system has been operating for years now meeting, virtually, no resistance.

The political and economic demise of Greece is not the work of a handful of corrupt politicians or greedy bankers. It is, in essence, the end result of a common manic race to catch up with the West. A race that began in the early 1980s and during which ready-made Western institutions were imported wholesale without the time needed for people to appropriate them and identify with them. Not surprisingly, the great leap forward that Greece appeared to be making was only in paper. Caught somewhere between a sense of pride about its glorious days of yore and the conspicuous flourishing of the West during the 1990s, Greece was intended to place itself amongst what it saw as its intellectual children – and reap the rewards. How could the birthplace of democracy not be in the European Union? How could it not host the Olympic Games? Such instances of arrogance (even when well-meant), amplified by a craving for enrichment and coupled with a state of political infancy of the citizenry was an explosive mixture. The result was compulsive consumption, overspending and a widespread bedazzlement with money which bestowed social recognition and inspired importance. Success became synonymous with monetary wealth and, a twisted version of it, social mobility was reduced to imaginative short-circuiting.

Under the pressure–though it’s an open question whether this pressure was external or self-imposed–to keep the machine running, Greece reached the state it finds itself in now. The merciless dynamics of capitalism and neoliberalism were applied to a country that lacked elementary structures of collective identity or mechanisms of regulation and self-protection, let alone restraint and discipline.

Greece’s present situation is the result of a combination of dynamics that were too forceful for a burgeoning state to control; even fathom. To which degree other, more mature in a number of ways countries such as its European neighbours should have foreseen this and been more responsible in their approach to Greece is an open question. This, admittedly, sounds patronising. But, one way or the other, Greece is now, after the IMF bailout has been activated, where it would have been from the beginning: under guardianship.

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