Amoral Familism: my experiences, and travails, living on a Greek island for a year

Kithira is a beautiful Greek island half way between the Peloponnese and Crete. It’s big, almost the size of Malta, but with a sparse population nowadays of barely 3,000 souls. For the better part of the Middle Ages and until the Napoleonic Wars Kithira was part of the Venetian Republic. After a brief Franco-Turkish occupation it became a protectorate of the British Empire, and finally joined the Greek State in the late 19th century.

I first visited the island as a student in the late 80s, and immediately fell in love with the place. With time, I became a frequent visitor and ended up buying a plot of land and building a small cottage. The island, and the freedom I felt every time I went there in the summer, represented to me a kind of Eden, a promise land where people lived close to nature, enjoying simple pleasures away from the pressures of modern life, like original human beings ought.

So when the Greek crisis reached the desperate point that made staying in Athens nonsensical I decided to move to Kithira and try to make a living there. I was very excited about that. It was going to be a long-held dream come true: I had plans to develop the plot and start producing small amounts of aromatic plants for export, as well as organize small tours for people who wanted to explore the many natural beauties of this blessed, sun-drenched island. I could write my novels and my plays surrounded by beauty. Moreover, since I had changed my domicile and had become a citizen of Kithira, I wanted to work with the community and particularly small businesses on the island, to share my experiences and expertise and, hopefully, mobilize others into forming a dynamic business network where everyone would benefit.

There are many good reasons and powerful motivations for people in small places to collaborate. Synergies between various businesses can leverage costs, such as transport and marketing, and thus increase productivity and profits. I felt that, particularly in such hard times of scarce liquidity, I had many powerful economic arguments to start talking, and convincing. In other words, as I boarded the boat to cross the channel from the Peloponnese to the island of my dreams, I was ready to change my life and the lives of others, for what I believed would be better.

A year later I packed up and left, not having achieved any of my goals. So, what happened?

Having lived all my life in impersonal cities, it was the first time that I was immersed into a “closed society”, i.e. one where everyone knew everyone else. As an outsider, a summer visitor, I had idealized this aspect. Indeed I imagined that the world was better when you lived among people you knew personally. What I did not understand then, was the importance of the family dimension in closed societies.

Closed societies are defined by kinship. Social networks are in fact family networks. I was totally alien to this concept because my family is very small. I was never part of an extended family like most Greeks are. In fact, I hardly know my first cousins by name and I am not even sure how many they are. That makes me an odd case of a Greek, something that I always knew but had not realized how important it was till I decided to live on Kithira.

My efforts to integrate in the social networks of the island proved hopeless. People were friendly but there was always a line they would never cross, and that was trust you enough to do any business together. Idealists suffer from delusions that is another word for intellectual blindness. This very syndrome that ailed me when I arrived was soon alleviated by the profound realization that the reason the island was so backward (terrible transport and communications, poor schools and public services, stagnant economy, corruption, cronyism, etc.) was because people refused to collaborate outside their family.

I had rediscovered what the economist Edward Banfield had found out almost half a century ago when he went to live with his wife in her ancestral village in southern Italy (The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, by Edward Banfield, Free press, 1958). Banfield observed the same things that I did and gave a name to them: amoral familism. Wish I had read his book before embarking on my pointless expedition.

Kithira, like the rest of Greece, and very much like the south of Italy, share a common historical narrative of successive occupations that were mostly repressive or exploitative or both. Generations over generations of people mistrusted government, because it was never theirs. They mistrusted each other too. The only people they could trust were their own blood relatives.

So here’s my conclusion, after trying to make a living on a Greek island: given such a solid socio-historical background it is impossible to expect change any time soon in Kithira – or Greece. Trust, the currency of social capital, is scarce and as the crisis confirms the inbred fear of government as “the other” who is out to get “us” (through tax, fines, et.), it will become scarcer still. This will further exacerbate any efforts to bootstrap Greece out of its backwardness. The bottomless pit that Greece has been thrown in is much more deep that many may imagine or wish to hope.

Of course, I could have persisted. Indeed, I could have set up my own small business despite the circumstances, against the odds, and lived happily in my farm, secluded and safe, enjoying the natural beauty and the sea. But this would have meant that I accepted amoral familism as my way of life too. If I wanted to live like a Kitherian, I had to become one, in every way, and forget my aspirations. I refused to do, not for me (I could be happy there growing oregano and tending my olive trees), but for the sake of my son who deserves a better world and a better place. Tellingly, that was exactly what tens of thousands of native Kitherians thought too, when they abandoned the island en masse in the 1960s and migrated to Australia…