Some further comments on my article in The Washington Post

What has been happening with Greece over the past several months is not of significance to Greeks only.Greece is the canary in the mine; the metaphorical mine being in this case the European Union. Greece is dying because the European, social-democratic welfare state is falling apart.Greece is the first victim because it is an economically weak country where the welfare state has been elevated, and abused, to the nth degree.

In my article I attempted to explore the cultural reasons that could have caused such an abuse of the welfare state in Greece. The main question that I’m trying to answer is this: is there something in the culture of Greeks that makes them adopt, without really questioning, the idea of a welfare state? This question is crucial to understanding why the Greek Left has been driving the political agenda of the country since the 1980s, and whether there can be any hope whatsoever that Greece may liberalize its markets, reduce its deficits, tap in the creativity of its business people and innovators, and move on and away from its perennial misery.

To provide a conclusive answer the my question one must first try to understand Greek culture. Here the problem, not unlike a case of national schizophrenia, is that “Greek culture” has two personalities. One is the “official” personality taught at Greek schools, projected in touristic billboards and widely accepted internationally: that modern Greeks are, somehow, descendents of ancient Greeks. My article in The Washington Post focused on that, in an attempt to bust the myth.

The “other” personality of Greek culture – the real one, in my opinion – is more complex; one must pick up the story not in the times of classical Greece but in the late Middle Ages, in late Byzantium. For interested readers I shall return in a future post with more detail on that.

So, in summary,Greece is a country inhabited by a people whose values are very different from the mainly protestant values and ethics that have shaped, and defined, western institutions of democratic government. When Greece became an independent state in 1830 those institutions were readily introduced in the assumption that Greece was just another European country. It was not. The result of this cultural misunderstanding (the one I am focusing in my Washington Post article), is that Greeks have been systematically undermining their governments since then.

Because of this, Greece has never been truly independent but always relied on foreign capital and protection. As long as money flowed in Greece from abroad Greece was kept afloat. Whenever the money supply was  interrupted Greece defaulted.

So what happened to the money? I guess everyone in the world knows the answer to this question nowadays. It was used by the political class to bloat the public sector, a quid pro quo exchange between voters and politicians.

Greece will remain forever in this trap, unless it finds a cure for its cultural schizophrenia. Greeks must reject the imagined culture imposed upon them by European romantics and several of their own intellectuals, and embrace their real cultural identity. When they do so they must then redesign their political institutions in order to reflect their true social and cultural values.

The link to my article in The Washington Post is:

2 thoughts on “Some further comments on my article in The Washington Post

  1. I really enjoyed your article “Modern Greece, built on a myth.” It turned up in The Washington Post today (2011.11.06 Sunday). Thank you for your engaging combination of candor and humor, both giving yet another example of humankind’s seemingly irresistible impulse to lie to ourselves and sustain fantasies to fit some preconceived narrative that flatter us or give us some other sustenance. The wreckage at the end road of those fantasies is what today’s Greece appears to be. I wish you much success. I’m glad to have become aware of your work.

  2. George, I agree with you that the cloud of uncertainty and political decay does not only surround Greece.
    The problem with Greece though is that for years, even since the creation of the Modern Greek state, Greece has been trapped into a ‘liminal’, ‘in-between’ stage, from which it cannot and does not really want to escape. It finds itself, in-between what it used to be, a glorious, significant and sometimes inspirational actor, and what it could become in the future, a modern actor able to act along with the Western European ideals. But, being ‘liminal’ means in essence, that you are not what you used to be in the past, nor yet what you will be in future. The great trauma for Greece is that it is ‘liminal’ for a long period; the rapid liminality can offer chances for cultural re-arrangements but the long one leads to cultural stagnation.
    The transition period for Greece has lasted longer than it should, and we, the Greeks, are not willing to end it. The end of transition period means the end of available scapegoats to justify our wrongdoings. And the greatest scapegoat is the amorphous, big state that does not leave any space for creativity, liberalization of the market, business initiative. The state becomes for the Greeks the greatest enemy but at the same time the greatest ally. And every time that a dramatic event (national mainly) unfolds and calls for a critical debate, the ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ argument –the imposed European romanticism you describe- overshadows any reasoned critique.

    Kalliopi (an Arcadian…)

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