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…

Spoiled child goes to the market: two conflicting narratives about the fall of Greece

Are the Greeks the victims of unjust circumstances, or are they sinners for whom paytime is justly at hand? The international discourse about Greece has been debating this question since the beginning of the Greek crisis in 2009.

Most economists generally focus on the inherent errors of the euro to show that Greeks, not unlike other people in the European periphery, were doomed to be the ultimate losers of a common currency which lacked federal institutions for fiscal and monetary policy. In its purity, this is the “economic narrative” that steers clear of cultural and political idiosyncrasies. After all, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece are all quite different and yet they have ended up in a similar mess. The theoretical basis of the “economic narrative” is to look macroscopically at the economic forces that led, inexorably, to the current situation: a small, uncompetitive country burdened with a debt that it cannot possibly repay and whose default threatens the future of the Eurozone.

Political scientists and cultural moralists offer a different narrative for the Greek tragedy: Greeks are like a spoiled child that cooked its books and grew fatter with cheap loans it never deserved. Then, when it came time to pay, the spoiled child threw a tantrum (elections of May 6) and cried ” no”. Furthermore, the brat demanded that its creditors should keep on feeding it, or else all hell may break loose upon them. The rise of the Greek Left (Syriza party – close to 26% of the vote), as well as of fringe parties to the Right like Golden Dawn and Anexartitoi Ellines (together around 15% of the vote) seems to confirm this “cultural” narrative. Interestingly, what all these parties have in common is a belief in conspiracy theories: the “West” is trying to destroy Greece because it is jealous of its past glories, “market vultures” have their eyes in the “rich” oil and gas deposits in the Aegean, etc. They also share a belief that it is all a poker game and that Greeks ought to call Europe’s bluff.

The latest furor about the comments of Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, is telling of the conflict between the two narratives. Lagarde took the cultural moralist position when she admonished Greeks for their tax evasion habits. Interestingly, voices to the defense of the Greeks rose mostly from the political left of center. Market ideologues and liberals, presumably closer to IMF’s economic philosophy, stayed numb and silently approved of Lagarde; which goes to show the amount of confusion that exists with the two conflicting narratives.

Like in physics where we have two theoretically unreconciled narratives (General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics) that describe the world, so in the case of Greece we have two narratives that confound us with an explanation gap. The “economic narrative” shows Greece as a victim while the “cultural narrative” presents it like a dishonest player that must be punished.

Many may rush to suggest that there is no explanation gap. In fact, many analysts have been trying to combine the narratives by suggesting that the political and social culture of Greece is what caused the huge debt as well as the current crisis of trust. However this causality claim is paradoxical. Because if we take the position that the cultural idiosyncrasies (e.g. tax evasion, rent-seeking state, tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, etc.) of Greece have led it to the current mess then we implicitly accept that market forces do not apply equally to everyone, but are subject to cultural differences. If this is true then economic theory becomes culturally relativistic.  The consequence of this is not trivial; the international system of credit is based  on assumptions about a market where players act according to their self-interest, not according to their cultural characteristics. If the latter is true, then there would always be people and countries, like Greece, which will be branded by cultural moralists as “beyond market repair” , and be doomed as the eternal pariahs of the world economy. Alas, such a conclusion begs the obvious – and rather troublesome – question: by what, or whose, criteria should we choose the cultural moralists in a world of cultural relativism?

The inexorable rescue of Greece

When the Roman armies of Julius Caesar and Pompey met in 48 BC near the Greek city of Pharsala the Athenians made the mistake to side with Pompey. Following Pompey’s crushing defeat Caesar advanced his legions towards Athens where he was met by a citizen delegation who pleaded to him for mercy.   Caesar famously retorted: “How often will the glory of your ancestors save you from self-destruction?” (Appian, Civil Wars, 2.88).

Fast-forward two thousand years later and the self-destructive Greeks face the wrath of a new foe: the markets. Siding with socialism, the Greeks had made one more historical mistake. What is different this time is that (a) they have not yet realized their mistake, and (b) they are not pleading for mercy. Not yet. But if events unravel the way they seem only probable, Greece will be in the throes of an economic meltdown within weeks. The West, descendants of Caesar, must make up their minds once again; will they let the marching legions of default, hyperinflation and societal collapse finish Greece off? Or will they, in a renewed show of exasperated magnanimity, step in and save Greece from its historical tendency for self-destruction?

Even if the Eurozone survives a Greek exit the geopolitical fallout from a failed state in the Aegean will be enormous. It will mean that Greece will no longer be part of the West for the first time since Greek Independence in 1830.  This will create a potentially dangerous imbalance in Southern Europe, as Russia will see the opening to the Aegean it has been seeking for centuries.  In the absence of western protection over Greece Turkey might be tempted to apply hard force in order to upset the status quo in the Aegean. Israel will be further isolated from the West, since Cyprus and Greece will no longer be there to provide a  geopolitical “bridge” to Europe. Analysts have been concentrating to the hypothetical domino effect of a Greek exit from the euro as affecting economies to the west of the country. There is however a little analyzed geopolitical domino effect that affects countries to the east as well. This, in a time of great instability in the Middle East, with the United States having no stomach for military adventurism in the Arab/Islamic neighborhood, and Europe lacking a concise foreign policy.

Greece, inexorably, must be saved.