The Cretan author of “Zorba the Greek,” Nikos Kazantzakis, wrote in “The Saviors of God”: “Love responsibility. Say: It is my duty, and mine alone, to save the earth. If it is not saved, then I alone am to blame.” This article is about the responsibilities of Greeks toward their state, and of the Europeans toward the Union.
If any of the attempts to modernize the Greek state and tackle bureaucracy, tax evasion or corruption are to be successful, one must first understand the relationship between many Greek citizens and their state. And change it.
How do Greeks view the nation-state? Greeks may deeply care about friends, strangers, tourists and persons in need, but rarely about their state. Citizens distrust the corrupt and resource-hungry state, entrepreneurs view it as “the mother of all bureaucracy,” and politicians and their business partners as a trophy to be ripped apart. The very concept of a nation-state, let alone the idea of willingly paying taxes in return for a welfare state and provisions for the wider population, has never sat well in the psyche of many Greeks. There are many historical and cultural reasons for this attitude.
In ancient times, the Delian League was the confederation of ancient Greek city-states led by Athens, originally designed to protect Greeks from the Persians. Not long after its inception, Athenians committed themselves to the Peloponnesian war against the Spartans, faced a number of revolts partly due to the arrogant stance of the Athenians, and turned the League into an hegemonic instrument of control that took away the autonomy and voting rights of city-states.
Some decades later, Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great used their weapons to unite the Greek city-states against the Persians. Yet another time, the contribution of resources to the state was less than willing.
A couple of millenia later, the founder of the modern Greek state (1827), Ioannis Kapodistrias, greatly honored for his comprehensive attempts to modernize the state, which were despised by some rebellious cities, was eventually assassinated by two men from a rich family which, like many others, were unwilling to pay large contributions to the state.
Visionary seven-time prime minister Harilaos Trikoupis (1832-96) met with similar problems. In his article “Who is to blame?” published in the Athens daily Kairoi in 1872, he criticized King George I for the clientelist system in politics, nepotism and the never-ending appointments of civil servants in the public sector.
Today, many Greek citizens have come to realize that the fundamental causes of today's financial crisis in Greece are related to corruption, the economic policies of 1980-2010 along with the “Greek dream” of getting a lucrative job for life in the public sector. In Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede's studies on national cultures with data collected from a number of countries from 1980 onward, Greece repeatedly scored the highest in the world in uncertainty avoidance, a cultural dimension showing the extent to which people feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The actualization of the “Greek dream” has resulted in a series of poorly managed, nepotistic organizations, whereby employees (used to) wear golden handcuffs and often perform meaningless jobs. How pitiful to trap capable, educated and talented citizens into such inaction.
At this proud cornerstone of Europe, many citizens feel ashamed listening to appeals begging “Give Greece a chance.” It is our responsibility to change all of the above. To paraphrase Kazantakis, if Greece is lost, it would be our fault. This should not be negotiable in any Greek's mind.
In order to embrace any attempts to modernize the Greek state, one cannot ignore this infamous relationship between some Greeks and the state, and by implication, our attitudes toward it. We must convince our young people that we have to reinvent our 2,500-years-old perspective of the nation-state, accept the responsibility for our 30-year-old debt that was created by our democratically elected leadership, transcend our egos, and save the day.
To convince citizens, we need a vision, justice and leadership. Vision needs to encompass a modern view of, and relationship with, the Greek state, emancipated from the old habits. Justice is a sine qua non if you want citizens, and especially the young, to stay in the country and pay the bill for the elite's corruption. Transformational leaders with competence and integrity need to be attracted and appointed to key positions of the Greek state.
Moving ahead, there are some questions that we, European citizens, should address together. If we do address them, we will have a better chance of reforming Greece and creating a better future for Europe.
There is considerable evidence that a punitive Germanic Europe has treated Greece as a black sheep, fueled with stereotypes of “lazy, corrupt, ouzo-drinkers.” Conservative European leadership, led by figures such as German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, has assumed the role of the “punitive father,” and, as often happens in these cases, created a “rebellious child.” The child feels angry, humiliated, and will not do as it is told. The angry child has failed to see the collective responsibility of the Greeks, but it is asking some difficult questions:
- If it's all due to the failures of the “Greek black sheep,” why do Portugal, Italy and Spain suffer from similar problems, even if to a lesser extent? Might there be insurmountable structural problems in having different countries using a common currency?
- In what sense did Europe save Greece when the lion's share of the 2012 loans to Greece was used to save German and French banks?
- How can Germany use ethical rhetoric when it is still refusing to return gold reserves stolen from the Bank of Greece during the Nazi occupation, as well as repay the forced loans? Why does Germany still keep the ancient artifacts that were stolen from the Greek museums during the occupation?
- If all this is somehow “history,” why does the German government refuse to surrender the infamous Michalis Christoforakos, former Siemens Hellas CEO who has repeatedly been called for trial by the Greek authorities on charges of corruption?
- If Europe aims to better Greece, why did they refuse the government's proposal to increase taxation on gambling? Why did they allow the former government to sell off the profitable monopoly (OPAP - National Lottery) to tycoons without ensuring the opening up of the market?
It is thus unsurprising that the punitive father (banks, the International Monetary Fund, conservative EU politicians) has been fighting not only against its rebellious child, Greece, but also with groups which transcend their self-interests. These groups have seen the IMF tale unfolding before and want to see a world that is led by visionary politicians and active citizens rather than banks and lobbies. This may be the fight for a post-capitalist era that Greece cannot win on its own.
The stakes are high. The old European leaders once predicted that we need to worry about the Europe Union once the generation that experienced WWII and fascism is no longer alive. That time has come, and the surge in far-right nationalist movements across Europe is threatening to turn this prediction into a prophecy.
Let's not forget. We Greeks must accept our collective responsibility for the state. Yet it is both the punitive father and the rebellious child that need to assume the role of adults. We must transcend ourselves, for the sake of our long-term union, for collective prosperity, and for setting an example to the rest of the world. We, must embrace our collective responsibility. If Europe is lost, it will be our fault.
* Konstantinos Tasoulis, PhD, is associate professor of human resource management at the American College of Greece – DEREE.