No faith in ourselves

So why do Greek institutions not function? And, to the extent that they do, why is there such public distrust in them? Greece has, after all, been an independent state since 1831. After nearly two centuries of freedom it is a bit sad to keep going back to the 400-year Ottoman occupation to explain the inefficiency and corruption of our public administration - and the individual selfishness that makes collective effort the exception rather than the rule. Admittedly, the past 200 years have not been easy, as they have included several wars of varying magnitude and consequence, foreign occupation, civil war, famine, mass emigration and mass immigration. Greece, like every other country, is in a constant state of flux. Yet, unlike many others, it seems unable to escape the burdens of its past. When we talk about institutions we mean the government and political parties, the Church, the judiciary, the police (and military), the education system and other parts of the bureaucracy and state organizations that are supposed to serve the citizen. The news media and businesses follow, to a lesser extent. In all these sectors, we have been conditioned to expect the worst in all our dealings with those who wield any power. We know that the system of political favors and clientelism is just as prevalent now as it was since the establishment of modern Greece. Those with connections can exploit the power of the state to their own benefit; those without connections get their only revenge by voting for populist parties, following populist media and serving as a lynch mob when this suits others who are in power. The few benefit, the many muddle along and are kept in line mostly by their inordinate fascination with the lives of the richer and more famous. We do not expect our institutions to work for us, irrespective of who we are. We have to fend for ourselves, against the modern equivalent of antiquity's brutal and arbitrary gods. In our moral universe we combine ingrained fear and superstition with the need to benefit our friends and harm our enemies. In this, we never graduated to seeing the whole nation as our friend and the national interest as our own. Even Greece's greatest moments - such as its heroic national effort in World War II - were an interlude, a break from endless internecine strife. The period after the 1967-74 military dictatorship has been the most peaceful, the most prosperous the nation has known - thanks mostly to Greece's membership in the EU and, earlier, NATO. Being a member of something bigger than Greece, though, created a sense that all good and all ill come from abroad. In other words, Greece does not need to get its house in order and create a modern, functioning economy and society - because it is not really on its own. Now that every country is struggling to face the challenges of a disoriented world, the Greeks are realizing how unprepared they are to fend for themselves as a nation on its own. Aside from citizens complaining about the state of their institutions, those employed by these bodies are unhappy because they feel they are not paid enough nor appreciated sufficiently. So, like everyone else, they too have a negative attitude toward the work they do - in this case dealing with the public. This leads to rudeness, indifference and, sooner or later, to exploitation of the system for personal gain and, of course, to strikes and protests that serve only to worsen the lot of those who depend on them. Thus the vicious circle goes on. Everyone complains and no one dares fix anything. In some cases - in the education, health and immigration systems, for example - one might argue that neglect is intentional: Let them suffer and they will seek their solutions elsewhere. In some cases (in immigration, for instance), this malevolence certainly applies. But in the rest? In whose interest is it for Greeks to be badly educated, rude, unhappy, selfish, reckless and, when not exploding in collective anger, desperately lonely? If Greece belongs to the Greeks, as it does, then it is time to realize that our institutions will only work when everyone - those within the system and those outside it - wants them to work and makes them work.