Flashes of civilization

Even though we had discussed it at length, and agreed that it was necessary, the impending agreement on Greece’s debt reduction forces us to ask: How is it possible that Greece is bankrupt? How did we make such a mess of things that Greek citizens will have to pay back huge loans for many, many years while laboring under the shadow of insolvency, while all Greeks abroad — whether migrants, businessmen, students or tourists — will have to deal with the suspicions of others, repeatedly trying to explain the reasons for this national failure? If we do not correct our mistakes, we will never get out of this trap.

The reasons for our failure are known. Anyone who was frightened by the dominant mentality of minimal effort, who saw the decades of mismanagement, could tell that bankruptcy was unavoidable. And yet this country is so rich in culture, natural beauty and human talent that it took many mistakes over a great length of time to get to today’s tragedy. So what do we do now?

In the next weeks, Lucas Papademos’s government will negotiate with representatives of our partners and creditors to decide on reforms aimed at making our economy more competitive, regardless of whether our debt has been reduced by then. But, however much we reduce the price of labor, that is not our economy’s major problem. Greece does not produce enough goods to be able to escape the debt trap by making production cheaper — and we could never compete with cheaper countries anyhow. Our only way out is through our culture — precisely that culture that was neglected and abused for so many years. We did not invest in our antiquity, in producing unique agricultural products, in creating international centers of learning and in taking the lead on issues of democracy and human rights. We did not set out regulations for the use of land nor did we compile a land register, so that we could invest responsibly in our country’s natural beauty and so create wealth. We allowed things to drag on, in a mist of ?fruitful chaos? in which all could do as they pleased. This nurtured corruption and injustice.

Indicative of how we squandered our cultural legacy is an EU report drawn up in 2003 which shows that culture and the production and sale of cultural products contributed a mere 1 percent to Greece’s GDP, when the EU average was 2.6 percent; in Italy and Spain, with similar cultural riches, the figure was 2.3 percent, while in France it was 3.4 percent. Consider how many billions of euros we would have gathered if we had made reasonable use of our heritage.

But we did not make use of our history, nor of our land’s beauty, nor of new technologies and methods in production, energy, services and farming. Easy money not only kept us from making the difficult effort to create, but it also undermined every such effort and fortified every obstacle to development. When we built new museums but did not staff them with enough guards to keep them open, when archaeological sites were closed by strikes, we pretended not to see. When we trampled on the principles of hard work, of spending wisely, of upholding the law and of making careful use of our resources, we thought we were cleverer than our ancestors. When society became a battlefield of rival political clients, most of us chose one side or the other, while few railed against the system itself. We spoke about justice and development but we tolerated the selective rule of law and got hooked on easy money. We borrowed to pay wages and pensions, we borrowed to pay interest, we borrowed so that we would not work, so that we would not think.

Nevertheless, the past years were not all wasted. We possess a large number of university graduates, excellent researchers, hardworking entrepreneurs and talented workers in all fields — in Greece and abroad. In 2011, in the midst of crisis, Greece was in 29th place on the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index. However much our society may frighten us with its selective memory and explosions of populism, it has deep democratic roots and fine principles. We can see this in the help that various groups (state, church, municipal and private) provide to the homeless, the sick, the poor. While the rest of us sit at home or at work, worrying about how the crisis will affect us, small groups are out in the cold, standing by their fellow human beings. They are flashes of civilization that show the road ahead.