Through the eye of the needle

Bankrupt or merely deprived, Greece is entering a new era. For our debt to be reduced and a new loan awarded, we will all suffer a huge reduction in our incomes. If there is no deal, our incomes and benefits will be reduced even further. We will have to pass through the eye of the needle, leaving behind much of what we knew. We will be different, and so will our country. But the one thing that we will still have to deal with is the age-old divide between those who advocate reforms and closer ties with our partners in the European Union and those who express the forces of inertia and laziness, who will do everything they can to remain dominant. The outcome of this battle will determine the quality of our democracy.

It is impossible and unfair to separate the Greeks between those who want to change the country’s structures and our mentality, and those who support the forces of indifference, inertia and selfishness. The citizens are not divided into two clear camps. The fault line runs within parties and professional groups, between members of the same families. Very often it exists within individuals, depending on their needs and interests at the time.

Our society is built on the collusion and conflict of the forces of progress and reaction. Even the use of such terms betrays the confusion of our situation: For example, the forces of the left are the most conservative in their social and political thinking. Whereas they preach a better future, they are unyielding in their defense of a political, economic and social system that managed only to keep reproducing its incompetence until it drove the country into bankruptcy. And as the ship sinks, they parade up and down the tilting deck with their little flags, hurling insults at the offending iceberg and the incompetent crew. But we also saw PASOK and New Democracy preaching reforms in order to win votes and then doing nothing that would disturb the army of apparatchiks on which they based their power.

This is why it is so difficult for a new, mass movement of reformists to take shape. The people who could form the core of such a grouping are scattered among various parties — and they know from experience that if they do not rely on the party hacks who know their way around the corrupt political and state machinery, even the most ambitious manifestoes are nothing but hot air. In today’s recession, where populism reigns, we are more likely to see new parties that will express society’s most reactionary forces rather than its progressive ones.

From its inception, the Greek state has been shaken by the conflict between progress and reaction, leading either to a fragile balance, conflict or political paralysis. Our country’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1981 provided a unique opportunity for social and economic reformers to lead Greece closer to Europe’s most developed countries. Unfortunately, the stability and prosperity that came with this new environment did not lead to a new mentality and the strengthening of institutions; instead, they were absorbed by the old structures of client-patron politics, sloppiness and mindless waste.

Under PASOK, the deliberate crushing of the public administration and education systems’ backbone brought the triumph of laziness and illegality, of a sense of entitlement without responsibility. We saw the result in the most dramatic way in 2001, when the reaction of his own party’s trade unions forced Prime Minister Costas Simitis to abandon the effort to reform the social security system. The next government, under Costas Karamanlis, got the message: It spoke continually of reforms but never dared implement them, bowing instead to the demands of its own populists. All of us — self-proclaimed reformers, populists, rich and poor — learned the trick: We preached reforms and we demanded a rational and efficient state, but we accepted nothing that would affect us. The easy road led to defeat.

Today we are obliged to lose much in order to fit through the needle’s eye. We have to leave behind our worst mistakes and weaknesses. The new era demands that all of us — reformers and reactionaries — build on strong foundations. Even at this late stage, we need to turn our faces to the future and not aim only at preserving a failed past.