Beyond ‘Yes’ or ‘No’


There have been analyses upon analyses of the developing situation in Greece. Titles such as “The political implications of SYRIZA’s insurgency”, “The financial tsunami of a Greek default” or “EU’s irrational handling” seem to have been engraved onto our screens. For the past few years, analysts have been dwarfed by the complexity of the Greek issue. Now, amidst a spiraling social conflict, Greeks are called to do the impossible: distill this unfathomable complexity down to “Yes” or “No”. After a long five-month negotiation with the EU and the IMF, the Greek administration decided to raise the question of whether accepting the EU proposal with a referendum. Within one week after the announcement, the Greek people have been called to assess a highly technical financial plan this coming Sunday.

Apart from the technical aspects of reaching a financial deal that will ensure the sustainability of the Greek economy, this choice is personal for the Greek people. For the “No” crowd, this referendum is about national pride and dignity. For the “Yes” crowd, this referendum is about national pride and moving forward securely. They both want security and a prosperous future for their children. Above all, they both want their national pride back.

In order to truly understand what has been happening and what will transpire on Sunday all over Greece, it is important to revisit what really divides Greeks. Only with that immense complexity in mind, can someone try to process what it means to make important decisions while absorbed inside such a conflict.

As far as most people are concerned, for the past five years, we, Greeks, have been living up to the glorious theatrical culture of Ancient Greece. The world has been mesmerized by the developing Greek drama and, truth be told, we don’t fail to disappoint.

The climax of our dramatic arc came last week, with the announcement of the referendum. Everyone outside Greece tries to decipher what is going on, but reality is that we are even more perplexed ourselves. A quick scan through social media provides a glimpse of the staggering polarization within the Greek society.

“The referendum is the ultimate form of democracy.”

“The referendum is the manipulation of the people under the pretense of democracy.”

“We are rebels against an increasingly autocratic Europe.”

“We are the voice of reason against leftist irrationality.”

“We are patriots. You are traitors.”

“We are patriots. You are traitors.”

Who is right and who is wrong? This is actually the political equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat. Both sides are indeterminately correct and wrong at the same time. The reason is that Greeks have been consumed by the debilitating complexity of a conflict that goes back decades. It is simply impossible to untangle current disputes from past grievances, in order to determine right from wrong. Therefore, it would be a fallacy if one isolated what is currently happening and tried to understand it as a single event. Our understanding needs to be holistic. The financial downfall is the observable manifestation of a much greater pathology that had been festering for decades. The climax of the arc does not stand alone without the decades long build-up, and the trigger of the complacency of the EU.

Looking back into the history of modern Greece, from the end of World War II, to the civil war, dictatorship and to the re-establishment of democracy in 1974, it becomes apparent that the prosperity bubble of the ‘80s and ‘90s was instead the abnormality, since before that, crises were the norm. That period was the exception. Those thirty years of elusive normalcy were based on a sociopolitical travesty. The very development of the 1980s was achieved at the expense of a fragmented society. This faulty new beginning was the continuation of a malignant sociopolitical system, which kept feeding on and being fed by a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle of grievances and protracted rivalries between divisions in the Greek society.

The chronic polarization of the Greek society is based on a deeply established lineage of political cleavages, which have taken different shapes since the end of WWII: Leftists – Nationalists, Liberals – Conservatives, Anti-Right – Right, Anti-Memorandum – Pro-Memorandum, and now, simply Yes or No. People have been fluctuating between those groups for decades, and as the current crisis progressed that movement became more fluid. Since the 1950’s, Greek politicians capitalized on these cleavages, turning them into a political strategy to ensure obedient, predictable voters. It is what established them and what solidified their power, until the collapse of the two-party system the past year.

This divisive strategy turned into a golden goose for the political elites and the wealthy oligarchs. Polarization lead to clientelism, and after 1974 it was further legitimized by the mass partisan mobilization of the populace. Political polarization became part of the identity of the Greek citizen. This turned out to be detrimental for the financial state of Greece, since the public sector became a vehicle of corruption in a transactional democracy, where an electoral vote was monetized.

The difference with the rest of the Western democracies, where corruption is still rampant but concentrated at the higher echelons of government, is that Greece’s chronic corruption had been both from the bottom up, as well as the top down. The use of past tense is meant to denote the current open condemnation of corruption both by the public and elites. This is, perhaps, a beneficial byproduct of this crisis, along with the collapse of the two-party political system.

Decades of nepotistic corruption created more grievances for the modern Greek, who felt mostly dependent with the party itself, rather than the polity. As parties rotated in government, subsequent grievances due to nepotism accumulated. The sense of collective interdependence that characterizes healthy democracies never actualized in Greece. Simply put, the modernization of the Greek state never took place.

Having done our reflection about the shortcomings of the Greek society, it is now critical to distinguish the different types of corruption, which have been mixed together by analysts in the fog of the crisis. It would be hubris to equate the traditional “baksheesh” to speed up a transaction, to the injurious norm of public officials’ bribery in exchange for detrimental terms in contracts with the state; or the de facto culture of elite contractors inflating costs for public contracts, considering the public budget the gift that keeps on giving. It would be equally false to equate the majority of the Greek pensioners, civil servants and employees in the private sector who could never avoid paying taxes -since it was deducted from their salaries- with the corrupt elites and oligarchs who criminally evaded taxes. This is, by the way, something quite common also to the US and other Western democracies.

Unfortunately, there have been numerous incendiary statements on this issue, such as the unsurprisingly highly controversial "we ate them together" by Mr. Theodoros Pangalos, one of the traditional elites of the “old” PASOK. This narrative, which has dominated the European rhetoric and the self-serving arguments of prominent Greek politicians, is representative of some deleterious logical fallacies:

1. It elevates oneself on a pseudo high moral ground, without any intention for introspection. Individuals with major roles in the political landscape for many years, even decades, have shown no intention for reflection and taking responsibility to any extent, thus exacerbating delegitimization of authority. The EU made exactly the same mistake, denouncing any responsibility. This created ripeness for the rise of incendiary extremes such as Golden Dawn, as expressions of resentment towards the unremorseful establishment.

2. The accumulated cost inflicted upon the public budget, in the long term, from mismanagement, either by negligence or intentionally, along with the grave cost of the misappropriated deals with the oligarchs, is orders of magnitude higher than the low-level bribes. In other words, it is unacceptable to equate deep-state corruption with the transactional baksheesh.

3. And most importantly, such incendiary rhetoric is highly provocative towards the public sentiment, in an already volatile period and even though it touches upon the vital role of reflection, it only makes it even more difficult to become a reality by hurting national pride and obliterating any sense of fairness.

Despite the above, Greeks have been repeatedly accused of simply being corrupt or evading taxes. Dealing with people and complex problems in blanket terms is the reason why the EU is complacent to what is currently ongoing. Before and after Greece entering the Eurozone, EU officials looked the other way when it came to the high level corruption in Greece, even enabling it for arguably nefarious purposes. EU is complacent because it failed to consider the individual sensitivities and peculiarities of the Greek issue, both on a social and political level. The EU and the Greek governments preferred to go after the low hanging fruits of tax cuts in pensions and necessary public spending, instead of attacking the corruption within the Greek deep state and the immunity of the oligarchs. The disastrous handling of the Greek bail out is a perfect example of EU’s bleak record when it comes to materializing its elusive vision of integration. National identities have been sacrificed at the altar of financial integration, with apparent consequences across Europe. Greeks have felt this bone-deep sacrifice for the past five years.

The technical details of the two referendum options almost seem irrelevant at this point for the average Greek. What pushes Greeks to the ballot is their lost sense of pride and hope. These powerful motivations, combined with the financial stakes, and the overwhelming complexity described above, have created the sociopolitical perfect storm. The situation now is extremely complex and unfortunately when it comes to processing nuance, we, humans, are flawed. Our brains have not evolutionarily adapted to effectively deal with such circumstances. This is true regardless of race, gender or nationality. When we are confronted with debilitating complexity, we are victims of our strong need for one single, coherent truth. This makes it almost impossible to reflect, weigh options and scenarios and finally, make educated decisions. Therefore, we select whatever reaffirms our already established worldviews, getting sucked into the existing conflicting dynamics. We are like insects being drawn to the lamp, unable to escape our own limitations. These are the exact conditions where conflict thrives. Adding time constraints on top of this has created a truly scary scenario for Greeks. For Greece, the one-week period between the announcement and the referendum is the equivalent of the acorn in the Ice-Age movies.

At this point, Greeks have been asked an impossible question. For some, this is about Greece remaining in or exiting the Eurozone. For others, it is about sticking it to Germany. Reality is so much more complex and when societies are called to solve such problems they become heavily dependent on the right leader guiding them through uncertainty. Unfortunately, the real pinnacle of the Euro-Greek drama is that when it comes to enlightened leadership, both Greece and Europe have been long broke. Like the protagonists in numerous Greek tragedies, they also seem to only learn from suffering before realizing that “too late, too late you see the path of wisdom.”

* Nikolas Katsimpras is a lecturer at the negotiation and conflict resolution graduate program of Columbia University and a Senior Fellow at the Hellenic American Leadership Council. Twitter: @nkatsimpras