Much has been said about the rise of populism across Europe and America in the last three to five years, tracing its roots to economic inequalities, excessive political correctness, cultural imperialism and uncontrolled migration. However, Greece is currently experiencing the most dangerous form of populism, “anti-elitism,” which is feeding social adversity against the elites – political, cultural, financial, scientific or otherwise – and the latest evidence of this is the terrorist attack against former prime minister Lucas Papademos last week.
Anti-elitism, a recurring phenomenon internationally, contributed to the evil that swept Europe, one way (in Eastern Europe) or another (in Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire), in the period from the 1910s to the 1940s.
Historically, anti-elitism has been profoundly cultivated by financial crises, which tend to widen the gap between the rich and poor and concentrate wealth among the few. It also benefits from conspiracy theories that usually address the basest instincts of people who feel left out of power mechanisms and the distribution of wealth.
The deplorable torrent of venomous language across social media against Papademos (a brilliant scientist and banker who successfully fulfilled the political duties asked of him by the leading parties in 2011-12) after the assassination attempt on him in Athens is testimony to this explosion of blind anti-elitism in Greece. A significant slice of the population has now been nurtured to hate people in power, bankers, leading businesspeople, the cultural elite, academics and so on, and Papademos is an easy target for their bile.
This is not typical populism, as in making promises to the underprivileged or spreading conspiracy theories, but its most toxic form, anti-elitism.
That is best illustrated by a recent tweet from one of the most authentic representatives of this wave, Alternate Minister of Health Pavlos Polakis: “Gestabites [misspelling Hitler’s Gestapo], Menoumevropides [i.e. those in favor of staying in the European family], Vastaschaeubledes [i.e. those hoping German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble “holds on,” in reference to the wish of some Greek traders during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation of Greece for Wehrmacht field marshal Erwin Rommel to hold on at the African front so that retail prices in Greece kept rising]… do not get happy, we shall win!” This is preaching of hatred by the ministerial office.
There are no racial or even ideological motives in the 21st-century Greek version of anti-elitism. Besides the obvious, i.e. the financial crisis, some of the roots of Greece’s anti-elitism lie in education (or lack thereof…) and it will be particularly hard to uproot it as the years go by, unless a quality revolution takes place in the country’s educational system.
During this decade in Greece, especially since 2015, we have been experiencing the revenge of the bad pupil; the pupil who would find any excuse not to do his or her homework, to skip classes and to avoid any effort to better him/herself. We’re talking pupils who even thought that misspelling their first name would make them revolutionaries… This is partly the outcome of the problematic educational system created in Greece in the 1980s, which rewarded minimal effort instead of excellence. After all, some senior government officials obtained their only laurels by leading school sit-ins against a return to studying a little harder in previous decades.
It is an irony of history, as while a large section of the previous generation of Greek politicians capitalized on its presence at the 1973 student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic against the military junta, part of the current political generation has made the most of the unruly pupils’ unrest of the 1990s – hence the government’s decision last month to name a new tunnel on the Corinth-Patra national highway after a schoolteacher who died during the school unrest in the early 1990s, Nikos Temponeras.
No wonder the government is against the assessment of civil servants, and is even promising the abolition of the exams for entering higher education. It is easy to advance from the “I will not study” mentality at school to the “I Will Not Pay” movement that certain leading political figures supported in recent years.
It is also no coincidence Education Minister Costas Gavroglou has turned against the assessment of university professors and high school directors, opting instead for appointments based on seniority… “What’s with all this obsession to collect degrees and qualification documents?” he wondered, with his ministry reducing information technology skills to an unnecessary detail among the qualifications required for a school director. The revenge of the bad pupil indeed.
That’s a situation the Golden Dawn is also happy with, an organization that also feeds on anti-elitism in Greece, but serves it up in different packaging.
It is this anti-elitism that is also at the heart of the so-called brain drain of the last few years, much more than the financial crisis. A large section of the Greeks of the 21st century have taken the lack of meritocracy to a new level, where those who excel in their field are the anathema of society. Populism in its worst version.