OPINION

Coal and gold

As Greece’s economic crisis drags on, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are at an historical turning point. The fact that nothing which the government does nor anything which European institutions decide has managed to allay the concern of those who lend Greece money means that we cannot predict where the tunnel will end. All we can understand is that Greece and the Greeks will be transformed. The situation is reminiscent in many ways of the great British coal miners’ strike in 1984-85, when Margaret Thatcher’s government clashed with the mighty trade unions and crushed them, radically changing the relationship between the state and private sector, weakening the former to the benefit of the latter. The great difference is that in Greece the clash is much broader: It includes all sectors of the economy and population, and affects all of the country’s international relations. Here the clash is not between an ideologically driven government and a segment of the population that controls a significant sector of the economy – although we will see such a conflict, in miniature, between the government and unions. Here the role of Thatcher is played by the «foreigners,» whether they be the International Monetary Fund and the European Union or the faceless markets which decide whether they will lend us money and at what cost; the «miners» are all of us, who tolerated the behavior and mentality which have led us to the impasse. We tolerated a public sector which grew to such an extent that the rest of the country works to maintain it, instead of the public sector working to serve the citizen. And after we contributed (with our vote and tolerance) to the creation of a state that swallows 35 percent of the money that it collects, we did not demand the benefits that this money should buy nor did we demand accountability of those whom we keep in their state positions with our hard work. Now that so much time has passed since Thatcher’s revolution we can see the consequences of unbridled capitalism on an international level, and no one can claim with any seriousness that there is no need for the state. But the very necessity of the state machinery makes it imperative that it functions more efficiently, providing us with the services that we need. Because our problem is not only that the state devours such a great amount of the national wealth, but that it provides us with terrible services in return: It turns our gold to dust. The solution lies not only in reduced state spending – it is more important to evaluate and make optimum use of the country’s human resources. The problem cannot be solved simply by reducing funding when no one knows who does what and what they are paid for it. For example, if the contracts of all road cleaners are terminated, does that mean that we will live with the garbage or will permanently employed municipal workers undertake the job of sweeping sidewalks? Will the good, conscientious employees suffer the same pay cuts as those who don’t turn up for work? Greece’s gold vein is its workers, and they are the people who will pull the country out of the morass. For this to happen, though, we will need a major investment in education and culture – the two domains where we have the potential to be special but where our failure is particularly striking. In the first case, we could nurture the development of new sectors of the economy, breaking the «monoculture» of the state (which contributes 8.9 percent to annual GDP when tourism, the cornerstone of our economy, accounts for 6.11 percent), creating new jobs and new potential. In the second, we could make use of the most important «resource» we have, not by harping on with the same cliches about what our ancestors did nor by further commercializing our heritage, but by taking greater care of our monuments and treasures, by transferring public servants from positions where they do little to museums and archaeological sites which do not have enough personnel, by cultivating the study of antiquity (including other civilizations) and by creating the necessary infrastructure works which will connect important sites not only with good transportation but also with services and digital networks of an international standard. It is no coincidence that when the British government smashed the unions 30 years ago, many communities were wiped out, descending into poverty and despair. The communities that made the greatest progress were those that did not depend solely on one industry but had many alternatives which they could develop. Today the Greek economy is paying the price of its entanglement with a state that is not only omnipresent but also exorbitantly expensive and useless. The state is now obliged to create the conditions for citizens’ potential to be released. No one says the state must be destroyed; but it must get out of the way and push us forward.