Sunday, January 30, 2011

Protests of Hope, Protests of Privilege

As I see Egyptians stand up to demand a voice and a better future, I can't help but be a bit jealous. Jealous not of the challenge they face, but of their energy and their courage. Think about what they are fighting for and contrast it with what the Greeks have fought for this past year. Call it the protests of hope versus the protests of privilege.
Besides general protests for general grievances, what we have seen in Greece is: seamen and dock workers protesting the opening of Greek ports to ships with foreign crews; public transport workers against the restructuring of loss-making state-owned companies; truckers against allowing more trucks on the streets; doctors and hospital workers over health care reform; public sector workers who get paid 40% more than private sector employees over wage cuts; lawyers, pharmacists and engineers over opening up their professions to competition; workers at the state agency on gaming over new tax provisions and deregulation; students and academics over reforming this joke called the "Greek university."
These are not the protests of hope. They are the protests of fear - fear to compete, fear to change, and fear to want more. "Crucial turning points in history tend to occur, we are told," wrote Isaiah Berlin, "when a form of life and its institutions are increasingly felt to cramp and obstruct the most vigorous productive forces alive in a society - economic or social, artistic or intellectual - and it has not enough strength to resist them." 
Where are those "vigorous productive forces?" The pseudo fighters are vigorous and they are a force, but they are not productive. They fight to protect and to preserve. They fight to make others subsidize them so that they can change the least themselves. True, they have gotten a rotten deal - this is a country in crisis. True too that they have been led by politicians incompetent and corrupt. But neither the politicians nor the crisis came from the heavens. This was homegrown, made in Greece.
The most one can say is that the number of people protesting, their stamina and their intensity has dwindled. Blame fatigue, but also a government that will not budge. What a pity when the most vibrant push for reform comes from government ministries and from technocrats flown in from Brussels and Washington, DC. Where is Greece's fighting spirit, the craving for a better future? Where are the protests for government's weight to be lightened, for the obstacles to progress to get out of the way, for people to get a better chance to make something of themselves? These are the protests of hope and we haven't seen them yet.

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