“The first man to raise a fist,” wrote H. G. Wells, “is the man who's run out of ideas.” This is the thought that goes through my mind as Greece goes on general strike. Readers of this blog know that I have had little sympathy for protestors; and they will also know that I took a decidedly pessimistic turn over the past month. So pardon the dark thoughts but the times warrant them.
A strike is what you resort to when all arguments, bargains and negotiations have failed. Unless you are Greek, of course. In that case, you go on strike first; then you start talking. A strike is an appetizer in Greece, not even the main course, much less the dessert. So what does it say about Greece that people go on strike so often?
A society without restraint. The speed with which Greeks go on strike is as damning as the frequency with which they do so. If rights also entail responsibilities and if maturity is knowing when to not do something, then the Greek people have so abused this right that they can hardly claim it any more. Like the kid who cries wolf every time, a strike says nothing about the righteousness of the cause or the desperation of the victim. And so when the real wolf comes, no one listens. Taming impulses is supposed to be the hallmark of a civilized society and of a civilized person.
A society without institutions. Frequent strikes are a symptom of a weak political system – they show the lack of mechanisms through which to bargain and compromise. People become mobs when they lack channels through which to make their voices heard, but this process creates a vicious cycle – if the strike is the way disputes are settled, there will be few alternatives developed. The strike breeds another strike which breeds another strike – your power is the loudness of your voice, your ability to gather people in a square, your resolve in closing off a street.
A society without meritocracy. When wages are set through brute force and when your livelihood depends on your ability to mobilize, then meritocracy has no meaning. You should get paid relative to what you contribute, and this elementary principle is lost in Greek society. There is, of course, discontent at people who make exorbitant salaries, but there are also those who will defend (and go on strike to defend) those salaries solely based on the fact that they exist. I should earn this because I earned this in the past, not because I deserve it. In such a society, how can you tell hard-working Greeks to keep working? The rewards go to the loud, not to the able.
A society without empathy. Modern society survives through interdependence – you can be a teacher because someone else is a farmer, a hunter and a weaver. Our social pact rests on the ability to count on others – to grow food, discover medicines, pick up the trash. A strike is the ultimate recourse because it transforms a confrontation between employer and employee into a broader, social battle. When buses don’t run, pharmacies are not open or you cannot buy bread, this is no longer a local issue. But the frequency and speed with which you resort to a strike and are willing to inflict such inconvenience on your compatriots speaks to how much you value your own interest versus that of others. When you say, “I am going on strike, the world be damned” – and do so frequently and with few reservations – you are showing how much you value yourself and how little you care for others. Με το έτσι θέλω, as Greeks say.
A society without predictability. What makes life in Greece so frustrating is its unpredictability. I always remember an exchange with some American friends who were visiting me in Athens and were on their way to an island on the ferry. The boat was scheduled to arrive at 5 pm and they had booked a cruise for 5:45 pm. I told them to change the cruise because they would miss it – the boat would be late. Why would the boat be late, they asked, unless there was a mechanical problem? Because it would, I said. And it was.
No life is predictable, of course. Stuff happens. But to know that you live in a society where your daily routine is subject to the whims of this or that minority; to know that no matter what you do, you have little control over your simplest move; and to feel that your ambitions and your hard work are being hijacked; in other words, to live in a society with no restraint, no institutions, no meritocracy, no empathy, and no predictability – that is the modern Greek tragedy. And to see the country paralyzed by strikes is a reminder that this crisis is no accident, it was not born in Europe or Frankfurt or New York. It is Greek, through and through.