Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Greece as a Striking Nation

“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.


  1. A very thoughtful essay. The Greece situation is what happens when the public employees are paid more $$$ than the government takes in (hence the need to borrow and the balooning of "soverign debt")....AND said government doesn't have a printing press to create $$$ to pay gov obligations. Of course with a printing press in the long run the crash will be even worse: see the USA in about five to ten years for the mother of all crashes.

  2. The best course for Greece is to withdraw from the ECU, go back to their original currency and start printing....it won't lead to any worse outcome than the plan the IMF wants to put into place, but that's not really not saying very much.

  3. sehr geehrter herr tsafos,

    sie irren!seit jahrzehnten erpressen die gewrkschaften das land und pochen nun weiter auf ihre fantastischen privilegien!statt auf einen nenner mit der regierung zu kommen und einen neuanfang zu wagen,führen sie das land weiter in die tiefe.die regierung darf nicht nachgeben.gewerkschaften sind gift für dieses schöne land!!!

  4. The French have always been very quick to the trigger regarding strikes. They are not in the same predicament as Greece. The problem with some Greek people is that they know how to complain but offer no feasible ideas regarding possible solutions coupled with a clear plan. Other nations should take a less superficial look into their history, politics, and economic policies. The world is far from perfect. Now that is a Greek tragedy.

  5. Not sure I understand how going back to the old currency fixes the underlying problem of excess. Greece was in the hole before the euro... and if they default what will they buy imports with and how will visa cc work in their country for tourists...? Good article with allot of down home truth... Guess it is not accepted by the average Greeks... IS there any way or any one they trust enough to gather themselves and pull with change...?

  6. I think I lay (slightly -- maybe 51/49) more blame on the Greek political classes than I do on the trade unions or other guilds. Greeks have watched their politicians operate with impunity for decades (e.g. Vatopedi, Koskotas, Siemens, U-214, etc). And so they just learn by example. Not to mention the fact that its the political classes that empowered the unions in the first place.

    But it's also hard not to grow frustrated and to strike when you watch your politicians operate by fiat such as the last Reppas/Ragousis fiasco with the taxi licenses. Even if Reppas was wrong in the way he had negotiated the agreement with the Taxi Drivers, the way Regousis came in and tore it up was amateurish at best. To pull the carpet out from under the taxi drivers who thought they had a deal seemed quite cruel. To an outsider it looked completely arbitrary. It's hard then for people to control their frustrations and to negotiate with such a government.

  7. i spent 5-6 weeks in athens over the summer. i was at syntagma square during the protests in june, as a tourist taking pictures because i found it amusing how aggressive and civically immature modern greek society is. the greeks whom i knew who worked for the government took copious bribes, had short , "flexible" working hours, moonlighted in 2nd jobs and didn't pay taxes. in the evenings they would watch the news, complain about their pay-cuts, curse at the government and support the protesters. i didn't understand their thinking at all. i saw the protests and strikes as a cross between a form of social violence and a tantrum. the frustrated masses couldn't well express their aggression by punching or shooting someone, so they just didn't go to work, which would only exacerbate their collective condition, and what would be the point? the national debt which they helped accrue would still be owed. i used to live in finland. when a union was unhappy, they would first earnestly try to talk things over, for weeks and months even. only if that didn't work would they would issue a strike warning, often weeks in advance.

    i can only commend you on an article that hits every nail on its head.

  8. Very incisive and true. Thanks.

  9. I'm a Turkish businessman importing certain goods from Greece. These strikes became our nightmare. We never know when and how they will hit our shipments. We faced a very bad economic crises in 2001 and all the banking system collapsed in one week. More than 50.000 employees in financial sector lost their jobs in one month. But everybody was aware that working harder is the only way to survive. I’m flying to Athens since 1990 on regular base. Almost 40 % of population in Greece is living in Athens. When I look out from the plane I see almost no industrial area or big production facilities. But year by year I monitored how the city changed. New buildings, new cars, fashion shops, super restaurants and etc. Every time I visited Athens, asked a simple question to myself, from where this welfare is coming? I think majority of Greek population forgot to ask this simple question to themselves. It is not too late for noting. Still there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

  10. Excellent analysis as always, Nikos.

    I grew up outside Greece but live there now and am constantly shocked by what I see.

    Among Greeks, there is an incredibly strong sense of entitlement, coupled with a pervasive cult of victimhood that is completely disconnected with reality. This mindset fuels a protest culture of relentless industrial action and violent confrontation that sees the state as both perpetual enemy, benefir giver and cash dispenser. This destructive way of thinking is truly dominant and until it is challenged I fear Greece will remain a dysfunctional pariah state.

  11. Nikos,

    excellent article as many others have said

    have you written a blog on what would happen if Greece leaves the Euro (and starts printing lots of drachma)?

    The standard of living would go down 20-30% (maybe more?), but, isn't it what is going to happen anyway? My uncle already had his pension cut by 20%. At some point wages have to be balanced with productivity, something that did not happen in the last 10-20 years when wages/pensions etc rose much faster than productivity. Is it now time that things have to balance again


  12. Thank you for this excellent article! After reading it, I feel better because I know now that there are also Greeks like you who are as angry as me at so many selfish strikers on Athen's streets who do not only demolish their own country but who also threaten the Europen projects with their actions! Fortunately they don't represent the only Greek opinion!

  13. Thank you all for your great comments.

    To answer a few points:

    @Occam Didn't Shave - As always point well taken. Incompetent politicians make it harder to cut a deal, indeed, and it also makes it harder to assign "blame." Perhaps I was trying to take a longer-term view of this subject and wasn't thinking about a specific strike.

    @Anonymous re exiting the Eurozone. I generally don't think that leaving the Eurozone is good for Greece; see my post here: http://www.greekdefaultwatch.com/2010/12/is-leaving-euro-good-for-greece.html

    @ Anonymous re what happens if Greece leaves the Eurozone, I don't have a post on that perhaps because I don't think it's going to happen. The reasons are (a) insofar as Europe's problem is exposure to Greek debt, the denomination of that debt is irrelevant - so a drachma doesn't help European banks; and (b) if Greece exited the Eurozone there would be enormous capital flight from the other troubled countries from people who want to protect their assets. That would be catastrophic.

  14. PASOK is to mostly blame for the current situation Greece is in. Since 1974 PASOK has governed most of the time. Andreas Papandreou borrowed money from the then EEC and bloated the Public service. Costas Simitis got Greece into the eurozone based on statistical lies and the current PM George Papandreou has been in power now for two years and the situation is far worse now than ever before. George Papandreou could have negotiated a better and longer deal and he had other options such as borrowing money from the Saudis or from the Chinese. Papandreou chose the Troika not the other way around. the sooner PASOK goes the better.

  15. Well said Niko, well said.

    You articulated observations and comments I myself have tried to also do with family and friends still living in Greece (I live in the U.S.). As you might expect, I was received as a "Lazoamericanos". Deep down, the people of Greece know what the problems are and how to fix them. The question becomes, do they really have the stomach to fix them?

  16. Nikos:
    You have been doing a lot of thinking and have great analytical skills. I much appreciate your blog and have been reading with great interest your comments.
    I would be interested to read your comments on the issue of the new taxes, namely the two instalments of extraordinary property taxes to be inflicted upon owners this year and next.
    I really am interested in learning who is going to loan the required money to the taxpayers so that can pay these taxes. When an individual has no means to pay, he then needs to borrow the funds. I bet this will be the case for most property owners. Where will they go ? Will they go to their bank to which they are already in arrears for a new loan ? Will that bank or any other enthusiatically offer to increase their mortgages? Do the greek banks still have the means to provide loans for paying property taxes ? At some point someone should realise that all of this is senseless and that one should go back and read Jean-Gabriel Eynard's recommendations for solving the sovereign debt problem.

  17. When I first arrived in Greece over 10 years ago I was shocked by how backwards 80% of the Greek people appeared to be. I was aware of how advanced the ancient 'pagan' Greeks were so it was difficult for me to understand why the 'modern' Christian Greeks were so backwards. It wasn't until I asked a Greek friend about this perplexity of mine when he informed & enlightened me that the Greeks today - or at least 80% of them - are 'kootee-ponoree' that I was able - am able - to understand why Greece is so backward. And it is sitting bankrupt on the bottom of the ocean waiting to be salvage saved & supported by the EU & the world for this very reason. The most amazing thing about it all as far as I am concerned is the fact that the very PASOK people who are governing today and the same judges district attorneys that are in Justice Ministry today were working in the PASOK government 10 years ago & they sat quietly & watched Greece being plundered & looted without saying anything. If they hadn't been so 'kootee' (dumb) they would have said & done something about all the 'ponoree' taking place. And what about the German, French, English, and American ambassadors? Everything - all the corruption - was written about and on TV. The European ambassadors must have been 'kootee' - I saw that Greece was going to sink to the bottom 10 years ago & never graduated from college. As Forrest Gump said 'Dumb is as Dumb does.'

  18. The analysis is good, but I am not sure what the solution is. Shock therapy?
    (ie bankruptcy).

  19. All the Greek goverment needs to do is to move air traffic control to the Air Force. This is the most powerful weapon the unions have for national self destruction.

  20. The first time I went to Greece I was 13. It was a lovely country, the pace was slow, and the people were warm and generous. There was one word I didn't undestand - σύνταξη (pension). The people who were recieving their pensions were too young in my estimation, and I thought..wow they must have a robust economy to support this model. That economy I later learned, was the govenment. This was a recipe for disaster.

    45 years later that model has not chage. The govenment is broke, for many reasons, as your readers have speculated, and the Greeks are angry? Was the Euro going to fix a way of life?

    My question is where have the Greek businessmen and women gone? There is little new industry and young college grads choose to leave the country for greener pastures. I think the Greek's have to answer that question.

  21. the answer to the problem of strikes is very simple: not allow public sector employees to strike. This is the case for most nothern european countries (Germany included) where the state says that we give you security of employment and you in return cannot leave work to strike. Plain simple! However, the links of the unions with the political parties make this a no-no.

    Let's hope that the EU sends some officials in Greece to make it a proper EU country.

  22. It's easy to criticize and analyze when one's salary has not been cut in half and their taxes raised.
    Greece needs a capable government, and I am afraid right now they have a badly equipped government. Germany needs to review their banks as it seems the other countries they have lent money to (Spain Italy Portugal) all seem to be in debt too!

  23. I've just discovered this blog and I'm incredibly glad I did. This article in particular is one of the most articulate and accurate analyses I've read.

    I'm a Briton of Greek descent, and I have always followed Greek affairs closely. It's been obvious to me for quite some time that Greece will never change until its militant, bullying unions are taken on and decisively beaten.

    In the UK, trades unions were similarly indulged and militant in the 1970s until Margaret Thatcher (about whom I generally have mixed views) set up a confrontation with the miners' union, the NUM, and defeated them. It took an entire year (1984-5) but changed the course of British industrial relations forever. Greece's NUM is probably GENOP. The same thing needs to happen.

    Kudos also to Anonymous who commented at 12:19 on 19 October. Excellent comment.


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