Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Greece’s Political Philosophy Challenge

In the chaos of an economic crisis, it is easy to frame success or failure in the context of narrow economic targets: is the budget deficit shrinking; is spending being cut; is GDP falling; and so on. But when a country faces a political, economic and social crisis, as Greece does, success is only partly a function of economics. Instead, Greece’s future will be determined by the kind of political economy that emerges from the ashes of a system that has clearly failed. Appraising Greece’s future is about looking beyond quantitative targets to broader questions of political economy and political philosophy. 

Greece’s current debt problems are largely the result of the political economy of the 1980s, when state spending became a vehicle for bringing the hitherto persecuted left into the political mainstream (see here). Over time, political allegiance morphed into a quid pro quo and became a matter of parochial or even personal interest – relations between the citizenry and politicians have since been governed chiefly by clientelism. The political economy challenge of the Greek state is to retain legitimacy while dismantling that system of patronage and clientelism – to create a new social contract founded on ideology rather than personal exchange. The battle in today’s Greece is largely a battle for that new social pact and the forces that favor it being pitted against the forces that resist it. 

That is the political economy challenge; but that political economy, practiced over a generation, has created its own political philosophy in Greece. Changing that political philosophy is no less important. What I mean by political philosophy is the set of boundaries that the body politic places on public life. It defines what is and what is not acceptable; it delineates what the public can tolerate and what it cannot; and it contains the language and symbols that the public uses to make sense of political life. To make matters more concrete, here is what I mean by Greece’s political philosophy. 

First, Greece has a clear leftist tilt. This is evidenced by the fact that the socialists have ruled Greece since 1981 for twice as long as the conservatives and also evidenced by the fact that leftist parties have gained a majority in every election except one (April 1990). In several ways, the Greek public is left of center: in its slogans, in its anti-Americanism and anti-globalism, in its political instincts and its sense of victimhood – these portray a society are more left than right. 

Second, Greeks believe in and perpetuate a weak state. Associated with this is an aversion towards state-sponsored violence (even when needed to restore “order”) and weak compliance with the law. That latter attitude can be seen from minor instances (traffic laws) to tax evasion and more serious infractions that often go unpunished. Few Greeks see the state as a place to go right wrongs. Greeks join political parties and enter into the public sector more for personal gain than for pursuit of a broader political agenda and ideology. That, in turn, further weakens the state and saps it of legitimacy and effectiveness. 

Third, Greeks have a strong sense of entitlement (see here). It is no surprise to see loud and often violent protests from people whose pensions are being cut, whose jobs are in jeopardy, whose salaries are being slashed and whose benefits are being rolled back. What is surprising (or, at least depressing, if not surprising) is how little Greeks talk of fairness. Clearly, someone whose salary is being cut 50% will be mad. But neither the old salary nor the new one is necessarily fair – fairness is a function of utility and a salary should be based on one’s contribution. A great tragedy in modern Greece – and perhaps the biggest political philosophy challenge – is the decoupling of effort from reward. When reward is based on political connections or on how loud you can scream at a political rally or on the power of your union, then meritocracy is merely an abstraction, and what one expects is disconnected from what one deserves. 

Finally, Greeks have lowered their expectations. One thing that Michael Lewis got right in his portrait of Greece is the sheer volume of the tales of corruption: “The extent of the cheating—the amount of energy that went into it—was breathtaking. In Athens, I several times had a feeling new to me as a journalist: a complete lack of interest in what was obviously shocking material” (here). Coupled with an unimpressive *supply* of politicians has come also a lack of *demand* for serious politicians – Greeks have effectively given up and choose to participate in the corruption rather than fight it. The stigma against doing something wrong is almost absent – and so the country lacks the most vital element of social self-correction: the ability to shame people into honest dealings. 

This is the political philosophy that needs to change: with the exception of leftism (which can and will persist but which would benefit from a counter-balancing conservativism), Greece’s future will depend on three changes in political philosophy: in the faith that the Greek people place on a strong and functional state; on rediscovering meritocracy and the link between work and reward; and on remembering how to be ashamed of dishonest behavior and expect better from each other and from our political leaders. Those are the benchmarks – not for whether the debt will be repaid but on whether Greece will be a country worth living in around 2025.


  1. Another great piece, Nikos. Many thanks.

  2. An interested readerDecember 1, 2011 at 8:04 AM

    Wow! You are really talanted! Have you considered to publish your articles in Greek magazines so that more people can read it? (are u already doing it?) I think both you and your countrymen deserve it!

    I would like to ask you a question: Which role does the Greek church play in all this? I read some stuff, but nowadays one has to be carefull with all the conspiracy theories everywhere..

  3. @ Interested reader: Thanks much for the kind words - I really appreciate it. In fact, this is the first post that I have translated - just trying to sort out the best way to add Greek content on the website.

    Re the church - I haven't really written about the church before - I see the church as big and having lots of potential influence but not real influence right now... maybe I am wrong to ignore them. Will think about it a bit more and perhaps write something.

  4. I fully agree! I am following your blog for quite some time now and I also believe that you should try to publish (even in English) your analyses in Greek / English newspapers.

    Keep up the great work and I hope that your thoughts are being read, understood and will contribute to a change in Greece!

    Best wishes,

  5. Almost all Greeks exhibit a varying degree of national and personal narcissism, large or middle type. They have an extremely long sense of strong entitlement, an excessive boasting over their achievements, a very talented deceiveful way to lie, exploit and disort everything and a powerful baseless belief that others are jealous of them which believe it's trut as they claim, but it's actually the other way around in real life. They also are extremely hypocritical to the point of obsession.


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