Saturday, July 16, 2011


"What I don't get about you Greeks is this: How come here you all work hard and do marvellous things in this country but in your own country, you slack off? When I went to Greece earlier this year, the buildings were dingy and run-down, nothing worked, and all the Greeks were sitting around the coffee shops drinking frappe and looking aimlessly while the country was collapsing all around them. It just doesn't make sense to me." I looked up from my undercooked steak and fixed the portly features of the garrulous property developer sitting opposite me with a stern stare. Undaunted, with just a suspicion of asparagus head visible from the side of her mouth she continued:
"And you are all so law abiding and peaceful here. Over there, you smash up the shops and run riot. I'd hate to see what would happen to Australia if you guys don't get your way one day."
At this, I dropped my fork. As I am particularly attached to food and the implements invented in order to convey sundry comestibles into the mouth for the purposes of consumption and especially the fork, a Byzantine invention that has served us all in good stead for aeons, the moment when the fork touched the laminate surface of the table with a muted clang was one filled with drama indeed.
That Greece is in a parlous financial state is not a novel concept. Greece's finances, nay, its very existence, has been precarious long before and after Harilaos Trikoupis, one of the more visionary prime ministers of Greece declared bankruptcy in 1893, using the immortal lines: «Δυστυχώς επτωχεύσαμεν.» In 1932, in the aftermath of the Asia Minor catastrophe, Eleutherios Venizelos would also paraphrase those lines, declaring bankruptcy thus: «τελικώς επτωχεύσαμεν.» That bankruptcy had to do with debts stemming from the time of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, exacerbated by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, just as Greece's financial woes today, have to do with mounting debt exacerbated by the Global Financial Crisis.
There is a deeply disquieting delight and schadenfreude displayed by many over the plight of the Greek people and the futile and often violent way in which they are expressing their frustration at the plight of their country, (they refer to themselves as the Indignant - the title of this diatribe) as if the entire world is gathering to laughingly kick our Hellenic brethren, while they are down. It is all well for the portly property developer, having eventually masticated her asparagus, her to comment gleefully: "serves them right for not wanting to pay tax. Why can't they take a leaf out of your book?" yet this would ignore a true understanding as to why such multitudes have taken to the streets to voice their protest in the only way they have been taught to do so by the Socialist Party (which staked its claim to power on the back of this tradition): through demonstrations reminiscent of the Polytechnic Uprising. PASOK has taught Modern Indignant Greeks that if they kick and scream, burn a few cars and bring the city to a standstill, then they will get their way, as this was the way that the glorious students from the Polytechnic defeated the fascist dictators. Unfortunately, this time, no one is listening. Indeed, some of those who were involved in those democratic protests of the past and made a career on the back of them, such as the pachyderm Theodoros Pangalos, now have the temerity to pour scorn on the protesters, claiming, in Pangalos' case, that they don't scare him and making allegations of collective guilt such as: «Μαζί τα φάγαμε.»
This, in fact, is true. Successive Greek governments (and it is the PASOK government that has mostly ruled since the fall of the Junta), have misapplied European and other funding, by using them to fund an unviable welfare system, and provide handouts to their clientele in an effort to buy votes, rather than invest in the development of the country and a functioning civil service that actually delivers results. We have seen this in action through the tremendous amount of money expended in the setting up of a Land Registry office that seems to have never gotten off the ground, despite the government funded junkets for officials to Australia and America to explain it to us, and of course the Council of Greeks Abroad, where the government inexplicably paid for the tickets of 400 or so delegates around the world to attend a conference in Thessaloniki, solely for the point of voting for a president, sanctioned by Greek politicians.
Greek governments have reared two generations of Greek voters on the expectation that when they jump up and down and take to the streets, that they will have their demands acceded to, regardless as to how unrealistic these have become. Consequently, these governments have fostered a political culture that is centered not around clarity, efficiency, transparency and viability, but rather, around squeezing the government for concessions that translate into votes. It is indeed, an inordinately immature political culture and this can be evidenced by the fact that the Greek people are not so much protesting at the lack of political guidance and government but rather, the fact that they will have to endure austerity cuts. They, as a result of the political culture created around, them, lack the benefit of perspective, to view Greece's plight through the prism of a failure of the current rotten political system.
In this country for the moment, Greek-Australians are brought up secure in the knowledge that they will go to school, study at University if they want to, find a job, get married, buy a house and have a family. This is the great migrant dream. In Greece however, that security of life-path does not exist. Whether or not one goes to University depends on whether their parents have enough money for tutors, or can afford to send you overseas to study if you fail to enter the Greek institutions. Upon your return, you are not guaranteed a job - and if you do obtain it, this will have more to do with your family connections that your abilities. As a result, you will probably not be in a position to buy property unless one of your relatives dies and leaves you some money, so the setting up of a household and having a family is not a certain proposition. Even if you do manage your way by luck to navigate through the shoals of these difficulties, you will, in the course of your life, come into contact with a state whose organs are self-serving and self-justificatory and a bureaucracy that seems dedicated to maximum annoyance and minimum service. Faced with this, a state that appears to exist only for itself, why would you want to pay tax? At least in Australia, one of the highest taxing nations in the world, there is a belief in a system that does provide benefits and the ensuing social capital is one of the driving forces behind compliance. Thanks to Greek politicians, with their propensity to occupy Greek talk shows and scream at each other, there is no such social capital.
Having been treated to an exposition of the above, my property developer dining companion know knows that the people of Greece deserve our sympathy, not our derision, at their current plight. However, they also need help in understanding that if they do not realize the flaws and attempt to rebuild a responsible corporate political system, whereby politicians and citizens adhere to the rules, they are doomed to chase their tails for eternity.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 16 July 2011