Observations in Athens

Greece escaped the headlines this summer. It was indeed a contrast to last year, when the country was inescapably plastered on front pages, between images of refugees flooding Aeagan Islands or tense late night meetings in Brussels where an imperfect third memorandum narrowly averted “Grexit”. Greece was indeed quieter this summer; refugee crossings are much down thanks to the EU-Turkey deal, though the fate of the roughly 50-60,000 refugees remaining in the country remains contensious. But while the panic of an iminent exit from the euro and economic meltdown has disappeared, there is practically no optimism about the country’s future in those I talked to.

A close friend here continually reminds to me of a particularly haunting statistic. Since 2011, 400,000 Greeks, mostly young, have left the country. Not a small number in a country of 11 million people. Around 8 out of 10 have university degrees. Most have headed to Australia, Germany, France, Britain, and the United States. If these numbers continue, this migration would be larger than the first two great Greek diasporas at the beginning and middle of the 20th century. In essence, according to my friend and others, the most hardworking, ambitious, and intelligent young Greeks are leaving the country. I firmly believe that the benefits via remitances will not balance out with the evaporation of human capital.

The American presidential election revealed the profound disillusion of many with our political order. Still, the enthusiasm these candidates provoked, whether dangerous (Trump) or naive (Sanders), at least suggests Americans think the system is changeable and thus worth the effort of some sort of “activism”. This is not present in Greece. There is absolute contempt for all political parties/options, and there is not even a corps of emerging leaders (a la Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Ben Sasse, Paul Ryan) that gives some hope for the future. University students I spoke with have no intention of voting in the next election, and very few have the kind of enthusiasm for political life you can easily find among ambitious American college kids mesmerized by visions of The West Wing.  Young students who originally supported Tsipras and SYRIZA think he is a complete hack and sell out. Some promising liberal, reformist parties like To Potami boldly challenging bad Greek political/institutional habits of clientalism, patronage, and populism are non-relevant. Voting is a choice between different poisons.

There is even a strange nostalgia among some here for the monarchy and junta (Greek dictatorship, 1967-1974). None of this is very serious. But it reflects a growing disillusion for Greek democracy, which has descended into “anarchy”. There is a nostalgic feeling that the immediate postwar Greece, for all of its faults as a elite-dominated, “managed democracy”, provided an order and stability badly missing today. Fortunately, the continuing economic downturn has not increased the appeal of Golden Dawn, the country’s notorious far-right, Neo-Nazi Party. Greeks may not be as cosmopolitan or multicultural as the Swedes or Germans, but they are simply not a violent people. Greece had one of the worst experiences of Nazi occupation in World War II; about a 10% of the population died, primarily due to famine. These memories are simply too raw for Greeks to even contemplate supporting Golden Dawn. The party also suffered from a series of scandals revealing the group’s corruption and involvement in prostitution, drug trafficking, and various criminal activities. But we should be wary too. The European Far-Right is extremely talented at rebranding; see the evolution of parties like National Front (France) or Freedom Party (Austria). A populist, illiberal, xenophobic leader or group that erased explicit fascism, anti-semitism, and calls for violence could potentially do quite well in Greece.

The economic climate here is not good. SYRIZA delays implementing any reforms to attack established monopolies or clean up the public sector, which is their singular base of support amidst declining popularity. (In fairness, few past Greek governments on left and right ever attempted actual civil service reform, since clientalist political incentives still demands the use of government jobs as a means of winning votes). Taxes are hitting everyone hard and many individuals/businesses now face rates of 50-60%. Several hundred companies are now moving to Bulgaria and Romania thanks to better business climates. This is not exactly a policy for jumpstarting the hiring of the long-term unemployed or the young. Nor is it likely to help overcome the longstanding habit of tax evasion, which now looks ever more justified to people with declining trust in the state.

One singular hope does stick out to me. I’m very impressed by how many Greeks acknowledge national, collective responsibility for the situation. Collective – neither the wealthy, unions, government workers, Left or Right, the “common man”, even themselves as individuals – gets off the hook. They are, of course, willing to point out poor decisions by Merkel, the EU, IMF, etc. But on balance, most feel that Greece truly did create this political and economic mess for itself.

Some might call this too moralistic or simplistic. But a sense of responsibility creates agency. If Greeks believe they together created this tragedy, then they may also hope they can together remove themselves as well. One must “hope against hope”, to quote St. Paul, that the crisis can then serve, for an idealistic, young person, an aspiring NGO or activist group, or the wise political leader, as a source of moral reckoning and imagination.


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