It’s all Greek to me!

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in The Nation on December 25 2011



Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Democracy is often thought of as a gift from ancient Greece. Athens is one of the first known democracies – functioning around 508 BC. Other Greek city states set up democracies, and most followed an Athenian model – an experiment in direct democracy, where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote in their own right on legislation and executive bills. This did not mean universal suffrage, but participation did not depend on economic status.

There is little connection between the democratic city-states of classical times and the Greece of 2011. The nation as it is today is very different and its geography makes it somewhat difficult to administer. Modern Greece has a population of nearly eleven million and the nation is spread over many distant islands as well as the mainland. The main ethnic groups are Greeks 93.76%, Albanians 4.32%, Bulgarians 0.39%, Romanians 0.23%, Ukrainians 0.18%, Pakistani 0.14%, Russians 0.12%, Georgians 0.12%, Indians 0.09% and others 0.65%.Two-thirds of the population live in urban areas, with Athens having four million residents.

Greece is linguistically homogeneous, with most people using Greek as their first or only language. However, former PM Papandreou was not comfortable with the language, having spent much of his life in exile. Gia tis kalpes! he was supposed to say.”To the ballot boxes” ! What he said was Gia tis kaltses! “To the socks!”


Greece became independent in 1830, but foreign interference kept the fragile fledgling nation in a servile condition, bullying it into joining the global capitalist economy. Before the modern Greek state assumed its present form after the First World War, communities in the trading cities already had a long history of running their own school systems, hospitals, and orphanages. Through local and communal organisation, by the mid to late nineteenth century, the Greeks were one of the most prosperous and dynamic groups in Southeast Europe.


As the Greek state expanded, it undermined that spirit of local autonomy and self-sufficiency but did not replace it with centralised competence. In the 1920s, autonomous local elites were replaced by a new group of people skilled at forging a relationship with the state. The new local leaders built up party machines by channelling funds from central government, which was heavily complicit in the patronage culture.

After the Second World War, the nation-state continued to be weak and failed to build a resilient system of social protection. The Greek political system has always been authoritarian and centralised, artificially imposed on a fragmented society traditionally centred on local loyalties, the extended family and community values. This has been the recipe, as in Ireland and Sri Lanka, for a politics of clientelism, cronyism, nepotism and corruption. Greece has its mudalalis and Gombeen men. The Greeks have resigned themselves to the lack of a responsive bureaucracy able to shape economic and social development.

EU funding only exacerbated patronage politics. According to Eurostat, public payroll expenses rose in Greece from 38% of state revenue in 2000 to 55% in 2009. Local elites became hostile to coherent national reform. In the mid-2000s, a local alliance in Salonika successfully resisted the granting of a concession to a major international port operator, to retain management of it themselves.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Antonis Kamaras has hope for a return to tradition: “A majority of Greeks today cannot see a way out of the pit their country is in. But they need only look to their grandparents to find a way out… By decentralising, the Athens government will both revive the nation’s distinguished legacy of local autonomy and move the country closer to the European norm in terms of delegation of power and authority.” He also recommends marshalling resources and know-how from the extensive Greek diaspora.

Kamaras may be deluding himself when he calls for local institutions to be “pushed into the non-profit sector”. Although the Washington Consensus has clearly been a disaster, its acolytes are now taking over power from elected politicians and demanding austerity measures which punish the victims and reward the culprits. Traditionally strong family ties are collapsing and the Greek state is unable to help. Before the financial crisis, Greece had the lowest suicide rate in Europe at 2.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. Statistics released by the Greek Ministry of Health show a 40% rise in suicides between January and May compared to the same period last year.


Robert Reich asked on Huffington Post: “Which do you trust more: democracy or financial markets? Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou decided in favour of democracy …when he announced a national referendum on the draconian budget cuts Europe and the IMF are demanding from Greece in return for bailing it out.” Reich believed that, “without the austerity measures the rest of Europe and the IMF are demanding, the Greek economy has a better chance of growing and more Greeks are likely to find jobs.” He asked: “Shouldn’t Greeks be able to make this decision for themselves?… So which is it? Rule by democracy or by financial markets? Based on what’s happened in America, I’d choose the former.”

Reich was too optimistic. Merkel and Sarkozy quickly stamped on this exercise of democracy. Papandreou was replaced by Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the European Central Bank, who promptly installed in the government a far-right group banned since the military government lost power in 1974. Nevertheless, opinion polls showed voters were resigned to the new arrangement. This might be a weary acceptance that a technocratic administration might be preferable to scoundrel politicians. Greek politicians rarely venture out in public, and when they do, even the most obscure MP has a bodyguard. Even foreign interference might guarantee an honest and competent government acting in the interests of the country.