Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Greeks on Greek politics

Syntagma Square graffiti, Athens
Back in June i was working on a traveling tour from Rome to Greece. We were to arrive in Greece just days after their 2012 Parliamentary elections. Leading up to the tour some of my friends and colleagues joked that there might not still be a Greece by the time we get there.

This, of course, is ridiculous. All the Greek politicians could disappear and evaporate, all the world's currencies could spontaneously combust, and Greece would still be Greece, with its islands, its olives, is Orthodox traditions and ancient history, etc. Several Greeks pointed this out to me while i was there. Greekness is not political.

The press was billing this election as a competition between pro-Europe forces in Greece that would choose to conform to austerity and stay within the Eurozone and anti-Europe forces that wanted to see Greece exit from the single-monetary zone and therefore maybe from the European Union.

From this perspective, the pro-Europe forces won.

Now, as was my habit also in Egypt and Rome, i asked several local Greek people what they thought of the situation. One reaction was almost universal: they were all glad to have a government. Before these elections they apparently had no governing coalition, so they all seemed glad to no longer be a ship adrift.

Most of the people i talked to about it had little more to say on the situation though, they seemed resigned to apathy (in fact all of the tour-bus drivers i came across had this attitude.) The tour guides though and tourist accompaniers (quite an entrepreneurial group, generally speaking) all said that the result had been a bad one. "It would be better for everyone if we get out (of the Euro zone)," one guide told me, with an undertone of embarrassed humility that went through the rest of the conversation as well. Another guide agreed but took a more sensible, if radical, point of view:

She claimed that the press had misframed the argument as being between pro-Europe and anti-Europe factions. Instead, she said it was a decision between the status quo corruption that had lead them into the mess, and a newer, outside-the-beltway faction (to put it in American terms) that was pushing for a smaller, less corrupt, less Europe-dependent government.

As austerity packages continue to be pushed upon the Greek people, she seems to me to be right. The government is now telling the people of Greece that their pensions, their prescription medicines, the social programming and safety net must all be removed in order to pay their bills. The problem though is that the people did not spend Greece into debt, their politicians did. The Greeks get a lot of government benefits, they also pay quite high taxes. This should work out fine, if the government intended it to be so.

The politicians and their appointees and families have enjoyed spending and wealth at an unsustainable rate. This spending did not make all Greeks wealthy, but it did do so for a small political class. Now the bill for that class's spending is coming due, and they are forcing the same poorer people to foot the bill for their wealth and spending.
Greek Parliament, Syntagma Square, Athens

In Italy, where there is 1/5 the population of the USA, they have a larger number of publicly funded officials than in the States. The situation is similar in Greece. By employing so many citizens in cushy jobs, the incumbent government creates their own voting bloc. They can then screw the majority for the pleasure of the minority - and that is what i see happening in Greece (and in Italy and the USA for that matter.)

It would be different, the guide said, if the bailout money was coming from European banks. But it is not, she said, it is coming from specifically (obviously self-interested) German banks.

Then she made a fascinating point: Back in 2001, why would Germany, even then among the stronger of the European economies, agree enter into the single monetary Euro zone knowing that such weaker and more poorly managed economies such as Greece and Italy were and in fact would become such terrible and dangerous financial partners? The reason, she suggested, was a hunger for power and the knowledge that in fact Greek (among others) politicians were perfectly happy to, even intending to, spend their country into ruin. When the Greek government eventually could not pay their debt, that was Germany's cue to step in and offer to foot the bill in exchange for just that little thing called sovereignty. "This is the 4th Reich," she said. (Not to mistake this for a Nazi reference necessarily, she made it clear that her point was that they were power hungry - she made not indication that it was the same type or motivation of power hunger from the 1930s-40s.)

And that's what it's coming down to now. Germany is (partially already) calling the shots of how Greece should be governed. i personally don't trust banks to save anything, i agree with that first guide i talked to - it would be best for everyone long term if failing governments did not take bailouts from foreign banks! Whatever the people might have to go through as a result, it will still be better than going through exactly the same thing while also being owned by profit-interested banks, which is what is happening now.

"We are not born with critical thinking," this female tour guide pointed out. And, she's right - as Western world's middle class is proving. We are also beginning to learn the consequences of the fact.

All photos by author.


  1. Very interesting, but I have to disagree with the last comment, We are born with critical thinking, it hardwired into the human brain. Just some people don't use their critical thinking skills once they get older, for a multitude of reasons, for example, politics, religion, and capitalist greed have detrimental effects to critical thinking.

    It is interesting the take on Germany's involvement in all of this though, and it makes a lot of sense. I also agree that Greece and Italy shouldn't be a part of the Eurozone.

    1. i think that almost everyone is born with the CAPACITY to exercise critical thinking, just like nearly almost everyone is born with the capacity to speak or read. But then, like speaking or reading, critical thinking also has to be learned like any other skill.


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