Friday, 30 December 2011
Who’s to blame for Greece’s crisis?
Above is a debate (in Greek) recently held in Athens on whether all Greeks share a responsibility for the crisis currently afflicting the country, or whether responsibility is much narrower. The debate was sparked by comments made early on in the crisis by Deputy PM Theodoros Pangalos that ‘όλοι μαζί τα φάγαμε’, or all of us, all Greeks, ate a piece of the pie and are responsible for Greece’s overweening debt.
Speaking on behalf of the proposition were Thanos Veremis, professor of history at Panteion university; Antigone Lyberaki, professor of economics at Panteion university; and Kevin Featherstone from the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics. Against were Yanis Varoufakis, professor of economic theory at university of Athens; art critic and journalist Avgoustinos Zenakos; and lawyer Haris Economopoulos.
The case ‘for’ was pretty straightforward: Greece had been brought down by nepotism, cronyism, corruption, tax evasion, wilful disregard for the law and so on in which all Greeks were implicated. Kevin Featherstone argued that in a democracy, all citizens necessarily bear responsibility for what happens in their society.
Those against the proposition thought the blame should be attributed more selectively, to the media barons, politicians, big business and to a bent system that enough Greeks were excluded from or had no stake in. It was also argued that the ‘we binged together’ discourse is being used to coerce Greeks into consenting to the austerity measures since collective responsibility implies collective punishment.
Although I wasn’t satisfied by those against the proposition targeting the usual suspects and avoiding attributing guilt to public sector trade unions, the closed professions, the purveyors of the perverse and bankrupt version of socialism that has dominated Greek society for four decades – I found the ‘we binged together’ case even more unconvincing.
It seems obvious to me that the mother who pays a bribe to a doctor because she wants her sick child to be urgently treated is less responsible for corruption than the doctor who insists on and takes the bribe; nor is the mother’s corruption on the same scale as the politician who insists on a kickback when signing the billion dollar defence contract. Similarly, the father in the sticks who implores the mayor to put his unemployed son on the local payroll can’t be as responsible for cronyism as the mayor who parcels out jobs based on who begs him the most or promises him his vote.
Thus the essence has to be not whether a preponderance of Greeks participated in the system – but whether all benefited from it equally – was everyone paid a bloated pension or were some (most) pensions barely enough to live on? – and whether Greeks had a choice to opt out of the system or were obliged to be a part of it, since no other system existed.
Also, it’s absurd for Featherstone to suggest we live in societies run by citizens or in which citizens have an equal say in how their societies operate. It’s not just that in our societies some citizens are more equal than others, it is that the power wielded by any one citizen will always be much less significant than the power wielded in society by elites and oligarchies; i.e. elites and oligarchies run modern societies, not citizens.
Featherstone also fails to address the pertinent points put to him by two members of the audience, vis a vis: if we accept notions of collective responsibility, then he – Featherstone – must be responsible for the scandal than erupted at the LSE over large donations it accepted over the years from the Gaddafi regime; and that, still according to the logic of collective responsibility, all British people must be held accountable for the excesses of British colonialism.
Indeed, the case of the British colonial system is apposite, because while colonialism benefited many in Britain, its repressive and exploitative side was as profoundly felt in the homeland as in the colonies. Very few British people had a stake in or were advantaged by the British empire; many, indeed, were as much its victims as those subject to British rule overseas.
The same logic has to apply to Greece: while some – even many – sectors of society were advantaged by the corrupt system that evolved after 1974 – it would be invidious to suggest that all or even a majority of Greeks, even if they participated in the system, created it, desired it or benefited from it.