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.


The Antidalarus said...

It's a cracking debate - well worth watching. Best thing I've seen over the xmas hols. Thanks for posting it.

I have to agree with your analysis, and I can only take the 'against' position if I am forced to choose. But Limberaki, Featherstone and Veremis were still well worth listening to.

I think it was made all the more interesting by having Featherstone there as the foreign guest at the table. In his defence, I think his answer to the questions about the LSE and the British Empire was nicely done.

Finally, a question. Is it me, or is the junta period being discussed and analysed more openly these days (as in this debate) - and particularly since the economic crisis began? When I lived in Greece in the early 1990s, it seemed to me that, relative to its recentness, there was a noticeable silence about it, as if things were still too raw.

John Akritas said...

I don't agree about Featherstone. I didn't think he added anything and I don't know why they asked him – but then I don't know why they asked Veremis either. And Featherstone completely misunderstood the points about collective responsibility. If such a thing exists, then he, as an LSE academic, should be responsible for the LSE scandal and, as a Briton, he should be responsible for Britain's colonial excesses or, more contemporaneously, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously, to suggest that the British people – as a whole – are responsible for Iraq is invidious, and is the logic of the 7/7 bombers; so why do people want to make all 11m Greeks responsible for the crisis, unless it is to make a racist point about Greeks being congenitally lazy, corrupt and so on?

Also, I've never noticed this 'silence' about the junta. If anything, the junta is talked about too much; they are often scapegoats and used to justify a culture of 'resistance', 'lack of social and personal restraint' and attacks on certain social institutions and ideas associated with a so-called 'reactionary' past. Think about the mythologising of the 17 November student revolt in 1973, its annual commemoration, and ask yourself again if there's a 'silence' about the junta.

The Antidalarus said...

Yes, there's Nov 17th, and I take the point about the junta being lazily scapegoated. All rather mythological. But it seemed to me back then that sober critical analysis of the junta period was missing - beyond the conclusion that it was basically the fault of the CIA. I never remember seeing, for example, a serious TV documentary about the period. Nor did I come across investigative journalism which, for example, named and shamed people. Or, alternatively, an intelligent defence of some of its achievements, given the historical context. Whatever. Instead, I just had the impression of a strange silence - I just assumed that there was a collective decision to keep the can of worms shut.

John Akritas said...

Someone does mention in the debate – maybe Varoufakis – that it was time to stop blaming the junta on the Americans – blaming all Greece's woes on foreigners – and, of course, this is right – up to a point. I'm no expert on Greek politics, but what you say does have some merit inasmuch as the junta leaders – put on trial and jailed – were only the tip of the iceberg and they did have some powerful collaborators from the economic elites – the Onassises of the world – who weren't pursued. But I couldn't tell you if Greek academics/journalists have delved deep into the nexus of junta power. I suspect – given the obsessions of the Greek left, and its domination of political discourse since 1974 – this has been done. But I really haven't detected – as you seem to have done – some conspiracy of silence on the junta. Maybe lazy analysis of it, but not silence.

Hermes said...

I have not heard the debate so I cannot comment directly on the content. However, I have not heard anyone seriously suggest collective Greek responsibility for the crisis apart from the odious Pangalos (hack journalists that write for The Guardian, Financial Times and other newspapers of disrepute hardly count as serious). But this was more of a throwaway comment by a degenerate pig. Who cares really?
But let’s be clear. There should not be collective Greek responsibility but a significant proportion, and perhaps more than half of Greek society, has to bear responsibility. This is because after the Junta; and particularly, after PASOK’s ascension to power after 1981, a grossly distorted political economic model, based on a sufficiently wide patronage system to almost ensure the continuation of the system, was constructed. The patronage system had to benefit at least enough clients (voters) to re-elect the same political elites (over time it did not really matter whether PASOK or ND was elected because they just continued the same political economic model) to administer the system. Also, the clients of this patronage system was not one particularly social class or sub-class but selective elements within society i.e. certain industrialists, unions, certain media outlets, lawyers, architects, farmers and so on. Furthermore, laying the blame of oligarchic elements and elites is really not credible. The non-elite and oligarchic Greeks that benefitted from this system knew it was a joke that they clocked out of work at 1pm in the State sector or the farmers that received subsidies to just exist. Essentially, many knew they were in on the act, in collusion with the elites and oligarchic elements.
Regarding the comments above about the silence of the Junta, I have realized that there has been a silence; or more accurately, a lack of serious self-analysis, because a large part of Greek society passively accepted the Junta and a significant minority preferred it. A feature of Greek society is a form of “societal double-speak”. Almost everyone knows how things really are, but this is rarely part of the discourse, until a crisis occurs. Suddenly, everyone is talking honestly for a while until the double-speak begins again. This is what has happened in regards to talking about the Junta period. Everyone knows that many people did not mind it, but no one was prepared to admit it. The so called “resistance” or “reaction” against the Junta was a convenient fantasy for a lot of people. You cannot put on trial 3, 4, 5 or perhaps 6 million people can you?
The enduring presence of the “societal double-speak” (I am no sociologist so there may be a better term for this) in Greek society makes me think we will learn very little from this crisis. Once the world’s attention is turned away, and some of the Greek problems begin to dissipate, Greek society will go back to knowing one thing, and saying another. And the charade will go on for another generation or two until we have another existential crisis.
Alarmingly, this “societal double-speak” is also present in our foreign relations policy. The discourse on our relations with Turkey went one way since Simitis, but the reality continued to be different. We have maintained this charade since the mid 1990s and more and more people are starting to realize the bankruptcy of the discourse.

Anonymous said...

Who is to blame ? The political class. The corrupt , venal plutochratic elite who sold out the Greeks and Greece. The people were simply inveigled to follow the rotten leadership trough circuses elections and other variety electoral shows . No one will dare acknowledge the fraud of the elections charade. When people, like driven cattle, are pushed to the voting booths with no genuine or real choices of policies. They go though the revolving door electing one crook after another because they know nothing else.

John Akritas said...

It's hard to disagree with your analysis, H. I was watching something last night with Castoriadis comparing ancient Athenian and modern society – I'll post about the series soon because it's very good – in which he notes the difference between passionate participation in a society's politics (Athens) and modern citizens, whose main demand from their state is that it 'guarantees their pleasure'. This desire to live in ignorance is not just a contemporary Greek phenomenon. Not wanting to know the truth applies to all modern societies and no doubt to all societies throughout history, with only one or two notable exceptions.

Hermes said...

Yes John, I was going to write, and I am glad you pulled me up on it, is that Greece's so called "double-speak" is not unique. However, the level of delusion appears to be higher than most, which is strange given that their position is more precarious. Perhaps, the level of delusion is a symptom of this precariousness. Probably, and more prosaically, the reasons for a desire to live in ignorance is because certain governance mechanisms facilitate a lack of serious discourse. For example, removing the asylum from prosecution for politicians would help to concentrate the minds of politicians before they do certain things and perhaps encourage more honesty. The solutions to Greece's problems are probably quite simple; but as always, it is enacting them which is impossible.