Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Can Greece be reinvented?

The Financial Times reporter finished his grim report from debt-stricken Greece with the wishful suggestion that only the “reinvention” of Greece may bootstrap her out of her recurring bankruptcies. First, let me take issue with the invention part. Then, I will look into that prefix “re”.

The invention of Greece

The idea of modern Greece, like any human artifact really, has been an invention. In the late 18th century the Balkans were fermenting with nationalism, inspired by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. For most people in the Balkans it was straight forward to define their national identity. Serbs, Croats, Romanians (to a certain extend) and Bulgarians knew who they were from the start. But most people who lived in the Greek peninsula and parts of Asia Minor did not. Certainly, there were several individuals identifying themselves as “Greeks” in very high places in the Ottoman Empire, as well as across Europe. These “Greeks” were inheritors of the dominant ideology the Easter Roman Empire (Byzantium) that came to be following the Crusades and persisting after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. This ideology had journeyed a long way from original Roman Universalism in order to arrive around the 11th century to a loosely-defined “Greekness” by way of language and in comparison with its other Christian contender, namely “Frankisness” (i.e. the emerging Latin West). And yet “Greekness” did not fit comfortably with the Ecumenical spirit of Eastern Orthodoxy because, simply put, neither religious dogma can coexist with free thinking, nor nationalism with universalism.

Not managing to confound this apparent contradiction the intellectuals who defined modern Greek nationalism in the late 18th century produced an ideological chimera: a Greek identity based on Christianity.

The Greek Uprising of 1821 took place in the midst of this ideological confusion adding one more extra layer; the virtual absence of “Greeks”. Greece and Greeks did not really exist. What existed were communities of Christian farmers and herders that lived in the Greek peninsula and spoke various mutually-incomprehensible Albanian, Slavic and Greek dialects. But Greeks had to be invented. And they were. The “philhellenic” movement helped decisively towards this invention, creating an ideal Greece of romantic allure. When the Modern Greek State was organized in the late 19th century, a German prince came to become the first King of Greece and make the romantic dream into a reality. You can look at it as a first attempt of the western world to create a Disneyland. He failed of course. It was too early for Disneylands and the Balkans are a tough place anyway. He was succeeded by a more pliable royal dynasty of Danish origin who quickly integrated into the convenient confusion. The simulated image of classical Greece reborn of its ashes into a modern state (something similar to, say, Israel), was adopted as the national myth and ultimately became the country's tourist, and not only, slogan.

The politics of division

From the start then, the country was divided. The soul of the people was divided. And so was the language. Not wishing to delve into many historical details, the essence of the political history of Modern Greece is this.

The clan-based Ottoman society of mainland Greece (the core of the modern Greek State), rural in its base and loyalty, paternalistic in its nature, non-national but local, non-idealist but practical, infused the spirit of the institutions of the State. Government, instead of shaping a new, national society of law-abiding citizens, was consumed by the previous Ottoman social morphs. The clans transferred their power to members of the parliament, ministers, political families, kings and dictators, etc. The inequalities stemming from this state of affaires became intensified after 1922, when millions of Asia Minor Greeks (i.e. Christian Orthodox but not necessarily Greek-speaking) arrived in mainland Greece. They, not being part of the clan system that held sway, were marginalized from the start. Soon, and as Greece became increasingly industrialized, the new labor force from Asia Minor became the backbone of socialism and the labor movement, demanding a new deal. This “new deal” was in fact a desire to transform society into a really modern state. This movement was subsequently appropriated by the communists, became extremist and led to the pointless, albeit bloody Civil War of the late 1940s. As a result of this disastrous fratricide, the hope of a “new deal” was killed at its infancy and the old clan-based Ottoman status quo survived even stronger. The rise of the so-called “Left” of the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement in the early 1980s was another appropriation of nationalistic idealism, this time in the darkest and most sinister form. Creating even deeper divisions in the already divided Greece, two decades of third-world “socialist” rule solidified the model of a state that serves an oligarchy. The only difference was the type of the new oligarchs. When during the preceding decades the ruling class was families who exploited the mineral wealth of the country, now it was the turn of media, public contractors and telecommunication magnates. Since the 1980s, whenever Conservatives and Socialists exchanged places in government, they made sure that the paternalistic status quo remained intact, whilst serving their respective oligarchies and buying out political power by means of recruiting voters into the civil service.

The dual nature of Greece

Today, after almost two centuries since 1826 when Greece became an independent country, it is a country of two people. What divides the people is their relationship to the State apparatus. Those who have a relationship with it – let us call them the “Old Greeks” - people like the civil servants and the entrepreneurs who deal with public contracts and procurements, are the direct or indirect beneficiaries of the State. The lowest in that clique (i.e. the civil servants) enjoy relative prosperity and security. The highest strata, the media barons, the construction company owners, are multi-millionaires. The State makes sure that laws are enacted (or not enacted) with such frequency and fluidity so that, in the end, anything goes - as long as it creates wealth for the ruling oligarchy and keeps the State-supported underclass (teachers, policemen, low-paid civil servants) clothed and fed and constantly wanting.

The West as the inventor

Europe invented Greece (modern and ancient) in the 18th and 19th centuries because Greece is what unifies Europe. Greece, not Rome with its savage history of power and deceipt. Greece, of white marble and pure thought, of brave heroes and the rest. Greece, of carefree walks and dance and wine and worrying little about anything. The Epicurean Greece. The place that must exist somewhere in order for life, the hard-working life, to have meaning. Greece is a western utopia. The irony, and tragedy for modern Greeks, is that the utopia of their country has become their reality.

Modern Greece, regardless my analysis, is a dream come true. Sometime the dream is a nightmare, sometimes is not. In any case, the dream is disconnected from reality, hence the billions in public debt. The Greek government did not really “lie” – it just said what everyone expected it to say. That, somehow, life can go on without care. Greeks have bought into the unreal and went on to sell their unreal treasury bonds to the world markets, which bought them too.

Reinventing poor Hellas

The process of reinvention can only come from the outside, not the inside. Greece cannot reinvent itself. It cannot awake from the dream world that has been pushed in for the past two centuries. The country and the people have been into it too deep. Even if the current crisis is overcome, Greece will return to business-as-usual soon afterwards. Make no mistake of it.

But the West, the original culprit of invention, can reinvent Greece. It can anihilate the dream of the inheritor of ancient glory and replace it with a model state without memories (false or not). The cost would be dire but, given enough time and peristence, even the anarchic Greeks can be taught a lesson in submission. So the current crisis is not just about money. It is about Europe, the other, bigger artifact. The reinvention of poor Hellas will be the reinvention of Europe.

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