Πέμπτη, 18 Απρίλιος 2024

The Greek Crisis and its impact on political identities

My paper consists of three parts. In the first, I focus on some basic sociostructural features which led to the Greek crisis. In the second, I look at the impact of the crisis on the level of collective discourses and identities. Finally, in the last, I focus on a very specific cleavage between the Greek Centre-Left and the radical Left, and the impact this cleavage had on identity change.

A. Concerning part one, my argument is that in order to understand the present, extremely difficult situation in our country, one should focus on the Eurozone's structural weaknesses as they articulate with the Greek ones. It is precisely this specific articulation which can explain why Greece is exceptional - exceptional in the sense that our country suffered more from the global crisis than any other Eurozone country.
Starting from the Eurozone, there are 3 major structural weaknesses which explain the present precarious situation of the overall European project.
First, the Eurozone comprises two groups of countries. Those of the North (north-west) which are more developed and competitive globally, and those which are less so (mainly, but not only, Portugal, Spain and Greece). Given that they have to operate within the space of a single currency, there is a systemic transfer of resources from the South to the North: the North accumulates huge surpluses coming, at least partly, from the less competitive South. This "unequal exchange" cannot be reversed by the aid that the developed members give to the less developed. To stop the haemorrhage one needs more radical redistributive mechanisms, the sort of aid that the USA provided to Europe in the early post-war period.
This became more obvious with the advent of the present world crisis, when the gap between South and North became more visible. For instead of the supposed convergence between the more and less developed parts of the Eurozone, we have observed the opposite: i.e. a growing divergence.
A second deficiency related to the first is that, given the single currency and the creation of a single European market, it is not possible for the system to work without strong political European institutions controlling market tendencies which unavoidably create huge inequalities both between countries and within each country.
However, despite the above obvious tendencies, instead of the political deepening of the Union, the European leadership chose the opposite: its extension, for commercial and geopolitical reasons, to the East. It is only now that it has become obvious that trade unification requires rapid political unification - if the Eurozone is going to survive and flourish.
The third less structural more conjectural fault line was that unlike the US government which followed a Keynesian line (as in the 1929 global crisis), Germany, the dominant and dominating force of the Eurozone, chose an austerity policy which led, particularly in Greece, to the deepening of the recession, to a phenomenal increase of inequalities, to massive unemployment and to the marginalisation/pauperisation of a large part of the population. Overall, Greece is today at the top of the Eurozone list concerning the size of its public debt, inequalities, unemployment and the weakening of trade union rights. The question is why this is so, why other countries, particularly Portugal and Spain, managed to handle their debt crisis without the severe penalties and restrictions imposed on Greece by the Troika?
The answer is difficult but in a few words, I would argue that the Eurozone structural weaknesses were combined with equally grave indigenous, Greek ones.
The most obvious is that Greece, unlike Portugal and Spain, before the creation of the Greek nation state at the beginning of the 19th century, was an impoverished province of the Ottoman Empire. The government of the Empire was usually excessively corrupt, despotic and arbitrary. It was the type of regime that Weber has called sultanistic.
Given the above, it is not surprising that the 19th century Greek state, despite the fact that it introduced very early western democratic institutions, was deeply clientelistic and despotic. In fact, Greek clientelism went through 3 phases of development:
- In the 19th century, clientelism had an oligarchic character. It took the form of a number of powerful families (the so-called "tzakia") which controlled extensive clientelistic networks organised by local potentates.
- During the post-oligarchic phase, particularly during in the inter-war period, when the middle classes entered the political arena, we pass from the decentralised oligarchic to a more centralised form of clientelism.
- Finally, with the creation of mass-parties in 70's, clientelism was not peripheralised but, on the contrary, it took a highly centralised bureaucratic form as the powerful political leaderships at the top managed to control clientelistically more effectively those below.
Of course, one can argue that as far as clientelism is concerned, the Portuguese and Spanish states were, and still are, also clienteleistic. But their clientelism is to some extent checked by other institutional spheres which attenuated clientelism's negative effects.
In order to understand the qualitative difference between Greek and Iberian clientelism, I will mention two examples. First example, in the post-junta period we observe the emergence of the first mass parties in Greece: those of PASOK, a Centre-Left party and of New Democracy, a conservative party. But party massification did not lead to clientelism's decline. On the contrary, as the party mechanisms penetrated the periphery, we see the massification of corruption and the strengthening of clientelistic networks. Given this context, PASOK (as the first non-communist mass party) managed to govern the country for many years, and to provide generously public administration jobs to its clients. Not only that, but the PASOK charismatic prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, misused European resources which were supposed to modernise Greek agriculture. In order to get rural support, he distributed generously European funds to farmers, funds which were used less for the development of agriculture and more for conspicuous consumption: from expensive cars in the countryside to the purchase of flats in Athens.
Another, even more shocking example of mass clientelism occurred later, when New Democracy gained power, the party leadership proclaimed that its major goal was the "Reconstitution of the Greek State". However, reconstitution of the state did not mean rationalisation, but massive recruitment to all public administration levels of New Democracy's clients. It was precisely this extraordinary policy of the conservative government which almost doubled the public debt - rendering it unmanageable.
To conclude, it was the articulation between Eurozone and Greek deficiencies which explain Greek exceptionalism. That is to say why Greece, unlike other countries of the South, is still under Troika's supervision.
At present, explaining the impasse, the Left focuses more on the deficiencies of the Eurozone, whereas the conservatives emphasize more aspects of the indigenous underdevelopment. However, I think it is only by focusing on the articulation between European and Greek structural weaknesses that one can provide a convincing explanation of the Greek crisis.
The negative/dysfunctional articulation creates a social space within which a wrong policy from the Troika generates equally wrong policies from the Greek government and vice-versa. In other terms, there is a constant negative dialectic between the strategies of the two sides, strategies based on their respective structural weaknesses.

B. I move now to the second part of my talk which focuses on how the articulation between Greek and Eurozone structural deficits had an impact on related to the crisis identities. Needless to say, the Greek crisis changed identities in several institutional spheres. For instance, in the family, young people had to return and live with their parents, a development which changed the familial power structures. In local communities and neighbourhoods support networks were strengthened, whereas in civil society we see a multiplication of solidarity oriented individuals and NGOs.
In this paper, however, I will only focus on the macro-political sphere. On this level, in ideal typical terms, the more conservative "modernizers", i.e. the economically and socially more successful, explain the deep crisis as being mainly the fault of Greeks. They agree with our major European partners who argue that the main cause of the Greek exceptionalism is due to the country's sociocultural backwardness: to the extensive clientelism, the anti-developmental character the state, the corruption of most politicians etc.
On the other hand, those who lost from the neoliberal globalisation and from Merkel's austerity policies put, almost entirely, the fault to the foreigners, the Troika and the banks. Here, the more sophisticated argument is that the German government ignores that pouring cold water on a frozen economy leads to further recession. As to the IMF, in addition to its gross miscalculations about the Greek debt, in a completely short-sighted manner, it followed and continues to follow a set of neoliberal formulas (i.e. the Holly Book of the famous "Washington Consensus"), failing to contextualise, failing to take into account the specific features of the country.
Moreover, both the Eurozone and the IMF demand reforms to be implemented in the here and now. They demand a "shock therapy" which does not take into account the country's institutions and its particularistic traditions, traditions which cannot change from one day to the next.
Moving now to the level of representations, there are three broad collective discourses: the "modernist", the "centre-periphery" and the "ethno-populist" one. The bearers of the first consider themselves heirs of the European Enlightenment. They regret that at present Greece is at the bottom of the scale as far as unemployment, public debt, productivity and other factors are concerned. This dark picture offends the modernisers' sensibilities. It offends, bruises the image of themselves and therefore they are often ashamed of the negative image that Europeans have of Greeks as lazy, irresponsible etc.
As to the strategy for dealing with their bruised identity, it consists of trying gradually to "reach the West" - via a type of modernisation which resembles the neo-evolutionist theories in the sociology of development during the 50's and 60's: i.e. the belief in the gradual ascent to full modernity of less developed countries via the diffusion of western values and technologies. A diffusion which is supposed to take place in a space where power relations between strong and weak states are irrelevant or do not exist.
As far as the second "centre-periphery" discourse is concerned, here the neo-marxist theories of development-underdevelopment are relevant since they focus on the ways used by the capitalist centre to exploit and dominate the periphery. Now, on the level of collective representations, this leads to the idea of a victimised self, a result generated by the Brussels' bureaucracy, foreign bankers and their Greek representatives. Here the strategy for self restoration is various types of protest: from strikes to mass mobilisations of the Podemos and the Syntagma Square type.
Finally, in addition to the modernist and centre-periphery discourses, one should mention a third: the "ethno-populist" one. This has as its main basis ΧΡΥΣΗ ΑΥΓΗ (The Golden Dawn) whose rapid ascent is directly linked to the crisis. The Golden Dawn is a neo-nazi party coming very close to the German prototype - both in terms of its organisation and its ideology. In terms of the former it is characterised by a monolithic authority structure entailing: absolute loyalty to the leader, military training, the Hitler salute etc. Ideologically it is violently racist and xenophobic. It is hostile to immigrants, foreigners, gypsies, Jews and all other "inferior" groups or races which pollute the glorious Greek culture. A culture which has direct linkages, not only linguistically but also biologically, with our ancient Greek ancestors.
According to the Golden Dawn, and particularly to its leaders and active followers, it is globalisation and European unification which undermine the autonomy of the national state and culture. In fact, anti-globalisation and anti-Europeanism are the central elements of members' representations. European usurers, Brussels' bureaucratic mechanisms and transnational corporations penetrate and enslave the Greek people, while cosmopolitan elites and the global mass media undermine the unique Greek cultural traditions.
On the level of identities, such a state of affairs undermines "Greekness", it transforms people from true Greeks to westernised puppets. As to the strategy for restoring the true Greek identity, our "true self", this entails a constant struggle against the deep penetration of forces undermining the national state, our own cultural heritage and the well being of Greek people.
Now, comparing the three political discourses, the modernist accepts entirely the Eurozone status quo, the centre-periphery rejects it but fights for its transformation, whereas the "ethno-populist" one opts for a total rejection and a return to the past.

C. Finally, in the last part of my talk I will, very briefly, focus on some aspects of the centre-periphery discourse, which show characteristics not to be found in other Eurozone polities. This is a deep cleavage, a solid wall between the Centre-Left and SYRIZA, the ruling radical Left party. As is well known, Eurozone radical Left leaderships usually originate from communist, Trotskyite and other anti-systemic movements or parties. However, these features changed when, during the crisis, radical Left parties became major players in the political arena, e.g. like the PODEMOS in Spain and the Left Bloc in Portugal. This was also the case with SYRIZA, the first radical Left Eurozone party to win governmental power.
In fact, after a brief period of internal conflicts between the leadership and an extreme Left fraction which finally left SYRIZA, the party under Tsipras' leadership, being ignorant of the way the Eurozone functioned, as well as of the balance of power between Greece and her partners, made a series of wrong moves. Alexis Tsipras thought that SYRIZA, rather than Eurozone elite, could set the basic mode f the negotiation. He also announced a number of populist measures which were impossible to implement. After several wrong moves, the Prime Minister realised the limits of SYRIZA's power. He also realised that Grexit was a serious possibility which, if it happened, would be catastrophic for Greece. After a long procrastination, he decided to (rightly or wrongly) that Grexit must be avoided and, in fact, Grexit was avoided. But as a result, the Prime Minister had to accept an extremely punishing memorandum. Needles to say the implementation of the memorandum's requirements hit hard not only the popular but also the middle classes. As a result, SYRIZA lost some of its popularity, but managed to retain governmental power with the help of ANEL, a right-wing, over-patriotic party.
Given the above, not only the conservative New Democracy party, but also, in a much more aggressive manner, the Centre-Left demonized SYRIZA. It demonized, however, a SYRIZA which existed before Tsipras decided to avoid Grexit and follow the European road. It demonised and continue to do so to a SYRIZA which does not exist anymore, an imagined SYRIZA which is supposed to be fanatically anti-European and undemocratic. A SYRIZA whose aim is to transform the Greek polity into a Maduro, Putin or Erdogan type of authoritarian regime. In that sense, for the majority of the social-democratic Centre-Left leaders and followers, SYRIZA is a caste like, "untouchable" organization. As a result, the mutual hostility between the two sides has led to a SYRIZA/anti-SYRIZA split, not only within Parliament, but also within universities, intellectual circles - even within families and groups of friends.
I think that the resulting fixity of such conflicting political identities between SYRIZA and the Centre-Left, if it continues, will sooner or later push the social-democratic Centre-Left towards the neoliberal Right. This might happen because, whoever wins the next elections, contrary to what the Centre-Left hopes, the result will be a polarised New Democracy-SYRIZA system with a weak centre, very similar to the previous polarization between New Democracy and PASOK. If the SYRIZA demonization and the permanence of the mutual hostile identities continue, the Centre-Left, sooner or later, will have to collaborate with New Democracy, a party whose present leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis has a clear neoliberal orientation.
If this happens, the Centre-Left will shrink rather than grow. I think that it will follow the road of other Eurozone social-democratic parties whose choice of neoliberal practices in the past led them to their present decline. In other terms, the difficulty of Greek Centre-Left to become a serious political force, is not only due to its continuing fragmentation, but also to the turning its back to SYRIZA - despite the fact that not the old but the present SYRIZA has more common elements with the Centre-Left than with the neoliberal Right. In fact, today both Social-Democracy and the pro-Eurozone radical Left parties do not want to destroy the EU, they rahter want to change it in a non violent, democratic manner. Their goal is the passage from the present Eurozone neoliberal capitalism to a more humane social-democratic one.
Of course SYRIZA, like other radical Left parties, (for reasons I cannot explain here) reject the social-democratic label, they see themselves between social-democratic parties and those anti-systemic ones. But what I want to stress here is that today, not the imagined but the present SYRIZA has several common goals with the social-democratic Centre-Left. They both realise, contrary to the far Left, that the collapse of capitalism is not around the corner, and that within the limits it sets, progressive forces should fight neo-liberalism and aim at a second humanization of capitalism, like the one achieved on the early post-war years by social-democratic parties. They realise of course that this time the "return of the political", mainly through a serious control of the financial markets, cannot happen on the level of the nation state, but on a meta-national level. On the level, for instance, of the Eurozone - provided that the Eurozone achieves political and social unification, i.e. that it becomes a federal community based not only on competition but also on solidarity. If this happens, Europe will become a serious global player, capable to contribute effectively to the construction of a more humane, global social order.
For the followers of Bernstein, the father of social-democratic theory, a further development of social-democratic capitalism is a precondition for moving to a post-capitalist, democratic socialism. Perhaps the above sounds utopian, but it might be a realistic utopia.
To conclude, I have argued that the Greek crisis can be to some extent explained by an articulation between the Eurozone's basic structural deficiencies (i.e. its shaky architecture, its extension to the East before political deepening and its neoliberal orientations) and those of a post-Ottoman Greek state with a profoundly rooted clientelism without the countervailing powers of a strong civil society. In part two, I have identified, in an ideal typical manner, 3 basic political discourses and their impacts on identity formation. In a final part, I discussed briefly a strong dividing line between the Greek social-democratic Centre-Left and the radical Left. A dividing line which has a serious impact on the formation and change of Greek political identities.

*Paper presented at the European Sociological Association Conference (30/8/2017).

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