Following the victory of the anti-austerity Syriza party in the Greek general election on January 25, fears have intensified that the country will exit the eurozone and eventually collapse. Yet, the seeds of the ongoing economic crisis can be traced back not to deficiencies in the economy but to Greece’s despairing social structure.
As long as domestic and foreign elites focus exclusively on the trembling economy, their attempts are doomed to fail. Even if 100 percent of Greece’s bloated government debt is written off, it will only be a matter of time before the country returns to its current position.
The real problem for Greece does not lie in tax evasion or in the country’s soaring national debt. These are merely the results of deepening social decay in Greece during the last forty years. To get to the heart of the issue, one needs to go back to the fall of the military junta, which ruled from 1967 to 1974, and examine how Greek society was reformed.
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After 1974, successive governments attempted to modernize Greece. Under the leadership of the Socialist Andreas Papandreou, prime minister from 1981 to 1989 and again from 1993 to 1996, Greece introduced significant reforms. Papandreou, in his attempt to reintegrate groups that had been marginalized because of their political beliefs, eventually dismantled the middle class, which normally serves as the spearhead of economic and social development.
As a result, economic elites were replaced by corrupt businessmen with close ties to government, universities were held hostage by political youth organizations, and people whose basic skill was their affiliation to the ruling party were placed in the leadership of public companies. To make matters worse, corruption, favoritism, and a lack of accountability became the dominant features of the Greek public sector.
Gradually, Greeks changed their mind-set. Instead of adhering to virtues such as meritocracy and social justice, they began to pursue easy money. From the early 1980s until the eruption of the 2010 crisis, Greeks were living their myth, as cheap EU money was flowing, corruption was socially acceptable, and consumption and tax evasion were driving the economy.
The majority of Greeks sought public-sector jobs in which unreasonably high salaries and a lack of accountability were common practices, as labor unions dominated public administration. Others would establish their own businesses and would maximize their profits through tax evasion—or, alternatively, they would do business with the government and benefit from corruption and their political connections.
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In parallel, governments showed irrational fiscal irresponsibility and populism to gain sympathy with voters, while the population turned a blind eye as this was a win-win situation for everyone. The EU also tolerated social decay in Greece, for geopolitical and economic reasons.
Therefore, almost two generations of Greeks have been raised with the perception that their country is a special case, and that corruption, tax evasion, and cheating should be not only tolerated but even rewarded. Some sporadic initiatives to change the situation were unsuccessful, and those who attempted to do so were marginalized.
Naturally, when their economy came to the brink of collapse, most Greeks were unable to realize either what they should do or why this crisis had occurred in the first place. Having been raised like a spoiled child, the average Greek still believes that he has done nothing wrong, and that it is the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU that are trying to destroy the country.
Unfortunately, Greece’s political and economic elites omitted once again to explain what had gone wrong. Instead of persuading citizens that the society was in a deep crisis and that the bailout packages were mainly about painful yet necessary reforms, the elites preferred to point fingers at the IMF and the EU.
Now, everything seems futile. Greek economic gurus and the majority of the country’s political system blame the troika—the European Commission, the IMF, and the European Central Bank—as the main reason for the crisis. Political leaders antagonize each other over who will be the one to liberate the country from its austerity-fueled occupiers.
Once again, social structures and norms in Greece remain unchanged, hampering any attempt at reform. Since 2010, governments have implemented severe cuts in public spending and tremendous tax rises, however the burden has not been shared by everyone. Only a fraction of Greeks have faced the cost of high unemployment and shrinking incomes, while vested interests in the private and the public sector resist any reform that will allow the economy to recover.
What is more, degradation has been spread everywhere as students occupy and destroy schools and universities, public administration continues to underperform, and tax evasion has skyrocketed. It is remarkable that even now, Greece has been unable—or rather, unwilling—to enforce a law passed in 2010 to forbid smoking in bars and restaurants.
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But what is even worse is that most Greeks do not even try to change their country and hence their life. The reason for this is that despite the painful austerity measures and tax rises, no serious attempt has been made to change the way Greeks perceive their relationship with the state. They pursue their own interests and ignore any negative impact on the economy, in a clear signal that even now, they do not realize what is at stake for them.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that, despite measures that have been introduced since 2010, the crisis has been escalating. It is now imperative that Greece and its European partners focus on issues such as building new moral norms and reforming the education and justice systems.
Five years after the economic crisis erupted, Greece again faces the danger of political crisis and economic collapse. All competent parties should realize that it is of the utmost importance to start the long and painful process of addressing the overarching problem in Greece: the social crisis that has been going on for almost forty years. That is the only hope for Greeks.
Stratos Pourzitakis works for the Greek Ministry of Finance. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the Department of Government and International Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University, under the scholarship of the EU Academic Programme in Hong Kong.
Elias Kirgidis also works for the Greek Ministry of Finance. He is a second-degree student in politics and international relations at the London School of Economics.