Friday, 20 April 2012

A Greek tragedy in three acts: A dilemma, an oxymoron and a leap of faith

There are times when academic witticisms really hit the nail on the head. When the organisers of the latest instalment of the Greek Public Policy Forum decided on headlining the Nottingham meeting “No Country for Old Systems”, they surely could not have predicted the tragic irony that their intended pun now encapsulates. On 3rd April a 77 year old retired pharmacist puts a gun to his head and commits suicide in the middle of Syntagma square. In a dramatically lucid suicide note he explained that the only act of resistance left to him before ending up looking for food in the trash, was a dignified end of his own choosing. While the jury is still out on what will happen to countries with “old systems” that fail to meet the standards of the global free market, Greece appears to be rapidly becoming “no country for old men”. If soaring youth unemployment, gender inequality indices and the growing waves of emigration are added to the equation, it is doubtful whether younger men and women will fare any better for the foreseeable future.

Setting aside for a moment the eventually unavoidable task of identifying reasons and culprits, the immediate question should be where to go from here. The general elections of 6th May will put an end, at least temporarily, to a short-lived but symbolically significant governmental experiment. For the second time in its recent political history, the Greek parliament decided to entrust the running of the country to a coalition government headed by a technocrat. After the late Xenofon Zolotas, who became interim Prime Minister of the so-called “ecumenical” government in 1989, another high-profile economist, Lucas Papademos, accepted the responsibility to fill the governmental void created when former Prime Minister Papandreou decided to step down at the end of 2011 in favour of a governmental schema supported by a wider parliamentary majority. Apart from the academic debate on the constitutionality of Papandreou’s decision, a fierce political debate also ensued on the substantive democratic legitimacy of the choice to forego immediate elections and entrust an unelected technocrat with the helm of the country.

Despite the fact that the Papademos government has now run its course, the political question at the heart of this debate is far from a moot point for two reasons. First, the electoral result of 6th May will determine not only whether the Troica bailout plan is an acceptable compromise for the Greeks alone, but also whether it continues to be a politically viable solution within a disenfranchised European South. Ardent advocates of the European vision should already feel rather uncomfortable with the “unholy” EU / IMF alliance that amounts to nothing less than a blatant admission on the part of the Union of its incompetence or unwillingness to address European problems through European solutions. With Italy, Spain and Portugal on similar paths as Greece, it is now impossible to deny that the Greek sovereign debt crisis, notwithstanding the failings of the Greek state, is part of a wider problem that reveals the endemic deficiencies of the Eurozone. An unequivocal “anti-Memorandum” Greek vote may produce incalculable reverberations across the European political edifice, as it will cast doubts over the legitimacy of the EU-led technocratic governance paradigm and arguably put the current Italian government under severe political pressure. One must not forget, after all, that the Papademos and Monti experiments in Greece and Italy respectively, despite their differences, can be viewed as a national-level replication of the infamous democratic deficit, which has plagued the Union since its inception and continues to dominate discussions on its future. Although it may seem impertinent to overplay the impact of a 10-million strong electorate on a Union of more than 500 million, it is reasonable to assume that the Greek electoral result may be the trigger forcing the Union to take decisions that will determine its future one away or the other.

The second reason why the Greek elections of 6th May are significant for the “democracy / technocracy” dilemma, both within Greece and across Europe, is a pragmatic one. Given the legally binding commitment of the outgoing Papademos government, supported by a wide parliamentary majority, to the latest instalment of the Troica bailout plan, the democratic expression of the will of the Greek people may have been irreversibly compromised ex ante. Despite the undeniable political symbolism that an “anti-Memorandum” result will connote, the pragmatic issue is none other than the actual room for manoeuvre that any future Greek government will have against the backdrop of legitimately signed and ratified international agreements. This is not to deny that a democratically elected government will have the constitutional right and responsibility to renegotiate existing agreements and recalibrate national policies along the lines of its mandate. But it would be myopic to completely deny the fact that any future Greek government will have to operate within certain political and legal constraints.

It is exactly on this hurdle that the dominant political rhetoric that attempts to pre-interpret - and possibly pre-empt - the electoral result seems to fall flat on its head. The conflation of an anti-Memorandum vote with an automatic reinforcement of representative democracy at the expense of a technocratic model of governance is conceptually flawed in every respect. It beggars belief that any criticism levelled against a particular economic recipe, which has proved as yet unsuccessful to turn the tide in our favour, is equated with a total rejection of the need for technocratic expertise in dealing with the sovereign debt crisis and the broader institutional deficiencies of the public and private sectors. It is similarly quite outrageous to presume that the significant portion of the electorate that will cast a vote of disapproval is anything more that disenfranchised with the Greek political system in its totality. Assuming that these voters have consciously and en masse adopted a reactionary or recidivist attitude towards European integration or the modernisation of state institutions is an essentialist assumption that does not stand to reason. Turning the argument on its head, the point is simple: in this general election Greek voters are unlikely to cast their votes on the illusion that democratic representation is in itself a panacea.   

Equally flawed, however, is the symmetrically opposite conflation of a “pro-Troica” vote with a public expression of confidence to the merits of technocratic governance at the expense of democratic representation. More than any other in recent history this election was fought in a political climate of polarisation and completely entrenched positions. Rhetoric from all sides of the political spectrum has converged towards invariably monothematic campaigns and a bipolar frame of reference. Through conventional and unconventional communicative devices the central message of this election was reduced to a simplistic referendum-type question that overshadowed the concrete points of party manifestos. Portraying the issue as one of “yes or no to the Memorandum” was a useful tactical choice, particularly for PASOK and New Democracy, that allowed everyone to sweep inconvenient truths under the carpet. The traditional electoral dilemma of the eighties and the nineties, whereby a strong parliamentary majority was presented as the only safeguard against political anarchy and the demise of the democratic state, was partially resurrected, albeit without much apparent success. In any case, it is nothing short of illogical to assume that PASOK and New Democracy have somehow made a transition from pillars of the old political system to par excellence advocates of an emerging technocratic governance paradigm, notwithstanding their support for and participation in the Papademos government. And it is even more extraordinary to suggest that those who vote for these two parties have made their choice on such grounds.

This is, in fact, the oxymoron of the Greek situation. Our parochial understanding of technocratic governance is mitigated by a short-lived national experiment, which paid nothing more than lip service to the concept of technocracy, and by an on-going supranational one that has so far failed to either satisfy minmum legitimacy standards or, at the very least, produce tangible positive results. With a 50-strong cabinet composed almost exclusively by career politicians, many of whom were already serving as ministers on the outgoing PASOK government, the “coalition of the willing” that ruled the country since December 2011 was anything but the triumph of the technocrats. Yet another conflation, yet another misunderstanding: an unelected government of career politicians headed by an unelected technocrat Prime Minister does not even come close to technocratic governance. The potential lack of democratic legitimacy, then, of the Papademos government was not offset by its technocratic nature, unlike what might be the case with the Monti government in Italy. What is more, the foreign technocrats who are credited with “running the show” do not come from Brussels alone. The role of the IMF in determining the content and priorities of our regulatory responses to the crisis falsifies European integration and makes a mockery of the vision for a European polity founded on the solidarity of its peoples. This is all the more true insofar as the role of the European Central Bank is effectively reduced to that of a mere observer. The short-sighted German policy of preventing the ECB from pulling its institutional weight behind the ailing Eurozone partners is the epitome of viewing common problems through narrow nationalist lenses. But this does not alter the fact that the current governance paradigm emerging in Greece is democratically deficient and technocratically inefficient.   
By the same token, the majority of Greeks have slowly but steadily begun to realise that ours is a failed state. Sweeping institutional reforms are absolutely necessary, if we are to pull ourselves from the brink and eliminate the “three C’s” that have plagued the Greek political system for the best part of its historical existence: corruption, cronyism and clientelism. Few would disagree that the way out of the proverbial woods cannot possibly be led by those who are in the habit of going in circles for the past three decades. The downward spiral of a self-perpetuating system cannot be stopped by wishful thinking and vague patriotic mantra. Greece is in crisis – there is no doubt about that. Despite appearances, however, this is neither solely nor predominantly a financial crisis. Without under-estimating the appalling state of the Greek economy and the urgency in getting it back on track, it would be nonsensical to claim that Greece’s problems can be reduced to its current fiscal or financial predicament. The growing realisation that the sovereign debt crisis is in fact a symptom of a much deeper and wider institutional failure is only the beginning. If we are to become true citizens in the original, archaic sense of the term, it is essential to realise that we share a burden of responsibility for this failure, either through our tolerance or through our complicity. Clientelism, after all, is by definition a two-way street. This by no means entails that we are all equally responsible for the current state of affairs. Nor does it mean that the measures hitherto adopted reflect a fair distribution of the burdens. It does, however, mean that we should be willing to accept our responsibility as citizens and be ready to put the finger into the print. This requires that we sever the bonds of clientelism and cronyism ourselves, with our own bare hands, even with personal cost. If technocratic governance is to have any democratic legitimation and if representative democracy is to have any chance of transcending the travesty of a system that we currently witness in our country and continent, it is ourselves as citizens that need to take the first decisive step by reinventing our collective sense of belonging to a truly democratic polity, where each is rewarded according to merit and need.     

The institutional crisis we are faced with is, indeed, multifaceted, multi-layered and complex, as it is intrinsically connected with endemic socio-political features of the Greek state and society. Above all else, however, this is a crisis of trust. We have ceased to believe in the fairness, competence, efficiency and ethical gravitas of our institutions and we have no faith in their power or willingness to change direction. It would be hubris to suggest that a brief comment such as this one can offer easy and original specific solutions that have somehow hitherto escaped our attention. No magical wand that will automatically resolve the Greek crisis exists, nor is there a guarantee that the current situation is reversible by conventional means. It is, however, reasonable to note that the bond of trust between the Greek people and the political system that claims their allegiance has been irrevocably broken. Once severed, the Gordian knot cannot be mended. The only way forward can be none other than a collective leap of faith. We need to trust in our ability to reinvent ourselves and rewrite our future. We need to trust in our ability to convince our European partners to change direction and work together towards fulfilling a vision that now seems long forgotten. Above all, we need to trust in the transformative power of democratic participation that can turn shame for the mistakes of the past into hope for the possibilities of the future.  

Dr Panos Kapotas, LSE
For the GPPF Nottingham Forum, March 2012 

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