Greek elections (again): From crisis economics to crisis politics

Democracy is the worst governance system except for all others we have tried” to paraphrase Winston Churchill.  A Greek friend recently claimed that no mainstream Greek party is uncorrupted.  Voting, therefore seems a futile exercise.  In similar debates in the media there is persistent discounting of democratic institutions.  The short diatribe that follows attempts a defence of modern Greek democratic institutions in the context of the upcoming elections.  Of interest to European politics enthusiasts.

Greek political extremism

The Greeks appear to discount democratic institutions since the political class has failed their aspirations.  As a result, over the last few years the political system has become fragmented and many Greeks toy with political extremism.  Extensive soul-searching on the nature of representative politics has been brought about by plummeting living standards, soaring unemployment and the decimation of asset values.  The public discourse has oscillated between blaming others (a favourite pastime of all nationalists) with blaming weaknesses in the democratic system.  Domestic and foreign politicians (i.e. Papandreou and Merkiavelli) are commonly identified as culprits to the current malaise.  While bankers, the financial system, industrialists, the Gs (G7, G8, G20 etc), the acronyms (IMF, WB, ECB etc) and Clubs of the powerful (Davos, Bilderberg etc) come in for indiscriminate blame.

As it happens frequently in debates that are shaped by political entrepreneurs and populist media, most political questions posed are misframed. A frame provides the terms of reference to all political context.  For instance, if the frame to a natural disaster is: (a) climate change, (b) an act of the gods or (c) inadequate sea defences; the remedy could vary from pursuing those responsible to sacrificing to the gods.  So, irrelevantly framed debates lead to irrelevant (or dangerous) solutions to political problems. A brilliant recent article by Pavlos Elefthriadis in Foreign Affairs identifies the role of a small group of Greek oligarchs in perpetuating political decay through their control of most media.  Glaringly similar to Italy then.

But maybe not quite.

Political actors with even the slightest experience of governance recognise that the actual options of the Greek state are stark.  The tax system is distinctly unfair (and most likely unconstitutional), the judicial system is burdened with contradictory legislation (I coin the term polynomic) and the bureaucratic edifice is unwieldy and inefficient.  Structural reforms have been fiercely resisted. Predictably, labour political representation is entrenched in adversarial contest that has a whiff of the UK unions in the 1970s (which incidentally gestated the takeover of the state by Thatcherism).

The elections

So, although I do not think the choices in the upcoming Greek elections are appealing this is part and parcel of representative politics.  My own assessment is that the extremes in the political spectrum are either delusional or purposefully misleading.  Or both.  As is often the case, idealists and political entrepreneurs are gambling with other people’s suffering.  The visual reference for me is a smirking Danny deVito in “Other people’s money“.  Transfer the frame of reference to politics and you have the “comedy” of personal greed/ego trumping the cost of collective cost/risk.

On the other hand, the political mainstream, remains compacent, with business as usual, employing wishful thinking and lacking political courage.  But my assessment is not tantamount to an admission that the political institutions are to blame for the economic malaise.  The political problem, i.e. how to produce governance that will improve collective utility in a system of power asymmetries, is inherently very complex.  And it underlies democratic politics everywhere.  Direct democracy appeals to our sense of justice.  Democritos declared “equality to be everywhere noble“. But for direct democracy to work a strong commonality of values and what sociologists have called generalised social capital are indispensable.  In Greece political culture is strongly individualistic, with the prevalence of familism and clientelistic favouritism.  By comparison, Ireland, a country with high levels of social capital and a stable social contract, has weathered the crisis much better.

So far, the political evolution of the West has offered no alternative system to democracy, able to jointly harness our individual political and economic drives.  Democratic institutions make our collective behaviour predictable in a way that can improve general welfare while having the potential to improve political inequality.  Of course, the professionalisation of political representation implies an adulterated model.  But, the price for maintaining a parasitic class of professional politicians is the protection of society from populism.  Of course this view makes the simplifying assumption that politicians are well regulated within institutional structures, their political capital does not distort general welfare and their power does not lead to their personal enrichment.  All these assumptions do not hold in Greece, where the political system is riddled with nepotism, pantouflage and dynastic politics.  Nevertheless, it is not democracy which is at fault, it is the nature of our politics that requires an overhaul.  And to put the Greek state in its historical perspective: The biggest challenge up to a few years ago was the entrenched localism of potentates with political clienteles. The political discourse is therefore individualistic, messianic, and leader centred.  To change this will require decades, assuming it was challenged at the grass-roots.  Many recent examples from North Africa attest to the fact that strong clan/clientelistic systems do not recede with the introduction of democratic institutions.

Economics driving politics

There would have been no political crisis in Greece without an economic one.  The drive to “upgrade” the state, improve the political discourse and democratise politics are not fanned by a grass-roots demand for modernisation.  They are largely (and sadly, very much like the Arab spring) redistribution demands.  They are driven by external factors to the Greek political system.  So, calls for modernisation are the outcome of economic failure and not the result of political maturity.  The political system has been largely complacent for thirty years on an expanding pie to redistribute, following the EU accession.  What the Greeks demand is a return to the status quo ante.  A pre-crisis state of nirvana.  This does not require a more efficient state, a faster judicial process or higher levels of welfare.  It requires for the middle classes to be allowed to return to their special relations with their respective patrons and the working class to be in safe employment.  So, any improvement of the functioning of democratic institutions are not viewed in relation to an improvement of general welfare and political equality.  Democratic improvement is construed in relation to the stake of individuals (and/or family clans) to state redistribution.  Modernisation demands are therefore fickle.  That is why there is no serious chance for democratic renewal. Anyone promoting top-down political change in these circumstances is either delusional or opportunistic, or both.

The problems of democratic choice in Greece cannot be solved during a snap election.  The process of modernisation is likely to be long and arduous.  The crisis dilemma posed to the Greek electorate, is likely to remain a persistent feature of future electoral contest. In conclusion, Greek citizens cannot escape the catharsis of civic engagement if they envisage an efficient and equitable politics.  The complacency of the last 30 years has led to a dead-end that only collective engagement can remedy.  Neither the rejection of the democratic process nor political nihilism are meaningful alternatives.  The solution, always mundane and arduous, can be found in political engagement.

PS 11 Jan 2015.  In the spirit of full disclosure: I recently compared my political beliefs with political party manifestos in a voting advice application (in Greek).  This assigned my answers to be over 60% similar with a couple of the mainstream parties!  This slightly surprised me. It is either that I am less iconoclastic than I assume or that a two dimensional test (two axes on libertarian/authoritarian & debt management/euro exit) fails to capture the subtlety of my political beliefs 🙂

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