Sunday, 12 February 2012

This Modern Tragedy Requires Euripides

A front page headline in Saturday’s  International Herald Tribune says it all, really.

            “If Measured By Mistrust, Greece Is In A Class By Itself”

European leaders have finally reached the point of scepticism in their dealings with Greece that they should have reached when they let the country join the Euro several years ago. Both parties would have been spared the fiscal and monetary train wreck now in progress had there been a bit more scepticism about the numbers and a bit more concern about the reality of modern Greece rather than the ideal of ancient Greece.

But on a larger point, how has the nation once hailed as the proud successor to splendid Hellenism, the cradle of democracy and home to so many brilliant and artistic people fallen so far that it has now become synonymous with chiselling and cheating?

Several people will undoubtedly write lengthy, learned books about this situation, but it would really take a modern Euripides -- not some bloodless accountant -- to capture the pathos and scale of this tragic descent. All these works may well all start at the same point . . . the abject failure of Greece’s self-appointed and self-perpetuating political elite. The current crop of Greek leaders didn’t invent this situation, but they certainly continued ‘con gusto’ the age-old system of patronage and corruption that spawned a crippling, nationwide sense of entitlement.

“Somebody owes me. I’m entitled. Why should I work until I am 60 get a pension? I voted for him, now I want to get my reward” are common refrains from Crete in the south to the Albanian border in the north.  The politicians were brilliant at fostering and manipulating this attitude. They created a direct link between do-nothing jobs for you and your family and votes for themselves. They built an economic system designed to keep themselves in power and anyone else out. It is no accident that the Greek economy has been called the last Stalinist economy in the world. Even Cuba shows signs of coming out of its cocoon. Not Greece.

Now, suddenly and cruelly, it has become crystal clear that this entire system was a complete fraud. The emperor really has no clothes, and the torrent of money has ended. Not a single person in any position of authority in Greece prepared the people for this jarring confrontation with economic reality. No wonder the average person is frightened and very, very angry.

At some point one would not be surprised to see a latter-day Oliver Cromwell stand up and repeat the furious charge he levelled at the Rump Parliament in 1653.

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately . . . Depart I say and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
But do any of the political elite show the least sign of changing or showing even the smallest amount of contrition? Has anyone actually apologized for dragging the Greek people through this chaos? Do they sound responsible for the almost punitive conditions laid down for the financial rescue plan? They do not. That would be too much to expect from people still consumed about being elected band leader on the Titanic. Ideally there would be an entire new cast of young leaders champing at the bit to take over and reform the country’s outdated and inefficient institutions. Sadly, nothing like this is on the horizon.

Greece is now faced with a bitter choice – accept the harsh terms for financial rescue or default and most likely get thrown out of the Euro. I’m not at all sure that the very cynical, self-interested Greek politicians would be against a return to the drachma. It’s going to be very difficult to continue business-as-usual with some humourless, anal-retentive German or Dutchman managing the purse strings if Greece manages to stay in the Euro. A return to the drachma might cause serious economic problems in Greece, but the ‘unbearable’ external pressure for reform would be removed allowing the discredited political class to continue as before.

The only good news is that is over-long drama is about to end. The author very cleverly came up with two possible endings. We’re just not sure which one we will see.

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