A modern Greek tragedy based on history?

Posted on April 16, 2010, 7:35 pm
9 mins

In the NY Times (Sunday, April 25, 2010) there were two articles about Greece’s troubles. One, “For Greece’s Economy, Geography Was Destiny,” argued that geography has played a big role—that Europe’s problem economies (Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) are all in the South! They are all governed by “traditionalism and rigidity.”

The author goes back to the 4th century when western Europe was born, in essence, after the Roman empire split into two. Geography is location, some is better some is worse. This may be the case, but I don’t agree with the point that western & northern Europe have a better location.

However, there’s an intriguing phenomenon: the countries that are more successful are located in the west & north of the European continent. Even post-communism, countries like Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and those under the Hapsburg influence of the past have fared better than the Ottoman influenced ones, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece. Is this a coincidence?

This reality points to the development of certain institutions, socio-economic and political. The socio-economic conditions is the focus of the second NYT article by Georgetown law professor, Philomena Tsoukala, “A Family Portrait of a Greek Tragedy.” She argues that Greek women have fared far worse than other western European women, and that no country can reform itself unless the economic and the legal system recognize equal status to the other half of the citizenry. I think she’s got a good point. Family business, that constitutes over 75% of private businesses in Greece, has to leave its traditionalist and rigid structure behind.

Accidental History

It’s evident that history often moves by accident. Certain events take place, leaders appear, nature intervenes (often catastrophically), that change everything. Take for example Constantine’s decision to move the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to a new place in the East. He spared no expense in moving his administration and built replicas (often much better) of Italian mansions for the aristocracy to come along. Many followed. Yet, he made a mistake: he didn’t bring the whole Church with him. Eventually the bishop of Rome and others he left behind became the seat of the Holy Roman Empire—the Vatican.

In the East, the Christian Church became absolute, empowered by the monopoly and official status. For centuries, it succeeded in destroying the legacy (even memory) of ancient Hellas. The old philosophy, science, art, culture of the Greco-Roman times were considered an anathema, totally foreign to the new ideals of Christendom. By the 7-8th centuries, the classical civilization had been replaced by the eastern Orthodox. The new Ρωμανία –as the inhabitants and neighbors called the new empire, and not Βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία—enjoyed success for a few hundred years. It was later transformed into a collection of Greek kingdoms and loose alliances until the fall of Constantinople.

The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation

These two movements appeared in the west, missing the eastern Ottoman Empire and its territories. The Renaissance was the re-discovery of the classics, the Greco-Roman civilization. The newly rich Italian merchants, the intellectuals, and the patron kings found something new in the old. The ancient culture became attractive. Same for art, philosophy and science. Nothing like this happened in the east.

Furthermore, Martin Luther unleashed something he did not intent: the Protestant Reformation. This, after many trials and tribulations, ended the monopoly of the Catholic Church and ushered a new era of the secular state—separation of church from political power. The legal framework, the political ideology, and treaties reaffirmed this. Nothing of the sort in the east.

Eventually, the western powers succeeded in finding another way to undermine the Ottoman Empire by using internal strife—nothing new about this practice in history. And, here’s the part that many don’t like to think about. There were many ethnic groups in the geographical area of Greece. There was lots of mixing of the populations. Nationalism, the notion of nation-state and citizenship was not of importance to people since the collapse of the Roman Empire. These concepts became relevant again as the modern states formed in the 17-19th centuries. Local, tribal, regional allegiances were gradually replaced by a larger context: the state.

Two were the main criteria that determined peoples’ status and attitude during the middle ages in the east. One was their relation to the Ottomans; the other was their religion (non-Muslim). If the relation was adversary, then they were “natural allies” against the Ottoman rulers. Christians (usually only Orthodox were in the Ottoman empire) had their faith in common. It wasn’t language or ethnicity but religion that later determined who was considered Greek when the new state emerged in the 19th century. Anyone who was Greek-Orthodox could be a citizen in the new state.

Sacrifices during the struggle for independence were plenty. So was the internal strife. Heroes became traitor during that time. Allegiances often changed. One thing remained constant: Ever since 1821, the Greek state has been problematic in its functions. Why? Is it because the foreign powers don’t want Greece to reclaim its old glory? Is it because there are well-paid foreign agents and traitors within? Is it because geography is unkind to Greece? Bad luck? A combination of many factors? Why does this long streak of misfortune still persist?

Institutions Matter

The answer might lie in the political, socio-economic, and cultural institutions in place. A scholarly analysis reveals certain variables are indeed present; they commonly appear in several states that have similar problems like Greece. For example, in comparative politics one variable reveals a great deal about a society. If you don’t know anything about a particular country, ask, “what is the status of women in this society?” The answer to this will tell you a lot.

Politically, modern Greece has been organized around charismatic personalities; these leaders, few in number, have reinforced the view that the state operates on a patron-client relationship—put it bluntly, rousfeti. A regime that places more emphasis on statism and autocracy is bound to be corrupt, inefficient, non-innovative, traditionalist and rigid.

Greece has straddled two continents who have had different legacies, institutions, and behavioral patterns. Greece has never made a clear decision one way or another. It wanted to be part of the European Union but wanted to keep the eastern ways. So, yes to the Euro and liberal democracy of the west, while maintaining a dysfunctional socio-economic institutions and a church monopoly.

Now that the keys of the economy have been surrendered to the hated foreigners, maybe it’s time for modern Greeks to decide what they want to do and in which direction to move. Having the cake and eating it isn’t an option. It never was! Why they chose (or were led) to believe this fallacy in the first place can reveal more answers to the current puzzle.

A self-described Athenian, works and lives in the NYC metropolitan area. Interested in the world of ideas, the human condition & history, and how public policy can foster a progressive culture of life.