For the second time in two years, Greece will shortly have an early general election. Prevailing atmospherics are rather awful. The country is stumbling into its worst recession in over twenty years. Unemployment is rising and many smaller and medium enterprises are in their death throes. Liquidity to sustain daily operations and business expansion has all but disappeared, with banks refusing to ease their purse strings. Disposable income for most Greeks is shrinking, in some cases dramatically. Consumption has been affected accordingly, leading many retailers to desperation. Post-dated checks -- an illegal financial instrument dear to almost all Greek businesses, large and small -- have inundated the market, highlighting the straits faced by the majority of business owners.

For the first time in years, there is a spreading “fear of poverty” affecting not only the less fortunate, but also Greece’s far from robust “middle class”. Politically, “fear of poverty” has multiple effects, all of them negative. An empty pocket is the worst adviser in times of weakling cows, especially when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Greece’s politicians are on the receiving end of strong public dissatisfaction, with poll data discovering political parties at the very bottom of the list of institutions people trust. “Fear of poverty” is thus increasingly moving hand-in-hand with a still amorphous, but quite palpable, sense that there is no credible exit from the mounting crisis and no leaders capable of taking the country into safer waters. Polls show that, come election day on October 4, there may be no party capable of forming a government without coalition partners. But coalition is anathema to Greek politicians in general, save those with little hope of ever seeing a cabinet meeting from the inside.

In his Politics, Aristotle recognized the key significance of a ruling element that ensures the well-being of any system in nature, including of course that of the polis, the ancient Greek city state. Aristotle’s elaboration of the mission of the ruler stressed the importance of the right type of government guiding various communities; any departure from this rule, he emphasized, will cause an inevitable breakdown, with injustice and diminished welfare affecting all in the community. The current Greek malaise, growing by the day, is entirely explainable in Aristotelian terms -- the only difference being that few, if any, in positions of relative power in this country right now have any inclination to listen to the solution book and seek the root of the crisis in order to initiate some form of corrective action. Plainly put, Greek “leaders,” with a degree of control on how this country progresses over time, appear almost exclusively focused on what the majority of citizens would recognize as narrower interests of personal political survival, with the “big picture” occupying their attention only marginally. Plato, with his meticulous analysis of how “guardians” should behave in his Republic, would have been little surprised at this predicament.

To those who are struggling to understand the current dynamics of the Greek political system’s failure, there is much swirling and obscuring that makes clear conclusions difficult. And a long practice of collectively denying adverse situations staring Greece in the face is no better help in trying to arrive at a “new paradigm” that might be the foundation of a more effective form of political organization in this country.

For the sake then of those who are wondering what’s the Greek endgame, and trying to find some concrete bearings in their quest, let us pose and expand on the following Nine Questions as a means of streamlining the various current threads of argument, concern, and sense of impasse with the view of somewhat clearing the muddied waters.

What is the core of Greek politics today?

Few Greeks would reject the notion that the current driving force of Greek politics is corruption -- and more particularly, the type of extractive political corruption that aims at the accumulation of group or personal wealth by a variety of illegal and criminally liable methods, including bribery; embezzlement of public funds; widespread tax evasion; bureaucratic extortion of individual citizens; and the use of official powers to promote and protect special interests focused on thinly-veiled criminal activities aiming to defraud the government, exploit lucrative government contracts, launder the proceeds of crime, and establish permanent “unique arrangements” with top-level government officials serving as fire brakes of avoiding and evading detection, prosecution, and punishment. Political corruption is the tar baby of Greek politics. Its effects have spread far and wide throughout Greek society. The apocryphal anecdote of the veteran foreign business negotiator, who first met Greece over thirty years ago, when “only the minister pocketed a gift,” and today laments the need “to start from ground floor and climb the stairs to the top floor, all the while with bags of cash in hand,” isn’t too far removed from the actual state of affairs as experienced daily by great numbers of Greeks and foreigners alike.

Are there defenses against corruption?

There are very few, if any. Greece does not have a tradition of strict institutional discipline or the tendency to establish and promote “clean hands” special-purpose agencies, with the mission of pursuing and uprooting the corrupt and the corrupted. Few Greeks expect today that those prepared “to oil the innards” could fail in their endeavors -- legal or illegal. And piecemeal efforts at “cleansing,” like a recent campaign to prosecute trial-fixing judges, have only transient impacts; larger networks of corruption possess the almost genetically installed ability to absorb localized punishment and quickly find bypass avenues of carrying on as usual. Anthropological, social, and psychiatric research into the native powers of corruption suggest that even strongly resistant individuals, with bedrock principles and an active desire to combat corruptive influences, find it difficult to eventually avoid succumbing to the proverbial Sirens’ Call, for all their meticulous sealing of their ears.

What are the limits of politics in a system like Greece’s, where self-evident, widely accepted principles of good government remain only rarefied subjects of theoretical analysis?

It is an old adage that good intentions are never enough without the “teeth” required to turn them into practicable results affecting the great majority of citizens. Good government is a team sport. Incorruptible judges cannot long exist alongside police friendly to criminals. Honest bureaucrats cannot survive in a sea of petty or larger thievery and routine blackmail of individual citizens by “public servants.” And far-thinking prime ministers cannot “reestablish Government” with troops primarily concerned with their own personal loss of access to loot. The limits of politics under such circumstances are defined with great and, alas, depressing clarity. No amount of hopeful language and no amount of tin, pre-election bravado can actually make even a miniscule dent on these boundaries. Politics that have reached so low can only be re-defined -- and put to work in reconstructing political organization and its social underpinnings -- through a Herculean effort borne out of special, and often catastrophic, circumstances. But, again, no such jump start can occur in the absence of  leaders capable of carrying on and a “critical mass” of energized and willing citizens.

What exactly is this “crisis of leadership” experienced by Greece?

Leaders of any kind -- in politics, business, the church, the family -- have one primary purpose: to ensure that the unit under them remains viable and sufficiently healthy to continue functioning with reasonable success despite risks and inevitable setbacks in the course of things. In Greece, leaders placed at the helm of the country in recent decades have a patchy record, to put it politely. Since everything is ultimately judged according to results, any unbiased observer would not hesitate giving modern Greek political leadership plenty of C minuses and outright Fs on a whole range of critical issues, from the economy and foreign relations to public education and social security to guarding the country’s borders against illegal immigration and providing effective, reliable, and secure public infrastructures. It is indeed historically fascinating, if anthropologically frightening, to contemplate how consistently substandard leadership performance, punctuated by near disasters, over a protracted period of time has had such little impact on Greek public perceptions of “charismatic” leaders to the point of having locked this country in a veritable dynastic predicament that is condemning it to political parochialism, ideological tribalism, persistent instability, and institutional decay. The beautification of these “charismatic” leaders, who have saddled this country with insurmountable problems until the Second Coming, may be the top priority among those who link their political survival to a continuing, thinly-veiled personality cult, but it firmly places Greece among the countries whose “democracies” still need decades of brutal schooling.

What is the difference between Politics and politicization?

For the longest time, Greeks have confused Politics (capitalized) with sterile politicization. While Politics may be described as the noble enterprise of government, even with its not-too-moral Machiavellian aspects, politicization is the deliberate action of bringing political conflict into the most unlikely situations to be used as a weapon against those of different opinion. Politicization is the perfect tool of inducing widespread paralysis even inside otherwise benign environments, where conflict is normally not among the immediate risks. Politicization has done enormous damage to the fabric and direction of Greek society and politics, creating cyclical violence, killing all hope of consensus, and overturning targets that are glaringly in the interest of the vast majority of the people. Even worse, politicization has been endorsed and avidly promoted by parliamentary political parties at the expense of concentrating on how to best achieve targets at hand and promote all-round welfare. Politics and politicization couldn’t be farther apart when it comes to elemental agreements on national interests and aims. Politicization, while not entirely alone, lies at the root of Greece’s perennial inability to produce stable governing structures and unite the country during crises.

Is the “Greek way of life” under threat?

This is a question increasingly being asked but pregnant with ambiguities. A “way of life” means very different things to different people living, nevertheless, shoulder to shoulder in the same political community. The “way of life” is intimately connected to concepts like “conservatism” and “liberalism,” not to mention the notion of welfare and the expectation of rising standards of living, both individual and collective, so familiar in modern capitalist societies. Currently, the “Greek way of life,” irrespective of who are those asking the above question, seems under clear threat. On the one hand, “multiculturalism” has arrived with a passion courtesy of “progressive” attitudes, allegedly informed by European and “global” tenets; and on the other, it is obvious that whatever this “Greek way of life” might be, Greece is under such pressure from illegal immigration that soon harsh, lasting, and fundamental changes in Greek society are inevitable, not always to the benefit of the “natives”. In this respect, Greek politicians have patently failed to provide leadership and offer solutions. Such is the confusion and fear surrounding the expectation of a rapid deterioration of the “Greek way of life” that the subject has been almost suppressed and is simply absent from the cacophony of political party pronouncements. Ignoring a problem does not eliminate the problem though. This largely undefined threat lingers and occupies the minds of the many, without, however, eliciting a response from our political class, save some rare exceptions.

What is the impact of “virtual reality”?

Keen and long lasting. Although politicians all across the world often resort to outright lies masqueraded as legitimate and “doable” expectations with the aim of promoting a sense of impending well being and their own of course political fortunes, the phenomenon in Greece has assumed a life of its own, with many “leaders” and their subordinates heeding their own boasting as true and verifiable fact. In a vintage Greek movie comedy, a candidate for parliament is exuberantly announcing to the crowd that he will take the lead in building bridges for their village. When the audience interrupts to remind him there are no streams or rivers around, the good candidate disarmingly declares: “I will then make you rivers too”! Poetic hyperbole aside, the attitude of the river-making character lives on in today’s Greek politics in the extreme. The current pre-election campaign is already brimming with “river building” measures, especially by those attempting to unseat the incumbent government by releasing a torrent of largely unsubstantiated claims of “planning”. While living in a computer game-induced reality can be classified as a treatable mental complaint for individuals, it is incurable as a lever of politics. Virtual reality, nevertheless, remains a driving force behind Greek politicians’ promises -- which can collapse under the slightest scrutiny but which, for all intends and purposes, form the backbone of party “platforms”.

Whom do we then trust?

This is the existential question that has put philosophers on the rack for centuries with no satisfactory answers. Theoretically, “aware” democratic citizens should be leaning in the direction of “guardians” who may not be making the Platonic grade to a tee, but, at least, appear endowed enough to put their shoulder to the wheel. An honest effort, it seems, is all that we can demand or expect, especially since beggars can’t be choosers. Still, in practice here in Greece, we have decisively moved in the opposite direction, endorsing the least prepared, the most unqualified, and frequently the glaringly buffoonish to represent our interests. This is a condition impossible to break unless a minimum set of quality criteria begins to affect individual candidacy for office. But, again, we run into the circular gaming reality of Nonsense In-Nonsense Out. Voter perceptions remain disappointingly distant from demanding the kind of candidate quality cut for the job. Experts point out, not without merit, that it is too much to ask for an all-round high standard, when the majority appears to set the bar so low.

Is there hope?

Even cast-iron optimists seem subdued at this juncture. The current political lineup leaves much to be desired, especially against a long tradition of corruption and severe damage to the public interest that has gone completely unpunished. Greek politicians have remarkable staying power, rare among their kin worldwide. An intricate web of political clientelism, coupled with multi-layered corrupt relationships linking various social groups in mutually supporting roles, promise little immediate change. In the end, it is the people who, by commission or omission, make the community and its accepted norms and practices and are thus bound to suffer the inevitable consequences.

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