Ode on a Grecian yearning


People pick onions which were dropped on the ground, as they were being distributed for free by farmers selling their produce, during a symbolic protest against the government's plans to liberalize their profession, in Athens May 15, 2013. The plans include ending the permanency of vendor permits, which will allow others to get farming permits.

Article Highlights

  • Democracy is under siege in its birthplace.

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  • All feel that the economic system is near breakdown, but few talk about regaining competitiveness and spurring innovation

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Athens -- Democracy is under siege in its birthplace. In a room of over 50 Greek CEOs and scholars from the American School in Greece, not one raises his hand when asked if they think their democratic government is capable of solving their economic problems. Nor does anyone raise his hand when questioned if they think there is a better system of government that could fix Greece’s economic crisis. More disturbing, a good 70 or 80 percent agreed with the comment “I feel that my freedom is disappearing.” Given news this month that the official unemployment rate hit a new record of 27.2 percent, the yearning for a way out of the labyrinth is palpable.

Spending several days in Greece clearly is not enough time to understand what is happening here, but one can absorb an enormous amount by getting away from the tourist spots even for a few hours. James Q. Wilson would be horrified by the state of the city -- every surface within reach is covered by graffiti, many buildings are falling apart, there is a general feeling of decay. At first, I thought the subway was part of an urban art project, so thoroughly were the cars covered. It’s a bit like walking through New York in the 1970s; even nice areas are filled with spraypainted logos and slogans. That is not surprising in a country whose GDP dropped nearly 6.5 percent in 2012 and is expected to shrink another 4.5 percent this year.

Yet, despite real unemployment being closer to 35 percent, as I’m told by businessmen, cab drivers, and others, the cafes are filled, downtown shops that are open seem filled with customers, and people both young and old mill through the streets. Granted, there is a huge number of closed storefronts, but there is a constant bustle, even on weekdays. I ask people how everyone survives, if unemployment is so high. Some say it is the money economy -- more people are working than the statistics capture, they’re just doing it under the table and paying no taxes. Others say it is because so many young Greeks live off their parents’ pensions, pay no rent at home, and pay no taxes on the work they do. Still others claim that no one saves any money and so everything just goes right into consumer spending.

All feel that the economic system is near breakdown, but few talk about regaining competitiveness and spurring innovation, or discuss how the country can position itself in the global economy. The young people I talk with have a grim reaction that combines anger with blithe unconcern, almost a feeling that there is nothing they can do, so they may just as well ride above the waves as long as they can. Walking through the overgrown and ignored ruins of Plato’s Academy in a neighborhood near downtown Athens, the contrast between the ancient spirit of critical inquiry and today’s cynicism is jarring.

As for politics, I’m told by more than one person that the current center-right government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his New Democracy Party is “100 percent” better than the Socialists under George Papandreou, son of Greece’s most powerful postwar leader, Andreas Papandreous. Yet, even with the goodwill of many of the business leaders, retirees, and young people I talked with, few believe he has any real chance of creating a sustainable recovery. At best, people were cautiously optimistic that the country was no longer dropping off a precipice, but with the new unemployment news, such hopes are being dashed. Such disaffection is one reason why far-right parties, like Golden Dawn, a quasi-fascist movement, are gaining alarming levels of support. One sees their black-clad, combat boot-wearing members in subway stations, public squares, and the like.

Yet there is another reason such modern Diogenes abound. As one finance expert puts it to me, “Greece no longer is sovereign; our creditors will make the final decisions about the future of our country.” Indeed, the week I arrive, negotiators from the troika of the European Central Bank, the IMF, and the European Commission were back in Athens, failing to reach a deal to release a further $3.6 billion dollars on top of the nearly $30 billion already loaned since 2010. In return for more international largesse, Athens has promised massive cuts in the civil service, up to an astounding (and hard to believe) 150,000 positions, and other cost-saving measures. Yet the average Greek on the street feels that it is a shadowy, unrepresentative world community that is creating the uncertainty under which they all live. All whom I talk to recognize Greece’s responsibility for its economic mess, but, as an office lady laments, “the world thinks we Greeks are lazy. It’s not true, we work harder than ever before, but our government has failed and is not in control.”

What is left is a sense of limbo -- not knowing where the country is going, nor what crisis could next hit, espeically after watching Cyprus implode just a few weeks before. One thing they all hope for, though: good weather for tourist season. The tourists are our only economic hope, I’m told. Not the most sophisticated of recovery plans, but grabbing on to anything just to make it through the storm seems the one thing all Greeks can agree upon.

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on wsj.com. His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

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