In the lap of the Gods

Greece has always looked at its classical age as a usable past but there is no solace in the classics to inspire the country out of its financial and economic woes. What Greece needs is a cultural revolution, writes Fouad Ajami

Statues of Socrates and Apollo, above, who are the Greeks’ default sources of inspiration, according to Fouad Ajami, who says they offer no solace for Greece economically because they did not value commerce. Pictures: Getty

No solace could be found in that classical tradition. German bankers should not rest easy if Greeks come bearing the inspiration of the epics and ancient Greek heroes

GREECE lives with the sense that it is exempt from the demands of political and economic discipline.

“We are on a difficult course, on a new Odyssey for Greece,” former prime minister George Papandreou once observed of his country’s economic malady. “But we know the road to Ithaca and we have charted the waters.” The man could be forgiven for falling back on the iconic Odysseus — Greece has always looked on the classical age as a usable past.

But the metaphor of The Odyssey offers no guidance for Greece’s economic travails. For The Odyssey is about adventure and revenge and the yearning for home; profit rarely figures in the journey. And when it does, on one occasion in Phaeacia, it is used to taunt Odysseus to demonstrate his physical prowess.

The ancient Greeks did not have much praise for commerce. Plato denigrated it in The Republic, as did Aristotle. Commerce was not fit for men of the polis and was best left, it was thought, for metics, resident foreigners. No solace could be found in that classical tradition Greece passionately claims as its own. German bankers should not rest easy if Greeks come bearing the inspiration of the epics and ancient Greek heroes.

Ironically, the more usable — and proximate — past comes from the way the Greeks performed as traders and merchant mariners during their subjugation to the Ottomans. The story is not heroic. Banking and business are not the stuff of legend. The Ottoman Empire created structures of collaboration: some three dozen nationalities and communities made up that ramshackle empire. The bureaucracy and the Army were the preserve of the Turks, but the Greeks found a niche, and prospered as merchants and middlemen.

They could be found in all parts of the sultan’s domains, in the Greek peninsula, in Anatolia itself, and wherever the Ottoman soldiers went and conquered. Greek was the lingua franca of the Levant, on par, in places, with Ottoman Turkish. The Greeks dominated the empire’s coasts. Smyrna (today Izmir), on the Anatolian seaboard, stood as a monument to the brilliance of the Greek merchants. In the 1600s, this city was to know a golden age, and the merchants did it on their own, outwitting the Ottoman bureaucrats and the sultan’s court in Constantinople.

Its world was genuinely cosmopolitan; the Greeks were the city’s bankers, lawyers, merchants, and doctors. Alexandria, too, was a haven for Greek traders, and Greeks could be found peddling their wares in the remotest corners of rural Egypt. They were a resourceful breed, and the French and the British, pushing their way into the markets of the Levant, saw the Greeks as agile and brilliant competitors.

But this accommodation with Turkish power could not withstand the appeals of nationalism, and the Greeks sought a world of their own. As practical as Greeks had been under Ottoman rule, they grew increasingly romantic. They had lost touch with the classical world, which they would glorify in the course of the 19th century.

There were foreign admirers, and they fed the Greek sense of specialness, of being set apart from the other nationalisms. Orthodoxy and Hellenism blew at will, and the great powers jostled over the making of this new Greece. The Greeks would at once need foreign help and suspect it — a pattern that carries over to the present. Conspiracies stalked their homeland. Greek nationalists believed that jealous nations were out to rob the Greeks of the place they had had in the past.

There would be no normalcy in the Greek political world — the dreams always deadly, far bigger than the Greeks could attain. The national church stoked the fires of these grandiose ideas. Populism and communism closed the circle of this unhappy history. The Latin West was always needed and hated at the same time. The roots of this schism ran deep, all the way back to the conflict between the heirs of Byzantium and those of Rome.

In A Concise History of Greece, historian Richard Clogg writes of a foreign-office minister who, in 1980, opined that Greece’s entry into the European Community would be seen as “a fitting repayment by the Europe of today of the cultural and political debt that we all owe to a Greek heritage almost three thousand years old”.

The Greeks took in and lived off this sense of entitlement and specialness. The debt crisis that overwhelmed the country by 2010 was born of that sense of abdication. The socialist tradition ran deep, and membership in the European Union and eurozone was bound to make Greece a European burden. Not for the Greeks was the discipline of the marketplace. If German savings were to sustain Greece’s indulgences, so be it. In EU councils, the Greeks made the most of the truculence of their politics — the refusal of the country’s citizens to pay their way, to provide taxes to maintain a modern state, and to accept structural adjustments for an economy living beyond its means.

Reckoning came in 2010. Greece’s bills came due, and the coffers were empty. Prime Minister George Papandreou struck an accord with the IMF and the EU to secure a bailout in return for budget cuts of €32 billion. But the bloated public sector wanted nothing to do with the cutbacks.

A 48-hour strike was staged May 4-5, ending in tragedy. Three bank employees were killed, as their bank was set on fire. Papandreou was in a fight for his political life, caught between the demands of foreign creditors and the ways of his population. The custodians of power in Greece were in no man’s land. Papandreou bowed out on November 9, 2011.

From the day Lord Byron and the philhellenes flattered the pride of Greece to the present, the country has lived with the sense that it is exempt from the demands of political and economic discipline. It won’t matter how much relief is thrown at it, for that sense of entitlement will overwhelm all good intentions.

The technocrats now go where the politicians had failed, but the anger displayed in the face of the harsh economic realities provides no solace that Greece is done with deadly dreams — and expectations. While the countries of Europe are troubled, the Greek predicament is deeper and more acute than the rest. And a final sobering note must trouble the Greeks: the Turks, who had once been soldiers and bureaucrats who disdained trade and commerce are now in the throes of an economic renaissance.

Modern Turkey had destroyed or banished its trading minorities. Izmir had lost out to bleak Ankara, in the interior. The Turks fell back on economic protectionism — import substitution, a command economy that subordinated economic matters to the primacy of politics. They reaped the harvest of that strategy: their people grew impoverished, they flooded the labour markets of Germany to make their way in the world. Then an economic revolution remade Turkey; the markets were opened up; privatisation worked its magic. Prosperity came to the dusty Anatolian hills.

So culture does matter, but it can be altered and reformed. Decline is a choice, not a fated destiny.

* Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. This is adapted from Defining Ideas, a Hoover publication.

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