The Egnatia Motorway across the north of Greece is one of the ‘largest road construction projects in Europe’. Six hundred and eighty kilometers long and 24.5 meters wide, it requires the construction of 1,650 bridges, 74 tunnels, 50 interchanges, 43 river and 11 railway crossings. A modern Greek marvel in the making where at least half of the costs are financed by the European Union. In Greece today, a plethora of public works are completed or in progress thanks to the generous aid of the EU. Billions in funds have been transferred southward to the EU’s only Balkan state member since its entry in 1981. By the 1990s, that assistance averaged about 3.5 per cent of GDP yearly. To put it in perspective, it would be as if the U.K. received around $87 billion from the EU in 2007. For almost a quarter of a century, Greece has been the beneficiary of a European willingness to become one cohesive whole, but despite all the bridges, ports, tunnels, roads and agricultural subsidies, Greece remains as far away from the European core as it did when it joined the Union.
There is always some optimism when a grand public project is announced. The Athens underground was supposed to solve the city’s traffic problems, the Olympic Games were supposed to revitalize tourism, and the Egnatia Motorway is supposed to make Greece the economic tiger of the region. There are pronouncements of great hopes when a project is planned, followed by more pronouncements when the project begins, more pronouncements during the construction and a couple more at the opening or numerous openings. Finally pessimism seems to overtake everything. These public projects are like miracles without miraculous ends. The great leap forward is always postponed for a later day.
European assistance has been to Greece what oil has been to the Middle East; the lifeline of poor government, mischievous habits and exasperated hopes. Kathimerini, an authoritative daily newspaper, reported what the cotton subsidies have done in agriculture: there was cotton production of good quality in Greece, cultivated efficiently in the most suitable fields at a good price – now farmers receive subsidies that are up to three times the market price of cotton. Cultivation of cotton has expanded in millions of unsuitable acres. Excess well drilling has drained the valleys of their underground water, and pollution from the senseless use of fertilizers has been linked to serious health problems in the adjacent residential areas. This year the cotton farmers are to receive 690 million euros in subsidies. Since this amount is based on an agreed-upon quantity to be produced, farmers will produce more and attempt to get the national government to make up the difference. The common practice is to block major motorways with tractors; then the negotiations start.
Farming is associated with independence and self-sufficiency but the subsidy farmer is a new breed. He is entirely dependent on the political process, which he thoroughly cultivates, and his connection to the land is shallow. If the farmers are not out fighting for their ‘rights,’ then someone else will be: The teachers who do not want to be evaluated, contract civil servants who want to become permanent, policemen who do not want to police, students who do not want to learn. The list is long, reflecting a Greece cut to pieces with each faction trying to impose its absurd demands on the rest. The pre-eminent action of civic participation is to demand employment in the public sector, or to defend retirement at 50, to illegally build houses in the forest, or to fully exploit one’s state-sanctioned monopoly.
For the local intellectual class, this is the triumph of politics. For decades now, progressive ideas are the only ideas in Greece. They have been so thoroughly instilled in everyone, from the first grader up to the Prime Minister, that they permeate everything. Any movement in a different direction is anti-social, reactionary, liberal, or an Anglo-Saxon barbarity. Under the tutelage of progressive ideas there are privileges without duties, advantages without merit, crime without punishment and hard work with no reward. Can a society flourish under these conditions? What is the character and the purpose of the nation? Important questions, but in Greece they were decided years ago. The only questions remaining are who gets what, when and how. Not long ago I watched a TV report about an explosion in an illegal propane station in a residential area in Athens. The illegal market for fuel is thriving thanks to exorbitant taxes. The journalist reporting the incident mentioned the illegality without a shred of emphasis. It became worse when the owner of the station talked to the camera. I could not discern any expression of shame. She had just broken the law in a dramatic way and in the process put the lives of her neighbours in danger. None of this seemed to matter to her or anyone else. It was the noise and the spectacle of explosion that counted the most; a story reported for its cinematic value, where causes and consequences are unimportant.
This is the relativism of everyday life. The most important thing is what you can get away with. It is the tragedy of the commons writ large; a public sphere where the private and the public meet under the most disadvantageous terms. Someone would expect that decades of policies intended to foster social cohesion would produce a society of benevolent people. Instead we have narrow-minded, cynical, egotists gyrating in alternate states of self-satisfaction and self-hatred.
It is not surprising that between 1991 and 2001 deaths exceeded births by more than 40,000. The rearing of a family involves an unconditional commitment to another person, an undertaking whose emotional and financial costs are obvious and direct while many of the benefits are spread out in society and over time. A family man would say that nothing could compensate for the joys of family, but in a society where the individual perceives himself as the centre of the universe committed to the proposition that all joys and pleasures are equal, the family becomes just another choice among others. When duty and virtue have become antiquated terms that one only finds in books no one reads, we have a declining society entangled in the most petty and ephemeral affairs. Unburdened by the past, unimpeded from posterity, there stands the modern Greek: a person free of any civic and moral duties. The coming of the welfare state brought the monetarization of civic responsibilities and gradually degraded them to special interest sloganeering.
Unlike any other foe the Greeks faced in the past, the one that they face now has no armies laying siege to any walls. There are no occupiers trying to impose their customs and language, no military junta to imprison, torture or banish anyone. It is a foe that does not challenge their strengths but rather assuages their weaknesses. Instead of attacking the culture, it merely trivializes it by draining it of any transcendent qualities. There is no need to assail honesty, merit and hard work; they have simply been rendered irrelevant.
A commentator recently disclosed the slogan that the army is planning to use to attract recruits: ‘A career with the security of the public sector.’ In Pericles’ funeral oration you find no such catch phrase. Pericles talks of ‘the spirit in which we faced our trials and also our constitution and the way of life which has made us great,’ of a city that is ‘open to the world’ and of ‘men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard.’ He reminded Athenians that ‘happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.’ In such a city, the soldiers met danger ‘with a natural rather than state-induced courage.’ And they did so not because they knew they would return to some secure government job, but because they wanted to preserve a city they were proud of, a city that ‘future ages will wonder at’.
In the many narrow dirty sidewalks planted against ancient ruins, the many cars that flock the busy, gray streets of Athens, the cold boxy apartment buildings, the dim image of a city emerges, a gap reveals itself. A distance greater than the passage of time, of what we were once and the way we live now.
This article was originally published in The Salisbury Review.