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No Greece in Our Time

Greek Dancers

Francesco Morosini was arguably the last great Doge of Venice, and just as Belisarius’s military exploits against the Vandals and Ostrogoths and other assorted colourful barbarians in sixth century Italy had allowed everyone in Constantinople to pretend that the Roman Empire was still a goer, so too did Morosini’s campaigns against the Turks in the eastern Mediterranean in the 1680s permit the ancient Republic to indulge in the fantasy that these Ottomans and Protestants and whatnot who had been cluttering up the Med for the last hundred years had just been a flash in the pan, and that Greece in particular would be restored to the Venetian Empire.

In September 1687, therefore, Morosini and pals were busy besieging Athens – then part of Turkey, and destined to remain so for another 150 years – when the local authorities had the bright idea of protecting its munitions by stuffing them into the Parthenon, apparently in the belief that occidentals could never bring themselves to damage such a famous symbol of western culture and civilisation. In a timely reminder that the Levant and the West have rarely understood each other, the Venetians calmly turned their artillery on it, blew it up, and attempted to loot the pieces, Morosini writing laconically in his despatches to the Senate that it had been “a fortunate shot”.

One imagines the defenders of the city peering between the time-worn pillars towards the enemy’s lines, sniggering a little as they congratulated themselves for being so clever as to use the Venetians’ sentimentality against them, abruptly changing to aghast looks of incredulous horror at the first white flash of canon fire, followed a second later by the sound of its retort, and a few seconds after that by the loudest and last noise they ever heard.

Greece submits its latest proposals for consideration by the Troika

Greece submits its latest proposals for consideration by the Troika

“They’ll never do it….will they?” should probably be Athens’ city motto. If one thing is obvious from this week’s euro-circus, it is that the buffoons who purport to govern the preposterous place never seriously entertained the notion that the European Union would stick to its guns, and insist that the country be allowed to run out of money if it did not commit to a fiscal programme which at least approaches sanity, albeit coming the long way round and with scope for some detours to admire the view and contemplate curious objects by the wayside.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the matter, though, has been the Greeks’ oddly circular thinking about their place in Europe: Greek culture brought civilisation to Europe; Europe is therefore civilised; in order to be fully civilised, therefore, Greece must be fully European. Not being part of the Eurozone, then, would somehow relegate them to the status of the barely European savages on the wild fringes of the continent, like the English and Danes and all those other uncouth Sea Germans who remain so backward that they insist on using Pounds and Kroner instead of Euros like proper people.

Admittedly, we Anglo-Saxons and Norse can be fairly uncivilised, what with our working breakfasts and half-price New World wines with the evening meal, but even the rest of Europe is only connected to classical civilisation by having borrowed bits of it. Ancient Greece was at the north-western extremity of the Cradle of Civilisation, which stretched from Athens to Nineveh and Babylon and across to the Indus – not forgetting Egypt, of course, for when one gets right down to it, the glories of classical antiquity were really born in Africa.

Greece, however, must presumably have become the best of them, for by the fourth century BC all these places had become part of the Greek World, falling to the armies of Alexander and spending the next several centuries ruled by his generals and their descendants: the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in Babylon, the Antigonids in Turkey, and still more improbably named satraps further east like Phratraphernes and Tlepolemos, and yea, even as far as the Arachosian satrapy of Sibyrtius in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Troika announces its preliminary decision

The Troika announces its preliminary decision

For almost a thousand years thereafter, and closer to two thousand in the case of what is now Turkey, Greek was the lingua franca of the whole of the Near East. Rome came and went, but the Levant never learned Latin: in a reasonably well-known example, in the Roman province of Judea, some Hebrew- and Aramaic-speaking subjects of a Latin-speaking empire wrote their New Testament in Koine Greek as a matter of course. Even the Roman Empire in the East – as Byzantium – officially spoke Greek while calling itself Rome until the fifteenth century.

And yet it is precisely the old Greek World which the Greeks seem to have in mind as they cling by their fingernails to the Eurozone: not Europe’s semi-detached peoples in Scandinavia and the British Isles, but Turkey and Lebanon, Israel and Egypt and the North African littoral. They recoil in horror at the prospect of being associated with the great Hummous Corridor, where the sun is hot, the cicadas are loud, and driving is not advised.

While it would be fatuous to discount the cultural changes effected by the new language and religion which Islam has brought to most of Greece’s neighbours since their Hellenic and Byzantine days, it would be equally obtuse to deny that the country’s closest cultural analogues still do not appear to be in Europe at all, but in its near eastern backyard. In fact, because Greece itself was occupied by the Ottomans for several centuries, one could say both that the Islamic near east was built on Greek foundations, and also that Greece itself was overlaid with an Ottoman veneer.

Indeed, if one were to give a newly arrived space alien the basic historical backgrounds of the various countries of the eastern Mediterranean, then ask it to guess which one had turned out to be the cultural outlier, the visitor would almost certainly – and correctly – point its tentacles or pseudopods not at Greece but at Israel, with its unique modern history and its formative years so dominated by the northern European culture of the Ashkenazim.

In particular, Greece’s endemic clientelism – networks of patronage which snarl up public administration like a pocket watch full of spaghetti – is certainly characteristic of the political culture of the region more broadly. As argued by Geroge Mavrogordatos in this paper (h/t Pseudoerasmus), it became considerably worse following democratisation in the 1970s, as political parties became the ‘collective patrons’ of the patronage system. This passage is worth quoting directly:

Greek Vase Runners

Rumour spreads of a working ATM

“…PASOK’s accession to power in 1981 brought with it a quantum leap in party clientelism. Both our case studies and our local studies confirm what was, by all accounts, a spectacular increase in the number of public jobs and positions filled through party channels. This involved not only the massive addition of new personnel to existing public bureaucracies, but also the creations and staffing of new and sometimes ill-defined agencies, such as the notorious ‘Popular Education’ which was in effect a thin disguise for a nationwide network of party activists posing as state employees…

“The change was not only quantitative, but also qualitative. Traditional clientelism was suddenly replaced by a new type, which was massive, impersonal, bureaucratic and sectarian. Individual patrons were supplanted by the party machine, and traditional clientelism by ‘machine politics’ (or, alternatively, ‘bureaucratic clientelism’).

“The change was qualitative in another respect as well. Prior to 1981, and irrespective of the actual numbers involved, traditional clientelism operated on the margins of what was essentially a merit system, however imperfect. A ‘hard core’ of meritocracy involved most permanent jobs (for which a competitive examination was normally required) and the bulk of bureaucratic promotions. Clientelism knew no constraints only on the margins, bother lower and upper: unskilled permanent jobs, temporary appointments, transfers and postings, but also top-level promotions. PASOK did not merely expand this dual system, but proceeded to destroy the very core of meritocracy, with the elimination of both competitive examinations and personal evaluation.”

Greek Vase with Frenchmen

Greece treating with the creditors, or vice versa, or something. Who the hell even knows any more?

The political parties – for New Democracy proved just as enthusiastic as PASOK – methodically proceeded to loot the state: in return for their clients’ support, they turned the government into a mechanism for distributing not only public sector jobs but also special exemptions, regulatory hindering of rivals, the strategic turning of blind eyes, et cetera. Indeed, we suspect that the maintenance of two rival patrons exacerbated the problem by obliging them to compete against each other for clients like rival gang lords. Party positioning thus became pervasive at every level of society, making the country’s politics so singularly vituperative and its state so remarkably hard to manoeuvre.

In short, there is a reason why the near east works the way it does, and it is not unrelated to why Greece looks more like the near east than the Netherlands. The British think that the European Union is a kind of free trade area, albeit a bit too bureaucratic in a nebulously irritating sort of way, but they are wrong; the Greeks appear to imagine that the EU is just an institutional expression of a country’s desire to self-identify (to borrow an American phrase) with some vague notion of western secular modernity, and they are wrong, too. In fact, the EU is a deadly serious project for homogenising the entire continent, reshaping all of it from Belfast to Bucharest according to the ideas of a few thousand highly determined technocrats in Brussels and Strasbourg, and their supporters in national political establishments.

For such people, a boisterous and chaotic political culture is not just a charming regional folkway, like an amusing traditional dance or eating beans with paprika – the sort of thing at which they occasionally firehose public money under some dour ‘celebrating regional diversity’ remit, no doubt in line with Clause 2,057(c)(iv) of a 750-page policy document called Re-Statement of Diversity Celebration Regulations (“DCR II”). Rather, it is precisely the kind of thing which it is their job to crush. We should not affect to be so surprised when they try to crush it.

One Comment
  1. Alcatraz #

    Just Vote Leave

    January 20, 2016

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