A Greek Fable, Part One: The Globalization of Opportunism

Note to Alexis Tsipras: What follows here is a transcript of the imaginary conversation I did not have with George Papandreou on October 15, 2009. You might want to read it.

George: Thank you for sending me a copy of Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen. I appreciate the connections you make between culture and citizenship. I hope your book helps to counteract the way anti-politics is corroding democracy in the United States. However, if I may speak frankly, this is a very American perspective on a distinctly American problem. What does it have to do with Greece?

Peter: Well, as it happened, Civic War appeared at the end of 2008 just as young people in Greece were beginning to rise up against widespread corruption. They often told me that Greece had become a place filled with thieves like Madoff and liars like Bush. On the one hand, I could see similar frustrations of civic life in the two countries. On the other hand, these frustrations were clearly linked in some way with a nascent type of global movement, one motivated more by the rejection of corruption than by an abstract conception of justice.

George: You are right to see the defeat of New Democracy and PASOK's return to power as part of a larger movement. And the language of justice is changing. But these are slender threads joining your concerns and mine.

Peter: George, let me get right to the point. You are going to have a really tough time. Obviously, your first task was to extricate the parasites of New Democracy from the state. But it is hard to see how a small country like Greece is going to navigate through this global crisis. The world is being ripped apart by unchecked financial speculation. The devastation will likely continue for years and....

George: ... excuse me, Professor, but I certainly do not need you to tell me this.

Peter: Of course, George, but bear with me. I am coming to one small observation that I hope to share with you. This crisis has been brewing for years and any disinterested person will have seen it coming. What strikes me most about the crisis, however, is the popular reaction to it. Don't you see that at the same time there has been a remarkable, resurgent desire for meaningful civic life? This desire seems to be sprouting everywhere.

George: I understand you perfectly. Since the "Regime of the Colonels" was pushed out in 1974, one of PASOK's main goals has been to rebuild civil society in our country.

Peter: Actually, George, I am not talking about "civil society." What we are seeing has to do with even deeper human motivations and capacities. It's a basic "civic impulse" that has been suppressed for decades by many forces, most recently, one should say, by the popular anti-politics fed by neo-liberalism.

George: I'm sorry, Peter, but I do not see the difference.

Peter: George, look around the world. There are many events that seem unrelated but actually have in common this reawakening civic motive. Think back to last winter. For us it was a big wave of hope driving the election of Obama. Remember how that coincided with a surprising protest against President Bush in Baghdad...

George: ... you mean the shoes?

Peter: ... exactly! And at the same time Charter 08 came out in China...

George: ... and we had those riots after the police shot Alexandros Grigoropoulos. I was appalled by what they did to Athens, but I would not have been elected without that.

Peter: Right. And you remember how it resonated around the world? When protestors took to the streets in dozens of other cities, of course they were speaking for themselves, but it was under a banner of solidarity with Greece. George, I am telling you that we are going to see a whole lot more of this, and even though it is fashionable to talk about "new technologies" and "social networks," what really will raise resistance in the centers of financial and despotic power around the world is this civic impulse. That's my point: something new is brewing in the 21st century and Greece is part of that.

George: What's new in all this? Another round of revolts against despotism? Or another try at the revolution against capitalism? What if this is just hard-pressed consumers rejecting consumerism?

Peter: No. Don't be so hasty, George. You are confusing today with the 19th and 20th century. The old movements you mention are just about dead. Whatever is happening to us now, it is a sort of reaction against the last forty years. And seeing the world with a civic eye, the primary fact has been the globalization of opportunism. That's my point: this is a particularly toxic form of corruption and people are fed up with it. Of course it has roots in the past, and corruption has political and economic and ethical features. Still, it is more than the sum of those parts.

George: You make it sound as though Greece is infected by a global epidemic.

Peter: Well, the civic is part of the life of humanity, although that does not make this a biological fact. And even though corruption has to do with how individual people behave, it is not wrong to think of it as an epidemic. Rampant opportunism produces diffuse social effects, and these effects are a sort of generalized plague on anyone who hopes to act as a citizen. That's why what we are seeing is a political disorder; that's why it has begun to call forth a civic cure. This is sure to continue.

George: Professor, I respectfully ask you again to take off your blinders. You are talking about something distinctly American. It was your President Reagan who set off the neoliberal era that continues today, pretending to diminish the state while expanding it, imposing markets on public goods, creating personal expectations that could never be fulfilled. No wonder actors and bystanders alike have lost any sense of public shame or shaming.

Peter: I agree with the thrust of what you say, George. People at home and abroad have been increasingly revolted by America's unmeasured appetites and actions. For too many the "land of opportunity" has come to represent an unrestrained opportunism. But, I hope you will not be offended if I say that it is you who are taking a much too narrow view, a view for forty years ago perhaps, but a dead end today. Whatever America's part in it, the whole world is more and more twisted this way. Unprecedented power and previously unimaginable impunity have taken hold everywhere. A moment ago you asked if this wasn't just the same old despotism, capitalism, or consumerism. And you are right to recall how many things thrive on unchecked powers. Nonetheless, we have to face up to the fact that there is something new in the way the particular corruption I am calling opportunism has worked itself into so many facets of life in so many places.

George: That is pretty vague, my friend.

Peter: No doubt. It's a kind of paradigm shift and the usual measures are hard to apply. Opportunism is at once systemic and personal. It is rarely in any straight-forward sense immoral or obviously sanctionable by law. I can say this much, though: opportunism mocks the civic way of life with repeated offense against the oldest maxim of human communities, that no one should be judge in his own case (nemo judex in propia causa).

George: Let me bring you down to earth. I represent a political party. We sought and have won control of government. Our purpose and task is to legislate and implement policies. We stand steadfastly against corruption and always have. As you rightly suggest, law is the way to block opportunists. That is what we will do.

Peter: That is not exactly what I said, and you surprise me for three reasons. I hope you won't mind my saying the first reason. It is that even PASOK does not have a good record in keeping its own people from taking more than their fair share from the state coffers and abusing the influence of public office.

George: It is not wrong to say that Greece's problems are not entirely attributable to New Democracy.

Peter: The second reason you surprise me is this. You seem to ignore one of the primary elements in the modern struggle for power. There are two sides to every fence.

George: What is that supposed to mean?

Peter: It means that you can't make everything illegal or punishable. For a law to be a law it has to give a clear and public definition of what it proscribes. But, just by doing that, you also give clearer and public indications of some other situation or possibility that the law does not prohibit. That is the other side of the fence. And people will always rush into that newly created domain to pursue their interests unchecked or unobserved.

George: You are talking about the obvious fact that whatever our intentions are, someone will always find a way around them.

Peter: That's exactly my point. The opportunists look carefully at what everyone else is doing, and then they go for the unintended consequences that all actions produce. This is something you can never regulate for long. If you want to contain opportunism you have to take a different approach.

George: Perhaps you are right in the abstract, but you will have to be a bit more specific about "opportunism." What do you have in mind?

Peter: Well, there are the takers and givers of bribes. Or what about fakelaki, those pervasive "gifts" Greeks must give to obtain public services? All the time people bend rules, avert their eyes. Favors pass between families even where the public good is concerned. And there seems to be endless variety in the arts of skimming, kick-backs, free-riding, no-show jobs and the like. Many people admire the activist mentality of "whatever it takes," but consider how that often leaves every other sort of value trailing behind. Going back to your idea, who but an infinitely clever epidemiologist could track this diffusion of opportunism, trace out this infectious frame-of-mind and way-of-doing, bring to light how such behaviors reproduce themselves in each local person, place and institution?

George: You're kidding! Is that all? Things like this have gone on forever in Greece, or at least as long as villagers have made their way into the cities. You are simply describing modern life! It has been the same story all over Europe. And as for corruption, people talk as if the Siemens scandal was something especially Greek, but don't you remember what happened with the oil company Elf in France in the 1990s?

Peter: You're not wrong. Yet there is a change of degree. It has come with intensified globalization. Part of that change is the way things have sped up. This makes for a special sort of inequality. And thus opportunism does not weigh on everyone in the same way. And, George, this brings me back to the simple observation I mentioned before.

George: I don't see it...

Peter: What I pointed to was the resurgent desire for meaningful civic life. Look at it this way -- opportunism is an obsession with short-run speed and grab. Above all else it is an assault on the young. And since young people see mostly today and not tomorrow, they are easy targets, or fodder, for the opportunist. Systemic and globalized opportunism has narrowed down the vital now of youth to next to nothing. It was a single shooting that set off those protests in Athens last winter, but the larger crime is social suffocation. The Greek people cannot breath, the young least of all. And it is the young who you and your country need most.

George: Now you strike a particular nerve. I have been thinking a lot about our young people and their future since the election. And the situation is far worse than you think. Let me tell you something I plan to announce in the next few days....

Peter: Thank you for your confidence, George. What is it?

George: Our books are cooked. The debt numbers made public by Karamanlis are fake. We actually owe about 12 percent of GDP. There is no way we can hide this. I intend to offer a plan of action and ask for a vote of confidence in the parliament.

Peter: My God! George, 12 percent is completely unsustainable. Just think, too, of the enormous amount of fraud it must have taken to bring things to that level and then to hide it. How can you even be sure that the new figure is accurate...

George: Akrivos! This is what I plan to say: "Our economy is in a state of emergency and will require a major overhaul of public finances. We have large hidden debts and spending, an unprecedented lack of competitiveness and social insurance funds in a state of penury. We will advance a 3-billion-euro stimulus package, increase taxation of the rich, and implement more aid for the poor. There is no need to worry about salaries and pensions. We will have to fight corruption, crack down on tax evasion, and impose stricter control of public finances."

Peter: Don't you understand, George, that this is by far too little too late? The minute that 12 percent figure hits the headlines the markets will go crazy. Buyers for Greek bonds will disappear. Interest rates will go through the roof. Your problems will cease to be Greek and become European. Your partners, especially the Germans, will have to step in to defend themselves by bolstering the Euro. And you know what that will cost? The Germans will squeeze you to death.

George: That's why I am going to parliament right now. We need to show that the Greek state is ready to step boldly forward and take charge of the situation.

Peter: George, if you can trick someone into paying your bills, more power to you. And while it certainly makes sense to try to preempt their demands, obviously it won't last. You will need a bailout to support the circulation of the Euro in and out of Greece. Whoever supplies funds for that is going to focus on austerity measures. For enforcement, they will not bring their own army. They will simply demand that Greece pass punitive new laws against itself. You and I know that such policies are self-defeating. The harsh laws will soon make the state less effective because they are less legitimate. Of course, investors and their watchdogs will pay no attention to this most obvious political fact. They see only the short term. But this is why I want to bring you back to our conversation. You have a problem that is far too corrosive to be measured in money or debt. In short order the global markets will be tearing Greece to shreds, but you have a problem that is far more important than that.

George: Surely you can see that before anything else we need to stabilize the economy.

Peter: That is where you are only half right, George. Here is the other half of the story. Your country is suffering from the globalization of opportunism. And, as with most disorders, the weak are the hardest hit. You say you will fight corruption? Then don't do it in ways that allow the bureaucratic austeritites to set your agenda. If you are a man of politics, act like one!

George: Now what is that supposed to mean?

Peter: Go down to Syntagma. Stand on the steps of the parliament. I guarantee you that people will gather around. Incite them to call and tweet at their friends to come there, too. It is mainly young people who will respond. Wait for several hours. The agora will fill with citizens, the media will follow them, and soon everyone in the country will be watching. You may laugh now, but I have drafted a little speech for you to consider. It goes like this...

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