A Greek Fable, Part Two: Papandreou's Missed Opportunity

Click here to read "A Greek Fable, Part One: The Globalization of Opportunism."

Note to Alexis Tsipras: What follows here is the text of an imaginary address to the Greek people not given by George Papandreou on October 18, 2009. You might want to take this into consideration when your chance comes...

"Citizens of Greece, our economy is struggling. You have known this for some time. However, things are far, far worse than you can imagine. In the last few days I have learned that there are massive errors, indeed fraud, in the national accounts. Our beloved country is on the brink of collapse. In all probability, bankruptcy cannot be avoided."

"I will of course dedicate all my energies to stopping this. But I have invited you, citizens of Greece, here to Syntagma today because I cannot do this without your help. We have passed beyond the limits of what leaders and legislators alone can accomplish. We must enter together into a new era. And we will have to follow an excruciating path towards the restoration of our country."

"This is terrible news, but it is my honor to bring it before you. Why an honor? you will ask. It is an honor because history has given to me a precious opportunity to redeem at once my country, my party, myself, and the name of my father. For what brings us to this point is not just debt but corruption."

"Today debt and corruption are joined like body and soul, two parts of one whole problem, and, as Plato taught us so long ago, we shall suffer without end if we cannot patch the leaky vessel of unchecked desire."

"As I speak to you, this news is going out to the world. Within the hour global markets will begin to hammer us and, believe me, they will not stop any time soon. Even our friends in Europe and beyond will bear down on us. We live in the modern world and every one of our relationships is entangled with the money-lenders. We can expect our political partners to help us in order to help themselves. As a condition for their support they will demand 'austerity.' The markets will reenforce this demand."

"The voice of 'austerity' tells us 'do not spend more than you have.' This homely maxim is borrowed from blinkered economists and it sugars a bitter pill. Cuts in the budget will leave deep wounds in the social fabric of our everyday life. That is where we will have to meet and navigate through the coming upheaval. This will demand from us extraordinary focus and ingenuity. The most important guiding question will not be 'What can budget cutbacks do for the markets today?' but rather 'What can this exacting cure do for us tomorrow?' For how -- I ask you as I will ask our lenders -- can even the most brutal austerity avail a leaky vessel?"

"While the fate of our debts may ultimately rest in the hands of others, only we can undertake to repair our corrupt and leaking vessel. The more we turn our attention this way the less we will suffer. The more we lead this way, the less the punishments of austerity will seem necessary or even attractive to our partners in the European project. It will benefit everyone if we put our house in order."

"Towards this common end, I will invite authentic collaboration with the larger political forces that shape our European economy -- not just the European Central Bank but, for example, the European Parliament and others. We will never allow foreigners to run our country, or run us into the ground, but corruption has become a global problem and we must develop new partnerships to extirpate it."

"Citizens, this new stage is set. Allow me now to step out upon it. As your Prime Minister, I am here today to speak on behalf of the state. But not only. I also speak in the name of every institution that works hand in hand with the state to bring Greeks together across time and space. I know well the schools and businesses of Greece, I know our army and our families, I know our villages and farms. It is these institutions that form the true constitution of Greece, the backbone of our democracy, and I speak here in Syntagma in their name, as well. I invoke now everything that constitutes the social terrain where and material from which you, young Greek women and men, must build our future." "Hear me, youth of Greece! I apologize to you. Today Greece officially issues an apology to her children. We need you to go forward and instead we have stood in your way. We owe you the future and instead we have cut it to pieces. Now instead I pledge you this: if you are willing to work with me, I will unto my last breath help you bring a new soul to our country."

"Together with politics, rhetoric was born in Greece. You do not need more of that now. Every old politician has started his term with a cry against corruption. Today we stop crying. Today we take action."

"I am announcing the formation of a special parliamentary commission on corruption to bring Akis Tsochatzopoulos to justice. The commission will also be authorized to look into the finances of George Alogoskoufis and eight other people. This is only the beginning."

"Any PASOK member under investigation will be suspended from the party effective today. I call on other political parties to do the same. We have had enough."

"Effective today, every public employee hired by PASOK since the election is placed on leave pending investigation of his or her appointment. The same goes for anyone hired less than two weeks before the election. The special commission I will appoint tomorrow will attend immediately to the case of AGROGI, which since 1998 has had only 73 employees and then several weeks ago hired 269 more. We have had enough."

"My young friends, these first actions will not directly change your situation. They should, however, assure you that I am serious. I am prepared to face the wrath of my closest colleagues as well as my opponents. Corruption knows no party and nor shall justice."

"You must know, as I do, that sooner or later I will be forced from office. Too many people are implicated in this corruption. By tomorrow they will blame me for the crisis. Before long I will be blamed for efforts to correct it. In the light of this day I abandon caution now to the naive and the narcissistic. I choose instead to go straight to the inevitable. I want to do this for you. I have to do this for you. We have had enough."

"I cannot do this alone. And so this is what I want you to do in return, for your own future. Tomorrow I will announce the creation of Arketa!, a citizens' organization dedicated to ridding our country of corruption. I am asking you to become a member. Then, with thousands of your fellow members, I want you to resuscitate the dying soul of our country. I ask you to begin by organizing public meetings between your local chapter of Arketa! and local institutions or bureaucratic offices. Do this everywhere in the country. As Prime Minister I will ensure that any public employee who fails to respond to you will face dismissal. In these meetings, demand that records be made public. Insist that whistle-blowers be heard."

"As a member of Arketa! you will have a forward-looking kind of powers. The weightiest of these is shame. Use it wisely. But praise is also a real force. Remember to celebrate those who are truly devoted to our civic life. Don't forget to celebrate citizens who have paid their taxes!"

"You will see quickly how a citizens' organization like this can initiate the pivotal discussion of our historical moment. However, more will be required. To bring corruption under closer scrutiny, I intend to allocate forty million Euros for a program of civic advocates. There will be 2000 new positions. These will initially be offered to the top university students in the country, as measured at first by a combination of entrance exams and grades. In exchange for participation each civic advocate will receive a substantial subvention for further study."

"The civic advocates will have three tasks: research, theory, and publicity. Working closely with Arketa!, civic advocates will research suspected corruption. They will collect the results of their research together with existing information produced by scholars and journalists, and all of this will be available on an open-access and easily searchable website."

"Second, the civic advocates will engage in theoria in the ancient sense: they will undertake missions abroad to countries where corruption has been or is being addressed effectively and then return home with practical ideas for further study and implementation."

"Finally, the civic advocates will present their results to law-makers in an ongoing public forum. This forum will be televised and web-cast to make it freely and easily available to all citizens. It will be supported by obligatory contributions from media outlets."

"In addition to these measures, I will mandate that beginning one month from today and for a period of two years, every public employee will allocate ten percent of his or her work time to new tax collection activities that will be announced in the coming days."

"What I am proposing to you, my sons and daughters, is the first shock-wave of our preemptive response. To those who will call, starting tomorrow, for the suffocating suppression of our civic life through a narrowly conceived program of austerity, we will show them that they are mistaken, misled."

"Before we succeed in holding the public stage and capturing the public imagination, however, many of our European brothers and sisters will bristle with frustration. They will say that we are ignorant and venal. They will rue the day they opened the gates of the Euro to the south and east. It is up to us to prove them wrong. We will show the world that they are wrong to despise us and wrong to believe that the problem is as trivial as the unbalanced books of public accountants."

"We will teach them that corruption is not relieved by emptying the pockets of working people who earn a modest living and retire on less. We must show them that the coming calls for austerity will only make the situation worse. If we are to fend off those calls, we must have, in addition to sustaining bread and productive pride, something to offer the world now while, once again, we transform it." "Now that I am sure that I have the attention of the whole world, let me address my final words to those among you who share the insatiable Greek passion for democracy. I am sending out an S.O.S. We have an emergency here in Greece. It is not smaller than an earthquake or a tsunami. I am calling for global partners to bring us the resources we need -- people, material, ideas, technologies -- to fight the global plague of corruption that has infected our country. Join us now in this fight, for it is coming to your house soon. France! Invent a Comptables sans Frontiers! Germany! Turn the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung our way! Netherlands! Give us a Greenpeace for social ecology! Italy! A civic CESVI ! England! An OXFAM to nourish democracy! America! Where is your Peace Corps for global citizenship?"

* * * * *

Alexis, you should have heard George laugh after I proposed this to him. "What a wild hallucination!" he said. "If I were to propose something like that, I would be dragged from the steps of the Parliament! I wouldn't last ten minutes in Syntagma or a day in PASOK. And if I am forced out, who will there be to save Greece?"

I thought about this and replied as follows: "That is exactly what I am saying, George. Who will save Greece? For I was being polite when I said that PASOK is corrupt. What I really meant was that it is dead as a progressive political force in your country. I was being too subtle when I said that there are two sides to every fence. What I really meant was that as the focus of European attention narrows down to budget deficits, Greece will have an extraordinary opportunity for political creativity. And the new international platform that the crisis will give to your country makes this the time to revisit the position of the citizen in Greek society."

Finally I told the new Prime Minister Papandreou the most obvious thing of all: "George, you have no power except from those who follow you. If I were you I would take my chances and side with the young, the future, Europe, and the world." And Alexis, in this regard, I just wanted to point out to you that your choices are almost exactly the same.