Modern Greece, or the struggle for modernity

Stathis N. Kalyvas, Modern Greece. What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford University Press, 2015

I bought Modern Greece. What Everyone Needs to Know not much time after its publication. I was curious about modern Greek history, which I did not know much about, as Greece used to be mentioned frequently in newspapers headlines during that period – but I found time to read it much later (and time to write about it only now).

I am no historian, while Stathis Kalyvas is a political scientist at Yale University: this means that I am neither willing nor able to properly judge his attempt to provide a useful resource for those approaching to Greece’s recent history. I only have a few comments or remarks, along with a short summary.

First of all, the book seems pretty convincing in expounding a trajectory made of boom-bust-bailout cycles over the last two centuries: on several occasions, Greek élites have set out ambitious goals, which then turned out to be risky or simply unaffordable in the short term. These efforts generated crisis which generally ended up with some form of foreign intervention. At the end of each cycle, Greece had found itself struggling for a while, but, at the very end, it used to find itself better than it used to be at the beginning of the same cycle – and actually, Greece has not been a late modernizer, but one of the first countries to catch up with Western Europe. If you go through the book, starting from the fight for national independence and finishing with the Eurozone crisis, you will be quite convinced – as I have been – that this recurring pattern has effectively taken place in Greek history.

This ‘historical interpretation’ – as the author defines his book – starts with a focus, in chapter II, on the Greek nationalist movement and the emergence of modern Greece (Professor Kalyvas points out that Greek independence marks the birth of the first state in XIX-century Europe). It illustrates a clear ambivalent relationship between Greece and the West and the fact the Greece has been a forerunner under many aspects: nationalism, insurgency, foreign humanitarian intervention.

Greece’s state-building marks another example of the ambiguous nature of Greek history: national bankruptcy and desperate attempts to create a modern state seem to be a feature of Greece in XIX century; however, within two decades, Greece had doubled up its territory, and been able to carry out substantial reforms and to play an important role in foreign policy – mostly thanks to Eleftherios Venizelos. The same happened in the following decades: a couple of steps forward, one step back, some struggle but an overall improvement of the country.

Striking to me was the situation in the ’80s. A bit similar to what happened in my home country (mostly in the south), the socialist era was marked by a relative prosperity, along with an increase of some negative tendencies in government, civil service and economy. Leafing through my copy of the book, I notice that I have heavily underlined the following passage:

By 1984 it was estimated that 89 percent of all card-carrying party members of PASOK had some professional connection with the public sector either through a permanent job, a temporary job, or a contract to do business with the it [sic] (p. 137).

Another example of socialist mismanagement, according to Professor Kalyvas, is the fact that the socialist party failed to handle taxation and equality in a way that should be typically expected by socialists:

Instead of the traditionally socialist practice of high taxation and targeted redistribution, PASOK’s populism promoted low taxation and quasi-universal, though unequal redistribution. (…) the heavy reliance on indirect taxation accentuated the regressive character of the tax system (p. 142).

If the need for post-war economic recovery finally resulted in a dictatorship, democracy led to political, social and financial practices that eventually undermined Greece’s economic, social and financial health. Interestingly, Kalyvas points out that rather than intrinsic cultural features, PASOK’s policies better explain the reason for the financial problems experienced by Greece in recent years. This is a relevant argument against some critics of Greece in Northern Europe, perhaps.

The European project has been the latest effort in Greek modernisation. Greek élites’ pursuit of modernity has often led to decisions that can be described ex-post as overreaching – Kalyvas maintains that, for instance, this is the case of Greece joining the European Monetary Union: despite the European Commission’s report stating that Greek application should have been put on hold, political will prevailed over practical objections – the new and fragile democracy needed support.

All things considered, the author writes, EU membership has benefitted Greece, providing stability and, for a long while, prosperity. The crisis experienced in the last years is, maybe, the declining phase of the typical boom-bust-bailout cycle. Whether this cycle ends successfully or not, is something that is still to be seen. Stagnation or further crisis still remain options on the table. The EU is to be blamed too, Kalyvas argues: maybe Greece was let into the club a bit too early, the crisis was initially mishandled, and northern European countries should perhaps be more open to the idea of financial transfers. After all, however, EU institutions, though quite imperfectly and in a way open to reasonable criticism, moved towards rescuing the Greeks rather than letting them fall even more catastrophically.

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