Greece is lovely most of the time and irresistible in the late summer, so I am back for a second stint in two months. Mercifully there are fewer tourists around now. There is no line to get into the palace of Knossos and even the ferry to Santorini is half-empty. The intense heat is gone, the sea is balmy, the locals hospitable.
Not all is well, however. Greece is an economically stagnant country, burdened by an impossibly high external debt, and in the midst of horrendous demographic decline. It is ruled by the SYRIZA government (acronym for the Coalition of the Radical Left) which came into being in 2004 as an alliance of Maoists, Trotskyists and greens, but whose leaders have reneged on their old pledges to resist dictates from international bankers and Brussels bureaucrats.
The nation is deeply divided along political, social and cultural lines, arguably more so than at any time since the 1967 colonels’ coup. Discord reigns, with 79 percent of Greeks saying they are dissatisfied with the country’s political system—the highest such figure in the developed world. Even the wildfires in Attica, which killed 99 people last July, have further eroded the trust in government and produced a pile of lawsuits for criminal negligence by surviving family members against senior state officials.
Greece’s misfortunes have been aggravated by the willingness of the country’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to turn from a Maoist demagogue into the poster boy of the European Union. The man who named his second son Orpheus Ernesto after his hero “Che” Guevara has followed, over the past three years, a policy of fiscal stringency and tax increases, dictated by foreigners, which has left over a third of the population of 10 million near poverty.
Tsipras and his finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos—another fiery leftist converted to the EU/IMF-style prudence—say that austerity has worked because the economy started growing again in 2017, and unemployment has dropped below 20 percent. What they prefer not to point out is that GDP per capita is still 25 percent below its pre-crisis level, that the majority of new jobs pay less than 1000 euros a month, and that unemployment has stopped growing primarily because hundreds of thousands of young, educated Greeks have left the country in recent years.
This melancholy outcome was perfectly predictable. Three years ago, in a report from Thessaloniki on the Greek general election, I wrote that Tsipras is a narcissistic demagogue with no strategy for the country’s future, and that his July 2015 U-turn—when he agreed to stick with the euro and accept Angela Merkel’s austerity terms—“dooms the country to zero growth for years to come, and foreign lenders are the real winners.” After three years of hardship, the lenders are sufficiently pleased with Tsipras and Tsakalotos to announce, five weeks ago, the official termination of the bailout program. But far from returning to the fold of “normal” countries, Greece still has the highest ratio of government debt to GDP in Europe: at the end of the first quarter of 2018 it stood at 180 percent, with Italy a distant second with 133 percent. It will continue to be subjected to more stringent fiscal supervision from Brussels than any other eurozone member. (In Eurospeak it is called “enhanced post-programme surveillance.”)
The daily reality of many common Greeks is even grimmer than the statistical balance sheet. Its population has fallen by over three percent because of rising emigration and a falling birth rate. Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, mostly Albanians, have taken their place, causing a continuous violent crime wave. Most people I’ve met doubt if they will ever return to pre-crisis living standards. Their misgivings are well founded. According to a recent IMF report, “very ambitious assumptions” by the EU about GDP growth and Greece’s ability to run large primary fiscal surpluses raise questions about the sustainability of debt over the long-run, suggesting “further debt relief” could be needed. On the whole, Greece is stuck in a purgatory: “It is going to be going to be in a high taxation, low growth cycle for the forseeable future.”
Our friend Taki summed things up somewhat more bluntly a couple of weeks ago. “Some jerk know-nothing writes in an unreadable American newspaper that Greece is back,” he wrote on September 8. “He would; he’s an American who probably thinks that the lack of starving Greek beggars in the streets à la Calcutta back in the 1920s means we’re back”:
Eight years of economic strangulation in order to pay the German banks, half of the middle class of doctors, engineers, and scientists gone abroad, and the extreme left-wing clowns and charlatans who have run the place since 2015 are saying that the chaos is over and everything’s hunky-dory. String them up with wire and I’ll gladly watch.
While abjectly subservient to the transnational oligarchy on all matters fiscal, Tsipras’s Syriza government is rock-solid on cultural Marxism. For years it has sought to degrade the Greek classics by replacing them with more “inclusive” subjects in schools. In 2016 it declared that a number of famous passages of Thucydides and Herodotus concerning the barbarians would be removed from the high-school curriculum, on the grounds that they make immigrant students feel excluded and marginalized. The logic behind the ban was impeccable: since the anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party has sought to identify contemporary immigrants with uncouth aliens trying to invade classical Greece—“even down to Persians coming in boats across the Aegean”—all potentially offending references from antiquity should be verboten.
After a public outcry and protests from treachers’ unions the ban was overturned last year, but the government’s war on classics is far from over. Just three weeks ago Greece’s Education Minister Costas Gavroglou—another seasoned far-leftist—announced that Latin would be removed from high schools in favor of sociology. Earlier this year, when a university rector (vice-chancellor) complained about the frequent violent assaults against faculty by students and anarchists, Mr. Gavroglou calmly responded that the rector should ponder what he had done to provoke the assailants.
Alas, poor Greece. It is stuck with the worst possible regime: acquiescent to Brussels and the IMF, anarchotyrannical at home. I’ll end, for now, with Taki’s musings from early August: “Observing the civic blight amidst the physical splendors that are Greece is like seeing a beautiful woman with bad teeth. It’s time for a change.”