Where Entitlements become Rights, and Rights Outweigh Responsibilities.

My partner and I are reaching the end of our sojourn in Greece and will be back in SE Asia by the end of the week. Her data collection and interview schedule have provided the follow-up material needed to finish the Greek chapter of her book (which includes Ireland and Portugal as the other case studies, a comparative project she started five years ago and long before anyone else noted some of the bases for comparison that now occupy so much attention). For my part, I have managed to glean some preliminary observations about civil-military relations in this fragile democracy, and in doing so have developed an idea about undertaking a comparison of post-authoritarian Greece and Argentina (although the specific focus of the project is still unclear and it will have to wait in any event until I manage to finish the current, long delayed book project as well as some articles in preparation or revision).

At this point I would like to reflect on an issue that I have previously written about in this forum (Sept 2009): the notions of Entitlements and Rights, in this case as they apply to contemporary Greek democracy.

If one thing comes across to this foreign observer, the Greeks have a tremendously developed sense of entitlements and rights. In fact they see them as one and the same. But they also have little sense of social responsibility. The prevailing attitude appears to be they everyone is entitled to express their opinions however they see fit regardless of whether it infringes on other’s security or dissent.  Everyone is also entitled to extract as much as they can from the state without having to help pay the costs of public goods (say, by paying taxes in full). The expressed view is not only that people are entitled to these attitudes (seen as a combination of opinion and behaviour), but that they have the Right to them.

Of course, this is an over-generalisation. Many Greeks do not impose their views on others and retreat into parasitic survivalism outside of their involvement in the public sphere. Yet at least when it comes to the intersection of political and civil societies, the tone is often “me/us first, the rest of you can get stuffed.”

What is interesting about this phenomena is 3 things: 1) that this notion of collective and individual entitlement is construed as a Right of all Greeks. Although nowhere is it written in the Greek constitution that people have a right to storm parliament, attack the police, property and standers-bye, or thrown molotovs into banks during demonstrations, it is generally accepted that such is inherent in the Greek way of expressing dissent or dissatisfaction with the status quo. These types of direct action are not seen as insurrection or low-level guerrilla warfare, but as something disgruntled Greeks simply do.

This attitude–that Greeks not only are entitled to get agro when they protest but have a right to, and that it is their right to not be held to criminal account for their violent public actions–is a product of the days in 1973-74 when the university student movement was instrumental, via violent clashes with the security forces, in bringing down the so-called colonel’s dictatorship that had usurped Greek democracy in 1967. Many of the leaders of that movement are now senior figures in politics, unions, the civil service and higher education. For them it was the resort to direct action, at considerable physical risk to themselves, that was THE decisive factor that restored Greek democracy. As a result, the role of direct action, including violence, has been mythologised in modern Greek political folklore, and even if stylised and ritualised in many instances, it remains central to the formation and reproduction of Greek political identities. In other words, to be staunch in the streets is to be Greek, and nothing can infringe on this inalienable right of all Greeks (immigrants are another matter). In a country that reifies its warring history regardless of win or loss, this is a powerful glue.

That brings up the second interesting aspect of this entitlements-as-rights phenomena: the government, including security forces, agreement with that logic. It is remarkable how the government accepted, for example, that the attempted storming of the Greek parliament on May 5 was a “right” of the protesters. Although it denounced the murders of three bank workers caught up in the demonstration violence, it did not specifically condemn the burning of the bank in which they were trapped.  Instead,  the government ordered that the parliament building be defended so that the debt rescue package could be voted on, but it clearly instructed the riot police to deal  lightly with the protesters and to not enforce basic criminal statutes outside of the immediate confrontation zone around parliament itself (and as I mentioned in a previous post about the general strike, may have negotiated with the communist-led unions to ensure that this occurred).

Nor was there a massive police cordon erected around the city centre, or police roadblocks and checkpoints erected at major road and rail access nodes to the downtown area even though it was a foregone conclusion that armed fringe groups were headed to the scene (and I must say that some of the Greek militant factions have truly marvelous names, such as the “Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire” held responsible for two bombings this weekend in Athens and Thessaloniki). In other words, with full knowledge of what would happen, the government confirmed the perception of entitlements-as-rights by ordering that security be limited and light.  Hence, for the moment, the military has played no role in internal security, which is left to two layers of riot police (one to prevent, the other to respond to violence), regular cops and plain clothes detectives and intelligence agents. However, if the pace of agitation continues, that attitude of military non-involvement in domestic security could well change (and it does not have to be overt, just decisive).

In effect, all political actors accept this particular interpretation of the Greek “me/us first, the rest be stuffed” broad entitlements-as-rights argument. Perhaps that is because there is also a fundamental Greek belief in the powers of collective and individual self-control. But nothing I have seen in the Greek streets suggests that self-limitation is a widely accepted national trait. To the contrary, the general attitude on the streets, both in the daily routine as well as during demonstrations, is that one gets away with what they can absent countervailing or superior power.  For those who have had the experience with them, Athenian street market vendors and taxi drivers are cases in point (and yet the market for both persists).

To put that in a comparative perspective, imagine any group in NZ claiming the right to throw molotovs, wreak storefronts  and storm parliament, and have that “right” not only accepted by any government of the day but also have that government order the police to refrain from using undue force on said protesters in the event they turn violent (to include limiting the number of arrests). Would that ever be feasible? For those so inclined, spurious comparisons with “wreakers and haters,” spitters, bum flashers, flag shooters and burners or street theater anarchists simply do not cut it.

That brings up the third, and most troubling aspect of the broad Greek interpretation of entitlements-as-rights (which if readers may remember my post on the subject last September are clearly not the same thing, nor should they be). Nowhere in this logic is there any notion of social responsibility, be it collective or individual. The entire argument is framed simply in terms of expected treatment and permissible behaviour, not in terms of social costs or collective mitigation of harm in pursuit of the common good. The absolutism of the claim of entitlements-as-rights and the absolute lack of relativity or regard for consequence are quite astounding. It is remarkable to watch and listen to people proclaim zero responsibility for societal ills, collective dysfunction or personal injury while demanding that their expanded notions of public and private rights be held sacrosanct. For this observer, the gap between what is demanded and what is offered in return is canyonesque.

And that is where my personal disconnect lays. As someone who recognises the legitimacy of violent direct action in the face of oppressive regimes, I fully understand the public need to physically confront the powers that be. But I also understand that there are costs involved in that form of expression. When one contravenes established  criminal law–often on purpose because it is a symbol of tyranny or class rule–one accepts that s/he has placed themselves outside of the law-as-given. One is thus a self-recognised “outlaw,” defined in old American Western parlance as “outside of the law.”  Being outside of the law of course means that one is liable to extra-judicial retribution, or at least criminal charge. Guerrillas  and counter-hegemonic activists of of all stripes understand this as they enter the fray and they fully understand the downside consequences of their decision to act (the Waihopai 3 notwithstanding). Having said this, it strikes me that the Greek state is more obese and arthritic than malignant and oppressive, so the resort to violent direct action on a near daily basis seems symptomatic of  a malaise not solely attributable to the Greek state.

And yet in contemporary Greece most everyone has a state-centred grievance and no one has a a claim on blame (or at least accepts even partial responsibility for social costs involved in the claim to entitlements-as-rights). For Greeks, collective costs are acceptable so long as immediate personal injury is avoided (this applies to bank managers as it does to unemployed youth). Rights of voice and expression are believed to be unfettered and encumbered only by individual preference, the consequences of which are to be borne by others.  Outside of exceptional cases involving ongoing public interest, public or private contravention of the law-as-given is generally held to be non-liable. A petrol bomb here, a bribe there–everyone is entitled to express their self-proclaimed rights in their own way and others should beware and steer clear. There is collective tolerance of that view. Governments come and go indulging such attitudes as the miminal cost of rule. Greeks that understand democracy as a substantive and procedural compromise can only ponder this, shrug their shoulders, and silently weep.

All of that may change now that the crisis is upon the Hellenic Republic. What may have been permissible in better economic times may no longer be so as the burden of sacrifice begins to wear on the fabric of Greek society. As austerity bites into the great mass of Greek workers the resort to survivalist alienation in the private sphere may give way to a defensive overlap between collective and private notions of entitlements-as-rights, drawn along lines reminiscent of 1974. Should that occur (and there have already been calls from ultra-nationalist groups for the military to act), the logic of entitlements-as-rights spawned by the events in 1974 could well be replaced by a military counter-version in which it is entitled, and has the right, to intervene in government in order to “save” the nation from itself, even if on a temporary basis.

Improbable as that may seem (and it is), such could well be the future price Greeks might pay for confusing a broad conception of entitlements with civil rights devoid of civic responsibility. Let’s hope not.

Epilogue: This concludes my posts about Greece. I may have more to comment on this fascinating country down the road but for the time being I must contemplate a return to the authoritarian (yet efficient and clean!) tropics. Which brings up the question: is it better to live peacefully and comfortably without real voice under authoritarian aegis, or is it better to suffer disorder and inefficiency in a democracy in which voice matters more than anything else? That is the perennial question of transitional political societies.

PS: My partner says that the syndrome is much more individual than collective, and that participation in collective action is a convenient cover for individualist self-projection using the ideological justification of rights to unfettered voice (rather than a genuine concern with collective gains). I disagree to some extent because I think that repeated involvement in direct action modifies the very notion of self (for better or worse), but that subject is for another discussion. In the meantime I defer to her superior knowledge of all things Greek.

15 thoughts on “Where Entitlements become Rights, and Rights Outweigh Responsibilities.

  1. Thanks for the interesting perceptions. Some Greek attitudes have obviously changed significantly over the last three decades since I spent a month or so there.

    Perhaps some of the angst may be because joining the EC hasn’t delivered obvious and anticipated benefits to those in Greek cities, but has imposed some unwanted community rules?.

  2. Your country’s forebears, Pablo, evinced a less censorious – and more revolutionary – attitude to the rights of free peoples:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security”

    It would seem the Greeks retain a firm grasp on the right of the citizenry to rebel against “a long train of abuses” – even if some Americans do not.

  3. Geez Chris, you are always good for an insult asnd a laugh, but this time your comprehension skills appear to be muddled. The Greek government may be deeply flawed, Greek elites may be uncaring, and there may be some serious pathologies in the body politic itself, but it is a democracy, not a foreign tyranny imposing its rule on some pluckhardy colonialists (who themselves owned slaves, dispossessed the indigenous and disenfranchised women). Moreover, I never said that resistance to oppressive government was wrong–to the contrary. So the parallel with the US Declaration of Independence is silly at best and stupid at worst–or maybe once again you are just trying to be gratuitously unpleasant. That is unfortunate.

    Oh, and BTW–on the bit about “taxes without representation.” In Greece it is the opposite: there is plenty of representation but virtually no one pays taxes (or at least what they fully owe). So that is another analogy FAIL.

    Bruce: There is an interesting rural/urban and island/city divide in Greece that has been exacerbated by the economic crisis. The irony is that the rural sector and islands are faring better simply because they were and are less dependent on foreign loans for their material well-being.

  4. @ Bruce: You raise an interesting point here about the connection between the Greece of 30 years ago (undergoing democratization after the fall of the dictatorship, not only because the colonels were pushed from below, but also because their regime was short-lived, lacked institutionalization, and didn’t have much economic and political elite support anyway), and the political dynamics witnessed today.

    Hellenic experts (both academics and social commentators) inform my understanding here. Many current Greek politicians and business leaders get their legitimacy from the fact that they were student activists during the dictatorship (the most famous instance of resistance being centred at the Athens Polytechnic in 1973). They are represented not only in the ranks of the KKE, but also and more importantly PASOK, which has dominated Greek politics since the early 1980s, calls itself “socialist” but is more a populist party and has at times pursued neoliberal policies (notably under Costas Simitis in the late 1990s in order to join the euro, and is about to do much more of the same). Chris might want to note the parallels here to NZ (with a nod to Bruce Jesson’s Fragments of Labour): ostensibly left-leaning politicians formulated their ideological outlook in the context of “resisting dictatorship” and the pursuit of largely post-materialist goals (Muldoonism and anti-war protests in NZ, the junta and “freedom” in the case of Greece). Yet because in both cases their socialist/left-wing background and understanding didn’t run particularly deep, it was relatively easy for former student leaders in NZ to “sell out” during the 1980s, and Greek student leaders to do likewise by not only shifting to the right in some cases, but also becoming part of the web of corruption and big business-state entanglement and clientelism that is contemporary politics in Greece. (N.B. this is of course not just a PASOK problem; arguably Nea Demokratia are worse. The Socialists are not particularly Socialist and the New Democrats are not particularly democratic.)

    Furthermore, the way in which Greece’s contemporary democracy was born, overlaid on centuries of history of resisting, in both big and everyday ways, foreign oppressors, has implications for the way in which ordinary Greeks think about exercising their “democratic” rights. In many Western democracies, we tend to think of democracy as playing by the rules of an established game in which all parties have a fair chance of winning at some time in the future (so it is worth playing by those rules rather than defecting). Academics extend this to analyzing democracy in terms of the rule of law– empirically, the latter seems to underpin the former. We also think of democracy as finding ways to get along together, framed as tolerance or allowing everyone to have their space. Greeks tend to think of the exercising of democratic rights as the pursuit of (I argue, as Pablo notes, largely individual) interests, even if, and this is the key, it means reducing the rights of others. (Also, given rampant corruption, the rules of the game aren’t necessarily neutral or fair.)

    A few concrete policy examples. (1) The pension scheme, which is pretty notorious at home and abroad. Some people (largely public servants) get very generous pensions, while others get nothing. Numerous attempts to change this framework have failed. (2) University students constitutionally get free education, including textbooks and lunches (!) [remember the role of students in the 1973 uprising and later], but Greece spends one of the lowest amounts on tertiary education in the OECD. The result? Places are limited, and university access for obvious reasons is mostly restricted to the middle and upper classes. Attempts to overhaul this provided the background to the 2008-09 riots, including a physical attack on and hospitalization of the rector of Athens University. (3) Greece has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe. With a very limited welfare state, work-life balance is tough here. Yet family benefits are limited to families with “many children”, meaning 3 or more. Attempts to redistribute these benefits more equally have been met with mobilization on the part of conservative lobby groups aligned with the Orthodox Church (and described by one respectable academic to me as “medieval freaks”). I won’t even get into immigration policy.

    All in all, Greeks are prone to noisy protests, and normally I would argue that this is a Great Thing. But the content of protest matters too– not all social movements are progressive. All the above examples show that key interest groups (aligned with both left and right) have worked to entrench inequalities rather than overcome them. How can these groups, sometimes small and apparently unimportant such as the large family group get away with this? Because politicians are afraid of being labeled as “dictators”, or the removers of (again, largely individual) rights. This is another instance of how contemporary Greek politics is shaped by the events of almost 40 years ago.

  5. Bowing to the diktat of the EU, and agreeing to its demands that extreme financial hardship be imposed on those elements of the Greek population least able to afford it, doesn’t strike me as being in the least bit “democratic”, Pablo.

    The Greek Government had other options.

    In choosing to abase itself before the European Central Bank, however, it also chose to make itself the enemy of its own people.

    It deserves everything that (hopefully) is coming to it.

  6. Chris@23:26:

    At least we agree on that much. But as Kate says, if you do not like PASOK, wait until you see the alternatives. The KKE only polls around 7 percent so is not a viable govt contender either alone or in coalition given PASOK’s absolute majority. The rest are a collection of nut bars strewn across the ideological spectrum who do not reach a combined total of 20 percent of the vote. That leaves New Democracy as the only other contender for government, and they would have made the PASOK concessions to the ECB/IMF look mild in comparison. There is where the revolutionary option might fit, but not now.

    Incidentally, and admitting my cynicism regarding it, if you have such a low opinion of Greek democracy, I can only imagine what you must think of the current National govt. Perhaps the Urewera 18 had a preemptive point after all and were just the Kiwi equivalent of the colonial minutemen and wimin! Re-reading your quote from the US founding fathers, could it not apply, in the extremist vision, to NZ itself? >>just taking the piss with that last comment<<

  7. Least you’ll think I don’t agree that the Greeks have a lot to protest about, they certainly do.

    Chris: the Germans actually suggested that the Greeks sell off ‘some islands’ as a solution to their woes! The Greek answer beyond WTF? is ‘how about giving us some of the reparations you owe us after the way you trampled all over the country, starved our citizens, etc, during WWII?’ Excellent point.

    However, I’m not exactly sure what the ‘alternatives’ to the austerity measures really are. On a practical level, the only real alternative option seems to be to withdraw from the Euro-zone, allowing local control over the currency rather than aggressive and hurtful deflation measures, but I just don’t see that happening. Why? Because apart from PASOK freaking a bit during the early 1980s, the country has pursued a mildly though not at all smartly executed pro-EU strategy since. It’s been a way to shore up military support for whatever qualifies as ‘democracy’ for a start… without that EU check and balance on civilian control over military activism, things could be much more dangerous right now…

  8. Kate,

    Thank you very much for the current interpretation, a great read. The city/country/islands divide was pronounced 30 years ago.

    Some of the younger urban malcontents I talked to were looking to emigrate, rather than stay and wait for change; whereas the younger rural/island people were looking to move to Athens to progress. Perhaps that would exacerbate the difference over time.

    There wasn’t an obvious sense of hope for a bright new beginning in the general populance I talked to.

    The less-than-stellar academic performance is not a surprise, and may be a consequence of the benign-climate culture of style over substance, and the sense of entitlement that Pablo reports.

    I sometimes wonder whether NZ is similar, but the increase in slothfulness after the first generation is masked by continued immigration and the accepted emigration of ambitious high achievers.

  9. I’m pretty sure Greece has already received reparations from Germany for World War 2.

  10. Chris: the Germans actually suggested that the Greeks sell off ’some islands’ as a solution to their woes! The Greek answer beyond WTF? is ‘how about giving us some of the reparations you owe us after the way you trampled all over the country, starved our citizens, etc, during WWII?’ Excellent point.

    Not very excellent, given that Germany not only already paid reparations but has handed over billions of Marks/Euros in aid to Greece over the last few decades. Their reluctance to throw good money after bad is entirely understandable.

  11. This attitude–that Greeks not only are entitled to get agro when they protest but have a right to, and that it is their right to not be held to criminal account for their violent public actions–is a product of the days in 1973-74 when the university student movement was instrumental, via violent clashes with the security forces, in bringing down the so-called colonel’s dictatorship that had usurped Greek democracy in 1967.

    I don’t know enough about Greece to comment meaningfully, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a legacy of the polarisation that followed the Civil War and the period of authoritarian government that followed. As I understand it, the left was left with few legitimate avenues for political expression and the country was bitterly divided. I’m loathe to blame too much on histories, but they do appear important, as Pablo and Kate have both suggested here.

  12. About reparations: the main point being that this is what (many) Greeks propose as a (serious) solution to their economic crisis, not the historical accuracy of their claims.

  13. The Euro scheme is by its systemic design enabling Germany to get stronger relative to other economies. If the French were not so blinded by their European zeal and Franco-German leadership alliance, they would see the Euro as part of the neo-right “Anglo-Saxon” agenda for the world economy. The collapse of the Euro is simply the other side of the banking crisis and speaks to a neo-right corporatist takeover of the political economy.

  14. Pablo, you are such a teaser. Vacillation the academic’s curse. Surely it’s ok to say where you stand on Greece, regardless of the seeming rules of engagement between the state and protestors, divisions thereof inclusive.

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