What follows is a translation of an op-ed article published in Ephemerida ton Syntakton, a left-leaning independent newspaper, on the 21st August 2016. The author is Dr Stelios Stylianidis, Professor of Social Psychiatry at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens. Stylianidis is a campaigner for mental health reform in Greece, and commented extensively in the media on the spike in suicide rates during the economic crisis, which became a rallying point of the anti-austerity movement that ultimately brought Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza to power (twice) in 2015*. The article presents a critical perspective on Greece from within Greece that is not often given an airing outside the country, where much of the commentary, particularly from the left, falls back on the overly simplistic and ultimately unhelpful story of an unequal contest between externally-imposed austerity policies and internal suffering, resistance and capitulation.
I only know the author from his published writings. I have taken the liberty of inserting clarifications [in square brackets] where I felt they were helpful, and adding hyperlinks to previous posts and external sources where they illustrate the arguments put forward. My interjections do not necessarily express the the views of the author, and vice versa.
“On the 29th June 2013, on a well-known political programme on Italian TV, the left-wing film director Nanni Moretti [of Caro Diario fame] addressed the then secretary of the Partito Democratico [the Italian centre-left party whose current incarnation is governing Italy under PM Matteo Renzi] with a phrase that became etched on the thwarted world of the Italian Left: “Comrade d’Alema, say something left-wing, or at least say something” [in fact, the iconic outburst in which Moretti shouts at his TV screen where d’Alema is being steamrollered by a bloviating Silvio Berlusconi, first appeared in Moretti’s 1998 film Aprile, as recounted here].
After eighteen months of government by the “first time Left” [as Syriza refer to themselves, despite being preceded by several years of Socialist government under PASOK, and governing with the support of the right-wing nationalist party ANEL], and coming from the ranks of the Reformist Left, I would like to put forward three basic questions regarding this brief but historic experience for our country.
My questions do not claim to evaluate the totality of government, but set out in outline certain matters that are connected with historical culture of the Left.
1. Does the Left really have the moral advantage over its historical rivals?
A basic distinction between the anomie, corruption and clientelism of the old political system and the new one should be one of values, what [the influential Italian Communist Party secretary] Enrico Berlinguer termed in 1981 the “moral superiority of the Left”, with reference to the capture of the state.
I often hear friends and members of the governing Left put forward the fundamental argument that if we do not replace the old cadres and mechanisms that resist all progressive reform with our own people, then the imperative for change that the Left represents will remain unfulfilled.
However, to the extent that the age-old means of clientelism are being reproduced toward another end, that end itself is cancelled out. Some illustrative examples:
- The “war on oligarchy” is being fought selectively and piecemeal, through a replacement of the old entangled establishment with a new generation of market players, who are not themselves distinguished for the transparency of their business dealings nor for their independence from government.
- The replacement of many high-ranking civil servants of proven technocratic experience and a track record of effective delivery with officials whose CVs are limited to party titles is a strong indicator of a corruption of conscience through the voluntaristic capture of the state. The traditional cultural affinity of the Left with meritocracy and progress is replaced by a vulgar contest of party cliques.
- The imperative of social justice, of redistribution of wealth and the protection of the impoverished victims of the neoliberal onslaught is not well served by the uncritical over-taxation of the middle class (the salaried and the pensioners, the self employed and the small businesses), which leaves intact the shadow economy, black marketeering and parasitic practices which are still entrenched in the state.
2. Why is the Left afraid of knowledge and innovation?
With the advent of the third Memorandum [the creditor agreement signed by the Syriza-ANEL government in July 2015], we see the continued absence of a national plan for the productive reorganisation of Greece, the encouragement of islands of innovation, the creation of a benign environment for new investments, the creation of research institutions connected to the development needs of the country.
What is it that prevents the Ministers responsible and their teams from creating a broader circle of collaboration and knowledge-sharing that would enable them to set targets and assessment mechanisms, and develop an alternative national development plan?
How can one explain the institutionalised distrust towards a multitude of innovative proposals that are being put forward (for example with regards to the use of EU structural funds) to every relevant government department, and which could transform the recessionary climate as well as our country’s credibility in the eyes of foreign partners? From what possible credible working hypothesis on the improvement of education can we draw the sly argument for the abolition of university entry standards that would boost acceptance rates into low-demand university departments?
Is it possible that the wariness towards any form of public-private partnership that might benefit state universities and support our collapsing educational infrastructure is based purely on an ideological dichotomy of public = good, private = bad?
Can tackling of the humanitarian crisis (a central campaign slogan of Syriza) possibly be limited to the support of food banks and social clinics in local authorities, without the existence of a national plan to improve healthcare, mental health policy and welfare?
The international knowledge-sharing on offer, and our own accumulated experience in higher education establishments from participating in international research networks, cannot possibly be leading us to reinvent the wheel in the year 2016.
Islands of innovation and good practice do exist in our own country, and are recognised by our international partners, but are obscured domestically by the guardians of party-political correctness.
3. Can left-wing populism truly offer a rational means of analysis of our reality and its pathologies?
The proclamations of a return to the pre-memorandum state of being, the excitation of collective sentiment, the rewarding of simplifying and primitive thinking, the manifold divisions, the shallow courting of the crowd by the leader, are these really left-wing imperatives?
By accepting that the international balance of power was weighted against the Left, trumping their original self-deception, they nevertheless let it be implied that the maturity and wisdom of the people will eventually triumph through some muscular guidance from the Left.
This narrative of the Left obscures the basic observation of many scholars that the country not only faces an enormous accumulation of problems, but is itself a begetter of its problems.
A devastated society, inundated in self-delusions, denials, ignorance, self-centredness, depression, despair and passivity must once again be educated through new types of populist delusions.
Is it really possible that we can continue to protect special interest groups, party politics, and clientelism, and promise growth without radical change, without deeper self-awareness of our collective failures, and without acknowledgment of individual responsibility?
I am deeply convinced that there can be an agenda of progressive, left-wing reforms, even in the midst of economic hardship, that would signify the new exemplar of government that this country so badly needs.
Sadly, Massimo d’Alema never did respond to Nanni Moretti’s entreaty.”
* More recent evidence thankfully shows the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among the Greek population to have retreated to pre-crisis levels as early 2013, however the broader crisis in mental health provision continues.
IMAGE: “The Choice of Hercules” by Annibale Caracci.