Walking around the complex of rocks, Doric columns and temples of the Acropolis in Athens evokes the debt Western Civilisation owes to the ancient Graeco- Roman world. It was here that the Athenian City State developed the first and most sophisticated philosophical notions of how a democracy should work. It remains remarkable how much of democracy itself is attributable to this world as distinct from to the more modern world where the franchise took root and popular politics was adopted and adapted by nation states. In essence much of contemporary democracy does not reflect modernity and is ill equipped to deal with exploitative populist efforts that cut across its fundaments.
For example, the ancient Greeks were so idealistic that they saw no separation between politics and philosophy, culture, the arts and theatre. In fact their notion of democracy saw philosophy and the body politic as inseparable twins. In order for democracy to survive it had to live in close proximity to the world of philosophy and that of the intellect. In the modern world that we now live in this umbilical link between philosophy and the world of politics has been utterly broken.
It is hard to be precise as to when these two worlds separated but it is clear that the cleavage is such as to render latter day democracy incomprehensible and irrelevant to many citizens.
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and communism there was a public clamour to declare an unprecedented victory for the forces of freedom encapsulated by liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. The enormous recession of 2008, which leaves a long economic and social shadow and reduced the number of countries that can be described as democracies, has put paid to the heady optimism and ambitious ideas heavily promoted by writers such as Francis Fukuyama.
Since the collapse of the wall there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of trade, investment and human contact powered on a global basis by adventurous risk capital and new, seemingly liberating online technologies that facilitate commercial and social transactions within the blink of an eye. The political class, with its associated elites, has been left stranded in the wake of these fast-moving, converging and engulfing technologies like the internet, social media, instant (and sometimes illusory) capital transfer. The political class have a mandate to manage and control these developments but as ever the regulation is chasing after the market reality. Modern democratic states are very unsuited to handling these changes being rooted in the ancient world and the world of nation states – both epochs that are now past.
Modern day Greece serves as a good example of how the nation state model of democracy cannot deliver for its citizens. The country has been pulverised by the financial crisis which began in the US and rapidly exported its wealth everywhere. Since 2008 Greece has been subjected to a force-fed austerity programme, multiple bail-out packages, and the near destruction of its entire banking system.
The main Greek Parties that dominated politics since the departure of the military, of left and right ( Pasok and New Democracy) have been swept away in favour of a street-led-protest party headed up by Prime Minister Tspiras. Greece has been scarred.
The magnificent streetscapes of the capital Athens have been desecrated by vulgar and ubiquitous graffiti – testimony to pervasive radicalisation. There is no public will to remove it and the authorities –animated by Syriza – appear slow to remove it lest it becomes a vivid reminder that the anarcho-revolution they began has now run into the sand. SyrIza promised all sorts of resistance to austerity, foreign diktat, Brussels bureaucracy, the ECB, and of course Germany. Two years on and it looks like they took on more than they could chew. Quite the opposite to what was promised has occurred. Even Syriza’s high-profile former Finance Minister Varoufakis has given up the ghost and formed his own party.
A former ministerial colleague of mine from Greece confided in me during my visit that notwithstanding the volte face in the confrontation with Brussels Tspiras has managed to make a connection to the ordinary Greeks public. Nevertheless the ones I have met here remain ineradicably cynical about politics. Many feel that Syriza is simply serving its apprenticeship and that it is only a matter of time before it becomes as self-serving as its predecessors.
Greece has witnessed enormous public corruption and bureaucratic incompetence that is almost the civic mirror image of what happens in the Northern European core countries of the EU. The economy also has a huge black economy of private and cash transactions. On a visit eight years ago, precrisis, I was surprised at the difficulty of finding a retailer that would accept credit cards. It is now far worse and if there is a credit card machine in situ, more often than not, the shopkeeper will claim that the machine is broken. A businessman friend informs me it is quite common for a BMW car to be bought with €70k cash as part of the transaction. Given the governments they have got there is a natural reluctance to pay taxes.
The miracle is that the Greek economy and democracy has managed even to survive the economic crisis. This, my business friend reminds me, would not have happened were it not for the black economy. When all else failed it was the only capitalist show in town. The events have been a crushing blow to ordinary Greeks, in particular because of their pride in their illustrious past. The Germans and their own political class have taken the lion’s share of the blame.
The extent to which debilitating terms and bailout conditions were imposed on Greece shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the Eurozone system. The fight had to be taken to the streets but was ultimately resolved in the joyless back offices of Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin. It was probably a mistake for the Greeks to depict Merkel as a latter-day Nazi but the antipathy remains real. The clear lesson from the Greek crisis is that sovereignty no longer exclusively found at the nation state level even in the birthplace of democracy. Many voters from Greece, to the UK and the United States feel aggrieved that power no longer resides at the purely local level.
Ironically, the Greeks are the country that got lucky twice. They were fast-tracked into EU membership out of a sense or fear that they might all too easily relapse back into a military dictatorship. They got lucky again when the euro currency was created as, depending on your viewpoint, their official figures were either deliberately overstated or overlooked, by European officials anxious to include them. Ideas of Fortress Europe and overweening fears about Russia and the Balkans also played in their favour. Luck may be again on the Greek side. The migration crisis and fears about instability in Turkey may lead to a renewed effort by the EU to keep them sweet.
Between the 3rd and 5th centuries A.D. Graeco-Roman civilisation was subject to enormous stress. In Rome there was a period of 70 years with 20 different Emperors. A long period of decline began with Barbarian incursions on the edges of Empire. Eventually the Barbarians sacked Athens and Rome. A sophisticated culture and empire was overthrown. ‘Western Civilisation’ or democracy is enduring the incipience of a similar insurgence today. The defenders of liberal democracy and globalised capitalism are under attack.
The traditional western powers no longer own, or have a mandate to operate, the multilateral system effectively. This is not just because of opposition on the streets. The likes of Brazil, Russia, China and India are flexing their power. They have scooped very few of the spoils of the multilateral system and so owe it no loyalty. The traditional powers still dominate global organisations like the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and the WHO. It is extraordinary how weak the existing global institutions have become in the era of globalisation. It makes no sense. They are atrophying due to lack of interest at the fractious domestic political level and the connivance of large corporations – Apple is a case in point – which do not want these institutions to exercise too much control.
Voter insurgencies in Greece, the UK, the US, Brazil and even in the Phillipines are happening because of the slow-motion erosion of democratic values due to intense change. Centrist politicians have taken technological advances and hyper capital as agents for good without ever looking at the personal effects these mercurial forces toll or of their profound impact on democracy itself.
The Barbarians of the modern world are the populist political movements that mobilise popular grievance against globalisation and pretend that there can be a purely national solution to the problems that it poses. They are like the proud Greek retailer who claims that the credit machine is broken and he can only accept cash. The technology and infrastructure of globalisation cannot be easily unplugged. Few actually believe Donald Trump when he says he will rid the states of all Muslims, build a wall with Mexico and order US corporations based abroad to return home. The fact that he has survived so long with this message is indicative of the softness of the support for the political system he claims to undermine.
The fact that SyrIza continue in power in Greece shows that populist movements can accommodate the realities of power and the global status quo. If both Trump in the US and Le Pen in France are elected it will not signal the end of democracy as we know it. However it will be a harbinger of a new definition of democracy and governance that will transmogrify complacent global institutions. The proponents of Western style democracy must now prove that globalisation is compatible with a thriving local democracy and that reformed political institutions can bring real benefits to citizens. Elites have driven it until now but citizens must drive the next phase if globalisation has a future.
By Conor Lenihan