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Golden Dawn May Be the Last Straw for Greece

Posted on the 26 November 2012 by Philosopher's Beard
Greece has been at the forefront of the Eurozone's sovereign debt crisis for some time. Its efforts to get assistance from central EU institutions like the European Central Bank and major EU economies like Germany have been hindered by a failure of solidarity. From Greece's side there was the abject incompetence and inconsistency of its government, which made it a difficult partner to work with.
But there was also a 'moral' problem in taking Greece's pleas for help seriously: the perception that the Greek people themselves were lazy layabouts who wanted the rest of Europe to pay for the 'lavish' lifestyle they had chosen. The media's general acceptance of this point and stentorian moral outrage played an important role in undermining the domestic political support for intervention on the basis of solidarity (rather than mere economic prudence) in countries like Britain, The Netherlands and Germany.
That perception was unfounded. The Greeks work pretty much the most hours in Europe, and rather more than those in 'hard-working' northern Europe (however you slice the numbers), and for rather less hourly pay. It is true that those hours are less productive than elsewhere, but that relates to the institutional structure of the Greek economy as a whole, rather than the moral character of Greeks as individuals. Better information on this point has gradually made its way into the public sphere and the myth of the lazy Greeks has been somewhat dispelled.
In the meantime, however, a far more significant moral problem has arisen: the specter of Greek fascism. The Golden Dawn party may have the electoral support of only around 15% of the population, but it has the appearance of being at least tolerated by many more. Journalists reporting on the condition of Greece to the rest of Europe present a picture of Nazi thugs beating up immigrants and operating with official impunity and even police connivance (eg). The official state seems passive in the face of the creeping usurpation of its functions by a Nazi party, either from deep apathy and lethargy, or from some secret sympathy.
In either case, the consequences for Greece may be catastrophic. 'Lazy bums' are a standard perception problem/moral hazard for the politics of a welfare state. They trigger complaints about unfairness from those who think they pay in most, and calls for reform of the social insurance model. Hence the patronising attitude of the richer EU states paying for the earlier bail outs.
But the idea of Nazis in Europe triggers intense moral disgust, not a taxpayer revolt. If public opinion in the rest of the EU concludes that the Greeks want to be Nazis, then no politician there will be able to argue for helping them anymore. The attitude will rather be of 'To hell with all of you'.
The problem with this attitude is first that this disgusting party still has only a small political following and doesn't truly represent the Greeks, and second that that following is itself a product of the economic calamity ravaging the country. It makes no more sense to say that the Greeks are 'naturally' fascist than that the Germans were in the 1930s. But it does make sense to remember how dire economic circumstances can inflate the support of populist extremist parties with remarkable speed, and the dangers such  parties can pose to a weak, defeated, apathetic state. If Europe washes her hands of Greece out of moral disgust, we thereby put Greece at greater risk of falling into ruin. We may also find other troubled Euro zone states falling to the same phenomenon.
The European Union was conceived as a civilisational project, to permanently displace political barbarism from Europe by committing all members to liberal democratic government and reciprocal solidarity. That project is in crisis, in the technical sense that it is poised at a turning point between recovery and catastrophe.
The reasons are not only technical ones to do with economics (sovereign bankruptcies, bond markets, etc) and institutional failures (the EU's bureaucratic ineptness and sclerotic decision-making processes). To a very great extent the future of the EU depends on whether the moral sense of solidarity  among Europe's national publics can be kept alive. And that in turn depends on how we see the victims of the economic crisis, such as Greece (and also Spain, Italy, Ireland). Do we see them as worth saving, or do we find reasons to walk away?Golden Dawn may be the last straw for Greece

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