Among the many paradoxes of the Greek financial crisis, which has put this rather paradoxical country in the global spotlight, is this: Whereas the public finances crisis in Ireland and Spain was created due to failures of the private market, in Greece the problem is clearly a big, inefficient, parasitic public sector. This creates a very different perception among third observers of states in financial trouble: Protests in countries such as Spain (or the US for that matter) are sometimes excused as frustration with what some consider (perhaps not entirely erroneously) the outsourcing of the failures of a reckless private sector on the whole of society. In Greece though outsiders think that, by virtue of its nature, the inefficient public sector was accommodating all Greeks in an orgy of mismanagement, corruption and cronyism. Hence, protests in Greece are morally reprehensible, since the people protesting are the same ones who for long benefited from a system long galvanized by European money (in the shape, first, of structural funds and, then, cheap credit from European banks).

This Monday, April 18, 2011 photo shows tourists as they walk by the marble temple of Athena Nike in Athens, Greece. Many of Greece s tourists see the capital Athens as a simple launching pad for the beaches and cute whitewashed buildings of the islands. And the Aegean archipelago can be a great escape, especially during the nation s current economic crisis. But those willing to put Athens on their itinerary could be rewarded with bargains on everything from restaurants and hotels to souvenirs, if they are willing to step into the heart of the recession. Photo: Scanpix

However a basic insight of political economy is that in a society, benefits of a social group are always shouldered by sacrifices of another social group. Even in Greece, the public sector does not accommodate everyone in the society; rather, the vast majority of market participants and the middle-class is supporting through its tax contributions, long working hours (among the longest among OECD countries) and acceptance of various market constraints and regulations the bloated and inefficient public sector, as well as a state-capitalist class of media owners and public work contractors who are as much responsible for market inefficiencies. Now, it is mostly people who have always supported the same inefficient system (established under the reign of the Greek Socialist Party in the 1980s and vastly expanded under the same party’s ‘modernizing’ wing in the 1990s) that are asked to pay even higher taxes and enjoy even less public services, while the government proves incompetent in touching the privileges of the ones who for years took advantage of the system.
It is out of this pool that the movement of ‘Indignants’ of last summer drew most of its support. It was composed of people of different political views and social backgrounds united by anger and despair. Its drawback was the lack of a clear objective, but there was a common hope that something would change. However, it grew into a massive movement that was the first in 35 years to demonstrate in peace. Throughout May and June, hundreds of thousands of people were congregating in front of the Parliament peacefully, a truly revolutionary event in a country so accustomed to small groups of protesters causing unimaginable havoc in the streets of the capital.
The current government, again of the Socialist party, acts as if it is implementing measures that are radically reshaping the structure of the public sector and the relationship between state and society. But it is doing nothing of the sort. Its so-called ‘reforms’ are just new and inventive ways of taxing the traditional entrepreneurial and white-collar middle-class, which is the one supporting, through its productivity and inability to evade taxes, a relatively small coalition of public corporation employees, trade unionists and privileged businessmen. This coalition remains essentially untouched by the government’s policies, which are a reflection of the ruling socialist party’s effort to shelter its privileged clientele within the public sector from real changes.
In this effort, the government does not hesitate to turn social and professional classes against each other. It is using double-talk in order to retain the political and economic structures that brought Greece to these levels of economic stagnation. Domestically it is accusing the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for the measures it should adopt to fight the continuous recession, while at the same time internationally, in order to excuse the delays and insufficiency of the adopted measures, it is accusing its own people of being corrupt and unable to change. It is essentially cultivating misconceptions and stereotypes on both sides with the sole purpose of safeguarding its role as a mediator between European uncertainty and Greek misery. And when, last June, the two major parties were unable to cooperate in the formation of a coalition government and the ‘Indignants’ reached the dynamic of a veritable popular movement, the government adopted a hard line by using police forces as never before during the 35 years since the fall of the dictatorship to disperse demonstrators. However, even then, hidden behind a pseudo-progressive rhetoric, it blamed solely the police for the ‘unnecessary use of violence’ - and passively inflamed the narrative of the international press about Greece being a country of radicals and extremists.
Many observers still think today that the most probable scenario for Greece is bankruptcy and exit from the euro. This would be a terrible waste of the sacrifices of Greek and European taxpayers and investors. Greeks want to avoid this development as much as everyone. It is telling that, whereas in the international press many economists make plausible arguments about Greece’s need to return to the drachma, in Greece the vast majority of public opinion remains firmly behind the political ideal of staying in the euro and close to the core of European integration. This majority is willing to support a coalition of honest forces for reform. Europeans should be willing to listen to voices from within Greece that move between the government’s melodramatic incompetence and the rejectionist, destructive rhetoric of the Greek far-left. Insults and attacks aimed at the history, culture, customs and the national pride of the Greek people only play in the hands of Europeans and Greeks alike who prefer playing for time instead of making the tough decisions.
Greece has defied the odds before: In the 1950s and 1960s, an ‘economic miracle’ took place here, based on the hard work, the ambition and the sense of honour of a people devastated by a 10-year conflict, first against Nazism and then against Communism. A big part of this success was due to the generous American aid of the Marshall Plan. Greece was in essence the first front of the Cold War, the place on which two divergent visions of society and economy confronted each other. Just like 1940, when Greece supplied the first victory of any Allied nation against the Axis, Greece became in the late 1940s and beyond the first success of a Western world under attack from Communism. The economic success of subsequent years was not only an unexpected achievement of the Greek people themselves, but also a testament to the energizing power of freedom. Today Greece may be the first front of a new ‘war’, a bloodless conflict between a political vision of a European community of values seeking to integrate further its economic and social systems, and a rival coalition of transnational and a-national, impersonal financial interests.
Just like in the 1940s then, Greeks are willing to do their share. But the help they are looking for is not so much money and technical assistance, as the pressure on the current miserable, corrupt clientelistic political system that has prevailed over the last 35 years to radically change - or dissolve itself. Even today, Greeks position themselves in the European family, which they consider to be part of their history and culture. Similarly, Europe always looked at Greece as the cradle of its civilization. This relationship should not change. If this were to happen, Greece would lose its body and Europe its heart.

Angelos Chryssogelos is a researcher in the European University Institute, Florence 
Panos Tasiopoulos is a head of Project Department, Centre for European Studies, Brussels