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February 24, 2012

In search of a Greek social contract

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Written by: DW

By David Wisner

I’ve been thinking a lot about the American Declaration of Independence. Let me explain by way of an anecdote.

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s long-time business associate, is blind in one eye, owing to complications in a cataract operation. As Alice Schroeder tells the story, Munger never blamed the doctor, instead accepting responsibility for not having “done more research on doctors and types of surgery himself.” Nor did he ever stop his life’s work.

Munger’s plight, and subsequent reaction, get me to the heart of my present inquiry. I am not Greek nor am I a citizen of the Hellenic Republic. I choose to reside here, to pay my taxes and abide by the laws of this land. Presumably I could leave, perhaps to return to my birthplace, were I to find life here to onerous. I might even rationalize this prospect as follows: that some clause in a mental pact I once made — with myself or with others close to me – had ceased to be binding. A primitive social contract had been rendered null and void, as it were, and I was prepared to accept my responsibility for the outcome.

What of my Hellenic confreres? What of those who feel an organic bond with this place, which would trump a notion of primordial compact?

Two passages in Thomas Jefferson’s text recur regularly in my mind as I witness events here and reflect on how Greeks try to make sense of it all. The first reads,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

There are certain moments in history when rebellion is justified, when rights preempt responsibilities. These moments are rare, however, even though signalling them is a mere courtesy.

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.

Has there been a time in recent history, say since the end of the Cold War, when events have conspired to justify a fundamental recasting of the social and political order, to render self-evident to anyone who cared to reason things through that enough was enough?

I’ve asked myself the following question on more than one occasion lately. Let’s say that as a denizen of a place I accept that I have rights and obligations. I pay my taxes, to start with. I am continuing to pay my taxes even though it is apparent to me that the state in which I reside has all but ceased to function. When, I ask, do_I_stop_paying_my_taxes? When do I jettison prudence, do I stand up, and tell those with whom I have engaged in a contractual relationship that the bonds between us have been broken, that I am henceforth free to take my business elsewhere?

It should be clear that I am not alluding to faddish protests or to ideological posturing.

During the most egalitarian phases of the French Revolution one often encountered placards which red, “Ici on s’honore du titre du Citoyen.” We are citizens before another social role — not workers or unionists or party apparatchiks or members of a clan.

The Greek mindset does not seem to encourage this line of thinking. Those Greek writers who have mused openly about a social contract made in Greece clearly have something else in mind. Less like Locke and more akin to Montesquieu. The prototypical contemporary Hellene appears to stand not as an atomistic citizen whose most meaningful civic ties are with other atomistic citizens in civil society, over which public authorities are in reality trustees whose roles have been predetermined, and are a citizenry whose sociability precedes the state. The bonds that sustain my Greek counterparts are both agonistic and communitarian. One’s relationship with the state is mediated, and in some sense preconditioned, by competing social subgroups.

In a characteristically eloquent article Nikos Konstandaras has dubbed this the “year of the citizen.” While I weigh the cost of paying taxes to a failing state against the prospect of repatriation — bearing in mind the untold numbers of Hellenes who find themselves compelled to emigrate abroad — it is clear to many – Mario Draghi among them – that Greeks and their European partners need to reconcile competing, and seemingly irreconcilable, notions of citizenry and the social contract. That this will happen before the human suffering here becomes truly unbearable is less evident than those truths that Thomas Jefferson believed in so robustly.






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