In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king who incurred the wrath of the gods and was punished by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it perennially roll back down again right before reaching the top.
The adjective “Sisyphian” draws its meaning from this story and is defined as a pointless or interminable activity.
As Greece eagerly awaits some respite from the long years of austerity that have choked the life out of its economy, in the form of some definitive European action regarding its debt, one cannot help but recall Sisyphus and wonder if there is any silver lining at all on this endless cloud that has been raining misery upon the country since the arrival of the memorandum, ushered in by the country’s troika of lenders.
When Hellas’ erstwhile prime minister George Papandreou sent the country down this ill-fated road, even the greatest naysayers likely secretly hoped that the memorandum imposed on Greece by IMF/EU technocrats would at least partially rectify some of the glaring problems plaguing the citizenry for decades, which are at least partially responsible for widespread corruption and graft.
Four years, two bailouts, one haircut pension system, and one decimated health care system later, the country is boasting over its “primary surplus” (which sounds eerily like the fuzzy math its governments used back in the late 90s to join the Eurozone) but negotiating a bailout for a shortfall over the next two years.
Despite unprecedented austerity, Greece’s debt has swelled even further (cursed interest) and will certainly require some remedial measures, which will be negotiated by the same politicians and lenders that got it that untenably high in the first place.
To achieve the targets that the troika admittedly erroneously calculated but maintains with the stubbornness that would shame even the most obstinate mule, Greek politicians – reduced to little more than middle management – succeeded in decimating practically the entirety of the nation’s middle class by imposing a noxious mix of exorbitant tax hikes, coupled by salary and pension cuts.
Joblessness has soared to nearly 30 percent (60% among the youth), bureaucracy continues to confound the citizenry adding insult to injury, and state agencies still remain so unreasonable that bribery is almost certainly the best policy.
Sadly, the only thing that the memorandum proved was that it’s not just Greek politicians who are useless, but their technocrat bosses in Brussels as well. Nowhere in these years of poverty and inequitable distribution of burdens did the self-styled “saviors” of the Greek economy do even the slightest to relieve the everyday citizen of the treacheries of the system that brought Greece to its current state.
Bureaucracy and red tape are as ubiquitous as ever. And wherever the government did get smaller, it was in the wrong places – schools, hospitals, and defense. Greece – which is running the risk of having more laws than people – continues to be bloated with new legislation, without repealing older laws, while nepotism and corruption remain widespread.
In fact, the very person who came up with the law granting corrupt government ministers immunity is now serving as deputy prime minister, ensuring that with the 5 percent of votes that his party received in the last national elections, he will continue to keep 95 percent of the country down.
In spite of all the painful and unjust cuts to workers and pensioners, there are millions in secret discretionary accounts in the Greek foreign ministry funding shady non governmental organizations (and God only knows what else), which have been left unscathed by the memorandum and the “hellhound” known as the troika, which appears to bark only in the direction of the weak.
The biggest problem with the memorandum and the crisis it caused is that it didn’t revolutionize anything in the Greek state. It didn’t act as a catalyst to any fundamental social change.
Even something as silly as the obliteration (we could have even settled for reduction) of paperwork and the hated ink stamp in today’s digital age seems too tall a task for unwilling politicians and their banker bosses.
Government officials are so deeply intertwined with media moguls that revenue from advertisements continues to remain untaxed(!), while everyday stiffs are being assessed for money that they haven’t even collected yet (i.e., the government is demanding that homeowners pay 50 percent of taxes from estimated 2015 rental incomes now).
Meanwhile, the country’s high court is beginning to rule certain government practices like arbitrary collection of real estate taxes through electric bills (another ingenious idea contrived by the current deputy prime minister) as unconstitutional, while the finance minister previously refused to implement a lower court’s decisions on this issue.
Worse yet, most of the splinter groups appearing in the electoral horizon leave one skeptical about whether they are really interested in making any social change or are just after the perks of party politics; i.e., 500,000 euros a year in funding for the next five years for any party gathering over 1.5 percent in European Parliament elections, upwards of 9K euros a month for Euro deputies, and the ultimate candy store for “quick fingered” politicians – local and regional elections.
A true reformer could leave his legacy on Greek history in just one term if he or she really wished. Primary surplus or not, you cannot remake Greece without revolutionizing its governmental practices and busting the vested interests that seem to prevail regardless of “memorandums.”
No degree of manpower is ever enough to complete a Sisyphian task, no matter how hardworking the contributor. What is required is craftiness and thinking outside the box – the very same thinking that allowed Sisyphus to escape the underworld on two occasions, or Odysseus to regain control of his kingdom. To regain control of their state, Greeks will need to turn the tide on their oppressors – domestic politicians and foreign technocrats alike.
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