"No More Customers!" The Strangulation of Clientelism
By Chris Jones at Jun 15, 2012
“No More Customers !”
During the course of what became a 2 hour discussion, Spiro, our friend from a nearby village who had just lost his job repeatedly insisted that the demise of Pasok in particular, was in no small part due to there being “no more customers”.
What I discovered he meant was that the traditional clientism which has bedeviled Greek politics and social relations for decades was being eroded. He said that many households which had voted en bloc as families for one of the 2 main parties because of the favours they had received were now no longer under any obligation. The parties, he continued were in no position to offer any sort of inducements and moreover many of those that had once owed their position to patronage especially in state employment now found themselves unemployed. This he said, ironically, was the only gift of the troika to the Greek people. Austerity and recession were breaking down systems that had locked so many families into a form of peonage (the practice of making a debtor work for his creditor until the debt is discharged) to political elites.
He was insistent that I understood the importance of this and illustrated it with reference to his own family and personal experience. His father demanded that all those eligible to vote in his family should vote for Pasok. His daughter owed her state job to Pasok and in return they should give them their vote as not to do so might jeopardize her position and would also mean that they would receive no more favours. It was a pernicious system he said because the favours were always spread thinly but always with a hint of more to follow to keep them in check. But unless your family had some influence he told me, it was unlikely that more favours would flow, although you could never be certain.
Although Spiro’s father died recently he never knew that his son no longer followed the family line and instead of voting Pasok he had voted in the past for small green parties. If he had known, Spiro claimed, this would have resulted in major break in their relationship. Spiro’s mum knew that he no longer obeyed his father and was terrified should he find out. During another conversation with Marios much of what Spiro said about the influence of the father was confirmed. He for the first time broke with his father’s demand that the family was New Democracy and in the May election voted for KKE. He didn’t tell his father
Without the opportunity to sustain “their customers” through the offer of jobs in the state sector as the recession combined with austerity cuts decimate employment in Greece, so the younger generation feels liberated from historical family obligations to vote, especially for Pasok. In the case of Spiro’s family, he believes that in the forthcoming election that both his mother and sister (who has now retired) will vote for Syriza. For left inclined Greeks, Syriza is by far more attractive than the compromised, defeated Pasok which is indelibly stained by its collaboration with the Troika. And with nothing to offer their ‘customers’ there is now no reason for them to vote for Pasok. And we also need to be clear here that their ‘customers’ numbered in tens of thousands.
Pasok used the expansion of the state following its victory in 1981 supported by subsidies flowing in from the EU to expand on earlier forms of political patronage. It was a massive exercise which had major material consequences for thousands of Pasok supporters. By 1989 state sector employment accounted for half of all the waged work of Greece and had grown from 500,000 in 1980. A study in 1986 for example, found that 89% of Pasok members who had joined the party after 1981 were employed by the state[i]. As Spiro would say, “lots of customers”.
For the conservatives, there is no such obvious alternative to New Democracy (the neo fascist Golden Dawn is too extreme it would seem) and in any event New Democracy has taken for itself some of the fascists’ positions on refugees and asylum seekers and is clearly hoping to prevent any leakage of votes to the hard right. Much of this is reflected in the opinion polls which shows Pasok in possible terminal decline whilst the ND support although weakened is nowhere near as weakened as Pasok.
These historical patterns of voting rooted in patriarchal families are not so difficult to understand in a society where the social state in particular is feeble and under-developed. With no effective safety net, the family has played and continues to play a crucial role in sustaining well being relying on a web of connections which can be activated when necessary such as in gaining access to appropriate health care in particular, and as Spiro noted, to state employment.
It has been a system of both whips and carrots. Tens of thousands of Greeks suffered and were punished for being on the ‘wrong side’ of politics in the aftermath of the Civil War and then the Junta. Spiro once again made this point in reference to his own family. His father, only 16 years old at the time, became labeled a communist because on one occasion during the civil war, he laid out the bodies of slain resistance fighters whose bodies had been dumped in a heap near the church in his village. With no political motivation, Spiro’s father simply acted humanely in wanting to prepare the bodies for burial and on his own, he untangled the heap of slaughtered fighters and laid them out. For this action alone he was from then on identified as a communist.
Such a labeling had real consequences. He was not able to get a job in the state sector; he was denied any loans from the bank until the mid 1980s, and in all his attempts to make a living he was subjected to continued harassment from the authorities. During the period of the Junta, Spiro remembers his father being picked up and being periodically beaten at the village police station coming home after a couple of nights covered in bruises and cuts. These are both sharp and frightening memories still vivid for many Greeks.
The election of Pasok in 1981 was of massive significance for such families not the least because the charismatic Andreas Papandreou ordered that all the (secret) police records on the politics of the Greek people be publicly burned in the squares of villages and towns. It was a time Spiro said when the people felt that they could breathe freely again. And these are not isolated memories from some long distant past. Rather they are a common experience for many Greeks which have deeply impacted on a wide range of social relations and ‘ways of doing things’. Corruption – the common lens which is used when looking at these issues here – is not at all sufficient and gets nowhere near in terms of understanding contemporary Greek society.
Furthermore it is a past which still impacts on the present. Those who collaborated with the Nazis such as those active in the Security Battalions were never punished. Those who benefitted under the junta and gained wealth and power were never punished. The conservative Karamanlis government which replaced the colonels never purged the police force and state security apparatus. Cosmetic changes were made (the green uniforms of the police replaced by blue for example) but the bosses stayed in place. Their power and privilege ensured that they could ‘look after’ their families getting them places in universities, providing free accommodation indeed all the ‘normal’ privileges by which ruling élites throughout the world look after themselves. According to Spiro this helps explains the extraordinary continuity of fascism within the police and why for him the evidence that around half of the police voted for the neo fascists in the May election is of no surprise. It’s dynastic he claims! Great grandfather was a fascist police officer in 1944, then his son or cousin, then the next generation and so on until today. For them their politics and connections protected them and also brought sustained material benefits and rewards.
If this is only partially true it is evident that one of the most urgent priorities facing any new left government is to sort out the police and security systems here whose roots are deeply embedded in the politics of hate and inhumanity
Likewise although the destruction of Greece’s economy terminally weakens parties such as Pasok and frees thousands from the yoke of political clientism in the absence of collective social provision the family/household remains the core institution of survival for many Greeks. You don’t need to know much recent Greek history to realize that the familialism of Greece is primarily defensive and geared to survival. It is now under incredible pressure.
Deep rooted familialism will stagger on unless and until new wider solidarities are created which reduces the reliance on the family with all its conservative baggage of patriarchy and anxiety. As a largely defensive institution, families here tend to gaze inwards to their own needs and problems. There is much less looking outwards to either the local community or the wider context. In Athens, Thessaloniki and other such large urban areas, there is evidence that debates and initiatives are emerging which implicitly recognizes the limitations of familialism and the need for alternative and wider forms of solidarity, both in terms of day to day survival and in order to resist and work for a different kind of Greece.
For young Greeks, especially in the urban areas with rates of unemployment well over 50%, the clientelism of the recent past has little or no purchase. There is nothing on offer. Moreover, the failure of past clientelism is just too evident in daily life. There are simply too many people not doing a very good job and far too many ‘make work’ jobs which are intrinsically mindless. Many public agencies here still work with paper. There are vast quantities of the stuff. Dealing with it has provided endless opportunities for the political party in power to ‘make jobs’. For example to pay a simple tax bill commonly involves visiting five different offices to get the invoice stamped and counter-signed before making the payment. There is no evident purpose to this and drives the people crazy with the time needed to make a simple transaction. Moreover, there is a miserableness to these places which must in some part reflect the unhappiness of the workers.
Clientelism has many dimensions. It has as Spiro made clear had a significant impact on family life and its engagement with the political parties. It has reinforced patriarchy and led to patterns of dynastic advantage and disadvantage. It has been deeply embedded in family life. Now, austerity in Greece is strangling clientism especially with the attacks on state employment but it extends to every area of the formal economy. The demise of Pasok is but one reflection of this. It is not simply a case of Pasok being punished for its collaboration with austerity. It is also because it can no longer offer anything to its supporters. But Pasok’s future is nothing like as important as the wider impact of the shift in the material base of clientelism. Maybe this ‘gift’ from the Troika will do more than any election result to provoke the sort of changes this country needs. But without debate, initiatives and action the strangulation of clientelism will continue to eat into the well being of the people with more and more households and families collapsing into destitution and despair.