My favorite Greek word is pallikari. I grew up like every other Greek-American, impressing everyone at my lunch table as I would call my mom and explain in Greeklish that I forgot my basketball sneakers, but horrified whenever I’d get off the plane in Athens and find that I could not understand a word. I went to Greek school for half of my life but retained almost nothing. The word pallikari brings back memories of wearing an amalia outfit and standing on stage in front of an audience of smiling parents to recite Rigas Feraios’ famous poem.
The Greek term pallikaria literally refers to the bandits that roamed the countryside during Tourkokratia, or the Ottoman occupation, plundering the estates of the Turkish elite and proclaiming select regions to be under their private rule. Although their deeds were not nearly as honorable and glorious as Greek folklore proclaims them to have been, these guerilla warriors represented the only real threat to Turkish rule throughout the occupation. Although the ideology and rhetoric behind the revolution was undoubtedly Western and elitist, it was these rebellious pallikaria that embodied the real power of the resistance movement.
Anyway, its use today always leaves a goofy smile on my face. I’ve heard a driver yell it sarcastically as a second driver plowed into the parking spot he had been positioning himself to back into. Ladies will use it to describe the cute gentleman that holds the door patiently for them as they teeter up the stairs in their high heels. Mothers will use it for the sons that help bring the groceries in from the car. The word never fails to bring to mind images of men with mustaches curling upward, in pleated foustanella skirts, most likely with muskets tied to their backs, or lamb skins draped over their shoulders.
Where is she going with this, you ask? Well, let me tell you one of my theories on Greece’s current economic crisis. I explained this theory to a friend who believes attending the Syntagma protests is his duty as a Greek citizen, and it resulted in him not speaking to me for the rest of the evening… so please don’t let this be the first and last time you will read this column.
“Pallikarism” is an idea that is still widely prevalent within the cultural consciousness of Greece. It is the uniquely Greek understanding of individual freedom and self-government, yet it also evokes the idea of disobedience, and ultimately revolution, against unjust oppression.
Originating from the country’s legends and traditions, it is a noble concept ingrained deep within the Greek psyche. It manifests itself within today’s version of Greek political culture as an anti-authority sentiment, thus freeing Greeks from accountability and obligation to a degree that would be much less accepted in many other countries.
This aspect of the Greek cultural consciousness contributed to the development of the country’s economic crisis by giving rise to rampant corruption and tax evasion. Such actions, in turn, rendered the system’s vast social programs to be unsustainable. Without tax revenue, the government spiraled into increasingly deeper debt as it sought to fund the country’s expensive pension plans, along with the many other entitlements of the welfare state. In other words, the current economic crisis has its roots in Tourkokratia, as the years of domination by autocratic Turkish rulers played a considerable role in the molding of modern Greek political culture. Brutally subjugated under the Sultan’s representatives, the people of the horia, or villages, developed an ingrained distrust of authority and disregard for legality, as they learned to regard authoritative and administrative figures with reservation and suspicion.
The Sultan implemented a system similar to that of feudalism, creating an aristocracy to exploit the peasantry through heavy taxation and then supplementing such taxation with arbitrary exactions and forced labor. The Ottoman Turks included within the taxation requirements the “tribute of children,” a tribute that required Greek parents to turn over one in every five male children to the corps of Janissaries, an elite fighting force which was crucial to Ottoman conquests.
Thus, the Greek regard for dignity, honor, and equality became hyperbolized after the fight for independence. The experience of what it was like to live without such virtues for four cruel centuries instilled an intense appreciation for them within the country’s mentality. The Greek people thereby developed an ethos, or cultural mindset, of egalitarianism. This sense of autonomy is best summarized by the expression, k’esi moustaki, k’ego moustaki, an expression which literally translates to mean “You have a mustache, and I too have a mustache.”
Perhaps this profound sense of autonomy and unaccountability is what propagates the endemic tax evasion and corruption within today’s political culture. Although they feel entitled to its outputs, the Greek people do not feel obligated to provide the system with its needed inputs. Tax evasion generated the crisis by distorting the economic data upon which the government relied, thus rendering its fiscal and monetary policies so misguided that they became detrimental to the country’s economy. These distortions obscured the functioning of capital markets, made budgeting an impossibility, and discouraged foreign investment.
Greece has sustained the highest rates of tax evasion within the entire EU for years, primarily due to the astonishingly low levels of enforcement. The federal tax system is utterly ineffective, replete with internal inconsistencies and contradictory tax codes. Characterized by inaccurate record keeping and poorly trained staff, it is a system rigged to allow for tax evasion.
As a result, tax evasion is so widespread and systematized within Greek political culture that its morality is no longer questioned. High levels of tax evasion have historically correlated with high levels of informal economic activity, given that black market revenue is unrecorded and unregistered, and therefore not taxable. While the many loopholes in the institutional structure of the state and its laws has allowed for a tremendous underground economy, the rampant clientelism undermines the political will that would be needed to address such problems. Consequently, the system that was so fiscally irresponsible remained in full swing for far too long.
Whenever the government would attempt to reduce welfare and lower pensions, the people would demonstrate in the streets. And who could blame them? It seems to be common knowledge in Greece that politicians embezzle government funds and do not pay taxes. The Greek media loves to capture government officials leaving their mansions in Kiffisia and Paleo Psychico, and driving down Paraliaki in luxurious sports cars. Buttressed in their offices by the elaborate patronage networks beneath them, politicians faced no other option than to sustain the unsustainable system. But gradually, the prevalence of tax evasion, corruption, and black economic activity warped and depleted the complex of pensions and other social programs to such an extent that it imploded last spring.
When the tides of Europeanism washed the entitlement scheme onto the shores of Greece, its implementation became inevitable. But we have come to see that the Greek mentality- the mentality of the pallikaria– creates a hostile environment for such social programs. With its deep value for autonomy and independence, Greek political culture propagates a disregard for legality and a distrust of authority that undermines the underlying assumptions of the welfare state. In my opinion, when such a system is implemented within such a context, an economic crisis is simply unavoidable… but please don’t avoid me for the rest of the evening.