Greece's pride problem

Greece is a proud nation. National pride has many sources, one of which is resistance to oppression. Indeed, one of the most positive-sounding words in Greek is "resistance."

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Resistance against the Ottomans in the early 19th century, resistance against dictatorships, and resistance against the Nazis in the 1940s occupy a significant place in the national narrative of heroism. The Greek nation historically derives its self-worth, when not from Plato and Aristotle, certainly from the battle against oppressors. It is not accidental, therefore, that calls for the "no" vote in the recent referendum were couched in such a language: They were embedded in the long tradition of "oxi" (no) to the powerful and the mighty. Referring to the referendum, a regional newspaper had as its main headline recently: "Slavery or Freedom." Freedom was voting "no," while slavery would be voting "yes." Simplistic but powerful.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras puts his referendum vote in the ballot box
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras puts his referendum vote in the ballot box

I heard several people last week describe their intention to vote "no" in similar, if less dramatic, terms. They perceive the excruciating austerity to which they were subjected to not only as a drastic fall to their incomes (salaries and pensions have been reduced by 40 percent and unemployment has skyrocketed to 27 percent, while among the young, it has jumped to more than 50 percent) but, also, as a national humiliation. In Alexis Tsipras they saw a prime minister walking the talk: not only employing the language of national dignity but practicing it.

Greek politicians often whip up national feelings of pride (and of course they are not the only ones in doing so) but only Tsipras stood up to the creditors and demanded better terms for his people. His hard negotiating stance was highly appreciated, as the resounding "no" vote in the referendum demonstrated. As polls showed, a major factor for "no" voters was Tsipras's stand against foreign creditors — a leader of a small and now impoverished country daring to take on the big powers.

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However, what is less appreciated in Greece is what makes national dignity possible and, like debt, sustainable. It is one thing to shout in the squares of Athens against the "predatory" creditors and quite another to productively wonder how national pride can be created and sustained. Typically, protests calling for dignity tend to come late, in the aftermath of national calamities.

The more interesting and demanding question, however, is: If a nation takes its dignity seriously (as it should), how are the nation's institutions organized so that the country is able to prosper and distinguish itself in, say, science, the arts, spots, etc.? And if the country has fallen in hard times, as Greece has in the last five years, how does the country protect its dignity effectively?

On both of these questions, Greece has not quite succeeded. If Greeks had really taken national pride seriously rather than espoused it merely rhetorically, they would have made different political choices: They would have elected governments that would have seriously reformed the state, would not have borrowed imprudently, would not have wasted European Union money, and would have genuinely cared for the country. Citizens would have found it self-evident that they would need to pay their taxes and would have behaved more like citizens and less like clients. Enduring national pride comes from a robust public life, grounded on principles and values such as contributing to public finance, respect for the rule of law, and meritocracy.

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And should the country find itself in trouble, national dignity would be best protected to the extent to which a country's government could form alliances with other countries, make credible commitments and search for compromises. You may feel proud when you shout or protest (and there are cases when this should happen) but sustainable pride comes when your government understands international politics and its place in it, winning friends and making deals for the good of its people. You are proud to the extent to which your country wins. A less macho understanding of national pride would make it more generative and sustainable.

In short, feelings of national pride can easily obscure the real challenges and prevent a people from looking at itself in the mirror. When pride and dignity permeate a nation's life, they lead leaders and citizens to making choices that sustain sound public finance and doing all that is needed to maintain the competitiveness of the country and the robustness of its institutions. Taking to the squares is easy. Doing the hard work that is required to enable someone to experience sustained pride is far more difficult.

Tsipras will succeed to the extent to which he harnesses Greek feelings of pride to improve the country's institutions. We have not seen many signs of this yet.

Commentary by Haridimos Tsoukas, a Distinguished Research Environment Professor of Organization Studies at the Warwick Business School. He also holds the Columbia Ship Management Chair in Strategic Management at the University of Cyprus. He is a co-editor of "From Stagnation to Forced Adjustment: Reforms in Greece, 1974-2010."

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