For ancient Greeks the centre of the world was Delphi, where an oracle foretold the future. For modern Greeks, the focus is Syntagma, the square in central Athens where thousands mass each day to vent their fury at a political establishment they hold to be as bankrupt as the nation’s public coffers.
“I can’t bear it when the politicians say: ‘We understand you.’ None of these politicians has ever felt a pang of hunger,” says protester Constantinos, 47 and unemployed.
Particular contempt is reserved for Theodoros Pangalos, deputy prime minister in the socialist government, which is fighting a desperate battle to avoid a sovereign debt default. He enraged Greeks last year by declaring on television that the people were as culpable as the politicians for pillaging the Greek state. “We ate the money together,” he said.
The kernel of truth in his observation is lost on the crowds of Syntagma, one of whose banners vows to “make salami” out of the bulky deputy premier and sell it for dinner.
Mr Pangalos belongs to the politikos kosmos, the entrenched, semi-hereditary political caste that has ruled and misruled Greece for as long as anyone can remember. His grandfather presided over a shortlived military dictatorship in the 1920s.
Another representative is George Papandreou, prime minister, whose grandfather and father held the same job in various spells after the second world war. As destiny would have it, it has fallen to the youngest Papandreou to attempt his country’s rescue by dismantling the system of gluttonous patronage and parasitism on the state that his father Andreas constructed after leading his Pasok party to electoral victory in 1981.
Pasok purports to be a socialist party but it owed little to classical socialism. In a relatively backward country teeming with family businesses, self-employed people, small farmers and miscellaneous denizens of the black economy, it could hardly have been otherwise.
What he built was a machine that churned out public sector jobs in return for votes, loaded the state with debt and oiled itself with the rhetoric of populism. “He was short-sighted, very intelligent, an evil genius,” says Thanos Veremis, a retired history professor at Athens university.
Thanks to generous agricultural subsidies and regional aid funds granted by the European Union, which Greece joined in 1981, and the low interest rates of the eurozone, to which Greece was admitted in 2001, the nation’s living standards soared. The ruined streets filled with maimed beggars of the 1946-49 civil war era were a distant memory.
But too few politicians explained to Greeks that with European levels of prosperity should come European habits, such as not viewing income tax payment as a life choice. In this regard, New Democracy, Pasok’s conservative opponents, were as guilty as the socialists. “Economic ethics are absent from the Greek mind. It’s a blank spot,” says Mr Veremis.
The fakelaki – the small, cash-filled envelope that people hand over in return for expedited services such as medical treatment – remains a feature of Greek life. According to Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, a doctor’s bribe can cost anything from €50 to €1,500.
On coming to power in October 2009, the prime minister promised his EU colleagues a Herculean effort to root out corruption, improve tax collection, suppress the falsification of official statistics and downsize the public sector. But Mr Papandreou faces four obstacles that threaten to abort his mission.
The first is Pasok’s “old lions”, party traditionalists wedded to a clientelistic conception of the state and disinclined to bow to foreign pressure for reform. The second is Pasok’s trade union allies, robust in their defence of public sector jobs and perks.
The third is the Syntagma protesters, who speak for the squeezed middle classes of the private sector as well as Greece’s jobless youth. Finally, there is New Democracy, which refuses to support the government’s austerity measures and structural reforms, in spite of EU pleas for Greeks to unite for national salvation.
Mr Papandreou, rolling his boulder uphill, knows that he has no choice but to carry on. Like Sisyphus, the odds against him look bad.