The recent indecisive Greek elections could be summed up by two general themes: Greeks want to stay in, and expect help from, the eurozone. But they still do not want to take the necessary medicine to stop borrowing billions of euros from northern Europeans, who want a radical Greek reform of the tax code, deregulation of labor laws, fiscal discipline, massive cuts in bureaucracy, and greater transparency -- all unlikely given Greek history and contemporary culture.
So what lies in the future for Greece as it is slowly eased out of the euro zone and its civilization goes into reverse?
In theory, with the ability to devalue the drachma and be freed of enormous debts, the Greeks could return to business as it was practiced in the 1970s. In those sleepy days before the massive transfers of northern European money, I lived in a Greece that was a Balkan backwater without advanced surgery, autobahns, suspension bridges, sleek subways or a modern airport. In that era of genteel poverty, Greek divorce, abortion, drug use and crime were rare. Now, all are commonplace. Rural Greece outside Athens was more Middle Eastern than European.
Yet the problem with returning to the nostalgia of a world long gone is just not the creeping return of Third World-like poverty, but rather the psychological shock of Greeks losing the European lifestyle that is now considered an accustomed birthright. For Greeks not to live like those in Munich or Amsterdam would be far more cataclysmic in political terms than it would be had they never gotten hooked on Mercedeses, iPhones and lattes in the first place.
Over the past three years, exasperated Greeks have rioted and blame-gamed rather than embraced self-critique and genuine efforts to open up and air out their fossilized economy. Greeks scapegoated the European Union, Germans, Americans, Wall Street, their own leaders, foreigners, immigrants -- anything and anyone other than Greeks themselves, who clearly lived in a manner that was not commensurate with their productivity.
So when the charade of the Greek euro ends and there are no more bogeymen to blame, expect even more political upheaval and furor, not calm introspection and reform. Do not rule out a return to some sort of autocracy, whether left-wing in the style of Hugo Chavez or, more likely, a nationalist Hellenic strongman in the mold of Vladimir Putin. After all, democracy does not mark the end of history, but more often is a cyclical respite for prosperous peoples who can afford the niceties of parliamentary government and liberal tolerance. Right now, Greece is neither a prosperous nor a tolerant place.