Reinstating trust in the Greek psyche

The Greek reality encourages an ‘every man for himself’ mentality in everyday life – which in turn opens the way to growing political extremism and further damages the social fabric of society. Only the people can counter this downward spiral, and some are doing so. 

Yannis Theocharis
27 April 2012

When the European Social Survey asked Greek citizens in 2002 how highly they would rank their trust in parliament and politicians on a scale of 0 to 10 (10 the highest score), 61% and 80%, respectively, gave responses from 0 to 5. In 2010, 92% and 96%, respectively, ranked their trust from 0 to 5. In 2002 Greek citizens had among the lowest trust in political institutions within Europe, and the country has diverged further from the EU average on the trust dimensions ever since. Greeks obviously don’t trust their country’s political institutions, but given the media attention focusing on the notoriously high levels of tax evasion and cheating, that’s hardly news.

Since 2002, Greeks have also consistently been among the most dissatisfied Europeans regarding the state of their country’s economy, education and health services; the indicators hit rock bottom in the last two categories from 2008 onwards. As if this was not enough, in 2002, 79% of Greeks surveyed selected a response between 0 and 5 when asked whether they believed that most people can be trusted, while 80% gave the same response to a question asking whether they think other people mostly try to take advantage of them (the lowest level of trust in Europe since then). Similar percentages were observed in 2010.

A society with such low levels of both interpersonal and institutional trust is likely to have a low level of social capital; that is, a low level of social connectedness, reciprocity and trustworthiness among citizens. This development would not be important if social capital did not directly link to democratic citizenship, and if it were not a determining factor in behaviour conducive to the public good: tightening societal bonds, strengthening civil society and democratic participation, and encouraging collective endeavours. Academics have long warned of the dangers of a weak civil society, the absence of voluntary organisations and public spheres that are independent from party control and partisan logic, and of a slowly torn social fabric in Greece.

The critical problem of a society with such characteristics is that it will inevitably strive to develop mechanisms that reflect these civic vices. Quite simply, if legal and administrative institutions are generally distrusted because they are seen as unfair, or based on patronage, discrimination and clientelism, citizens will feel compelled to engage in such corrupt practices themselves in order to go about their daily lives. That Greek citizens see their country as corrupt is by now well documented: Greece has ranked among the three most corrupt countries in Europe since the late 1990s (and took the lead in the 2000s) according to the World Bank and Transparency International .

This reality encourages an ‘every man for himself’ mentality in everyday life – which in turn contributes to an increasingly negative attitude towards social and political institutions, injects an element of cynicism and conflict into interactions among citizens opening the way to growing political extremism and further damages social exchanges. These developments make it less likely that a citizenry will reconnect with its political institutions, or with itself.

But there is significant democratic value in strengthening interpersonal networks and a real need in Greece for a functioning civil society that can act as a venue for socialisation, deliberation, sharing of collective problems and decision making.

Unfortunately, constructive discourse about these urgent challenges is almost entirely absent in the policy domain and nowhere to be found in the social policy proposals put forward by the parties. The political elite, currently preoccupied with the upcoming election , seems not to have realised that the foundations of the present economic crisis lie in a much more deeply rooted social malaise.

The ongoing crisis provides a unique opportunity to alter these dynamics. On the state level, remedying this situation should be the first priority of the government that will come to power after the recently announced May 6 elections. But most importantly, given that the policy elite has proven itself incapable of addressing the problems that tear the social fabric apart, citizens have a unique opportunity to start rebuilding a democratic civil society themselves. The present crisis necessitates the construction of a political culture in which citizens engage in volunteering, build reciprocal relations, develop trust among themselves and engage in constant collective deliberation over social and economic issues. A vibrant political culture will help Greece develop real social solidarity and lay the foundations for the strong civil society it so desperately needs.

Any assumption that the times are hard and such radical social-cultural changes are impossible has not thus far prevented the emergence of imaginative efforts to achieve voluntary work and deliberation. Various encouraging examples already exist. For example, a series of debates organised by the Greek branch of Intelligence Squared , a UK-based organisation that stages debates, has often made up for the absence of places and spaces for public talk that is independent of state or media control. Tutorpool , an internet-based voluntary initiative that acts as an online network of teachers who donate their time to help children whose parents face economic difficulties, now has more than 500 volunteers throughout Greece. Atenistas, an Athens-based voluntary organisation, has consistently brought citizens together to work for the improvement of the capital’s city centre in projects ranging from raising environmental awareness to organising free meals for the homeless. Finally, Up Greek Tourism is a recent private initiative aimed at promoting Greece as a holiday destination through the current crisis. Initiatives such as these contribute to the reversal of demoralizing trends in the Greek society by fostering greater democratic connectedness and ought to be carried out on a much larger scale.

With the political elite unable to comprehend, much less address, the social problems that are tearing the country apart, political disillusionment, social disintegration, and institutional and interpersonal distrust are, unsurprisingly, widespread. Under these circumstances it is up to the citizens themselves to unite and collectively take the much-needed initiatives that can help build local, voluntary-based organisations, a vibrant civil society and, eventually, the deliberative democracy that was originally Greece’s proud gift to the world.


The article reflects on ideas and concepts explored in Jan W. van Deth’s and the author’s research on civil society and social capital.

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